31-hour day

I have had less than five hours sleep over the past 48 hours – or is it 60 hours? Who knows? Overseas travel has addled my brain, so please excuse any craziness in this post.

Yesterday, almost everything went wrong, just as expected. This is “travel” after all, a word very much like travail.

We saw early clues that things would not go as planned: A delayed flight caused us to miss our connection; then more ominously, when the Air Canada agent called down to baggage to pull our suitcases, no one answered.  Wherever the baggage handlers were, they must have stayed there for six hours – the length of time they had to reroute our baggage, which as I’ve already pointed out – they did not.

Finally, instead of giving us an electronic ticket for the new flight path, the agent handed us an old-fashioned paper ticket, at which point my over-planning, hyper-compulsive organizational neuroses snorted awake and kicked my adrenalin into gear, but I told it to go back to sleep. Stupid me.

That one little failure-to-react-to-administrative-bungling led to ruin,  and by ruin I mean ruined appearance. Our baggage stayed in Vancouver, and so for the moment, I’ve lost my make-up kit, my hair-styling toolbox, 98% of the clothing I packed for over here – the whole shebang.

Thusly, unsupported by all the implements that make me reasonably presentable, I am wandering around Switzerland in a troll-like state.  It’s okay. This is Europe, the land that brought the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale troll to the world, and so I fit right in. All that’s missing is a bridge to crawl under.

The real fun happened, however, when we arrived at the Swiss Air gate at Heathrow where a boarding agent refused to accept our Air Canada paper-issue ticket and boarding pass.

Dave went into speechless gasp mode; I went into ‘not-gonna-take-this’ mode, and launched into a “You may not care about us, but you’re violating your code-share contract with Air Canada and Star Alliance” argument. This must be done carefully, because it is a London airport and disgruntled passengers’ attitudes can be readjusted with the light application of a Taser.

I don’t actually know this. I just suspect it.

But to get back to the agent who was dismissive as only people who deliver devastating news can be: We held our ground until a manager came over and menacingly informed us that they had our credit card information and were prepared to use it.

What did he mean by that? We are nervously watching our credit card balance to see if he went out and bought a car at our expense, but really we are at the point where we don’t care – just as long as they let us on the plane, which they did eventually.

It makes one wonder if we were mere moments away from starting new lives as homeless people in London. Is this how it begins – a little bump off  aircraft in a foreign country, credit cards and all financial resources abducted by surly airline staff, followed inevitably by sleeping on cold pavement, eating in soup kitchens, wandering Hyde Park, that sort of thing.

In Zürich, Dave sailed through the passport check, as is normal. He has on-sight likability so even when his papers are not exactly correct or he fumbles, people smile warmly and wave him through.

Charming Biel/Bienne, which our hotel clerk says is a "dump," but we think it looks fine.

I, however, do not have this innate charm.  People glance over me once and know right away that I’m related to people who were shipped off to Siberia. Europeans in particular can sense this, and so the border official grilled me to well-done before stamping my passport.

Moments later we discovered our luggage was missing. It made sense and we felt a certain calm in the universal consistency that nothing was going according to plan.

Bereft of our earthly travel possessions (aforementioned make-up, hair styling implements, etc.) we made our way to customs, taking a wrong turn at the last moment and finding ourselves un-inspected and in Switzerland. This is a moment when everything goes right for Dave and he moseys along to his train. It is usually a moment where I get arrested/apprehended/turned-back/sent-to-Siberia for 25 years.

For once, that did not happen. We found the train, a few good shoe stores (to settle my nerves) and then our hotel.

Leg One Okay, Leg Two, not so good

Leg One: Neighbour Dan arrives in his posh Ford Flex hybrid to drive us to airport.  Traffic congestion – moderate. Arrival at airport – on time.  On-ride conversation: Politics and general grousing about stupid decision to put McKenzie overpass at McTavish (yes, that is the McKenzie overpass, just put in the wrong place – sorry only Victorians will know what I’m talking about here).

Why I carry a lime-green suitcase - here is the last place we saw it at Victoria Airport. Poor little suitcase. Will we ever see it again?

Leg Two: First flight to Vancouver delayed; we may not make our connection to Toronto.

Leg Two the second: One flight from Victoria to Vancouver cancelled to mechanical issues. Crowd at Gate 6 searches under seats for pitchforks, farming implements. Finding none, they shrug and line up like Canadians, wearing their sternest frowns of disapproval.

Leg Two the third: Arrive in Vancouver and as per instruction, race to Air Canada service desk to join fray of angry/annoyed/resigned passengers whose trips have taken unexpected turns/delays. Not us. We’re happy that a. no planes have crashed (so far) and that b. I decided to wear athletic gear instead of 3″ heels and dress clothes.  Feeling exhilarated from sprinting up staircase.

Leg Two the fourth: Rerouted to Heathrow. Stuck in Vancouver Airport for six hours. Not so bad. Air Canada is buying us lunch and we’re sitting at Monk’s restaurant where a greasy guy with too many beer bottles at his table is staring at me.  Has he mistaken me for 24-year-old blond.  Not likely. Creepy.

On the plus side: Air Canada staff were delighted to hear my suitcase is lime green – making it much easier for them to find and redirect.

Latest development: We had to switch tables so Dave could plug in his laptop. Am now seated next to creepy staring guy.  Stay tuned.

Check out our restaurant review on Monks Grill @ YVR at https://hobonotes.com/dining-recipes/

Fly away

What goes through my mind when I am on a plane.

Some days are meant for Prozac, and this is one of them.  After three flights and 14 hours plus one 90-minute train ride, we arrive in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland where we will be whisked away to a police station.

This is true. Before we can  rent a place, start work, order hamburgers, make our first attempts at yodeling, we have to get our residency permit from the local municipality, as represented by their police force.

The last time I had to visit a foreign police station, it was off a gritty Madrid alleyway. There, migrants waited for hours before getting inside the station where tense, gun-swinging officers patrolled a small waiting room that was  jammed with  people from nations where underarm deodorant  had not yet been introduced, which was a bad thing because it was over 35 C and we were packed in tight.

As one uniformed officer-or-soldier roughly herded a burqa-wearing woman and her startled kids through the crowd I tried to look like I had mistaken the station for the coffee shop next door. I was prepared to blurt out an order for coffee at the first sign of impending arrest or shooting, but my Spanish was poor, so I could just as easily have said, “Take me to your leader,” or “I have a gun.”

I’ve been under threat of arrest before, although I didn’t really believe it until afterwards when I inquired from a  police-friend and Crown prosecutor buddy, both of whom said, “Yup, he could have arrested you for (indecipherable legalese mumbo-jumbo).”

But that was when I was a reporter. So while the officer glared, I laughed brazenly, partly because he had once explained how he used glaring to maintain a  “command presence” at a crime/investigation scene, but mostly because I had seen him cower when his 12-year-old daughter walked in on an interview and put him in his place for forgetting to let her know he was working overtime. No cop can recover a “command presence” after that.

But I drift. The point is that just when I am at my worst (14-hours of white-knuckle flight-time plus more than 24-hours without sleep), I am going to try to be at my best so that the friendly Swiss police will lift the gate and let me in to their perfect country.

On one hand, I want it to go well, but on the other hand, if it doesn’t, I will have something interesting to write about – for once.

Suitcase Security

In my previous life as a staff reporter at a serious daily newspaper,  my editors would sometimes obliquely mock our readers by forcing reporters, myself included, to write stories that revealed the editorial staff’s estimation of the readers’ intelligence.

The story would expound the gritty minutae of a task so universally understood that the reporter would know instantly that its publication would tar him/her forever as the designated village-idiot. There is nothing the reporter could do about this.

What follows is what one such story might look like, a story about how to fit a strap around your suitcase.

You may have seen similar stories in fine publications like The Globe and Mail and The National Post, one of which actually published a Page A3 story on how to hold a kitchen knife. Page A3 is usually reserved for top local news, crime, politics or events/people of note.

No doubt, the reporter had her own unwritten thoughts on uses for knives.

Packing day

It takes me two hours to  leave the house, ergo with a little application of mathematical principles (multiplication, the most complex math I know), it would appear it will take me three weeks to leave the country. We fly on Tuesday, so I’m already behind schedule.

Quasi-moving packing is not the same as three-week excursion packing, but with nowhere else to go, I turned to Rick Steves, American travel guru to Europe http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/tips/packlight.htm. Steves recommends packing no more than 20 lbs. in a carry-on bag and to prove it can be done, his website has a video tape of him unpacking his stuff.

It looks like a bit of a magic trick – he puts the suitcase on the bed, opens up the top and like a magician pulling rabbits out of hats, pulls out a stream of clothes and travel gear. I suspect there was a hole in the bottom of the suitcase  and all that stuff really had been hidden in the mattress below.

When we moved to Spain in 1999, we were each allowed two pieces of luggage weighing in at 75 lbs. each, if my memory is correct. We packed to maximum capacity, dragging our aggregate body weight overseas. Occasionally, we were upgraded to executive class, allowing us to pack three bags – or was it four?

Our luggage-weight ballooned to the point that when our younger son and I landed in Chicago we had to hire a porter. I felt like Elizabeth Taylor, minus the striking beauty and wealth.  Nevertheless, the porters’ expressions when they saw us coming down the ramp at O’Hare was a sight to behold. We may have had to hire two, but I can’t remember for sure, mostly because I couldn’t see above the luggage, which included a large crate with an 80 lb. dog.

On that round-the-world excursion, we landed in Australia with a baggage-load  so extreme, we had to mail several hockey-bags worth of stuff back to Canada at a cost exceeding $400 (in 2000 dollars – which would probably be about $408 now). That’s a lot of postage stamps.

I’m trying to avoid all that by sticking to the strict dietary-packing guidelines Air Canada is forcing on me now, but packing for four seasons and more than a year overseas is tricky business. I managed to get everything into one suitcase, except for my winter gear. I’ll still be able to do it, but it will take two trips (one suitcase apiece) instead of one.

____________

And now for the serious middle-age traveler who is mildly curious about real luggage advice:

  1. Expensive versus cheap luggage: Go with cheap. We’ve hauled Wal-Mart-issue suitcases around the globe without any seam-ripping, zipper-splitting, contents-bursting effects.
  2. But what if the cheap stuff breaks anyway: It is more fun replacing a $40 suitcase than a $697 suitcase.
  3. What if I’m still nervous about my luggage’s durability? Luggage shops sell luggage straps for about $4 that you can secure around your bag just in case the zipper does give way. Airlines usually provide giant heavy-duty plastic bags with postage-standard tape at no cost so at check-in you can bag and seal your goods.
  4. Hard-case or softshell luggage: Go with soft-shell. In a non-scientific survey of two (my cheap luggage versus my friends’ high-end/status luggage, my soft (hockey bag or fabric suitcase with frame) luggage was able to take the squeeze of the luggage compartment.  Hers cracked, spraying blueberry jam over all their clothes.
  5. Who carries blueberry jam on a trip to the tropics? Despite what North America’s eastern Maple Syrup lobby tells you, it is blueberry jam, not maple syrup, that sets us apart from other countries, therefore, all North American cottagers carry wild blueberry jam on out-of-country trips. It is currency in foreign lands.
  6. Carry-on luggage: Wheeled suitcase or backpack: If possible, take a hybrid that does both. Touring calls for stair-climbing (think of all those beautiful hilltop villages in Spain) and pulling a wheeled case is like sightseeing with a stroller, ie. it’s work.
  7. What to pack: As little as possible. It’s better to pack light and buy whatever else you need at your destination, even if you have to discard it or give it away to strangers before boarding the flight home, or do what I do, which is
  8. Pack heavy: But engage in a year-long weight-training program to bulk up so you can sling 50 lb. suitcases with ease.

Face-to-face with a government bureaucrat

Have just finished reading up on friends’ travels through places tropic populated with elephants and water buffaloes and have to say: Glad I’m not there.

Her hubby had to run back to Canada to deal with errant tenants, leaving the wife in a village hut with a sheet for a door. She was recovering from Dengue fever, which made her feel as though her bones were broken.

I suppose it’s part of the adventure, but if Dave left me in a remote village with cantankerous ungulates and a fabric lock-less door, heck would follow.

But she is having fun, if catching tropical diseases can be called that, and good for her.

Me, I’m still comfy in my home with plenty of solid doors, but not for long.

The trip to the Swiss Consulate was a disappointment.

The traffic into Vancouver was non-existent and we virtually whisked our way down to Canada Place on the shores of the Burrard Inlet. We found the Consulate with only a little fuss, were admitted immediately and met with a polite and exceedingly helpful bureaucrat who in under 15 minutes gave Dave his visa and said I could get through the border without trouble and finish up my visa application while in Switzerland.

“It will take about a week,” she said.

This ruins everything.

I’ve set my expectation-o-meter to “appalled” and having reality smack my worldview around requires that I get a new attitude. Matters worsened on the ferry ride home when we ran into friends returning from holiday and passed the 90-minute journey over coffee discussing how their car got broken into while on their week away. I loved this story. It was proof that travel is annoying.

The car-break-in, however, was interrupted by security and so the car was undamaged and nothing was stolen. More proof that I am wrong that travel is just asking for trouble.

This has put me in a dour mood, but things are looking up: It appears that the amount of stuff I need to pack will exceed the space available in our suitcases, thanks to the airline’s recent baggage allowance changes.

Ah, something to be miserable about … that’s the stuff.

Visa day

Today we make the 45-minute-drive, 45-minute-ferry-wait, 90-minute-ferry-ride, 40-minute-drive to the Consulate to get Dave’s visa.  It’s a cumbersome trip that starts with a 4  a.m. wake-up, but it’s necessary because the only alternative is to mail Dave’s  passport to them.

In other words, the passport, a document issued by a federal bureaucracy, would travel  via Canada Post, a second federally overseen bureaucracy, to a foreign federal bureaucracy for approval.  You may notice I used the terms “federal” and “bureaucracy three times.” Yes, mailing a passport would trigger the Bermuda Triangle Law of Bureaucracies, in other words, doom would inevitably follow.

Note: For this excursion, I get up at 4 a.m. Dave gets up at 4:45. This is one of the usual gender inequities of nature, that wherever a couple needs to go, the man can get ready in under five minutes. A woman, through no fault of her own, needs 90 minutes prep-time at a minimum. Am I wrong about this?

Let’s not discuss it now. It’s 5 a.m. as I write, and I’m a little growly, owing to the early hour and the fact that my own visa is nowhere in sight.

Starbucks in Bern.

 

Starbucks in Bern, Switzerland – signs of civilization.

How I got this way

“You’re living the dream,” is what people say when they learn we’re heading to Europe for an extended stay, but I don’t always feel that way.  Hotel-living, travel, sight-seeing, modest cardiac-safe levels of adventure – what’s not to like?

Bureaucrats, that’s what’s not to like.

Yesterday’s discovery that our designated bureaucrat forgot to process my visa application  is a classic twist in the overseas-working-holiday picture.  In short, whatever you expect the bureaucrat to do, whatever he/she says they’re doing – it is not so.

And the fact that they hold your passport and identity information, plus wield the awesome powers of “the state,” forces you to be your better self when dealing with them, when really you want to be your five-year-old, tantrum-throwing self.

Our friends Al & Nina (not their real names – must shield their identities from foreign bureaucrats who might wreak horrible vengeance on them for sharing this story) danced this dark waltz with Spanish visa authorities who insisted she stay in Canada during her application while sending him willy nilly around the globe fetching documents to feed into their paper shredders (I’m sure this is true).

After sending Al to Japan on a boomerang mission to fetch security clearance from a northern district’s police department, because they had lived there once, and then return immediately to British Columbia, and then back to Toronto to pick up their visas, a Spanish official handed Al his visa, with a dark comment about Al stealing jobs from decent, hard-working Spaniards (Al’s company was creating 400 jobs for those Spaniards, but visa bureaucrats are weak on math).

And then, the official turned to Nina and informed her that her visa had been denied.  Nina – who had endured a forced year-long  separation from her beloved because of this bureaucrat – is ordinarily a suave, well-dressed, dignified, intelligent and articulate woman.

As she threw herself against the embassy’s safety glass, she reminded the official that while inside the embassy she “may technically be on Spanish territory, but you have to come out sometime, and when you do, you’ll be in MY country and I”LL be WAITING.” Nina  managed to say a few more things as her husband physically dragged her out of the building, but I don’t want this blog to get blocked for inappropriate content, so you will have to imagine the rest.

We are waiting for the day that embassy’s security tapes get hacked and put up on Youtube. It’s going to be a doozy of a show.

In the meantime, I’m coping with my own visa-stress by applying generous dollops of Breyers Black Forest ice cream to my thighs,via my digestive system, of course.

Just about the right amount of ice cream required to soothe bureaucrat-burn.

Visa-watch

Visa-watch Day 3: Nothing.  Just as expected.

Our dog, certified for global travel by Canada, Spain, the U.S. and Australia. Thank you, Spanish immigration services, who by the way, never asked to see his documentation when we arrived in Madrid.

In 1998, Dave was offered work in Madrid, Spain. With assurances that a visa would take only four months to process, perhaps quicker because Dave’s employers hired “international transfer professionals” to hurry things along, we started packing, said good-bye to everyone in a flurry of farewell dinners, sent Boy-the-first over to school in Germany so we’d be on the same continent (he was university-age by then), and notified Boy-the-second’s school to prepare his transcripts for transfer.

And then waited another year before the visa was approved, raising suspicions that we harboured a seamy criminal past that was so unsavory even the Spanish couldn’t abide it.

And so as the year-long wait waxed on, exchanges of this sort grew: At the grocery store, a cashier asked, “Aren’t you supposed to be in Spain?” causing the other cashiers and a mob of shoppers to freeze, turn their eyes on me, waiting (hoping) for a public confession (small towns really operate on this “choral” level – live in one and you will know).

This happened when I filled up the car with gas, picked up Boy-the-second at school, showed up at committee meetings, ordered prescriptions, browsed books at the library, mowed the lawn, gathered my mail … you get the picture.

Meanwhile, Spanish bureaucrats had their fun with us, making us race around getting our dog certified by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for transport (the word “food” in the certification process raising our suspicions about the Spaniards’ intentions), getting police clearances from everywhere we had lived before, even for our sons who were minors on all our past relocations, getting our fingerprints at the RCMP station, and letters from our doctor swearing we didn’t suffer from psychosis, parasites or dreaded diseases (true – I just found those letters while clearing out some old files last week).

But what did we expect from a country famous for the Spanish Inquisition?

Paperwork: The price of travel

We don’t have criminal records, parasites, psychotic disorders or flesh-eating disease and so our expectations on processing visas is that things will go smoothly. This is not the case.

A complicating factor is the nine-hour time difference between Europe and Canada’s west coast so we can really only communicate ‘real-time’ between midnight and 7 a.m.  We are over 40 years of age, therefore the concept of being awake at these times is unthinkable, if not impossible.

Hence, instead of emailing back and forth to settle visa-application difficulties within the space of an hour, emails dribble across the ocean at the rate of one a day, and sometimes only one a week, depending on the workload and motivational level of several bureaucrats. In other words, we are in purgatory – neither heaven or hell, but somewhere worse: Limbo.

This is made more fun by the fact that we don’t speak German/French/Italian/PigLatin and their English is somewhat off. I don’t want to criticize their English overly much because it is roughly 5,007,813,492 times better than my French.

We also learned while living in Spain that one culture’s idea of expediency is not necessarily shared by another’s. This time, however, we’re dealing with the land of clock-makers and given that they are the arbiters of punctuality (ie. clock/watch-makers), we expected a little better. The jury is still out on whether this is the case.

Here is what the process looks like so far.

Monday – Dave to bureaucrat: Who applies for the visa? Do I or do you?

Friday – Bureaucrat to Dave: I don’t know.

Monday – Dave: Can you find out?

Saturday morning – Bureaucrat: I’m very busy.

Monday – Dave:  I just checked the  government website. It looks as though we both can, but if I do, it will take over four months, but if you do it, it will take two weeks.

Wednesday – Bureaucrat:  Okay, I’ll do it as soon as I get back from vacation.

By this time three weeks have passed and we have achieved exactly nothing except to perhaps annoy a bureaucrat or two.

This has gone on roughly for three months now and Dave is mightily annoyed that he has to keep pushing.  I, however, worked in a newsroom and dealt with the Canadian/British Columbia governments for years and so expect precisely nothing to make sense, therefore my mood is unaffected.

Last month, we learned our papers were approved in Europe, however, the  Consulate in Vancouver cannot stamp our passports because they must wait for the overseas authorities to send them our file – this is done electronically, not by donkey-and-rowboat, but you would never know it. More than three weeks have passed and the file remains in Europe, probably dining on  chocolates and pastries.

Finally, today Dave learned that the reason the bureaucrats-in-Europe have not sent the file to their bureaucrats-in-Canada is that “no one has requested it.” True. It would seem to us that the very fact of applying for a visa is intrinsically linked to the concept of asking for said visa, but these bureaucrats are precise if nothing else and having done everything else to give us a visa, they are now waiting for us to “ask for it.”

And so we have. In theory we could be only a week away from departure.

In the meantime, I’ve posted the best sugarless frosting recipe ever. Check it out https://hobonotes.com/dining-recipes/

The first place

From Dave's "check-it-out" visit in January 2011

All trips begin long before arrival at the airport, packing the trunk and buying health insurance. They begin when someone wakes up one morning, looks out the window and thinks, “I’ve seen this before. In fact,  everyday.”

That is the beginning. The thought hangs in the air for only a brief moment, until the next thought, which is usually, “Time for coffee,” or if one is married or similarly espoused, “I wonder if my beloved will bring me coffee in bed. Maybe a little nudge will help.”

Travel ideas germinate and these days, they are growing like crazy, if the “interwebs” is any measure. Travel blogs are everywhere and they’re full of great information, most of which goes un-noticed.

I know this, and yet I’ve chosen to blog at the behest of only a few people. Maybe three. It doesn’t take many readers for me to put fingers to keyboard.

But I drift. The point I’m trying to arrive at is that we’ve passed the germination stage of this journey and are still at the static stage, which is that every morning Dave gets up and checks his email to see if our visas have been approved.

You won’t see many pictures of the anticipating traveler hovering over his keyboard every morning. It’s just not glamorous enough, but the truth is that these days, every trip starts this way. If not for waiting on a visa, then for making travel-arrangements, browsing hotels, destinations and the like.

I’m not complaining. This is an improvement over travel circa 1990 when all trip-planning was preceded by 38 minutes of muzak as one waited “on hold” on the phone, stuck to the house by the phone cord, the then-modern-day umbilicus to the travel-mothership, ie. travel agents and or travel-related businesses (airlines, usually).

Those were dreadful days. Let’s not speak of them.

That is where we are today March 21, 2011. Still checking our email, still hovering over the laptop waiting.  It’s not exciting, but it is part of the trip.