Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ryan Air - Bargain Basement Air Travel

My last flight experience on Ryan Air’s intra-European flight from Budapest, Hungary to Farranfore, Ireland was like experiencing Paloma’s running of the bulls. Pre-warned, I printed my boarding pass ahead of time to avoid the 30 euro service charge at check-in, carried exact change for a full price, 3 oz soft drink which I knew would be offered in flight, and arrived early with the requisite amount of luggage, an 11 x 14 laptop sleeve containing extra underwear, a blouse, lipstick and a hairbrush (no purse or carry-on), all of which had passed through three different lines to be screened by Ryan Air’s eagle-eyed employees.

Smugly, I sat down for the 90 minutes until boarding, disregarding the gathering queue before me. Surely, I thought, I’d planned for everything. I felt sorry for the couple who were charged 300 euro to transport their overweight suitcase and equally sorry for the people who threw away their brand new purchases from the duty free shop as well as clothing from their backpacks to squeeze them into the tiny frame required for carry-ons. Still, I rationalized, the cost of the flight was an incredible 45 euro, a deal despite the stringent conditions.

Then it happened: the flight number was called, the doors opened. Where was the jetway, I wondered, with its gentle downward slope guiding us to the plane? Was someone speaking over the PA system? What was she saying? Suddenly, age, sex and handicap were disregarded. With children and luggage clutched tightly to their chests, the line surged forward, pushing through the doors, eyes glued to their destination, the plane, a silent monster waiting on the rain-slick runway. As if responding to a silent signal, momentum increased. Men, women and children, their eyes wild and desperate, threw manners and inhibition to the wind, and ran, urging, shouting, pulling at loved ones who’d dropped to the ground, dragging them forward, their goal the forty-something steps leading up into the cabin and seats hopefully within shouting distance of each other.

Carried into the cabin by the sheer will and force of my fellow passengers, I found my way to my seat number. It was filled. Bewildered, I checked my boarding pass. The seat number was there, distinctly printed on my ticket. “Was there a mistake?” I asked. “Not at all,” I was told by the woman settling her child beside her. “Seat numbers are irrelevant on Ryan Air.” Climbing into one of the last empty seats between two very large men, I closed my eyes comforting myself with the thought that three hours isn’t so very long after all.  

Airborne at last, I looked for the release to lean back in meager comfort. No such luck. Seats on Ryan Air do not lean back, allowing for 8 more rows of passengers on each flight. An hour later, two members of the flight crew, complete with cart, began their journey down the aisle. I brightened. Sustenance was on its way, but the system was an odd one. Apparently nothing was actually inside the cart. The attendant would ask each passenger for his order, scribble it on a pad and walk back to the front of the plane, bringing said order with her. Then the other attendant would take the money, exact change required. Over an hour passed before the last row was serviced, the aisle blocked by the cart and passengers prevented from using restrooms the entire time.
At last the interminable 3 hours, was over. It could have been worse, I suppose. I’d heard rumors that Ryan Air will soon require passengers to stow their own checked luggage and charge for use of the bathrooms. I’m imagining huge numbers of people attempting to settle their own cases into the enormous stomach of the cargo hold. What about pets? What about security? Will exact change be required for the bathrooms as well? What about coin jams?

I suppose there is a place for bargain basement air travel, but I, for one, won’t be repeating the experience.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

History You Can Touch

Just by chance, my fiancé’s nephew, Brendan O'Keefe, mentioned following a remote trailhead near his home in the Ballymacelligott area to find a monument erected on the site where Gerald Fitzgerald, the last Earl of Desmond, was betrayed by one of his men and beheaded beneath an old oak tree in November of 1582.

Such a find wasn’t completely unexpected. Tralee, and its surrounding areas is, after all, Fitzgerald country. The powerful family, the Earls of Kildare and Desmond, with closer legitimate ties to the English throne than the Tudors, ruled here as the uncrowned kings of Ireland.

Still, my interest was piqued. This very same Gerald Fitzgerald features prominently in my novel, NELL, so, naturally, Tommy and I set out to find the marker. Verbal directions in Ireland are frustratingly nonspecific. “Go around the hill and over the rise, turn at the cross, never mind the first road, turn down by the bridge and you’ll see a dirt road. Don’t take that one, it’s a dead end. Take the grassy one with the no entry sign. Mind the bog, park the car and head straight up. Don’t go at night.” So we did, during the day.

Climbing out of the car into the ubiquitous misty rain characteristic of Ireland, we crossed over the gate with the “Do not enter” sign marked, and saw the actual site posted. Hiking up one hill after another to no avail, we finally gave up and focused on drawing in clean, deep breaths of glorious forest, the Sherwood of Ireland, around us. Breaks in the trees, now pine and conifer replacing the valuable Irish oak, and the steep slopes afforded us spectacular scenes of green meadows, cows and sheep dotting the hills, the Bay of Tralee, the river and, loveliest of all, the sun breaking through white clouds, bluing the sky after days and days of gray weather.

Promising each other we would try another day, we tramped back to the car, scraped the mud from our shoes and started back. A narrow, paved road we knew nothing about beckoned to Tommy. A native of the area, there are few country roads he hasn’t explored. Unbelievably, I glanced out the window in time to see a gray slab and the words Fitzgerald, Earl of Desmond, engraved in the granite.

What continues to regularly stop my breath here in Ireland is that her people go about their daily business, shopping, working, playing, surrounded by a history they aren’t the least bit in awe of. Other countries have their history, too, surrounded by fences, swathed in security, closed down after 6:00 P.M. Not here. Ireland’s ruins, her ancient keeps, her castles, and forts, her monasteries and cemeteries, her faerie forts and dolmans are available for anyone who doesn’t mind climbing and muddying his shoes. The best of it is, there are no crowds, in fact you may find yourself the only one there. What better place to wake the imagination than to lean against the stones of a castle ruin, close your eyes and let the images come.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Paris, Then and Now

You can’t go home again. The phrase lends itself to a number of interpretations, except for the literal. Of course we can go home again. We do it all the time. But revisiting the past with the expectation that it will be the same is disappointing. Nothing stays the same. We don’t stay the same. My long-awaited trip to Paris is a perfect example.

My first visit was in July of 1971. I was 18 years old and two of my best friends were with me. The City of Light was pure magic. On Bastille Day, jubilant, inebriated and unwashed, the young of Paris filled the streets in numbers so great we moved together as a wave, linking arms, laughing, singing the national anthem. The Eiffel Tower and the Arc d’ Triumph sparkled with thousands of lights. Boats floated on the Seine. The city throbbed with an energy that was heady, intoxicating, a perfect foil for three young girls, hopeful and optimistic with the anticipation of all of life ahead.

Forty years later, Paris and I are different animals. The 14th of July is still a huge celebration for Parisians and those who make their way to the capital from the provinces. The Eiffel Tower still sparkles, crowds still throng the streets. But I am no longer 18. My fiancé and I are past the naïve phase of our lives. We know what lies ahead. We’ve planned for the obvious. More importantly, and a bit sadly, we understand the potential for what could go wrong. The crowds of tipsy young people, the reduced Metro routes due to the holiday, the lateness of the hour and the police presence brought home possibilities not even considered forty years ago. We decided against waiting for the fireworks and made our way back to our hotel.

Paris is still Paris, one of the most magnificent cities in the world. But this time I appreciated what I hadn’t forty years ago, lunch on the Eiffel Tower, shopping at the Lafayette Galleries, experiences out of reach when I was a teenager without a credit card, counting pennies. This time, night life consisted of a good dinner and a glass of wine in restaurants on the Left Bank and along the Champs Elysees. Days were spent visiting museums, the Palace at Versailles, Notre Dame, the Sacre Coeur at Montmartre, walking the streets and truly appreciating their history and architecture.

Pizza Pino, a favorite haunt in 1971, is still there, a prime location on the boulevard of the Champs Elysees. Forty years ago, the three of us sat upstairs at window seats, eating our sundaes, eyes glued to the magic of the ever-changing tableau below. Today, the upstairs was closed. The food is still good but the ice cream isn’t quite as wonderful as the ice cream I remember. On the other hand the Musee D’Orsay is incredible as are the lacey balconies and beautiful buildings, the magnificent monuments and the expressive enthusiasm and friendliness of the French people.

Forty years ago, I didn’t notice the clothes. Maybe, as a self-conscious teen, I was too concerned with the way I looked to others. This time I noticed. The women of Paris wear wonderful clothes, tiny jackets nipped in at the waist, jeans, slim skirts and the most wonderful shoes, high-heeled, multi-colored, strappy, beautiful. The people are also very fit. I didn’t see a single gym or, for that matter, any overt exercise, but they do walk and climb, and climb and walk. And so did I. Incredibly, despite croissants for breakfast, sandwiches wrapped in French bread for lunch and dessert for dinner, I returned home weighing less than when I left. Bless the unending stairs of the Paris Metro system.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Forty Shades of Green

I don’t enjoy flying. It’s not that I’m afraid; I’m just not comfortable, especially when I fly coach which, when it comes to international destinations, is all the time. The seats are narrow and the leg room nonexistent. Then, there are those annoying people who think the armrests are only for them. If you don’t know the person seated beside you when you board the plane, you will certainly know him by the time you land.

For this trip, I use travel points and begin my journey on July 4th in the comfort of an American Airlines' First Class cabin from Orange County, California, stopping in Boston to visit my 88 year-old aunt. Unprepared for the 90 degree heat and suffocating humidity, (God bless California’s dry air and cool nights,) I don’t pay much attention to the young man at the car rental counter who warns me about road closures for the holiday. I do, however, spring for a GPS which turns out to be a lifesaver. After two hours driving the Massachusetts Turnpike, making countless recalculations long after dark, I manage to find my destination. Aunt Jeannette, a woman after my own heart, feeds me pizza and wine before tucking me into bed.

Twenty-four hours later, I settle into an Aer Lingus airbus coach cabin, preparing to travel another 3000 miles. I chuckle at the video featuring a plane which doesn’t remotely resemble the cramped seats of the airbus. The charming flight attendant on the screen instructs passengers, in case of pressure loss, to push the seats, already jammed against our noses, forward and lean down so that our chests touch our knees with our arms protecting the backs of our heads. Due to the closeness of the seats this is a logistical impossibility even if I am limber enough to perform such a feat, which isn’t a given at all. I no longer feel like chuckling.

Finally, I look out my window and see, once again, the unique landscape of Ireland, its patchwork of greens and yellows, silver lakes and its pale, milky sun rising from the sea. My sleepless night, the dried out chicken, the discomfort of bumping elbows with the man beside me fades. This is the land of my ancestors. This is where people look like me. Freckles, red hair, fair skin and blue eyes dominate the population.

As I collect my luggage and negotiate my way through the “nothing to declare” exit, I search the bleary-eyed crowd assembled to greet their own, the descendents of family who, in another lifetime, “crossed the water." Then I spot him, blue eyes, warm smile, red hair gone gray. My heart lifts. My journey is over.    

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Comfortable and Familiar

My mind goes blank as I wander from room to room in my California house. Did I remember the Splenda, the night cream for my eyes, replacement blades for my razor, maple syrup, my Wen Shampoo, an extra battery for my laptop, my sun block? It’s just short of frightening to imagine waking up in Tralee and realizing that my Gummy Calcium chews are sitting on the counter in California.

You might wonder why the panic. Ireland isn’t a third world country. Aren’t Irish women just as calcium deficient as American women? Don’t they shave their legs, worry about fine lines and manage their weight with artificial sweeteners? Yes, to all of the above, although maple syrup isn’t a typical staple on grocery shelves, unless it’s the pure version imported from Canada at a shudderingly outrageous price, and I haven’t yet found fruit-flavored calcium chews. But everything else, razor blades, sweeteners, sun block, etc., is there, for a price.

It is price that determines the level of my panic, price and the comfort of familiarity. The dollar, currently, is weak against the euro and then there is that 17.5% value added tax which to an American is cause for bearing arms. Whatever I forget in California must be replaced at one-and-a-half times the price, which means that unless it is a true emergency such as a laptop battery, I usually go without. And, while I’m confident that the brands found in chemists’ shops in Ireland are good, I simply am not as comfortable as I am with the ones from my local Target.

The Irish are a healthy population. Smoking and drinking are down; exercise and natural food consumption are up. They are a do-it-yourself population, cleaning their own houses, caring for their own gardens, repairing whatever it is that needs fixing in their own backyard sheds. I love that they walk or bicycle everywhere. I love that they are knowledgeable about the politics of other countries. I love the manners of their children. I admire them for their writers and certainly for that wit that leaves me tongue-tied and struggling to catch up.

But when it comes to a cobalt blue sky, white sand beaches, waves of summer heat, fireworks in July, hamburgers just off the grill, watermelon, sweet corn and fresh peaches from local growers, America is number 1. Happy 4th of July everyone.