Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Horrible, No, Epic and Unbelievably Long Voyage from San Francisco to Paris

This should have been a routine holiday flight: San Francisco Departure at 7.55 am on Friday Dec. 18 – Washington D.C., Washington D.C. – Paris Arrival Saturday Dec. 19 at 6.35 am. Total trip time: roughly 15 hours.

As it turns out, there are no routine holiday flights. In the end, the voyage lasted 72 hours and 56 minutes, going through 3 planes, two trains, various buses, a ferry boat and a car. Thanks for the ride, United! Here is how this unfortunate series of events unfolded - around the clock.

Friday Dec. 18, 2009
7.55 am (PST): UA 914. Take off. Direction, Washington D.C. Feeling good. We start watching “Four Christmases.”
10.10 am: Captain announcement. Our Boeing 777’s anti-icing machinery is down. The East Coast is snowed in. We are heading into a big snow storm. You do the math. “Four Christmases” sucks. We start our descent after a not-so-reassuring pep talk from the captain: “This is not an emergency landing.”
11.40 am (MST): We land in Denver. Still feeling OK.
12 pm to 1 pm: Various time estimates on how long it will take to fix the plane. The initial 20 minutes turn into an hour, maybe more. If we don’t leave within the hour, we’ll miss our connecting flight to Paris. Who knows then when we’re getting out of D.C.? The D.C. airport is planned to shut down at 9 p.m. EST for severe weather conditions.
1.07 pm: Husband calls United 1K phone line, talks to United staff about alternatives. We’re in luck. United staff can book us on a Denver-Chicago, Chicago-Charlotte, Charlotte-Frankfurt, Frankfurt-Paris. Estimated arrival time: Sunday Dec. 20 in the afternoon.

1.10 pm: We disembark with our cabin luggage. The flight attendant outside the gate can book us a Washington D.C. – London at 10 p.m. EST. Arriving Saturday morning in London sounds better than Sunday in Paris. We can still make our two family Christmas parties in Paris on Saturday night. We book the London flight in case we miss the Paris connection.
1.15 pm: The captain informs us that the repair status of UA 914 is looking better than anticipated. The technical crew may have the missing part in Denver - or we may change planes. Weighing pros and cons.
1.25 pm: Get back on plane. Return to our seats. Girls play dress-up with stuffed animals.
1.28 pm: Captain announcement. Problem can’t get fixed. We are changing planes. Everybody to disembark. By the way, now’s a good time to get lunch. However, please stay close to Gate 35 in case we board early.
1.35 pm: Our quickest lunch option is Mc Donald’s. It’s fast and it’s food – whatever.
1.45 pm: Suddenly we realize we're too far to hear flight announcements. We make a run for Gate 35, fries and chicken salad in hand.
1.50 pm: In front of Gate 35, panting. Everybody’s there. Nothing’s moving. The chicken is chewy.
1.53 pm: International passengers asked to check in with customer service at Gate B27. Husband takes off.
2.30 pm: Husband comes back. The line wasn’t moving. Thirty people ahead of him.
2.31 pm: We commiserate. Husband tries the red carpet club. Line’s got to be shorter…
2.55 pm: Crew announcement. We’ll get back on the initial plane. Problem fixed. Boarding update in 10 minutes.
3.05 pm: On board UA 914 - again. Washington D.C. international connections have been warned. They’ll most likely wait for us.
4.15 pm: So long, Denver. 
6 pm: Crew announcement. Flights for Paris and Frankfurt both left Washington D.C. 
6.10 pm: London flight, you are our only hope.
8.30 pm (EST): Landing in Washington D.C. Husband jumps on London flight attendants to retrieve our seats. “Sir, your name is not on the list.”
8.40 pm: “Sir, we found you. You are on the waiting list.” I look at the screen. 20 seats left on the plane. 200 people trying to change itineraries.
9.45 pm: United manager prints our four boarding passes. Phew. Thank God for the husband’s 1K status. Only glitch. “Once you guys are in London, you are on your own.” On our own? Surely, United doesn't expect us to swim across the Channel with our luggage. Or do they?
10 pm: On board UA 924.
10.08 pm: Crew announcement. We cannot leave yet. The storm is closing in and the plane needs to be de-iced before taking off.
11 pm: Getting antsy. De-icing.
11.30 pm: Glass of water please? More de-icing. 
Midnight: Flight UA 924 departs for London. At last. We are the last flight out before the airport completely shuts down for two days. 

Saturday December 19, 2009 
London time (GMT)
12 pm: Arrival in London.
12.15 pm: The master plan: (1) Husband runs to book seats for Paris, (2)  I recover luggage, (3) We meet by United ticket counter. Nice and square.
11.45 pm: No signs of our luggage. Same 10 suitcases have been looping around for 20 minutes.
12.55 pm: I start filing a lost baggage claim.
1 pm: “Ma’am, your luggage might be in Washington D.C.” Or it might not. I knew it! Green paper, white paper, staple.
1.15 pm: Husband and luggage-less us reconvene. The Channel tunnel is closed. The EuroStar is closed. 100, 000 travelers are stranded in London trying to get across the Channel. There are no seats on flights to Paris either today or tomorrow. Not until Dec. 26, as a matter of fact.
1.16 pm: Two options. We can fly to Brussels on Sunday morning and get to Paris "on our own", or fly to Dusseldorf Sunday afternoon at 5 pm and arrive in Paris at 10 pm. We decide to try Brussels. We’ll overnight at one of the airport hotels. Fancy.
1.45 pm: I call my dad. “Can you please book us four seats on a train from Brussels to Paris tomorrow?”
2.15 pm: Done. We are booked on the 11.13 am train next day from Brussels to Paris.
3 pm: We have our hotel room and meal vouchers. We’ll fly to Brussels with American Airlines. It’s starting to sounds like a vacation. That evening: rather than rotting away in our hotel room, we go to town in London, walk down the Embankment. So nice to be outside of the airport radius.

Sunday December 20, 2009
6.56 am: From hotel, we hop on the Hotel Hoppa shuttle.
8.10 am: Entering the American Airlines gate area. Special security policy: body search for the four of us, including the 4-year-old. Our hand luggage is literally taken apart and re-packed.
8.45 am: Seated on plane.
8.50 am: Crew announcement. The Brussels airport is closed due to inclement weather. We’ll wait an hour for the airport to open up.
8.55 am: Captain announcement. The weather is really bad. Everybody to disembark.
9 am: Back to gate area.
9.40 am: We’ll leave at 11 am.
10:13 am: In Brussels, the train to Paris leaves the station – obviously, without us.
11 am: We’ll leave at 1 pm. Please line up for re-boarding.
11.30 am: Second body search for the four of us, including the 4-year-old. Our hand luggage is – again – taken apart and re-packed, but the woman does a better job than the man and my carry-on won’t close.
11.31 am: All zipped up. Ready to go.
11.40 am: In gate area. The girls are thirsty. Husband feeds a few coins in a vending machine to get water. They simply disappear.
11.50 am: Curse of the restroom. I walk up there when a woman walks back. “The tap doesn’t work but the soap does,” she says, rubbing her foamy hands.
12 pm: I start writing this blog posting on my chair.
12.10 pm: A fellow passenger does push-ups. Not kidding.
12:37 pm: We’ll leave at 3 pm. The attendant warns "it's a very tentative slot."
2.30 pm: Crew announcement. The flight is cancelled. Very tentative indeed. "Please go to Customer Service..." - I've heard that one before.
2.45 pm: We line up with the other passengers at the American Airlines counter. Our 4-year-old falls asleep on a seat. The other one's cranky.
3.15 pm: At the American Airlines counter, they advise us to go to the United counter in a different terminal. We gather both kids and head out.
3.40 pm: At the United counter it's science-fiction. We finally get a ticket for Dusseldorf that afternoon - it gets cancelled within minutes.
3.45 pm: We can opt for a flight late on Monday night via some German-speaking country or get stand-by tickets for Air France flight tonight. Like we stand a chance to get 4 seats on the same flight.
3.50 pm: Argument with United staff. If we get stranded another night, we have to pay for our own lodging, food and transportation. United policies consider we have been sufficiently compensated with a night at a airport hotel. Would you repeat that please?
4 pm: Intense frustration turns to utter despair. We let them issue Air France stand-by tickets but with the Channel Tunnel closed, there's not a hope in a world we'll get through.
4:05 pm: Sod it! We start thinking straight and give up on planes. Direction: the train ticketing counter at a different terminal at Heathrow. We call the ferry in Dover and book 4 tickets for the following morning.
4.30 pm: We are on the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station, then hop on the Bakerloo subway line to Charing cross.
7.09 pm: On the train to Dover Priory. Yeepee! At last we're moving in some direction.
9.30 pm: We take a cab to the Wallett's Court Countryhouse Hotel in Dover, a very charming lodging option and the last one that still had rooms in Dover. Obviously, a lot of the air and train trafic did wonders for the Dover ferry business.

Monday December 21st, 2009
6.50 am: It snowed last night. The radio announces more railway closures and ferry delays. We look at each other. Could this turn awry too? We don't deserve this. The cab shows up on time and takes it super-easy on the road. Conditions are icy and slippery. It's definitely not a good day for a road accident.
 7.30 am: We line up to take a bus at the P&O Ferries counter.
8 am: The bus takes us to a giant ferry on the docks.
8.45 am: The ferry leaves England. We call my dad. He's driving from Paris to pick us up in Calais.
9.30 am: Slightly queasy. Travel motion pills don't help.
11.30 am (GMT + 1): In Calais, France! We consider doing like the Pope and kissing the ground but it's muddy snow and we just want to get out of there.
1 pm: My dad picks us up while we're having lunch in Calais.
4:26 pm: Paris, our final destination.

The trip is over. It takes a while to sink in. Over. We've been away for three days, have only had one warm meal outside of plane meals and airport sandwiches, and we are finally getting to our holiday destination. 

Time to unpack. Husband calls United to recover our luggage. Looks at me, speechless. United lost our luggage... 

Lord, have mercy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas at Sea at the San Francisco Maritime Historical Park

Christmas at Sea is a yearly event organized at the Hyde Street Pier historic ships with sailors and their families dressed as in 1901. Why 1901? David Hirzel, head of the program, sea poet and author, gave me the answer: although the ships in the park operated at different times, the one year in which they all could conceivably have moored at a single pier in San Francisco is 1901. So from 6 to 9pm on December 12, 2009 or 1901, Sam the nightwatch took 14 visitors on a round of all the ships by lamplight. The program featured musicians, sailors, toy makers, the captain and his wife, and a puppet pantomime. Like all living history events at Hyde Street Pier, it was a great reminder of a fact long forgotten: San Francisco was built to be a port.

On Saturday in the afternoon, I went over to the visitor center and reserved a time slot. There wre a few cancellations so I got in easily. At 7.20 pm I showed up promptly at the gate. The uneven pavement was still wet from the day's downpour. Cablecars decked up with strings of colorful lights honked at the corner of Hyde and Polk, transporting their loud lot of revelers. The ranger on duty circled the number next to my name on the list of 14 signed up on the tour. A few minutes late and fresh off the previous tour, Sam the watchman arrived. Beret on the head, lamp in hand, and talking of 1901 as if it were yesterday.

We first stopped at the boathouse on the pier. Sam introduced our group as his relatives and we were ushered in by two elegant ladies, a mother and her daughter. Inside against the wall, an upright piano held a center place next to the tree, and all around the room, low couches, chairs and tea tables.

Our hostess sighed that their real home was up on the hill but this year they were down at the boathouse. Why? An electrician showed up that morning and spent the day wiring up a tree with little glass bulbs so the house would have an electric Christmas tree, just like the one that made its appearance in the White House in 1895.

An electric Christmas tree in 1901 - that must
have caused quite a stir in the community even if by then San Francisco was by and large electrified.

There were four boys in the audience and to reinforce her point, our hostess showed them how trees were lit before electricity. At the tip of her fingers, she held candle holders on clips and tiny tapers. Then she showed us oranges she brought to decorate the house. I thought of clove orange pomanders the way I used to make as a kid. The tiny boat house felt wonderfully cozy and I wished we would have stayed there by a fire.

Since there were so many of us, Gene the daughter offered to rehearse the puppet pantomime she was to perform that night. It was "The Blue Bird" a fairy tale part of the "Sleeping Beauty" ballet, whose music had been composed by a young Russian man, Pyotr Tchaikovski. Now, I regretted I didn't have my girls with me. I had no idea it was going to be so much fun. Alas the next group was already on the house's steps and we followed Sam out, to the Eureka ferryboat.

It was pitch dark and we walked in a few puddles all right. "Hold on to the hand rail!" warmed Sam as we walked up the stairs to the second floor where a surprise was awaiting us. Through the windows, we could make a few people in elegant attire as well as a

harpist playing on a bench. A Christmas party for us! They were indeed waiting for us to sit on the benches and join in their celebration. The children were asked to find an ornament to put on the tree. We each got a booklet with lyrics to Christmas carols and I have to say, it's that singing moment that got me into the Christmas spirit for the first time this year. Accompanied by the harpist, "Deck the Hall" and "Jingle Bells" felt very sincere.

Just as I thought we were going to move on, a woman stood up and started reading a story. It was a Victorian Christmas story "that just came out" in the Ladies Home Journal about a little girl in the mines of Colorado. Because of a blizzard, her mining community suffered many shortages. The girl longed for a real doll and worried that Santa Claus wouldn't be able to go down the chimney because of the fire. After several attempts at directing Santa to their house not through the chimney, the girl's father removed a windowpane and a miner wrote with charcoal on a plank on the snow "Go through the window."
The next morning, the little girl woke up to find the most beautiful doll in her stocking. It was made out of white potatoes, flour sacks and salt bags. All the 16 miners had agreed to not eat the potatoes and carve them instead so the little girl would have a real Christmas. Wasn't that sweet? I love it even more when I know it was a true story. We said goodbye and under a steady drizzle, headed towards the three-masted Balclutha.

A carpenter (or toy maker) greeted us on the deck and showed us tops he had been making when bored of being docked. They were wooden tops with a string to launch them on a surface. Clever simple tops. The boys were delighted when they each got to take one home. In the forecastle (the foc'sle), three sailors told us the story of their daily life aboard the ship. Twenty eight sailors slept in the non-heated bunk beds and the only mattresses they had were filled with hay at the beginning of each trip. Of course they had spent all their money in San Francisco and had no money left for a Christmas tree so they made one. Indeed, blade in hand, two of them were chipping away on bits of wood to complete the tree. Up on the bare wood branches hung star fish, lids of cans pierced with designs and ornaments made out of a ship's biscuit.

Made with flour, water and salt, the ship's biscuit is not exactly your San Francisco foodie biscuit. It's hard as rock and needs to be pounded to be used as thickener in meals. The three sailors had borrowed money and bought powdered jam, mixed it with pounded ship's biscuit and convinced the cook to bake it for them. Et voila, cracker hash! We all had a taste and I cannot say that I went for seconds. It's probably great if it's the only sweet thing you can have, but otherwise it's sticky, chewy and sweet. Our next stop was the captain's cabin so we went outside to get to it. I noticed the lighthouse blinking on Alcatraz across the bay. That night was not a night to swim. Now the rain replaced the drizzle and we all made for the cabin pretty fast. This was to be our last stop as I had to leave before the culminating chantey sing and hot cocoa. The captain's wife had been shopping at the City of Paris and Bloomingdale's and brought back bottles of liquor and wine in shoe boxes. In Victorian days, a woman getting out of a store with liquor was not proper so stores provided shoe boxes as a subterfuge. We heard about plum duff, a sailing ship boiled cake, about the carpenter who made a tree out of wood shavings and painted it green, about the captain reading the good book to his crew. It was delightful.

I had to leave but I promised myself I would find it if there were more of these programs. As it turns out, they occur on the second Saturday of almost each month between March and December so keep your eyes peeled for the Living History Players events in 2010. They will be:

March 13, 2010: Suffragette march
April 10, 2010 : "Make and Mend" and a recreation of a "Crossing the Line" ceremony
May 8, 2010: President McKinley's Visit (He came to SF in 1901)
June 12, 2010: June 1901 Wedding in recent years, a chautauqua for 2010
July 10, 2010: Recreate the July 1901 waterfront strike August: No special event, as most (not all) LH Players are travelling
September 11, 2010: 1901 Swimsuits and picnic on the beach
October: No program, Fleet Week makes it too noisy
November 13, 2010: Ladies' Seamen's Friend Society event
December 11, 2010: "Old Time Maritime Christmas"

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Rombeiro's Christmas House: 34 Devonshire Drive, Novato

It's very simple: there is no other house in the world like the Rombeiro's in Novato, north of the Golden Gate Bridge. At least, that's what the owner, Ed Rombeiro, says with a Santa hat, beard and plush red jacket in front of his Christmas Wonderland house. Every evening from the first Saturday of December through the New Year's, from 6 to 10pm, the Rombeiro's turn on the power switch to 100,000 light bulbs through the entire house. There's a neon sign outside that says "Open" and it means just that. Please come inside the house and visit every single room except the master bedroom. Now, that is something.

I first read about that house on SFGate through a 2005 article entitled Merry Glitzmas. I knew that some people went all out decking the hall but opening their house to the public? That sounded crazy. I needed to see it by myself. Arriving on Devonshire Drive in Novato, there were already some pretty nicely decorated front yards. However the number 34 outdoes everything I've ever seen in suburbia - with a completely personal take on the holiday house. For the personal, Mr. Rombeiro greets people in front of his house with a smile and welcome phrase. Inside the house, his cousin and nephew docent and hand candy canes to visitors. Just to give an idea of the popularity of the house, last year they went through 40,000 candy canes. Now for the aesthetics.

The front yard is entirely covered with fake snow, twinkle lights and blow-up snowmen, complete with a spinning carousel, animatronics and my girls favorite feature, a lighted mailhouse that opened to display a small Santa.

As you walk in, there's barely an inch on the walls, ceilings and floors that isn't covered in Christmas-related regalia. Totally impressive. The first room drew oohs and aaahs from my girls and with eyes wide open, they walked on the rug trying to take in the Christmas extravaganza. As we progressed, our eyes meandered from decorated dining tables to teddy bear fireplaces, from Santa chairs to Joy floormats. My friend wasn't exaggerating when she told me it was Christmas down to the butter dish. It's down to the floor mats.

The ceilings, though taking a back seat in terms of visual overload, are as decorated as the rest of the surfaces. It's a storm of Christmas balls, ribbons, wreaths, candy canes and icicles hanging above your heads as you explore the underworld. The train room with a car-size snow village set up got my girls glued stiff in front of the white picket fence during a very long time. It's a room any child or adult would find absolutely fantastic. There is so much detail, so much going on everywhere you turn your head that you could easily stay there an hour and still discover new scenes. In the same vein as the grand display at San Francisco's Hyatt Regency in the lobby, this huge snowy lansdcape has skiers sliding down slopes, children making snow angels, skaters gliding on ice rinks, snowboards snowboarding. You get the idea. Winter wonderland, again. Last but not least, the really interesting part of the house tour consists of the two back rooms.

Azores Traditions
The Rombeiro's are from the Azores, that Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean smack in the middle between Europe and America. Being Portuguese, it is heavily Roman Catholic. To honor their native island called San Miguel, the Rombeiro's dedicate one of the rooms to the San Cristo de la Las Milagres, a spring festival that includes a procession of the saint Senhor Santo Cristo through town followed by street festivities. The festival is very important in the life of the island. So if you go to Novato, do check out that room and listen to the commentary of the Santa Elf that night. I talked with a cousin who described the beauty of her island and Sete Cidades, two mountain lakes side by side, one green and one blue. If I could, I'd be on a plane tomorrow. As a Christmas parallel to the Rombeiro's origins, the next room displays a lavish Nativity scene with enough angels and archangels to outnumber any army of snowmen. This, to me, represents the essence of the house. Ed Rombeiro may be dressed up as Santa in California, but the Azores remain his origins and he is proud of them.

Candy canes!
After the two last rooms, each person who's on the good list - everyone is - receives from another Santa Elf a nice big candy cane. As far as my girls, the candy canes lasted 5 minutes. I went to thank Ed Rombeiro for his house. He is a very gracious man. There is a little donation box his house so I left a bank note for his electricity bill. Which brings me to the white elephant.

End notes
Understandably, the Rombeiro's have been featured on all local newstations and newspapers. Could they just call it quits one year and let their decorations gather dust? I mean, the electricity bill must be as impressive as the display. The tour is free. I asked Ed Rombeiro if he had LED lights and he laughed saying they were too expensive and it would be a waste to get rid of all his equipment. Fair enough, he's well geared up. So Ed and his family will probably continue to wake up one August morning and say "Let's get the Christmas stuff out!" Because that's when they start each year: in August to be ready in December. Darn, I would hate to do the storage part in January but hats down to the over-the-top Rombeiro's Christmas house.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Bay Area Family's Traditions

On Thanksgiving day, we were invited to the family dinner of a friend of mine. I'll call her family the Greens. When I say that they rented a youth camp for their family dinner for Turkey Day, people go "What?" Yes, the Greens are a large family. Make it five siblings here, five cousins there, children, spouses, parents, uncles, aunts, handful of friends. Give or take 80 people present.

Aside from the anecdote, the real reason I want to write about the Greens is their incredible family traditions. Here are four generations of a family getting together three or four times a year, just for fun - not only for funerals. No matter how far people live, no matter how too-cool-for-school they are, they all get together and enjoy the moment.

Halloween Pumpkin Carving Party
It all starts in October with a pdf flyer emailed to a long list of Greenses. One of the cousins throws a pumpkin carving party in San Francisco. On the face of it, it sounds pretty easy but you still need to find a space to get them all together with food, drinks and music. This year, it was a picnic area at the Golden Gate Park. I got there pumpkin in hand at 3pm. There were already dozens of Greeneses carving away, chatting, eating and drinking. Tables were set up with kids activities, Jack'o Lanterns pattern books, carving tools and bins for composting. It was only the middle of the afternoon but the party went strong into the night since the idea is to light the Jack'o Lanterns. Last year the Greens gave their own version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre on pumpkins in a backyard. No harm was done for purposes other than to carve impressive designs.

Thanksgiving Dinner
As we've seen, Thanksgiving is a challenge: the 80-people sit-down dinner indoors. The youth camp option has a lot of pluses: professional kitchen with several ovens and twin-bed size fridges; outdoor space to run around; two outdoors fire pits, one fireplace inside; public restrooms outside; big parking lot; cabins in the hills for overnighters. Again, the shindig starts with a pdf invitation emailed to the Greens family. The invitation sets the mood right away: "When: Thanksgiving Day (duh!) - around noon (dinner starts at 2pm)." Leave your formal self at home please! It was a potluck Thanksgiving and as the invitation predicted, it worked out just great. Catch of the day: 3 turkeys, 2 hams, fireworks at nightfall. Even the teens and younguns didn't leave right after dinner. That's sayin' a lot.

Christmas Tree Beach Bonfire
That's the January Greens family Burning Man project. Everybody brings their dried-out pine trees to Ocean Beach in the evening. It's pitch dark, kind of cold. Kids play in the sand. One of the Greenses is in charge of cooking the cioppino, this San Franciscan seafood stew right on the beach. Others barbecue oysters. The rangers come occasionally to check that the Greenses have their bonfire permit - which they do. Flames go up high in the sky and it feels warmer. We gravitate around the fire depending on the winds, like everybody else. It's a great night to be out on the beach across from the Beach Chalet.

When the Greens are in great shape, they also organize a July 4th camping weekend in the sierras. As you can see, these guys sure know how to throw a party. How's that for traditions? (by the way, the photos are blurred because I intend to get re-invited. It's not because my camera's autofocus is kaputt.)