I Visit One of the Most Romantic Places in Europe…Alone – Part V

If you’ve stuck with me long enough to make it to the final installment of this series, my hat is off to you. I truly hope you can find a better way to fill your time now that this journey is over.

When our group separated back in Budapest, Seth, Jared and I continued onward to Milan, Italy. Seth had served a church mission in Italy and was familiar with the language, so this would be the first time on our trip that we would actually know when we were being swindled or locals were talking about us behind our backs (or rather right in front of us).

“But Matt, you visited London and they speak English!”

I never mentioned the many times London locals talked to me and I had no idea what came out of their mouth. So I would usually just stare vacantly at them while saying yes to whatever they said. This is how I ended up buying a 4£ beer at a restaurant. I don’t even drink. But at least 10% of that purchase went towards saving the rain forest.

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Back in Italy, we arrived on Saturday around 4 pm and due to our scrupulous attempts to remain cheap, our budget airline flew into a city called Bergamo, a secondary airport about an hour outside Milan. This is a fact we weren’t aware of till we arrived at the airport. So after an hour in a bus, we pulled into the Milan station and set off towards our Airbnb.

The thing about airbnb is that sometimes you really don’t know what you’re getting until you arrive. Our host was a new host and didn’t have any reviews yet. Additionally, I hadn’t booked it and therefore hadn’t looked into it very much. When our host answered the door, I noticed 2 things:

  1. With her thick bottle-cap glasses and plump frame, this lady was the cliche example of any sitcom that features the Italian relative who comes to visit. Not a word of English spoken, but in an Italian intonation, quickly draws us into a big hug and keeps speaking whether we can understand or not. Her eccentricity also makes me think that she comes from the same family from My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
  2. Taking a deep breath after having it hugged out of me, I low-key gag as the thick smell of secondhand smoke fills my lungs. I look around at the haze-filled room. Our host is holding a cigarette and a small old man wearing a white tank top takes a long drag in his own and blows it into the house. It’s Europe, everyone smokes. I startle as something brushes against my leg. Looking down, there is a bushy cat doing that thing where they stiffen and rub up against your leg.

So many senses being assaulted all at once. A lovely couple though. I snap out of my daze and we head upstairs to drop off our things.

We head back outside and since Seth knows where he’s going, he takes us the the city 20171216_180356.jpgcenter via the metro. As we walk up the stairs, the monstrosity that is the Duomo looms right in front of us. This is a beautiful structure truly magnificent to see for the first time. We head towards the line to go inside and notice a sign that says admission is 10€. At this point, I’m done paying admission prices for churches that all start to look the same after a while. I notice another line entering inside for free and realize it’s for people wanting to go inside and pray. Quickly making a decision between me and the Big Guy, we join that line under the judgemental eyes of the guards there who know exactly what we’re doing.

Before you pass judgement and in my defense, I did say a prayer inside. So….I think I’m good.

Around the corner from the Duomo, I experience another assault of the senses in the best way possible. There is a steady line of people outside a small restaurant called Luini. The best way to describe this inexpensive, yet delicious food is a deep-fried pizza doughnut. They are essentially small hand pies filled with salami, mozzarella, tomatoes, and whatever you find on a pizza.

That sounds like a Hot Pocket you say? How dare you.

When we finish with our hand pies, directly across the street was a gelato shop called cioccolat italiani. You could tell they serve real gelato because the name was in Italian. Also because it was in Italy.

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After walking around for a bit longer, we headed back to the smoke house since we all had an early morning ahead of us. Seth and Jared were taking an early plane back home. My flight wasn’t until later that night, so I would be taking train out to the small town of Como and taking a ferry to Bellagio based off the recommendation of a good friend:

Lake Como and Bellagio is one of the most beautiful and romantic places in Europe, you have to go!

“That sounds like just the place I want to go by myself,” I thought to myself. The last time I traveled by myself in Thailand, people kept trying to sell me Armani suits, massages, and services in the red light district. Maybe this time will be different. I may be lonely and all alone, but at least I won’t be out $100 for a suit I never received.

After saying goodbye to Seth and Jared at Milano Centrale, I boarded my train for the 45 minute journey North. I was on a tight schedule if I wanted to catch the 2 hr ferry ride to Bellagio and back, catch the train back to Milan and catch my plane to London at 5 pm.

Divine intervention had other plans for me that day. The train to Como ended up getting delayed at a station for 45 minutes, throwing off the rest of my schedule. I determined that I wouldn’t have time to take the ferry across the water to Bellagio. Since today was Sunday, I felt that I should look up a local LDS chapel to attend. By Divine design, there was a chapel in Como with services beginning about the time I was set to pull into the station. I sure didn’t look like I was set to go to church, I was wearing my travel pants, a flannel shirt, and I hadn’t shaved in 2 weeks.

I didn’t know anyone there, but I was quickly approached and ushered to the middle of a row. I smiled because of the feeling of familiarity I was experiencing. In a worldwide church, everything is the same, including the WiFi password which my phone had automatically connected to. The services were in Italian so I didn’t understand anything, which was fine. After the services, the American missionaries came up to me, obviously hoping that this “bum” from the street was their next golden investigator. They started talking to me in broken Italian, to which I responded in French:

“Parle vous français?”

They stopped talking, taken aback, and responded with “uh…no.” We stood there a few more seconds in silence. I broke the silence by laughing and saying “Elders, I’m from Utah, see ya!” And left to go see the rest of Como.

The church was situated above the lake in a small area of Como, away from the more touristy area down by the marina. Rather than take a bus, I decided to walk the 2 miles down to the lake. It was a sunny, yet frosty Sunday morning as I walked in silence on the windy, mountainous road through the small Italian village. As I stared in awe at the beautiful landscape before me, a flood of thoughts ran through my mind as I pondered on my existence and meaning in life. Rather than quote the various lines of Muir, Thoreau, or other poets whose lines appear amidst the background of a piece of scenery on motivational posters and Pinterest boards which might have been appropriate for the situation, I’ll just say it was a nice moment.

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Outside of tourist season, the only people in town appeared to be mostly locals walking their dogs or spending time with their partners. And then there was me with my oversized duffel, disheveled look, unkempt hair, and khakis. Alone. They’d glance at me as I passed and smile, but internally, were they screaming “you’re destroying our property values American bum, get outta here!” But in Italian. And with their internal hand shaking at me with their fingers pressed to their thumb.

I boarded the train back to Milan, stopped at Luinis, again and caught my plane to London, arriving at 6 pm. Unfortunately, my plane back to the states wasn’t until 9 am the next morning, so I’d be spending the night at Heathrow airport.

But that’s another story for another segment about spending the night in sketchy, international airports (and Detroit).

Three months later and this finally concludes my visit to Europe. I enjoy traveling, so if you ever want any tips or advice, feel free to reach out.

 

The Mission Impossible Tour: Vienna and Budapest – Part IV

I’ve always loved doing impressions and accents. This trip has provided an excellent opportunity for improving the way I verbosely exaggerate the accents of other countries and come off as the dumb American who’s just trying to fit in: “BOUNJOUR! WHEH IS ‘ARRY POTTER?! FISH AND CHIPS! MERCI’!” Which makes me wonder if people across the pond do the same thing when they’re in America: “HEY PASS THE BUTTER AND LET ME TAKE THIS QUIZ TO FIND OUT WHAT HARRY POTTER CHARACTER I AM! NO PROBLEM!”

As we explored Vienna, this provided another opportunity to practice my German speak and eat some great food at the same time. Out of all the places we visited on this trip, I’d have to say that Vienna was my favorite. It’s clean, friendly, small enough to walk around, and doesn’t have the “busy” feel that came with London or Paris.

We began our morning with a free walking tour. We discovered these in both Vienna and Budapest. They are a free tour provided by knowledgeable guides who have grown up in the city. After the approximately 3-hour tour (that doesn’t end shipwrecked on an island with way more luggage than you should have packed), they ask you to tip what you think is appropriate. Everyone wins.

The tour was a fantastic way to learn history about the city and learn facts I probably wouldn’t have known otherwise. For example, when we walked into Heroes Square, on first thought, you’d think it’s just a nice, wide-open space in front of a palace. But 75 years ago, this same square was the location where 600,000 Austrians welcomed Hitler and heard him speak. In visiting both Austria and Budapest, it was fascinating hearing the perspective of two countries who had been occupied during WWII and how they were affected.

Closer to my own heart, our tour guide recommended the top places to try the top 3 20171213_142548.jpgAustrian foods: Schnitzel, Apfelstrudel, and Sachertorte cake. To be honest, I always thought that Schnitzel was a Christmas desert. So I was a little surprised when I got what looked like a Chicken Fried Steak served in front of me, taking up the entire plate it was served on. I enjoyed and finished my serving. But since we had underestimated the portion size, some of my group were unable to finish theirs. So due to my belief in no waste, I finished their halves and overall ate two platefuls of Schnitzel which left some lasting effects later that night. No regrets.

Our guide had also told us that if we were too cheap to purchase actual opera tickets to the famous Vienna Opera (he knew his market well, everyone attending the FREE walking tour), standing room tickets could be purchased for 4 euro as long as we didn’t mind being a little crowded. So later that night, we stood in line for, and secured Opera tickets for Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. I observed two things as we entered

  • We were very underdressed
  • The definition of a little crowded meant the equivalent of being livestock in a cattle car.

Standing room tickets place you in the back of the hall standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers with a flimsy bar in front of you to hold on to. There is an electronic display on the bars which provide interpretation for the music. However due to the constricting nature, your options are either crane your neck straight down and read the lyrics, or watch the play with faux fascination and pretend that you understand the plot. After the first act, most people in standing room take off, leaving the remaining people some extra elbow room.

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Call me an uncultured individual, but I was more interested in looking for the points of interest within the Opera that had been focused on in Mission Impossible 5. Our tour guide had failed to mention anything in Vienna’s history about Tom Cruise jumping off their Opera House!

The next morning, we mulled around some of the Christmas markets (but did not partake of the mulled wine) and loitered outside another palace while some of our group went inside. We then boarded a train and pulled into Budapest in the early evening.

Now this was a special evening because it was the same evening that Star Wars: The Last Jedi was coming out. We had an important decision to make: forego food and watch the movie before any of our friends back home, or buy some ingredients to make a nice meal at home for a quiet evening. Unfortunately, we decided on the latter, mostly because the movie would be dubbed in Hungarian and we would prefer to know what is going on.

I mentioned earlier that I love doing accents and impressions, BUT DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT A HUNGARIAN ACCENT SOUNDS LIKE?? You may think it’s just a bunch of grunting and pointing, but you’re being confused with the Huns from Mulan. It’s extremely difficult just to understand how to say the words:

Hello – Jó napot kívánok

Cheers! – Kedves egészségére!

My hovercraft is full of eels – A légpárnás hajóm tele van angolnákkal

We did another free walking tour in Budapest and our guides instructed us how to say conversational phrases, but it was immediately forgotten after the lesson. Our walking tour was another interesting discussion on the Nazi occupation of Hungary during WWII, in addition to many of the famous structures located throughout town. Once again, I was very disappointed that they left out information about the filming of Mission Impossible 4 right within their own city! I guess since it was a free tour, that information comes from the more expensive guides.

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That night, we walked (if you go yourself, just take the metro and save yourself an hour) to the famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths. The baths themselves were quite nice. It was dark and very steamy (which coincidentally is the opening line of a romance novel I’m writing), so much that if you tried to move around, you were at risk of bumping into over-affectionate couples. The real adventure was getting in and out of the pools. What immediately came to mind as we tried to make our in and out of the locker rooms was the movie Airplane. The scenes where the pilot is speaking to the little boy:

“Joey, have you ever seen a grown man naked?”

and later

“Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”

My experience felt like a combination of these two questions. And I’ll leave it at that.

This was sadly the end of our group, who I have selfishly neglected during much of this writing. But I will say that Seth, Jared, Joyce, and Danielle were some of the best of companions. Joyce and Danielle would take off for home while Seth, Jared and I would depart for Italy for the last part of our trip.

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Stay tuned for the final installment where I visit the most romantic place in Europe by myself!

PS – I was very disappointed that the Mission Impossible 6 trailer did not come out until after our trip, which takes place in Paris! Not that our guides would have mentioned it anyways.

Paris: Romantic Comedy or Gritty Action film – Part III

Before I visited Paris, I had always seen it portrayed as either dark and gritty like in The Bourne Identity, Taken, and The Da Vinci Code, or romanticized and sunny like in Midnight in Paris, various romantic comedies, and every movie about rats who love to cook. To determine which setting I would be experiencing, I considered whether I was visiting under the guise of an action film, or if my visit was more comical in nature. I decided to take it a day at a time and determine at the end of the trip what kind of setting I was in.

Our initial Airbnb residence cancelled on us about a week before our trip, so I IMG_2203scrambled to find a secondary residence still within our budget. When we arrived, I discovered that the some of the words used in the apartment description such as “cozy” and “unique” were poor synonyms for “condensed” and “weird.” The size was manageable for five people, but what got me was the dozens of frames adorned across every wall in the apartment displaying anthropomorphic animals in various stages of dress: A dog with a skinny handlebar mustache, a cow wearing a diaper, a tree frog wearing mittens. If you look hard enough, you can see the stag patronus from Harry Potter. So far, I was either in a comedy, or that part in a action film where the hero gets drugged and has some weird hallucinations.

It was late afternoon as we set out into the overcast city. After learning to navigate the vast metro network, we arrived at the Eiffel tower. Our pre-trip planning only included the most basic of needs from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Where to sleep, what to eat, and how to get around (we underestimated where to poop – it is extremely difficult to find public restrooms in Europe). Any activities we wanted to do, we would improvise when we got there and not worry about advance tickets. It was to our chagrin as we noticed the long line waiting to get into the Eiffel tower.

At the top of every hour, the Eiffel tower lights up and shimmers brightly for a few minutes. We had the misfortune (fortune?) to observe this event 5 times while waiting in line. Yes, it was nice the first and second time, the third time we glumly checked our watches in disbelief at the time, and by the fourth time we hardly noticed due to the freezing night and empty stomachs we had exposed ourselves to. We were in neither a comedy or action, but rather a survival film. However, when we finally made it to the top of the tower 3 ½ hours later, I reconsidered and went back to comedy at the sight of Paris at night. Simply stunning. Additionally, there was also a designated kissing corner at the top that couples took as a challenge, with little regard for public eyes.

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Sunday, we had planned on attending church services in the morning, but a late start put us behind and my friend’s lost glove in the metro had us retracing our steps. Since we couldn’t find the glove, I categorized this experience as an action film since we were essentially searching for a thief in a crowd of people. The only thing missing was tense background music and someone trying to kill us. However, I would be willing to reconsider a comedy if the glove shows up at my friend’s place along with an offer of marriage from the person who tracked her down.

20171210_131550.jpg We spent the rest of Sunday visiting Versailles and imagining what it would be like to be an overlord over countless peasants. However, in my opinion I believe true power comes from demanding that dozens of naked little cherubs be placed in your great hall without giving an explanation why.

As we left the palace and entered the grounds, I was amazed at how vast the gardens were. We spent nearly an hour walking to the back of the grounds where there was nestled a tiny little cottage town. At this point, it started to rain, and we realized we had nearly an hour and a half walk back to the train station. During the trek back, to get out of the rain, we stepped inside the LDS Temple situated just across the street from Versailles. Having just opened 6 months prior, this holy structure may not have looked like much from the front, but enter the courtyard behind, and even in the rain, the white marble structure is beautiful.

45 minutes later, we arrived back at the train station soaked to the skin (although the lower half of my body was completely dry thanks to DWR prAna pants and waterproofed Teva boots, my Marmot coat sadly was not water repellant). Today had been an action film day, since there’s usually always a dreary scene that takes place in the rain.

To be honest, I don’t really want to talk about Monday because after a while, all these buildings and churches just started to look the same. If you’re some artsy-fartsy person or architectural savant who disagrees with that statement, I know you’re right. I’m still just a little bitter that

  • Visiting St. Chapelle, “children” under 26 were free while yours truly, who just turned 27 had to pay $15 for a one-room tour.
  • The Catacombs, one of the biggest draws for me, were closed Mondays
  • We had an hour to see nearly 380,000 objects in the Louvre before they closed, and a Parisian taxi-bike lady wouldn’t get out of my “Tom Hanks – Da Vinci code picture” unless I paid her to move

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  • Fully expecting to see an open viewing for Victor Hugo, only to find out he was interred almost 150 years ago

So, if you want a more romanticized summary of Paris’ attractions, go to Trip Advisor or literally any travel blog ever written.

On a day where everything seemed to go wrong, this can only be a comedy, right? At least I managed to get my Christmas card photo with Mona Lisa.

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Tuesday morning, we packed up and dropped by what was probably one of my favorite places in Paris: Sacre Coeur. I didn’t go inside, since I figured it would probably just look like most other churches (I know, I know it isn’t!), but while the rest of my friends went inside, I opted instead to climb to the top of the church to the dome. We arrived at 8:00 and the dome wasn’t set to open until 9 AM, but the gate was open, and the electronic ticket machine still gave me a ticket. This gave me the unique opportunity to spend 15 minutes alone up in the dome.

By 9 AM, the sun is mostly risen, but as I summitted nearly an hour early, I experienced a beautiful sunrise overlooking the entire city of Paris. This is meant to be a serious or sentimental blog, but that moment will forever be a special one for me. I’ll spare you my reflective thoughts about life that I had.

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This was definitely a comedy, as I had just wasted what had the potential to be one of the most romantic moments in my life so far on the gargoyle perched next to me.

As I boarded the train to the airport for our next destination, I reflected on my visit. I don’t know if I could classify my trip to Paris as a strictly action or comedy film. It was a combination of many genres. But if I had to specify, I’d say it was a “dark romantic action survival comedy” film.

Was I just in a Twilight film?

From Boston to London – Part II

One year later, I’m nearing the completion of my academic education after 20 years. Most people would likely want to finish strong and power to the end – I was still spending class time looking for good deals on airline tickets. However, after months of dedication, my efforts paid off! I may not be able to give you an in-depth description of regression analysis or Stark Law, but I can sure tell you how to get the best deals on your flights – real life skills.

Southwest had one of their yearly sales, so I managed to get round trip tickets from Dallas to Boston for $100. From there, I found direct flights to London for $300 on Delta. Not a bad find. But since they weren’t connected flights, there were somewhat longer layovers; a small price to pay as a budget traveler.

I spent the weeks leading up to my trip convincing friends and classmates that I was ACTUALLY going this time.

“That’s nice…” They would say unbelievingly.

But come December 6, I finished my last class, packed up my stuff and moved it up to Fort Worth. The next day, I was on a plane to Boston!

Since I had a nearly five-hour layover in Boston and the city was a quick, free bus ride from the airport, I decided to spend a few hours walking around. Normally, I try to reach out to friends who are in the area I’m visiting to see if they’d like to meet up. But since this was a quick trip, I opted instead for a mobile tour via text given by a friend living just outside Boston who recently had a baby. Top recommendations were the Oyster Bar and Mike’s Pastries for the Cannoli.

Did you know that simply by being kind and personable to others nets you dividends in more ways than one? Not only did eat some of the best clam chowder I’ve ever had, but I made a good friend out of the manager at the Oyster Bar who sent me on my way with a large, complimentary box of freshly baked cornbread for the plane ride over.

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If you’ve ever taken a long haul flight, or any flight, you’ve likely been in the position of having an empty middle seat next to you and watching the boarding passengers in anticipation as they near your seat. You silently pray that they will continue past you and ruin someone else’s prayer behind you. Sadly, I was forsaken this time as one of the last passengers sat next to me. This must have been one friendship that was not meant to be. I could not overcome my feelings of resentment for his unfortunate seat placement, and he did not appreciate how much of the cornbread I was eating mid-flight was ending up in his seat (the better the cornbread, the more crumbly, and this was some of the best).

My flight departed at 7 PM and landed 7 AM the next day. A six hour flight with a six hour time time. Due to my inability to sleep and desire to watch 3 movies instead, I didn’t sleep. But when I landed, I hit the ground running by meeting up with my good friend Kellie, who is studying at Uni (as the locals call it). She gave me a quick tour around the campus and then we went for a lovely walk through this wide-open field. The kind of field you see on those BBC shows where there’s a murder scene in a big field and it’s windy and overcast and no one looks like they’ve had their breakfast.

We took the Underground (as the locals call it) into London and then attempted to cram a week’s worth of sightseeing into a day. So as not to bore you with the agenda, I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves.

By this point, it was nearly 5 and I had been awake for nearly 36 hours. After an unintentional nap at the National Gallery, we headed to Westminster Abbey to attend Mass. Feeling fatigued, it didn’t occur to me that attending Mass meant sitting in a chair for nearly an hour with mood lighting and lulling Gregorian chants and choirs a part of the program. If not for Kellie nudging me every time we stood up to chant, I could have come off as very disrespectful…

As our night drew to a close, we sought out the right bus that would take me to my hostel. We found a shortcut which required us to walk through a deserted park with lots of trees and no lighting. 50 feet in, we were startled by a sudden movement to our right as a squatting woman pulled up her leggings and ran out of the park. We made a wider arc around the tree and hurried out.

As I bid farewell to Kellie and entered the hostel, I was invited to join the all-night rager being thrown in the lobby. I told them to just give me my key and that I didn’t want to join their stupid party (under my breath but I was so tired and unaware that they probably heard me anyways).

35,000 steps (20 miles) and 40 hours later, I went to bed, ending the first part of my journey.

Part III continues in Paris

The Worst Vacation I Never Took – Part 1

In 2016, I had made plans to go to Italy with a few friends after finishing my first semester of graduate school. Traditionally, I have been a primary “organizer” of trips when it comes to logistics. I want to make sure we have good places to stay, we are familiar with getting around upon arrival, and are able to visit the best places in the time allotted. Somehow, whenever these trips begin to form, I end up doing a lot of the planning, or else the trips may just not happen. I don’t mind doing it, but it can become time consuming.

The Italian Job began forming around the end of September. We would leave Thursday December 8, 2016 and return around the following Wednesday. It was supposed to be a relatively quick trip. We determined the top places we wanted to visit were Milan, Florence, and Venice. So I spent countless hours in class perusing various AirBnb options that were both affordable and provided proximity to the hottest spots in the city.

For me, one of the most stressful parts of trip planning is purchasing plane tickets. Similar to a TV romance, the price of airline tickets portray a “will they/won’t they” relationship where occasionally someone will get lucky, but more often will end in heartbreak as the airline you thought you knew so well lowers their prices for another after you decided to settle. Luckily for this trip, we wouldn’t have to worry about this problem since we were all being given a buddy pass by a friend going on the trip who worked for American Airlines. Essentially, it was a prorated amount I was responsible for that accounted for distance and taxes. Flying to Italy would cost me roughly $400. Perhaps a bit steep, but still only half as much as a normal priced ticket.

Our group was planning on flying in from various places. Two girls flying from Salt Lake, two guys from Dallas, and myself from San Antonio. We created a designated meeting spot in Milan that we would all meet up at assuming we all arrived at our predetermined times.

The plan changed a bit when the two girls in Salt Lake both happened to find tickets for $400 online. So they purchased a guaranteed seat for the same price, now they wouldn’t be depending on a standby ticket. Good for them.

As the date loomed nearer, I began telling my classmates and teachers that I wouldn’t be attending the end of year Christmas party the night of my departure. I low-key mentioned there was a possibility I would be in Italy instead that day instead.

The Day Of

Early in the morning on December 8, I get dropped off at the airport, backpack in tow, plans made and maps downloaded. There is a bit of wind on the way there, but surely nothing that can’t be overcome. My friend who had given me the ticket told me how to check in with a buddy pass and which gate to head to. He assured me that there were still open seats on the plane and I was #1 on the standby list. What could go wrong?

Those of you who may be unfamiliar with flying standby, let me explain in the simplest of terms – by comparing the boarding process with the feudal system of the middle ages.

Pope/Church/God = Gate Agents – The ultimate authority that decides who lives and dies, who gets beheaded and gets divorced, who gets to board and who gets kicked off because the flight is overbooked.

Royalty = 1st Class – The boarders with priority before pregnant women, service pets, pilots with their learners permits, and B-list celebrities who can’t afford 1st class. These people are separated from you on the plane with a flimsy curtain that allows the peasants in back to see the better food and hot towels they can’t afford.

*Also active military, but they should be treated like royalty anyways

Nobles/Lords = Executive Platinum Members – Usually suit-wearing consultants with slicked-back hair that will stay in place no matter how bad the turbulence. Can sit in front of the curtain if there is room.

Knights = Platinum Members – Uh…platinum members that are not executive…obviously

Vassals = Gold members and executive members that aren’t platinum but part of the loyalty program…look it’s confusing but thanks for sticking with me so far. Also, whats a vassal?

Merchants/Farmers/Craftsmen = Zones 1,2,3 – Congratulations, you’re not last because you paid $15 to choose your own seat! Yes, I know you signed up for their credit card which was supposed to get you more priority, but better priority is for “eligible” members only. Read that fine print.

Peasants = Basic Economy – Majority of the people who fly

Serfs = Standby – Within serfdom, there are various levels as well:

  • D1 = Court jesters – Airline employees
  • D2 = Livestock – Immediate Family and Airline retirees
  • D3 = The backhoe the serfs use to level manure in the fields – Buddy passes

I’m obviously the bottom of the barrel here, but I was told my chances were good for boarding, so I didn’t worry about it.

As I sit at my gate, I notice how full it is becoming. The standby list shows me at #2 now. “Ok, that’s fine. There are obviously more important people than me here.” An announcement comes on informing the gate that due to high winds, the previous flight had been cancelled and was going to fill up our flight. I glanced back at the standby list where my name had now disappeared, filled instead with the names of those from the previous flight. This was when I began to worry.

Flying on American Airlines from San Antonio, every flight connects in Dallas. There is a plane that leaves every two hours. For the next 6 HOURS, I sat in the airport watching as my name was continually moved to the next flight and continually shuffled down the board as an unimportant D3 passenger. After the 6th hour, there was no way I could catch the last connecting flight of the day in Dallas that would allow me to catch the connecting flight I had purchased in London to take me to Italy.

There was nothing I could do to reroute. My friend who would have been able to reroute me was somewhere over the Atlantic on his own flight. By the time he landed and managed to get me another flight, I wouldn’t get there till Monday. Not worth it if we were leaving Wednesday.

I threw in the towel.

I ended up going to my class Christmas party that night. I tried to pass my experience off as a Friends moment where I came to my senses and had to get off the plane because of the love I have for my classmates.

“That’s nice…” They said with pity in their eyes.

Perhaps the worst part was that I was still involved with the trip, running operations from the states – like an unpaid travel agent unsatisfied with their job. Since the accommodations were in my name, I had to communicate with the hosts and explain that the person they would be expecting to meet them would not be there, instead being met by someone else. Most nights went along the lines of

“Hey did you guys reach Venice/Florence/Milan alright?”

“Ya we did, it’s amazing here!”

“Great, have fun. I’m going to bed.”

A few weeks later, we all met up in a run-down Italian restaurant in Provo, Utah to eat some bad Gelato with freezer burn while they reminisced and I listened halfheartedly. It was about an hour of inside jokes that I stood on the outside of.

I love inside jokes, I’d love to be a part of one one day. Maybe next year…

Is a Cruise for You?

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If in your future are exotic locations,
Such as Cancun or Mexico, assuming existing US relations.
Unlimited food, tasting mediocre at best,
That’ll send you straight to the toilet if it hasn’t been blessed.
A week away from your children at home,
Or bring them along and allow them to roam.
Does any of this sound too good to be true?
Then a cruise may be for you.

Let us first visit my favorite location, the buffet.
Where I heard there was food forever, that’s totally cray!
Failing to heed Admiral Ackbar’s advice:
“It’s a trap!” Limited hours. I’ve paid the ultimate price.
There is one item unlimited, no cause for alarm,
It’s the melted soft-serve, constantly running down your arm.
When there was food available, it wasn’t so great,
But it’s better than starving, so don’t arrive late.
If food’s not your thing, there’s plenty to do,
A cruise may still be for you.

Your cruise director always has something to say
Ours was named Alex, he would not go away.
Nothing he said was of interest of me,
No sir, even at 25% off, I will not buy new jewelry.
The ship deck was a great place to get sun,
Until the hairy chest contest (for ALL participants) sent me on the run.
Many ship staff and visitors were Filipino, no way!
Imagine my dismay to learn they were all from LA.
Supposedly the price of the cruise was all inclusive,
However the $82 WiFi charge was very elusive.
Perhaps I got bored because I don’t drink,
But who’s laughing now with the bill printed in ink.
The activities I’ve listed are only a few,
But do you know now if a cruise is for you?

Our shore excursions were quite a delight,
At least Catalina. Ensenada not quite.
Shirt off and snorkeling with the fishes below,
Yes ma’am the water is cold.  How did you know?
Sunscreen was one amenity I forgot,
Which will not bode well for interviews with skin in mid rot.
Ensenada we drove around in a rented van,
Yes I’ll buy your tamales. You think I can’t eat 20? Watch me, I can!
If anything you must come for the gorgeous view,
How about now, is a cruise for you?

And so concludes the end of our trip,
It was an interesting time aboard this ship.
This has by no means been a comprehensive review,
But you should know now, if a cruise is for you.

Seeing Something Better in the Philippines

It’s amazing how often we spend pining after things we don’t have.  We often fail to remember the things we have already been given, and continue to enjoy.  For three weeks, I spent my time with a group of students volunteering for CharityVision, a nonprofit organization with a focus on empowering local physicians in the developing world and creating sustainable solutions to the worldwide blindness epidemic.  We watched surgeries, played with patients, volunteered in orphanages, and performed projects to improve the clinics we were at.  We experienced conditions which are no longer prevalent in the United States.  For as many problems as our current healthcare systems has, we do have medical and technological advances to be grateful for.

Approximately half our time was spent in a rural location called the De Venicia clinic.  This clinic is used primarily for removing cataracts via a simple surgery.  Did you know that a $25 donation is all that it takes to restore vision to someone who has been robbed of it?  The process begins as staff travel to various locations across the Philippines (or the world, as this is an international organization) and perform screenings to find potential candidates.  We took part in these screenings (obtaining carsickness on the 3-hour remote drive) and interacted with the patients who turned up.

Patients arrive on their designated date for their surgeries.  Patients range in age from young children to the elderly.  Whether young or old, every person deserves the right to sight.  Observing surgeries was a fascinating experience.  Doctors performed surgeries with the patients conscious.  Can you imagine staring up at the caregivers while they stick sharp instruments in your eye?  What more, the doctor jokes with you and then chastises you for laughing and moving the surgical area (your face).  What a wonderful scene it was after the surgery when the patients would shed tears of joy after regaining their sight.

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When we weren’t observing surgeries, we were acting as workers, seeking to improve the appearance of the clinic.  Our biggest project was improving the patient waiting area outside.  5,000 bricks and 3 days later, we finished with all our fingerprints rubbed clean off (in order to commit the perfect crime).  We also made improvements to the patient bathroom and kitchen, and provided the nurses with a locker for their belongings.

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The remainder of our time we spent in Manila, volunteering at the Mabuhay House.  Patients stay here for longer periods of time for a number of maladies.  One such patient is a child named Balong who was born with club feet.  Instead of going through surgery, Balong has had metal braces placed on his legs with rods shooting through his feet.  Every week, a doctor tightens the brace as it slowly reverses his condition.  This painful process will take nearly a year to complete.  But when it is finished, he will be able to run and play with his friends.

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Or consider Stephen, who was born with a cleft lip.  Many people who are born with this condition and allow it to persist are often ridiculed and ostracized in society.  A simple surgery repaired Stephen’s condition and he can go about his life without having to worry about being teased.

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These are conditions rarely, if ever seen in the United States.  They are such simple procedures performed when the children are brand new.  Because many of these type of conditions are so rampant in the Philippines, it was surprising to encounter people with conditions such as cancer or diabetes.  The people there deal with more severe disabilities which could be so easily repaired, that they have no time to worry about diseases which first world countries consider more serious.  And if they can’t pay for those fixable maladies, how can they expect to pay for conditions we ourselves struggle to pay for?

The day we went and volunteered at an orphanage, we played with some of the cutest children who had just been dealt a bad hand in life.  There are many orphanages within the states as well, but what made this experience unique was that some of these children were a result of failed abortions.  Not only were they a result of neglect, but the poor actions of their parents had left lasting scars.  It was heart-wrenching.

This trip provided a meaningful experience to be a part of a humanitarian opportunity.  Becoming more aware of the healthcare we have been blessed with will allow us to focus on what we already have, rather than what we do not.  For more information on CharityVision and the work they do, you can visit their website. charityvision.net