I have just got back to Japan from the U.S. It was a really great trip that will probably continue to filter into the next few posts for some time, as it was exciting, stimulating, and gave me a lot of food for thought. The people were lovely, the places intriguing, and spending time with D and his folks got my love batteries recharged up nicely after a period, at the end of term, of feeling estranged and unsettled . I feel more optimistic and human again.
But while the actual experiences of each place we went to will linger in the mind, I would really rather forget all the transportation and the getting around. Because from the moment we left Narita Airport in Tokyo and got onto the plane with shitty American Airlines, I have nothing but pissed off and frustrated feelings remaining about a company that seems to be falling apart at the seams and doesn’t provide a decent service for its customers. It is shambolic. A really bad stain on the image of the country it is representing and a total third rate experience. This, coupled with the unpleasant, aggressive, and badly organized system of U.S immigration, in which people, who have paid good money to come to a country that they are curious about seeing, and are shuffled about like dumb and guilty, disrespected cattle, could honestly all make a person seriously think twice about going there again.
Perhaps I am exaggerating, as usual, but having had many years of international flying experience, with a great number of different airlines, I have a pretty good idea of what constitutes decent service. While the Japanese airlines JAL and ANA always offer predictably excellent flights, I also love the more relaxed, yet always efficient KLM, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air, Malaysian Airlines (recent disasters notwithstanding) and Virgin Atlantic, which has by far the best entertainment system, something that is essential for a person who cannot really sleep on planes, can’t read on them either, and so is dependent on a good film selection to maintain his sanity, with a hopefully flowing selection of drinks as well, as he flies in a flimsy metal box with man made wings across the latitudes and longitudes of the globe praying that the whole thing doesn’t crash or get shot down.
From the moment you got on the AA flight from Tokyo, you sensed a tired, disgruntled atmosphere, something grubby, as if the poor, put upon attendants, faces lined and careworn with the gradual deterioriations of their working conditions and quality of their airline, could hardly be bothered to do their jobs. I sympathize, but then again I have also paid a great deal of money to be on board this plane and I want to feel that it was worth it. But where other airlines now all have back of seat screens and huge selections of movies, TV programmes, documentaries and so on to keep your mind occupied (so much so that you are so spoiled for choice that you almost wish the flight were longer), American only had about five films in all, nothing I wanted to see, and even if I did ( and I did, because I had no choice), you had to wait until the next program began twenty minutes later or so, and even then the film would just inexplicably go off, the images on the screen breaking up and fragmenting, just as you were finally getting into it the corny Hollywood crap and could hopefully kill another half an hour, squeezed into your seat grumbling under your breath like a spiteful old man.
After a repulsive breakfast (a watery egg pancake with undercooked franks and a tropical strawberry hot sauce), we arrived at our transit stop Dallas, which had the worst immigration procedures I have ever encountered. Though people were exasperated, even panicked, adamant they were about to miss their connecting flights (and would be told in that militaryish, uncaring tone by some rude fat person ‘…then you’ll just have to miss your flight’), there were way too few officers checking and carefully, interviewing candidates for entry really taking their time (as though we were all despairing refugees, clawing our way to get a chance to enter the Greatest Country On Earth, whatever the cost, and should be intensely grateful to be even considered), (“REAlly? The last time you came here was ten years ago?!”) (Er, yes, there are actually other places I have been in the meantime……..) as the line snaked slowly, slowly, slowly forward, and you began to lose all hope that you would ever actually make it to the end, but looking back at all the other poor people at the beginning, saw how far that you had come.
And then that disgusting pancake, which you ate because you were starving, starts to mess with your digestive system, squelching, sugared, full of additives and deleterious, and you think, oh no, not now, no, please…….. that you might be about to commit perhaps the most ignoble act in the history of mankind in the middle of the roped in crowds, you try to control it and and then just think no fuck it and dart under the security rope, rushing to the bathroom just in time cursing and sweating and wishing you had never come. Disjointed, rattled. Like everyone else. But you crawl back in line, and two hours later, at LAST you are finally through, rushing for your connecting flight to Miami feeling dirty and disgusting on a flight that has no service except for water and orange juice and that has messed up your specific request for an aisle seat, because for as long as you can remember, you have always had an aisle seat, as otherwise you get anxious and claustrophobic. You don’t want to feel this way, but you do, so it is a very important detail for you personally. This is an unquestionable necessity. Sat in the middle of two people you begin to feel really and genuinely anxious. This is pure neurosis you realize, but it is something you have and you therefore always make sure in advance that it is a situation that you can avoid. But no: they have downsized the plane at the last minute in some money saving, seasonal maneuver and have therefore changed the seating plan. There is nothing they can can do about it so you will just have to lump it.
Which I do because it is an exit seat with more space to get out if I really need to, and I look back at Duncan, a couple of seats behind for reassurance as I am strapped in between two sullen, bulky, businessmen, but I still don’t enjoy a single minute of it. My throat is dry and there is nothing at all to do.
Perhaps a glass of wine. I could really do with some wine after the horror of Dallas, but, ah I see, you can’t pay in cash, only with credit card and I don’t actually have one. Yes, unbelievable, I know (but with this perfume addiction I am sure you can understand why). Even so, I don’t expect the cabin attendant serving the drinks to say to me, in such a condescending tone, ‘You don’t have a credit card?’
Shudder. This is not a pleasant journey to Miami at all, and, later, I realize that I vastly prefer travelling by Amtrak in the sleeper car to Tampa, where you can see the orange groves and swamps go by, meet interesting people in the diner cars, and chat to the friendly train staff who are down to earth and warm and who make the journey really enjoyable. The other domestic flights we take, with Delta to New Orleans via Atlanta are infinitely better as well : as soon as you enter the cabin you feel it – a more relaxed and light-hearted atmosphere, more space, jovial cabin crew, and pleasant flights that seem to pass in no time as you touch down excitedly at your destination.
Today’s/last night’s flight, though, was awful.
I have no concept of time anymore, and have just literally got in, after hours and hours of travelling; picked up the computer and started writing this as I need to get it out of my system and we try to heat up the freezing house and soothe the cat who is berating us for leaving her here alone with just the neighbours to feed her and a programmed heater to keep her warm at night. We spent the morning on whatever day it was, though I think it was yesterday, or maybe it was today, it seems impossible to calculate and meaningless anyway, just wandering around downtown Miami in the last moments of sun, to some areas we hadn’t been to yet, and then took a taxi to the airport, pleased that the holiday had gone so smoothly (because you never know with these family get togethers), but then realized quite quickly that we had, in fact, spoken far too soon.
Firstly, arriving at the terminal clutching our e-tickets and travel itineraries, we found, to our blood freezing, heart-sinking worry that our flight didn’t even exist, that no one had ever heard of Japan Airlines flying out of Miami International, the first AA assistant we spoke to wondering if instead we should be flying out of Fort Lauderdale. And how far away was that? Oh, about two and half hours away or so. Fort LAUDERDALE? We would ever make it. Our mellow anticipation of a pleasant voyage home with Japan Airlines thus melted, at the drop of a hat, into instant adrenalized panic as we realized there had been a fuck up and we might not even be able to get back. What, the flight doesn’t even exist? How is this possible? It had cost a fortune.
What the hell are we going to do?
We rush (always running with American it seems), Duncan developing an immediate, penetrating headache, me with grim visions of us sleeping outside on the concourse (we have almost no money left, and D has maxed out his credit card – we have no money for a hotel or another flight, and my bank card is not working in any of the ATMs: I see us stranded); the American Airlines person, who could have just checked for us, sending us running through the terminals A down through to D to search for the Information desk, where to our great and immense relief a laconic, dry, and very funny lady tells us that of course, American and Japan Airlines do code shares my dears, you are fine, are you sure, yeah what do you think they hire me for, my pretty face and body?
D’s temples excruciating further from the temporary relief of stress we rush back to American Airlines dragging our baggage to the inscrutable machine-driven self-check in process ( call me old school, but I so prefer the old method where they just used to do it for you), the check in process for our flight from Miami to San Francisco, our hugely inconvenient stop-over point for our long haul flight back to Asia.
GATE D45. It is written quite clearly there on the ‘ticket’ (which actually tells us, again disconcertingly, that a seat cannot be designated for us yet, but please go to gate D45 and you will be issued with your Boarding Pass!)
So we wait there. But of course, there are no staff, and the one person who is there keeps disappearing, as time keeps ticking, and police with machine guns arrive for some security anomaly on the flight to Costa Rica, and we are getting closer to boarding (we cannot miss our connecting flight back to Japan!) and I check the Departure Boards just in case it has changed without warning and …..fuck! they have changed it to E9, unannounced – no! which turns out to be miles away, with rail transit cars and endless corridors, running, stressed out to the max to arrive at the departure gate where people are on standby waiting to get on, scores of them (they are, of course, overbooked). And again, VASTLY understaffed. For a whole room of people there is one person again trying to deal with all of this (one!). I feel sorry for her, but people are already boarding, the line isn’t moving, and we havent’ even got a seat yet. Are we going to be able to even get on the plane?
Eventually we get called to the front desk and get issued last minute boarding passes. I have a seat. Which of course, isn’t on the aisle, though some kind people let me swap, and Duncan sits next to a woman who tells horror stories earlier that day (‘American Airlines? Don’t get me STARTED!) of being stuck on the tarmac in the Bahamas for two hours (with no one passing around any refreshments or real apologies), and she rolls her eyes again as we then get an announcement that ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry but we have been told by the engineers that the plane is not currently structurally safe as there are too many people on board (?), and too many bags have been loaded on the plane meaning it is not properly balanced. Great! I feel really safe and secure! Knowing that I am about to take off on a plane that is not even structurally safe. Marvellous!! Keep it coming!
They unload some bags, and we joke about passengers also being thrown off the plane with the suitcases. And finally, an or so hour later after the scheduled time, it takes off, for a six hour flight to San Francisco with no meal service, not even a small packet of pretzels (at least Delta gives you those), no entertainment options ( I just pick up a note book and pencil and write a piece for the Narcissus that you can read in the next couple of days), an old fashioned way to keep my mind off the stress of this bullshit that AA keeps subjecting us to, as we finally, finally arrive in San Francisco, and have to run run again to try and catch our connecting flight to Japan, where there are no staff anywhere as it is almost midnight, and we finally, after rushing down endless corridors dragging my aching leg and carry on luggage, find the international departures section, seriously stressed and sweaty and stinking now, go through security again, endure the barking orders of the airport security staff (who really COULD be a bit more gentle and nice about it all, yes I know they are protecting us all from The Terrorists), and we finally get on to the lovely haven that is Japan Airlines and its reliable sanctuary of true and decent flight service.
It is like slipping into silk. Nice food, much better entertainment, decent seats, and a big, airy, cabin, but I fall asleep in any case, as it just feels so smooth and relaxing as the day has been so stressful, and we think finally, things will go without any hitch and we can just get home.
Eleven hours later, having traversed half the globe, we arrive at Tokyo International Airport and to the baggage claim and then we have the final denouement to American Airlines’ beautiful, seamless performance.
I had so been looking forward to opening my suitcase and looking at my souvenirs, those lovely Hové perfumes, the hand made soaps I bought on Anna Marie island, the curious hemp and vetiver lotions I bought from Nubian in New Orleans, but on arrival, though Duncan has his suitcase, and the conveyor belt goes round, an assistant at the airport then lifts up a sign which reads ‘LAST’.
All the suitcases have been loaded on but I don’t have mine. American Airlines, probably in that disorganized mayhem of baggage-shifting from the plane back in Miami, has lost my suitcase.
I come home empty-handed.