Saturday, July 24, 2010

European Trip Diary, Part 7: Airship of Fools? (July 14)

No pictures to illustrate this final installment, I'm sorry to say... though, in hindsight, I wish that we had snapped some. Our straight-shot, 8 1/2-hour flight from Vienna to JFK on Austrian Airlines turned out to be a lot more interesting -- in the dubious Chinese sense -- than the lay-back-and-snoozefest that we had been expecting. Due to the late arrival of the plane from New York, our flight was delayed for over an hour and a half, allowing us ample opportunity to carefully survey our fellow passengers. The effect was not unlike that of being chucked headfirst into the steerage scenes in Titanic, if not the cantina scene in Star Wars. Among other things, we encountered:

(1) A young woman from Belarus, dressed in vaguely gypsy-ish garb, who cornered us at the security checkpoint (which was right at the gate itself) and asked us to tell her "the name of a street in New York City." Nicky's critical antennae, honed in NYC and further sharpened by her military intelligence background, went up, and she pointed the girl out to the security people. The woman must have been "clean," for they let her into the waiting area, but I couldn't help but wonder the fate that was in store for her on the "other side."

(2) Numerous Orthodox Jewish and Hasidic families with extremely loud kids.

(3) A woman who was reading a newspaper in which "k" was used as a vowel.

(4) Several smelly guys of indeterminate origin who surreptitiously swiped stuff from the first-class section when we boarded the plane.

(5) A crate containing a bomb-sniffing dog.

The "foreign-bazaar" mood was heightened by the large number of "standees" after the seating area had already been filled to capacity. The gate personnel finally relented and opened up the "restricted" seating area, as well as commandeering the empty seating area in the neighboring gate. Apparently, Vienna has become the major transfer point for travelers from Eastern Europe and the Balkans on their way to America. It's as if the Hapsburg Empire never went away...

The interior of our plane was like something out of a bad 70's dream: Flight attendants dressed all in shocking red! Seat upholstery in "pea/Astroturf green"! At least we got two decent meals and a "snackypoo" or two... though some individuals in our economy section were apparently more "equal" than we were. These youngish folks were the recipients of a steady stream of goodies -- cheese, alcohol, and other first-class amenities -- from a complaisant stewardess. Nicky and I finally deduced from their general appearance and luggage that these were other Austrian Airlines personnel getting a lift to their next assignment. If that's the case, then I understand the special treatment, but did they have to advertise their good fortune with all that raucous laughter? At least they didn't make with the Gladstone-style bragging.

We finally landed at JFK about an hour and 45 minutes late after seemingly being over Canada's Maritime Provinces for about 19 days. I gather that the pilot was trying to dodge some bad weather; the cloud cover never lifted once for the whole of our journey. At the "Border Control" inside JFK, we gasped at the immense crowd of visitors who were already there waiting to enter the U.S. (The line for U.S. citizens was considerably shorter, thank goodness.) The monitors at the baggage-claim area streamed an endless sequence of pictures of multi-hued, preternaturally cheerful folks "welcoming" newcomers. The immigrants who came through Ellis Island didn't receive such treatment, but didn't they integrate more eagerly into American society, for the most part? What's the "lesson" here?

The 19 1/2-hour travel day to remember (no matter how hard we try to forget) comes to a close when we reach Mom's condo in Wilmington around 7:30 pm. Nicky and I are already discussing a possible return trip... but, for the time being, we're glad to be home.

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