The world according to the airport gift shop

During layovers I make a little game of learning about a place only from what I see in its airport gift shops. It shows me more of a caricature of the place, but I wonder, a caricature from whose point of view? Is the caricature drawn by the travelers or the locals? In other words, do the Chileans want to sell us penguin and moai chotchkies or is that just how we want to think of them?

A moai model stands guard over shelves of stuffed penguins and flamingos in an airport gift shop.
A moai model stood guard over shelves of stuffed penguins and flamingos in one of the airport gift shops.
An airport gift shop displays copper yerba mate tea sets in its window.
The airport gift shop also displayed copper mates in its window.

Gruff flight attendants

American Airline’s flight attendants are a gruff bunch. Whenever I see ads for Asian carriers (Singapore Airlines stands out in my mind) they always make their flight attendants look practically like geishas. Not here in the U.S., though. I don’t know what their schedule or work conditions are like, but on my flight from Dallas to Santiago last week they seemed a little punchy (though they were definitely yukking it up in the back during their down time). A disgruntled passenger with a complaint about the cabin temperature called one of them “old, ugly, and mean.” She gave it right back to him.

Bloomington, Indiana

The snow here in Iowa held off until my plane was due to land in Cedar Rapids. We didn’t see the ground until we were fifty feet above it. I was returning from a business trip to Bloomington, Indiana. Bloomington is not a whole lot different from Iowa City. They are about the same size and dominated by big state universities. Bloomington has a good collection of unusual “ethnic” restaurants (Burmese, Turkish, Tibetan, Afghani).

A woman watches a man bowl a ball in a bowling alley
We bowled after a long day of work.

Our workshop was at the Indiana Memorial Union at the university, which combined a hotel, meeting rooms, food court, and recreation center. “Hoosiers” played regularly on the hotel’s in-house movie channel. The recreation center included a bowling alley, of which my colleagues and I made use. I could have gotten away with not leaving the building until I left for the airport today, though that would have been a little unhealthy. The Indiana University campus is pretty: an august-looking collection of limestone Italianate-style buildings. It has lots of quadrangles.

A graveyard surrounds a limestone chapel on a university campus.
This pretty chapel and cemetery were just outside our meeting room.
Sculptures with elliptical bodies and dangling tentacles hang from airport ceiling.
Neither an airport nor Indianapolis seemed appropriate for jellyfish sculptures.

On the way to Bloomington, I arrived in Indianapolis for the first time. We had a good view of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as we landed. It’s big. The Indianapolis airport is not so enormous for a large city and felt a little empty. The spacious terminal is only a few years old. There are these weird jellyfish sculptures handing from the ceiling—not ugly, just out of place—and of course the obligatory light display in one of the connecting corridors that airports of big Midwestern cities seem to like so much.

An unoccupied ticket counter in a spacious new airport terminal.
The Indianapolis airport was spacious but empty.

I noticed some changes in the Detroit airport during my layover today: signs and announcements in Chinese. On previous trips I’ve noticed signs in Japanese; I presume these signs reflect either Detroit’s actual international trade or the trade it aspires to attract.

September 11

On September 12, 2002 I was still living in New York. The previous day had been very tense. Staten Islanders, already a prickly bunch, were more on edge than usual. There was even more of the road rage, profanity, and other unpleasantries that regulated Staten Island life. In a busy Chinese take-out customers and staff shouted at each other in anger when they usually just shouted because that was how people communicated on Staten Island.

The cause of all this tension was the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The attacks had of course been for a whole year a daily subject of news, conversation, and reflection in New York but the anniversary ratcheted up the frequency and the emotion. The news outlets ran the obligatory remembrances (and there was no shortage of poignancy). But it was like having a big birthday bash when you’ve celebrated your birthday each day all year. It was a little too much for everyone.

Or at least it was a little too much for me. On the morning of September 12, 2002, I sought a return to normalcy in my daily ritual of listening to the morning news but heard yet another stream of stories of victimhood. Maybe it was the stuff that didn’t fit into the previous weeks of programming. At that exact moment I realized that I was ready to move on. I shut off the radio.

I once actually dared to hope that something good might come of that horrible day of September 11, 2001. Like maybe we would reappraise this country’s giant footprint on the rest of the planet which creates these horrible enemies. Maybe we would reevaluate our petty consumer desires and discover what was really important about being the leading citizens of the world. That opportunity for self-reflection was lost to self-justifying jingoism and September 11 became the rationalization for all sorts of American ugliness. I won’t list all my gripes but I’ll give one example:

Our nation’s insatiable security regime has managed to do one thing terrorists were never able to: make me not want to fly in an airplane. I did more flying in the several years after the attacks than I had in my whole life before them. In fact I got on a plane later that very same month for a scheduled vacation (tickets purchased September 10, 2001).

Now I’m just sick of it. It’s not the inconveniences that bother me—those were always part of the travel package—it’s the idea that we’ve let a handful of bearded maniacs prompt the ritual of serial humiliations that is air travel. Last year it was getting scanned with x-ray vision and this year it’s answering questions meant to check if we’re nervous about blowing up the plane. Our government had all the tools it needed in 2001 to stop those savages from flying those jets into those buildings; in the end it happened because responsible people didn’t do their jobs. So if there’s something that makes me hate those animals more and more as time passes it’s that they’ve got us playing their game: living in fear of their next move.

I haven’t changed my mind since I snapped off the radio one year and one day after September 11, 2001. I am not interested in reliving that day. It was not a good one for me or anyone else I know and now that I’ve pegged the exact moment of our national decline to it I want to remember it even less. I am not up for another prolonged national catharsis through our news media. It stunts the process of grieving and healing. If I had lost someone that day, I hope that ten years on I’d have been able to find new love, focus on my surviving family and friends, and renew my purpose for living. I wish the same for our country.

Notes on travel

I’ve always maintained that the human brain is not meant for modern international travel. On Monday morning, for example, at about eleven o’clock I was shopping with my wife and sister-in-law in sultry Córdoba, Argentina. Twenty-four hours later, my wife and I were 9,000 miles away at home in our apartment in freezing Iowa. The abrupt change in scenery made two weeks in South America seem like a receding dream.

In between we were sealed up in jet planes and airports. Sometimes I wonder if the we ever leave the ground. Maybe it’s elaborate hoax, like a machine blows some fake clouds around the plane while some people shake it for nine hours. Then they let us out and tell us we’re in another airport. Meanwhile, they rearrange the signs and shops in the airport, and re-cast the local population with new actors.

Actually, they don’t have to rearrange much in the airport. We had layovers in Santiago, Chile, and even though we were quarter of a world away from home, we could still eat at Dunkin Donuts, Ruby Tuesday, or Starbucks. Yuck. I mean, what a waste to fly all that way to eat food I could eat at the Coralville Mall.

Speaking of wasting money: during our return layover in Santiago we were sitting across from a young American woman in an Oregon State sweatshirt complaining to a stranger about her trip to Chile. She couldn’t understand why Chileans were so proud of their polluted, impoverished country. She couldn’t understand why they couldn’t just pull themselves together and clean up the trash in their city. She couldn’t understand why they didn’t think being like us would be better.

She wasted her money on that trip. Is it really that hard to imagine that other people don’t share your exact same outlook? Is it just as hard to find what we have in common with people in other countries? What’s the point of traveling all that way if you don’t want to learn something?

Ugly Americans aside, our flights and layovers went smoothly without delays or incident. Mostly. The descent into Córdoba was rocky, like I thought the plane was going to shake apart. I nearly got sick—well, I was sick but I didn’t throw up. I haven’t been so sick on a plane in a long time.

Which reminded me: on trans-Andean flights, the safety orientations should include tips on survival cannibalism in case the plane crashes on a mountainside. Like which parts are the richest in fat and protein and not just empty carbs.

Córdoba’s airport is small for such a big city, and it was  overwhelmed with Christmas travelers. Besides the long line at the passport control, there was barely enough room for all the people in the international baggage claim waiting to bring their stuff through customs. About a dozen people from our flight were missing bags; an equal number of unclaimed bags waited by the conveyor belt.

We lucked out and recovered all of our bags filled with Christmas gifts. Because we brought Christmas stockings, we also brought hooked weights to hang them on. The customs agent was intrigued and asked Lore a lot of questions. I didn’t pay much attention, for a couple of reasons. I was having trouble following the conversation in Spanish. And for a women who spends much of her day bending over looking through people’s luggage she sure was showing a lot of cleavage. We had arrived in Argentina.

On the way home, the airline agents wouldn’t let us gate-check our carry-on luggage for the flight back to Santiago. It was a small plane and our carry-ons are at the upper end of the size limit. On the way to Argentina they were fine but flying back the to United States we couldn’t gate check them. Which defeats the purpose of bring a carry-on, right? That pretty much settles it: I’m going back to using my little L.L. Bean rucksack as a carry-on. As I’m fond of reminding Lore, I once traveled to the U.K. for a week with only what I could fit in that little bag. But those were simpler days.

Paris to home

Charles de Gaulle Airport: I really dislike it. This time our gate was in a pod-shaped annex that resembled a flying saucer. The wasted space below the walkway collected garbage like a little gutter. Looking down through the puny round windows showed us only the pavement outside. Disgusting. Concrete must have been cheap and glass must have been expensive when the airport was built. Every time I walk through there all I think is “Ugh.” What a terrible last thing to see of Europe. I’ll just close my eyes and dream of Parthenon.

A male flight attendant on the plane to Chicago had “Stuart Hess” embroidered on his apron. We debated whether it was his real name or not.

Ohi Day

This was a morning of shopping. We got an early start and there was some sunshine. Fira was very quiet until the cruise ship passengers came ashore. From the hilltop we could see the shuttle boats ferrying them from the mooring the shore. Shortly after they came flooding down from the cable car station.

A cruise ship docked blue water between volcanic islands under white clouds.
With the sun out, we got to see the blueness of the sea.
Teenage girls parade in traditional European dress.
Some of the young women in the parade wore traditional Greek dresses.

After shopping we checked out of the hotel. We had some time to kill and watched a parade of island school children, some in national dress, marching along the main square, carrying flags. After marching the kids formed circles in the street and performed some dances. Turns out today is a national holiday: Ohi (“No”) Day, and so the locals were out enjoying themselves. After the very quiet early morning Fira seemed much busier than it did yesterday.

In the afternoon we rode the bus to Kamari for a short visit to the beach. It was much warmer and less windy down there, but still a bit too cold for bathing. “How can the sea be so blue?” Lore wondered. Our beach visit was more like a short snooze in the black sand. I had some baklava in a beachfront cafe, though.

Blue water washes up on a rocky black sand beach.
I don’t know how that tide pool managed to be so blue on the black sand.

The bus ride to and from Kamari, and our departure from the island showed the more mundane parts of Santorini and Greece. The villages in the lowlands are not obsessively painted. The departure area in the airport was somehow not as nice as the arrival area. Stray dogs wandered around in the terminal, a reminder that Greece is still a Second World country. The classy tourists must come by sea.

Back in the ancient capital, we’re becoming regular experts at getting from the airport to central Athens. Or maybe we just realize how easy it is. The buses and the subway are nice and clean.

We are that fulcrum point of vacation today: when the anticipation and excitement reaches an equilibrium with the realities of beginning the return trip. The memories are starting to outnumber the plans for the rest of the week.

This was a wasted night in Athens. There is not enough time—and we’re too tired—to do anything this evening or tomorrow morning before we fly back to Paris. This will be a day of transition and travel, time to take it easy and give the camera a rest.

Two European capitals

Charles De Gaulle Airport is the ugliest thing I’ve seen so far in Paris. It’s concrete and steel and has ceilings made from some weird plaster covered with mesh netting. It looks like it was designed in the 1960s and is way too small for the amount of traffic it has. We can’t hear the announcements, and there are delays. There was a flight to Nantes before ours that took an hour to board. I doubt it takes an hour to fly to Nantes from here.

But the flight to Athens was on a nice, wide A320 with plenty of baggage space and leg room. The seats are smaller, perhaps because Europeans aren’t as fat as Americans on average, but it worked for us. Air France’s food was quite good.

The Athens International Airport is much nicer than de Gaulle. Metro workers are on strike, so there is no train from the airport, but the city is providing plenty of buses. We are staying in the Koukaki neighborhood, about a 15 minute walk to the Acropolis.

An ancient Greek temple in lights glows against the night sky.
Seeing the Parthenon up there at night made us anxious to visit the next morning.

There are a lot of tourists here even though this is the end of the busy season, including lots of Americans and even some Argentinians. The weather is in the 60s, making a great night for walking around. The Acropolis is lit up from its dark perch on a bluff overlooking the city. All the Greeks here speak English. The city of Athens seems to be lacking in charm except for the stunning ancient ruins sprinkled here and there.

A city plaza at night with ancient buildings lit up on the hill above.
We came upon this lively square below the Acropolis.

We wandered around Plaka, the old neighborhood of central Athens looking for a good place to eat, and found one. I had a very good moussaka, which is like a ground beef, mashed potato, and eggplant layer cake. Our waiter looked at Lore’s unfinished plate of stuffed bell pepper and said, “What?” We assured him it was very good as well. At the next table, amid the several tables of tourists, were some unhurried old Greek men chatting and occasionally bursting into song.

Eiffel Tower

We had a good flight to Paris. Everything was exactly on time with a take-off and a landing so smooth we barely felt them. We did a passable job of transporting ourselves around the city.

A tower casts a long shadow over a large city.
The Eiffel Tower casts a long shadow over Paris.

We needed a nap at the hotel, so we got to our first order of business in the very late afternoon. The Eiffel Tower was crowded and had long lines. It was also very cold and windy. We got to the second level for sunset and to the top as the city lights blinked on in the dusk. The passengers who crammed into the lift car to the top rode in total silence. We heard only the clanking of the lift car cable. Perhaps we were all in awe of the legendary city dropping from the copper-colored steel beams.

When we descended the steps to leave the tower, we were greeted by the legion of immigrants who sell cheap tower souvenirs on the plaza; five for €1, which they could say in many tourist languages. They displayed their wares on cloth blankets with straps, and simply scooped them up in one move as they scattered at the sign of the police, who passed by often.

A man in front of the Eiffel Tower lit in gold at night.
The obligatory Eiffel Tower photo.

By the time we got down it was night and the tower was lit in gold. For a few minutes at 8 o’clock the tower sparkled with thousands of bright white lights like camera flashes. It was literally and figuratively brilliant, as if the tower was taking pictures of us taking pictures of it. An amusing bit of playful mockery, I thought, probably dreamed up by some Paris intellectual to make a statement about spectacle-gawking.

We wrapped up the night with crepes and coffee in Bastille. My crepe had Roquefort cheese and walnuts. The flavor was unbelievable. We didn’t see any strikes or protests, though there were some disruptions to train service. I did see more nudity in five minutes of late night French television than in my whole life on American television.

Flying to Paris

We’re on an American Airlines flight from Chicago to Paris. For a flight to France it’s not very French-friendly. None of the signs are in French and some of the crew don’t speak French.

This is Lore’s first trip to Europe. I was in Paris briefly during a trip to the United Kingdom over six years ago. Jet-lagged and exhausted, I whizzed around Paris seeing the “essentials”: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame of Paris, and the Arc de Triomphe. I hope to have a more lucid visit this time.

Getting home

We are continuing the obstacle course to home. Everything was smooth to Miami, thought I didn’t sleep well on the plane. It was very hot and dry. Miami International Airport was impossibly cold. The air conditioning was going full tilt even though it was only about 75 degrees out.

My brief love affair with Delta is over after the inscrutable delays at the check-in counter. We cleared customs in Miami at about 6:30 a.m. and hung out with my parents until about 11:00 a.m., then we headed over to the Delta counter for our 1:00 p.m. flight. We got our boarding passes at the self-check in kiosk in about ten minutes and then, bam, we got to the end of a nearly immobile baggage drop queue. Whatever time we saved with the self check-in was lost on this line. We ended up going through the slightly less slow curbside check-in, just to drop off our bags. After a long wait at the security control we got to our gate twenty minutes before departure. A short mechanical delay gave us some breathing space and a bathroom break. Otherwise, the flight to Minneapolis has been okay. It is 36 degrees Fahrenheit in Minneapolis. It was 36 degrees Celsius in Córdoba.

I keep thinking about how lucky we were not to travel through Santiago, Chile, even though that was our preference for a connection and we tried really hard to book a connecting flight there. If we had, our flight might have been canceled or changed after the earthquake there.

One more short flight to Moline, then a hour’s drive to Iowa City. Starting from the time we checked out of the hotel on Monday morning, this will be a 36-hour trip home. We are tired.

Layover in BA

We’re on the plane to Miami from Ezeiza, the international airport in Buenos Aires. Everything has been impossible smooth so far. We got to Aeroparque, the airport in B.A. for domestic flights, early. I believe I’ve never gotten my checked baggage back so quickly. Normally we would take the Manuel Tienda Leon shuttle bus for the crosstown trip between airports, but instead they offered us a minivan, which they let us pack to the absolute limit with our bags and my mom’s wheelchair.

Drivers in B.A. are even scarier than in Córdoba, even at slow speeds in heavy traffic; somehow my mom managed to sleep through most of the thrill ride. I rode in cars and taxis a lot more on this trip than in the past. Though automobile travel can be a little more than harrowing (they often ignore stop signs and the speed limits), I’ve concluded that the drivers here aren’t so much bad as they have a very different idea of how much space should be between their cars and other cars, pedestrians, walls, etc.

We have some pesos left over, which we’ll keep for our next trip. We managed to get through these ten days with enough small bills. Argentina doesn’t print many of its smaller denominations (under Ar$50) and change isn’t always easy to come by, so we made a little game out of small change farming.

Last night we stayed up to watch the Academy Awards. An Argentinian film, El Secreto de Sus Ojos, won the award for best foreign language film. It was all over the news this morning.


We arrived in Córdoba early in the morning. Going through customs, my dad missed the agent’s signal to move his bags down for inspection. Instead, he reloaded his bags on his cart after they emerged from the x-ray machine. When the agent found out we were visitors, he just let us pass. My dad has been having a lot of good chuckles about these little “Innocents Abroad” moments.

Lore’s family picked us up at the airport, and then we had breakfast at our hotel. If this was a movie I would be anxious about our parents meeting, but I don’t feel this way. Despite the language barrier, and the bottleneck of conversation as interpretation is funneled through Lore, everyone gets on as well as I expected they would.

We are staying at the Hotel ACA (owned by the Automobile Club of Argentina), which is nice, across from the park, and near downtown. Taxis are inexpensive, less than 10 pesos (Ar$10.00 or about US$2.50) to El Centro. Even though the time is only three hours different from Iowa all the travel has made it hard to get a handle on the time of day. We mostly slept after getting in, then changed some money downtown, then slept some more.

We had picada Friday evening with Lore’s family at their home, which means we ate from plates of cheese, meats, breads, and olives. Argentinians stay up late, so we left well after midnight and slept some more.

Early Saturday morning Lore woke me up, thinking I was somehow shaking the bed. It felt like a gentle rocking and steady rocking as if riding a train, but it lasted for a good minute or so. I’ve been through a few earthquakes before and this would be the longest and strongest. There was no damage to Córdoba but it was a disaster in Chile and is almost the only thing on the news.

I walked around Parque Sarmiento, across from the hotel, Saturday morning. It was warmer than Friday. In the afternoon we visited Lore’s grandmother and aunt. The live in cute old lady house with beautiful antique furniture. Lore’s aunt has a treadle sewing machine, which she uses to make dresses. We have one at work, but it is a museum artifact.

The big event this weekend was the party with Lore’s family and friends to celebrate last summer’s wedding. I’ve met many of Lore’s friends and relatives before, but not all of them. Several said they recognized me from Facebook. Good old Facebook.

I wrote about Argentinian wedding receptions last time; it’s not worth repeating at length, but as always there was lots of:

  1. Meat
  2. Dancing late into the night

My parents were good sports. They stayed up for the whole thing, until it ended at about 4 a.m.

This Sunday is a day of sleeping late and of long naps. “Your culture is killing us,” my dad joked to Lore. After two late nights he was wondering if Argentinians ever slept, but was relieved to hear that Lore’s family was asleep most of the day too.

We went for dinner at Paseo del Buen Pastor. The city seems to be upgrading the busier pedestrian areas to make them more accessible, replacing the high curbs with gently graded gutters and bollards. It was indeed busy; the students who populate the neighborhood were all over the place. Power went out during dinner but then came back on.

Adventures in tipping

We had a slow start in Miami. LAN didn’t open the counters until 9:30 a.m., making sort of joke out of the edict to “get to the airport three hours before international departures.”

All that waiting, though, is to get to a seven hour layover in Lima. We landed shortly before sunset, so I could see that the Peruvian coast has a rugged and barren landscape. That’s about all I saw of Peru besides the airport.

A young man, an employee of the airline pushed my mom’s wheelchair from the plane to the security control. My dad, thinking the young man was done helping us, offered him a tip. He politely declined, but after my mom was through security, continued to assist us. In the elevator he explained that he couldn’t accept tips in front of the security guards. My dad was horrified by the though of getting this nice kid in trouble but thought this probably explained the careful, item-by-item scrutiny of his carry-on bag.

Later, after we had dinner in an airport cafe, my dad mistook the a “1” written in the South American style for a “7” and unwittingly gave the waitress a 33 percent tip. None of us caught that one in time.

We didn’t venture out into Lima because it was getting dark, and because we don’t know the city. I had to rely instead on my surveys of the airport gift shops to learn about Peru. I concluded that Peruvians like to sell llama and cholita souvenirs. A notebook with an illustrated covers might also be illuminating; one had a cartoon of a Spaniard humping an Inca who in turn was humping a llama. There were also a couple of silver shops dealing in jewelry and plateware.