A six year old girl's badger disappeared at DCA, and all I can think about is the little things.
We are now in the Wal-Mart Age of Travel, where commoditization of air travel combined with a lack of competition mean that you either get crappy service at a medium price, or really crappy service at unbelievably low prices.
Google's Project Fi is the best cell provider in America, especially for international travel, and the competition is not close.
In this series, I'll dig into some books to read while on an airplane going somewhere that are actually worth reading.
The typical airport thriller sees (usually) an American thrown into some international plot or dangerous situation overseas, where (invariably) his wits are all that can save him from some dangerous situation or another. It's a sort of fantasy for the types of people who spend a lot of time on airplanes, a fictionalized version of travel that glosses over the airplane lavatory and the jet lag and adds made-up well-armed terrorists or stolen government secrets to spice things up.
In 1937, after penning a review of Wee Willie Winkie that commented on the rather perverse obsession Shirley Temple's fans and managers had with the nine-year-old actress (viz: "Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is a complete totsy" and "Her admirers — middle aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire."), Henry Graham Greene OM CH (b. 2 Oct. 1904 Hertfordshire England d. 3 April 1991 Vevey Switzerland) was forced to live in Mexico while a lawsuit from Twentieth Century Fox worked itself out, ultimately bankrupting the publication that ran the review. While in Mexico, Greene was inspired to write The Power and the Glory, about a nameless whiskey priest (a term Greene created ibid.) hiding from anti-Catholic Mexican government forces while performing religious rites he no longer believed in. The Power an the Glory raised hackles with the Catholic Church, which demanded Greene make changes -- Greene's reply was that the copyright was owned by the publisher -- and which led to a private meeting with Pope Paul VI. It is also rightfully considered one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.
Graham Greene is one of the preeminent English language writers of the twentieth century. One piece of advice often given to aspiring writers is "write what you know". Greene wrote about what he knew: lapsed Catholicism (at times Greene referred to himself as a "Catholic atheist), espionage, depression, the dubious behavior and naïvete of major powers in developing countries, private meetings with the Pope. Greene converted to Catholicism after meeting his future wife, whom he was later estranged from but, being Catholic, she refused to grant him a divorce and he took up with at least two other women after he left his wife in 1947. During World War II, Greene's sister recruited him to MI6, and his globetrotting through the undeveloped bits of the world in the 1930s led to his being stationed in Sierra Leone under the supervision of his friend and, it turned out, Soviet agent Kim Philby (a member of the Cambridge Five and one of the most successful Soviet spies in Great Britain after the War.). Greene traveled the world -- prior to the War, Greene had visited Liberia and Mexico, and after the war he would spend time in Haiti and Africa and have a small hand in Castro's revolution, receiving one of Castro's paintings as a gift -- and did all the things he wrote about and probably more that wasn't fit to publish.
His time in Africa led to his book A Burnt-Out Case, about an architect famous for his religious buildings moving to a leper colony in Africa to avoid the spotlight, helping to design buildings for the colony, beginning to find real meaning helping the lepers, and finally being dragged into a tragic ending by the shallow egotism of people who couldn't let the artist be. After he broke off his affair with Lady Catherine Walston, he wrote The End of the Affair. Greene could be accused of lacking in creativity, but he definitely made up for it by writing his own ludicrous biography.
Greene's experiences watching Westerners (and many times Western Powers, by metaphorical extension) misunderstand and then bungle interactions in what we would now call the developing world permeates his more serious novels (Greene divided his books into 'entertainments' and 'novels'). The Quiet American, one of his best works and famous for its prescience about the US policy blunders in Vietnam (The Quiet American was published in 1955, and depicts a naïve American Harvard graduate working to overthrow the Vietnamese government based on some ideas about foreign policy which Greene clearly finds absurd, and yet predicted exactly how this would play out over the next twenty years.), focuses on Fowler, a journalist from Britain who is reporting on the French war efforts in Indochina, while watching his Vietnamese mistress slip away into the arms of Pyle, an American CIA agent working undercover. The title is itself a morbid joke: the only quiet American is a dead American.
Not all of Greene's works were so serious. Our Man in Havana is a Cold War spy farce the equal to Top Secret that focuses on mediocre vacuum salesman James Wormold, who is recruited into MI6 to report on what's going on in Cuba. The whole thing is a parody of the whole 'national intelligence' thing, believing without question reports from local informants. Our Man in Havana is the last of Greene's 'entertainments', and arguably his best.
Greene didn't limit himself to novels, either. He wrote the screenplay for The Third Man, one of the greats of British cinema, where actor Orson Welles added the now-famous lines of dialog:
You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
to Greene's screenplay. This is only one of Greene's screenplays, and many of his novels, including Our Man in Havana and The Quiet American, were adapted to film (in the later case, twice, once in 1958 starring Audie Murphy and Michael Redgrave, then later in 2002 with Brendan Fraser and Michael Caine, neither of them particularly well-regarded, although the later has the virtue of casting a Vietnamese woman in the role of the Phuong.).
The thing is, despite the heavy topics - the French occupation of Indochina, an affair with the spouse of an English Baron, lepresy... - Greene's books are breezy and easy to power through, written in clear and concise language and none exceeding, say, 250 pages in print. A typical reader should be able to read an entire Greene novel in, say, ten hours, which is ideal for a three day business trip.
Most airport thrillers are written in mills and churned out based on how some ghost writer might imagine a spy might behave. They're hastily rendered facsimiles of the writer's imagination, under a deadline to pump out another one this month. Graham Greene lived the life most of these poor writers aspire to describe -- having exciting adventures in exotic locations -- only he manages to capture the weariness and cynicism that comes from seeing the same damn problems everywhere you go, always with the same non-solutions. Greene's literary fiction is his own autobiography, with thinly masked stand-ins for himself and situations pulled from his life with just enough changed to avoid libeling real people with his characters. He did all this before the age of jet travel, when going to Africa involved boats on sea and river, when living in Havana meant Batista and then Revolution, when even the most modern medicine struggled to contend with the tropical diseases that are now either wiped out or well under control. Airport fiction writers love to imagine death-defying protagonists. Graham Greene was one.
Wherein I spend three days in a fifteen hundred year old imperial city giggling about my hotel room
Prologue: I plan to write these trip reports more often, but by no means are these "travel guides" since I will make no pretense of going to these cities for any reason other than my personal enjoyment. Think of them more as "trip reports" or whatever, but as with everything else in here, expect this to be opinionated, for those opinions to be wrong, and to be mostly for my own amusement.
I've been to Vienna once before, last September, but that was after a work-related trip to Munich and this was pure vacation. The emotional state of a post-work "vacation" is a very different beast from an actual, proper, no work expected capital 'V' Vacation. There's probably a whole article I could write reminding Americans how to take a proper capital 'V' Vacation, but in truth this was my first capital 'V' Vacation in nearly two years and I suffer from the same leisure-aversion malady that afflicts most of my fellow countrymen.
Visiting Vienna, particularly staying in the First District (where all the history is), it is impossible to forget that you are staying in a proper Imperial City. At the center of the Museum Quarter is a three story tall statue of the Empress Maria Theresa. Every European capital has a museum for the national crown jewels. Most of them are not then, also, a thousand-year history of Catholicism and politics across Western Europe, while doubling as a history of just one family. Just sitting in the middle of a room is the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire, and off in the corner the Imperial Cross, a reliquary for the True Cross, and the head of the Holy Lance. At one point, Vienna was the center of an empire that stretched continuously from the Rhineland to the frontiers of the Ottoman Empire, with annexes in Spain, Mexico, North Africa. Vienna was the center of this empire, and even today is one of the largest cities in the European Union and the headquarters of, among other organizations, the IAEA, OPEC, and an alphabet soup of United Nations and EU organizations. They also have one hell of a café scene.
So these are my notes from spending three days in Vienna.
On the last trip, I stayed at the Hotel Bristol Wien1, located right next to the Wiener Staatsoper2. I enjoyed that hotel, and respected that it tried very hard to maintain the careful balance between being an 'historic old hotel' while trying to avoid being a museum.
This time around I opted to take advantage of a Cash+Points deal and stay at the Park Hyatt Vienna. This is the kind of hotel that takes pride telling you on the front page of the in-room hotel literature where the hotel restaurant gets its asparagus.
The gentleman at the front desk showed me around the lobby and up into my room, which was a little irritating because I was trying very hard to keep my cool when what I really wanted to do was giggle at the absurd luxury of it all. My room (and I assume most rooms) had a marble hallway with an all-marble bathroom, which is the sort of design that leaves very little space between ostentatious and tasteful and, in this case, manages to fall on tasteful side.
The hotel is well-appointed, with a restaurant -- more on that later -- and a scotch and cigar lounge in a wood-paneled room3. The hotel is located about two blocks from the Michaelerplatz and the Hofburg, and right next to the high end outdoor shopping mall that culminates not too far from Stephansplatz and St. Stephen's Cathedral. This puts it right on the northern edge of the big outdoor shopping street, and when I arrived there was a carnival going on in square that hosts the Advent Market every Christmas.
If I had one complaint, it's that this hotel has a scale in the bathroom, which exactly quantified the extent of my growing girth since turning thirty a few years ago. But life is about setting worthwhile goals and taking steps to achieve them, and that scale set a very clear goal, and for that I thank you, Park Hyatt Vienna, for your very rude but very necessary room amenity.
This is the second time a five-star hotel's concierge sent me to Labstelle, a restaurant located next to a statue of Johannes Gutenberg which in the US would be some protected city landmark but in a city as full of statues as Vienna is a nice place to chill out and eat your ice cream cone.
When I arrived at Labstelle, the restaurant was empty, but almost every table had a little "RESERVIERT" sign on it, so my guess is that it's possible to get a reservation within 24 hours, but you should probably be sure to have a reservation. I note for reference this is a Monday night. I assume Friday and Saturday requires more forethought.
I dined al fresco, which is Italian for 'in a narrow courtyard between two buildings that random people and the occassional homeless person walk through'. It was a pleasant evening, but the people freely walking through the courtyard meant that I had such encounters as a (I assume homeless) man in a suit and sandals ask me for money with a folded up lamenated sign and families on vacation speaking about ten decibels louder than necessary about where they will go next and employees of the architecture firm in the second floor of the neighboring building coming back in from a smoke break. It was actually mostly pleasant, but "everything was fine" makes for mediocre storytelling.
Being that this was my second time to Labstelle, I decided to actually take some notes on the place to remember where it was, what I ate, &c. The last time I was here was for birthday #32, where I may have already had most of a bottle of champagne and my memory of the evening was fuzzy aside from the general impression of 'I ate too much, and it was very good'. I think my note-taking and my eating alone may have given the impression that I was a food critic or something4 because I got a lot more attention than I'm used to from a restaurant like this. I decided to respond to this with grace and magnanimity, while playing it cool since I didn't exactly lie to them and I wasn't certain what was going on and I'm pretty sure telling my waitress "I'm not actually a food critic" would be weird.
The I think manager/bartender came out to deliver my second cocktail, a gin rum and lemon lime w/ salt and pepper mixture that did a great job of evoking a good margarita while also transcending the margarita genre into something more refreshing and less syrupy-gross-American-happy-hour. The same gentleman came out later to ask how my meal had gone, and to deliver an additional plate with some fruit, a piece of meringue, and an interesting pastry with some sort of cheese creme filling and mint, all on what looked like sytrofoam bits but which had a nice light crunch to them. He also brought out, with the second drink, some Iranian honey-vinegar concoction I'd never heard of before (and which I missed the name of) with a dried Viennese lemon. I asked how I should consume this little mix, and was told to go wild, and landed on putting the h.-v.c. on the dried lemon and sorta sucking it off, since the lemon was too chewy for my tastes. This was a flavor mix I'd never had before, and it was a delight, and I wish I had the actual name of the h.-v.c. so that I could look it up and try to duplicate it.
I scribbled some notes about what I ate, a four course chef's choice with two cocktails and a surprise opening appetizer, and I could recount the whole meal, which would frankly be quite boring for the both of us, so I will focus on the most interesting bits. The first two official courses of the meal -- a venison terrine and "wild pig" -- stick out. The venison terrine was light and refreshing, not the usual description of a terrine, and was helped along by some small mushrooms which had a citrus aspect, adding a nice acid to the mix, and by a small bit of greens to add the necessary bitterness. Light and refreshing terrine. The wild pig was smoked and served in thin slices, and the flavor was rich and complex and a little gamey in the best possible way. The other two courses, an asparagus soup (apparently Vienna has a deep love for asparagus once it comes into season) and a veal and asparagus dish5 were well-done but not as surprising as "light and refreshing venison".
The Labstelle dinner was my first night, and my day of travel was catching up with me6, and I crashed shortly after dinner, full from an unexpectedly six-course four-course dinner, and slept for nine hours.
During my trip, I stopped by the Vienna Clock Museum. It's a small museum with about a thousand clocks on exhibit starting with the earliest timekeeping devices and concluding with exhibits of modern wrist watches, with everything in between. Japanese clocks, set to start every "day" at sundown and measure off twelve "hours" a day, calibrated to the season. Analog musical clocks that play like the world's most elaborate player pianos, on the hour. Large decorative clocks where, on the hour, an mechanical miners spring to life and a whole excavation project is played out in automata. The museum itself was pretty empty when I visited, but the docents were friendly and, for €7, an interesting visit if you're into these types of things.
Vienna is a great city for museums, with several clustered around the Museum Quarter. The Leopold museum is one of the largest collections of modern Viennese art, mostly Gustav Klimt and his short-lived heir Egon Schiele. A separate, special exhibit at the Albertina featured Schiele works from non-Leopold sources and, having visited the Leopold during my last trip to Vienna, decided to try out the Albertina exhibit.
Simultaneous to the chronologically arranged Egon Schiele exhibit -- which touched on some pretty dark periods of his life, like the time he ended up in jail for corrupting minors for nude paintings of the children of a small town he was living in with his mistress, charges that were eventually dropped -- was an exhibit of Monet and Picasso which was much better attended. If museums are hard up for attendance, it seems a reliable way to sell tickets is to throw out a big banner out front that says "Impressionists". I believe this is mostly because people recognize Impressionist paintings from their computer wallpapers. I am briefly amused at the thought of someone using one of Egon Schiele's nude self-portraits as computer wallpaper.
I also opted to visit the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna's art museum for everything from deep pre-history to roughly Renaissance and a bit after. The museum had a special exhibit on the oldest gold mines in Europe, found in Bulgaria and dated to roughly the 3rd century BC. The rooms in the permanent exhibit are two stories tall plus, and many of them are covered floor to ceiling with art. You see Peter Paul Reubens paintings in textbooks, and you wonder why you should care. You should care because his paintings are all life size or bigger; two story tall depictions of classical themes in meticulous Northern Renaissance detail. There is an enormous collection of tapestries depicting the Habsburg wars for northern Africa, to protect their Spanish holdings from the Ottomans. And at the end of all this, you can sit down under a beautiful naturally-lit dome and enjoy a glass of reasonably priced wine and write down your notes from the trip.
I rounded out my museum visits by going to the two branches of the Vienna Jewish Museum. I started at the annex at the Judenplatz, which sits where the old Medieval Synagogue was until Duke Albrecht V decided to expel all the Jews from Austria in 1421, and the entrance faces a monument to Austrian Holocaust victims. This museum was mostly focused on Medieval Jewish life in Vienna before the expulsion, and leads down to the site of what remains of the synagogue. The main museum, located in the Palais Eskeles, focuses more on twentieth century Jewish history, and had a special exhibit on how anti-modernists at the turn of the last century targeted department stores and the Jewish owners of some of those department stores over how global capitalism was destroying traditional values, concluding with the Aryanization of the Jewish-owned department stores after the Anschluss. There is an ongoing effort either sponsored by the museum or organized through it (I'm not quite sure) to reunite families with the belongings and heirlooms taken from them during the 1930s. Perhaps to hammer home the point that we are not as civilized and modern as some of us would like to believe, the main campus of the Jewish Museum was the only place in Vienna that had armed private security manning the doors and keeping a close eye on people walking through.
Not visited in this trip, but worth your time, are the Leopold (mostly modern art, mostly Klimt and Schiele), the Staatsoper Vienna (where the concessions only take cards you can do the actual slide over carbon paper thing, which meant I was paying a lot of foreign transaction fees for all that champagne.), the Kaisergruft (where Habsburgs from across the globe have been buried for four hundred years), the various exhibits in the Hofburg (crown jewels, Sisi Museum, Spanish riding, &c.), Schonbrunn (the Habsburg summer home, a sort of mini-Versaille, and a jam packed musuem building).
All hotel restaurants are mediocre. This has been my experience from everything from 3-star chain locations in Albuquerque to 5-star boutiques in Tokyo. My expert opinion is that this is because hotels are not, contrary to popular belief, restaurants. This was reaffirmed with two meals at the Park Hyatt, and though the food was serviceable it did not justify the cost.
This mistake was mostly mine, suckered in by the otherwise stellar trappings of the hotel. Perhaps this one would be different; the cafe was solid, after all, and the prices at the restaurant were on the high side of normal, not the usual thirty per cent markup I've come to expect.
And in truth, everything was fine, it's just that it wasn't great, and for the price I could have had great. My lunch risotto was creamy and properly cooked, as was the braised lamb shoulder with dinner the next night, and the wine pairing suggested there showed that the waiter knew what was up. The problem was the vegetables, and there were two problems here: (1) they were underseasoned and not integrated with the rest of the plate, giving the impression that they were added as a colorful afterthought and (2) they were the exact same between a vegetarian risotto and a hunk of meat7. Fortunately, this was all saved by the room I had the lamb in.
However, the evening was saved when I received rapid fire texts and phone calls from an unknown +43 number that turned out to be an old friend I had tried to contact before the trip, who now lives in the eastern bits of Austria, and who, through another mutual friend that I had dinner with the night before, learned that I was in town and that he hadn't given me his phone number so my text messages must have deeply confused the unknown German heir to his previous number.
With a little google work and the help of one of the hotel concierges7 we ended up going to American Bar by Stephansplatz.
I don't usually check reviews before visiting a place, because I end up in over-analysis land, trying to understand why there is an extra half-star between two restaurants based on five hundred aggregated patron reviews. Bars are an exception, because there are many bars whose potables do not live up to their pretentions and prices.
American Bar lived up to expectations, with an emphasis on their mixed drinks. This is not a place for a Scotch neat (although that didn't stop me) -- the brown liquid selection is pretty standard mid-grade stuff, which is great for mixing and perfectly fine for drinking neat, but nothing revelatory -- and the beer selection is the standard Germanic bier8. The cocktails, though, were spot on, and refreshing and enjoyable. American Bar is on a side street, and the indoor bit is all wood paneling with six foot tall ceilings in the downstairs bathroom area which, as a person taller than six feet, made for an uncomfortable two minutes, and the sidewalk bit is pretty standard patio fare. The bartenders were young and clearly enjoyed being bartenders, and the few moments where their not being experienced bartenders was offset by a general happy attitude. And why not be happy, when you're slinging quality booze juice at reasonable prices in a prime location?
The following morning, for breakfast, I visited the simply raw bakery a block north of the Park Hyatt. The muesli was as good as I've had, and the coffee was very, very good as well.
This is what I think I love the most about Vienna. There are myriad museums, sure, and the city has that old grand European feel in a way that feels less forced upon you than in, say, Paris. As a coffee junky, I can safely say the Viennese coffee scene is the best in Europe. The Café Maria Theresia may be the single best fancy-pants coffee drink in the world. By virtue of being located right where Germany and Italy meet Eastern Europe, Vienna is a city of fusion food -- Wiener Schnitzel is a Habsburg Viennese take on northern Italian veal cutlet, and Hungarian goulash mixes with the fine German tradition of pulling every bit of flavor possible out of a head of cabbage and some vinegar. Don't even get me started about the pastries that get served with the coffee...
Which was built in the late 1800s and, I was sad to find out, was forced to Aryanize in 1938 under German occupation and its Jewish owner was forced to sell and then was deported to, and died at, Theresienstadt. This tidbit was not highlighted on the wall describing the hotel's history.
Where I decided, having never seen an opera, I should start off with Tannhauser. I had forgotten that Wagner was not shy about forcing the audience to live through his German nationalistic fantasy lands, and with two intermissions this opera ended up running over five hours.
I am not a cigar smoker, so I cannot comment intelligently on the cigars, although they had a sizable collection of Cuban cigars, and as I noted in a previous post I have been to Cuba and I can tell you that I did enjoy the handful of cigars I was more or less culturally obligated to try there.
On the other hand, I AM qualified to comment on the scotch selection, and I felt it needed some work. Every time I go abroad, I go into bars with amazing lists of single malt Speysides and sherry cask finished Islays and the magical stuff the Japanese are producing (seriously, if you've been living under a rock for a decade, the Japanese are the current kings of distilled malted barley), but then when they go to North America they order Crown Royal, Jim Beam, and maybe, if they're very knowledgeable, you'll see something from Hudson or something like that. There is one exception to this, which is a bar in Copenhagen that has all manner of fantastic American whiskey and bourbon, but which I will not name because I don't want to run the risk of the place being overrun by tourists.
This poor selection gives the impression that Americans produce crap, which was a popular refrain but which is starting to change, particularly with beer now that US craft beers are more readily available in Europe and the Germans are realizing their smug Teutonic sense of superiority in the suds department is unfounded. The truth is, if you get past the mass-est of mass-market alcohol, the United States is among the best in the world at making interesting, flavorful booze that range from avant-garde takes to the most traditional processes. Of course, none of that was reflected in the scotch and cigar bar at the Park Hyatt Vienna.
Which, I guess, since I'm writing this here now, that makes me a food critic, although not a particularly influential or good one.)
I have my moral qualms about veal, but I didn't know it was coming and if I sent it back it would've been thrown away, and Europeans are generally less averse to veal than Americans, so I was sorta stuck and just ate the thing.
I booked this as an award flight, but there were no award flights from Denver to Vienna, so I had to fly to Chicago and then book the award flight Chicago to Vienna. Because these were separate itineraries, I was worried (overly so) about missing a connecting flight and being left in the lurch by my airline, so I had a six hour layover in Chicago. This wouldn't have been so bad -- the Swiss business class lounge that they share with Austrian is comfortable if a little small -- but I arrived nearly two hours before Austrian was even checking anybody in, so I had to sit and wait in the international check-in area of O'Hare, which has nowhere near enough seats and is a cramped space beside, passing time until I could sneak through. Also, while going through the security line, the drug sniffing dog stuck his nose right up my butt, which frankly I would've preferred a TSA pat-down where both parties get to be embarrassed to be going through this charade.
Serious shit, it was identically sliced carrot, radish, some white thing that had the texture of a softer carrot but not enough flavor to figure out what it was, and a roasted tomato. I'm a big fan of all of these, even the mystery vegetable was fine, but it desperately needed some sort of seasoning and something to actually tie it in with the rest of the plate. I mean, if you're braising lamb, just throw the vegetables in with the lamb, and that alone will tie the whole thing together. Risotto with spring vegetables is a little harder. But the fact that they were identically cut was peculiar.
Who lacked the Clefs d'Or of his more senior coworker, and who was uncomfortably warm and dripping sweat and commenting on it, and yes it was a bit warm but not THAT warm, which made me a little concerned for his welfare.
I contrast this with some of the microbreweries in Vienna, such as 1516 Brewing House, which take a stab at the more exotic forms of beer, even if they don't necessarily hit them out of the park. But then, I've tried the oldest microbrewery in my hometown, which has about thirty or something, and it is probably the most disappointing of the lot. So first tries are seldom the best, but someone has to take the first step, and kudos to them for trying.
Wherein I talk about the incredibly boring, tedious, and distracting world of travel reward credit cards for, I hope, the only time.
Hey Stephen, why don't you...
I don't want to write about travel reward credit cards.
No no, hear me out. These guys...
Make all their money from affiliate links?
Write five or six blog posts a day? Of variable quality?
And there's, like, a million of these people out there already writing about the same thing and then linking to each other in a compleat and æternal metal-premium-credit-card ouroboros?
God damn it, fine.
When I started writing about travel, I sorta figured I would inevitably get to writing about travel rewards credit cards. There are, approximately, fifty thousand sites on the internet dedicated just to these things, and quite frankly I had some new and original things to say about them, because (1) these sites perpetuate themselves and make revenue by affiliate links, wherein you the reader click the link and apply for the card and the proprietor of the blog earns a commission usually in the $100-$200 range per person who applies which (2) creates a perverse set of incentives to put links to credit cards in articles that have nothing to do with credit cards to get more people to click those links while (3) dispensing advice on which credit cards to buy and use right next to the convenient link which (4) creates some perverse incentives to describe every travel credit card as the most important travel credit card of the day. Which is not to say that the proprietors are venal, self-serving twats 1 , or that there's no useful information to be had. The bit of literate legerdemaine these guys pull is that all the information is in a vacuum, and it takes a year or two of trial and error to figure out what works best for you, and every person will be different anyway so there's no one-size-fits-all solution to the pressing question I seem to get periodically of "what travel credit card is best for me?" One system is to apply for every travel card under the sun and get all the sign up bonuses and then spend them and then you have chunks of orphan points you can't use spread across so many loyalty programs that you can't ever earn anything worthwhile and you end up with enough currency to buy a soda from vending machines across three continents but no way to actually spend it effectively.
And after years of thrashing around, following this advice and that, and ending up going through probably a dozen or more travel credit cards 2 , and finally finishing off a few orphaned points in a few loyalty programs I don't give a damn about, I developed my own, relatively simple system, built around a handful of generally useful credit cards. And I thought I should share this with the world. Not just the system, but the process. And so I started writing. Then I'd get a page in and throw it away and start over. And then I started again, this time thinking I'd sell it as an e-book or something. And it's sitting dead on some cloud service hard drive. Because the truth is, this stuff is unbelievably dry and boring, and every time I would start writing I'd get bored and wander off before committing anything useful to paper.
For example, there's the issue of where to even start, which it turns out probably isn't based on a credit issuer but on your primary domestic airline that you travel on the most 3 . This is actually to figure out who you could potentially be earning miles with by crediting those flights to an airline alliance partner. What's an airline alliance partner, you ask? Well, back in the 90s, to improve reach, the big US legacy carriers (American, United, Delta, to list the current survivors) banded together with other airlines around the world to form alliances, who have code shares so you can, say, book a flight from the US to Thailand by way of Japan using United, ANA, and Thai airlines, for instance, and good Lord aren't you bored to death of this already? These airlines ALSO allow you to earn each other's miles when you book with each other 4 . So, for example, you could earn ANA miles by booking through United flights, if indeed you wanted to do your fun vacation travel on ANA. This narrows down the list of airlines you would want to earn miles with, but does not make for the final decision, because each airline has their own award chart 5 which fixes the value of each airline's miles -- more or less -- and you probably want to figure out which airline you want to partner up with based on various factors like earning rates (meaning distance versus revenue based earn), how much it costs to fly certain routes 6 , if they have usurious additional fees like fuel surcharges, and whether or not at this point your eyes have glazed over and you are considering walking off and grabbing a beer instead of finishing this.
This then tells you which credit issuer you want to partner with -- in the US you are probably choosing between Chase AMEX and Citi -- because each of these issuers have cards that earn fairly generic transferable points that you can turn into airline miles with a partner airline. These points are gold, and what you earn on your daily spend, and unless you're traveling 75% time and think this whole article is a sort of Points 101 that you actually TA'd last semester, your daily spend will be where you earn the majority of your travelin' points. So, what you probably want to do is pick the credit issuer that transfers to your preferred airline. The one caveat at this point is probably that AMEX is not popular throughout big chunks of Europe because they charge the most for transactions.
So now that you've picked your issuer and not gotten bored with this whole thing, you need to pick your credit cards proper. Cards? Plural? Yep. Plural, most likely. You'll definitely need a premium card, which will be made of metal to make you feel important and which will have an annual fee that will range from $450-$550 which sounds like a lot but they have so many damned airline fee credits and travel credits and credits for paying for Global Entry with the card that it sorta brings the number down to around $150 or so in terms of real out-of-pocket expense in a year and if you don't want to dig through all that and make sure you'll get your money's worth you should probably start with the $95 annual fee travel card with training wheels that each of the issuers have. AMEX's costs like $150 or something, because AMEX likes to act exclusive. Now you get to the really fun stuff, because these cards are great for spending on travel but can be a bit more mixed on other spending, like groceries or restaurants or whatever, so you'll actually want to get a few more cards from your chosen issuer -- spacing out the sign-up enough to make sure you can meet the minimum spend for each of their sign-up bonuses, of course! -- and each issuer has their own peculiar ecosystem where you can earn such and such transferable points in a variety of ways from the straightforward to the painfully gimmicky. You could NOT do this, but remember that your daily spend is how you earn your points, and you probably don't spend all your money on airfare every day, and really you need the premium card to make the points transferable at all instead of just being worth 100 points/dollar on an Amazon gift card which while after all this may seem just fine is actually a big waste that leaves a lot of value on the table and we're all about maximizing value here aren't we?
I haven't even talked about hotel points, because if you're loyal to one chain you'll want to get that chain's brand affiliated card 7 because, barring one exception (Hyatt), transfering cc points to a hotel chain makes the beancounters at said cc issuer giggle with delight at how badly you done fucked up because hotel points are usually "worth" (we'll get to what that means later, but for now I'll leave it nebulous because it is) anywhere between a half to a third of airline miles, and the way this whole thing works is the cc issuer buys a boatload of points from their partners and the partners know what they think the points are worth and, in fact, outstanding airline miles can be a sort of liability on the company's books that have to be valued so there's a whole team at American that works their asses off to make sure your average airline mile is worth some specific target number of cents, probably somewhere around 1.5. So if you transfer your points to the hotels, the cc issuer bought those hotel points for a lot less than airline miles and are selling them to you then at the same price. Doesn't take a genius to figure that hotel points probably have a nice profit margin to the cc issuers. After that depressing digression into bean counting, you should just earn hotel points through hotel spend with a hotel credit card if you are loyal to one brand, or earn as many transferable points as possible and foresake hotel loyalty if you aren't. There are other options where you can earn more of those sweet, sweet transferable points.
You're probably bored out of your mind at this point - I know I am - but we're finally to the fun part: cashing in those points for travel! Now, the dewy-eyed naïfs out there might just use those points as cash, since most of these points can just be exchanged at a fixed amount somewhere between ¢1-1.5/point for travel. This will be met with much tongue-clucking by the points-mad community, particularly w.r.t. the potential use as airline miles. You see, paradoxically, airline miles become more valuable on a cents/point scale as you up your travel. Nobody with any worldliness would use miles for domestic economy since this is usually the least valuable use. The gold standard is international travel. Your mileage may vary (see, that's a pun I used to break up the monotony of this), but some typical numbers are going to be around ¢1/mile for international economy class, ¢1.5/mile for int'l. business class, and a whopping ¢3.5/mile for int'l. first. That said, the scaled cost increase in miles is incommensurate with the cost, so you can take, typically, two economy class trips for the mileage cost of a single business class trip, and maybe three business trips for the cost of two first class trips, and I didn't even have to look that up. Seriously, these numbers are just in my head. I know them, like I know my Social Security number, or my mother's birthday. And I'm nowhere near as meticulous or tongue-cluck-happy as the real professional "travel hackers". There are pretty serious debates about the best way to evaluate how much points are worth, with some people giving breathlessly overvalued numbers (the venal, self-serving twats mentioned supra) and others arguing that a cc point is only worth what you can cash it in for (who are also wrong). So the point is that when it's time to book a flight you need to ask if you want to travel, abroad is a given, in the pinnacle of luxury twice or in a very comfortable space three times or wedged in with the typhoidal masses in economy six times or seven times. Then, once you've decided whether or not you want to eat five hundred dollars worth of caviar paid for with miles or contract an eighteenth century disease while your seat neighbor elbows you for ten hours, you need to compare fares and figure out if you're getting a better deal with miles or using points as cash, and book accordingly. And seriously, if you screw this up you could be leaving, like, a thousand dollars on the table like I did one time. Hotel bookings w/ points are much more restrictive because, as I said before, you need to be earning direct hotel points or trying to optimize earn with your transferable points for these flights. In this sense it's simpler, and also because hotels are still a competitive market (unlike airlines) your points earn in terms of return per dollar spent will be much higher with hotels than airlines, esp. if you are using a hotel co-branded cc.
Oh, and you should always, always book Saver Awards, because the regular award tickets are twice the price and you might as well just put all your life savings into your mattress and then set your mattress on fire.
I have not even begun to talk about the myriad other tricks out there: booking through partners and various weird sweet spots in award booking where you'd want to book a US to China trip using a European carrier's miles that you transferred into and haven't actually earned a single mile w/ said Euro. carrier; positioning flights wherein you take a short jump to a sort of gateway where there are a lot more award options i.e. if you live in Lawrence, KA you're much better off looking for award flights out of Chicago which is a short flight away and a key int'l. gateway into the US; hotel-airline partnerships and specials wherein you can earn points with one for spend with another &c.; strategies involving buying transferable points or hotel points or airline miles to then cash in on some fancy flight so you can fly first class for the dollar cost of business because that's how hopelessly marked up First Class is as a revenue fare; the various implementations of paying for hotel rooms with cash and points and how to evaluate whether you're getting a good deal or not8; the various routing rules that can allow you to take effectively two trips for the cost of a single booking if you're clever and flexible; and the list goes on essentially forever.
So that's it. I wrote up what I hope is a pretty good summary of this dull-as-dirt topic that occupies space in my brain that could be used for something far more useful. And I did it without a single affiliate link.
Although some are.
Serious shit. That's not even pro level stuff, either. There are a group out there called "churners" who will burn through 24 credit cards in a single year, picking up sign-up bonuses and canceling when the annual fee comes due.
Assuming you are based in the US and fly mostly domestic flights on a regular basis. If you fly mostly internationally or fly irregularly, you are in two entirely different ecosystems and much of this stuff won't apply to you, or will but in weird ways, sorta like when you look at some sliced avocado and figure out that programming problem you've been stuck on for days.
Although they don't really advertise this so it's just a little open secret you gotta know. Shhhhh or they'll break my kneecaps. Which these days is probably a more literal threat than any of us should be comfortable with.
You'll find there are a lot of industry buzzwords in this space, but fortunately they are much more self-explanatory than a lot of other buzzwords in other industries. In this case, an "award chart" is a chart that tells you how much various airline awards cost.
Sometimes there is as much as a factor of two difference between two airlines for an award seat on the same exact seat on the same exact flight. Airlines ostensibly seem to aim for the same rough mileage value of ¢1.5/mile with some variation, so your guess is as good as mine.
You don't want to do that with your airline, though, because the earning is worse and the perks are weaker and you're totally tied to one airline whereas with the transferable points you can pick different airlines if something useful comes up. You also may not want to do this because it will, usually, limit you to US legacy carriers, and nobody, including their own executives, can with a straight face claim they are better than any of their Asian or European counterparts.
There are two main schools of thought on this. One of them looks at the usual point cost of the room, subtracts off the point cost for the cash and points, then evaluates how much cash you're paying for those points. This p.o.v. assumes you would never pay the straight cash posted rate for the room. The other is to look at the cash rate for the room, subtract the cash part of the cash and points, then evaluate the remainder. These can lead to wildly different evaluations as to whether you're getting a great deal or meh or terrible.
When you think of a business traveler, what do you think of? Are they all older than 45? Are their ties paisley, but not in an ironic postmodern way? Do they feel okay using their expense accounts to pay stadium prices for subpar beer at the hotel bar? Have you asked them if they like their pillows to be totally flat, and received an affirmative response?
Have you heard your air conditioners? Are you sure they are in good working order? Do you like to test them by setting the room temperature to 60 degrees for each guest?
Why are you asking me to tip housekeeping? Can you just charge me an extra dollar per night and pay them better?
Why are your European counterparts so much cheaper for nicer rooms in comparable cities? Could you maybe poach some of their management team to understand their cost structures and emulate that better? Or do you think your customers just won't appreciate it?
Speaking of Europe, how'd you assemble the menu for your continental breakfast? Do you know that the term comes from the sort of lighter European breakfast English travelers would encounter on the Continent? Did you enjoy using your under-ripe "fresh fruit" for games of jai-alai? Have you ever had a proper croissant, and did you think it lacked a certain je n'ais se quoi that only comes from a few days of staleness? Do you know that your breakfast resembles European breakfast the way I resemble George Clooney?
Who do you hire to design your bathrooms? Why does my room have two sinks, one in the bathroom proper and one four feet adjacent in the outer room? Is this meant to be "luxurious"? When the contractors put the shower in, did anybody notice that most of the water ends up on the floor? Why does your luxury soap leave a residue on my body that even the towel can't quite get off? Does the toilet have to sound like the wrath of God when I flush it, or did you pay extra for that feature?
Do you throw out unused toiletries at the end of a stay? How much cost is associated with that? Would it be cheaper to just go ahead and throw away all the shower caps and not even put them in the room?
When was the last time you shampooed the couch?
Is there a single factory in the middle of the country that manufactures all hotel curtains? Have they seen any fabric samples made after 1987? Why don't your blackout curtains close all the way? Do you know that this defeats the purpose?
Where do you get your room art? Is there a central market, like the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, where you can purchase calming photographs of architectural features? Do you get to match the frames to the wallpaper, or do you have to change the wallpaper when you buy new art?
Could I please get the late check-out? No?
This blog has a Twitter feed, but that's about it.
I was sitting in my hotel room in Vienna, with a view of the corner where the Kärntner Ring changes name to the Opernring, having finished up some wandering and with about thirty minutes to kill before my next scheduled Thing. I had four days in Vienna, and was midway into my trip. It was election season, and there had been a demonstration that had gobbled up the whole street for the last fifteen minutes.
To pass some time, I was browsing through Facebook, shaking my head at all the poorly expressed opinions, pointless memes, and videos of people's dogs being dogs. I thought to myself "don't these people have better things to do with their time".
I started this blog because I enjoy traveling, I get to take a lot of neat trips, and people would ask me about them. But I've also got a lot more to offer, so I'm going to be making some updates to the blog in the coming weeks.
An actual email subscription list where I send out digests of the month, and any new updates, and maybe some special content just for subscribers. Subscribers will also get the occassional proper review of a hotel or flight, instead of my usual ramblings and digressions into 16th century European history.
A few ebooks are in the pipeline talking about things like how to get your travel on easily, how to use points & miles to pay for travel without wasting a lot of money and time chasing false leads, and a very special project that I'll be working up towards for next year.
Of course, all this costs money and while I'd love to keep doing this for free, my special project is potentially quite expensive. So some e-commerce will be coming this way as well. But don't worry, I refuse to fall into the affiliate link trap, and I will never accept advertising money.
So bear with me, and prepare for a few changes in the coming months.
I hurried through the low ceilings and narrow walkways of LaGuardia Airport, a monument to poor design and the sort of spaghetti engineering that quick fixes to the poor design requires, to get to the taxi queue. As with most things at LaGuardia, there are signs everywhere but no clear indication of how far away it is, so you can figure out the "where" pretty well, but the "when" is more nebulous. I was in a hurry, though, and racing past passengers with my new rolley carry-on bag and small leather shoulder bag1. I was in a hurry because I had about four hours to make the transition from LaGuardia to the (much nicer) JFK for my JFK -> FRA flight, flying on Lufthansa's 747-8i, in the nose of the plane, in First Class.
"Champagne wishes and caviar dreams" is the evocative cliché Robin Leach created to talk to the Rest of Us at the conclusion of an episode of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous". This show, and early ancestor of the modern reality TV/internet media obsession with how people who are nothing like most of us live. The show began airing in the mid-80s, at the height of America's love affair with its own capitalist Id, and ran for nearly a decade. The sentiment really nailed the selling point of the show: "wouldn't it be wonderful if you could live like this?"
This year, I decided that I would not cross an ocean in less than Business Class. This may seem like some seriously bougie shit, but when you're losing a week at a time to jet lag when you cross an ocean, and you do it four or five or six times a year, this becomes a matter of spending a few extra hundred (or a thousand...) dollars to buy back a week of your precious time.
When it was time to book the flights for a recent trip to Europe for a mixture of work and vacation, making it the first time I've enacted this rule on myself, I noticed a what I assume was an error fare that put me in Lufthansa's First Class cabin for around a hundred dollars more than Business Class for the trans-Atlantic leg of my trip, and did not hesitate. What follows is a description of "champagne wishes and caviar dreams" come literally, decadently true at 11,000 meters.
Being that I booked my flight through United, I had to arrive in New York LaGuardia Airport and transfer by taxi to JFK, since United (foolishly) gave up landing rights at JFK in favor of saving a few bucks and most of the international flights out of New York operate out of JFK. Traffic in all parts of New York is a reminder that all our advanced technology and engineering and evolution as a civilization has led to spending a long time waiting to get between two points while amusing ourselves2. I spent mine having my coworkers question my logic in booking a First Class ticket with my own money over chat on my phone as my cab driver navigated the western side of Long Island at 20 mph.
Sitting in a New York taxi stuck in traffic and in a hurry creates a funny-weird emotional state. There is literally nothing you can do to make the taxi go faster -- the driver is doing his thing, a wall of cars sit in front of you, apathetic to your plight, and there's really only one route to take. But, in the way the brain does when under mild stress, we get fidgety and want to do something.
So I spent most of the taxi ride on my phone, in a group chat with my co-workers, where they asked me snarky questions like "Did you choose to change airports just for a bigger chair?" or "Did you pay that much more just for nice pajamas?"3. I had, and was suffering some headaches because of an LGA ground stop due to fog tightening up my connection from five hours to four, with traffic cutting it down to three. Which is fine and I'm not going to miss my flight, but I really wanted to check out the Lufthansa First Class Lounge at JFK Terminal 1.
Luxurious air travel has accelerated in the last ten years, particularly with the Gulf State carriers entering the market. For the US domestic market, long haul flights used to be three-cabin affairs, with First, Business, and Coach4. Business got better faster than First, and the airlines started consolidating the two into fancy-sounding names like "BusinessFirst", naming things very literally in the way a small child does.
Meanwhile, the foreign carriers were going in the opposite direction. In the same way that every modern luxury feature on a car seems to have first appeared on a Mercedes S-class first, so did Singapore tend to lead the way with air travel luxury. At this point, the toppest of the top end foreign carriers -- typically Japan, Singapore, and the Middle East -- have first class cabins with fully enclosed suites where you can sit in total privacy, only to be bothered when your post-lunch cappuccino is ready.
SkyTrax, which gives out star ratings for airlines based on the many aspects of air travel from on-time arrivals to the quality of service in premium cabins, has never rated a US legacy carrier about 3-stars, a C grade. This year, there are 9 five-star airlines, and all of them are either East Asian or Middle Eastern carriers. A perennial contender, though, is Lufthansa, whose First Class and Economy cabins garner five star reviews, but is weighed down by having a merely above-average Business Class product.
The logic of why foreign carriers are head and shoulders above the US legacy airlines in the quality of premium cabins was made apparent when I was talking to a friend of mine who lives in the UK, and she said "For us, every flight is an international flight".
It's three hours on a flight, give or take, from Denver to New York. It's three hours by train from Paris to Geneva, and about half the as-the-crow-flies distance. But the train has almost no overhead to go with it; you just show up at the train station, drink a watery mass-manufactured German lager, and board the train. No security lines. No crowded concourses. No trying to quickly get three hundred people through one door and to their seats. In the end, the flight from Denver to New York can eat up five or six hours between entering one airport and leaving the other. So, in this sense, trains are much, much more time efficient than a comparable flight (never mind dealing with CDG...).
The role of the US legacy carriers, and their main business model, is to economically move as many people as possible across the vast distances that separate the major cities in the US. This is a sort of mass consumer grade consumption. The role of the foreign carriers, given that domestic trains are as fast and more convenient than domestic air travel, is to fly long-haul (say, 6+ hours at a stretch). So the big ones we see in the US have the big Business class cabins and the luxurious First Class cabins because they are catering to a more monied, more travel-savvy clientele. And that clientele is going to demand creature comforts that just don't get noticed on a three hour flight5.
Lufthansa operates out of Terminal 1 at JFK, which is the smallest terminal at the airport. This is relevant because Terminal 1 does not have a TSA PreCheck lane, and you have to have a physical, printed ticket to take advantage of your PreCheck status, which amounts to not having to take your shoes off. This is next to worthless, and a potential problem for someone who's used to taking ten minutes to get through security (such as, say, me).
To my right in security was an older couple who were demanding, after I walked right up to the front, to know why they didn't have PreCheck listed on their Alitalia ticket. The security guy told them, at least twice, that they have to make sure to register that with each airline. Eventually the guard gave a characteristic New York eye roll and stopped answering their question with the same answer, and they continued mumbling about this all the way through the security line. Let this serve as your reminder that you have to register your Known Traveler number with every airline you book with.
That interaction highlights something that I keep coming back to, which is that air travel is one of the few times when people who do something professionally (vis-à-vis navigating an airport and getting on and off an airplane as quickly as possible) surrounded almost entirely by confused novices. Nobody lets a rec league softball pitcher throw in a Major League game, nobody has a first year law student present their arguments in front of a federal Circuit court, nobody has someone with their learners permit drive a taxi. Efficient travelers have ready access to almost everything, at the top of their bags, wearing shows that are easy to slip on and off, and all that stuff to participate in the post-modern off-Broadway theater performance that is airport security. Novices do none of these things. There are no studies I know off, but I suspect it takes a first-time traveler twenty times longer to navigate an airport than a pro.
The upshot of all this is that it took about forty minutes to get through security, when under normal conditions it should have taken ten. But waiting just on the other side, so close I didn't even bother putting my shoes back on, was the Lufthansa Senator's Lounge in JFK Terminal 1.
I don't cotton to crowds. I find them distracting and tiring and stressful, probably more than most other people. I also travel a lot, mostly for work. These dueling demands have taught me a new appreciation for the value of the airport lounge.
For the uninitiated, an airport lounge is a space above, besides, or otherwise separate from the terminal proper, run by typically an airline but could also be an independent company, which has some conditions for entry, usually related to some sort of airline loyalty status. The lounges operated by the US carriers tend to offer well drinks and mediocre wine and beer for free, with a food selection that ranges from "solid" to "depressing", depending on the airport, the company, and the traffic through the lounge.
The Asian and European carriers, on the other hand, tend to treat the lounges as actual loss leaders, and make them well worth your time. The food tends to be restaurant calibre, the alcohol selection tends to be good, and it's all free. The environment is quiet, and the seating is arranged so you don't have to spend any time looking blankly at strangers if you don't want to.
On a recent trip, I used my Priority Pass membership to spend half an hour in the Swiss Airlines Business Class lounge at the Geneva airport. I had a cappuccino and a croissant, sent a few quick emails, and had a half hour of mostly silence. When I walked back to the main terminal for my flight, it was all crying babies and people's conversations mixing into an incomprehensible multi-lingual din.
If you go through this whole airport-airplane-airport process once or twice a year, this may all seem excessive. But if you want to understand how this affects someone who travels with some frequency, imagine trying to work remotely from a busy mall food court for four hours every week. That particular combination of loudness, children, uncomfortable chairs, sometimes peculiar smells, and people coming and going across your field of vision is a close facsimile to an airport terminal. After a year of trying to operate under these conditions regularly, you will begin to appreciate the value of an airport lounge.
The First Class Lufthansa lounge at JFK is not a dedicated lounge, but a second floor balcony overlooking the Business Class lounge. The space itself is not large, but it is probably mostly empty most of the time. While I was up there, two Lufthansa staff took care of about a dozen people over two hours for the one Lufthansa flight of the day.
I got to talking to some of them, because I was the only one traveling alone and they weren't too busy, and I was reminded that some people shouldn't be allowed in public. Apparently, the worst guests are the ones who arrive with someone else who has the lounge access (you can bring up to two guests iirc). These are the people who act like entitled little shits, get excessively drunk-and-loud, and then get upset when they get kicked out of the lounge when their host leaves for his (probably, typically, the correct pronoun) flight that they are not even on. Then there was the comment that will stick with me a while, which was when one of the staffers responded to my "You must see some crazy stuff" with "We have a shower..."
To avoid belaboring the point, allow me to enumerate the foods and beverages I consumed over the course of my First Class experience:
1x glass of a nice Côtes du Rhône
2x fingers of a 23 year rum
2x fingers of a 25 year single malt scotch
3x glasses of champagne
2x glasses of riesling
1x glass chilled vodka
1x glass port
1x glass orange juice
1x plate of dry aged beef with mashed potatoes
1x plate of grilled vegetables
2x plates of caviar
1x monkfish dish
1x cheese plate
2x dishes warm nuts
1x bowl muesli w/ yoghurt
in ten hours of real human time. The cash value of all this, assuming restaurant prices, is probably around $400.
What's important, and what's lost in getting obsessed with cash value and some sort of value/dollar metric that a lot of travel hacking nuts love, is that this luxury is fun, and the level of service is absolutely top notch, and for a relatively brief flight5 it is quite comfortable and the time flies by, what with the meal service taking the better part of two hours.
And the meal service is top notch stuff. White linens, utensils that are room temperature instead of frozen6, the wine keeps flowing in a way that is impossible in an actual restaurant what with the cost, and the flight attendants are friendly and professional and when you think about how much training an experience goes into being a waiter at a really top notch restaurant, and then add in all the things about doing that while being a safety officer on a metal tube at 35,000 feet, and you start to realize that these people are Serious Professionals in a way most people who work in business aren't. They are the Ginger Rogers to a standard flight attendant or standard waiter's Fred Astaire, doing everything they do only backwards and in heels.
There are plenty of photographs of the First Class cabin of Lufthansa available, and if you're curious what it looks like, you should just throw it into Google. The wide seats and endless legroom. The large high-def screens. The red rose sitting alone under its own light. The large bathrooms (two) with the window (unfortunately nowhere near eye level, but still) and the rose.
As anyone who's tried to pull it off can tell you, minimalist design is very hard. We as a species have an impulse to add, and it takes discipline to stop yourself from putting one more feature, one more flare of color. But in a small space, like a small apartment or an airplane cabin, minimalism is key; a maximalist approach can make a small space feel smaller. The best minimalist designs make calm, relaxing spaces where you can choose to focus, or not.
Lufthansa pulls off the minimalist aesthetic. There's maybe three colors and some wood paneling along the windows, with a very soft color palette excepting in dark seat. All the surfaces cleanly mesh with each other, and the space feels much larger for it. Compare this with, say, Emirates, with its lights and gold and mirrors and bling.
The flight home was in Lufthansa's business class, which is by no means an industry leader but is a far sight better than being at the back (or, since I was on an A380, the bottom) of the plane. Walking into the cabin and into my seat at the front row, all I could think was "Did I just walk into a cow pen?" First Class totally fucks with your expectations. The level of personal attention (my flight had two flight attendants, who were clearly very experienced at this, for six people in the cabin), the white glove level of service, and the way you've bought an all-you-can-consume buffet of luxury with your ticket distorts reality, turning business class into an uncomfortable and coach into a Central American chicken bus.
But so when I was flying back, in the cow pen, after lunch service, the flight attendant, who addressed me by name, asked if I would like anything to drink. I asked if I could have a cappuccino, and he told me that cappuccinos were reserved for First Class, but that if nobody was using the machine he would get me one. He did. At the price of maybe $2, Lufthansa got themselves a loyal customer.
And this is the thing with First Class. It seems over the top and decadent and at times absurd, and it really is. But when people list the best business class, and the best coach cabins for international flights, they almost always correlate with the best First. Service like that is a culture, not some specialized instructions. That thing often attributed to Aristotle but actually written by Will Durant in The Story of Philosophy, that "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit."
Some time in my early twenties, I either dislocated my elbow and had it pop back in, or otherwise hurt it pretty badly. The style of rolling luggage available to my graduate student budget had handles that were too short, and being taller than average I would end up kicking the suitcase, causing the handle to twist violently in my hand with a lot of weight behind it. This hurt my elbow. A lot. So as normal wear required, I replaced my rolling suitcases with so-called "weekenders", sometimes going a week or more out of these bags. The added benefit was that, unlike a wheeled thing on an uneven surface, if I had to run, I could really sprint.
Many writers have written many words about how our post-modern Information Age culture is built around entertainment. Few of them seem to focus on how much of this is just a long distraction between moments where we actually have to engage with the outside world -- the upshot of mass transit and air travel and long taxi rides is that when we are faced with an eight hour flight we are desperate for at least five hours of pure, unadulterated distraction after we get on the plane but before we must re-engage with customs in a new country. Other symptoms of this are binge watching entire television series & the associated Golden Age of Television, the analog equivalent airport thriller, in-flight entertainment and now in-flight WiFi, &c. I've started trying to spend at least half an hour spread out over a flight focusing very intently on my thumb nail. Ever try to focus on your thumb nail until you can feel the blood pumping in it? It actually becomes emotionally uncomfortable. Buddhist monks spend hours at a time engaged in exercises like this, and I think they may be on to something, especially as a way to rebel against our infinite-stimulation Amusing Ourselves to Death world.
I did, sorta, and the pajamas I bought with the ticket have replaced my old pajamas, and they are much more comfortable than any sleepwear I've ever owned before.
I refuse to indulge the simpering marketing tactic of describing cramming a human being into a rectangle that is less than four square feet of footprint as "Economy". It is, and always will be, coach.
This is not excusing how miserable domestic air travel has become in the last few years. Miles are difficult to come by, upgrades for customers with loyalty program status have become more rare, seats have gotten small, and you get hit with fees for everything. Even this is ignoring the recent (as of May 2017) trend of using law enforcement to deal with customer service issues, and the simultaneous bragging about record profits and walking around with a hand out begging for help against the big mean Gulf Carriers who are heavily subsidized by their sponsor countries, sorta like the Big Three remaining US legacy carriers. In short, someone in the Justice Department needed to be a little stricter in their interpretation of the Sherman Act when all these mergers were happening in the late-90s and early-00s.
It is 7.5 hours from JFK to Frankfurt, assuming good weather and all that. On the scale of international flights, this is a short one. Denver to Frankfurt is 9.5 hours, trips from just about anywhere in the US that isn't a gateway airport (Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Boston, DC) will involve a layover at a gateway, and then anything over the Pacific will be at least 11 hours. SQ21 and the return SQ22, direct flights from Newark to Singapore, were the longest flights in the world by both distance (8,285 nautical miles EWR->SIN, and 9,000 nautical miles back, which itself illustrates how long the flight is, that a combination of the earth's rotation and the way great circle distance works adds a good 10% to the flight distance going against the rotation of the earth versus with) and time (about 18 hours), until it was discontinued in 2013, probably because it couldn't have been a profitable route for Singapore Airlines. Singapore will start these flights again when they take delivery of the new, more efficient Airbus A350-900ULR in 2018. Until then, the longest flight in the world belongs to Qatar Airways, which flies from Auckland to Doha in about 17.5 hours.
I've noticed this a lot, that on most flights where I end up with metal cutlery, that said metal cutlery is actually quite cold. Like it had been stored in a freezer for the first hour or so of the flight. I do not understand this, and since one of the miracles of air travel is that airlines can provide a hot meal at all, it seems doubly odd that they'd undermine the hot meal by having utensils that totally throw the temperature off. It's a relatively minor quibble about airline comfort, but it's just so damned odd.
I like old maps. There's a store near where I live that sells old maps and vintage posters. The maps themselves are fascinating. A friend came across a map from 1938 which had Manchukuo and referred to Korea as a Japanese colony. The store has a collection of maps from textbooks from what I assume to be 1940 with Native Americans and African-Americans and caucasians depicted in racial caricatures so far removed from what people actually look like that one wonders if it can even be considered "racist" in the usual sense.
But my favorite map is a Spanish map from the late 1600s that depicts California as an island. The Spanish persisted in insisting that California was an island into the 1700s. One can understand where this misconception would arise: the Gulf of California runs over a thousand miles deep. A novel from the late 1400s-early 1500s 1 novel, "Las sergas de Esplandián", described an island inhabited only by black women and ruled by Queen Calafia.
Naturally, when, in 1533, a Spanish mutineer by the name of Fortún Ximénez arrived at the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula 2 , it would be assumed that this was the Island of California of myth. This was reported to the governor of Mexico, and made its way into the maps. My knowledge of Spanish exploration of the region is pretty limited, but given the scale of the Sonora and Baja deserts, and the length of the peninsula, it is entirely possible that no Spaniard ever sailed up the gulf and made landfall on its northern shore. If this seems absurd, consider the persistent (possibly untrue) story that the French had no idea how much land they were selling to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Cartography was not terribly advanced by this time anyway; take a gander at the French map below from right around the American Revolution, and pay particular attention to the shape and size of Florida.
I happen to live in a state which was among the first to legalize recreational marijuana in the United States. On day one of legalization, there were already van tours that would pick you up on a long layover at the airport, drive you to dispensaries, where you could then imbibe in the back of the van (the rules are quite a bit like alcohol, and iirc in the same way that you can drink in the back of a limo, you can smoke up as well) and then be dropped off at the airport in time to make your connecting flight. These tours were booked solid four months in advance. The legalization has turned recreational marijuana into a multi-billion-dollar industry.
There was also the side effect of people chasing stories of streets paved with weed. A lot of (younger, white) people moved to Colorado to pursue their particular choice of vice free of police involvement, but failed to account for things like "a high cost of living". Many of these people arrived without a job or money and ended up homeless.
A year earlier, Boulder had tried to relax its laws against "erecting temporary housing" (living in a tent in a city park) trying to help out the homeless population. This influx and the inevitable ugliness that followed led to a crackdown, ruining what should have been a very helpful thing for the people who are actually homeless and not merely people chasing a myth without thought of implications.
Colorado did not encourage this myth; we just tried to save some money, and ended up raising quite a bit in excise tax, and the law of unintended consequences created a burden for the homeless in a city that prides itself on its efforts to help said homeless.
Some places encourage the myth. Perhaps none so aggressively as New York, New York.
I have complained about this before, and I will complain about it again, but there are entire blocks of Manhattan that are completely unnavigable due to to sea of tourists taking photos of famous places. I cannot name another place that is name dropped more in popular song 3 . And New York insists on its myth: the City that Never Sleeps, the Big Apple, Gotham, Empire City, the list goes on. People seek out the Myth of Manhattan in scales beyond human comprehension. An estimated 60 million people visited New York in 2016 alone. That's more than the population of the entire Iberian peninsula.
What did they come for? The Statue of Liberty, itself a collection of myths including that it was a gift from France (it was, partially, but was mostly paid for by quite affluent Americans paying for a very nice statue) and the poem inscribed on the base:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
on a statue welcoming immigrants to a country with a history of not really welcoming immigrants4. Broadway, once derided for its shallow entertainment, is now the Mecca of musical theater, with tickets so expensive that only tourists would pay for the shows. Time Square, where no native New Yorker would visit 5 , only pass through when no other choice is presented. Radio City Music Hall, the United Nations headquarters, Central Park, and many, many, many museums. One of my friends had his family visit, and his father insisted on finding a pastrami on rye -- that was New York to his father, a (usually pretty good) diner sandwich.
I lived new New York for five years. My dominant memories are Hell's Kitchen restaurants, Alphabet City bars, and the museums around Central Park. Many native New Yorkers consider leaving their neighborhood a distant trek to a far-away land. The fascinating thing about a World City 6 is that it can be literally anything anybody wants it to be. There's a scale to the city that allows it to accomodate the desires of all but the most demanding of city-dwellers. The myths of what New York "is" are such a small and curated subset of what New York actually is. But the myths also end to be the ones that most people will come up with when pressed for a description of a place.
What can makes these myths so interesting is how static they seem to be. Spanish maps depicted California as an island long after explorers had throughly wandered the American Southwest. Boulder, CO still has a reputation as a hippy stronghold after three waves of California software developers moved in and priced the hippies out of the market. New York is so, so much more than a bunch of famous landmarks connected by a double decker bus tour. And it's an interesting problem, because these myths drive tourism, and in the 21 st century this means there is quite a market for these myths.
In 1977, New York (the city) was a disaster. This was the year of Son of Sam. The least bloody month, February, saw 82 murders, and the murder rate was pushing 20 murders per hundred thousand residents. Today it's under 4. The New York State Department of Commerce recruited Milton Glaser for a little ad campaign, and, expecting it to run only a few months, Glaser agreed to do the work for free. In 2009, Barack Obama awarded Milton Glaser the National Medal of the Arts -- the first graphic designer to receive the honor -- for developing the "I Heart New York" logo and campaign. The State of New York owns the trademark on the logo, and by some reports the state earns around $2M/year in licensing fees. Most of the paraphernalia peddled to tourists is unlicensed and worn proudly by almost no residents of the city itself.
But this is New York for many people. The t-shirts and the miniature Statue of Liberty figurines and the little snow globes of landmarks that millions of people went to see in one year. (Very) Conservative estimate, a person might spend $1000 on a week in New York between hotels, so we are talking about a multi-billion-dollar industry for a single city. This is an astronomical amount of money, which creates a whole industry with a deep interest in preserving the images and stories and ideas -- in short, the myths -- that drive people to visit the Big Apple7.
What's peculiar about this, to me, is that so many of these places are more interesting than any of the "iconic" things about them.
Here's an example.
The go-to thing to do in the southern Baja California peninsula is to do body shots of tequila in Cabo. Many, many millions of people visit Cabo every year for white sand beaches in an expensive resort secluded from the rest of Mexico. This is the (well-earned) reputation of Cabo: a party central for people who want to leave their home country for a party without ever dealing with the actual hassles of leaving their home country8.
Also available in the southern Baja area is Espíritu Santo, a UNESCO world heritage site with one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, where you can snorkel with sea lions and whale sharks and eat some really solid food and all you have to do is take a bus from the Cabo airport about an hour north of the Tropic of Cancer and hey-presto you're in a town most tourists have never heard of, with quirky small hotels and a few top notch restaurants if you ask around a bit. When I was there I was almost talked into buying a microbrewery that had the lightest, most enjoyable-in-30-Celsius stout I've ever had.
Across from Nyhavn and the Skuespillhuset in Copenhagen, next to the Viking hippy village of Christiania, Copenhagen Street Food has taken over an old shipping warehouse. Copenhagen Street Food is chock full of food and drink stalls, and one of them serves the best fried chicken I've ever had. About a mile away, after a walk across the modern, colorful pedestrian/bicycle Inderhavnsbroen bridge and past the Kastellet (the old fortress that overlooks the mouth of Copenhagen's old harbor), Amalienborg Castle, and the Danish Museum of Design, two hundred tourists crowd around a small statue of the Little Mermaid.
It is a remarkable bit of archaeology to figure out when old books were published. In this particular example, the book in question is a part of a series, and the oldest known printed edition dates to 1510, but a later installment in the series has a published edition dated four months earlier. Hell, we've narrowed Hamlet to a three-year publication window, and it's Hamleta. ↩
And was killed in a fight with the locals, natch. ↩
It has its own Wikipedia article, and said article is a list as long as this essay. Everyone from Frank Sinatra to Steely Dan have name dropped a place in New York. The Wikipedia article itself catalogs 123 songs, 124 if you include Duke Ellington's "Harlemania", whose titles just begin with "Harlem". This does not even exhaust the list of songs with Harlem in the title somewhere. ↩
Consider, for example, Benjamin Franklin ranting about the German immigrants in colonial Pennsylvania: "Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation...and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain...Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it...I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties...In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious." Of course, being the first true American, Franklin also started the first German language newspaper in the British colonies. It failed. ↩
I define a capital-'W'-capital-'C' "World City" as being a place where you can buy literally any good or service at a store that is open at 2 AM. This ranges from groceries to tailored suits to a car. An incomplete list, biased towards places I have visited, includes: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo, London. If you live in a city and are wondering if it constitutes a "World City", ask yourself if you've ever complained that all the restaurants are closed. If the answer is yes, then you do not live in a "World City". ↩
Which, remarkably, has not been trademarked. ↩
I talk like leaving the country (here country = United States) is a relatively straightforward process. And in a lot of ways, it is. Anyone holding a United States passport can travel to 174 countries without a visa or by buying an inexpensive visa stamp on arrival -- this is third in the world. Air travel abroad is also relatively inexpensive. Flights to Mexico from most of the major gateway cities in the US (NY, Chicago, SF, Denver, Atlanta, Houston, LA, Seatle, ...) can be as low as $350 round trip, possibly less. But there is a lot of headache involved in international travel as well, especially if you aren't used to the sort of rolling-with-the-punches inhabiting a culture that is not your own requires. A couple of examples: tipping customs can vary within a region, so just because you learned the rules in Spain does not mean you're covered for Portugal; German hotels have very thin pillows and expect that everyone is a back-sleeper; outside of Tokyo the English prevalence in Japan is a bit limited, which can make you dependent on a translation app on your phone; English airports have slot machines in them; &c. ad infinatum ad nauseam. The point is, yeah, if you've never ever ever left your home country before, you should probably open up by going to a major world city in a country whose customs are similar but not identical to your own (think Canada or the UK) if you are going for anything remotely resembling the (non-existent) "local experience". ↩
Side note that I include only because it's interesting to think about: There's still debate as to the age of the protagonist of perhaps the most famous piece of literature in the Western canon. Most contemporary depictions are of the Kenneth Branagh mold, who was 35 or 36 when he depicted the Prince of Denmark. However, there are textual differences between the folios, and politically it makes no sense that a 36 year old would have to defer to his uncle to ascend to the throne. As such, there are some that argue that Hamlet was 17 or 18, a boy on the cusp of manhood. These are two wildly different interpretations of the character, that fundamentally changes the interpretations and themes of the play. ↩
Our brains seem wired to get a rush out of novelty. Whether it's entering a new relationship or buying a new gadget or visiting a new place, there's something about that feeling of initial trepidation followed by the stimulation of new experiences that leaves this glow around the New Thing. But, as time passes, that glow fades and we're left with all the little warts and smells and quirks of the actual realities of the thing.
I was reminded of this on a recent overnight stay in Manhattan.
We don't usually create this association with vacation-type trips, since we tend to choose exciting places and go once. I lived on Long Island for a few years, so I was already passing familiar with Manhattan on once-a-month visit terms. But this trip has forced me to reconcile myself with the fact that I just don't much care for visiting New York anymore.
As a first time visitor, it's easy to miss the warning signs. There are so many bright lights and museums and restaurants and famous locations that you're overwhelmed, put on the blinders, and stick to some preconceived super-efficient point-to-point itinerary. But if you freestyle your itinerary a little bit, and linger in the less-toured areas, you start to see some of the problems with New York vis-à-vis a nice place to be.
The most obvious problem is simply the muchness of it all. It's an enormous city with many, many people and things to do. The many things to do can become overwhelming, and, like a restaurant with a thirty page menu, you end up unable to make any decision at all. This is a relatively benign problem until you end up circling for half an hour unable to pick a place to eat. No big city is immune to this problem, but New York's density and size exacerbates the problem (is the Starbucks on this block or the one on the next block better [the answer is that the coffee is identical, but one of them smells like pee]).
Then comes the more distinctively New York aspects. This is a loud city, and the natural sound track is cars honking at nobody in particular. I have, on occassion, paid quite a bit to go into a museum and get off the street just so I can sit somewhere sorta quiet. The only real way to navigate the city is walking and subways, what with its atrocious street traffic.
But the walking spaces are a mess. The sidewalks are covered in both literal and figurative shit -- on my last visit I saw a woman let her dog take a giant dump next to a car on the sidewalk then just leave it there. I've become proficient, over many visits to Manhattan over the years, of getting excrement off my shoe using the various standing water puddles at the cross streets and the uneven concrete that makes up the sidewalks. Whole blocks of the city will smell like garbage or urine without warning or discernible origin. Older buildings are surrounded by the characteristic scaffolding that makes open sidewalks like a postmodern dungeon.
The mass transit is not much better. The subway cars range from reasonably comfortable to outdated with much screeching and rattling and no air conditioning (and those tunnels get warm in the summer months). If you see an empty car during rush hour, it is not because you are a perceptive genius, and it likely has more to do with some appalling thing or another -- the possibilities are legion.
And everywhere, everyone pays a premium for Being In New York.
New York's boosters would argue that these are problems facing all large cities. But not necessarily. I didn't find Paris to be particularly expensive, certainly not Manhattan expensive. Chicago doesn't have the atrocious scaffolding enveloping its buildings. The sidewalks in Tokyo are devoid of dust, let alone gum, waste, and garbage. The subway system in Munich has air conditioning and comfortable, quiet modern cars, and the inter-city trains in Europe give no impression of speed -- no noise, no rattling, no banging about -- despite sometimes touching 200 mph.
This seems like I hate New York. I don't. I frequently take long layovers in Manhattan on my way to Europe because New York is one of the rare places where you can do Literally Anything. On a recent trip I visited the Rubin Museum of Art near 17th and 7th and learned an awful lot about Himalayan art and the regional variations of religious symbolism on the Tibetan plateau for about $15. I still haven't visited the Whitney yet (and it is a sign of the fame of New York's museums that they get the article 'The' combined with a short name: The Whitney, The Met, The MoMA, The Guggenheim, The Frick, and these are just the super famous ones, with dozens of other very good museums well worth visiting), despite wandering up and down the High Line after it first opened. There is just so much to do there. If I start writing Idyll Travel Guides (and I'm thinking about it), NYC would be the first place to get the treatment.
It's classic it's-not-you-it's-me. I've been there so many times, lived nearby, visited after I moved, that the novelty of being completely overwhelmed for choices in museums, bars, high end dining, low end dining, haute couture, Juicy Couture, flash mobs, Persian Pride Parades, &c. has worn off and I'm left seeing nothing but the hairy wart in the middle of New York's forehead. If you've never gone, you should go, and stay away from Time Square, and see for yourself how much is there. For me, I may need a year or so. After New Year's Eve this year, which I've never done in Manhattan. And probably a layover on another trip to Europe.
Wherein I describe couch surfing at my friend's home for a week as if I had stayed at a hotel.
I arrived at Hôtel Danceaux late, around 9 PM. Checkin was acceptably fast, and I was in my hotel room minutes after arrival. The bed was thin but comfortable, and the sheets, though clearly older, were clean and comfortable. The room was decorated to resemble a French country home, and while it was nice to share the room with a rack full of vintage Belgian beer bottles (a novel take on the mini-bar, albeit entirely too expensive for anyone to take advantage of), the room had a tile floor that was cold at night.
One peculiarity of this hotel is that room service staff will try to let themselves into your room. One, dressed all in black, knocked repeatedly on the door, requesting to get in. When I finally opened the door, he immediately went under the bed to check for who-knows-what. I suspect there was catnip. This was persistent with two staff members in particular, and although they were quite friendly they nevertheless seemed interested mostly in looking into my suitcase and hiding under the bed. This may have to do with their being cats.
The shower was down the hall, and the shower head was a little low for my standards (6'2"), but the water was always hot and nobody ever bothered me in the bathroom. The hotel was mostly empty, so I did not have to share the bathroom with other guests.
The hotel managers were very friendly, and offered me complimentary drinks. This was fine, but encouraged me to a bit of excess at times. Being a little intoxicated when I went to bed at Hôtel Danceaux would be fine normally, but unfortunately my hotel room faced sort of east and caught the morning sun full force -- it was impossible to sleep past 8 AM any night during my stay.
In terms of location, Hôtel Danceaux is solid, situated just far enough away from downtown that traffic is not an issue, but a short drive to a variety of restaurants, bars, and entertainment. This alone would make Hôtel Danceaux an ideal launching off point for a tourist.
Overall, the experience was enjoyable, the hotel provided good value, the staff was friendly (albeit some perhaps a little strange), and I was able to get a good night's sleep.