Thursday, October 30, 2014

America the Border-full

Date: 22 Oct 2014
Location: 36000 feet, somewhere over the Irish Sea

I apologize for the tortured pun in the title, but it's been a long flight and I'm a bit muzzy-headed.

Our trip to America was very nice. The biggest problem with it—and the reason I dread going every year—is that it is book-ended with the need to cross the US border. In years past, this has caused no end of aggravation and angst.

My feelings about this can be summed up by something I wrote on the outbound trip:

As far as air travel goes; it’s no wonder people find it stressful. Think about it:

You start off facing a barricade of people who—simply because you want to fly on an airplane—assume you are a criminal and treat you accordingly. It’s their job to try to stop you from getting on the plane by finding any excuse they can dream up to detain you long enough to miss your flight. If they can, they will detain you long enough for you to miss Christmas with your family, as well.

If you do make it through that gauntlet, and if you are travelling to the USA, your next stop is a man whose job it is to keep you out of the country by whatever means possible, even if you hold a valid US passport. This man would also like nothing better than to see you detained in a place where you look forward to Christmas because that’s the day they don’t do the waterboarding.

Meanwhile, your luggage has gone on its own odyssey. First, it has been scrutinized by dual sets of inspectors—one to stop you from taking any forbidden items out of the country you are departing from, and another to stop you from bringing any into the country you are travelling to. The list of Forbidden Items is made up randomly every morning and changed throughout the day depending upon the inspector’s mood and violations can, you guessed it…

After that, your luggage is handed over to actual thugs who are legally allowed to break into it, trash your belongings and steal any valuables they wish. Don’t try to stop them, or even lodge a complaint—they are only doing what the law allows them to do. Non-compliance—or even simply being noticed by one of them while he or she is in a whimsical mood—can mean the difference between your continuing to think of The Midnight Express as entertainment instead of a documentary. Best to keep your eyes averted and let them get on with it and, if they question you, just answer them with a subdued, “yes sir,”

Then, if you manage to make it through all of this, and some jerkwad with a jihad fixation doesn’t take your plane down, You are passed on to the last hurdle where, whatever has not already been confiscated or stolen from you, is assessed so they can charge you to bring it into the country.

But after that, you are allowed to walk through the security doors, enter the arrivals chute and find yourself vomited out into the airport lobby.

Welcome to America, land of the free, home of the brave.

I am pleased to report that, while much of the above has happened on earlier trips, none if it happened on this one. I think, after having released all that bile, I was at last prepared to simply take things as they came.

The US Customs and Immigration guards were still grim-faced and intimidating and the thugs in the TSA uniforms still wandered about eyeing random people suspiciously, but I shrugged it off and went on my way and before I knew it we were being served by Carmen, the friendly and efficient rental car lady.

And we didn’t even get lost driving out of the airport, which is the traditional way we begin our USA Tour.

So, yeah, it was a great trip: we visited friends, played with the G-boys and did our bit to stimulate the US economy (the technical term for the amount of money we spent over the past fortnight is, I believe, a “Pile”).

We’re getting into landing mode now—trays stowed, seat upright, electronic devices off—so I’ll sign off and pick this up again later.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

America the Bountiful

LOCATION: 38,000 feet; east bound, somewhere over the North Atlantic

Yup, another US holiday under my belt—literally.

This visit was something of a revelation: apparently, what has been missing from my life is people telling me I’m fat. If just one more person references my girth it will have been the perfect vacation…oh, wait…the winged waitress just told me to fasten my seatbelt so my fat stomach doesn’t jiggle all over the people sitting next to me. Okay, she didn’t actually say it, but I could tell that’s what she was thinking.

None of this, by the way, was my fault.

We’re not new to America; we know what we’re up against, which is why, throughout the fortnight before every visit, we eat light breakfasts, have a carrot stick for lunch and dine on thin soup for dinner. The idea is to acquire as much of a buffer as possible before heading off to the land of plenty. My wife did all right, and I was doing well, too, until that unfortunate incident with the sausage roll vendor.

With five days to go, feeling fit (and slender) I took a stroll through the town market, as I am wont to do, and came upon a new stall selling sausage rolls. They were large—not the bit-sized variety you find in Waitrose—and boasted fresh, locally sourced ingredients. They did look good, and I proposed to buy one someday. Not that day, of course.

Then I noticed that they sold a variety made with blood pudding and, curious, asked about it. The lady told me they didn’t have any left (which was fine; I only wanted some information) so I thanked her and left.

From there, I wandered into the mall, did some window shopping, and then went into W. H. Smiths to see if I could find a good book for the flight. As I was perusing the best seller titles, someone standing behind me kept saying, “Sir! Sir!” I never think that anyone would call me that, but as there was no one else in the aisle, I turned around.

It was the Sausage Roll Lady, holding a sausage roll.

“I found one,” she said, her cheeks rosy with exertion and glee.

I was incredulous, dumbfounded and more than a little bit chagrined that she had chased me all that way just to sell me a sausage roll I hadn’t actually intended to buy. I was also left with no choice but to accompany her back to her stall and buy it. When we got there, I was still feeling that she had gone through a lot of effort for a small sale, so I bought five (on special for a tenner) and, yeah, that bit was kinda my fault.

So instead of a light and healthy lunch, I had a large sausage roll for my noon meal, on that day and every day from then on until we left. The result was, instead of boarding the plane with a buffer zone, I was carrying a handicap.

And then we arrived in America, with its buttery biscuits, Reuben sandwiches, clam chowder, proper bacon, tall stacks of pancakes, chicken fried chicken, Brueggers’ chili, corned beef hash, Goldfish (don’t get excited; it’s a cracker) and extra-large bags of Chex Mix and, well, apparently (if my critics are to be believed) what I need now is a tee-shirt with “Goodyear” emblazoned across it.

So now I’m wondering what is worse: the thought that I have left my American friends with the impression that I am letting myself go, or all the carrot sticks and bowls of soup awaiting me upon my return home.

On the other hand, those sausage rolls were really good; maybe I’ll visit that stall again, and then see if there’s a place in town that makes novelty tee-shirts.