Observations from London

This week I returned from a quick business trip to London, England. This was my first time traveling across the Atlantic since "the events of September the 11th", as the politicians like to say, and it was educational to see how much international travel has changed since the last time I traveled extensively overseas during the late 90's. I also found it very interesting to see how the British people view Americans and the United States in this still-relatively-new century we're living in.

In no particular order, then...

Don't Fly Coach Across Oceans. Coach (also called "Economy") seats just don't cut it when you've got to sit in one for eight or nine hours. My company has a policy that if a particular leg of your flight is 12 hours or more, then you're allowed to purchase the next higher class of ticket. But from Miami to London is only nine hours - so it didn't qualify. At the time I booked the ticket, I didn't think that much of it. Sure, I like First Class air travel as much as the next guy, but I travel in coach all the time, so what? I had forgotten how long nine hours can be when you can't lie down, walk, or even turn around when you want to.

I also discovered that my old trick of getting the emergency exit row seat doesn't work out very well on some of these fancy planes. This was a British Airways 747-400, and as it turns out, the emergency exit seats were much narrower than the normal seats - mainly because, since there was no seat in front of them, the whole personal video screen mechanism is built into the armrest. This also means that you cannot swing up the armrest. It also means that the entire seat is one solid metal block, with no spaces or gaps that you can stick your knees through. It was, in fact, the most uncomfortable seat I have ever had on an airplane - and I am counting the time I flew in the rear cargo area of an Army C-41 transport plane.

The next time, even if I have to pay the difference out of my own pocket, I'll travel in at least Premium or Business or whatever the airline in question happens to call it.

Beware Of Fat People On Planes. Now, when I say "fat", I really mean "wide". I'm not talking about somebody with a big stomach. I'm talking a large, wide person. On my return flight, having learned the lesson of the bad emergency exit row seats, I got a seat in the rear of the plane on the aisle (row 51). I got the aisle seat.... and then Jumbo the Elephant took the seat next to me.

Jumbo was a very large woman of unknown nationality - no one could communicate with her, nor she with them. She was decked out in red and gold, in a sort of combination mumu meets paintsuit type of outfit. It had gold tassels hanging off the sleeves as well.

When Jumbo took the window seat next to me, she was so large that she could not really put her arms down. Her stomach held the tray table in place. And she somehow just sort of oozed over into my seat. There was no question of me having any of the shared armrest. Since she spoke no English (nor French, Spanish, German, Chinese, or Norwegian - the crew tried all of these) there was no way I could think of to communicate with her that I was finding it hard to breath.

As soon as we took off, I found an empty middle seat in the second to the last row. And even though a little girl kept kicking the back of my seat nonstop for the entire flight, it was a pleasure compared to the seat I had just escaped.

Incidentally, when I vacated my initial seat, the woman gave a huge sigh of relief and immediately expanded to take up the entire row. There was actually a popping sound as she swung up the armrest to allow her ample girth to occupy its normal volume.

British Food Really Is Terrible. The last time I traveled in the UK, I was with my old boss Elmer Easton, who is a very well traveled food connoisseur. Luckily for me, he made reservations weeks in advance at restaurants that either he had dined at before, or knew from his contacts served excellent food. These places were often hidden and catered only to a select few. In the years that I worked for Elmer, I got spoiled, thinking fine food was relatively easy to come by. I could not have been more wrong.

Despite my best efforts - and on one evening, even when accompanied by a colleague who used to be a professional chef - I did not have one good meal during the four days I was there. And I tried. I ate at a supposedly well reviewed Greek restaurant (which had the most unusual decor of any place I've ever eaten at - check out their website if you don't believe me), a true steakhouse, and a named chef's restaurant. All of them served bland, overcooked food. Even my breakfasts were bad. I had to sprinkle pepper liberally on everything just to add some taste.

Even Starbuck's and the local sandwich shop seemed to have misplaced their shipment of spices. Everything I ate just tasted... I don't know, boiled. No wonder it was Spain that set out to find a way to get spices from India quicker - the British obviously didn't care.

Somehow, I'll have to master the trick of finding all those hidden places that Elmer always knew about. I now understand why they were so carefully guarded... believe me, you'd hide them too if you knew the secret of finding good food in England.

The Dollar Has Gone To Hell
. Yes, I knew this intellectually from watching the news, but it's another thing to experience it in person. Last week, the exchange rate was $2.10 to one British pound. That means, to figure out what something cost in dollars, double it and then throw in a few more dollars. So, my 80 pound taxi ride from the airport was $168.00. And so on. It's almost unbelievable how expensive everything is for us Yanks.

And for the British, it's the reverse. They cannot believe how cheap everything is in America. Several people I spoke to talked about how it was cheaper to buy British products in the United States than it was to buy them right where they were made. I'm sure that somehow the cost of fuel is tied up in this....

We Don't Know How Good We've Got It. My favorite comment of the entire trip came during a taxi drive. Monday morning, I got into a good 'ol London black cab to go from my hotel to the company I was visiting. During the drive, I began chatting up the taxi driver, who, as it turned out, had vacationed quite a bit in the United States. I asked him what the British people thought about us Yanks in this, The Age of Bush. He said that they didn't hold it against us, since everyone knows how politicians lie and screw over everyone regardless.

And then, he gave me the winning comments:

"The only thing I don't like about you Americans is - you don't know how good you've got it.". As we waited at a stop light, he turned around to me for emphasis. "You have the cheapest gas in the western world, and yet you complain when the price goes up by a few cents. Your grocery stores have every kind of food imaginable, and yet you complain about not having the right kind of nutrition and that your kids are getting too fat. You have the oldest fully functional democracy on the planet, and you gripe and bitch about how your leaders don't listen to you. And while the rest of the world has been putting up with terrorists for 50 years, you folks get hit once - one time - and you completely loose it and go apeshit."

He turned around as the light changed. "I'm telling you, you just don't know how good you got it. I'd give anything to live in America."

And that's the thought I returned with, back to the United States of America. So, at least for the moment - I do, in fact, know exactly how good I've got it.

It's great to be home.

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