Sunday, January 11, 2009

Breakfast in Toronto, lunch in Amsterdam, dinner in Kyoto

Life lesson #475: If something can go wrong, it probably will. Especially when planes, trains and boats are involved.

I have terrible luck when it comes to travelling. Let's review the evidence:

1. I was trapped on a boat in the middle of the China Sea for 53 hours during a typhoon. The waters were so rough we were forced to stay below deck the entire time with no escape from the stench of group vomit.

2. I was stranded in Siberia after the train I was on left without me during a shorter-than-expected stop. I then endured a white-knuckle taxi ride across the Russian countryside in order to beat the train to the next stop almost 200 kilometres away.

3. I attempted to fly from Osaka to Toronto during a massive snowstorm, got stuck in Detroit after my connecting flight was cancelled, spent seven hours on a bus in whiteout conditions and lost my luggage.

4. I was stranded in Toronto and rerouted to Amsterdam on my way back to Osaka after the pilot called in sick at the last minute.

I thought I had gotten my streak of bad luck out of the way with the miserable trip to Toronto. But it turned out the return flight to Japan was just as epic.

I showed up at the Toronto airport on Sunday only to find out my flight had been canceled after the pilot called in sick. The airline was scrambling to rebook everyone on different flights. But all of the planes were full and tempers were rising.

I watched the guy in line ahead of me scream at the attendants after they told him the best they could do was put him on standby for an evening flight.


He was giving the woman behind the counter so much grief she had to call for backup. A male employee took over and she moved to an empty counter. Since I was next in line, she called me over to her counter.

Now, I was just as pissed off as everyone else. But I was smart enough to keep my anger under control. I approached her with a smile. I told her I knew the flight had been cancelled and hoped she could rebook me on another flight leaving the same day. I was polite, calm and friendly.

She punched a few keys on her computer and produced a ticket about 30 seconds later.

"There's a flight going to Osaka tonight but you have to connect through Amsterdam first," she said. "There's only one seat left and it's in business class. I booked it for you because you're nice. But don't tell anyone."

The guy with anger management issues was still screaming at the next counter. He had no idea I had just been booked in business class on the same flight he was on standby for. Idiot.

Life lesson #476: Don't be an asshole. Especially to people who work in the public service industry.

Although I was annoyed that I would be arriving in Japan a day later than originally scheduled, I was excited about flying business class for the first time.

I was literally going to peak behind the curtain that separates the masses from the elites. My interest in flying business class was strictly anthropological. I've always thought flying business class would be kind of embarrassing. Paying thousands of dollars for a few hours of special treatment and attention seems slightly ridiculous.

But since I was being upgraded for free, I could enjoy business class without shame and guilt.

The business-class experience started the moment I checked in. I was separated from the masses before I even boarded the plane. I was ushered to a private lounge where there were no screaming kids and cranky parents. Just calm people with posh British accents.

The lounge had leather couches and free computers. There was an open bar and free food (I helped myself to some water and a banana).

When it was time to board the plane, we bypassed the lineup and went straight to our seats. I felt self-conscious about walking past hundreds of people waiting to board the plane. They turned their heads to look at me.

Please don't judge me, I silently begged them. I'm not rich. I'm not famous. I'm nobody. I'm the kind of person who thinks spending $8,000 to avoid sitting in an uncomfortable seat for eight hours is a ridiculous waste of money.

When the flight attendant checked my ticket and saw that I had the window seat in the first row, he exclaimed, "Oooh. That's the queen seat."

He wasn't kidding. My seat was had so much legroom that if an NBA player had been sitting there, he could have stretched his legs all the way out and wiggled his toes with room to spare. My seatmate and I were sharing the equivalent amount of space that nine people would be crammed into in economy class.

Flying economy class is a miserable experience. But it's a different world in the front of the plane.

A flight attendant served us champagne on a silver platter while we waited for the masses to finish boarding.

We enjoyed four-course meals served on china with real silverware and a choice of wines. We were given down pillows and fleece blankets. We had large personal TV screens with a good selection of movies, which we watched with special noise-canceling headphones. We converted our seats into lie-flat beds when we were tired. We were given silk eye masks, socks and earplugs to help us sleep.

There was something infantilizing about the whole experience. The seats, with their foot rests and tables that fold out across your lap, made me think of highchairs. Maybe that's the point. People in business-class are paying to be babied and coddled and fussed over. They are swaddled in so many layers of comfort they are buffered from the grim reality of air travel.

I got a break from all of the warm nuts, complimentary glasses of wine and free slippers during an eight-hour stopover in Amsterdam. I decided to throw my carry-on luggage in a locker and take a train downtown.

I only spent a couple of hours walking around but I think I hit all of the highlights -- I saw people smoking pot in various coffee shops and half-naked women advertising their goods in storefront windows.

And then it was back to the airport, back to the first-class lounge and then back on board business class all the way to Osaka. By then, the shine had worn off a little bit. Business class or not, an 11-hour flight is still an 11-hour flight. You can sit in economy class where the tray table will smash your kneecaps when the person ahead of you reclines their seat or you can lie down in business class and attempt to sleep while your seatmate snores like a chainsaw.

Life lesson #477: You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig.

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