Monday, 7 September 2015

Letter from America 1. Eat your heart out Alistair Cooke

I wrote this for lack of anything better to do in the early hours of my first morning across the pond.  It details an average long haul flight but it does show why four long hauls a year forms one of the nails in our split-life coffin as far as I am concerned.

Some of you will pretty much have seen the untidy version of this, so you may be excused.

Friday 4th September

It is now  silly early on our first morning across the pond.  I woke at around four o’clock having had eight hours (very broken) sleep.  By eight last night (1 am body clock time) I surrendered and and crept into bed.  Our travel day is a long one, starting before 6 am and made more tiring as it is filled with the boredom and frustrations of long-haul travel.  The flight is a physically wearing nine hours trapped in a plane following a stop-start motorway journey to the airport and rounded off nicely with the joys of picking up a hire car at this end and finding the resort.

We had the unusual experience of flying transatlantic with Thomas Cook.  We think we may have done this once before(?).  In comparison to Delta and Virgin it runs a distinct third.

Firstly, it goes out of Terminal 1 in Manchester. That, in itself, is not great news but it’ll ‘do’.

Security check was a whole other ball game. 

We fly often enough not to ever carry anything which could hold us up and, unlike almost everyone else in the queue, don’t need to spend half an hour in front of a tray sorting ourselves out.  I even pretty much travel in the same clothes/shoes so I don’t get sartorially challenged.

So saying, I was then buzzed and my hands and shoes swabbed.  OK, this is clearly one of the random stops, no big deal,  just mildly aggravating when you have done everything to avoid this.  Much worse than my tiny annoyance was what was happening next to me.  An frail-looking elderly lady in the next lane was undergoing the same process.  She was clearly distressed and it was obvious to anyone who was not totally cretinous that she had some cognitive problems (dementia?).  Clearly a requirement for a security job is an A-level  in cretin.  Her (I presume) husband was trying to calm her and explain to her what was needed from the sidelines…. Not allowed into the area. 

I arrived at the end of the area to pick up my scattered belongings only to find Ken having two bags of his diverted and meticulously searched.  As I said we are pernickety about not carrying anything that can need this.  After an unusually lengthy process an eyeglass repair kit was confiscated because ‘no tools are allowed on board in case you tinker with the aircraft’.  Have you seen the jewellers’  screwdriver in these kits?  You would have more joy disassembling a plane with a hair grip. 

Finally they were put back through the screening  machines and we were instructed to go round the corner to collect them…. only to discover one had been rejected again and was about to be searched for the second time.  I was insistent  it had just been done, to be shrugged off with well it has come down for inspection, ya, ya, ya….  Mrs Jobs-worthy then clacks her screen and mumbles something like they could only see half the box???  Doesn’t search it but sends it back through screening again. World gone mad.

We headed to the gate pretty much as soon as the Gate number was announced… A good 45 minutes from departure time so I have no idea how we missed the Premium early boarding but we did and arrived in time to see and join the massive queue feeding on to the aircraft.  Luckily we did have a front door access so avoided the crush onboard.

The seats in Premium Economy (no first class) on TC are rock hard but there is good seat room.  Loved the adjustable head rest … it can be raised (but not curved)… has a starting height for someone around 5’ 9” tall.  Adjustable means it can be  raised not lowered so my head spent its time on the bottom rolled edge??  I am am five-six, not exactly a squirt.  Poor small people in average world must struggle all the time.  Ken also had something ‘sharp’ in his seat.  This was enough for him to try baffling it with a rug.  For Ken to notice some discomfort borders on a miracle.  Good job the princess and the pea story was written otherwise we’d have to write the IT person and the mountain instead.

Back seat entertainment in Premium still only gives you a handful of movies not the huge range on offer on Delta or Virgin.  Virgin entertainment is probably the biggest choice.  There was not a single watchable one for me other than Still Alice but as we are already booked into the Naples library for that, it wasn’t a goer.  This was going to be an even longer trip than usual.

It seems to me that over the fifteen years we have been doing this,  Premium is now the economy and economy has slid way back to endurance class.  I took a trip through the main cabin.  It was full to the gunnels, narrow aisles packed with small children and rubbish.  No idea how the crew don’t kill someone on every trip.  Patience of Jobe.

There is no choice if we want to keep the cost of flights down to the minimum.  I was listening to someone on Radio Four who said the cost of the  example Berlin flight was the same three hundred pounds as it was thirty years ago.  We get what we pay for.  Equally obviously we are lucky to be able to afford to do this sort of flight pretty much as often as we like because the cost is actually so low compared to income these days.

As for culpable homicide, my companion across the aisle came close to being my victim many times.  He was an extended belt passenger who did nine hours flying which was completely comprised of (smelly) eating, drinking and snoring.  I seriously claim he was only conscious long enough to ingest something then slept and made every sound under the sun.  I was hugely thankful for the wider aisle during his sojourns to the bathroom.

OK, at last, here comes a plus.  Bet you thought there never would be one and for it to be in the food category makes the whole of this diatribe worth writing.

We had a very good in-flight meal.

I let that sentence stand alone for its sheer remarkableness.  No idea what was served in the main cabin but ours was a James Martin concoction and he is to be commended.  We had:

A selection of nice bread rolls.  From the choice of two meals (admittedly that's hardly a huge choice) we opted for the Thai curry, coconut rice, spinach??  There was no salad starter as with the two other airlines but, in my case, that's not something to be missed.  The dessert was a high quality  dark chocolate mousse with a bitter cherry compote underneath.  Two pieces of very good cheese, Cheddar and Wensleydale, with  biscuits. All of which was lovely.  It could only be improved by not having to eat it out of boxes with plastic implements and the challenge of doing it in a twelve by six inch area.  My aisle companion had all this sorted as it was eaten from the top of his stomach which was more than the statutory twelve by six; clever man

There seemed to be the offer of any drink under the sun at any time if you knew what to ask for and if the staff member remembered to bring it.  Tomato juice is usually a basic on the trolley, not on TC and it took two goes and a reminder to get one.  Ken got a J2O by going to the galley.  Some people have smarts.  Oddly there was no offer of water at any time during the flight.  Our usual flights have one bottle in the seat-back pocket and the crew offer beakers of water during the flight and always a place to get your own.

We also had ice cream and later a teatime service consisting of cheese and something tomato-ish on a roll and an  egg and cress roll along with a scone, cream and jam.  The scone was very good.  Oddly, in addition to that neatly packaged deal we were offered a tiny Victoria Sponge which was inedible as it tasted entirely (unsurprisingly) like its cardboard packaging. Why would someone in their right mind think it is OK to combine (very absorbent) spongecake and cardboard?

Ultimately we landed in Orlando.  The other things TC don't give you with Premium is Priority deplaning or our luggage delivered first.

The following sentence needs to be in flashing lights and an absolute first:  Immigration was great we got ‘picked’ to use the machines … Yeah! super fast and we were almost on our way.

We collected our luggage and visited the food police where we declared we had no mad cow or bananas, or indeed any other food, with us in our luggage and we were released into outdoors Orlando and off for the hire car.

My pedant husband is given a single instruction, “Take any car”. He searches for a car section labelled Standard Cars as that is what he ordered.  Bear in mind he ordered in English we are now working In American/Mex/Tex where we have areas labelled Full Size, Mid size and a zillion different grades of SUV’s….  As we had four large cases, two on-boards and two handbags to lug about in a very large car park, my two suggestions were:  ask someone and, when that didn't work,  ….."take any car as instructed"….. Ken…..finally to find assistance.  Bit of a language problem between him and said assistant  Eh by gum v. Cuba…. Cuba wins and we take any car.  It is a very nice one; the technical specs follow:  lovely colour blue.

I am not asking Ken, ‘cos he will tell me.

We are staying at a huge resort in Disney as it is where the Dolls house Miniatures show is being held.  It is spelled as Miniaturia… Methinks too many ia’s in there somewhere. The resort is classic Orlando size… HUGE and has all the usual stuff, multiple pools, 230 foot slide, movies poolside at night etc etc etc.  Several eateries.

We are wearing Disney wrist bands that open gates and doors and allows you to pay for everything automatically.  Their marketing cannot be flawed.  They remove your money so gently it is hardly noticeable.  The upside is that if dementia strikes without warning I can be returned to my keeper easily.

in case I forget my name, my location is electronically tagged

touch Mickey to Mickey and buy the world

Oddly our only meal experience so far suffered from poor service.  This is very unusual, but then we forget we are always using a Naples baseline not an American one.  We always fall foul of this mode of thinking and say America does this or that when really we mean our experience mostly comes from one tiny spot in a vast, vast continent.

The Fawlty Towers part of the experience was Ken going to get a glass of wine at a dedicated wine area in a sort of food court type arrangement.  Merlot took some explaining, followed by it needing opening and the wine section did not have a corkscrew?...mmm… The server is duly instructed to go to the kitchen and they would do it….girl disappears….food congealing….. I insist Ken quits.  To be fair she did appear a good deal later with said glass of wine and sought us out….  The way it generally works here…woops …… in our experience here in Naples…. Is that waiters' errors are paid for by the waiters, so it always makes it worth the effort to deliver the wine and get things right.  Not a great arrangement for people on minimum wage - or working for tips!  Excellent for the customer.

So here I am at the crack of sparrows trying to convince my body it has been time-shifted.  Watch this space.

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