Worst of all — although there can be some pretty bad among the rest — is the travel. Specifically, the airports and airplanes. The insanely long “security” lines are now even longer, as personnel has reportedly (no one knows for sure…it’s a “security” secret, of course) been cut back due to the “sequester.” You remember, that’s the procedure by which elected and appointed officials divided up the money that pays for societally agreed-upon functions. Keeping most of what they did impossible to see, or too petty to complain about. One fewer day that the Pt. Reyes Visitor Center is open? One more day that your local post office closes early? A week longer to get a passport? (There will not, of course, be one fewer “Special Operations” team crawling through some obscure jungle to do some bloody deed. Or maybe there will be? Who are we to think we would be told?)
So you’re in long lines. You do what they say. Randomly, you may be singled out for further “inspection.” Which means full body pat downs. Chemical swatches rubbed over you. Every bag roamed through. Some dumped onto counters. You are shoeless and if you have the habit of wearing pants that are held up by a belt, you are using one hand to hold them up while the belt is assessed. If you ask — and large, middle-aged women seem to be the rare ones who do — you are allowed to go behind a screen for this. But it isn’t much of a screen; you can see around it if you’re in the right/wrong place.
After you’ve put yourselves and your “carry-on” baggage together, you face an array of overpriced, non-nutritious eating alternatives. Shops filled with fat, salt, and sugar chewables. Logo-bearing wearables made in China and Pakistan. And reading material heavy on bridal, NASCAR, and teen sex and fashion themes. And the smaller the shop, the uglier the book selection gets. People you’ve probably never read a word by have row on row of supposedly best-seller fiction titles. Or there are piles by right-wing loonies like Glen Beck and Bill O’Reilly, who produce constantly renewed titles in hardback and paperback. And there’s also always at least one book purporting to prove Obama is not a citizen, or a Christian, but a member of an atheistic baby-killing anti-prosperity cabal which is in league with Al Qaeda to destroy our sacred nationa and is values. (I monitor pretty carefully what people actually read on planes, or at least I used to until people began doing most of their eyeball activity via screens, and have never seen anyone actually reading, or even carrying anything from this crew)
You board the plane by “group.” The process is irrational and leads to massive grunting, waiting, and bumping. Instead of boarding the plane through its (usually) one door from rear to front, thereby allowing all who need to get there to get there first and be out of everyone’s way, the planes are boarded by “groups” determined by one’s “status” as a flier. So those who pay the most, and have the “best” seats in the front of the plane get on first. They are usually wrestling — as is everyone else, for that matter — two large, wheeled things which, frequently, don’t fit in the overhead containers. and/or can’t be lifted by the person to whom they belong. Further delay ensues.
Once seated, the irritating, usually too loud announcements begin. It’s as if everyone on board was suddenly cloned from humanoid material that had never been in an airplane before. Seat belts? What a surprise! How to make them work? Marvelous! Put things (often yet a third, unwieldy wheeled item) under seats? Who knew?
Then come the maniacs who own and run the airline, parading smilingly on the screen, to tell you how ecstatic they are that you’ve chosen them! Of course they all know that price and schedule are why an overwhelming percentage of those on board are there; we would fly Air Scumsucker if it were cheap and relatively on time. (Air Scumsucker, by other names, now links most European cities for ridiculously low prices.) We also need to be reminded to keep our seat belts low and tight around our laps when the seat belt sign is on (Sign? You mean that thing with the seat-belt symbol on it, right in front of my eyes? The one that comes on with an ear-jangling bong? The one that’s immediately followed by serious man or smiley-voiced lady reminding us that the seat belt sign is ON?)
As you wrestle with the screen options for “entertainment” (60 or so movies, a few of them sometimes worth watching; hundreds of hours of music, a little of it sometimes worth listening to; repeats of idiotic TV sitcoms) it will soon occur to you that you can’t really hear most of any of it very well through the airliner supplied headphones. In a no doubt heavily researched cost-cutting business-school based decision, individual ear buds, in small plastic packages, have been replaced by flimsy, cushioned headphones….which seem never to be replaced between flights! You can therefore assume that whatever flesh-ripping cancer-causing bacteria that might have accumulated from the ears of others as the plane sped its way from, say, Atlanta to San Francisco, is now trying to preserve its half-life until it can greet its new host….you!
(Hint: bring your own earbuds. Or headphones. If you forget, buy some in the airport. They’re cheap, and come in nice little plastic envelopes.)
The plane, eventually, gets ready to leave. But usually it doesn’t do so very quickly. Or predictably. Delays are built into the timetable, you soon discover. Time is a social, rather than arithmetic construction. You can leave up to an hour, sometimes longer, after the posted departure time and still get there “on time.” Sometimes even early. Of course, you should have flown yesterday if you have a connection to make, a wedding or funeral to get to, anything like that.
More annoying voices; the sound system is programmed so that they interrupt whatever music or movie in which you may have tried to be absorbed. (And such absorption, you may have discovered, is seriously necessary if the person seating next to you, or even behind or ahead of you, appears seriously verborrheic. At such times you may remind yourself that in walking past the abundant bars in the airport you notice that they are almost always, all of them, completely full! 6am? noon? 11pm? — Triple Sangria with five straws? No problem!)
The latest announcements are about the “service” that is about to begin. Unless you’re on a flight longer than “X” (time, once again, being a social construction) hours, you only get to eat what you buy, unless you’ve brought something with you. Alcoholic drinks cost money, too. No cash of any kind is accepted; you need to have a credit card. Which, of course, kids flying alone tend not to have. Or people from, say, other countries whose populations are less addicted to plastic payments. So they go hungry. Or stay sober. Or whatever!
If the “service” doesn’t make you sympathize with the plight of the working class in this country, nothing will (except maybe reflection upon he daily routines of those who have just sold you a newspaper, a coffee, a candy bar.) Flight attendants have what is, arguably, one of the worst jobs in the world. Their hours are long, and compulsory, and can include insanely destabilizing, bodyclock jangling changes. They are on their feet almost all the time. They have to deal with people all of whom wish they were somewhere else. Sometimes those people are tiny. Sometimes they’re drunk. Sometimes they don’t speak any language the flight attendants speak. Sometimes they take it as personal, unforgiveable insult that not every menu selection is always available.
Often — about half the time, by rough calculation — “special meals” are not present, even when specifically indicated in “traveler profiles” and a reminder has been phoned in the requisite day before. Flight attendants have to explain/excuse this.
A starting flight attendant earns about $20 an hour — for the actual hours a plane is in flight. There’s also a $2 an hour per diem for some of the hours flight attendants are away from home. So if she flies from San Francisco to New York she might gross $150 a day. For the three or four days a week she works. Yes, there are benefits and yes pay goes up with seniority. But while getting to that theoretical level of seniority, which airlines are always trying to stifle through breaking unions, stalling on contracts etc., you will be encouraged to leave the profession because you likely become exhausted working the worst schedules, getting difficult last-minute fill-in work. And then there are the overall working conditions. See above.
Meanwhile, you’re crawling towards Paris. Following your path on the little maps on the screen in front of you.
The airline, having assumed you know nothing about things like seat belts, bathrooms (of which there are now a very uncomfortably fewer number…) little tables that descend from the front of the seat that, often very uncomfortably, leans into “your” space, and therefore having told you, in repeated, annoying, baby talk about these things, is silent about your destination.
Not that a further string of idiotic, superficial babble would be welcome, or useful. But maybe just a couple of pages in the silly, glossy, ad-choked in-flight corporate magazine? Giving you information about buses, trains, and taxis available at the airport, where they go, and how much time and money one could be expected to expend upon taking them? Telling you the location of the airport information desk where English is spoken to help you straighten out complications? And informing you of the important factoid: that unless you worked it out beforehand your cellphone, your credit cards, and even the things you tend to plug into walls almost certainly will not work in Paris!
The last hour, or two, or three are interminable. A sort of breakfast, consisting of a cold, stale croissant and the worst coffee you’ve ever encountered (in a Starbuck’s cup — but certainly it couldn’t be — or could it?) lurches into your space. And the by now on automatic pilot flight attendants come through to collect, indiscriminately, plastic cups and wrappers, newspapers, cans, napkins. Is this stuff ever sorted out? Recycled? Or just dumped in yet another corporate cloaca?
Bang, bump, you’ve landed. But of course you’re not “there” yet. Another treacly-voiced announcement reminds you of the startling fact that the plane is still moving!
It’s getting to the terminal. Or should be. But often, it stops because there are not enough airport gates, and if you’re late or early for the fictional time of arrival some other aircraft is where you’re supposed to be.
Then comes the wrestling with overhead racks, the agonizing unfolding of bodies cramped into too little space for too long, the slow parade of people and objects, out into — a line! Sometimes a big, long line. At the end of which are, sometimes, as few as one or two passport stampers who are often in intense conversation with each other about something that obviously has nothing to do with the long lines of haggard humanoids in front of them. Something more likely to do with soccer results, or TV sitcoms, yet another “monstrous traffic jam” in which the Paris region specializes.
And then, even though it may have been an hour since the plane came to its gate, you will often find that your checked baggage has not yet left the plane. Or, as happened last December, has been caught in some work-rule dispute. About which you’re lied to, unless you’re fluent enough in the language and attuned enough to the subtleties of official dissemblement to decode.
Such suspensions of commonly expected structures are not rare in Paris. Last September, arriving passengers were greeted by a half-day “wildcat strike” which shut down the suburban rail line between the airport and the city. There were few signs anywhere telling you that this was happening, and those few were hand-lettered, barely legible, cryptic. And you only saw them after taking the shuttle link which is not run by people, but by computers, from the airport to the train, and ran just fine. But when you tried to get to a train, all the ticket machines and gates were shut. There was no one to ask about it. Merely an inchoate scrum of people, many of them wheeling impossible quantities of awkward objects, a menagerie full of screaming kids, desperate parents, all headed towards a rumored bus station. Which was, indeed, there, but there were — go figure — no buses! Or, rather, there were only the usual ones that tend to arrive and leave half empty, used only by the poorest janitors, garage attendants, food service workers. They swarm towards, into, and yes, just like in — well, you’ve possibly seen pictures, or even experienced, India, Bangladesh, Lagos — even unto the rooftops where clans of desperate arrivals impressively hoist huge valises and small children.
Eventually, you could, if you happened to have about fifty years of experience, including a stint as travel/tour guide for bicycle trips, and linguistic and cultural competence, engineer a work around. Which got you into a bus not run by the city bus company. But of course the bus then immediately encountered a traffic situation which, even on normal days, resembles Los Angeles during freeway repaving. And with the railroad shut down, now had to absorb that many more cars.
Net result? It’s taken you five hours to traverse the 25 miles from the airport to Paris. It took eleven hours to go the 5,600 miles from San Francisco. Distance, like time, has proven to be a social, as much as an arithmetic, construct.
“Paris” continues in next week’s AVA. The writer may be contacted at LBensky@igc.org.