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Category Archives: Travel

The Fun Of Getting There

Millions of dollars are spent on selling travel as glamorous and/or restorative. There are entire magazines dedicated to this pursuit and big chunks of space reserved for it in newspapers & travel blogs aplenty. Television shows and networks are dedicated to the cause. There are clothing and accessory manufacturers specializing in travel accouterment. The fashion industry still adheres to a season-ette known as Holiday/Cruise in mid-winter. Everyone’s in on the action (except for travel agents, g-d rest their souls.) Let the good times roll.

Yet have you ever heard (or experienced) anyone traveling commercially, return and declare; “Well bust my buttons that certainly was glamorous and/or restorative?” Probably not. Getting there (and sometimes even being there) can often be one big pain in the bum.

It used to be you would pack your bags, grab your ticket and head to the airport. Today, after packing your bag with teeny tiny sample sizes of health and beauty aids (in ziplocs or out, depending on the airport) planning an outfit without metal embellishment or laced shoes, packing enough food to make it through the flight and the predictable delay; you are, woohoo, on your way. But to where exactly? You booked your flight on one airline (or so you thought) but these days they are cross-listed. You trek to the USAir terminal only to discover that USAir flight 6403 is in actuality a United flight 760 (and listed as Lufthansa 23, but that’s too odd to even address.) If you’re lucky those two terminals have a shuttle system. So maybe, just maybe, if the g-ds are smiling upon you, you make it to your gate. You must go buy a bottle of water however since bringing one with you would jeopardize national security (as would a nail clipper which is amusing when you think that a punch to the jugular is far more impactful than threatening to manicure someone.) Your $7 bottle of water secured, you bypass the food-like options that fill you with a school (or prison) cafeteria wistfulness. (Airports might be the only place where a chef known for inventing gourmet duck topped pizzas is now serving orange slop in containers emblazoned with his name.) You sit and watch the parade of (pajama-clad) humanity elbow their way to special treatment; “We’re a family, we’d like to sit together.” “My husband needs a seat without an armrest” What century are you people in? You will be lucky to get on this overbooked flight even with a seat assignment, checked luggage and wearing an airline uniform.

Getting onto the plane takes all the chutzpah and sharp elbows usually reserved for a Macy’s white sale. Overhead space is the holy grail. As the plane fills the desperation is palpable. Your goal is to avoid the attendant being “pleased to check your bag for you.” You’ve made it this far; you will not give up without a fight. Finally as the passengers settle down and it looks as if every bag is secured, the stand-bys appear. These people have made it onto the plane. They have a killer instinct and a rugged determination that is certain to squash your hat or break your duty-free liquor bottles. The more extreme sport of these stand-bys will make it work. The guy sauntering on with both his case of wine and of entitlement? His attempts might not end as well.

But everyone’s seated and here we go! Here we go. We’re not going. Why are those reflective vested people walking on and off the plane? Why is it 20 minutes past our departure time and we’re still sitting still? Ah, an announcement. It seems a light bulb is out. Well better safe than sorry (whatever the hell that means on a plane with over a hundred bulbs.) So we wait. And wait some more. An hour after departure time the mystery unfolds and a lesson is learned. Don’t ever have your light bulb go out during a maintenance worker shift change. The (it’s almost the end of my shift) worker refused to get the bulb and would not tell the (it’s the start of my shift) worker about the need for a bulb. One hour and fifteen minutes later, the bulb was replaced (at a cost we won’t even begin to imagine) and we’re on our way. So glamorous, so restorative.

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2012 in Travel

 

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The Time Of Their Lives

There was a time when the Catskills were the summer destination of thousands of New Yorkers. The bungalows and hotels of the area were known collectively as The Borscht Belt, as the clientele was predominantly Jewish.  Some families came for the entire season (the father coming up for the weekend) others for a week or two.  The heyday was in the 1940s and 1950s, and started to ebb in the 1960s.  Tastes change, the world changed.  Today, middle and working class families rarely vacation together for an entire season.  Private space is far more coveted than communal living and/or dining.  The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Catskills take their families to the Hamptons, The Rockaways or down the shore.

A few of the Catskill’s famed physical structures still remain and have been converted for modern use, with varying degrees of success.  But looking at them, it is not possible to even begin to imagine what that world was like.  At least two movies (A Walk on the Moon and Dirty Dancing) capture the mood and social dynamics of both the bungalow world (A Walk on the Moon) and the resort (Dirty Dancing) world of the Catskills.  There were two hallmarks of the Catskill experience; the food and the entertainment.  Comedians, singers, musicians and dancers made a steady and hefty chunk of change by “playing the circuit” every summer.  Few remember these icons of their time.  Perhaps the exceptions would be Woody Allen and Joan Rivers.  Almost everyone who had a hand in creating television (and by “creating” I mean ‘inventing the very concept of programming”) played the Belt; Milton Berle, Carl Reiner, Burns and Allen, Sid Caesar, Molly Berg.  Theatre people played the Catskills too; Betty Garrett, Camden and Green, Molly Picon, Fanny Brice.  All the big names played the Catskills; it was close to the city and it wasn’t a bad way to make some real money.

The entertaining in the Catskills went beyond the stage however.  A tummeler (pronounced: toom-e-ler) was the court jester of their day.  Tummelers were jovial, extroverted fellows whose primary job was to get the party started.  They cajoled people into gaiety, usually while wearing something quirky.  The recent death of Lou Goldstein, a tummeler’s tummeler if there ever was one, may be the last bit of spark to sputter from the Borscht Belt ash.  (You may remember seeing Lou on daytime talk shows in the 1970s.  He was famous for his Simon Says.)

The Catskills (as they once were) are gone and they’re not coming back, but tummelers are still doing quite well.  Have you been to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in the past 25 years?  You can’t swing a rubber chicken without hitting some festooned guy or gal encouraging middle-aged guests to drop it like it’s hot.  (Twenty-five years ago, Aunt Shirley was being told she was too sexy for her shirt.)  The good news for tummelers is that the gigs are now all year long and women may apply.

It is interesting that the tummeler is the only thing to emerge from the rubble of the Borscht Belt.  Seasonal communities don’t exist in the same manner.  They do exist in an ad hoc manner, but not as a large collective and certainly not with the same degree of familiarity.  Actors, musicians, comedians and the like, have nowhere to earn a stable income while perhaps trying out new material and cultivating new audiences.  Performers were able to work (and play) with their friends and sometimes make enough money to make it through a lean year.  Yes, today some do work cruise lines and casinos, but those are finely choreographed shows and are usually reserved for the boldest faced names on the B list.

There are new ways for entertainers to breakout and find new audiences, online and off.  The proliferation of televised contests assures that a new finely coached belter/wailer will be discovered every week.  Comedians have their pick of new media as well as consistent traditional outlets (someone will always have to prep live audiences to laugh at tepid television shows.)  But what may never be replicated is a place for performers of different genres to perform in the same place at the same time.  Like the Catskill guest experience, it’s the collective that will be missed.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Travel

 

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Titanic Shifts

A birthday party for a monumental disaster strikes me as a bit macabre, but a centennial is a centennial and does give one pause.  The disaster that now is known simply as; “The Titanic” has permeated our cultural consciousness for decades now.  Countless books; fictions and non, have been published. Theatrical pieces (including a musical!) have been produced.  Films have been made and remade.  It simply goes on and on.

For some the fascination is that of the magnitude of the loss of life, for others the boldface names on-board, capture the imagination.  Other “fans” are nautically curious, or scholars of the early 20th century class system.  Some are captivated by the less romantic aspects such as the arrogance of insufficient life boats or search and rescue endeavors.  If my imagination is captured by anything (aside from the buoyancy of one Molly Brown) it is that of the shifts in our culture since that fateful voyage.

By looking at the physical construct of the ship, compared to luxury liners of today we can chart the course of some of the ways in which we’ve changed.

Let us start with the super-sizing

  • ships are about 34% larger than the Titanic (let’s just let that figure roll around in our heads for a moment)
  • a typical state room was 120 square feet and is now 282 square foot (and chock-full of amenities unknown to Titanic passengers; such as a bathroom.)

The expectation of creature comforts at least equivalent to what one experiences at home does not seem a new phenomenon.  No doubt, smaller spaces and shared bathing facilities were not all that unknown to people in 1912.  The modern “bigger is better” phenomenon is American in its origin and the (international) tourism industry is now on board with that.

How people use their leisure time and how they interact with others is the most dramatic change one can glean from the facilities of the Titanic

  • A tiny “plunge bath” was the swimming pool of the day.  The tank of seawater was rather brisk and bracing the water was seen as an act of manly fortitude.
  • You can’t swing a water wing without hitting a heated playground of a pool on today’s ships.  They are enormous and fitted with slides and other gewgaws. Esther Williams would risk a head injury emerging from the depths of one of those pools.
  • There were live musicians on the Titanic (and the band did play on) but there were no “shows” or “entertainment”
  • Today’s ships have full-scale auditoriums/theatres.  Mini versions of musicals are often performed, as are all other forms of splashy entertainment.
  • Public spaces on the Titanic were predominately reading and writing rooms and comfortable places to socialize.
  • Bars, discos, casinos, shopping and shore excursions are how people “socialize” on today’s ships.

Of course the fundamental difference was that the Titanic was seen as a means to end.  It was a very nice way to travel.  A cruise on the other hand is seen as the destination itself.  But still, it is interesting to consider that there was a time we considered a morning of written correspondence, followed by a stroll on deck, a meal or two, a little reading and perhaps catching up and/or meeting new people to be a thoroughly entertaining day.  It is safe to say that there are many of us who now do all those things at once in the span of one hour.

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2012 in Style, Travel

 

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Is This Seat Taken?

I have reached the point at which the Town Crier warning the villagers about the evils of social media barely registers.  It’s white noise to me now.  “Yes” I think, “Facebook has taken your mature, socially sophisticated, confident teenager and turned her into a gossiping over-sensitive bully.”  (I think this with the soundtrack of The Music Man in my head. “It starts with ‘F’ that rhymes with…”)  I roll my eyes and pound my fist upon hearing that parents and therapists view Facebook postings as a clue to the inner workings of adolescents.  Evidently, talking to your children or patients does not produce as much insight as does as a status update.  The only thing separating a status update from a scribble on a notebook cover or a diary is its audience, not its nature.  When people start wringing their consumer hands over the privacy of social media, I scream into my throw pillow (purchased with a credit card, online.)  Unless you live in a yurt and only traffic in the cash you store under your mattress, your privacy has already been invaded.

But when an airline is going to let people select a seatmate through their connections on Facebook and Linkedin?  Hand me a pitchfork.  I, perhaps like you, use Linkedin to connect with former and current colleagues, and business contacts.  There is nothing about these rather formal and superficial categories which would suggest I want to be trapped sitting next to them for three+ hours in a flying can, or on the tarmac for that matter.  What if I’m flying to a job interview, or to a not entirely kosher consulting gig?  What if I’m on my way to a funeral?  Do I really want to sit next to that tool in personnel whom I could not afford to not connect with?  While Facebook provides a network a bit more personally meaningful than Linkedin, I still don’t want someone to make a transcontinental date with me without asking.  Look for me at the gate.  Security procedures and delays being what they are, we’ll have hours to catch up and perhaps then decide to try and sit together.  I do not want to go through all the aggravations of planning my travel, be patted down and searched, have my chapstick confiscated, wait at the gate for hours with people eating fried foods in their pajamas, listen to blaring CNN, board a can that smells of disinfectant and fuel, find my seat, shot-put my carry-on, settle myself in, and then hear “Surprise!”  I don’t think our reminiscing about 6th grade will make it past the runway.  And you know what?  Without those George Takei photos, I’m not sure either of us is all that interesting.  It’s hard to believe that the airline industry doesn’t have enough problems.  Do they want to get into the business of enabling stalking?

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2012 in Travel

 

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Grieving On A Jet Plane

Are there any airplane experiences left that do not bear a strong resemblance to an emergency shelter?  This is not a rhetorical question.

When they asked me to book my own flight, I did so.  When they asked me to check myself in at a kiosk, I touched the screen.  When they asked me to pay for my carry-on bag and seat assignment, I wondered what my ticket was actually for, but I did it.  When told the only thing free of charge that would be passing my lips would be recycled diseased air, I bought my own water and meals.  I did all this expecting nothing more than to safely arrive at my destination within 2-4 hours of the advertised arrival time.  I don’t expect to be greeted by name, or at all.  I don’t expect help hoisting my bag up over my head.  However I also don’t expect to be surrounded by passengers lacking all sense of civility.  The villagers fleeing Anatevka had more respect for their fellow travelers than those on recently endured flight 197.

I’m not convinced that paying $750 additional each way, and sitting in first class, two rows in front of the woman changing her child’s diaper would have been more pleasant than sitting directly behind her.  I’m guessing I also would have heard the battery operated walkie-talkies she had graciously provided her older little cherubs for the trip.  Our little Donna Reed reject would have stood up and shouted (20 aisles) to her oldest child (playing in the galley); “Do you want a soda?” just as easily from first class as she did from coach.  I’m pretty sure I would have still had my seat back kicked by the attention seeking 4 year old who extorted chocolate from his mother by claiming (in anguished peals) that he was afraid of the airplane.  And that elder man seated next to me?  The one engaged in a personal activity so vile as to even embarrass 2 year-olds?  I’m pretty sure he would still be one full knuckle up for two hours in first class.  But I will concede he might have refrained from cleaning his ears with a pen.

I accept (begrudgingly) that the only way to discern passenger from flight attendant is their speed up and down the aisle.  Did my soul weep slightly at the sight of the attendant wearing a fleece jacket and ponytail in a rubber band?  Yes, but I will survive.  Have I learned to ignore the fact that 3/4 of any flight is filled with passengers clearly on their way to rehab?  (Why else would they be wearing attire devoid of zippers, buttons, snaps and laces?)  Yes, I have made my tenuous peace with all of it.  But I refuse to accept (just yet) that I must submit to an atmosphere that feels abusive.

I sincerely am asking, what is a traveler to do?

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2011 in Travel

 

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