Thursday, July 31, 2008

USA-DE - Dulles, USA --> Frankfurt, Germany

I wake up at 6:00 am to go to work on Thursday morning, netting about 3 hours of sleep. On the one hand, I suppose messing up your sleep schedule before you leave is one odd approach to battling jetlag. It certainly worked, though I was quite loopy all day Thursday.

My morning meeting with the D.C. Department of Transportation was typical... a 15-minute meeting in an air-conditioned office instead took about three hours and a site visit during a sweltering morning. This is because of certain members of a certain other transportation organization in a certain place that isn't a state just happened to keep asking the dumbest of questions. Things that any engineer should be able to spot just by looking at the plans. Questions that had already been answered just 5 minutes earlier. Then there was the woman whom was just repeating the exact same questions her boss had already asked – questions which weren’t that great the first time around. Maybe it was due to my lack of sleep that I was becoming bothered so?

I just sat silent and tried not to burst out laughing whenever my coworker, Oscar, and I exchanged glances – clearly we were both sharing the exact same train of thought. The site visit was the best part – they were proposing to detour traffic down one of our roads, and I kept insisting that they really don't want to put traffic on that road. Think of the worst road you can imagine, and then think worse.

This road is really just an industrial driveway; not a roadway. It has potholes, utility poles in the middle of the pavement, barrier wall scattered about, and large trucks parked all over the place. I’m not even entirely sure why it’s a State road, other than that I think we have it because it provides access to the underside of our bridges; as well as to some railway tracks. So it’s really just a maintenance access and industrial driveway; not a road for the masses. I proposed the site visit – and tagged along – just so I could see the look on their faces. That option got nixed before we even finished parking our cars.

The rest of the work day was hectic as I tried to finish some assignments, train others in projects that I knew would arise while I was gone, eating lunch, and responding to calls from our Communications division -- whom was attempting to keep the media at bay. I left 30 minutes later than I initially planned to leave -- 1330 instead of an even 1300. I got back to Laurel at 1400, finished packing my bag by 1430, relaxed 30 minutes, and then panicked a couple minutes as 1500 approached & my roommate hadn't yet shown up to give me a ride to Dulles. Alas, he arrived almost right-on the minute & we were on our way about 10 minutes later.

I arrived at Dulles at 1605 – 2.75 hours before flight time. I spent the first 2 hours in queue to check in... the lines were massive. So massive, in fact, that it didn't even stay within the roped-off queuing area. I know, that happens often... but I couldn't even see the roped-off queuing area because it was in a different part of the airport than I was standing in. That's how long the queue was. Throughout my life, I could be considered to be a frequent flier; and I’ve never seen queues that size. I became good friends with my queue-neighbors and we'd periodically hold each other's place as one of us would go find a staffmember just to, again, confirm that we were indeed in the correct line. Sometimes one of my queue-neighbors wouldn't be in the right place, and I'd get a new queue-neighbor; but I can proudly say I was always in the correct line. All two hours of it.

When I got to the end of the queue, I looked back and saw that the queue was only a couple dozen people behind me. I could've seriously just run off and gone into DC for 2 hours... come back... and probably could've gotten through only 10 minutes later. Check-in has changed since I traveled last year... the electronic machines at check-in gave me something that wasn't a boarding pass. Then I gave that to a nearby staffmember watching over my local group of machines... and then I got another thing that wasn't a boarding pass. They tagged my backpack, I bagged it, and then they put it off on the conveyor belt.

I made my way through security. Security was a breeze – since I was solo, they directed me to some other security line on the next level below, right beside the baggage claim. The line went fast. I got onto the crazy shark-bus things that Dulles has, made my way to the terminal, and arrived about a smooth 20 minutes before boarding.

I first went to the counter with my non-boarding pass... the clerk told me he wasn't done with seating yet & for me to sit down. I sat down and waited. Here I made my obligatory calls to the parents (just in case I end up in a gulag in Siberia… though I hear Siberia is nice this time of year) and promptly received my Mom’s voicemail and then my Dad’s voicemail. I suspect my Mom was at work, but my Dad did what I always do (like father; like son) and didn’t realize his phone was turned off. He called me back a couple minutes before I boarded – it’s always good to hear a parent’s voice before you go and throw yourself into a different country, on a different continent, eight time zones away.

20 minutes later they started boarding, and I was still sitting in wait for my boarding pass, seat, or anything that is typical of boarding a flight. I was still confused about the paper I currently had... others sitting beside me were fiddling with their boarding passes – those bar-coded pieces of paper we all know and love. I just had this little thing with some words & numbers printed on a primarily blank piece of paper – it didn't even have an advertisement on the back (if you haven’t flown recently, that started up about 2 years ago).

I went back up to the counter, and voila now I got my boarding pass! Why they didn't tell me I had to come back again – or just give it to me the first time – I do not know. Such is the way things go when security protocols change on a weekly basis. On my boarding pass, I spotted that my seat had the letter E... I counted things out in my head and recognised that this meant middle. Not just middle; middle of the middle.

Now when I first booked (which was a month-long experience on its own), I asked for a window. I was told window seats were booked on this flight... OK, can I get an aisle? Sure, no problem. What do I actually get? I get the middle seat of the middle group of seats. Not even the middle seat of a group nearish to the window.... that would put me within gazing-distance of the great beyond. No, I'm in the "you'd better be a social butterfly" seat, as middle as you can get on a trans-Atlantic airliner.

I first sat down in the wrong seat. I didn’t realize this for about 10 or 15 minutes, when the people who actually had those seats made me realize that I took the wrong row. I’m not quite sure how I got the wrong row, since my row number was 23 and I took 26. Does a 3 look like a 6? Not really. Maybe I was just stuck on various groupings of 3… like maybe I should’ve gone and tried to sit in row 29.

Anyway, in row 26, I was beside a rather large gentleman; and the seat next to me was empty. It was empty because it would eventually be occupied by half of the couple of whose seats I was sitting in. The next to me took up the right armrest without even trying, but I was hoping all along that my left seat would be a no-show. The guy on my right was nice, though: an instructor with the military. I suppose it was the fresh buzz-cut & my choice of fashion (white undershirt and pale-tannish-green cargo pants) which made him first suspect I was a soldier joining him en route to Germany.

My first seat-neighbor was a pleasure to talk to, but I was glad when I discovered I had the wrong seat and was relocated beside two considerably thinner individuals such that I didn't have to duel for the precious commodity known as "armrest space". To my right was a German electrical engineer whom had been visiting the USA on business; and to my left was a vegetarian. So yeah they pretty much fit the stereotypes: the German was tall, lean, and sturdy; and the vegetarian was tiny and petite. I didn’t really hold any conversations with them, but from what short discussions we did have: they were both very kind. I was able to control both of my armrests the entire time – usually having enough space left over that they’d share the part I wasn’t using.

The movies were lackluster, which was a blessing – it encouraged me to actually get some sleep. However, the dinner & breakfast were sub-par, too. Or is it above-par? Basically, this is where the Lufthansa strike made itself apparent. Apparently the strike consisted primarily of the catering staff. Hence, my dinner & breakfast were along the lines of "the flight crew ran off to a nearby grocery store just before take-off." Dinner consisted of a sandwich – a small biscuit with a slice of processed ham & a slice of Swiss cheese.

For what it’s worth, what Americans call “Swiss” cheese is actually Emmentaler cheese – there are lots of cheeses from Switzerland, and Emmentaler is just one of them. However, the cheese on this small roll was so definitely not Swiss that I would not be surprised if Switzerland broke their neutrality just to teach this cheese company a thing or two about Emmentaler cheese.

Fortunately, when you're hungry -- anything starts to look tasty. I ate mine as well as the vegetarian's sitting beside me. It took about an hour and a half before the crew arranged a vegetarian meal... I'm not quite sure how they did it. First, I didn’t even think she’d get a meal at all, and I was contemplating not eating her sandwich just in case she decided to go ahead and eat the ham (which may not have actually contained any ham in the first place). Second, when I heard the crew member say that they arranged a vegetarian meal for her, the thought immediately running through my head was that it’d be some rolls without the ham; or maybe some greens from a couple breakfast meals. However, when I looked over and actually saw it: it was a legitimate salad – and it even looked tasty.

Breakfast was so fantastic that I'm still carrying the vegetarian's breakfast around with me... a bag of chips. That was the primary portion of the meal... a bag of chips. I dearly hope this strike ends before I return on September 1!

Sleeping consisted of trying to fit my legs into positions that would give skilled yoga devotees a second glance. After struggling to keep my butt from falling asleep or to find a position which didn't entail having my toes pinched everytime my seat-neighbors opened or closed their meal tray, I eventually took the cue of my German seat-neighbor and just put my head down on the tray.

This would have been splendid had I been just a couple inches shorter or if the seat in front of me weren't reclined.... instead I craned my neck to fit my head onto the tray. It must have worked, as I was next woken by the announcement that we'd be arriving in an hour. It felt like I was only asleep for 5 minutes (which had been the general theme up until I went into the head-on-tray position). Seriously, sleeping in the middle-of-the-middle seat should be in Wii Fit.

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