Sunday, May 15, 2011

Europe eludes me

I’m in the middle of planning a holiday with childhood friends, brother and sister-in-law. After or before meeting up, we plan to have separate holidays doing different things, so there’s much excitement and argument in the air this weekend. In the course of this, I opened a folder called “Holiday Stuff” to get some Norway information (a holiday minutely planned, but sadly aborted a few years ago) for my sister-in-law and was startled at how much there was in it, and not just about Norway. Looking through the many crowded files, a pattern emerges.

Two-week holiday in Spain. Appointment made and kept at the Spanish Consulate in Abu Dhabi, but visa unused. Tickets, Dubai-Barcelona-Dubai, paid for, then cancelled. Three-week holiday in Denmark and Norway. Flight booking, Dubai-Copenhagen-Oslo-Dubai, confirmed and cancelled. Ticket for the Flam Railway, unused and unrefunded. Email from a fjord cruise saying “Dear Ms Menon, we are pleased to confirm your booking.” Followed by something to the tune of “we don’t normally provide full refunds but as you’ve cancelled well in advance we’re happy to make an exception”. Weekend in Vienna. Another attempt at that one. Eid break in Rome. Another Eid break in Tuscany. New Year’s Eve in Amsterdam, Santorini, Ibiza. The Edinburgh festival. All researched, booked, re-confirmed and cancelled, with military precision. As I said, Europe seems to elude me, for some reason.

Well, not "some reason" - it was always work*. I can list the projects and clients that ruined it last minute. And I’m back in that kind of industry, in that kind of position. So my superstitious misgivings about planning a holiday too much in advance is founded on solid fact. Unfortunately, if you plan to travel in the high season, you have no choice. One must just wait, watch and hope. And maybe comfort oneself with thoughts of to Bangkok or Bali or even Goa for a long weekend, since I don’t need visas in advance for any of them. As you see, I’m a veteran contingency planner. For example, I know with absolute certainty that the contingency I plan for won’t happen. Another one will.

*I'm baffled by the fact that I actually managed to make that four-week US trip! The only unusual factor there was a visit to my cousin on my father’s side. Hmmm. Maybe the contingency plan for the contingency plan should be to burst upon these unknown and unsuspecting cousins from that side. Apparently the three thousand cousins that I already have (as in, those I know and am in touch with) are not enough.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Origin of the species

Solving the mystery once and for all of where bicycle helmets come from.

Nutmeg Grove, 2009: Installation in front of Orchard Central, a mall in Singapore, by Michele Righetti. Very beautiful. If you're too lazy to click on the photo and read, here's the gist: It's a highly magnified nutmeg seed, made with stainless steel sheets and car paint.

Hello, goodbye

Each time I’m forced to fly Air India, I hope that it will end with me writing something effusive in my blog titled “The Return of the Maharaja”. Sadly, this is still not that day.

My flight involved a six-hour transit through Chennai and they wouldn’t check my luggage through, so I was burdened by a giant suitcase the whole time. Here’s what you do while you wait in Chennai International Airport: nothing. The check-in area, the only place you have access to, is a chaotic game of musical counters, made even more interesting by baffling signage, unhelpful staff and a single stall serving bad coffee. This last should be a federal offence in Chennai.

There were about six and a half seats in the whole place, so I pushed my trolley to a corner, sat on the edge of it and relieved my feelings in aggrieved Facebook status updates. I’d once spent three pre-dawn hours in transit at Chennai Central Station and it was a painless experience. How is the same government not able to fix the damned airport?

Later, I broke off my reading to note that several Gulf flights were leaving and wondered why there didn’t seem to be as many labourers going from here as from other Indian airports. (A few hours earlier, in Bangalore Airport, I’d stood at the glass watching the departure of EK 569 to Dubai, seeing the familiar Emirates tail into the sky in a ceremonial farewell. The last flight of the Concorde was nothing to it.)

When they started with the flights going east, there seemed to be about 7000 flights a minute to Singapore. Most airlines had the normal mix of passenger types, but Singapore Airlines was wall-to-wall elderly parents. It’s a telling customer testimonial – when your children or parents are travelling unaccompanied, you choose the best not the cheapest. Their counter was properly sign-posted, luggage was screened efficiently and their lines moved quickly. Somehow they’d managed to build a little outpost of Changi Airport with the same resources available to everyone else. I was entertained by the old folks for a while, here a dad demanding to know where a mom has kept the tickets, there a mom tightening a piece of ridiculous ribbon on a suitcase, everywhere a couple of parents arguing over who was wrong last year about something unimportant. In between, I felt sad that I was leaving my own behind.

The Air India queues were full of people fearing they’d traded comfort, convenience, efficiency and politeness for a much cheaper ticket. In the event, we did them a disservice. The food was good, seats were comfortable, the plane seemed new and the service was above average. It’s still an apology for the airline that JRD Tata ran and the maharaja flew, but it’s not bad.

The execrable flight from Bangalore to Chennai that set my low expectations was the old Indian Airlines. They were always the worst airline outside of domestic USA and haven’t changed. One of the stewardesses was actively rude. The snack trays were thrust in our faces. The snacks themselves seemed to have been made by the same person who makes the coffee in Chennai airport. They boarded well before the time printed on the boarding pass from a different gate to the one we were told, with little notice and no apology. I asked why and I was told snottily: “Oh the captain decided to leave early”. The plane seemed like the oldest flying ATR in the world, but the flight was mostly empty so I could sit where I could see the propellers, my preferred position in this kind of plane. I don’t know what I think I can do if the engines suddenly stop or catch fire, or why I believe they should do so at all, but that’s the way the nutty cookie crumbles.

Time from Bangalore to Singapore on Air India: 15 hours
Time from aerobridge to exit in Changi Airport, including immigration and baggage claim: 30 minutes
Walking out of the airport with an employment visa in my passport and a job waiting for me: Priceless

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Lost in a dangling conversation

1. 22-year-old colleague in Dubai, highly conscious of her above-average IQ, and Lebanese from AUB (I add this because it speaks volumes to those who know). Ostentatiously scruffy in head-to-toe Diesel.
2. Me, much less decrepit and sociopathic than now, but well on my way up the hill. In high heels, make-up and bling.

Me: Sitting at table in food court reading while eating lunch. Absorbed in book.
She: Interrupting. “You’re always reading crime fiction.”
Me: “Yeah, I like crime fiction”. Polite smile, one eye on book, hoping to convey through body language that I don’t want company.
She: “It’s great that you read, though. I can recommend some good books”.
Me: “Ian Rankin is a good book”. Ponder the implications of the “though”.
She: “Most people who read waste their time because they’re reading the wrong things. You should read some classics to really get an idea of what books are about.”
Me: Speechless.
Then, weakly, “I’ve read them”.
She: “Reading this shit, you might as well be watching TV”.
Me: Speechless.
Struggle with impulse to brain her with said shit. Think that watching some TV would improve her greatly.
She: “If you find the classics too heavy, start with the modern classics. Midnight’s Children. It’s about India, it’s by Salman Rushdie.” She pronounces it like the fish.
Me: “I’ve read it”.
Heft the Rankin a little to see if it’s heavy enough to kill. Count the number of classics I can think of that are far lighter than any of Mr. Rushdie’s extravaganzas. Lose count in a flurry of dismay when she sits down. She produces pen and paper from her bag, and starts writing names.
She: “Zadie Smith is good too”.
Me: “I’ve read it”.
She: “Vikram Seth, Martin Amis, Thomas Pynchon…”
Me: “I’ve read them”
Admit to myself that I’m done with them, though. Though. I never finished the third Martin Amis. Might read Vikram Seth again, though. Though. Try to remember how Suitable Boy ended but can’t, which is weird because I did finish that one. Renew my silent vow to never, ever go near the Pynchon again, even to save my life.
She: “…Terry Pratchet…”
Me: “Terry Pratchet?”
She: “Yeah it’s Sci-Fi. That’s Science Fiction.”
Me: Speechless.
Wonder why one would pick Terry Pratchet over Arthur C Clarke if introducing someone to sci-fi. Think deep thoughts about the teaching philosophy at AUB.
She:”… John Steinbeck, Rainer Maria Rilke…”
Me: “I’ve read them.”
Realize with a shock that a proud little quotation I just used in a presentation attributed to "Anon" is my own creation, combining Khalil Gibran and Rainer Maria Rilke. Try to work out which bit belongs to whom, and how widely the presentation is likely to be distributed.
She: “I suppose you’ve read Harry Potter?”
Me: “Yes”.
Feel like I’ve won a prize in Wheel of Fortune.
She: “Then you should read Lord of the Rings – the movie was based on a book you know”. Hands me the paper and stands up. “You’re welcome”.
Me: Too relieved at her absence to register the last part of her speech until she’s out of reach. Stare dumbly at the list for a while. Reach for the pen she’s left behind and correct the spelling of Tolkien.

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