All in Travel

Sometimes the business class lounge at an airport uncovers some of the business world's reptiles . . . unrestrained, self-important people, without charm or grace either in dress or manner. I really should get a cell phone with a camera so that I could prove my point in images. I am listening to a fellow talking on his cell phone in a voice that everyone can hear. I am not sure what the conversation is all about -- except that he claims to be setting up a Hollywood studio with his own money and he is very, very proud of himself. Either that or he is planning a television series about spys or something in which John Grisham's name keeps popping up. But he is "horrified with the quality of the writing (he has) been given." The only people who live out loud like this are people not worth knowing.
If there is a worse airport than LaGuardia for frequent travelers, I can’t name it. And if there is an airline with poorer customer service than Air Canada, I haven’t flown it.

Forget the fact that LaGuardia is dirty, run down and staffed by mostly churlish service staff, it is managed like a poorly run factory. Returning from New York today, I was turned back by security at LaGuardia (the most surly, unpleasant security people in a cohort of service people who are not known for their charm) because I was carrying a small tube of Kiehl’s after-shave cream in my carry-on bag. It was apparently too large for LaGuardia’s standards, although not for the airport in Toronto at which I had no problem with the same bag and the same tube. (Would cooperation across North America among airport authorities on standards not be attainable in some fashion?)

I had to return to the Air Canada desk to check the bag. But it turns out that under a new Air Canada ticketing policy, you have to decide at the time of ticket purchase whether you are checking bags. Since I was going to New York for about 24 hours, of course I had not intended to check a bag. So, what does Air Canada make me do? Pay an additional $75 to have the bag checked. Remember, I managed to get through the Toronto airport without a problem. Having agreed to pay the $75, the Air Canada computers went down. I waited ten more minutes while that problem was solved.

Okay, it continues. I asked the Air Canada desk clerk for a complaint form. (Why bother I don’t know because Air Canada hasn’t answered my complaint from last April.) The clerk couldn’t find any, so he disappeared for another ten minutes to look for one. Finding none, he did manage to give me a number to which I am now supposed to fax a complaint.

I’ll complain, but until more of us do, nothing will change.

The 'W' Hotel in New York isn't the most luxurious hotel; getting a little threadbare, noisy, over-stated in its coolness . . . but it has that New York liveliness which makes you believe that any fantasy is possible, even if it isn't really. I stay here on business for that energy.

Try the Cookshop restaurant at 156 10th Avenue. Great duck breast; fabulous spicy fires, and even more spicy squid. The feeling is youthful; the price manageable.


London really is a marvellous city. I spent the day wandering from Aldywch to the Knightsbridge area and back again by way of Soho (in which I must have spent half my evenings when not attending conference or business dinners). The goal of my meandering was ostensibly to find Harrod's in order to buy my wife a souvenir gift. But that was in part only an excuse to do what I most enjoy about travelling . . . walking and watching.

The streets of London on a Saturday are thronged. Imagine Fifth Avenue on a warm spring evening, and then double or triple the number of people shopping. And it's like that wherever you go in this city. Every restaurant and pub seems packed at lunch time. People stand in groups outside pubs sipping pints in the warm sunshine. (No way that would be allowed in Toronto.) Others sit in outdoor cafes nursing espressos, lattes and, of course, cups of tea even though the temperature is only about 11 degrees celsius. Even walking alone, it's hard to feel lonely.

I also took some pictures some of which I will post when I get home. They aren't the standard tourist shots . . . a close up of the London School of Economics (LSE) which, were I younger and not already over-credentialed, would be my destination for another degree; a shot of the Fleet Street and Old Bailey street signs; a view of the Covent Garden market.

The only drawback to London is the cost, although there are some good sales on right now. Let me give you just one example . . . a taxi to Heathrow comes in at about C$120.00! Steak in a good -- but not luxurious -- restaurant costs upwards of C$35. I guess that's why everyone seems to eat a lot of pub food.

A couple of things I have noticed about coverage in London newspapers, which will seem blindingly obvious to anyone who lives here I am sure:
  1. Football (soccer) coverage, even in leading mainstream dailies, is substantially more in-depth than sports coverage in Canada. We are passionate about hockey, but you seldom see more than one article about the local team. The Times, on the contrary, today has nearly seven pages on various football matches, most with pictures.
  2. Discussion of books and ideas is more all-embracing than I experience in Canada or the U.S. In the U.S. and Canadian newpapers I read, the minutiae of federal politics combined with endless consideration of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dominates. In the U.K. on the other hand, I have read about six different articles in three newspapers about Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion a rebuttal of religion and a defence of atheism.

Not sure what it means . . . but I do love football (soccer) and I have bought the Dawkins' book to read on the flight home.

London has just moved ahead of New York (although still slightly behind Paris) in my estimation. What a spirited and alive city, a place that even visiting alone one still feels compelled to walk about at night, eat dinner in a small bistro and soak in its energy. There is history everywhere, of course, although some of it costly to appreciate . . . As much as I wanted to visit the Churchill and War Cabinet museum, I am not about to spend the equivalent of C$22.00 to do so. But Buckingham Palace is, well, regal, The Mall stately, Westminster grand, and the government offices around Whitehall dignified. And the shopping . . . even for men! Jermyn St. is the place to go for men's shirts and ties. And right now everything is on sale.
It has happened again . . . another Air Canada screw up. I am posting this from Calgary's airport where I am waiting in the executive class lounge for an Air Canada flight back home. But I am not sure exactly when I will get home. Why? Because, even though my company is paying for a full-fare executive class ticket, they have "downgraded" the aircraft and I am now not guaranteed a seat on my flight. Ridiculous. Apparently there was a problem with the scheduled aircraft. So, why the hell don't they "upgrade" the aircraft so there is room for all paying executive class passengers? Instead, they put on a smaller aircraft and hope somebody cancels. Of course, I understand the economics of Air Canada's actions:But the point is the airline should put customer service first in this situation. Forget economics and build customer loyalty! Air Canada and customer service! I should know better. Four months ago I posted about flying Air Canada to Europe, eating a supposed gluten-free meal, and getting sick from some supposed gluten-free pasta. Having completed and mailed an Air Canada complaint form as requested by my flight attendant, and posting twice about this situation, I have heard absolutely nothing from the airline. In almost five months. No apology. No upgrade certificate. No additional points on the Aeroplan reward system. Nothing.
The five things I don't like about business travel (at least on this trip to Calgary):
  1. Eating alone, even when you have a good book to read and the restaurant is a pleasure
  2. Sleeping in a hotel room (not matter how luxurious) in which the temperature is always too hot or too cold
  3. Paying $20.00 for breakfast in your hotel room, when you can't even eat the toast (I have Celiac's disease . . . can't eat wheat, rye or barley)
  4. Paying $9.95 for high speed access, even when you can write it off as a business expense
  5. Having access to a gym, but not having room in you suitcase to pack running shoes (There's a new market for someone . . . thin workout shoes.)

I am not one to dwell on tragedy; there is simply too much of it to absorb. And I tend not to like the self-consciously maudlin. But if there is one post you should read about September 11th, it is Mia's. Setting aside the references to God ('God' explain nothing from my perspective and is always used to explain that which appears unexplainable but can actually be parsed by reason) she is a poet about humanity. Her post is strong and haunting, especially the line "I refuse to apologize for my freedom."
An upate on a post from nearly two months ago . . . I complained about being served what was supposed to be a gluten-free meal on an Air Canada flight to the UK. The meal was not gluten free, since I immediately got sick. I filled in and dutifully mailed my complaint form to the airline about six weeks ago. Needless to say, given what appears to be the state of customer service at the airline, I have heard nothing (in spite of a customer service guarantee that you will hear back within 30 days).

I am not going to let this go . . . so I hope that Air Canada is using Technorati to track blog references and that the airline eventually figures out that someone should get back to me with an apology -- and explanation -- as a minimum.

Sitting at a small wrought iron table on my back deck, a glass of Sauvignon Blanc (Seresin Estate 2005, Marlborough, New Zealand) next to the laptop, and the smell of a blanquette d'agneau au vin blanc (Patricia Wells' recipe from Bistro Cooking) seeping through the French doors (That's what they're called. It's not my fault!) from the kitchen, I can't help feeling the experience would be complete if the view was of the Mediterranean from the cliffs of Cap d'Ail. Or of the small central square in St. Remy, Provence. Or of the skinny, alive streets of the Marais in Paris.

Once again the feeling is the fault of a film, a sad little Spanish film by Imanol Uribe called Carol's Journey set during the Spanish Civil War. Nothing about it should really drive memories of France, except the cobblestones, the exquisite old buildings, the sense of an immediate past . . . but it does.

I don't intend to malign the three b's of North America -- backyards, barbecues and beer. It's just that there are more complete ways (and places) to live, where history has intense and personal meaning, where food and wine sing.

Air Canada is my country's national airline with, many feel, an attitude problem. I nearly always fly Air Canada. Not because I like it, although in many respects it is no different in treating passengers like irritants than other commercial airlines these days. I fly Air Canada because I collect mileage points for each trip. So, I usually choose Air Canada for business trips . . . about 15 flight segments, as they call it, so far this year.

The fact that I nearly always choose an Air Canada flight makes no difference to the airline or its customer service and retention policies. I'm never "upgraded" as I sometimes am in hotels. They offer no perquisites; no special recognition gifts; not even a slightly better meal nor the occasional free glass of wine.

But a real test of its customer service is now underway. On a recent flight to London I was served a gluten free meal, as I must because of an intolerance to wheat, rye, oats and barley (Celiac Disease for those medically minded). The gluten free meal is usually more tasteless than even regular airline food, but on a seven hour flight you need something to calm the grumbling.

The gluten free meal on this flight was the ubiquitous dry chicken on a bed of PASTA. Of course, I can't eat pasta as you know it. So I assumed this was rice or corn pasta, which I know are both available. The meal was plainly labelled gluten free.

NOT. Within one hour of eating it I threw up three times. The flight attendant told me to fill out the airline's standard complaint form (not offering me anything by way of compensation), which I did and mailed it on my return. (You have to pay for postage!) . . . Now I wait!

By the way, the meal on the return flight was super. It even included a real dessert (instead of the usual tiny, and immeasurably boring, fruit cup) some delicious dense rice bread and gluten free chocolates. I was the envy of my seat mates.

Oh yes . . . that return flight was on Lufthansa from Frankfurt.

Heading to New York on Sunday for a Monday morning meeting, I thought I would write about the five things I most love to do in Manhattan to see if anyone has any other suggestions:
  1. The theatre . . . this time I am thinking of seeing a Sunday matinee of Doubt (assuming tickets are available at TKTS!) which won Pulitzer and Tony awards for best new drama. Apparently the original cast of Cherry Jones and Brian F. O'Byrne may be changing after this Sunday so the timing of my Monday meeting could be felicitous.
  2. Dinner at a good restaurant . . . maybe Union Square Cafe . . . unless a reader has another suggestion for a quality restaurant in which a solitary person can feel confortable.
  3. Visiting the Museum of Jewish Heritage, especially since it is featuring a photo exhibit of a small Jewish community in Uzbekistan.
  4. Walking around the East Village, simply to enter through imagination the world of painters, novelists and poets who made -- and make -- it their home.
  5. Buying cheap polo shirts on Canal Street, or maybe some ties on sale at Brooks Brothers?

A little prosaic I guess, but not a bad agenda for a 36-hour business trip on a Sunday and Monday in January. Oh yes . . . of course Bloom's Jesus and Yaweh: The Names Divine comes along for the plane flight since I am still wading through it!