Flight attendants hate me

I sometime believe that in the grand order of the universe, there is for each and every one of us a specific sort of curse. Some cannot run without spraining their ankle, others cannot eat without staining their tie, other will systematically over-bake their scones, many have allergies. Of course, I have been exposed to every of these unfortunate events more than once in my long life. Maybe a little more than the average guy who eats with a tie and has made some attempt at baking—as I never run, I am on the safe side for sprained ankles, but I still had my share of limping.  I do not count these mishaps as personal calamities. They are just bad events rarely occurring. My own private curse, the regular bummer, is that I am the traveler hated by flight attendants.

Yes, I am the unlucky guy who has travelled many times around the world (I mean, if I cumulate all the kilometers flown since the first time I took a plane nearly thirty years ago) and who is always given a rough time by the people who are supposed to make his trip tolerable, if not pleasant. I also have flown hundreds of thousands of miles without ever achieving the status of frequent flyer on any airline, but I think it is not a curse, just the combination of circumstances. It used to be that I did not travel enough. Then, it used to be that I would go for the cheapest which unfortunately would always be a different company or a different alliance, when they invented alliances. Now, it is just that it is apparently impossible to achieve any kind of status if you travel coach.

Yes, I am also the unlucky guy who travels coach. The permanent non-status guy, no matter how much he flies. I see what you are going to say: that might explain the curse. It is very optimistic to think that one can get any consideration from a flight attendant while stuck in the middle seat with crumbs on your belly denouncing the fact that you swallowed the dubious “meal” that they have served to you with a sadistic smile (the only smile I get from flight attendants). However, I am not so sure about the class thing. I see around me people better treated by the very same attendants. And the few times I flew business, I was very clearly the least liked passenger: the guy who did not have the video working (“sorry we will compensate with miles”—they never compensated anything) or the guy who had to insist on having a second glass of wine. Really, my biggest bad luck in my air traveling is not class related. It is that flight attendants simply hate me whatever my class.

I am not kidding, they just do. There is no reason for it: I am decently dressed with my nice Eddie Bauer Khaki sweater, I do not ask to be over fed—hey like every passenger of most airline I have forsaken real food while flying—I obey regulations, I keep my seat belt fastened. I just sit and even indulge in the bad American habit to thank people with a smile (as a good European, I should know better). And I do not have that many crumbs of my belly.

Still they hate me. Like—I am just off a long flight on Lufthansa—this guy who was pretending to ignore that I was just awake and waving for my breakfast as he just passed me and everybody else got something. I felt like a kid waving to the teacher in kindergarten: “Me! Me!”. He looked, and then moved on. He had seen me, but he just did not want to do anything for me. So I asked my nice neighbor to ask him directly for my breakfast. The nasty attendant smiled to her. I did get my breakfast, but I did not get any smile. He just hated me. The test was passed: my neighbor asks for my breakfast, I get it. I ask for it, I am ignored in a very spectacular fashion.

The incident was not the only one: I count among the gang of haters, his colleague—female attendant type—who never smiled to me, while smiling (a dry smile, it is true) to the others and kept me waiting while I was giving her my headset. I was nice to do so. I will not anymore. I will play dumb. Headset? Your problem lady. After all, looking dumb with my headset up in the air at arm length while I was kindly obliging seemed to be my problem.

Of course, I do not mention this other colleague of Lufthansa they have somewhere in the world who once woke me up in the middle of my nap to feed me the bad Lufthansa food. They do not do it any more. They just pass me when I wake up. I am on their schedule, not them on mine, and they manage to make me feel that I impose on them, and they do not like it.

I do not want to give the impression that only Lufthansa attendants hate me. True enough, they have a particularly heavy record with me. But is just statistics: Lufthansa is the airline I travel with the most. It is also the airline that has Frankfurt as its hub. Frankfurt is a bad airport. Not as bad as Paris, because it is smaller, but close enough. Both airports sell the same bad food, at same high prices, with unpleasant personnel, never ending corridors, disorganized security which takes twice more time than in the US.

And attendants who hate me.

That is the other part of the curse: even when I am off the plane, they still hate me. For years United was always putting me aside for second screening when I was flying from Frankfurt (have I mentioned that Frankfurt is a bad airport, with dumb security?). I stopped flying United for a while. Alas! in DC an Air France attendant made me measure my carry-on (which I knew was fitting) and then weigh it, and then forced me to put on my coat with my book in my pocket to reach the desired weight of the carry-on. Sure, I repacked two meters away. But since this day, I have never ever flown Air France again. I can take hate. I do not take mean humiliation. After all, even if hated, I have paid for the trip.

When I went back flying Lufthansa and United, I had learned my lesson of resignation. The question was not if I could be flying without being hated, but what type of hating would be less obnoxious in my travel.

With the release of Windows 8, and the deal on the price at 29.9€, I thought it could not be worse than the vista that equipped my « old » laptop — three years old actually. I read different reviews which drove me to think that the program kept much of what made Windows 7 a faster OS, leading me to conclude it could just be a match. So, I took a deep breath, my credit card, and jumped in to the universe of Windows 8. I was warned by basically everybody on the net and in the newspaper that it was radically different and hence probably surprising for a long time use of Windows. Obviously, everybody has read the same material from Microsoft which issued itself the warning. « Be careful guys, it is going to be radically different ». The fact is that it is not so different. It is just the continuation of the interface of the good old Media Center. I did not like it back then and never used it, and still do not like it in Windows 8. This being said, it is not too difficult to get back to the traditional desktop which is not too different from the previous releases of windows. So far, it is a good evolution, but I do admire the marketing team of Microsoft which passed on the feeling that everything would change, and that they were worried about it. It is good buzz. It is simply not so true. Once you got the fact that you have to click in the corner, to get back to your old habits, well you are for the most all set.

So far also all my programs work (I chose to reinstall them instead of keeping them) and by the way, it is not true that you will not keep your personal files if you upgrade from vista. Speaking of installation, the whole process was pretty transparent and efficient. I did not know Microsoft could be that efficient and simple. Good job. I also appreciated the fact that there were options to customize install, which is always appreciated.

It also seems to be faster than my old vista.

So Microsoft has entered 21st century marketing and 21st century computing. It is too bad that the designer team was obviously composed of dinosaurs from the 1990’s. The pure, classy, look of Windows 7 has been reviewed to make its successor look like… Windows 95. Hey, maybe they thought that it meant « 2095 » and believed they were in advance on their own time with these old fashion square windows? Or maybe they want to take their final revenge on Apple by having the look and feel of a MackInstosh from the 1980’s? In all honesty, I do not get it. the whole interface is rather ugly.

Same remark as regards to the usability of the system. Everybody has commented the disappearance of the « start » menu, which actually does not disappear but is transformed and put in the lower left corner (once again good buzz from Microsoft Marketing). But everybody on the web seems fine with having to learn… keyboard shortcuts. For an OS that is supposed to be used on tactile devices, there is way to go!

In the same spirit of getting back to the past, along with ugly square windows and « tiles » and the multiplication of shortcuts, there are minor details which are surprising. When you want to browse your apps « pinned » on the start menu, you have to use… the arrows. Not the mouse, no, the arrows, while all programs that have a browsing capacity actually have the activation of the function just by moving the mouse.

Oh yes, if one could also customize the photo display, that would be neat. I have this ugly radar behind my folders, or « tiles » of folders and it is ugly (once again, what did the design team do?).

The only major drawback of the OS — it seems they have copied Android on this, for the worse — is that there is no way to terminate an « app » as they call it now, that would be clearly indicated in the interface of the app. So far, I do with Alt+F4, but I would prefer something more elegant — like a menu « close » for instance?

All in all, after just a few hours of using it, I would admit that I am glad to have switched from Vista to Windows 8. I admire the computing and the marketing behind.

Just make it look and work like 21st century and allow apps to close with a click, and it will be all good!

I have always loved family stories. I love listening to them, I love telling them, I love passing them along. They are tender, sometimes sad (this young couple my grandmother and mom knew in the 30’s who had a baby when they were teenagers, got married but never had any other child despite their intention to give life again) sometimes tragic (the partner of my great-grandmother, nicknamed “Pacem”, who was an early resistant and died in deportation in Dachau after having been arrested by the French police) sometimes sweet and funny (my daughter, age 2, who had watched too much the Disney Movie Notre Dame and who cried “mercy, mercy, right of asylum” as she was ducking on my bed after a row between us). Family stories are the whole human package.

I heard one of them this morning on my ride from the hotel (Hampton Inn, Dayton airport, decent and obsessively clean but expensive for what it is) to the airport as my driver shared with me the life of his mother.

She was born in Paris, and immediately placed in an orphanage. She was the daughter of a priest who did not care for this unfortunate offspring of his sins. She ran away and ended in Stuttgart, Germany, where she spent her youth until the war broke out. For some reason, she left to Brazil, and from there to the U.S.

“A great book you could write with that” my driver said.

Sure, and at least, it will have for the time being made a modest way to a post on this blog.

Everybody will tell you that crossing the American border is no piece of cake. If you need a visa, the battle starts far before you actually get there: the list of documents to provide is impressive. You then have to go to the embassy and be interviewed by a consular officer—too bad for you if the capital city is light years away from your home. And as there are many candidates to enter the territory of the U.S. lines are long. In the 1990’s the process was simplified, but after the 9/11 attacks, complexity and ordeal made their way back, along with biometrics which has pervaded the world of border control. For those who read French, and who bother, read Sébastien Laurent’s recent book Politique sous surveillance. I of course recommend particularly the chapter about border control in the U.S. It is a very good one. I wrote it.

They are still good things about the border: the best thing being that you deal with Americans. First, they know how to make a movie: once landed, and while you are waiting (often in long lines), you are shown a movie giving you basic information about the admission process (biometrics). It also features Americans of all sorts (regions, classes and of course in the only Western democracy that has developed a racial classification of its citizens, ethnicities) greeting you with warm “welcomes”. I do not know what the effect is on visitors who are denied entrance moments after having seen the movie welcoming them, but the least I can say is that it is good publicity filming. Beautiful images, enough movement, captions of the landscapes of America… It does create a pleasing visual environment, and for having seen the film hundreds of time, I still find it pleasant enough.

Then, you are “interviewed” by a CPB (Customs and Border Protection) agent who asks you a few questions about the reasons of your stay. Sometimes questions are barked at you. At other times, the accent of your interlocutor is so thick that you have no idea what the question is. Sometimes, well, you just have in front of you one of these nasty human beings one meets in any profession. But quite often, you meet with agents who, while performing their duties thoroughly, are keen on displaying this most American quality: humor.

Recently, arriving in San Francisco, upon hearing that the purpose of my visit was to “see my in-laws”, the CPB agent cried “two weeks with your in-laws? Is it not too long?” He was reassured when I told him that I was to spend the week after in Ohio for my work.

A few years ago, as Chicago was my port of entry for a visit taking me to Texas, after a stop in Indiana, the agent asked: “why on earth one would chose to go to Texas?”

It happened to me to be a protagonist in this border humor. As I was in the line to be called for the interview, the CPB officer was talking to an old gentleman from Africa who did not speak English. There was some kind of problem, and the officer called me and asked me if I spoke French and English. Upon my positive answer, he told me that the old man had declared that he had food and the CPB officer wanted to know what it was. “Can you ask this gentleman if he has food with him?” I turned to the old man and asked him: “do you have food with you?” I heard the CPB officer coughing behind me: “that, sir, I could do myself”. I actually had just repeated the question in English, which my interlocutor understood no more with me than with the border agent. We laughed and I switched to French. It appeared that when the old man had filled his form he had indeed food. “And now where is it?” The answer was very stern: “in my stomach of course, I ate it all!”

Yesterday was Labor Day in the U.S. I am particularly fond of this holiday as it brings back my prime memories of living in the U.S., nearly a quarter of century ago. I was hardly starting working in the homeland of tough capitalism (that how we pictured it back then, the cold war was not over, and the vocabulary reflected the global reality of those ancient times) and there was already a day off. For supposedly over-exploited hard working masses, it sounded pretty cool. Back then—or maybe it is just a New England way—people would not say “holiday” for a  day off, but “bank holiday”. It sounded weird to my ear to limit holidays to banks. Maybe this was the  trace of mass exploitation: only finances enjoy the recreation of holidays? Financial establishments were indeed closed, but many stores in town were too to my greatest surprise. That was unfortunate, because the shops downtown around the university were the only ones I knew and checked.

I then realized that not only the stores, but also my university and accordingly, my office, were closed. Obviously, tough capitalism had ways to take time off without a warning. It was before the Internet, before you have a gentle reminder by email or can browse the Internet to understand what is going on. Back then, you depended very much on general social knowledge. And mine about life in the U.S. was about zero. For instance, it did not occur to me to look for stores other than the ones I knew and which were closed. As a Frenchman, I could not even imagine that banks, offices and stores would be closed, without having the whole country stopping its activity. French like to be on the same activity level than all their fellow citizens.

Two things struck me about the date. It was odd to have Labor at the beginning of September, when basically, social life resumes its normal pace after the summer break. It is still stranger when you think that everywhere else Labor Day is on May 1st.

Ironically, Labor Day in May commemorates the moment when the workers’ daily workload was limited in many places to 8 hours… in the U.S. Maybe, September was chosen because America is un at ease with the 1st May memory of a country where social revolt existed and was successful–though at the price of the life of the victims from police and judicial repression.

Back to this sunny labor day in 1988, and to happier considerations: I also noted how convenient it was that Labor Day that year happened on a Monday. Later only would I realize that American pragmatism had put most of holidays on a Monday. There are few exceptions due to unforeseeable circumstances: Christmas and new year cannot always fall just after the week end. The Founding Fathers have also their responsibilities in initiating a national day which is a different one in the week every year: they had no choice but to declare the independence on a set date. A century and a half later, Roosevelt showed some clumsiness or timidity when he decided to maintain Thanksgiving on a Thursday. For the rest, the American art of using day off to extend a week end is pretty close to perfection.

The International Herald Tribune is my Anglophone news source. I am not that big of a fan—but as it is delivered to my office, I cannot complain. And at any rate, whether I like it (sometimes) or not (often), it is often amusing to compare the news of the world or just to share a few critical reflections. The followings are my harvest of the day.

Let us start with Roger Cohen’s Column, “the netsuke survived” reporting on “Edmund de Waal’s extraordinary book The Hare with Amber Eyes”, which tells the story of Charles Ephrussi’s collection of Japanese netsukes. Given to a cousin as a wedding gift at the end of the 19th century, they miraculously escaped four decades after the Gestapo pillaging of the family’s house after the German rule was imposed to Austria. The “Jewish upheaval and loss” illustrated by the story of this extremely wealthy family scattered by exile, impoverished, if not massacred by the Nazi is, to his opinion, akin to the fugacious relevance of Japanese art. It makes all the glory and patriotism of this Jewish family appear “brittle as aged Japanese parchment”. The sentence is beautiful, but it is a wrong one. It suggests that the wealth, power and destiny of the family were frail and no more than a “tenacious” “delusion”. But the family spirit was not delusional and weak. It was the Nazi brutality and the support of the masses that were too strong even for the boldest of those placed by history on the wrong side of violence. The tenacious delusion was not the one of a Jewish family, but the one of too many people who praised or participated to, or even just silently consented to, the expropriation and mass assassination of Jews. This delusion was not brittle as parchment, but iron-clad collective rage.

On a funnier note, I read (in the Monday issue) that lawyers say that former French President Chirac is healthy enough to be present at his trial, while he requests to be excused for health reasons. French media say exactly the opposite: Chirac’s claim appears to them substantial.

Last but not least, in the same Monday issue, Sciences Po, a well-known academic institution of Paris, is praised for its endeavor to recruit students from “disadvantaged areas”, a policy that shows “signs of success” says the article. Sciences Po, unfortunately, is now the most expensive school in Europe—and still is heavily subsidized by the French tax payer. At that price, having a few (I say a few because the article does not give any figure) disadvantaged students is the minimum that can be done. I always find it a cruel irony that expensive, cosmopolitan and bourgeois Sciences Po is praised for receiving a few people that they usually do not accept while state universities who have masses of young poor people working hard to attend are just ignored for their continuous but not media-glamorous endeavor in favor of the forgotten fringes of French society.

Once I was comfortably nested in my air conditioned hotel room, a thought crossed my mind: I loved my comfort zone. It had been a long day of traveling, and while I cannot claim to have been uncomfortable, I cannot either pretend it was the best trip of my life. I was off for a four hours train ride to Dusseldorf to pick up a student at the airport who, we feared, could have issues at the border (she did not have any). The train ride itself was OK, though it had been a while since I had travelled 2nd class on a regular train for a business trip. I was deterred from opening my computer and work on the couple of documents I had planned to review by the shaky ride, the sweaty heat of the car and the lack of a table and the relatively cramped space, and the absence of screens filtering the heat and the sun. Due to a mess in the train’s itinerary, it did not matter so much: the first leg was so completely jammed up that I had to take three trains instead of one, two being those little omnibus trains with no air conditioning on a very hot day first to Trier, then to Koblenz. Everybody dozed in the heat, and so did I. I fixed myself with the daily Luxembourgish and weekly French press between two dehydrated naps, and read a magazine about the tanks in the 1940 battle of France. I like battle history, and I like the details of the French campaign when the French army was crushed by the Germans, not without heavy fights and casualties. My father was in this bloody mess, experiencing that all the bravery in the world does not replace a sound strategy.

Obviously, my little adventure was nothing compared to the 1940 tragedy, yet, it gave me some material for reflection. One obvious thing is how reluctant Europeans are with air conditioning and keeping cold when it is hot outside. Often people who do have air conditioning in their car for instance just decide not to use it: there is a high risk to catch a cold. At home, my mother (a frail old lady to whom cool air is recommended on those hot days of the summer) does not bother with this diabolic invention. A good common sweat is a European experience.

Do not hope too much to compensate for the high temperature with cold drinks. Drinks are rarely cold. Dull warm cokes, tedious warm water. Sometimes, an ice cube floats in the middle of a small glass of tepid soda, like a lonely fighter fading in the lost battle for keeping cool. I am not all for the ice-cold stuff that is trendy in the U.S. And I am definitely against ice cubes in wine, as they do it in the U.S. or in France to American tourist (once I was mistaken for one, and looked grimly at the floating devices in my glass). But cold sodas, cold iced coffees, cold water in the summer are to my taste—an evident sign of Americanization. And yes, when I arrived at the nice Lindner Airport Hotel in Dusseldorf, I crashed in my bed with the coolest air possible and enjoyed it tremendously. Whatever people say about cultural exceptions, I am not in the mood for bashing the Americanization of the world when I get some coolness after a day of sweating. The same went for the iced soy latte I had at the local Starbucks. And by the way, it was not that iced. Plus, there is still enough of cultural exception to make for a little bit of cold globalization: Europeans do not know about iron boards and irons in hotel rooms, Germans have the most improbable way of making beds (no sheets, and comforters are simply folded at the bottom of the bed) as they have delirious and pricey breakfasts…  I go local with great pleasure: I enjoyed my jelly meatloaf with fries and eggs, my (not cold) white wine and my pretzels and my local cookie as much as I did with my Starbucks coffee. I am not one of those picky American tourists who complain about anything different from what they deem normal in their experience. I just enjoy local life far better when I am not dying from being too hot.