Sunday, November 8, 2015

Five People You Do NOT Want to Sit Next to on an Airplane

Let me begin this post by saying that I am known as a tolerant person.  In college, the resident assistant would always assign the "problem" roomies to me - the snotty girl no one got along with, the slob, the nudist who ran around in the buff. I could always manage to empathize with people's differences and accommodate or compromise.  So, in a discussion of airplane seat mates I'm not going to rant about crying babies (little ones cannot regulate their ear pressure).  My heart goes out to those who have to fly with infants in order to visit grandma for the holidays.
On the other hand, taking a three year old to Disney is unforgiveable. The kid isn't going to remember a thing, jackass.

But I digress...

Airline travel is intrinsically uncomfortable.  (Not talking to you, First Class.  Talking to my buddies over here in Screw You Cheap Seats.)  Seats are shrinking, amenities disappearing, the list goes on.  Sitting next to someone annoying adds insult to injury.  Over the years I've had some rather unique seat-mate experiences.  I share these with you now, not so much to warn you - you may never come across any of these in your flying lifetime - but so that if you are one of the potential offenders you might think a moment before you put another person through in-flight hell.

1.  The Malodorous.  I once sat next to a man whose breath smelled as if he had chewed a raw onion before boarding.  (The martini kind are pickled; this was the real deal.)  That in itself would be offensive, but he fell asleep and was an open-mouth breather who leaned his head - you guessed it - right in my direction.  A scenario like this is entirely avoidable.  (It's called mouth wash.  Sheesh.)  Now I get that the odors of some foods just leak through your pores.  You might not want to give up that garlic pizza the night before a flight, but I implore you, do give it a second thought.  And speaking of pores, as a member of the first world I'm assuming deodorant is ubiquitous.  I could be wrong.  But unless you live a nomadic life in a remote part of the Sahara, I'm pretty sure you've got access to soap and water.  There's no excuse for subjecting folks to your acrid stench.  Unless, of course, it's against your religion.  I've been told there are religious groups that conscript bathing at certain times.  Next time you fly, please ask your God to make sure you do not get a seat near me.

2.  The missionary.  I'm extremely tolerant of religious faiths.  I am extremely intolerant of public proselytizing.  Also not terribly interested in being a captive audience in a Billy Graham revival.  I once sat next to a sweet Filipino nun who told me all about her life, her convent, her mission to God.  For six hours.  You are a dear.  I applaud your faith and your sincere belief that you are helping feed people's souls.  Me?  I'd rather feed people physically (I'm a Born Again Italian Mother).  Stop.  Just stop.  Or next time I will pretend to be asleep and then you will personally be responsible for having damned my soul to hell with a lie.

3.  The smoker.  Smoking is prohibited in flight.  That doesn't mean I don't smell your nicotine reek if you've blown through a whole pack of Marlboros before you boarded.  I once sat BEHIND someone like this.  Until I figured out who/what it was I kept looking around to see if someone was disobeying the no-smoking signs.  It was that bad.

4. The author of In-flight Yoga  Oh, THIS is a good one.  This just happened to me recently and was the inspiration for this blog post.  A young Asian gal with bleached blonde hair, two-tone green nails, and expensive boots sat next to me on my flight from San Francisco.  I saw the boots clearly because she proceeded to take them off with her legs up in the air against the back of the seat in front of her.  She had no socks on.  I got a clear look at that because at one point she placed her bare feet inside the back of my seat pocket!  This is close quarters, sweetie, I don't want your tootsies near my magazines or snacks.  To make matters worse, she went into a FULL LOTUS on top of her tray table.  I don't like to curse on my blog, not even in acronyms, but WTF?  Her right foot was inches from my coffee cup.  Blech!  During the flight she had her feet shoved between the seats in front of her, up in the air, on the seat back again.  I didn't know if she was trying to get comfortable or practicing asanas.

Me practicing yoga.  NOT on a flight.
5. The poker.  Aside from my annoyance with yoga gal, I wondered how her postures were affecting the person who sat in front of her.  Certainly some of the positions she took put pressure on the back of their seats.  News flash!  The person who sits in front of you on an airplane can FEEL what you do to their seat.  I've spent flights with people who JABBED the entertainment console behind me over and over.  (Make up your mind about the movie, people! And if you're gaming, tread lightly because - after three hours -  I am wadding up that airline magazine and getting ready to go postal over the back of my seat!)  I've sat in front of kids who repeatedly kicked the back of my seat in restless movement.  (One time it was so bad I "monster glared" at the kid when his mother made no attempt to stop him.)

I'm sure you may have had your own seat-mate nightmares.  Please share them in the comments below!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Melting in Malta

(Please allow me to offer the following quote as an explanation of why I haven't blogged about my August trip sooner: "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." - John Lennon)

Malta - August, 2015

To begin with, Malta was never on my bucket list.  But when a neighbor found one of those Godfather "offer you can't refuse" deals, and my son mentioned that Game of Thrones was filmed there, I decided to go for it and try traveling with a companion for a change.

I've always said that I love warm climates.  I will happily visit Florida in July and have booked trips to Disney in August.  Southeast Asia, Costa Rica, the south of France?.  Love, love, love.  But Malta in August?  How can I compare it? The dry sauna at the Y with no water scoop for the rocks?  The Sahara with really interesting architecture?

It's probably unfair to start the discussion of such a fascinating country with a negative but, I was melting in Malta.  A shady spot always seemed to be in short supply.

On the other hand, the UP side of going in August is that there are a bajillion summer street festivals.  Every town has its saint that it parades under the colorful banners festooned across the streets. 

Or, in this case, Pope Francis.

Nearly every night - somewhere - everywhere - there's music and food, lights, color, and fireworks. 


And heat.

Okay.  I'll stop now.  You want to hear about Malta.

The country is about 122 square miles (including Gozo and Comino).  I visited all three islands but reviewing all of them would require a book instead of a blog.

(Side note: Don't believe people who tell you that, because of its compact size, you can see most of what Malta has to offer in three or four days - my companion believed that and rushed me through the country at break-neck speed, making the executive decision that we should skip lunch in order to see most of what was on our list in five).

In spite of its relatively small size, somehow, the Maltese manage to pack about 359 Catholic churches into that area.  I stopped in as many as I could.  Perhaps the most famous is St. John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta's lovely Baroque capital.  The original home of the Knights of Malta, Valletta is an absolute must-see.

I would definitely recommend a visit to St. John's.

The Knights of Malta were noblemen from the most important families of Europe, and their mission was to protect the Catholic faith from the attacks of the Ottoman Turks. After defending the island from the Ottomans in the Great Siege of 1565, they turned Malta into a fortress and built Valletta, their new capital city. The center of the city was reserved for their Church.  Each country (or "langue") built their own chapel and, trying to rival each other in their contributions, each one is more elaborate, gold-encrusted, and jaw-dropping than the next.

The church also houses Caravaggio's The Beheading of John the Baptist.  The painting, worthy of a blog in itself, is housed in a separate installation where photography was strictly forbidden.  I might have chanced a sneaky, flash-free shot if it weren't for the fact that it was well-guarded.  I wasn't in the mood for the adventure of an international incident.  You'll just have to go see it in person.

Valletta is only one of the many cities that stand in Malta like monuments to the past. Mdina and Mosta are also noteworthy.

There seems to be nothing that smacks of the current century in Mdina. It is easy for one to be completely transported as you wind your way down narrow streets of medieval architecture (later infused with Baroque elements after a great earthquake destroyed many buildings in 1693.)

Mosta is another must-see.  One of its most notable attractions is the Rotunda of Mosta, Europe's third largest unsupported dome.  On April 9, 1942, during an afternoon air-raid, a SC500 kg general purpose Luftwaffe bomb pierced the dome (one 50 kg bomb bounced off) and fell among a congregation of more than 300 people awaiting early evening mass. It did not explode. The same type of bomb as the one that pierced the dome is now on display at the back of the church under the words Il-Miraklu tal-Bomba, 9 ta' April 1942 (The Bomb Miracle, April 9, 1942).  If you're traveling alone and not, as I was, with a companion who tears through sites like The Flash, you can see it.  Unfortunately, I missed that, but I got good shots of the church and the interior dome.

Lastly, even though this is a cursory examination of all Malta has to offer, I can't fail to mention the ancient Neolithic sites.  I wasn't able to see the Hypogeum (which evidently requires reservations months in advance and signing away your first born child) but I was able to visit two other sites.  First, the temple of Hagar Qim (c. 3600 - 3200 BC), a UNESCO World Heritage site which stands on a hilltop overlooking the islet of Filfla. 

Nearby are the temples of Mnajdra, a complex site consisting of three temples overlooking an oval forecourt. The first and oldest temple dates back to 3600-3200 BC, while the most impressive of the temples is the third, constructed between 3150-2500 BC. This temple is considered to be one of the finest surviving on the islands. The Lower Temple has an astronomical alignment which permits the rays of the sun to pass strategically through specific areas at the Equinox.

 Unfortunately, to get to either site requires  a long walk.

A veeeeeeery long walk in the open with the sun beating down on you.

Did I mention it's really REALLY hot in Malta?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

My Latest Travel Adventure: Getting Mugged

After years of incident free travel, it has finally happened.  I can now be counted among those who are crime victims.

It was a six and a half hour flight from Newark airport, not counting the twenty or so minutes sitting on the tarmac.  Although United's service definitely lived up to it's "Friendly Skies" motto much more so than usual (Thank-you for the smiles, crew of flight 1647 from Newark on November 1st.  Thumbs up!), I was still cranky from hunger when I deplaned (Not even a teeny tiny bag of pretzels in six and a half hours?  Thumbs down, corporate headquarters!  Smelling the bacon from first class breakfast = adding insult to injury.)

I'd been up since 2 am - nearly 12 hours - when I arrived in San Francisco.  It was another two hours before I arrived at my friend's home.  She had errands so I was happy to take a nap almost as soon as I arrived.  I asked her to wake me up when she took her daily walk.  Good to get some exercise after a long flight.

Now, when I travel, I never, ever bring valuable jewelry.  I don't own any valuable jewelry that hasn't been ensconced in the recesses of a safety deposit box and hasn't seen the light of day for years.  The only thing I ever wear is a gold chain with three gold charms on it - a puffed heart given to me by my parents when I was about thirteen, a mermaid charm from my niece, and a gold and crystal sailboat from my cousin.  All three things are (spoiler alert - were) very precious to me because I love the people who gave them to me, and I love the ocean and mermaids.  I viewed the necklace as somewhat iconic, and considered it a good luck charm of sorts.

Why I brought it with me is moot.  Poor decision but not, of itself, negligent.  I might have easily hidden it somewhere in my friend's home.  Instead I went walking with it on the streets of Oakland, California.  I know better.  Why I wore it can only be explained by the fact that I was jet-lagged and out of sorts.  It never even crossed my mind.

We'd walked about four blocks when my friend noticed a young man coming towards us on my left.  She thought he looked suspicious but didn't mention it to me.  I didn't even notice him because my head was turned towards her.  Again, under normal circumstances, I'm much more aware of my surroundings.  I knew I was walking in a city that ranks third in the nation for violent crime but somehow my groggy brain didn't correlate a gold necklace as an invitation.  But there it was, glittering against a red turtle neck like a neon sign for thieves.

The young man passed us.  As we neared the corner I heard three running steps behind me.  Again, if I'd been alert, I could have tried to cross the street after the first two.  But until he grabbed my left shoulder, yanked me back, and ran his hand down from my neck to my breasts, I wasn't aware of the danger in the sound. He broke the gold chain, carrying it and the charms along with him as he continued to run away from us.

For a few seconds I just stood there in surprise.  I realized what he had done but I was in a sort of state of disbelief.   It wasn't "What has happened to me?".  It was more like, "Really?  Not again."

I've been through a lot in life.  I lived in an apartment that was robbed.  Twice.  I chased the guy who tried the third time.  Years ago, my car was broken into in Manhattan.  As a high school teacher, I was sometimes exposed to gang members and teenage offenders who came to class with ankle monitors.  I was also exposed to slashed tires and ink spilled on my car.  Even though I have a great deal of empathy for others, I can be a little thick-skinned when it comes to my own victimization.  Been there, done that.  What else is new?  And I was fully aware that it could have been worse.  The kid got a necklace and a little feel.  I wasn't stabbed or shot.  Just another day in Oakland.

After he tore off the necklace, he turned the corner.  I ran after him for three steps (unwise move) until my friend stopped me (wise move.)  I watched as he made his way towards a brand new red Toyota Corolla with dealer plates.  I didn't yell any of the things I've been told to yell - Thief! or Fire!  Instead, I yelled:  "Oh, please!  That was my mother's!"  Not because of the sentimental value of the items, but because I wanted to leave that thief with some sense of my humanity.  Not that my experience with people who commit crimes gives me any faith that they care about such things, but because it is my fervent hope that, someday, this young man might hear my voice in his ears and have changed into the sort of person who might.