Sunday, April 13, 2008

I'm back


I'm finally out of hibernation.

Some of you are perhaps wondering what the heck happened to me for the past month. Well, Joe and I went back to America for a visit in mid-March. And it was great, wonderful, really comforting. I've never been so happy to see old Springfield — despite the fact that it rained practically the entire week to the point of flooding.

It was really invigorating to be back home. We got to eat pizza and BBQ ribs and Bob Evans' bacon and plenty of spicy Mexican food. We saw our families and met our baby niece and my brother's new girlfriend for the first time. My cats practically got petted to death. We raided the candy aisle at Kroger and I plunked down cash for so many girl scout cookies that Joe's eyes popped out of his head (almost). I visited old co-workers. Watched a movie on dad's big screen TV. Did a little shopping. Even dropped in at Young's for some cow patty ice cream and a visit to the goat barn.

All in all, it was a really refreshing trip. I can't tell you how good it felt to be surrounded by everything so familiar again. It was such a shock to the system when we arrived in the Detroit airport and, as we waited for our connection to Dayton, I realized I could understand every word of the newscast coming from the TV mounted on the wall. Who ever would have thought the TV news could be so reassuring? Even when it was spewing disturbing clips of Obama's old pastor Jeremiah Wright. It was good to be home.

What I hadn't anticipated about the trip was how homesick I'd feel once we were back in Japan. I never, ever thought I could feel sick for Springfield, with it's bad customer service, shabby houses and littered streets. But I did. We got back here and I felt like for one week I got to have everything I'd been missing for the past seven months, and then suddenly it was all taken away. I was like a bouncy little kid who just dropped her ice cream cone on the sidewalk. It was a bit of a let down to get back to our apartment and return to sleeping on the futon mat on the floor while the memory of my plush bed back home remained so fresh. It really kinda sucked. We were back to hanging up all the laundry on the back porch, back to separating the trash, back to rice and noodles. *sigh*

I've since recovered from this phase. Cherry blossom season has done a lot to help chase the melancholy away. But at any rate, that's why I didn't write for a while. I was just feeling too heart sick to write about the trip.

And like I said, it was a good trip. And though Northwest Airlines did cause a significant amount of aggravation, it at least gave us some good stories to tell.

The trip from Osaka to Detroit to Dayton went smoothly, no problems. In fact, it was better than expected because we managed to get good seats. The seats along the left side of the plane were situated in rows of three, but the rows went down to two seats as the plane tapered toward the back. We got the first row of two seats, with extra space between Joe and the window. So we were able to put our carry-on bags by the window instead of under the seats in front of us, which gave us a little extra room to stretch our legs. That made all the difference for Joe, who at 6-foot-4 usually has his knees jammed into the seat in front of him.

The only real hitch during the flight was Joe's food, but that was his own dumb fault.

See, Joe read an article a while back from a travel writer who advised travelers to request the "Muslim" meal when they book their plane tickets. The airline apparently has to prepare the Muslim meals in a special manner, so when these meals are requested, they're made fresh and supposedly are better than the standard airline cuisine. Joe mumbled something about "goat kabob." Right. So Joe ordered Muslim meals for himself, while I decided to take my chances with the regular food.

Once we were safely in the air over the Pacific Ocean, the wait staff started bringing out dinner. Joe, being so special, was served his Muslim meal first and was rather underwhelmed to discover that his meal was labeled "Muslim/Vegetarian." He peeled off the cover only to discover a bland looking bowl of lentils, beans and rice. MMMMmmmm!! Meanwhile, the stewardess delivered my spicy Korean chicken with sides of sashimi (raw fish) and chocolate cake. Joe's sides, by the way, were mysterious looking gelled cranberry sauce and fish-flavored crackers. I had a good hearty laugh at his expense. That's what he gets for trying to play the system and get special treatment. I am sure the stewardesses had a jolly time making fun of the giant guy who clearly is NOT a vegetarian eating the vegetarian slop.

I did take pity on him and shared half my cake, though. I'm not totally evil.

The joke continued several hours later when breakfast was served. Again, Joe's food came out first. Again, he uncovered the bowl to discover... more lentils and beans and rice with a side of fruit. Then my meal arrived: cheese omelet with sausage and danish and fresh fruit. Delicious! No luck for Joe that time — I ate every bit of it.

Overall, we were quite pleased with the flight to the U.S. and feeling very warm and fuzzy toward Northwest. Well, I was, anyway.

Those warm fuzzies dissolved into stomach acid on the trip back.

We arrived at the Dayton airport two hours ahead of our flight just like good little travelers are supposed to do. We were through security in a flash and sat down to wait for our plane.

When our departure time rolled around, there was still no plane. It was late getting back from wherever it was coming from. We were supposed to have a 1.5 hour layover between flights from the time we landed in Detroit to the time our next flight left for Japan. That time began shrinking perilously the later our plane got. But airline employees assured us over and over and over again not to worry, we would make it. When boarding time finally arrived, they told us we should be OK, we'd have about 20 minutes to make the next flight.

So we boarded the plane. And then sat there. For probably 45 minutes. They sprayed the plane down with de-icer and we sat around forever before finally taking off. By the time we landed in Detroit and exited the plane, our flight to Osaka had already departed.

Annoyed, we got off the plane and started talking to airline people to see about getting transferred onto a different flight. We were told that we'd been automatically rebooked on another plane leaving around 10:30 PM that evening, seven hours later. That flight, we were told, would be headed to Frankfurt, Germany. Then we'd have to catch a connection to Osaka. In other words, we'd be going back to Japan the long way — heading the opposite direction around the globe. After a bit of wrangling with people behind the counter, I was finally able to get an answer about how long this new flight would take: 6 hours to Frankfurt, plus one hour layover, plus 13 hours to Osaka. So, our original 13 hour flight from Detroit had suddenly morphed into a 20-hour journey, starting at a time when our bodies were ready to go to sleep. And neither of us sleeps on planes.

We asked what our other options were. The next plane leaving for Japan was full. There were other planes going to Japan, but they were flying to several other cities first and would get us to Japan no faster than the flight through Frankfurt. No flights were leaving on Sunday (Easter). So the next flight we could take was two days later, on Monday.

That left us with a choice: take the 20 hour flight, or burn two days of vacation stuck in Detroit to take the next direct flight.

I felt ill. Joe said he thought he'd kill himself after having his knees jammed into a seat in front of him in coach for 20 hours. So we opted for the next direct flight two days later while I ground my teeth about the lost vacation — two days of vacation that, if Northwest had been on the ball back in Dayton, we could ultimately have spent with our families at home. We were also losing $200 in train tickets we'd already purchased to take us from Osaka to Hiroshima after our arrival in Japan.

Luckily, the airline agreed to put us up in a hotel and gave us vouchers for food for the next two days. We were directed to the office in baggage claim to request our luggage back.

So we went to this office and got in line. This is the office where travelers get sent to retrieve lost luggage. A man at the counter was holding part of a baby carrier and yelling angrily at a lady behind the counter. He kept asking her to make a phone call somewhere to check something for him. He was raving something about having a baby and all the baby's formula is in the lost baggage. She kept saying it was against policy to make this phone call. Every time she repeated this, the man became more incensed, really working himself up into a froth. Finally, the woman behind the counter declared she didn't have to talk to him anymore. The next customer stepped up. Voices began rising again. And so on and so on until Joe and I declared the office the "Vortex of Suck."

When it was finally our turn at the counter, Joe made an extra effort to be sweet and polite with our clerk, figuring you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. She never cracked a smile, never laughed at his jokes. I think the people in this office have done something seriously wrong at work to get assigned to this job. The lady asked us questions about what our baggage looked like and then told us she would make a "request" to return our luggage, but it was only a "request." (Meaning, maybe you'll get it. And maybe you won't. Insert maniacal laughter here.) Go wait by baggage carousel number 3, she said, and it would be out in anywhere from a half hour to two hours. Two hours? Ugh!

Joe and I went and sat by carousel Number 3. After perhaps two minutes, it stopped moving. And it remained still for a long time.

It was 5 p.m. when we started waiting. We were hungry. We looked at our dinner vouchers. $13 a piece for dinner. Not bad. We look around. There are no eateries anywhere in the baggage claim area. The only way to get to the restaurants would be back though security — and we no longer had valid boarding passes since we wouldn't get them until we came back to the airport in another two days. There was a coffee shop with a few uninspiring looking danishes. I wanted a real dinner after all this, goddammit! Not a danish.

We continued to wait. An hour and a half later, the carousel still was not moving. Joe went to check up on the status of our "request." Different employees were behind the counter. Another lady told him the last lady must have been mistaken. What she should have told us was the wait time is AT LEAST TWO hours. Oh! Haha! Minor mistake!

He came back and delivered the bad news to me. I greeted the news with a burst of profanity before resigning myself back into my seat for more waiting. I commiserated about our bad luck with the middle-aged guy sitting nearby who'd been staring at the same carousels since we arrived. A miserable looking Chinese woman was leaning on his shoulder. He told me she'd flown 18 hours from China and her baggage was lost. They'd been waiting for four hours already. She spoke almost no English. He spoke no Chinese. He said they were getting married in April. Mail order bride, huh. Weird. That's one of those things you always hear about but you never meet anyone who does it.

We continue waiting. At the 2.5-hour mark, Joe went back to check on the baggage request again. A third employee told him she's sorry, the last lady made a mistake. What she should have told us is the wait is AT LEAST FOUR hours. This lady at least knew enough to explain that the delay was due to a couple hundred flights getting canceled the day before. Employees usually assigned to get back luggage for people like us had been directed to sort out the luggage mess from the previous day.

By this time, I was angry enough to throw something through the window. Now I understood why the other people were screaming at the ladies behind the counter.

After three hours of waiting, the carousel started creaking along again. We were relieved to see our luggage finally come around. Joe was delirious with joy. He had been afraid our baggage would disappear and be sent off to Frankfurt or elsewhere in Never-never-land.

Off we went in the shuttle to the hotel, where we were quite pleased with our room. By 9 p.m., we were sitting down in the hotel restaurant. I ate something light because my stomach was feeling a bit acidic by then, but I had my eye on the steak for dinner the following day.

The next morning we woke up and wondered what to do with ourselves. The Detroit Zoo sounded fun, or maybe the science museum. But they were many miles away and would have meant renting a car, and we decided we didn't want to go that bad. So we headed back down to the restaurant for breakfast. It was closed all day for Easter. No steak for me!

We quickly discovered that all food establishments that delivered to the hotel also were closed. That left us with the eateries within walking distance: McDonald's, Big Boy and a Middle Eastern joint. Big Boy it was!

Cost of the breakfast bar for two people plus two beverages: $24. Value of our breakfast vouchers: $5 each.

Not to be ungrateful or anything, but... can you even get breakfast at McDonald's for $5 anymore? So we burned through both breakfast vouchers and both lunch vouchers (worth $7) each to pay for breakfast, and the tip came out of our own pocket. Dinner later that day was the Middle Eastern place. It was different. Interesting.

Monday we headed back to the airport to fly back to Japan. When we went to check our luggage and get our boarding passes, we got some good news: the airline placed us in business class! We both jumped up and down like little girls. Last fall when we were planning this trip, I asked a travel agent to price out first class tickets for us. The tickets cost $8,500 A PIECE. Now we were getting them for no extra charge.

Since we had a couple hours to wait until the plane took off, we were allowed to wait in Northwest's "World Perks Lounge," which is the place they let all the first-class travelers hang out in style. My eyes quickly zeroed in on the drinks and snacks I saw everyone carrying around and went on a mission to find all the freebies they were handing out. There were free drinks — coffee drinks, hot chocolate, pop and even wine and liquor — and a range of snacks. I parked myself in front of the TVs playing CNN and slurped on a hot chocolate as a warm up to a couple glasses of wine and cheese and crackers. And veggies and dip. And trail mix. And two snickerdoodle cookies.

Needless to say, I was stuffed and happy by the time we boarded the plane. The first thing the stewardess did was offer to hang my coat and offer me a glass of champagne. I was grinning ear to ear when I saw those luxurious seats with plenty of space in between them. They were the kind with electronic controls so you can adjust the back and prop up your feet if you want. Not quite Lazy Boys, but more like a dentist chair. Heckuva lot better than the poor bastards sitting back in coach.

Then they handed me the menu for the trip. Giddy about our luck, I read off the meals we had to look forward to:

To Start:
Appetizers of smoked salmon on crostini and creamy herbed goat cheese on petite pumpernickel

Dinner:
Salad of mixed greens with mini pears, dried cranberries, crumbled blue cheese and toasted slivered almonds with a skewer of Asian grilled shrimp offered a la carte
Assorted breads

Choice of

Peppered beef tenderloin with balsamic glaze, roasted red potato, carrots and patty pan squash

Mushroom and spinach stuffed chicken with herb risotto and broccolini

Potato crusted steelhead salmon on lemon beurre blanc sauce, wild and white rice with cranberries and haricot vert

Dessert:
Fresh fruit
Krystal Pure aged cheddar and ash aged Camembert
Lady finger charlotte filled with wild berries and raspberry mousse
Port wine
Liqueurs
Coffee or a selection of Stash Tea
Lily O'Brien's Chocolates

Mid-Flight snack:
Ramen noodles, smoked turkey sandwich with melted Swiss cheese or crudites and dip

On Arrival:
Fresh fruit and warmed breads

Choice of

Cheddar cheese and bacon omelet, roasted potatoes and pork sausage links

Cold cereal and fruit yogurt

Cold plate of Asian glazed New York strip steak, chardonnay salmon, citrus cous cous and green and yellow bean salad

Coffee or a selection of Stash Tea

I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I sat in my seat reading the menu off to Joe, stumbling over the stuff that's supposed to be so gourmet I don't know how to pronounce it. I settled on the beef tenderloin, and started playing with my seat, my blanket and pillow, my slippers, my eye mask and the personal TV attached to my chair. Yes, each chair had it's own TV screen with movies on demand.

An older steward sauntered over and leaned down to Joe, who was sitting in the aisle seat. "Sir," he said with a delightful flaming inflection, "You ordered the Muslim meal?"

Joe confirmed and felt obligated to explain that he's not Muslim, but he did indeed order the Muslim meal because he thought it would be better.

"Well," the steward replied, "We did plan the Muslim meal for you, so you'll have to have that."

I began laughing hysterically. The steward offered the chagrined Joe his meal instead, but Joe politely turned it down. He made his bed, now he had to lay in it.

Over the next 13 hours, while I feasted on beef tenderloin and lady finger charlotte filled with wild berries and raspberry mousse, Joe was faced with his Muslim meal yet again. This time it appeared to be a little fancier... lentils and beans and rice. When the stewardess delivered it to him the first time, she assured him that it actually wasn't that bad, it was better than it looked.

The beef tenderloin, by the way, was superb.

Honestly, though, I'd stuffed myself so silly in the Wold Perks Lounge that I ended up giving half my food to Joe anyway through most of the trip. So he didn't really suffer so much.

Joe and I watched Juno together on our TVs. The wait staff kissed ass like real pros. There were free snacks on a little island in the middle of the business class section, and occasionally they'd bring them around and offer them to us. The snacks included full size Dove chocolate bars.

We arrived back in Osaka without incident and proceeded to retrieve our bags and purchase new train tickets for the 2.5 hour train ride home. It was 11 p.m. when we got back to our apartment.

So the trip was bittersweet. Two lost days of vacation and two bullet train tickets down the toilet, but a very pleasant ride back home and a great story to tell.

Now, my only task is to write Northwest a somewhat brusque letter complaining that while business class treatment was nice, it doesn't do anything to replace the $800 we lost when you add up two lost days of vacation and the train tickets. Maybe we can get a credit toward our next flight. I figure it can't hurt to ask.

1 comment:

Natalie said...

Hahaha! This made me smile