American (Hot) Air

American Airlines rewarded me this week for the nice comments I made about their airline on Twitter.

Don’t get excited. It was a voucher for $25 which, given their exorbitant prices, is enough to buy me one inch of taxiing time on the runway before take-off.

I have a chequered history with the airline. A few years back, they were spectacularly unhelpful when my entire life’s worth of jewellery was stolen. AA had insisted I check in my hand baggage and I remembered, too late, that all my jewellery was in there as I was taking it away to be cleaned. The lot went. It was devastating – not just because of what it was worth, but because I lost so many pieces of huge sentimental value. AA could not have cared less. A deaf mute would have been more reassuring.

But I was willing to give them another chance (only thanks to their excellent Twitter staff), and my gift came as a result of Tweeting that the new planes, which fly East to West Coast, really are the best in the business. It’s the only airline that offers a truly First Class cabin: individual pods that are bigger than my bathroom, and gourmet food. The airline is also blessed with pilots who keep passengers well informed in advance of any turbulence that might be imminent. As a nervous flyer, the latter is particularly important.

Once airborne, however, it all goes horribly wrong. Maybe it’s because AA is a sister airline to snooty British Airways (don’t even get me started on them); maybe it’s because the staff training instructs them never to laugh; maybe it’s because they have all been in their jobs so long, they just resent every moment. Or maybe they’ve just watched too much Downton Abbey. I suspect the latter: what else could account for their behaving like airborne Lord Granthams and treating me like the scullery maid?

This trip started well. The Admirals Club lounge at JFK airport is outstanding. Does any other lounge have Bollinger champagne (probably Emirates, but that’s way out of my Air Miles range)? I treated myself to one glass (I don’t like to drink too much when flying – dehydration and jet-lag are not a good combination) and was in a good mood when I boarded.

Good, until I sat down and a metal panel by the side of my seat fell open and cut my foot because there was a screw that had not been tightened. The crew could not have been less interested but said they would report it.

The second crew member in First (I was lucky enough to have accumulated enough points for this) was pleasant enough, if a little obsequious (very BA style). Take-off went smoothly enough, but the first sign of resentment came when I asked for a set of headphones.

Clearly, I had breached some ludicrous etiquette that dictated headphones (Bose, no less) cannot be given out at an altitude below 30,000 feet, but the crew were up and about in the cabin, so it didn’t seem like a big deal. He (let’s call him Pete, to disguise his identity) practically threw them at me.

And so, to the TV system. It’s terrible. I was catching up on series four of House of Cards, and a  loud buzzing noise was more pronounced every time a character talked softly (which Robin Wright does. A lot). I mentioned it to Pete, who moved me to another seat, but the same problem occurred.

Then, during viewing, the system decided to rewind, fast forward, pause, and play up in all manner of ways. Pete could not hide his irritation but agreed to re-set it. This made no difference and I discovered that the handset had a mind of its own; although I was using the touch screen, the handset had other ideas and was in aggravating mode.

But let’s rewind (a bit like the handset). I had pre-ordered my main course but was given a choice of starters. I ordered the salad with “roasted beets”. Now, I’m not a huge beets fan but can manage them if they aren’t pickled or boiled. The salad, beautifully presented, arrived. The beets were boiled. Horrible. I politely asked to change it and explained why. “You didn’t read the menu properly, did you?” said an exasperated Pete. I said nothing and ate my smoked salmon replacement quietly. Fearfully. I actually hate smoked salmon.

The main course arrived almost without incident, but when it came to choosing the wine, I said that I didn’t like Californian. “I’m from California,” snapped Pete. I really don’t give a flying ferret where you’re from, Pete; I just want a glass of wine that is not going to require chloroform in order for me to get it down my neck.

That said, the meal (chicken, kale quinoa and roasted sprouts (yes, really roasted – talk to your beets guy) was delicious; I just wasn’t that hungry and had to leave some of it. “You really are stuffed,” said Pete, despondently taking it away.

When I asked for a second bottle of water, you’d think I had declared war. “Another one?” “Yes, I get dehydrated when I fly,” I (again) politely explained. Pete wanted to take my half full glass away, but I explained I hadn’t finished it yet. “It’s going to spill when we fly into LA,” he argued. We were, at this point, about two hours from landing. I like water. What can I say?

Earlier, I had gone to the rest room and, on my return, asked for another glass of Spanish wine. “You’ll have to sit down to drink it,” said an ever more exasperated Pete. “This isn’t a bar.” No shit, Sherlock! Do I look like someone who’s only ever flown on the back of a pigeon?

It’s not the first time I’ve had – or seen – problems with First Class (and Business) on American. I fly all the time, on many different airlines, but the superior attitude on both AA and BA is something to behold. Neither airline offers great deals, but when flying First, I expect to be treated with respect (as, indeed, every passenger should be, regardless of class of travel), not like an errant child who is too nervous to raise her hand for fear of causing offence.

I am the customer here, American, and I wish as much attention went into staff training as has gone into your fancy new designs.

By the way, the cut on my leg from said new design is healing nicely, should you be interested. No. I thought not.


Don’t Follow the Leader

I’ve always been a leader, not a follower.

That’s not because I believe I have any great leadership skills; I just don’t trust anyone else to take me to the right destination, either physically or metaphorically. It’s probably the reason I’ve never been married. If you can’t trust someone to walk you down the aisle, it doesn’t bode well for a future with what’s waiting at the altar.

People tend to follow me, though. Again, not because I possess any great skill, but because I carry my actions through with such conviction, everyone thinks I must be doing the right thing. That’s how 250 people, following me off a plane, landed up in a dead end in Malaga airport. Incredibly, upon reaching the dead end, they all followed me back the way we had come, as, despite my error, I marched forth once more with Alamo like conviction.

I was less lucky when landing at John F Kennedy airport recently, following a Virgin America internal flight from Los Angeles to New York. It’s my third least favourite airport in the world (after Charles de Gaulle and Miami) and I try to fly in and out of Newark, which is more accessible to where I live in New York.

But JFK was unavoidable on this occasion, and so, being the first to leave the plane (as per usual), I marched off forcefully, my troops (as per usual, again) scurrying up the rear in the belief that I knew where I was going.

That’s the last thing I remember before my hysteria was pressing a metal bar on a door and I found myself alone on the other side. My troops had deserted me. I went to carousel six, which is where the announcer had told us to go, but not only were there no people I recognised from my flight, there were no bags.

There were, however, lots of officials telling me I had to join a long queue, but then directing me to a tiny queue when I explained I had Global Entry (which enables you to cut all queuing at US airports – it’s a joy). Now the fun really began: I had a Domestic flight ticket but was, inexplicably, in the International Arrivals area, and so wasn’t allowed out. I wasn’t allowed anywhere, in fact. This was it. Groundhog Day: destined to roam the corridors of JFK for eternity.

What’s a girl to do? Cry. That’s what. And I did. Sobbed. Blubbed. Uncontrollably. I stopped anyone wearing a uniform to try to explain my fate. One female in security was unsympathetic and all but had me deported on the spot. But then there were men. Lovely, lovely men, who were a great deal more understanding. I fell upon their mercy and sobbed some more.

“My luggage, where’s my luggage?” I wailed, with the kind of escalating enthusiasm one would normally reserve for a lost child.

More hunky security and police gathered around, all incredibly solicitous and really, really kind. One had managed to obtain a film of what had happened and showed me. It transpired the fault had not been mine, but that of Virgin America, who, as the evidence clearly showed, had ushered us towards the wrong exit.

“What I don’t understand,” said Man with Film, pointing to my figure storming purposefully through the door, “is what happened to all these other people behind you.”

Me neither, mate. Me neither.

Now, they all got very excited. They said they would be fining Virgin America. I, too, was now very excited, and, out of gratitude, watched the movie for a third time. But now the concern was how my followers had vanished in the Narnia of JFK.

Still crying about my luggage, which, given my history, I was sure had been stolen, I was escorted back to Domestic Arrivals, where my red case stood outside the Virgin America office, a lone surviving soldier at the end of a long battle.

So, what did I learn from this?

  1. Stop being a control freak and follow someone who really does know where they are going.
  2. Men will rescue you if you cry long and hard enough.
  3. Tears don’t work on women.
  4. JFK now beats Charles de Gaulle and Miami as the worst airport in the world.
  5. Doors at airports are closed for a reason.
  6. Virgin America’s trolley service is better than its geographical landing procedure.
  7. There is nothing quite so lonely as an empty carousel.
  8. When the going gets tough, everyone will desert you.
  9. You can always find more tears, when necessary.
  10. I love men. Did I mention that?

My next flight was with Virgin Atlantic back to the UK. I was second off the plane. Follow that man!

The Cleanest Bottom in Hollywood

Wolfgang’s toilet.

They’re not two words I ever expected to write in the same sentence, but the receptacle of which I speak has to be one of the seven great wonders of modern technology (on a list that includes the Eurostar and the i-Pad).

Wolfgang’s Steakhouse is one of my favourite haunts in Beverly Hills: a large steak restaurant with a long bar down one side, and delightful staff that never make me feel less than hugely welcome.

It has delightful and soothing piano music, some really good European wines (difficult to find in LA, with its excess of California plonk, which I loathe), and a sociable clientele who make it easy to make friends if you’re sitting by yourself.

But the toilet. Oh, the toilet.

The first thing that strikes you is how warm the seat is. It’s like going back to the womb; that, in itself, makes you reluctant to get off.

But then there are the various dials to your right on the wall: the first two say “REAR CLEANSING”, with five small vertical dots under the one, and four dots and the word “SOFT” written under the second button.

Next comes “FRONT CLEANSING”, with two sets of four dots in a diamond shape underneath. Then you have “PRESSURE” and “POSITION”, with a plus at the top and a minus below. I tell you: the place is a veritable theatre.

I didn’t know which bits to wash first, nor (not having entertained myself in this manner before), how much pressure to go for.

Was it like an Indian restaurant, where you ordered the Vindaloo and then realised, too late, that you had over-estimated how strong your constitution was?

Then there was position to consider. Did you have to take the size of your rear end into consideration when deciding whether to sit more towards the front or back of the seat? Or did the position button take care of all that for you?

In the time it was taking me to weigh up my options, a lengthy queue was doubtless forming outside the door, impatient customers who had yet to discover what an adventure the emptying of one’s bladder and bowels could be.

In the end, I tried all options. I could take the Vindaloo force on front wash, but had to take it easy on non-soft rear wash, which, on full pressure, made me feel as if an elephant had decided to empty its trunk into my back passage.

Front cleansing was an easier and far more pleasurable operation altogether, but then that was something I had already learned long ago.

The only thing I didn’t manage to do was flush the damned thing. When I put the lid down, the array of lights and paraphernalia turned the bowl into the Star Ship Enterprise. I pressed, I tapped, I looked in vain for a flush, but nothing.

When I questioned the staff about this (adding my compliments to the plumber) upon my return to the restaurant (days later, it seemed, and a lot cleaner than when I had gone in), I was assured that even if you haven’t managed to work out the logistics, it flushed automatically once you left the cubicle.

It wasn’t until I got back to my seat that I realized I hadn’t actually done the very thing I had gone in there for – namely, the evacuation of my supper; there were just too many other things to do.

Quite what President Elect Donald Trump would think of it all is anybody’s guess. California is almost always suffering from a water shortage for some time now (so many Kardashians with grounds to sprinkle), and if the entertainment offered by Wolfgang’s toilet starts attracting bigger audiences than it already does, that shortage is only going to worsen.

I suppose they could try using the same water, recycling it and purifying it in some way, but I suspect that would probably negate the “cleaning” part of the operation.

I’m also curious as to what goes on in the men’s room at Wolfgang’s. Presumably, they have the same bowl and dials for longer performances, but I’m curious as to what their urinal is like.

Is there a small shower for testicle cleansing, a foreskin wash, added pressure for the less sensitive circumcised organ? Do men have to change position according to the size of their anatomy? Do very large penises have to be done in shifts?

There are so many unanswered questions about Wolfgang’s toilet, but at least I have information about the most important one – can I get one installed in my apartment?

Apparently, they cost only about $1500, which, when you compare it to the price of going to the theatre, is a really good deal, considering how many toilet performances you are going to attend in your lifetime.

I’m going to ask my landlords to look into it and try to convince them of the benefits of having the cleanest tenant on the block.

And, when it’s installed, I might invite my 25 year old Italian neighbour to the premier. Maybe we can share a Cornetto in the interval.

Ready for my close-up? You bet. I already feel flushed with success.

Single Supplements Extra (Hassle)

Business travel at a fraction of the cost.

The French boutique airline, La Compagnie, which in June 2016 started operating flights between New York, London and Paris, appears to have it all – until you try to register on their site. As I travel between all three places and enjoy my creature comforts, when I tried to sign up I discovered I couldn’t, as there were just two options: Mr or Mrs.

As a single woman, I have always refused to tick the “Miss” box on any application form, for one simple reason: no man is ever asked to tick “Master” or “Mister” i.e. a man is never asked to declare whether he is married or not. While many sneer at “Ms”, it is, to me, entirely correct. The only reason women were ever required to declare their marital status was because, as singles, they were deemed unable to have the resources to pay their bills: having a man as an appendage made a woman reliable (allegedly. They’ll learn).

I had this argument with British Telecom some years back in the UK, when they asked if I was a Miss or a Mrs. I refused to tell them and questioned whether men were required to say if they were single or married. Of course, they were not.

La Compagnie also offers special deals, yet the current ones are all “for two” – check out their current Valentine’s Day special. I have no partner, I travel alone, yet always find myself excluded from the things I enjoy the most. I can’t, for example, have the Chateaubriand or the paella “for two” in a restaurant. I once ordered the latter and said I would pay the full price, but was refused on the grounds that it would be “too much for one person”. No amount of my arguing that I would just leave half of it would persuade the waiter to help me part with my money. I very much doubt they would have treated a man with the same gastronomic contempt. I ended up with a pork chop. For one.

Single women, especially ones in the over 50s bracket, are still perceived as weirdos when out alone or, at best, second class citizens. In San Francisco one lunchtime last year, I was pointed to a really nice table in the middle of the restaurant, only to be bumped when the maitre d’ spotted a couple behind me in the queue. She then told me I could sit at the bar or outside. The bar was overcrowded; the outside seat had a great view of Alcatraz (possibly the only time anyone has wanted to escape to the prison). I left without eating and phoned to make a complaint.

“We really don’t treat women like that,” said the manager. “You just did,” I pointed out, adding that the couple who took my table probably had a green salad between them and a jug of tap water. I would have had champagne, wine, three courses, and probably still been in there when dinnertime came around, to begin the routine all over again.

It is hard enough being single in a world where travel companies continue to charge single supplements, tax breaks benefit couples, and society as a whole celebrates and fawns over marriage, without having to deal with the anti-singles and/or anti-ageist frustrations socially. I happen to be a big fan of marriage: I come from a very stable background and am lucky enough to have had a loving mother and father who could not have been better parents. It just hasn’t worked out that way for me. I’m not bitter about it; I don’t really think about it, unless I am asked. I have a wonderful family, incredible friends and, for all its obstacles, a better life than most people in the world. I am truly blessed.

But I still get treated like a social leper as a single, older woman. Most married couples don’t include you at their social functions unless they have a recently divorced/largely unmarketable/psycho man in their circle that they might be able to palm off on you. Then there are the practical difficulties to deal with when you are out. If you have to go to the toilet when you are in a restaurant, you have limited choices: leave your stuff at the table and return to find it removed by a waiter who thinks you have done a runner, or have it stolen by a passer-by.

The third option – asking the people at the next table to keep an eye on your things – attracts the kind of looks you might get had you handed them a rifle and asked them to commit armed robbery in your absence.

It’s not as if I haven’t tried to meet someone who will split the Chateaubriand with me, but it hasn’t gone well. I recently attended a gathering of singles, where a French hobbit grappled with my friend’s right breast in what appeared to be an attempt to secure her stick-on name badge. He was 103, if he was a day. Next, a walrus appeared at my side, claiming to be a criminal psychologist. The walrus was also in the early stages of dementia, because he asked me my name five times.

There was also an attempt to entertain us by a ‘close-up magician’, who tried to hypnotise us with non-existent snake oil. We had to imagine our hands were glued together with said oil and then try to pull them apart, the premise being that we wouldn’t be able to. Er, we did.

The truth is, that if a man is single and older, there is usually something wrong with him (all the good ones really are taken); but if a woman is single and older, the chances are that she has had the good sense and guts to ditch the men who have that something wrong with them. That’s not to say there aren’t strange women out there (heck, I know some guys who would categorise me as that) but, for the most part, there are far more bright, sharp, funny women on the market than there are men.

Unless you act fast to secure Windows 2018 by August (you have to look out early for those inevitable Christmas break-ups), you’re going to miss out on the good guys next time around, too.

So, as I sit contemplating my Chateaubriand and paella free lifestyle while planning my travel over the next few months, I’m going to suggest to you, Sir Richard Branson, entrepreneur, enabler and grand empowerer of people, that you get behind my campaign to get great deals for single, older women. I can’t think of anyone better to have on our side, and all it needs now is for me to sign off.

Yours, hopefully, Jaci Stephen (Ms).

Older, Not Dead Yet Travels – Introduction

A few things start happening to you when you hit 50. In your head, you’re still 28, but to the outside world, you’re 98. The normal pitch of talking you have enjoyed for five decades is replaced by people shouting to within two inches of your face, and a slowness of pace usually reserved for foreigners who don’t understand a word of English. Age, it seems, carries with it the assumption of deafness, if not stupidity.

Nowhere is the change of attitude more apparent than when traveling and this is why I have decided to write this blog, soon to be followed by a website (Not There Yet Travel), dedicated to the older traveler (I will be keeping to mostly US spellings throughout, so please, no admonitory missives) . Note: NOT OLD. I am a healthy, sprightly 58, yet when I hit the big Five O, I went from being “Miss” to “Madam” on airlines; ordering a pint of lager at an airport bar was greeted with looks of disdain; being an older, single woman, traveling alone, I was perceived as someone who (A) was lonely (B) had never been able to land a man (C) had managed to kill one off, or (D) was very rich as a result of either B or C.

Heaven forbid that I should enjoy my hard-earned money spending it on the thing I love most – traveling the world; meeting new people; sharing food, wine, experiences, and learning about other cultures. The horror, the horror!

Post 50, particularly in the UK, one is expected to crawl into a hole and wait patiently for death (the people waiting for it to happen wait impatiently, of course). It’s less true, I have found, in the US, where age tends to equal experience, which is valued (I’ve also found the same in France and Spain, both countries that revere their ageing populations).

I refuse to become one of life’s moles. Within the past eight years, I have traveled more than I ever have. Recently, I became mortgage free and intend to travel a great deal more in the future. At the start of my 50s, I met a woman on a cruise (I was writing a feature for a newspaper’s travel pages) who said: “You should travel while you’ve got your health.” That comment hit home like no other, and I have been on the move ever since.

The average age of retirement for Americans is 63, which is incredibly young by today’s standards, and there is a lot of living to be done, even at the end of one’s working life (alas, in the UK, the age appears to rise).

And so, I’m going to be writing about my own adventures and welcome the opportunity to hear about others’, too. Walking, climbing, sailing, flying . . . The world is still waiting; the waiting room can wait.

We may be getting older, but we’re not dead yet – and where there are Air Miles, there is life.

Beam me up, Scotty.