Archive for the ‘ travel ’ Category

In the land of the olive orchards

I’ve been visiting the cave of the Sun Goddess in the land of the Olive Orchards. Vikings do things like that. Spend time. Get to know the natives. Borrow their best recipes. Learn the language. But this time, it’s a language made up of throat-clearing. Hairballs, and microscopic curly squiggles where some tidy angles would do nicely, and the like. My phlegm can’t get organized around the language at all.

The cave is snug, and I feel like Leif Eriksson. Need to set my legs and head aside in order to get through openings intact. Everywhere I turn is a door-knocker waiting to take out my forehead, a low passageway ready to bang my skull, a stack of chairs ready to grab my long, ski-like feet. The wine glasses hold four tablespoons, and the mugs are colorful, delicate things that hold barely enough water for me to gargle.

Everything’s dark and red and layered. Textiles everywhere; on the floors, on the walls, piled on the furniture, under the other textiles; the doors wear tassles, and the table gets a rug, a schmatte, a placemat, and another placemat. Mediterranean eclectic or with a capital E as well. Humble, worn, and warm. Layers of paint, and blood. Even the leather is green, and purple. Speckled porcelain tin plates.

Vikings love such places. New lands to conquer, new peoples to seduce. Cultural identity on every surface. And in the fridge and freezer. The Sun Goddess knows who she is. She celebrates her identity. Maintains it in this Jewish Diaspora, and then goes and learns a few strains of Arabic besides—they’re all dark and warm and hairy and short, right? Even her tattoos speak to her identity. The alphabets on her divine hand. Her—well, her everything.

In this, she’s just like me.

But I’m a tall Nordic person. With sleek Scandinavian modern in my house. And beige Nordic foods. Like lefse (potato flatbread) and bockwurst (pork and veal sausage). Doesn’t get any paler than that.

We both eat gravet laks, however.

So. Here’s the deal. Vikings are committed for the long haul, despite the impossible throat-clearing. But what we want is to immerse in the other in her native ecosystem. That would be: delight in the warmth of the dark-haired, dark-eyed ones. Participant/colonization in the cave of the Olive Oil Peoples. I mean, how lucky can you get to have a gig like that? I myself am used to shoveling snow. Tall skiers. Not that dissimilar from me.

While we Vikings have long observed that there are no pure cultures (or not any more, at least) (and likely never were) (other seafarers, and all) (and trade) (etc etc) this comes as close to anywhere I’ve been to studying an intact culture.

And, miracle of miracles—she’s basically doing the same with me.

Mutual exotification.

She laughs when I call her exotic. She’s more used to hegemonic. Brunette and brown eyes and olive skin and olive oil and all that goes with it. Brass trays and ibriqs and gardening and harvesting. And long black sleeves and long black legs no matter how hot it gets. And Jewish of a certain persuasion. In my book, she’s a rare species of a fish.

I laugh when she calls me exotic. I feel more the snow-belt norm. Pale. And blonde. With good akevit. We Vikings ought to stick together, right? But no. I’m drawn to the Sun Goddess.

You know the old adage. It’s straight out of the sagas. Kristin Lavransdatter. Get the lilting tones right; they sound like your boat pitching and rolling and yawing in the wintry seas.

It’s a good thing when you don’t dare do something if you don’t think it’s right. But it’s not good when you think something’s not right because you don’t dare do it.

Because:

Good days can last a long time if one tends to things with care and caution.

We’re okay, if she’s the native and I’m the Viking. We’re okay, if the Sun Goddess’s making her yaprakas to bring along whither the tall Nordic adventuring goes.

But not build a home together?

Preserve and weaken pure systems?

The only way to even approach life is with an understated sense of humor. Wry, inscrutable grins, and a mischievous appreciation for the dramatic, exotic, differently-neurotic ones. Celebrate diversity and all that. Syncretism. Heterosis. Mix it up and depurify.

It’s the dream I had when I first learned about charoset and matzohbrei. College, as I recall.

All the people of the world would blend together. No more pure-blooded high foreheads. No more this-sea-is-my-sea/that-sea-is-your-sea. Hoist the sails, get rowing, mix it up. And we’d all be merely human.

But that would mean no more zaftig olive oil farmers with audacious noses, no more Sun Goddesses, and no more tall, pale, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Vikings.

I’ve never been able to figure it out. Have appreciated those who know their own identity. Who celebrate the intactness of their heritage, the chosen-ness of their people, the tribal identification of their spices. How wonderful, right? But I’ve admired more those who have the courage to set sail. Not the ones who misunderstand indigenous recipes and make everything beige and sweet. But those who bring together the best of multiple ways—and live it.

I’m balled up inside the argument. Patient at best. Syncretism leads to impossible conglomerations of furniture and way too many tchochkes. But pure systems lead to blandness and alcoholism.

Leadpipes and statues and boats, oh my!

Dag to i Oslo began with the promised better strategy at breakfast. I started on the hot side but unfortunately found that the pølser weren’t as good as the day before and the weird thick pancake things were definitely some kind of fiskekake–not bad, though. The potatoes were hot and yummy, but the egg-sausage scramble was awful. Mom came up with smørbrod combo she likes quite well, putting both Jarlsberg and gjetost together on a sandwich with a slice of ham or whatever. Seems weird to me, since Jarlsberg is tangy and savory and gjetost is sweet and gooey, but it works for her. (Today she finally tried a piece of bread with gjetost on one half and just butter on the other, with two kinds of jam going in halves the other direction, for a cunning sampler mosaic. She says the orange marmalade on gjetost quarter was best.) Once again we each assembled an extra smørbrod to smuggle out in Mom’s spare ziploc bag for a free lunch on the go. (Today we spotted a sign in the breakfast buffet saying we’d be welcome to make a lunch packet for 85kr/person, about $12. We smuggled once more instead. We have a perfect record going, after all!)

After breakfast, I called Dan the horn maker and made an appointment to go out to his shop in Stabekk. I was on a mission to pick up a new leadpipe for my friend Alicia. He kindly met us at the train stop and walked us to the shop on a tricky walking path through the houses, which saved us a ton of time. I tried both leadpipe options and quickly decided with Mom’s agreement that the one Alicia was leaning toward was indeed the better choice. Dan advised us on how to get to our next destination, walked us to the bus top, and promised to meet us at our last destination for the day with a finished leadpipe. (Leadpipes start life as straight chunks of tapered brass tubing, and after you choose one, it has to be filled with pitch, bent into shape, cut to the right final length for your horn, and have a ferrule added to reinforce the first six inches or so against bending, banging, and other calamities. It’s an hour or two of work, and we didn’t feel like sitting around wasting our limited Oslo time any more than he probably felt like having a bunch of old women watching over his shoulders. Plus I’ve been there and done that–I spent a whole weekend at Kendall Bett’s Lawson Horns shop last winter, and although it was fascinating, I didn’t think the rerun would be.)

We took the #38 bus to Olav Kyrres plasse, changed to the #20 bus (or maybe those numbers are the other way around), and accidentally rode it past our intended Vigelandparken stop to Frognerstadium or something like that one stop further. Fortunately the stops aren’t that far apart so it wasn’t any big deal to walk back to where we meant to get off. We arrived at the park gate a few minutes later needing a restroom stop but were confounded by a 5kr coinbox to get in (about 75 cents). Fortunately there was a cafe next door where we could get change. I feel rude going into businesses just to ask for change, so I decided to buy a something for 15kr with my 20kr coin so I’d get 5kr change instead. Unfortunately, either the price was marked wrong or the clerk made a mistake, because he charged me 20kr for the ice cream bar I’d chosen, so then I had to ask him to give me two coins for my 10kr coin. He gave me a knowing grin along with the coins. Oh, well–I tried.

Here’s a weird tangent: I couldn’t think of the name “ice cream bar” so I asked Mom, who said when she first got to college in Minnesota she was confused by her classmates’ excitement about having Cheerios at a welcome picnic. She coudln’t figure out why the oaty breakfast cereal would be such a big deal at a picnic for college students, but when she got there she found a pile of ice cream bars branded “Cheerios.” Seems like a trademark-protection problem to me!

Our business done, we strolled into the park. It was quite cold out, so we were wearing out ski caps and gloves and still shivering a bit, and we were eating an ice cream bar. Are we snow-belt natives or what? I was a tiny bit proud of us for that.

Vigelandparken is an incredible and overwhelming thing. It’s a huge park with sidewalks spoking out from a central “monolith” sculpture zone and a whole mess more sculpture along the main axis from 6 o’clock to 12 o’clock, and another piece out at 3 o’clock. In the outer zone it’s mostly bronze figures, and the inner zone is all granite figures. Wrought iron gates along the way also feature silhouettes of figures. All the figures are nude, male and female, every age from infant to geezer, always touching each other or interacting with each other somehow, many tangled together as if in ballet poses or love making or cuddling or comforting, occasionally in an unrealistic way, like the man with babies all around him, in his arms, flying out from him at various directions, one hovering in air above a foot that appears to be lifting it up from the ground the way a talented hackysack player might lift a grounded sack with his foot. There are some animals–dogs, wolves, bears I remember–and a few puzzlng ones with skeletons. The central “monolith” features a huge granite obelisk carved with a ginormous stack of entangled nude people. What these sculptures all have in common is that the figures are real-people looking, usually both muscular and hefty (no scrawny ones or fashion model or body builder magazine lean ones, even though most are clearly muscular and strong), and they’re all nude. No matter what combination of ages and genders appear together and in what apparent situation or relationship, there is a joyful, connected, sexual energy in their interactions. It’s not smutty or perverse, though–it’s human and joyful and real. There are penises and breasts all over the place, and there is no way these would appear in a public park in the US, but it all comes across somehow as very wholesome and affirming. Somehow in making every set of figures overtly sexual he has deemphasized sexuality from the charged, controversial thing that it is (at least in contemporary American society) back to the natural, everyday, lifelong thing that we know it really is. It’s fascinating, liberating, and comforting all at once.

I promise to add some photos to illustrate these points when we get back home and I have a little more time.

We then walked over to the Vigelandmuseum, which is a massive building the city of Oslo gave him to live and work in for the rest of his career, in exchange for his current and all future work belonging to the city, most in the massive sculpture park. Stroke of civic genius! The building is now a museum displaying more sculpture, clay models, sketches, tools, displays explaining how he worked and how models were converted to granite sculptures by teams of stone carvers, and so on. Even the smaller-scale models are mammoth and imposing. Even knowing he had an at times huge crew, it boggles the mind to imagine how one man created so much, let alone such creative, beautiful, thought-provoking, and technically impressive stuff.

From there we caught the #30 bus back down to Olav Kyrres plasse, changed to the #20, and rode down to the Norge folkmuseum in Bygdøy. We arrived at 2:45 and were informed the indoor attractions all closed at 3, but we were welcome to walk around outside until 6pm. We hurried, therefore, to the main attractions–a stave kirke from the 1200s and a farm village from following centuries called Setesdahl. We arrived at the stavekirke in time to hear a lengthy description and explanation along with a group on a guided tour. Stavekirker are built on huge posts (staves) at four corners and more huge posts at corners of an exterior wall. The weight of the elaborate roof of many slopes is carried on the interior staves and also transferred diagonally down to the exterior staves much like flying buttresses, except that the exterior staves are also surrounded by walls, creating a covered pathway all around the church that is in between outside and inside. I found a book in the gift shop that had many explanations for this, including: it made a place for people to wait for services to begin, for the unbaptized to be near but not in the church, for the observant to “walk circles” around the church, which apparently was an early ages ritual to mark importance and ownership, and so on. Interestingly, many of the farm houses also had this same basic architecture (though much simpler, of course) including the exterior surrounding compartment. I’m assuming this was used for many of the same purposes and perhaps also for livestock, but I’ll need to research that.

Finally we walked a few blocks to the Vikingskipsmuseum, which houses four big Viking ships and numerous smaller boats and artifacts. They were huge. One thing that impressed both of us is how much extra effort they put into carving elaborate, beautiful decorations on their boats, their furniture, even their barns. Is this the product of a long winter? A society so prosperous that it has excess time on its hands? A slave economy? Superstitions? Praise? Probably a bunch of all of the above.

Meanwhile, we’d texted Dan to let him know we’d arrived there, and he texted back that he’d be there in half an hour. We’d arrived 15 minutes before closing, so we had close to 15 minutes standing in the parking lot freezing to death, but we were rewarded with a ride back to our hotel in a nice warm car instead of numerous changes of bus and subway. We got to experience a little slice of normal life in Oslo sitting in mild rush-hour traffic, too. It wasn’t too bad, but you could definitely see how it could get bad and be frustrating without too much more traffic.

After dropping our stuff and the new leadpipe in the hotel and having a glass (okay, plastic cup) of wine, we set off on foot for dinner. We looked for an Italian restaurant we’d found on Google maps (neither of us were in the mood for julebord menyen) but couldn’t find it. After a long circular route we ended up back at an Ethiopian place near the hotel. We had a delicious but shockingly expensive meal of kitfo lebleb and doro tibs. I also had a beer, and I think our tab was around $75. Prices like these are pretty much how it goes, though–we have yet to find a cheap meal in Norway.

Back at the hotel, we both fell asleep within half an hour. This time Mom slept soundly most of the night, but I woke up around 2 and stayed awake until about 6, then finally fell asleep in time to be groggy for breakfast. I spent most of the time tapping away at the computer, chatting about the home fires with Victoria, chatting about art criticism with Meg in Massachusetts, reading lots of newspapers, answering a bunch of email, and so on.

Our adventure continues in the next installment, which shall discuss “Norway in a Nutshell,” our scenic trip by train, train, boat, bus, and train to Bergen by way of Flåm, Gudvangen, and Voss.

Oslo and the collective unconscious

It’s Wednesday morning here.

Mom and I both slept abysmally Monday night, though Mom better than I did. I think I got maybe 5 hours total. We both gave up around 1:30am and had a wine break, and then Mom got back to sleep by 2:30ish and slept most of the rest of the night. I slept maybe an hour, then woke up again and read news on my iPhone most of the rest of the night. I finally fell back asleep around 6am and was extremely groggy when Mom got me up at 9am.

We had a pretty good breakfast in the hotel (Hotel Anker, a short walk north of Oslo Sentralstasjon on Storgata). I needed a better strategy, though. I started at one end of the buffet and took small amounts of everything that looked good, and when my plate was full, I discovered stuff that looked even better. Net result was a huge breakfast. Lousy coffee, as you might expect, but a wonderful selection of sliced meats and cheeses, whole grain breads, knikkebrøder, gjetost, syltetøy (the latter I feel obligated to eat in honor of our Siamese kitties of the same names), soft- and hard-boiled eggs, herring (nei, takk!), and so on. Mediocre machine jus (eple, lemon, orange–anyone need translation?). Lots of milk and that yogurty-liquid stuff that I haven’t yet worked up the courage to try. Decent tea bag selection.

And then I discovered the hot food! They had roasted potatoes (not hot, unfortunately), several kinds of pølse (little hot-doggy-looking sausages conveniently chopped into beanie-weanie-sized bites), and a very funky looking thing that I have yet to figure out. It looked like a small, fat pancake, but the texture was chewy and the flavor was decidedly savory. If I were in Japan, I’d have decided it was a fish cake, but it didn’t taste fishy. I wonder if it’s some kind of potato sausage? It was good, whatever it was. Today I’ll start in this part of the line.

Since I clearly had too much food, I decided to do a frugal traveler move and assemble a little smørbrod (literally means “buttered bread” but practically speaking it’s the national lunsj, an open-faced sandwich of whatever you like on buttered bread) for lunsj on the go. Mom decided that was a good idea and followed suit.

(If anyone’s curious about my horrible spelling, I’m taking up Nikki’s challenge to keep mixing up my languages and throwing in lots of Norwegian words as I go.)

We finally set off on foot for Sentralstasjon to pick up our “Norway in a Nutshell” tickets for later in the week, and then to the tourist information desk to pick up our Oslokorter (Oslo cards), which get us transportation and admission to just about everything for two days at a reasonable price. It was probably 11:30 by the time we had all that sorted, and then we continued on foot down Karl Johann’s Gate for a walking tour of the central Oslo shopping district. We passed by the cathedral dome, enshrouded in plastic (or fish skin? see below) and closed for extensive renovations, alas, but Mom spotted a fun photo op: a neon sign in the building next door reading, “Cathedral restaurant bar” and proving for any who still doubted that lutefisk Lutheranism is a much happier version of Christianity than some.

After taking a few pictures of the royal palace, we turned north and walked to the Cultural History Museum. We decided only to look at the Norway-specific exhibits, one on early to Viking times, and another on polar life. Both were fascinating. Lots of the usual archaeological treasures, of course, but with some fun discoveries. I particularly enjoyed seeing the little metal critter in the shape of a moose and pointed out to Mom, “Look, they even had a travel mus!” in reference to a quip of Jane’s years back about a tiny stuffed moose we saw in a gift shop being a convenient travel-sized moose. We had a good chuckle about that and then read the description–this was a weight! Commerce was so important to them that not only did they have all kinds of balance scales and weights and measures, they even took the time to make their weights into fun moose shapes! Gotta love those Vikings.

A little further on we saw displays of Viking-era jewelry (that would be “jewellery” på norsk), and although they were clearly early, primitive pieces (we’re talking bronze and iron ages, after all), we both thought some of the items were surprisingly attractive. Mom and I talked about how maybe Carl Jung was onto something with his idea of the collective unconscious, because we both found these works to be viscerally appealing. (We’re Norwegian-German, in case you’re confused.) You wouldn’t think much of that, necessarily, except that we’ve recently seen much fancier stuff from earlier periods in China, Korea, Japan, and Afghanistan–on Saturday we went to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco–and although lots of it was undeniably pretty and much fancier, more elaborate, and technically advanced than the Viking stuff, we both liked the Viking stuff a lot better. Go figure.

In the Arctic/Antarctic exhibition, we saw still more cool stuff including an early raincoat stitched together from a bazillion panels of what we later learned was fish skin–translucent and strangely modern-looking–and we both particularly liked the Sami clothing and preprosterously fancy hats. We wondered what purpose such elaborate hats served, and I suggested that perhaps they were inspired by their reindeer-friends’ antlers. A taxidermified reindeer in the exhibit was indeed quite cute, and shorter than we expected–kind of large dog-sized–but pictures showed larger ones, too.

I admired the early kayaks, very little changed from the one I use today except for the materials and colors.

We then walked around the block to the Nasjionalgalleriet (sp?), another free museum with some really nice paintings. Gee, there’s an impressive bit of art criticism for you! Once again I pondered my “collective unconscious” notion, because numerous painters of similar era and technique to more famous ones captured my fancy more–e.g. the JMWHMSPinafore Turner guy whose gloomy landscapes fill the Tate Britain in London leave me completely cold, but a Norwegian dude who was clearly his contemporary did technically similar paintings that I just liked a whole lot more. Mom agrees.

Of course, Munch’s paintings are the main reason to visit the Nasjionalgalleriet, and they didn’t disappoint me even on second viewing (I saw them when I was here in 1998). There’s something about his stuff that just speaks to me, I guess. Mom liked them, too, but commented that she couldn’t see hanging them on her walls where she had to look at them every day–she’s not into people paintings as much as scenery. Her remark made me realize that a huge share of the paintings we were seeing in the gallery (not just the Munch room) had people in them–even the landscapes. Mom says those are appealing, though, because they’re not about the people so much as the situation. I kind of agree with her when it comes to portraits–unless there’s something about portraits that give me a glimpse of daily life (“oh, so that’s what it looked like inside their houses!” and so on), I move quickly.

From there we walked toward Akerbrygge while eating our purloined smørbroder, stopping along the way to check out Heimen Husflid in the Hotel Bondeheimen on a tip from Ruth. Good tip! Lots of gorgeous sweaters and all kinds of other stuff. I drooled over some thick felt slippers and some elk-hide-and-mystery-fur slippers, but they started around $100/pair, so I decided I could survive without them. We found quite a few gorgeous sweaters, but none in the needed sizes. A few blocks further on, though, we popped into UniQue, another sweater-heavy joint, and parted with a bunch of our money. By this time it was getting darned cold out, so we both got hats to match our sweaters, and within half an hour, we were both wearing our new hats. I think today I’ll probably be wearing my new sweater, too, because although it’s only 32ish out, it’s COLD and snowing, and I’ve gotten wimpy after 14 years in California.

We tried to check out the Norge Hjemmefrontmuseum (Norwegian resistance museum), but it had closed at 4 and it was now almost 5, so we strolled around a bit of the Akerhus Festning (fortress), but it was quite dark by now (only 4:30pm) and the wet and sometimes icy cobbles seemed a bit treacherous, so we cut that short and proceeded on our way toward Akerbrygge. There was a big village of tents selling Christmas stuff, so we walked through and poked into a few tents.

Then we continued to Akerbrygge and decided fairly quickly that it was time for warm indoors and dinner. We settled on Albertine Cafe, where we shared half a liter of Barbera, Mom got a red wine-braised lammeskank with potato puree and lemon-thyme saus, and I had a venison stew (hjortegryte! what a great name!) also red-wined braised on potato puree with loganberries. Yum! A basket of yummy ciabatta-like olive bread further tempted us from our supposedly gluten-free diets. Yeah, right–not here!

After nearly falling asleep in our plates, we decided to hike back to the hotel, taking a slightly different route through the town center, and by 8:30 we were both falling asleep over our books. I slept solidly until about 3, when I gave up and poured some juleøl and resumed my book. Mom had been mostly awake since about 1, so she also gave up, got up, poured some wine and resumed her reading. We were up for an or so and then both went back to sleep. I slept pretty well until the phone vibrated around 5, and then I was up for good. Mom says she slept fitfully, but I know she got a lot more sleep than I did after our reading break.

It’s 9:15 now, and we’re both showered and dressed, so we’re going to head down to frøkost and try to improve our strategy from yesterday.

Breakfast in SFO, dinner and breakfast on LH, lunch in FRA, dinner in OSL

Mom and I flew to Oslo yesterday and today, hence the complicated meal plan. Our flight took off early Sunday afternoon from SFO, where we killed time with brunch at Andale–Mom had yummy chili verde and I had a pretty good burrito carne asada.

We flew Lufthansa to Frankfurt, and I am trying to figure out how it is that American airlines are all going bankrupt and can’t afford to give us meals or drinks, but Lufthansa can provide two decent hot meals and lots of wine and booze on basically the same ticket pricing structure. Dinner was pretty decent–I had pasta with mushrooms and marinara, and Mom had some kind of chicken rice dish. We both got edible rolls, okay salad with good dressing, and a tiny triangle of chocolate cake with whipped cream and a strawberry. There were good Ritter chocolates available in the galley overnight when I went up to get us drinks. For breakfast we had another good roll, an omelet that wasn’t great (when are eggs ever good in an airplane?) but was at least a lot better than some of the eggs I’ve had in United Business lately, and fruit salad just like every other airplane fruit salad: red grapes and pieces of underripe melon; oh, well. But still–two hot meals and plenty of free alcohol, on a route that United would have given us one hot meal, one disgusting breakfast snack, and drinks for $5.

We had lunch in the Senator Lounge at Frankfurt airport, which has a pretty nice buffet, including Frankfurters, chicken meatballs and Shanghai noodles, a funky tuna salad, some beautiful Christmas breads that I didn’t try, some serviceable minestrone (perfectly good but not a knockout like some German airport lounge soups I’ve had), olives, After lunch I enjoyed a campari-gin-bitter lemon and some Jelly Bellies. I wish we could buy bitter lemon in the States. Maybe I can figure out how to make it, now that I’ve got a CO2 tank and am not afraid to use it.

The unhappy part of our stay in Frankfurt was that my new AT&T mobile account didn’t seem to include international roaming after all–the guy I talked to when I switched said I was all set, but that turned out not to be the case. This wouldn’t be that big a deal, except that I needed to check my email and voicemail right away to find out whether I had an appointment with a natural horn or not. It turns out I didn’t. But what I had to go through to get AT&T to fix things is absurd. Since my phone didn’t work, I couldn’t use it to call them. I can’t remember the last time I saw a pay phone anywhere, so that meant I had to buy an hour of wifi and $10 of Skype credit so that I could use Skype and wifi to phone home, whereupon I reached an agent who said I’d have to call back after 7am Eastern when a certain department opened up–which was when we were boarding our flight to Oslo. In the end I couldn’t get it all straightened out until we got to the hotel, where I connected on the free wifi and again used Skype to call AT&T. Naturally just as we were getting things working, the call dropped and I had to call in AGAIN and finally got things working–and got the news that it’s $1.29 a minute for anything, including receiving but not answering calls, receiving voicemails, or actually receiving or placing calls. It’s highway robbery. Of course, when getting or missing a call means getting or missing a gig that pays $100ish or more, it’s worth it, and calculations like that are why wireless companies get away with charging so darned much. Argh!

Back to food, it was a good thing we ate in the airport, because SAS charged for everything on the connection to Oslo, with prices starting around three euros for coffee or soda. We were happy to pass.

We landed in Oslo at 3:45, collected our bags, got cash and airport express tickets, and were in downtown Oslo by 4:30. Our first order of business was to pick up our train tickets, which was only partially successful. Now that I’ve got email access again, though, I’ve got the various confirmation numbers I’ll need to get the rest of them. After that we searched out a vinmonopolet (literally “wine monopoly”–other than weak beer, all alcohol in Norway is sold by the state) and picked up some provisions for our hotel room so that we’ll be equipped to cope with any jet lag, and as I type this Mom and I are enjoying a lovely, fruity juleakevitt by Linie. Since we were tired and only vaguely hungry, we ate supper in “Erwin’s spiseri” right in the same food court.

So for our first Norwegian meal, Mom had “husets kremefisksuppe” or the house special cream fish soup, which we both thought was quite yummy. I had the “julelunsj tallerken” or “Christmas lunch plate” (I think) of gravet laks and sweet mustard sauce (yum), pickled herring (ick), a slice of ham, a slice of brie, a pile of the most iodine-y bay shrimp I’ve had in a long time, bread and butter, and a mound of–of all things–Waldorf salad. The Waldorf salad was good but I think it’s the first time I’ve had Waldorf salad since I was in the hospital with pneumonia during second grade. Somehow I remember eating a lot of Waldorf salad in that hospital, and for me it’s a dish lost to time. It’s kind of a perfect Norwegian salad, though–white, bland, sweet, and everything from a can. “Except the apples,” Mom pointed out, but I can’t say that I found any apples in there. I washed it all down with a pretty good juleøl (dark Christmas ale) by Ringnes.

After dinner, we walked the rest of the way to our hotel, which isn’t fancy but seems decent enough and has free wifi.

In electronics sadness, somehow I managed to erase everything from my iPod before we left, so I couldn’t do language immersion learning by zoning out to Norwegian podcasts during the long flights as I’d hoped. Not exactly tragic, but how on earth did I do that, and how will I make sure I never do that again? Fortunately we had decent movies on the long flight: “Happy Go Lucky,” a diverting but pointless Mike Leigh film (someone please enlighten me if there was a plot) and “Nanny Diaries,” which wasn’t as good as the book but was entertaining enough.

I’m still a little stuck on the Sunday NYT crossword but I’m not ready to give up and seek help from Rex Parker’s blog yet.

Deutscher, Deutscherinnen überalles!

Is this some massive German holiday I don’t know about? Everywhere I go I’m surrounded by people speaking German. I catch only enough fragments to be curious. I startle some of them by expressing my pleasantries auf Deutsch; they all have me pegged for American, and then they notice that although I’m dressed in Gap, I look like them.

I’m on the weirdest sleep schedule–perhaps it’s a good thing I ended up traveling here alone. The first day I slept until 4:30pm, then got to bed at a normal time and up at 7am Saturday. By 10:30 last night I was falling asleep, but I woke up at 2am and stayed awake until 4:30, drinking wine, eating cheddar, and reading; then I slept past 11.

By 1 I was heading out on my day, from my fleabag at Paddington by the Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines to Covent Garden (I thought I’d fill in the Tube coordinates, since anyone who’s ever visited London will recognize them), where I grabbed a falafel for breakfast and ate that while wandering through the stalls of junk crafts. Everything available with your name on it, £2 extra. Do people have extra rooms in their houses for storing objects with their names? Have I erred by filling mine with musical instruments instead?

From there I proceeded to change my mind three times about whether I was headed to the Design Museum (further downriver from Tate Modern) or Museum of London. I thought I’d decided on London based on relative simplicity of train travel (Circle line from Embankment all the way to Barbican), but the Tube Diagram misled me on the length of that journey, and meanwhile I realized I was at the Tower Bridge stop for walking across and down the Thames to Design Museum, so that settled it. They had two main exhibitions, one of really out there but compellingly organic architecture by Zaha Habib and another of typography of dissent. Both were mixed bags–about half I’d stare at, fascinated, and the other half I’d glide past. (http://www.designmuseum.org/exhibitions).

Thus committed to a theme, I hiked back up- and across-river and got back on the Circle line to Embankment and Piccadilly to Charing Cross, then marched through St James Park to the Institute for Contemporary Art, which was showing a documentary film “Helvetica” (yes, about the typeface) that was surprisingly good. I continued my march (meine Füße tut mir weh) up Waterloo and Regent to Ran, the Korean restaurant near Liberty, where I had a subtle warm tofu dish, good kimchi, and an acceptable bowl of “gyoza and rice cake” soup. Why not dumpling and rice cake, or gyoza and mochi? Why not man du gook and whatever? After dinner, I caught Bakerloo from Oxford Circus (this time surrounded by Indians instead of Germans) back to Paddington, and here I sit on my wee balcony facing the fleabag across the street that has free wifi, my hot aching feet enjoying the cold, dirty asphalt, sipping an overly cold (just pulled it out of the refrigerator) bottle of Le Freak, an aptly named Shiraz with a touch of Viognier).

I wish Blogger’s edit box weren’t in Helvetica.

The pleasures of a Frankfurt connection

The Lufthansa Senator Lounge (the first class lounge, open to Star Alliance Gold members) is a fairly ordinary lounge, except that they have outstanding food and drink. The arrival breakfast on my flight from San Francisco was the usual cup of grapes, cantaloupe, and watermelon along with something revolting: a croissant with 2 slices of indifferent ham, a slice of unnaturally orange American cheese, and (wait for it) strawberry cream cheese.

WTF?

I couldn’t believe my eyes, and a tentative taste to determine what it was (Leberkäse, vielleicht?) was not enlightening, so finally I asked the flight attendant who was trying to offer me a beverage what the mystery food was. I did so with a conspiratorial grin, to make clear that I wasn’t trying to be difficult, I was just puzzled. She answered, “It’s a ham and cheese croissant.” I pointed at the pink goo and asked more specifically what that was, and she said, “Oh, that’s the stuff that shouldn’t be there. It’s strawberry cream cheese. They’ve been doing this for four weeks now, and I have no idea why. I keep calling it in.” I asked what kind of drugs they’re on and how I could help, and she encouraged me to complain to SkyNet. That I shall. I mean, really–I’m all in favor of experimental cuisine, but that’s just weird, and it’s a cruel thing to give someone whose stomach is already topsy-turvy from all the usual stresses of an overnight flight. Seasoned travelers know that the only way to handle massive time differences is to drink heavily and then try to sleep, and when you’re lucky you nap for an hour or two and awaken groggy and queasy. This is when you want something warm, comforting, simple; preferably savory, but most importantly simple. This is NOT a time to eat a misguided attempt at creative breakfast cookery.

Fortunately, I was landing not in LAX, where I was supposed to connect, nor Heathrow, where there is no edible food to be found, but Frankfurt.

My Wednesday afternoon plane to LAX had had a mechanical problem, so after a 45 minute trip to the runway and back, we were informed the repair would take at least an hour and sent back into the SFO gate area to wait in line for customer service to figure out how we’d all get whither we were going. I got on the phone with the 1K desk and was given an option to leave really late, fly to Dulles, wait a long time, and then fly to Heathrow, arriving close to midnight Thursday. There’s a slight mileage gain from that vs. a direct to London (this trip is, after all, all about racking up some elite qualifying miles), but not enough to be worth that kind of ordeal). I asked about the direct and was informed it was completely full and oversold with eight people on standby. I asked about connecting through Frankfurt and then getting a Lufthansa flight to London. She sounded puzzled but tapped away at her keyboard and told me I could take a 7pm United flight to Frankfurt, arriving 3pm, and then connect on a 4:20 Lufthansa to London arriving 5pm. This sounded a lot better than the Dulles option–faster, more miles, and a connection in Frankfurt!

Frankfurt is a huge, huge airport. I once had an hour and a half to connect from Vienna to SFO by way of Frankfurt, and to be on the safe side I decided not to pee until I got to my departure gate and had my walking behind me. I walked and walked and walked, as briskly as I could, which would be a fast trot to many people. And walked. And walked. I walked into my departure gate, onto my plane, and the door closed behind me. I peed in the plane’s lavatory. It’s that huge. But if you have a connection where you don’t have to switch terminals, and you have time to visit a Lufthansa lounge, you’re in luck. Fabulous food and drink await!

I’ve enjoyed a yummy, buttery carrot soup, a Frankfurter, a couple pretzels, and a glass of draft Beck’s. I’ve found there’s nothing quite like a good beer for settling a travel-jumpy stomach. I couldn’t resist tasting the Viennese grüner Veltliner wine, too, but it’s not sitting as well as the beer did, so I’m enjoying tiny sips with another pretzel. They have wifi here, but I’m too cheap to buy a T-Mobile Hotspot account (yet), so I’m just typing this into a file for now.

And now I see it’s time to start ambling to my gate, but first I’ll grab a few provisions for the rest of my day…

More travel wearies

About a year ago, I recounted a somewhat unusual version of my summer ritual: failing to fly out of the Southeast.

I call it a ritual because I fly in and out of RDU about once a month, year round, and during the summer months I’ve grown to expect that getting to RDU from SFO or OAK will be fraught with delays and headaches, and getting back home from RDU will be a hellish combination of delays, missed connections, exciting round-the-world trips for my baggage, and spontaneous weekends with my friends in the southeast. So often do I get stuck at IAD that I keep all the phone numbers I have for my friends Bruce and Kathy in Alexandria on speed dial on both my work and personal mobile phones (because you never know which one will have a dying battery). I also keep United, Avis, and Hilton’s numbers on speed-dial, to help with all those emergency rearrangements. So a few weeks ago, when Kathy visited us out west, I warned her that at the end of my trip this week, I might be calling her.

The red-eye long haul out here on Sunday night was fine, the Monday-morning connection in Dulles was several hours late (gee, that’s a surprise), it took forever for my bag to appear at RDU (gee that’s a surprise), and Avis was a complete mess (gee, that’s a surprise), so I had to spend over an hour queuing at the Preferred tend outside in the heat to get a decent car (while the hoi polloi were getting quick service in the short, air-conditioned indoor non-preferred building), but the real troubles began on Friday, when I tried to get back home to SFO.

I got up in the middle of the night for nothing. I’d had a feeling all along that I wouldn’t get home on Friday, starting with my warning to Kathy a few weeks ago, and I wish there had been some way to take advantage of that insight to save myself all the trouble of pretending I’d be flying home on time.

My 6:20 flight was supposed to board at 6am, and sure enough at 6am they had us queue up for boarding. Twenty minutes go by and still no sign of an agent ready to scan us in, so I take a seat. Nothing happens for a long time, so I check the monitors to be sure we’re still departing from gate 21A and then sit back down. They announce our flight is being delayed by paperwork (huh?) and start boarding the 7:20 Washington flight, and eventually tell us our flight is going to be another hour at least. It’s 7am, and my connection to San Francisco is at 8:30, so I know I’m doomed, and sure enough they’re announcing that we’re unlikely to make our connections, and there’s only two people working all of United, so we’re better off calling the 800 number to take care of rebookings, etc. I call the 1K desk instead and find out I can be rebooked in the next IAD-SFO flight but definitely not upgraded, and meanwhile my RDU-IAD flight’s delay of another hour is perhaps a bit of wishful thinking, because it’s in fact more uncertain than that.

Meanwhile, connections out of IAD are also likely to be a big mess, because all the intense storms in the midwest mean that 500 flights yesterday were canceled out of O’Hare alone, and an awful lot of travelers are all screwed up, and basically the entire nation’s air system is a total mess today because none of the metal is where it belongs for today’s flights.

The prospect of waiting indefinitely for a flight that will probably miss my rebooked flight, and then I’ll be stuck in Dulles for god knows how long waiting for the NEXT flight, which may or may not have a seat for me (let alone a decent one), and before you know it I’ll have spent my entire day in airports and probably still won’t be home. None of this seems fun. So I ask about better options, like say tomorrow. The 6:20am? No thanks, not again… I had her rebook me on an 2:48-15:57 RDU-IAD, 17:25-19:50 IAD-SFO itinerary tomorrow (Saturday), which does have room for me in first.

Still not free, though–because I’ve already checked in, I have to be “unchecked in,” which requires speaking with an agent. I see that my gate agents are boarding two different flights and have a line of about 40 IAD passengers waiting to speak with them, so I slip to the head of the line to ask about that. When I’m told I have to go back out to the ticketing and bag-check desk to do that, I’m glad that I didn’t wait politely in the big line with everybody else, and while I schlepp back to ticketing, I call Sue to make sure she can put up with me for another day. There I take my place at the head of the first/1K line but still have to wait about ten minutes, during which I call Avis to book another car. Finally one of the two beleaguered ticket counter agents approaches me. He “unchecks me in” (there has got to be a better way of expressing that thought, but apparently nobody at United has come up with it yet) and agrees to get my checked bag unchecked also. However, he looks pained as he tells me what I’d gathered already: that things are a total mess there right now and it will probably be a while before somebody can get it back to the terminal for me.

I head down to the bag claim area, take a seat, plug in my now-dead phone, and get comfortable. After about half an hour, Mr. Beleaguered appears and asks to see my bag claim ticket again, marches away, eventually returns, says something barely comprehensible about a radio not working and that he’ll go back upstairs and use the phone to see what he can do. Another half hour passes and finally the “bags coming” alarm goes off, but only three bags (none mine) clunk onto the belt before it stops again. I finally decide to speak with someone at the baggage desk but find the desk unstaffed. After calling “excuse me!” out into the oblivion a few times, I notice that there are a few bags lurking behind the desk. One is mine. Seeing nobody to stop me and no reason not to help myself, I do so, and schlepp out to the Avis bus.

I get to Avis and am rewarded for my top-tier status with three blessings. I’ve gotten a ghastly American car (1), and it reaks of an ashtray (2). I decide to deal with it but am stopped at the exit gate. Because I don’t have a contract. Because they hadn’t bothered to put one in the car (3)! So now I have to U-turn back into the lot, return it to its parking spot, and get the contract. At this point I decide that since I have to go to the booth anyway, there’s no reason to put up with an ashtray on wheels, so I haul my bags back out, schlepp to the booth, and am offered (oh, joy) the very same Pontiac G6 I had rejected on Monday morning for being a big-ass American car for knuckle-draggers (its seat puts my knees at my chin, my butt on the floor, and my eyes somewhere around the bottom of the windows, and there’s just no way I’m going to drive anything like that). Next he tries to offer me an even bigger Pontiac, and I ask for a third time for “anything Asian–anything at all.” He says he doesn’t have anything in my reserved size or bigger, and I tell him something smaller would be just fine if it’s Asian–say, a Hyundai Sonata, which is what I’d turned in three hours earlier, so I know he probably has one. He says his only Sonata has 33,000 miles on it. I have no idea why that could possibly matter to me, so I tell him I don’t care, that will be just fine, thank you so very much for all your extra help, sir. With a look that seems to combine pity and confusion, he hands me keys and a contract.

I drive back to my friend Sue’s house where I’ve been staying the week instead of spending yet another week in a hotel, retrieve the key from the dogfood bin, and here I am. I’ve been up over five hours, I’ve gone spectacularly nowhere, I’m still not napping in an airplane seat, so I decide to go back to bed, and later I put in some work time with the laptop while Sue’s rat terriers bounce all over me. Besides being a software colleague, Sue’s a dog trainer and breeder, and one spectacular benefit of staying with her has been getting all the fur fixes I can stand. Trust me, road-warrior-wannabes, you might think the hotel scene is glamorous and fun, but after you’ve been at it for ten years, you’ll leap at kind offers from friends, and friends with sweet dogs are even better.

The troubles continue Saturday.

Both airports were relatively quiet, and things seemed to be going like clockwork until I boarded in Dulles. That’s when thunderstorms hit, causing a cascading mess of ground stops, metered pushbacks, and ramp and pushback crews not being allowed to go out and play in the lightning. I’m sure glad I held out for an itinerary with room for me in Business, because I sat in that seat an extra three hours at Dulles, with a glass of wine of course.

For the first time in ages, I decided to listen to channel 9 (the cockpit radio), and it was fascinating to hear all the frustrated pilots and ground metering agents trying not to get testy with each other.

As a United bigot, I’m pleased to say that the United pilots were all comporting themselves with noticeably more class than the other airlines, perhaps because they know that they have some frequent-flyer-geek passengers listening in. Note to other airlines: you might not be putting your pilots’ radio behavior on the air for your passengers to hear, but United is, and you might want to suggest that they display the same courtesy you expect your flight agents to display. (And for that matter, some of you airlines might want to talk to your flight attendants about courtesy…)

While I’m on the subject of United vs. other airlines, here’s why I’m a United bigot. One big reason is that United Economy Plus seating means I can bring my kneecaps and both hips with me onboard when I travel. With those other airlines, coach seating means I need to check them. But the bigger reason is one that I’ve heard repeated many times by many others: stuff goes wrong in air travel–it just does–and what sets an airline apart is how they handle the problems. United has consistently demonstrated humanity and professionalism in this regard, and when I say this I’m referring not to some monolithic corporate values but rather the individual employees I’ve encountered, one after another. Many a United employee has knocked me out by going way beyond what I would have expected to take care of me. So take today’s story in that context: yes, it was a pain, but it wasn’t United’s fault, and I’m pretty sure that on some other airline (a few in particular), my story would have been much more exasperating. Now, as a 1K (platinum butt) I undoubtedly get somewhat better service than any old passenger, but I’ve never seen any United employees treating any passengers or folks from competing airlines with less respect than they deserved, and I’ve usually seen them displaying considerably more. I wish I could say the same of other airlines.

The flight itself was humdrum, service was fine, there were a few good movies, and I got my bag promptly at the other end (another reason to like SFO). Unfortunately, I waited quite a while for the parking shuttle van, but fortunately I got the driver I’d had on the way in, a sweet Peruvian guy who’s trying hard to learn conversational English, and doing pretty well–he’s certainly way ahead of my Spanish and probably even my German and Norwegian. I bought my car back for the usual extortionary fee and then headed into messy traffic, finally arriving home around midnight, fourteen hours after I’d left Sue’s house for the second time.

Grand total, 19 hours to go cross-country. Oy.

I’m jealous of my suitcase

It’s been a busy month for travel. I was on the east coast at my employer’s headquarters for a week, then in North Dakota for a friend’s graduation from medical school for a long weekend, then home for five whole days, then back east for another week at headquarters last week. I’m home again for two weeks before going back for another week, and this sort of schedule is how I’ve come to have platinum-butt status with my favorite airline.

I was bummed out not to get home for the long weekend before midnight Friday, but my bag has had an even more exhausting journey. For some reason it went from Raleigh to Dulles to Taipei to Tokyo to Chicago. My guess is that the unusually harried gate agents at RDU got my bag tag and somebody else’s mixed up. It was supposed to come to Oakland Sunday night by way of Kansas City and Denver to be delivered 9:30am Monday, and then it was supposed to do that yesterday to be delivered 9:30am today, and now it’s supposedly landed from Chicago in Oakland and is going to be delivered late afternoon today. All I can figure is that my bag has been doing its best to enjoy its stays in Taipei, Narita, and Chicago. I know that two of those can be fun places, and I’d sure like to find out about the third.

I really don’t think it’s fair that my bag gets to go more places than I do. For crying out loud, it’s just a stupid Costco wheelie-dealie whose greatest accomplishment to date has been not falling apart. I’m a well-educated and some would even say personable high-tech professional who can offer greetings, thanks, inquiries after the price of an iron chair, and toasts in least a dozen languages! I asked the airlines platinum-butt service rep guy who was updating me on its itinerary whether they would consider compensating me by letting me go on the same itinerary my bag got to go on, since I’m platinum butt and all. He chuckled and said it was not a request he’d ever heard before. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t go for it, but he did call back a little while later to say that he’d gotten me a couple 500-mile upgrade certificates. I wonder if he would’ve gone for Victoria’s idea, which is that I should at least earn butt miles for the segments my suitcase has flown without me.

I wonder if they’ve at least had the decency to supply it with meal vouchers while it was languishing in all those airports.

The really irksome thing about all this is that the only reason I didn’t bring it home carry-on was that I’d bought a bottle of mouthwash that was bigger than the one mouthful’s worth that I would have been allowed to carry on. Because of course anybody who’s ever watched a thriller on TV knows that you can take down a jet with a bottle of mouthwash, a knitting needle, two AA batteries, and a few feet of violin string. Add a laptop and a pair of canvas sneakers, and you can take out a skyscraper, right?

I’m so tired of the “look busy!” mission of the Travel Illusion-of-Safety Administration. Let’s get Hillary into the Oval and then ask her to disband the whole charade. If she put together an advisory council of smart six year olds, they could probably design something more effective and sensible than what we have now.

No good deed goes unpunished–especially when it’s a screw-up

Or, How not to be a multiculturalist

In my work in software localization, I frequently exchange emails with colleagues around in the world in which we announce to each other that we’ll be “OOTO” (out of the office) for various public holidays. Since lots of holidays here are unfamiliar there and vice versa, some of us have adopted a custom of not only announcing our upcoming absences but also giving a brief description of the holiday.

For example, my colleague and good friend Kyoko in Japan recently explained:

Our office will be closed next Monday, 9th October.

Taiiku-no-hi(Health-Sports Day)

October 10 is Taiiku-no-hi. It is to commemorate the opening of the Tokyo Olympics on October 10, 1964, and since 1966 it has been a national holiday. Its purpose is to familiarize with sports and nurture physical and mental health. Sports flourish in autumn because the weather is good, but, especially on taiiku-no-hi, numerous school and regional athletic meets and sports tourneys are held.

Another time she wrote:

Our office will be closed tomorrow, 3rd November.

Culture Day

Day for celebrating love of freedom and equality, and promoting culture. (Commemorates the promulgation, on November3, 1946, of the Constitution. Prior to 1945, this day was celebrated as the birth day of the Emperor Meiji.)

On Culture Day we do not have special food and drink. these days are just national holidays, so people go to sight seeing trip on these days.

Those who know me well will not be surprised to learn that when I send these kinds of notes, I attempt to make them amusing as well as informative. Here are a few of the descriptions I’ve sent in the past:

I just wanted to let you know that Monday is a holiday for us in the US. It’s Labor Day. I’ve never really understood what it’s for. I think it’s something about labor unions, but what it means mostly is barbecues, picnics, little trips to the lake, and “white sales” where the department stores have big sales on bedsheets, pillowcases, towels, and so on. (I have no idea what linens have to do with labor unions!)

Labor Day is of course a celebration of the oft-punished fights that labor unions have made to give us, among other things, the eight-hour work day and the five-day work week—no minor accomplishment. Most people recognize that today’s labor unions are far from perfect, but as a member of both management (in the corporate world) and labor (as a two-card-carrying member of two musicians’ locals), I think I can agree with my dad’s analysis: there is plenty of blame to go around. Usually corporations bring their labor problems on themselves by showing too little human regard for the employees who keep them in business, and labor unions in turn bring problems on themselves through excess and corruption. These are typically exacerbated by a failure on each side to communicate reasonably and openly with the other. Someday I’ll write here about some interesting examples of this kind of thing that I’ve observed during my career.

The next year I offered a slightly improved description:

Labor Day is ostensibly about honoring labor unions, but it is really about barbecuing and buying discounted bed linens. It is also the official end of the season in which white shoes are considered acceptable—-between Memorial Day and Labor Day is the rule. I don’t know anybody who has white shoes anymore—-except for athletic shoes, which don’t count. All the same, I’m happy to take a day off to barbecue.

Apparently this holiday is of some interest to me, because the next year I got still more explicit:

The holiday is Labor Day. Originally Labor Day was intended to celebrate the sacrifices and achievements made by labor unions and labor organizers. American productivity and prosperity have been due to plain hard work, of course, but it is perhaps more notable now to celebrate the ways organized labor changed working conditions, especially for blue-collar labor. Thanks to labor unions, we now take a five-day work week, vacation, minimum wage, overtime pay, basic benefits, and an expectation of safe working conditions for granted.

But in truth, most people rarely give a second thought to the origin of this holiday and instead treat it as any other three-day weekend— a chance to have a barbecue, visit distant relatives, or catch up on household chores. Department stores traditionally have a Labor Day White Sale, in which bed and bath linens are discounted, but nobody knows why. Labor Day also marks the end of the season in which polite ladies and gentlemen are allowed to wear white shoes: tradition dictates that white shoes are worn between Memorial Day and Labor Day only. (I believe exceptions are made for tennis, croquet, and other activities for which white attire is expected.)

Speaking of barbecues, here was one year’s take on the 4th of July:

next Friday, the 4th of July, is a holiday for the US team. If you’re interested, here are my thoughts on the holiday:

We usually call it “the 4th of July,” but its official name is Independence Day. This holiday celebrates the North American colonists’ signing of a Declaration of Independence from England in 1776. The Declaration was an uppity letter to the King of England that said, in effect, “You aren’t being fair, so we’re not playing anymore.” Their key complaint was about “taxation without representation”: having to pay huge taxes but not having voting rights. They argued that this was so unfair that, having been snubbed in every effort to change the situation, the colonies had a right to secede from England. It was a novel argument that if your government oppresses you, you have a human right to overthrow it. Naturally, it took a big war to settle the matter, and the United States of America as we know it today didn’t actually get underway until 1788, when our Constitution was ratified. An interesting point, though, is that even after seceding from England over a disagreement about basic human rights, the writers of the Constitution forgot to include provisions for basic human rights! So, right away, they had to make ten amendments to their document, which are called the Bill of Rights. This makes me feel better about how often we have to amend our [software localization] documents! 🙂

For no particular reason that I know of, it is traditional to celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks and barbecues.

On re-reading that today, I’m wondering why it is that the US doesn’t see anything wrong with perpetuating taxation without representation in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and so on.

Anyway, this year I went all out and decided to summarize all the upcoming US holidays:

Thanksgiving is the North American holiday where we celebrate and give thanks for the harvest by eating outrageous amounts of roast turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams or sweet potatoes, pumpkin pies, and all sorts of other fattening but delicious fall vegetables on Thursday. On Friday we either lie around feeling fat or else march to the shopping malls in search of big discounts in the “black Friday” Christmas shopping frenzy. My father insists that (American) football is also a big part of the Thanksgiving tradition, but I have no idea what he’s talking about.

The history behind the holiday is even more controversial than the question of football, and Wikipedia gives a decent summary of the issues.

In Canada, Thanksgiving is celebrated a month earlier, closer to the actual harvest but with less emphasis on extreme consumption of its bounties and more emphasis on doing something over the long weekend.

Our offices are closed from 25dec-1jan for the winter holidays, which include Christmas, Kwanzaa, Solstice, Childermas, Hanukkah, Rosh Chodesh, Asara B’Tevet, and New Year’s Day (some of which fall outside these dates).

What many of these holidays have in common are special foods, the fast Asara b’Tevet being a notable exception. Solstice and New Year are about the sun, and Rosh Chodesh is about the moon. Christmas is both a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus and subsuming many ancient indigenous seasonal rites, and a secular holiday prompting the year’s biggest consumer spending. (As of this moment, Wikipedia’s entry for Christmas displays a curious segment declaiming, “SANTA IS THE MAN.”) Childermas is a minor related holiday. Hanukkah is a lesser Jewish holiday that commemorates Maccabees resisting Greek assimilation (or as they say, “it’s another one of those ‘they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat’ holidays;” in this case, potato pancakes). Kwanzaa is a modern secular celebration of African-American heritage marking its 40th anniversary this year.

So we reach the denouement of our story, where my attempted good deed turns out to be a total screw-up.

In my fervor to describe all these holidays in an equally-tongue-in-cheek fashion, where no religion’s holiday gets preferential descriptive treatment, I managed to come off as disdainful to all of them. One of my colleagues kindly pointed this out, to which I replied, “Disdain? I don’t disdain any of them—just football!”

He then mentioned that others might consider “reconnecting with family” to be important.

Well, of course! Duh! And particularly among the more conservative in my audience, my failure to mention this, coupled with my failure to make overt mention of the importance of any of these holidays to me and mine, had to be offensive or at least annoying, particularly to my colleagues in the American South. The South is a region of the United States that has its own cultural identity and celebrates it to a much greater degree than any other part of the country (to wit, the Culture Shock international book series has a title devoted to the South, with special chapters on how Atlanta is still different). Among its values are a strong devotion to family, church, and local community (and the many overlaps among these). So, my casual disregard of the above would be an especially good example of me putting my “damn Yankee” foot right in my mouth and halfway down my throat.

I hastened to send a postscript:

Leave it to me to forget the most obvious point! All of these holidays are REALLY about reconnecting with family and friends. I get a little fixated on the food aspect of that, because in MY family the planning, preparing, and eating of special seasonal and cultural foods are the glue that pulls us all together.

Which is of course quite true, and it’s also true that I happen to love the holidays that apply to me—especially because of the food traditions—and I’ve been inclined to adopt a few more that don’t, again because of the food. I don’t know a lot of goyim who celebrate Hanukkah and Passover, but I do, due in no small part to my love of latkes, charoset, matzoh (and -kugel and -brie), gefilte fish, and of course horseradish. I just didn’t want to write any of that, because I didn’t think my own religious affiliation was appropriate workplace comment.

The beautiful irony here is that I, the earnest multiculturalist who labored to describe a whole bunch of holidays in an ecumenical and egalitarian way so as not to offend anyone, managed to offend just about everyone. So my attempted good deed was actually a screw-up, and I got the punishment I deserved.

For what it’s worth, three West Coast colleagues who value home and family no less than I do all thought it was amusing and took no offense to the general tone, and the Southern colleague could not have been kinder in his pointing out my gaffe. He’s pretty used to me and my foibles.

Another Southern colleague who’s actually a transplant shared this:

I recently saw a magazine page with a mother holding a big platter of turkey etc. On her head was a crown of thorns a la Christ.

Certainly an apt feminist response to the reality of many of these holidays, where mothers have traditionally been expected to spend a hot and tiring day in the kitchen while their menfolk relax and watch football on TV.

Indeed, for many oppressed classes, there are no real holidays. In the UK, they call them “bank holidays,” which I think is an interesting reflection of the fact that they are a break from commerce—not necessarily a break for all in the public. It’s also not lost on me that the word “holiday” derives from “holy day.” Although our so-called public holidays are supposedly secular, in fact not even our language is.

Airline kharma

My airline kharma has been interesting lately. I passed the 50K butt miles mark sometime in May, meaning I’ve already passed my usual annual mileage, so my upgrade status is coming along nicely. For many of my recent segments endured during nine consecutive weeks of business travel, I’ve been getting upgraded to business a lot. On Monday it all came crashing down: not only did I not get upgraded, but I got stuck in a window seat trapped in by two middle-aged mainland Chinese tourists who insisted on sleeping nearly all the way across the continent. My impression is that they’d arrived in SFO from China and were continuing to the east coast in what would have to be the marathon journey from hell, poor folks, so I couldn’t bring myself to wake them. Finally I climbed over them, traveling by armrest (they’re stronger than you’d expect!) to escape for a pee and to get another bottlet of wine.

Later, when I was nibbling on my leftover wildly-hot barbecue rib shreds (I’d deboned before leaving home and was basically extruding the gloppy meat out of a ziploc snack baggie into my mouth, like so much incendiary space food), then unwinding and nibbling through a sweaty braid of traditional string cheese, and washing all this down with my bottlet of airplane cabernet while working on the NYTimes Sunday crossword, I reflected on how I’d observed with some curiosity the unfamiliar and often strange-looking picnics I’d seen people eating on my flights around China last fall and wondered how these folks could possibly be any less puzzled by my meal. Even to me it was a strange one.

Anyway, back to that airline kharma, I’d had a three-hour nap before the plane even got off the ground in SF, because Washington, DC had all those rain storms, and everything in and out of Dulles was all out of whack. I finally landed around 9pm. My 10pm shuttle to RDU was delayed to 10:38, boarded at 10:30, and actually left around midnight, so it was 1:30am by the time I got to my hotel. What’s really weird is that I’d hoped to catch the 7:15 shuttle on standby if my long haul had arrived on time (I booked the later one because it brought the fare down $400 and made it possible for me to book United instead of one of the icky airlines), and THAT flight was delayed to 11:45 and who knows when it finally left. Very weird!

Summer afternoon/evening flights from down here are always dodgy, so when my meeting schedule changed on me for the umpteenth time and I had to rebook to the last RDU-IAD shuttle, which has a 45 min connection to the SFO flight and often a terminal change to make that extra aerobic, I warned Victoria that we should probably get used to the idea that I wouldn’t make it home until Saturday or Sunday. (I have a 7pm opera rehearsal Sunday, but nothing else scheduled.) Sure enough, when my meetings finished up around 4:30 (wildly successful! yay!), I had text messages waiting on my phone that my 7:35 flight was departing “on time” at 8:40. Huh? How is that on-time? I then spent about 10 minutes trying to get updated flight stati over the web to no avail, gave up and phoned, learned that I’d have a -20 minute connection, checked out my options for Sat-Sun returns, called Bruce and Kathy to arrange a visit (“sure!”), called back to book a Sunday morning departure, called Avis to reserve a car, and spent the extra time typing up my meeting notes so I didn’t have to take pictures and transcribe them later.

I got to the airport about 90 min early, planning to find something to eat, only to discover that every last food outlet in that airport closes at 7pm. What’s THAT about? Finally I found a plastic chicken caesar and a lousy margarita and settled in with my novel. At 8:40 there was still no sign of our plane, but the unattended gate still had the “ON TIME” sign and the “DEPARTS 8:40” as if that could possibly be true about a 7:35 flight that was over an hour late and still planeless. In a fit of self-amused pique, I pulled out the ONTIME sign and put it back in upside-down. The dozen or so people sitting at the gate giggled and thanked me. I asked the assembled if anyone had some Post-It so we could add a “NOT SO MUCH” sign to their “ON TIME” sign. A remarkably large portion of the group started digging through their bags looking for some. I finally was the one who found some (guess who leads a lot of meetings?), so I made and posted the sign, and by now the little gang of us were all chatting and laughing together.

We were all amused when the gate agent arrived and started doing her thing without touching or even appearing to notice our alterations to signage.

About this time, some salesman-looking guy walked up to some people sitting near us and practically shouted a greeting and introduction of himself, so several of us sort of shouted back to him, “Hi, Shannon, we’re everybody else!” He happily greeted “everybody else” back, and by this time we’d all figured out that his volume level had two causes: iPod earphones and rum and cokes. After we all joked around a bit about our plane not even being here yet, he asked if we would mind bellowing, “Hey, Shannon!” toward the bar when it did finally arrive. We practiced, and he was so amused he offered everybody traveling to Dulles a drink on his company. About five of us took him up on it. I offered my little tub of greek olives to the party. About fifteen minutes, the plane was finally boarding, and sure enough, as the check-in line dwindled, about four people yelled “Hey, Shannon” together, and we joined the queue. (We’d been keeping an eye on it, actually, but still!)

It was a happy flight. Late, and I think one passenger of the thirty of us actually made a connection, but fun.

Just before we landed, the flight attendant told us why we’d been late: Dubya was in Memphis with Koizumi, and the whole time Air Force One sat around in Memphis, nobody else was allowed to do anything in the airspace for a 30 mile radius. I hoofed it out Dulles with our pilot, who said it was just standard security practice and mentioned that he’d been involved in “the Clinton haircut” debacle, too: “same deal, both parties–it’s just stupid.”

And now here I am visiting college friends for a weekend, and the company gets to pay half, since it wasn’t my fault.

As for Shannon, I was right–he IS a salesman. I won’t name his company, but it’s a luxury goods maker I’ve yet to patronize, because their stores never, ever stock extra fine nibs. Therefore I carry around products from half a dozen of their competitors (because of course I’m one of those high-tech geeks who loves-low tech fountain pens that make big, ungracious, unmodern messes of ink all over my latest, greatest gadgets). I told him as much, and it put him on an absolute tear about how frustrated he is with the stores thinking medium is all they’ll ever need. We exchanged business cards and he promised to fix the problem, because he doesn’t want me traveling all around the world with those other brands. I suspect what this means is that either I’ll never hear from him or he’ll arrange an opportunity for me spend a gazillion dollars on an XF in his brand, but you never know!

Like I said, my airline kharma is changing. Didn’t say it’s getting worse.