Monday, March 31, 2008


Yes, we're back. We hit Indy at around six on Thursday evening, after bidding farewell to our son and Berlin some twenty hours earlier. It seemed almost fitting that it was raining about as hard as it could as I dashed the thirty or so feet to my car from the shuttle bus I'd caught at the terminal out to the long-term lot, where I'd parked.

I suddenly realized I was being pelted by small hail as well. By the time I managed to open the door of our red mid-90s Le Sabre, (ubiquitous amongst people beyond a certain age) rip off my coat, and flop down in the front seat, I was soaked pretty much through. I had been overly thorough in cleaning out the car prior to our leaving, so there was really nothing with which to dry my head, face, and hands. I used a couple of those small, travel-sized tissues to daub the rain from my forehead and eyes as best as I could.

I started the car with rain still dripping from my hair and drove over to the exit gate to pay the $70.50 parking fee. (Not bad, I guess, for ten days, right?) I made my way back to the terminal to gather up my wife and our luggage for the final leg of our trip home.

The house smelt a bit musty and was dead still as we entered. Nevertheless, it's always great after an extended trip away to make your way into your living room, drop whatever you might be lugging, and plop down on the couch with a relieving sigh - to sit with eyes closed, your head reposed on the sofa back uttering "Oh man, we're home!"

In the couple of days since, I've had some time to consider our experience during the ten days spent in Germany. I hope to go into more detail about some of it soon, but for now I'll just discuss some observations regarding air travel.

If you want to experience what it could be like to live under a police state, fly - anywhere. You'll get a more in depth experience if you take an international flight, but almost any time spent in a commercial airport will give you a taste of Big Brother.

Frequent travelers probably don't generally notice much. They know the drill. They carry minimal luggage, perhaps dress in such a way that the walk through security will take minimal time and effort: slip-on shoes, little or nothing left in pockets, no big belt buckles. They keep their heads down, their mouths shut, and just go with the flow. Since security procedures have evolved fairly slowly since before the millennium, it probably seems to most of these hardy souls just business as usual.

They come to know the venues, the airports - the concourses, the shops, the bars and restaurants, the restrooms, the gates - they haunt on a regular basis. They know the planes and their configurations. If they're fortunate enough to fly business or first class, they know once aboard, the flight will be, well, like flying. If, however, they must travel in coach, they learn where best to choose their seats in the various planes. I'm told that on some planes it's best to sit in the emergency exit aisles which may afford more leg room and/or may have only two seats across rather than the usual three. I'm sure there are other tricks of the trade as well.

For the casual, infrequent traveler, an airport is a foreign, nerve-wracking, and even frightening experience. Once on airport property, the rules of behaviour change. Observing driving, stopping, loading/unloading, and parking rules takes on a heightened importance.
Upon entering the terminal, one becomes aware of a greater regimentation that increases perceptively starting with the lines at the ticket counter, confronting the airline's agent, schlepping bags up onto the scales, getting boarding passes, making one's way haltingly from the counter to the proverbial point of no return just prior to entering the security maze, leaving your unticketed loved ones behind, perhaps never to be seen again.

The whirlwind truly begins at security. Travelers are directed to lines feeding into the various screening devices somewhat reminiscent of checking out at the grocery. Here you are not emptying your grocery cart; rather, you are emptying your pockets, placing your keys, change, glasses, maybe your Ipods, coats, hats, carry-on bags, and yes, your damn shoes into plastic bins which you are instructed to roll forward into the maw of the ex-ray machines.

Meanwhile, you are directed to step through the personal x-ray and "sniffer" which blows an unexpected puff of air over your body, invariably setting off a buzzer or bell of some kind. Officers then direct these hapless guys and gals to step aside and stand arms raised for a wand sweep up and down their bodies, hesitating, hovering when and where the thing beeps. Unusual or unexpected beeps result in the offending souls being directed to a small screened-off area of some sort wherein they may be directed to drop trou, as I was, revealing the braces for my arthritic knees, which I had forgotten to remove prior to entering security.

Because I have sleep apnea, I bring what is known as a CPAP machine allowed as an extra medical carry-on. This machine always perplexes Transportation Security Agency (TSA) inspectors, who invariably dismantle the damn thing, wiping it down with little explosive trace detecting cloths, leaving it to me to reassemble and replace in the carrying case while I am still juggling all my shit - my other carry-on bag, coat, shoes, change, keys while also holding up my still unbuttoned pants as inspectors urge me to move on to make way for the next potential hijacker or suicide bomber.

While no one was particularly unpleasant with us, most were and are generally polite, even at times deferential, neither is there much tolerance for confusion, resistance, anger, or even humor. It is expected that everyone simply respond willingly, obediently to each and every direction: "Step forward, please." "Turn this way." "Ma'am, stay behind the red line." "Raise your arms, sir." "Drop your arms, sir." "Don't move." "Let's keep it moving." We are expected to answer questions briefly and succinctly with no embellishments, no unwanted histrionics, no unsolicited explanations. This, most will say, is as it should be.

To those who remember the world before 9/11 and before the millennium — a world wherein travelers were looked upon more as guests and valued as job security — the current atmosphere in airports is one in which people are taken to be potential criminals. It's nearly incomprehensible. Now we are all suspects.

Note also that it is far easier to get out of the country than to get back in. On our trip out, leaving first from Indy and then Newark, the inspections were comparatively cursory. We each had two carry-on bags and only my machine was given any particular scrutiny.

The real challenge came when leaving Berlin. At the counter we were forced to consolidate everything into one carry-on each - counting even my wife's purse requiring impromptu, Olympic-quality stuffing. Then we ran the gauntlet as described above. Upon landing again in Newark, we were first stopped at immigration. Then we had to retrieve our luggage and schlepp it to another location where they were to be rechecked for the flight to Indy even though it was the same airline we came in on.

On the way to the check-in we were stopped and quizzed by a fellow wanting to know if we had any fruits, vegetables, or seeds with us or in our luggage. "Uh, no." We must not have been terribly convincing as we were directed to go through a set of doors to yet another set of scanning machines into which we were further directed to place all of our luggage and other stuff for fruit and veggie scrutiny.

Once again, they opened the bag with my CPAP machine, presumably expecting to find clandestine broccoli, pomegranates or rutabagas in it. Not until we were sitting in our living room did I feel we could no longer fear someone snooping through our belongings. I should add that with all this, we didn't suffer any long delays, missed flights, or even lost luggage. Everything from that standpoint was essentially normal.

I worked for the now defunct TWA back in 1969/70. It was a far different world. During my tenure there, the first American passenger plane was hijacked to Cuba. Say what? Little did we know. The first couple of months of my employment were spent working on the ramp loading and unloading bags, mail, freight, and so on. On a few occasions I got some overtime by staying to clean the interior of planes parked for the night. At that time, anyone could have boarded one of them. Security was essentially non-existent. On more than one occasion I made my way up front taking a seat in the captain's chair and played pilot. I did have the sense not to flip any switches or push any buttons, but still.

Back then an airport was a pleasant, welcoming, and even prestigious place to go. Airlines competed for business and treated people traditionally as customers - people paying for and expecting deferential treatment. Flying could be a white-knuckle experience for some, then as now, but every effort was made to put nervous flyers at ease. Stewardesses (there were few stewards at that time) graduated from smile school. They always sported pleasant, if at times toothy, grins across their invariably pert, blemishless faces. Flying was the safest way to fly.

'Tis a far different world we now find ourselves in. A large thank you goes out to Osama, George, and the rest of the gang.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Greetings From Deutschland

We made it to Berlin Tuesday morning after what, as I had anticipated was a wonderfully pleasurable flight, relaxing in the sauna, playing a couple of rousing games of ping pong down on the recreation deck, sipping mai-tais with the crew and singing karaoke in the lounge. In my dreams.

Actually, as I really predicted, we were stuffed into our seats like sausage meat into pig intestines in the economy section of the 757-B. Periodically, they brought us drinks and what they claimed was food a couple of times. At one point during the "meal" a young, waiflike boy rose up at the rear of the plane clutching his small bowl and stated in his tiny but plaintive voice "I want more." More?!! Bumbole roared. "No one ever asks for more!" Well no, actually, that's in a scene from "Oliver," but I presume you get my drift.

Sometime after feeding us they started running a movie up in first class, while in coach, they just passed around a View Master with a series of pictures of various midwestern barns having "See Rock City" painted on their roofs. (The "3D" effect in that View Master is truly amazing. It's just like being there, standing in front of those barns. What won't they think of next.) America is truly a great country!

Well, once again, I must confess that I have been, how you say, pulling the leg. Ha,ha. Actually, we were treated with the very high minded and artfully understated film version of the venerable "Starsky and Hutch." Again, I say, America is... yada, yada, yada.

The seat was so roomy and comfortable, I must have slept for as long as 12 to 15 minutes during the 7+ hour flight. The only part of me that got any real sleep was my butt which remained pretty much numb for the duration. I did get an aisle seat as I had hoped, but of course that meant I got whacked in the arm or shoulder every time someone passed by in the aisle. I have the tomato juice stains to prove it.

Nevertheless, we did eventually land at Tegel Airport in Berlin with most of our parts and luggage more or less in tact. We were also more or less on time, and my son was there to pick us up. After a cup-o-joe at the airport Starbucks (where else) we drove into the city for a bit of sight seeing.
We wound up at the Jewish Museum. Here is where the story takes a bit of a turn.

Any readers familiar with the museum know its scope and what we saw there. Suffice to say that it is not solely a Holocaust museum. It is primarily devoted to the history of Judaism and the Jewish people which, of course, includes the Holocaust. It is set up in three basic levels. The upper level recounts the early development of Judaism. The second level is devoted to the evolution of Jewish culture, society and family, culminating with the first years of Nazism and the harbingers of what was to come. The lowest level then is devoted almost wholly to the holocaust.

We spent roughly two hours there which would tell anyone familiar with the museum that we didn't really take in much. That, I suppose, is true. We had come more or less directly from the airport and our 20 or so hours since leaving home. Our exhaustion, coupled with my sore and swollen knees made the tour a bit arduous and painful. Perhaps that is in some respects an effective way to do it. I'm certainly not suggesting that my situation is in any way analogous to the suffering endured by Holocaust victims. But discomfort is a theme that runs through the exhibit starting with the architecture. The new and larger portion of the museum designed by Daniel Libeskind apparently looks like a slash or lightening strike over the landscape when seen from the air. The building is fraught with odd angles, deceptively sloping floors and odd shapes. Windows offer small, almost tantalizing glimpses of the outside world. Interior "voids" offer just that - void, a sense of nothingness. The last of these voids and the largest, is a space of bare concrete, the floor strewn with "Fallen Leaves," several thousand anguished iron faces of the expelled and murdered Jews.

While, as I said, we spent a scant two hours there, the museum had a definite effect on me. The architecture, the voids and especially two features located on the ground level near the end of the tour were most effective. First, the "Garden of Exile." One enters through a deformed doorway leading outside to a space taken with several vertical pillars each having some type of willow tree growing at the top which, at least in early spring, look more akin to barbed wire. The walls, the floors, the aforementioned door and other visual aspects are all disconcertingly at odd angles rendering it difficult to navigate, apparently at times making people effectively sea sick. Second, is the "Holocaust Tower," which Libeskind describes as a "void of voids" also an exterior space - a triangle of concrete walls rising upwards perhaps 60 or 70 feet. Once the access door is closed, one is suddenly aware of the isolation. There are no windows, only a small slash of light at the very top. On one wall is a series of steps, the lowest of which are inaccessible, reaching up to nothing in the dim light. A sense of confinement and claustrophobia, rose in me almost immediately. I couldn't get out quickly enough. Apparently, earlier on, once someone entered the space, the door remained closed and would not reopen for around 3 minutes. They stopped that practice because too many people were freaking out in isolated panic. I left the museum exhausted, hobbled in pain and deeply moved. I didn't take in much of the detail - the small exhibits of photos, letters, bits and pieces of families torn asunder, lives lost - but the effect, I think, was the same. The scope of this hideous tragedy was not lost on this patron. In what amounts to a sad footnote, all accesses to the Jewish Museum are blocked by large concrete cubes designed to keep all vehicles at bay, and it is necessary that every visitor go through security screening including ex-ray just as at any airport to gain entrance. Security guards, cameras, and who knows what other monitoring devices abound throughout the complex. This tour made for a sobering beginning to our visit, but perhaps aptly so. It helps to put everything one sees and does in Germany in a different perspective. While there is much history, beauty and greatness on display here, the Jewish Museum serves as a reminder that insanity and horror lie just around the corner.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Deutschland, Here We Come!

My wife and I are beginning to put things together for a trip to Germany in what is just over a week from now. We have flown overseas a couple of times; the first time to Vienna the week prior to the millenium and then to Germany a couple of years ago, also around the Christmas/New Year holidays.

We're making this trip to visit our older son, whom we haven't seen in over a year. On both of our previous trips we were accompanied by our younger son, who, while not fluent in German as is his brother, still has a basic understanding of it and can converse enough to help us get to where we're going or whatever. This time, however, he cannot make the trip for a variety of reasons — something to do with his life. (Jeeze! Any excuse just to leave poor old mom and dad in the lurch.)

I am, consequently, a bit more apprehensive about this trip as neither my wife nor I have any knowledge of the language. I have tried listening to a German language learning program and have a phrase book, but I haven't managed to get much beyond "Wo ist der toiletten?"

Our older son reassures us that he will be there, "Johann on the spot," when we arrive, and won't let us out of his sight during the ten or so days we'll be spending in Deutschland. Yeah, right.

My wife and I are "getting on in years." both of us having eclipsed the 60-year threshold. By today's standards that's not really old, I guess, but neither is it young. As I've recounted here in previous articles and comments, almost ad nauseam, I have creaky, arthritic knees, and I am now sporting a painfully sore lower back. Add to that the fact that I'm a veritable tub of guts weighing in at over 250 pounds of flaming love! (That would sound better in kilos, wouldn't it? What — 114 kilos or so?) Consequently, according to my ortho guy, I'm putting something like a thousand pounds of pressure on my knees and back with every step I take. Great! My wife has a number of ailments big and small, that I won't go into in respect of her privacy, but suffice to say, we are neither one of us in the pinnacle of health.

Our older son, now in his late twenties is small and lithe — he runs. Crap! He runs! I was once told by a kindly drill sergeant during my stint in the "U.S. of Army" that if my life depended on my ability to run, I would likely wind up as hamburger. Food for thought. My son weighs in at around 130 pounds. That's pounds, not kilos! I haven't tipped the scale at 130 pounds since I was in the fourth grade. Well, my first born, and his younger brother - also a runner - tend to leave their mother and I in the dust say, on the way to catching a bus or train. They're young and just doesn't understand. We can no longer move like the wind. Now, we only pass it.

A sign of my aging mind: I am packing stupid things like packets of ketchup and mustard, sugar, artificial sweetener, coffee creamer and so on. I even have some mayo and pickle relish — all stolen from area eateries. I've pretty much gone completely wacko. Give me another year or two, and I'll be taking an entire suitcase loaded with toilet paper. For now, I'm going to settle for a dozen or so of those little travel packets of Kleenex. I suppose I'll throw in a few hundred sanitary wipes and a gallon or so of Purel.

Of course, we will be accompanied by a veritable traveling pharmacy — pills, salves, tonics, solutions of every description and purpose. Can't go doody? I'll have something to grease the chute. Can't stop going doody? I'll have something else to slam the chute shut. I suppose we could get busted for running drugs, but that's a chance we'll have to take.

The part of the trip I dread the most are the two trans-Atlantic flights. We will be flying to Newark and then on to Berlin. The Newark flight I can handle. But once they wedge us into our seats in the tourist section of the plane to (and from) Berlin, we will be more or less screwed for the next 8 hours or so. All of my claustrophobic tendencies will come screaming to the surface. Should I be forced to sit in a middle seat, I just might explode. I can't even handle a window seat. The aisle is the place for me. There, I can sort of stretch one leg straight out, at least when there's no food or drink cart being wheeled up and down the aisle, and I have one side of me not rubbing up against another body or the wall of the plane. Comparatively, on the aisle, the air is fresh and clean! The world is brimming with possibilities! I can get up without forcing anyone else to get up first, and just step out into the aisle and actually walk! It may be for only three or four steps in either direction, but, hey, that's better than being trapped in what the airlines laughingly refer to as seats. Tourist or economy class seating tends to be less "roomy" than your average casket.

The stewards and stewardesses do their best to keep everyone busy, mainly eating and drinking. And then, there is the occasional hot towelette to wipe the flop sweat off of the passengers' faces.

I intend to take a number of things with me on the plane to keep me amused — at least one book, a magazine or two, perhaps a recorded book, and of course my little iPod-like device for "gittin' down wif my toons." Maybe a book of crosswords. Unfortunately, I don't do Sudoku and I'm not a video game kind of guy. I'll probably also have a variety of snacky food just to see if I can actually gain weight during the flight — say a bucket of KFC (extra crispy) with a pint of gizzards? Or how about a few cans of sardines? No, that would be too ironic. Then, of course there will presumably be the "in-flight movies." I hope they've finally stopped showing Will Smith's Wild, Wild West, and the "best of" Rob Schneider.

When we arrive, our son will not let us rest. He will insist that we keep going despite our exhaustion, so that we will overcome any jet lag quickly. Of course, if we stroke out, or our hearts explode, jet lag shouldn't really be a problem.

A couple of years ago on our last trip, we spent only a part of one day - New Year's Day as it happens - in Berlin. Our son lives in a small town an hour or so north of Berlin, so I assume that we will be able to take in more of the sights there. Believe it or not, when we were last in Berlin we stopped at two - not one, but two - different Dunkin Donuts shops. (Oh, yeah, Dunkin Donuts are BIG in Berlin!)

We did manage to have a really great dinner at a restaurant called "Bangin." (Yeah, that's what I thought too, but no, it's just a restaurant. Probably something lost in translation.) I don't have any idea where it is, somewhere requiring a rather long subway ride from the center of the city, but it was well worth the time. I hope we find our way back there. As anyone reading this may have gathered, I like food. I was raised on it.

I think we will also go hang around the American Embassy which I believe is nearly on top of the Brandenburg Gate and see if we can get arrested or something. (Quiz: Do you know what's on the other side of the Brandenburg Gate? Don't over-think it. Answer: Brandenburg! Ha, ha. Isn't that great? Who'da thunk it?)

Well, I guess I'll take a few minutes and trim back my little black mustache as a kind of "arms across the waters" gesture. Then, I'll practice going stir crazy