Expat Chronicles: America Was Fun, Flying Sucks, And I Can’t Sleep

So…..it’s about six in the morning here in London as I write this. I’ve been awake for an hour-and-a-half after sleeping for two hours or so. Yesterday I slept until 1:30 p.m., following a 12-hour snooze. The previous night I slept for, ohhhh, an hour-and-a-half and woke at 4:30 a.m., raring to go. I guess this is what happens when you spend the previous three weeks flying from London to Charlotte, and then Charlotte to Las Vegas, and then Las Vegas to New York, and then New York back to London. Your sleep schedule gets turned upside down with all the time changes, and your body doesn’t know whether it’s day or night, Tuesday or February. I begin to wonder whether I will ever get back on a semi-normal sleep schedule.

In the meantime, a blog about the two-week vacation we took to the United States…..

…..which almost didn’t happen. Seriously. Or, more accurately, almost didn’t happen on time.

We arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport on July 21 – two hours early, like all good travelers – only to find a long check-in line greeting us. Normally, we would check in at a kiosk because we are always well prepared, like all good travelers. My wife Susan had already booked and paid for the airline tickets, reserved the seats, and arranged the family’s PCR tests showing that we didn’t have COVID-19, and were therefore safe to travel to the colonies. She spent a lot of time and energy (and money) doing all this, just so we could waltz up to the kiosk and check in quickly and easily.

But the kiosks weren’t working. Either that, or they had been shut down for some unknown reason. This was a little unsettling, considering it was peak summer travel season, and travel was finally beginning to open up again following the long coronavirus shutdown.

So, we stood in line to check in. And stood. And stood. And stood. It took, I don’t know, eons. One of the airport folks checked with us when we were about midway through the line and asked where we were headed. We told her Charlotte, in the USA.  She said something like, “Oh. That flight will stop boarding soon. Did you get here three hours early, the way you were supposed to? Anyway, don’t stress over it.”

That’s when I knew we should start stressing over it. Here’s the thing about flying to Charlotte from Heathrow: There is only one flight a day. Miss that flight, and you have to catch the next day’s flight – if there are any tickets. So yeah, I was beginning to stress.

When we finally made it to the American Airlines check-in desk, we probably had less than 30 minutes to board. But we still hadn’t even gone through security, and our gate was so far away you have to take a tram just to get there. That’s when we hit Panic Level 2. The check-in clerk didn’t help matters when she told us she couldn’t access our boarding passes because of some computer glitch. Then she told us she couldn’t print our boarding passes because of some printer glitch.

That’s when we hit Panic Level 3.

My wife got upset. I got upset. I lashed out at any and all airline employees within earshot, saying, “Whattya mean, you can’t access our boarding passes? We’ve done our part. We bought the tickets, we have the reservations right here on the iPhone, we have our COVID test results, we have our passports, don’t tell us we can’t board because you dipshits can’t do your job.”

Okay, I didn’t call them dipshits. But the rest is mostly accurate.

I was convinced we weren’t going to make the flight. All the work and planning, all the commitments and arrangements, shot to hell because of glitches. I walked up to the airport employee who told us not to stress and asked her if there was anything she could do. No, she said, there’s nothing she could do.

“So should I start stressing now?” I asked her. “Because I’m feeling pretty f’ing stressed.”

That’s when a superhero came to the rescue: Hannah, an American Airlines employee. She must have seen the panic in our eyes, because she immediately put the wheels in motion accessing our boarding pass and having it emailed to us. Next, she escorted us through security, and then escorted us to the tram that connected to our departure gate. She smiled at us and our kids and said don’t worry, you are not going to miss this flight. She escorted us to our gate and spoke with the boarding clerks. They zipped us through, just in the nick of time.

Hannah, wherever you are: I hope you become CEO of American Airlines. Like, today.

Oh, and the plane was half empty. A half-empty flight, and we still nearly got screwed out of it.

The flight itself was largely uneventful, except that I seemed to get on the wrong side of one of the flight attendants, who kept evil-eyeing me. During the latter half of the flight she finally came up to me and said if I didn’t wear my mask properly she would write me up and ban me from any connecting flights. I have no idea why she singled me out, but since I didn’t have any immediate connecting flights, I didn’t really give a crap. And I was in no mood to hear any grief from an American Airlines employee after what happened earlier with the boarding pass drama.

First, a side note: My family and I have been pretty strict adherents to the COVID-19 prevention rules. For a year-and-a-half we have donned the masks, locked ourselves down, practiced social distancing, sanitized our hands constantly, and done all that has been asked of us by the authorities. But those authorities keep figuring out ways to screw the pandemic response up.

The UK has twice lifted lockdowns, only to reimpose them after COVID cases shot back up again, which is what happens when you lift a lockdown too early. Our family had to take COVID tests a couple days before we left London, a day before we flew back to London, and three days after we returned to London. I’m guessing the cost for all this was close to fifteen hundred bucks. Fine, whatever. You do what you’re told to do.

But I am getting pretty goddamn tired of authority figures (including flight attendants) getting so high and mighty about all this, as if they always have all the answers all of the time, which they clearly don’t. Come on, people. Cut a brother a break. Stop assuming we’re all anti-mask dunces.

The problem with the mask rule on flights is that you are constantly nibbling or drinking to help pass the time. When you nibble and drink, you lower the mask. I sip water frequently on flights, and sometimes I momentarily forget to pull my mask back up. This flight attendant could clearly see that I had a mask right there on my chin. She could clearly see that I kept it on most of the time. But she still wanted to lower the boom on me, for whatever reason. I was convinced she was having a bad day and decided to be belligerent for the sake of being belligerent, and I told her as much.

In any case, we arrived in Charlotte about seven hours after takeoff. We breezed through customs, got our rental car, drove to the hotel, checked in, and immediately went to a favorite sushi restaurant and then to Target. Because that’s what you do when you visit the U.S. from abroad. You go to Target.

It was our first time outside of the UK since February of 2020, when we traveled to Morocco and then Portugal. For all practical purposes, COVID-19 put an end to international travel for 17 months (well, we did travel to Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are technically separate countries within the UK).

Our two weeks back in the USA were a hectic whirlwind of food, family, friends, fun, and more stress. We had a lot of catching up to do, many people to see, lots of places to go. We traveled to Charlotte and then Las Vegas and then New York. Three states, two more flights, two time zones, three distinct sections of the country, thousands of miles. It was brilliant and awesome, exhausting and nerve-rattling.

But fun, therapeutic, much needed – for all of us.

I ate Mexican food four times during our six days in Charlotte. I scarfed it down like a man on a mission, as if the bowls and platters might make a run for it any second. London might be a hub of international culture and cuisine, but it has exactly one-and-a-half decent Mexican restaurants: Mestizo, which is very good; and Wahaca, which is very okay. In Charlotte I ate at a family-run Tex-Mex restaurant, a cheap taco joint, and a couple local chains. In Vegas I ate at an upscale place called Javier’s that specializes in authentic Mexican cuisine, as well as another cheap taco joint.

We also ate killer Asian fusion in Vegas. In New York, we gorged on excellent Italian food and also hit a favorite Japanese Katsu place we used to dine at regularly when we lived there. I ate cheap Halal cart food a couple times in the Big Apple, because it’s delicious.

I gained 10-plus pounds during this trip, even though we managed to get in a few workouts at the hotel fitness centers and pools. That’s what happens when you stuff yourself and stuff yourself every day, and then pour beer (and the occasional martini) into yourself just about every night. In London I usually eat a piece of fruit for breakfast and a chickpea salad for lunch. During this trip I often ate omelets and home fries for breakfast, and tamales and enchiladas for lunch.

I probably put in a few hundred miles on the Charlotte rental car – a full tank of gas plus another couple of gallons – and occasionally found myself wanting to drift into the left side of the road when you’re supposed to drive on the right in America. I don’t drive in London, but I bike everywhere. After 3.5 years in the UK, I have become left-lane conditioned. We didn’t rent cars in Vegas or New York, because you don’t really need or want them there.

I gambled a little in Vegas, mostly slots and blackjack. Vegas won.

On the bright side, I did occasionally do something good for myself in Vegas, like work out, swim, eat healthy, and visit a few art galleries.

It was crazy expensive in America, much more so than when we visited just two years ago. We figured prices are about 30 percent higher on average than they were in 2019. I’ve read about the inflation back in the States, and even reported on it for a couple of the websites I write for. But to see it up close and personal was truly a revelation.

We used to visit Vegas fairly regularly a couple decades ago when we lived in L.A. One of its main draws back then was that hotels, restaurants and bars were cheap, because they wanted you to spend most of your money gambling. If you didn’t gamble too much, you could have a four-star experience on a one-star budget. That’s no longer the case. It was almost impossible for a family of four to eat a decent meal for less than 100 bucks.

Again, Vegas won….

The heat was another revelation, traveling from cool, damp London. It was 90-plus degrees of sweltering humidity in Charlotte, and 90-plus degrees of blazing desert heat in Las Vegas. On the plus side, it hardly rained at all when we were in the States.  We have now been in London for five days, and it has rained for four of them. No wonder Brits are grumpy.

It was nice seeing family, not least because it gave our two daughters a chance to see family, which they rarely get to do these days. The grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were able to see how big our kids have grown over two years, both physically and otherwise. It was nice seeing friends. It was nice sitting at a bar, which they don’t do in the UK. It was nice finding restaurants open after 10:30 p.m., and stores open after 7 p.m. It was nice seeing something other than soccer in the sports bars.

And honestly, it was nice being out of the UK for a spell, having a change of scenery, weather, food, culture, nightlife, people, voices, attitudes. That’s no knock against the UK, which has its own charms. It’s just a statement of fact that when I am stuck in the same place for too long a time, it begins to grate on me. Familiarity breeds contempt and all that.

And then there’s this: It was nice just feeling at home for a while after a couple years away. Because as much as I try to resist it in my head sometimes, the USA is home and always will be. It’s a big, loud, manic, violent, mad and maddening country. But it’s who I am, what formed me as a person. I am attuned to its rhythms; comfortable in its spaces; part of its fabric. I imagine plenty of other people feel that way about their homelands, even if they spend most of their lives living somewhere else. That’s why Mexicans form their own communities in America, Africans form their own communities in England, and you can find a Chinatown just about anywhere in the world.

I stepped onto an elevator on the fifth floor at our hotel in Charlotte, and a young African-American man was inside when the door opened. I strolled in and did my usual elevator stare at the walls. The door hadn’t even closed yet before the man said hello and asked how I was doing. I shot my head up, like I had been startled out of a deep slumber. What was that? A voice from a stranger? By the time the elevator reached the ground level I learned that he was from Shelby, N.C., and was moving to California. He learned that I used to live in California. We wished each other well and went our separate ways.

Similar episodes took place in Vegas and New York. Yes, New Yorkers can be friendly, folks. One bank teller there chatted me up like we were cousins, asking about my day, how I was, what I was up to.

This kind of thing almost never happens in London. I don’t even mind that it almost never happens in London. I’m not the kind of guy who needs idle chitchat with strangers to get through the day.

But you know what? It felt good, exchanging pleasantries with this young man in Charlotte. It felt necessary, human, uplifting, American.

It was almost better than the Mexican food.

Nah, check that. It was even better than the Mexican food.

Man, it was exhausting traveling back to America for a couple of weeks. The older I get, the more exhausting these kind of long trips become. Plane travel stopped being fun a long time ago. It is even less fun now, in the era of COVID. They make it as difficult and stressful as possible to get on a plane and fly away.

But I’m glad we did it. It was worth the misery, and worth the money. My spirit was lifted, even though my sleep got screwed.

2 Comments

  1. Sounds awesome, and probably a bit too short too. I’ve always marveled at how Northern hemisphere summer holidays seem so long, because our actual school holidays in summer are only about 5 or 6 weeks.

    But it’s great to be home, I agree. I always feel that when I go back to my hometown… it’s a connection like no other, no matter how much you enjoy your new home.

    The friendliness of Americans really does stand out compared to the UK…or London, at least (which is where I’ve been all my times in the UK). As much as the rest of the world has issues with your government’s policies and actions, the people are really a different story, and American hospitality is really a great advertisement for thinking twice before judging nations.

    Your mask woes frighten me… I can’t imagine a long haul flight wearing it all the time, let alone under that kind of scrutiny. Hopefully by the time I travel again it won’t be a requirement because this virus will have disappeared (or become far less serious).

    Anyway…I hope your body clock finally catches up to your timezone, and all returns to normal.

    Enjoy the rest of summer…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the feedback Yacoob, much appreciated. The holidays here in the UK are about 6-7 weeks I guess. Shorter than in America, but students also get more frequent breaks here throughout the school year.

      I’m glad to hear your thoughts on America. It’s encouraging to hear that. Yes, it is a very imperfect country, with a lot it could do better. But most of the people are friendly (not all, but most). It’s just a shame that more Americans don’t travel elsewhere to get a sense of how good they have it compared with the rest of the world. Maybe if they did they wouldn’t spend so much time stressing over what they don’t have.

      The mask thing: it is difficult keeping it on for hours and hours and hours at a time in an enclosed cabin, but what is even worse is this feeling you get that you’re constantly under the microscope. I support masks, but I also know it’s impossible to bat 1.000 when it comes to wearing them. You pull it down, take a drink of water, and maybe forget to pull it back up. People should be more understanding about that, and at least be polite instead of aggressive about it. Some people are just assholes, though. That’s the only conclusion I can come to.

      BTW, I have been reading your draft piecemeal as I work my way through books I had already begun reading. My impression so far is that you really are a gifted wordsmith. We’ll discuss it more in a few weeks. Thanks again and enjoy your winter (I guess it is winter there now?).

      Liked by 1 person

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