Sunday, September 8, 2013

Flying The Teutonic Skies

It was I have to confess, a huge irony. Two days before I was to take off from Miami on an Air Berlin flight to Europe, I read quite by chance a story on Slate titled I Have Business Meetings To Attend And I Have No Clothes. The gist of the story was that Air Berlin was being shredded on the pages of the social media, the Great Equalizer of the 21st century for not only losing passengers luggage left and right but for not giving a Good God Damn. "Oh well," my wife texted me philosophically "...too late now" after I sent her a link to the story. I suppose all I could do was hope for the best, but my heart sank as I read deeper into the story about the Air Berlin Captain who took off from Berlin to Stockholm luggage-free leaving two hundred people stranded with no recourse in the great white Scandinavian north. Well I reasoned, Miami is America and this is an airline partnered with American Airlines and as bad as their in-flight service is, they've never lost any of my bags....the chances of me being stuck in Rome in my not too attractive skivvies is remote.

That was when I met the charming Transportation Safety Administration lady in the Miami Airport whose bad mood radiated almost as far as her impressive shelf-like breasts. She was stacked, but not with English and somehow I had misplaced Concourse E or F or some other impenetrable dusty corner of North America's most mis-begotten airport. The only thing I could think as she managed to mistake me for a terrorist who needed a finger wagging was that she wouldn't last five minutes at Key West. PD, where our Chief has gone on a customer service drive, and he's taking no prisoners when it comes to efficient good manners when dealing with the public, our customers.

I watched my bag disappear into the maw of Air Berlin's conveyor belt, wondering if my motorcycle boots and gloves, my new shirts and all my long pants, my jar of the digestively critical psycillium would ever be reunited with me...not to mention my waterproof Frogg Togg riding gear...Meanwhile the cheerful check-in dude tackled my seating request with a will speaking a bizarre mixture of German accented English and Cuban Spanish.  It occurred to me that running a German airline in a Spanish speaking North American city poses certain logistical problems, and where they find multi-lingual employees in such an improbable trio of languages I can't begin to imagine. He was exceptionally nice and because he set my poorly tuned Gaydar to a screaming high setting I have to believe he must have a particular fondness for bears, because I closely resemble one I am told, lacking as I do only the main attribute of a red blooded homosexual man. In any event as you can see he got me my window seat in the flying cigar box I was to call home for the nine hours it took to get to Berlin.

Service on the plane was actually quite good, with a bevy of smartly turned out young people serving drinks and food and bottles of water until lights out. The only great handicap I found was that because they are based in Berlin everyone involved insisted on speaking German which is a very inconvenient language in which to communicate, especially if what you  have to say involves anything more complex than asking for a room (Ein Zimmer für Ein nacht, bitte) or pointing to the menu. Memorably when my wife and I were driving through Austria, where they speak a form of German no easier than that in the Fatherland, I thought I was ordering us ham salads and we ended up with a substantially more robust dinner of potato omelettes. Close enough I thought, but it was an oversight that my wife refuses to overlook and takes great pleasure in mentioning it from time to time when she gets tired of listening to me converse in the languages I do know.

I tried studying German in school but when I discovered the language has 23 different ways to say the and the verb  at the  end of the sentence goes, I was a long way toward being flummoxed.  Then I found out at some later stage, when I was drowning in subject verb agreements and verb disagreements just as I had when forced to take Latin at a more tender age, German I discovered is it's own secret society of grammatical weirdness and little schoolboy me got worn out by umlauts -ö ä ü - eg: Änderungen, which lengthens the vowel they  sit over. (English Fuehrer becomes German Führer pronounced the same way) and then there were all those sodding esses which get strung together because in German words are joined up apparently at random to create new nouns of immense length. All of which caused me to give up ever learning the language, much like Latin an equally idiotic irrational way of speaking justified by its antiquity as a root of modern English. German just seems to me like a branch of English that spent too long in the barbaric wastes outside the civilizing influence of the Roman Empire, which if they never got to using horses sensibly or learning multiplication at least Romans valued food and art, central heating and warfare but even their legions couldn't take on the wild eyed Huns speaking their barbaric language living in mud huts and fighting like fiends. I did discover at breakfast that authentic German pretzels are quite delicious, so all is not lost for them, even though their language is impossible for normal people to understand.

Which has nothing to do with flying Air Berlin, except to say I felt like a fish out of water. I rarely find myself in a situation where I can't understand anything of what is going on about me, but Air Berlin put me right there. They were past masters at it, handing out magazines with pages covered in umlauts and giving me complicated Germanic seating instructions as I boarded the hellish aircraft. Like a Cuban gardener fresh off the raft working in Coral Gables I followed the direction of her flapping hand and took off down the indicated aisle hoping for he best as the Fräulein barked her instructions at my back in a language that sounded like a cross between medieval English and an angry flu patient with a large frog in her throat.  

And the other thing was every bloke was accompanied by a female with blonde hair. Every single one. It was extraordinary. I got an eyeful of the Mädchen's locks sitting in front of me. She threw her hair back at me suddenly after dinner and with a thud dropped her seat into the full reclining position as though neither I nor my knees existed. I felt like Poland in September 1939, but unlike Poland I didn't try to fight back. I know when I'm beaten. The next morning wasn't I surprised to discover she was American. I should have guessed because when the nice German people in the row in front of hers moved their seats down they politely warned the crass American people sitting them that they wanted to stretch out. Score another point for the people who speak an impenetrable language but have the perfect manners for close quarters living. People in Key West should behave like Germns.

But I was not alone in my feeble lonely lack of German-ness. There were pockets of resistance scattered throughout the very full plane. Before take off I was serenaded by a woman with a very loud penetrating voice regaling her party of friends and family seated behind me to an endless excruciating monologue about something of absolutely no importance at all. It went on and on, the same tone, the same volume, the same piercing pitch. I thought I would know Portuguese by the time we got to Berlin, but mercifully someone, her long suffering spouse perhaps flipped the "off" switch and the record stopped. In the morning when the monologue picked up again exactly where it had left off the night before I discovered my Portuguese speakers were actually southern Italians speaking a mixture of some impenetrable dialect mixed in with some actual Italian. Germans who were Americans and Italians masquerading as Brazilians. Score another point for the quiet well mannered German contingent. Air Berlin was looking good. Now if only they haven't lost my luggage.

I was hoping to sit alone in my window seat from Miami but no such luck. my neighbor was a very sleepy multi-tasking Swede from Montevideo ( don't ask, either he lacked or pretended to lack the English to explain) took up residence at my side. He liked flying Air Berlin, especially when the barbarians came by with a package imprinted with what appeared to be a parachute on the outside. 

That didn't look like a good sign to me but he perked up quite a bit as he impulsively opened his parachute package. I was ready to hoard mine for a rainy day as it were, but it turned out his carefully wrapped black bag had orange foam earplugs, a tube of lotion or possibly of crazy glue, included I hoped in case the plane started to disintegrate, and instead of a potentially very useful silk parachute he pulled out a natty pair of low cut cotton mixture socks. Socks? WTF? I expected him to get upset but he smiled broadly at me holding up his brand new footwear and said  succinctly "Much better than American Airlines." Which was a fair point I have to concede. The biggest Airline in the World has never given me a gift of socks or a parachute. 

We were fully equipped with multiple channels of music, television (I watched and greatly enjoyed once again the pilot episode of Downton Abbey after a sumptuous dinner of pasta, a peculiar potato salad that tasted of artificial crab and a sliver of cake composed mostly of crunchy sugar) and films all available on demand in the back of the headrest in front which also had the earphone socket, no longer inaccessible in the arm of the seat, and a computer socket which permitted me to give my mini iPad a continuous low charge, so I spent much of the nine hour flight reading while gloating at the thought of all the electricity I was storing. The Swede watched TV and slept, at the same time, perhaps to save time.

The transatlantic flight went by as such things do. I mostly read and wrote this and figured I was simply living through a short night shift at work. Sleep came and went in fits and starts (not what happens at work!). No children cried, but the classical music was heavy on moaning violins and tiptoeing pianos, not much of the lush orchestral romantics I prefer and the movies lacked substance as they must even on German airplanes it seems.

Brunhild came by like the matron at my boarding school decades ago and with an imperious flick of her finger ordered me to lower my actually she spat something guttural at me while smiling broadly which was doubtless good customer service but the contrasting combination gave her instructions a menacing sub text. I stared and smiled back like the village idiot I feel like much of the time. Her finger only stopped wagging when I, the disorganized barbarian finished being entranced by it and twigged that it wasn't wagging AT me but indicating merely that the blind had to come down. It seemed daft to me as it was getting to be pitch lack outside but I wasn't arguing even as she wasn't menacing me, indeed a glance around the cabin showed everybody else had done as they were told and my porthole was the last one showing a view of the lovely dying sun at 41,000 feet.

I snagged this barely legal picture before Brunhild of the wagging finger reached my aisle.

The bulk of the flight I spent with the blonde American woman's seat at full recline putting her head pretty much in my lap while the mysterious narcoleptic Swede next to me slouched further and further down in his seat, his legs spreading ever wider in a most appealing come hither kind of way. I'd have had him if comatose Scandinavian men were my cup of tea but he got off the plane unmolested (by me) though I'm not sure my right knee and right thigh will be the same after the all night physical contacts.
  In one final blow to in-flight Teutonic efficiency the travel screen in front of me lied like a rug. In English it said Texel Airport in Berlin was twelve minutes away even as we drifted along high above the English Midlands. The German screen said something completely different, and pretty much unintelligible, which eventually they translated for me. Twelve minutes suddenly became a much more reasonable hour of flying one I left:
I thought I was ready to get to Berlin and catch my flight on to Rome but the lines and the chaos in the Berlin airport were spectacular as we got squished off the plane and herded through passport control where a board looking agent swiped my passport stamped it with a delicious old fashioned stamp and there I was, snug inside the European Union.
My luggage arrived and would you believe it, as I stood munching a huge heart shaped chocolate handed to me as I got off the plane in Rome my bag was the first one out the chute and I now officially love Air Berlin and look forward to flying them again. Giovanni was at the gate and we drove an hour home to Terni and his loving wife who had prepared the usual lunch for me, truffle pasta, sausage kabobs and roast potatoes, grilled red peppers, tomato salad and home made apple pie for dessert washed down with an Italian Riesling. I was already in a coma of fatigue and though I had checked out the BMW K1200S Giovanni had procured for me for my riding pleasure all I could do was sleep.

Tomorrow as the woman said, is another hot sunny day in central Italy and I have a motorcycle to ride. Mamma Mia! 


Martha Tenney said...


RichardM said...

You should write while flying more often. Very entertaining!

Garythetourist said...

I agree with Richard. This was very entertaining writing.