Discuss longhaul
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Travel is the most private of pleasures. There is no greater bore than the travel bore. We do not in the least want to hear what he has seen... (Vita Sackville West).

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Home again and have slept today away, missing a two-inch snowfall and much of the Hutton-frenzy which has gripped everyone else while I slumbered. It wasn't possible to update the blog from Philadelphia as I was either up, out and exploring or from time to time inexplicably hammered by extreme weariness and forced to retire to my bed. However, here's the low-down on the place.

For a start, like most of the Atlantic seaboard of the States this week, it was rather snowy and very chilly. The air seemed damper than in NY so it all felt colder. Driving from the airport towards the city, it was flat, industrial and with a factory-strewn appearance. It is hemmed in between two large rivers, one is the Delaware and the other the Schuylkill. Various iron bridges straddle the rivers and vast stretches of cheap and poor-looking housing lined the highway. Not an inspiring sight, but in the distance,suddenly it was like a small chunk of Canary Wharf had been plonked down into the centre of the city. I realise that probably all American cities are like this: whatever the surroundings are like, there will always be a skyscraper quarter somewhere. It takes some getting used to though because, more than anywhere elase, Philly overall reminded me most of Luton, Bedfordshire.

After installing ourselves in the hotel (central, smart and full of bell-boys, porters and God knows how many other willing staff on hand), I ventured out to track down the historic sights. These include various Dutch-style public buildings dating from the time of The Declaration of Independence and they are quite attractive brick-built things with large windows and shutters. As in NY there is a fair bit of Art-Deco architecture which tends to be on a large scale and beautiful in a harsh way. A couple of tree-filled squares covered in a picturesque smattering of snow are also worth a wander but primarily the place has been horribly built-up from the 1970's onwards and you have to search for the older buildings amongst malls of Arndale Centre ilk and nasty modern blocks of flats. There are some streets of older very Dutch-looking houses too but the general impression is of a blue-collar town with plenty of people down on their uppers, cheap clothes in the shops and on the bodies and much begging going on. I felt it was necessary to keep a close eye on my bag even though there were a lot of police officers about, somehow they didn't instill a lot of confidence in me as they looked like backwoods farmhands dressed up in a blue uniform with handcuffs as accessories. They were oddly informal compared to their British couterparts, very back-slappy and "Howdy y'all" in manner. I saw one lot buying a large bag of cookies from the market and proceeding to munch away at them full within the public's gaze. I'm sure the British police aren't allowed to do that. Maybe they should be?

As in NY, people were generally friendly and I had a conversation with a man who worked behind an oyster stall about the differences between Britain and America. I would guess he has hardly ever left Philly in his life and that was my feeling about many of the inhabitants. Theirs was a fairly limited sphere of experience but this was quite touching. It made me feel very bad about the poor US soldiers in Iraq who must feel as if they've been plucked from everything that was familiar and friendly and which they took for granted and plonked down in a shockingly hostile and bewildering place. I met a couple of US soldiers on a flight between Christmas and New Year and they were such humble, wholesome and grateful types albeit built like brick shithouses, they also broke my heart. Some less sophisticated Americans have simple souls.

Just when I was beginning to despair of Philadelphia providing anything other than a Luton-like experience I happened across The Philadelphia Academy of Arts contained within a beautiful Victorian-Gothic building (I am told) which was all decorative brick outside and stencilling, fleur-de-lys and rich reds and golds inside. Lots of pillars and archways and a brilliant brilliant paintings. It was a real insight into American 19th Century art with many paintings depicting local Philadelphia scenes or the Pennsylvania countryside which is very varied, flat near the coast but with proper hills inland. I got a much better impression of how Philadelphia had "become" from a long hard look at these pictures. I liked the fact that they showed ordinary people in naturalistic settings, blacksmith's forges, building the early 20th Century's skyscrapers, resting in fields, at carnivals, reading ghost stories to each other. There were quakers, black Americans, high society types, farmers, factory workers as well as a few allegorical paintings which were more European-like and not so nice. I thought the art reflected very well the cosmopolitan and democratic side of America and it was all very accessibly presented with good explanations beside each painting so you got a handle on who, why and when it was produced. Excellent stuff and apparently Philadelphia has more art stowed away in various other galleries though much of this is imported masterpieces. If I go back another time I shall have to venture outside the city centre to an area of parkland they call Fairmount which has various mansions you can visit and more museums and views etc. but I didn't have sufficient energy on this occasion.

Also, sadly the Amish market is only on between Wednesdays and Saturdays so I didn't spot any. I should imagine that the weekly jaunt into downtown Philly is enough to make them doubly sure that their bucolic existence is the better option though.

Some peculiarities of American life now:
If you get in an lift it invarialby has a notice on the inside telling you that the Certificate is available for inspection in The Engineer's office. I wonder whether anyone ever does ask to check the certificate and when? Before you agree to use the lift? And do all buildings really pay for the upkeep of a resident engineer just to produce this certificate and/or fix the lift should it malfunction in some way? Is everyone in America paranoid about using lifts unless such a notice is clearly on view?

Toilets. Hmmm. Considering I have met quite a few Americans who get their knickers in a right old twist worrying about whether it will be safe for them to use/sit on a loo outside their native homeland I think toilet design certainly in Philadelphia could be much improved. It took less than an hour for the toilet in my hotel room to become unusable and I had to make a mental note that no further bodily movements must take place until I could guarantee the availablity of an alternative facility. For some reason, you do what you have to do, flush and then a most unsatisfactory event takes place. The mechanism sucks what was in the bowl away but then pauses.... and ....shoots a fair proportion back, under pressure and slightly mangled for you to contemplate afresh. THEN a new stream of water pours down the sides of the bowl which gradually fills to the brim and floats your deposit like a toy boat on a pond for you to admire and acquaint yourself with further and it then remains like an old friend until, presumably you call a man (possibly the engineer of lift-certificate fame?) to come and clear the blockage. Obviously such a course of action is far too embarrassing to venture upon, so I lived with my brim-full loo for the next 24 hours.

Surely this was just a one-off though? I hear you ask. Well I hoped so too. But the one in the Philadelphia Academy of Arts behaved in exactly the same way. I shall elaborate no further.

Coffee. God it is horrible! The cup I had tasted unlike any coffee I have ever had. Even the coffee on aeroplanes is preferable to this. Think floor-sweepings, church hassocks, old dust, musty stairwells and then add sweetener! MMMMmmmm yummy! I only had one cup but from then on whenever I passed a wretched Starbucks or entered a Borders or a Barnes and Noble, I could smell the same sickening smell on the air. I now dread going to Seattle. (Funny though, it was OK in NY).

And finally for this posting, a new phenomenon. The longhaul ghost! We didn't have such things on shorthaul, but I find my longhaul colleagues swear by their veracity and believe in their existence. My scathing laughter when told the following story was greeting as very offensive and I had to backtrack massively to regain my former standing.

On a flight from somewhere to somewhere else, a male crewmember went upstairs to the crew rest area and there lying in one of the bunks was a middle-aged woman who obviously shouldn't have been there. The crewmember asked her to leave and explained that passengers were not allowed up there, but the woman said she was feeling ill and refused to move, adding that her husband was sitting in row 23 beside the window and that the crewmember should go and speak with him.

So, as the woman still refused to budge, the crewmember did as she suggested and went to tackle the husband on the subject. "Is your wife feeling ill sir?" he asked.

"What do you mean? Is this some kind of a joke?" the man replied angrily.

"No, but she is lying upstairs and wont move. She said to come and ask you about it." the crewmember explained at which point the man hit the roof and got really upset.

"My wife is dead young man! She died yesterday and I am bringing her back home on this flight! She is in her coffin in the hold right now!"

Further explanations and apologies ensued and of course, the description of the woman in the crew bunks fitted exactly the one given by the gentleman passenger, even down to the clothes she was wearing being those she had been dressed in to be laid in her coffin.

Whoooooooo! Spooky stuff! But not to be sneezed at I find. There is another similar story about a captain who went off for his bunk-rest and died there of a heart attack only to be seen again a few months later by a hapless first officer who woke during his own rest and saw an unexplained body in the bunk below which turned out to be....yes, that of the dead captain! Or so they say...

Well well, it all goes to show that long absences from home and interrupted sleep patterns make one loose ones grip on reality. And saying that I shall now retire myself and hopefully manage to force a few more hours rest into my system even though I have slept for nine hours during today already.

Thank you for all my messages on the discussion board by the way. It is lovely to hear from you all. Very heart-warming.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Back in the UK. Looked like shit this morning when we finally landed at 8.30am. Eyes red, hair dishevelled and breath rather nighttimey. (Go on Mum, tell me I've spelled that wrongly). Still, as first ever night-flights go it was quiet and uneventful. We all got an hour or so in the crew bunks. Yes, they do exist and they are quite comfy as long as you can ignore the proximity of several prostrate colleagues bodies attempting to get some shut-eye nearby. There was no way sleep was going to come for me. For a start we had hit a bumpy patch of air so my body spent much of my allotted hour set in a rhythmic sawing motion against the mattress. Impossible. I felt a lot worse after this attempt at rest than I did before.

Once back in the hotel at Heathrow, I slept for six hours and have now come home for Burns' supper. Very sustaining. All in all however, although I ceratinly looked worse than on a shorthaul effort this am, I used to feel worse having got up at 4am, working all day through until about 3pm on shorthaul. No doubt things will get worse when I fly further or eastwards.

Off to Heathrow again now to spent the night in my hotel room. We fly again at around 10.30am Monday to Philadelphia. I have been told there is an Amish market near the crew hotel there which I am very excited to see. But first I shall have to shake off one of my colleagues who seems all set to attach himself to me on my Phliadelphia tour. It isn't exactly a meeting of minds so if I have to be brutal about this I will! I don't think I'll have any trouble sleeping tonight as right now my eyes are drooping.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

New Yawk New Yawk! Here I am, blogging away at nearly 9pm UK time which is just late afternoon here. It's been an action-packed 24 hours. Amazingly enough, there is free internet access at the crew hotel in NY, so I couldn't pass up the opportunity, plus my legs are so tired from all the walking up and down the sidewalks (sound like a native already don't I?) I need to sit down somewhere. The hotel used to belong to my employer and although it got sold off a couple of yers ago, is still run purely for crew of our airline. This gives it a very strange atmosphere - home from home on the one hand, but oddly airliney too. People come down for coffee in the morning in their pyjamas because no-one cares and it doesn't matter what you look like. It is all a bit scruffy compared to a real hotel, but hey! free internet so who cares?

Yesterday was an education. I was so nervous all morning that there was no point hanging about at home so I arrived at work two and a half hours early. First I sat in the car for a while and sewed all those errant buttons on to my jacket with DENTAL FLOSS. Now just let 'em try and escape that. Then I reluctantly dragged myself to the Crew Building which though I have been there practically every week of my life for the past five and a hlaf years, still felt unfamiliar, frightening and full of strangers. The only people I saw who I knew were a handful of fellow sufferers from my longhaul training course who I am glad to say looked as nervous I felt. One was actually white as a sheet, had had his hair cut and looked like a school kid even though he is forty.

Throughout my breifing, my journey to the aircarft by bus and the first hour of the process of flying, I was still not myself at all, but happily, once on a familiar enough trolley and pushed in the right direction I felt I could pass for a "flight attendant" again. Of course, lots of people asked me lots of questions I couldn't answer which was embarrasing, but what the hell. I have to say, my colleagues were very kind and tried to make me feel as relaxed as possible, but it isn't like shorthaul. The cameraderie isn't really there and everything is done in slow-motion. I was also surprised that the passengers don't really want to talk to you. I was expecting more contact with them as individuals, but certainly, down the back, they don't seem to expect anything other than to be fed, smiled at and directed to the loos. Oh well... I wanted someone to share my excitement about heading for America and to be honest I don't think anyone on the entire plane was as geared up for it as I was myself! Sad what we take for granted in this modern world.

Just another couple of things about the actual journey: The 747 feels disgusting during take-off. You seem to feel the metal straining and everything bends and groans. Horrible. We also had a bit of light turbulence accompanied by flexing and a sort of swell like on the sea. Nauseating and I can quite see how people get nervous. Stupidly (in retrospect) I assumed we were thousands of feet above the Atlantic all flight too, but no, we route over the top of the planet instead of course, so I have probably flown over Iceland and Greenland and not known to look out the bloody window. Frustrating.

So, we arrived, it was bloody cold and I went to bed until 7am NY time which is midday for the UK. From JFK airport onwards I have encountered nothing but kindness, patience and charm from the New Yorkers which has been very very humbling. Once again I am forced to conclude that no-one is ruder or more patronising to foreigners than we British. It has been fascinating. The thing I notice about people here is that even the ones doing very menial jobs are polite and unembarassed about their activities. There doesn't seem to be the chip on the shoulder you'd get in England. (I would include many cabin crew as part of this assessment). I went up The Empire State Building first thing today and there were more than enough staff on hand, directing the sheep-like tourists up down and round about the place with ne're a raised eyebrow and obviously not feeling demeaned by their t-shirts advertising cab-companies on their fronts. All praise to the natives! We could learn a thing or two from them. I also like their fatalistic shrugs and deadpan drawling and I feel very sorry for America that some parts of the world hate it and the inhabitants so much. People here are mostly just ordinary people trying to live their lives, like people the world over. I myself will try and be more patient about America from afar too.

Anyway, some view from the top of the ESB. Luckily, although it is something like -10 C, there is not much wind, so it was bearble if you wrapped up well. The architecture of the overall city is spectacular. I have never seen a city so overwhelming and full of impact. Being amongst these skyscrapers is like being an ant in a forest. We stay in midtown Manhattan, so right in the thick of things. It is familiar from the tv of course, but still a bit of a thrill when you see your first lot of steam rising inexplicalbly from the pavement.

I have also visited Grand Central Station, The Chrysler Building, Central Park and The Metropolitan Museum of Art this afternoon. Art Deco is everywhere. The station is beautiful but the Chrysler Building takes the prize I think. Central Park was full of snow and squirrels and it felt utterly safe everywhere. I haven't seen a really dodgey person all day, unlike in London. Also that stressed-out, pissed off Londoner thing doesn't have its NY equivalent either, or at least not on a Saturday in January. Two hours to go now until pick-up time and then flying through the night back home. THEN I'll know about jet-lag for the first time. Oh goody.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Something amusing I forgot to add. My Mum's advice on seeing her eldest child flit off across the Atlantic:
"Don't go near that Park place!" (Central Park I presume?) and,
"I think I've heard that the noise of the traffic keeps you awake unless you are right at the top of one of those skyscraper things. That's what it said in The Diary of a Provincial Lady" (Published in the 1920's. Hopefully double-glazing technology has moved on sufficiently by now). Sooo helpful!

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

To leave a message, click on Discuss Longhaul at top of page. Ta.
To leave a meassage, click on Discuss Longhaul at top of page. Ta.
Greetings one and all.

I've taken a leaf out of Stuart's book and decided to set up my own blog as a way of making home seem less far away while I'm travelling and so that you can all see what I'm up to when, thus ringing me when I'm at home instead of always assuming I am never at home and so never ringing me or inviting me to anything ever again! I also clicked on some button or other that makes this a public blog, so who knows, I may get an interested/bored extra reader or two from the virtual world. It feels a bit weird that just anyone could be reading what I write but hopefully that will wear off.

So...why now? Well for those who don't know, after five and a half years of dragging myself out of bed in the wee small hours, hurtling (within the speed limit, but it feels like a hurtle in a 17-year-old Volvo) round the M25 to represent the front line of customer service of a certain national airline (better be careful what I say) and being posted off in the metal tubes to such destinations as Prague or Paris, I have been released from these exertions to what I hope will be the comparatively restful and lucrative lifestlye of a longhaul stewardess. I fully expect to make my commute about once a week on average instead of five times a week and I shall now roll up for the job, refreshed, relaxed and willing to deliver the gold-standard in service my employer has come to expect from me (cough).

Having just completed an eight-day conversion course, my converting colleagues and myself are convinced that longhaul will be the Life of Riley compared to the slave-labour of shorthaul. We have even been told that baked potatoes are provided for hungry little strewards and strewardesses to snack on in the long airborne hours, free! On shorthaul we spent half our time willing our passengers not to eat both halves of their sandwich so we could scavenge through the trolley at the end of each flight and stave off malnutrition and collapse that way. We expect nicer hotels, bigger pay packets, fairer treatment from the employer (because they have always favoured longhaul crew and we have always been the poor relation before now) and no doubt our passengers will be better-looking and appreciate our great condescension in turning up on the day to make their passage through the skies that little bit more comfortable. Ah...we feel we have made it at last. Five and a half years on a waiting list - that's longer than an NHS queue! We think we deserve a break and our expectations are running sky high as it were. Check out further postings to see whether disappointment and anti-climax are the inevitable outcome or whether our dreams and illusions will be realised as we find fun, fortune and friskyness at 37,000 feet. (Or is it higher on these long sectors? Another new thing to discover).

I hope that some of you will click in from time to time to say hi to me so I feel connected to you all back in Britain and the wider Europe. To be serious for a moment, it is a huge lifestlye change which those outsiide the airline industry may find hard to appreciate. I am told it can get very lonely and that it is common for entire crews to languish in their hotel romms once away and never get-together until it is time to fly home again. Mental illness is rife among airline crew and our company has, I am told, had 14 suicides this year just among cabin crew, many of which have been commited downroute in their hotel room. I suppose jet-lag and being away from loved ones exerts a toll I have yet to realise, but I'm sure I have a good few months/years yet before such gloom sets in for me. Many longhaul crew have been out there since the 1970's and 80's so they've had time to get things out of perspective and lose touch with their real lives. I do not intend to let this happen to me!

My first trip begins on Friday and I'm off to New York for 24 hours, London again for a night, Philadelphia for 24 hours and then home. A six day trip all in all and hard work no doubt. I have never set foot outside Europe in my life, even on holiday so am excited about seeing snippets of America, Africa, The Middle East, Japan, China and South America. It is practically unheard of for someone in my line of work to be so untravelled. I have found just two other former shorthaulers in my situation. I expect culture shocks to make it all more interesting though. I don't know how regularly I'll be posting yet. It may be like one of those New Year's Resolutions which dies a death fairly quickly, especially if no-one can be bothered to read it and I get no messages. Well, up to you. It'll be market-driven I think. Signing off now. Maybe more before I take to the air on Friday.

ps. If I make any spelling or unintentional grammatical errors, point them out you clever people! I might as well learn something through doing this too.

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