Monday, December 20, 2010

Unintentionally in Istanbul

I am in Istanbul. I am not here on vacation. I am here by accident. I was supposed to be back in Japan three days ago. But, as lousy luck would have it, I was stranded by snow in Germany for more than 50 hours.

My original flight from Cologne to Amsterdam (and then onward to Osaka) was cancelled Saturday because of "snow chaos" that has made travelling in Europe a nightmare since Friday. I was rebooked on a flight to Istanbul the following day but that too was cancelled because of a snowstorm that pretty much crippled every airport in Germany. Although, let's be honest -- a Canadian snowstorm and a German snowstorm are two very different things. I doubt there was more than 10 cm of snow in Bonn. The mercury had barely dipped below zero. Wind speed was about 5 km an hour. But, unlike Canada, I guess they're not used to these kinds of conditions. Pretty much every major airport in Europe has been closed since Friday. Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris, London, you name it, they are all closed. No one is flying in and no one is flying out. Not fun!

After my flight was cancelled on Saturday, I lined up for four hours to be told by KLM that I was on my own. No hotel. No food. Weather is not our responsibility, they said. They rebooked me on a flight the next day to Istanbul and then washed their hands of me. It's a good thing my insurance covers this sort of thing (or at least I hope my insurance covers this sort of thing) so I treated myself to a night in a nice hotel in Bonn.

I returned to the airport on Sunday to attempt to fly to Turkey but an hour before takeoff, the snow started coming down. Harder and faster until you could see nothing but a wall of white outside the window. We sat on the tarmac for three hours, going nowhere fast. It wasn't a surprise to anyone when the pilot announced the flight had been cancelled and we'd have to try again tomorrow.

After cancelling our flight, Turkish Airlines agreed to put us up in a hotel for the night. However, this only came about after much complaining and yelling by my fellow Turkish passengers. They were great! I made a Turkish friend and she told me that Turkish people love to complain about everything. Complaining is their national sport and they are very good at it, she said. So even though the cancellation was an "act of God" and the airline had no legal responsibility to do anything for us, the Turkish passengers were not having it.

They yelled and complained and yelled some more, until police with machine guns strapped around their chests were called in to diffuse the situation. The sight of the machine guns seemed to have a calming effect on the mob. But they still swarmed around the ticket counter and continued to complain. The poor airline worker finally gave in and rented us all rooms in a nice hotel in downtown Cologne despite the fact that all of the other stranded passengers on all of the other flights were forced to sleep on the airport floor. They even chartered a fancy bus to take us to and from the hotel.

Of course, once we got to the hotel, the complaining didn't stop! Nope. Now the Turks were upset that there was no free food. My new Turkish friend said that even if they had provided us with free food, they would have still found something to complain about. I said maybe they'll get angry that there's no pool. No, she said, even if there was a pool, they would complain that the airline didn't provide us with free swimsuits. It was quite entertaining!

After arriving at the hotel at about 9:30 p.m., we were basically on standby until there was a break in the weather. Fortunately, it stopped snowing. Unfortunately, it stopped snowing at four in the morning. So we all got a wake-up call at 4:15 a.m. and were told to be in the lobby and on the bus no later than 5 a.m. We were driven back to the airport and checked back in and boarded the plane -- the very same plane we had been sitting on for three hours yesterday before they decided to cancel it. By 8 a.m. we were in the air and flying far away from the disaster that is Europe.

We arrived in Istanbul at about 1 p.m. with not a snowflake in sight. I was so happy I almost kissed the bare ground. Of course, there is chaos here too but only because of the people who are trying to get to London or Paris or Berlin for Christmas. Sorry folks, ain't going to happen. So glad I'm now far away from that mess.

I have about 12 hours to kill until my connecting flight to Osaka, so I decided to do some errands. First on my list was to see if I could sweet-talk my way on to a free upgrade to business class. It was a classic Pierre Marchildon situation and I think I performed well. Maybe not as good as my Dad but he has a lot more experience making friends with everyone he meets than I do. However, having watched the master at work my entire life, I think it's fair to say I am an apt and able charmer.

I sidled up to the ticket counter, smiled and make some Dad jokes and small talk about the weather. Asked if I could be upgraded to business class for the flight back to Osaka. The ticket agent made a phone call and then quietly and discretely printed off a new boarding pass -- in business class! For free! (Dad, how proud of me are you right now?!)

However, before I could enjoy the comforts of the Turkish Airline executive lounge, I had to replace the contents of my makeup bag. I lost it in Germany somewhere. I don't know if I left it at the hotel or at the airport or what had happened. But it was gone. I had stocked up on cosmetics in Germany because I can't find my beloved brands in Kyoto. I was pretty bummed because we're talking about losing about one hundred dollars worth of stuff. My mascara, eyeshadow, lipstick, eyelash curler, tweezers, MAC face powder, "virgin oil" lip-gloss (yes, that's really what it's called. I think they forgot the word "olive" in between "virgin" and "oil") and on and on. All gone. So I made a stop at duty free and bought the cheapest stuff I could find, which is not easy to do when the aisles are filled with the likes of Chanel and Givenchy. So I settled for Clinique. Also, I talked the saleslady into throwing in one of those free bags with all kinds of products that you're only supposed to get when you buy skin creams. Clinique Bonus indeed!

And that brings me to the present moment. I am typing this in the comfort of the Turkish Airways executive lounge. I am in a room with wood panelling and gold accents. There are crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. There are European-style paintings on the wall (I suspect the theme the decorator was going for was "money"). The lounge is the size of about five departure gates put together. There are showers (so going to take advantage of that!) and free food (already took advantage of that!) and free drinks (going to hold off on that. I want to actually make it on the plane). I swear, I don't think I can ever fly economy again...and I haven't even set foot on the plane.

I am scheduled to depart at midnight and arrive in Osaka around 6 p.m. on Tuesday evening. Fingers crossed.

In the meantime, I went for a long walk around the terminal and bumped into another new friend of mine from the Bonn to Istanbul fiasco. He's an Iraqi journalist who writes about the benefits of Christianity. He's not too fond of Muslims and he decided to give me a long and loud lecture about the downsides of the Arab world in the middle of the terminal. In a Muslim country, mind you. Interesting? Yes. Smart? No.

He also told me he went to Japan in 1987, adding "but you probably weren't even born back then." (This is why I love chatting up senior citizens. In their eyes, I look young!) Then he gave me his business card and told me to keep in touch.

I got tired of walking around so now I'm back in the womb-like comfort of the executive lounge. Going to have Dinner Part III and then a long, hot shower. That should take up a good half hour leaving me with another large chunk of time to kill, which I will spend luxuriating in the classy atmosphere of the executive lounge. I wonder what my fellow elites would think if they knew I lived in a one-room apartment in Kyoto with a squat toilet and a coin-operated shower?