Thursday, August 9, 2012

Our Trip to Europe: There and Back Again

We did a lot of traveling on this vacation.  Buses.  Planes.  Trains.  Automobiles.  Bikes.  Subways.  Ferries.  Even feet.  We were a moving target, and it was part of the experience.

The big travel mode for such a trip, of course, was through the air.  It’s about nine hours to fly from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport.  Nine long hours in a dehydrated metal tube with as many seats crammed into it as humanly possible – the whole idea of cattle-car seating has moved out of domestic flight and into international airspace, unfortunately.  But we had a good time anyway.

We took the coach bus down from Our Little Town.

Oddly enough, we knew about half the people on the bus – friends, colleagues, former students, and so on.  Sometimes the town is littler than it seems.  The bus was crowded, so Kim and I had to sit several rows away from Tabitha and Lauren, which didn’t seem to bother them in the least.  Time away from parental eyes!  So cool.

O’Hare is an amazing place.  It’s huge, with planes taking off from a bezillion different places at once (that’s a technical term – it’s greater than a metric buttload but smaller than the number of angels who can dance on the head of a cold beer) and there is an astonishing array of humanity coursing through every available space.  It always astonishes me, how big and varied it all is.

When I was running the museum, one of my jobs was to talk with old people – people who had stuff they wanted to donate, stuff their families did not want.  I loved that part of the job, because those people had such fascinating stories.  Their families had tired of hearing them long ago, but I hadn’t – and they were glad to have someone interested to tell them to again.  One of my favorites was a woman named Mabel, who was well into her 90s a decade ago and has since passed on.  She had grown up in Chicago, and in the early 1920s she and her friends would take the trolley all the way out to the end, to Old Orchard Field (have you ever wondered why O’Hare’s code letters are ORD?  Now you know – “Orchard”) to watch the planes take off and land.  She told me that if you wanted to pay for your flight back then you had to walk up to the control tower.  They’d lower down a bucket on a rope and you’d put your money in the bucket, and then they’d tell you which plane to walk over to.

It’s different now.

We managed to check in and sail through security without any problems, which frankly amazed me.  But you know?  We went through check-in, customs and security in three different countries and never had a problem in any of them.  I think they’ve mostly gotten the hang of it now, or we have.  Or both.  One of my proudest achievements is the fact that all of our luggage was under the allowed weight, even with souvenirs and even when flying on Cheap Flight Airlines, which I will describe in detail later, oh yes I will.

We walked around for a while, since it would be a long flight spent not walking around at all, and then found our gate.

Eventually our plane pulled up.

It was a long flight, and we were well treated by the kind folks on SAS.  I appreciate full-service airlines a lot more now than I did.  There were free water bottles in the seat pockets, actual decent food for meals, and drinks in tiny little cans to keep us amused.

This was not the case on Cheap Flight Airlines.

We were originally going to make a circuit – Chicago, Stockholm, London, back to Chicago.  But Kim figured out that if we made two round-trips (Chicago/Stockholm and then Stockholm/London) we could actually save almost $500/person.  Why this makes sense to the airlines is a mystery, but then most of them are going bankrupt and that isn’t a mystery at all in light of such things. 

The trick to this was that the Stockholm/London legs were on CFA.  And CFA is an experience.

First of all, let me say in their defense that they deliver on their promises.  All they ever said to us was that they would transport us and (for an additional fee) our baggage from Point A to Point B on time and safely, and this they accomplished.  They never said anything about comfort, convenience, good signage or personal space, and none were provided.  Fred, you knew the job was dangerous when you took it.

CFA flies out of alternate airports, which are cheaper.  In Sweden, for example, you go to an old converted military airfield about an hour or so from Stockholm, and there you guess at which line is yours because there are no signs to tell you where to go.  Well, actually, that’s not true – there are many different signs, each telling you slightly different things.  The effect, however, is the same.

If you ever do fly on CFA and you’re not flying by yourself, pay for the Priority Boarding – it’s worth it.  CFA works on festival seating, and they process people slowly at the gate – even with Priority Seating I was convinced we would miss our flight back to Sweden.  As my grandmother would have said, if that man had been moving any slower he’d have been going backwards. 

But we got on, and even found four seats together on both legs of our round trip.  And then the action started.  CFA exists to wring every euro, pound, crown or other world currency out of its passengers.  (Not so much dollars – one of the things we discovered upon landing at Gatwick and being funneled through passport control is that Americans generally do not fly on CFA.  We were the only ones on the entire plane.)  They sell you food.  They sell you drinks.  They come up and down the aisles selling you lottery tickets.  I do believe they charge you to use the bathrooms, but it was a short flight so we never tested that.  One of the highlights of the trip was that Lauren actually managed to get something for free out of CFA – a cup of ice.  Nobody we told that story to believed us, but ‘tis true, ‘tis true.

Yeah, it was just like that, but without the drummer.

Flying is an experience, but it wasn’t the only one we had.

We spent a lot of our trip in cars, being ferried around by our hosts – no small thing in a foreign country, especially where they speak a different language or drive on the other side of the road.  We got to know the roads very well. 

I’ve described the roads before – they’re small, twisty, and have generally limited sightlines, especially in England.  This means you may want navigational help.  Whether this means you want a GPS is another matter.  All of our friends on this trip had GPS units (“sat-navs” in England), and we were constantly a disappointment to these machines.  We’d blow by some turn or other and there’d be a pause, and then a tired computer voice would say, “Recalculating.”  It’s amazing how much reproach they program those voices to have.  Of course, when they insist that you’re in the middle of the bay, as Mats’ cell-phone GPS did on one occasion, then we have the right to be reproachful back. 

If you spend enough time in cars and those cars are full of a) technology and b) small children, you get interesting results.

Not bad for two kids who did not speak each other’s language.

Not only did we take planes and automobiles, but we also took trains – because you must have all three elements or the judges will dock you THREE WHOLE TENTHS OF A POINT!

Sorry. Had an Olympic moment there.

We took the subway in both Sweden and England, and they were fun.  They were full of people, relatively efficient, and – compared with the American subways I’ve been on – relatively clean.  Actually the Swedish one was absolutely clean – they are, I noted while I was there, a very neat culture.

We took an overland train to get to London.  It left from Swindon, as I said in an earlier post, and coursed its way through the Midlands, which was lovely country.  It was comfortable and clean and I wish the US would recognize that trains are good things to have.  We used to have a decent rail network in this country, but we’re too cheap to pay for it anymore.  It’s nice to be in countries that understand the difference between an expense and an investment, if only for a visit.

The other big transportation mode we took was the ferry from Stockholm to Birka.  I’m not much of a boat person – I find the whole experience generally unpleasant – but this was a big enough boat that it wasn’t bad, and the scenery was gorgeous enough to take my mind off the fact that I was on a boat.

Plus you could go down inside, where you were sheltered from the cutting wind, and purchase snacks.  Snacks make the world a better place.

But all things come to an end, and so eventually did our vacation. CFA delivered us back to Sweden, where we stayed overnight before flying the now-much-appreciated full-service flight back to Chicago.  We then got onto the coach bus and drove back to Our Little Town.

This meant that we couldn’t repeat our experience from the other time we went to visit our friends in Sweden and England, back in 2004.  We’d parked our car in a long-term lot in Chicago, so we actually had to drive ourselves back home.  About halfway there we got hungry.  The girls were little then – Tabitha was four, Lauren was about 18 months – and “hungry” plus “on the road” meant McDonald’s.  So we got off the highway and found one.  Somehow, without quite setting out to do so, we ended up going through the McDonald’s drive-through, driving fifty yards across the parking lot, and eating in the food court area of a Wal-Mart.


And so ends our trip.  It was a wonderful experience, made possible by the generosity of Mats, Sara, Julia, Richard and their families, and we thank them. 

And now back to your regularly scheduled blogging experience.

1 comment:

KimK said...

Funny thing is that we also knew people on the bus home from Chicago to home. 'Tis a small world, indeed.