Flying with scissors

November 27, 2011

This month, I went to Finland for a work conference.  Every now and again, it is fun to travel on company expenses. I don’t fuss about prices and I always order a starter, a dessert and fillet steak for mains.  One time, I rode in the back seat of a taxi and the driver apologized for taking an awkward, congested route while the meter ticked on.  I shrugged, leaned between the front seats and said, ‘Sir, to be honest, I couldn’t give a hoot.  I’m on expenses.’

Sadly, I am not high enough up the corporate food chain to travel business class.  I have upgraded beyond The Curtain on three international flights by cashing in my lifetime’s supply of personal air miles.  My business class trips rank as one of the highlights of my life so far.  The first time I upgraded, I slept through 80% of the flight and woke up tearful and furious with myself for blanking out during such a rare and precious experience.

Long haul flights in business class are not long enough.  The problem with sampling business class is that it makes the fall back to ordinary life in economy so much more painful.  Now I know what I am missing and I struggle to gracefully endure the dead legs and neck spasms from the dribbly, head-lolling dozes that are synonymous with economy.

As long as I am not indefinitely delayed by ash clouds, airline crew strikes or bad weather, I like airports.  Some are better than others.  The new Johannesburg airport is the most vibrant and entertaining whereas Dubai is sheer torture.  Each time I have connected through Dubai in the dead of night, all seats have been taken and I have rested standing up as if I’m a flamingo.

In the airports on the way to and from Finland, my colleagues clung to their Blackberries and emailed with quick, squirrel-like gestures while I sat back and soaked up the atmosphere.  Airports are the best places for people-watching.  There is constant buzz and anticipation.  Airports are one of the few places where you see raw, uninhibited emotion in the extremes.  People are sad in Departures and happy in Arrivals and they are not afraid to show it.  I love watching families and friends fall into each other’s arms in the international arrivals hall.  It gives me perspective and reminds me that loving relationships matter most in life.

As a child, I imagined I would work in the airline industry and I regret I didn’t pursue this interest as a career.  I wanted to be an air hostess or the person with head phones that stands on the tarmac and waves those two ping pong bats to direct planes into parking bays.  My grandfather snuffed out my air hostess dream when he said it was ‘being a waitress at high altitude’.  He told me I could ‘do more with my career’ which, ironically, I haven’t.

Irrational security and long passport queues always wreck my airport experience.  The Americans are most pedantic about border controls and so, in September, we spent 2 hours in the passport queue in Miami and they fingerprinted me for the umpteenth time.  London airports are most anal retentive and rules based (sometimes worse than the Americans) about security.

Most times I go through security in London, the machine beeps and I am frisked.  The x-ray machine stops, security zooms in on the contents of my bag and then flags it for a more detailed physical inspection.

Once they reprimanded me for being proactive and putting my liquid toiletries in my own plastic bag instead of the one they provided.  A security guard put my packet in a black box for about 30 seconds and handed it back to me.  When I asked him what he did, he said the machine was ‘checking the vapours’ in my plastic bag.  I sighed and rolled my eyes and Al whispered in my ear, ‘Keep cool.  Keep cool.’

Another time, a listless security lady confiscated my eye-remover because I didn’t keep to the 100ml liquid limit.  ‘Oh yes I did’, I argued and shook the bottle, ‘As you can see, I have about 30ml left.’  She grabbed it from my hand and chucked it into the bin behind her.  ‘The bottle is 120ml’.

What exactly is the security risk – the bottle or the liquid inside it?  Anyway, it is not worth arguing.  Even though I wanted to stamp my foot and plead for the release of my precious 30ml of eye makeup remover, I bit my tongue.  Security people hold the power and that’s that.  It is fruitless being aggressive.  That’s why I am passive-aggressive instead and roll my eyes and look at them the way I would my shoe if I saw some poo on the sole.  It doesn’t help much but it makes me feel better.

At Heathrow in September, I forgot to declare my liquids at all, even though they were below 100ml.  This required a full body and bag search.  The conveyor belt stopped.  A stern man lifted off my suitcase and carried it to a metal table at arm’s length, like it was radioactive.  He put on surgical gloves, unzipped the case and dipped his hands into the guts of my bag.  He held each item up to the light.  Out came my stash of UK foods I miss and wanted to squirrel away in Switzerland – two packs of Jordan’s Crunchy Nut Muesli, Tesco custard creams, a block of cheddar cheese, a jar of crushed garlic and 30 little packets of Oats So Simple.

When we moved to Switzerland in March, we flew out of Heathrow Terminal 5.  Alastair and I padded through the security queue in our socks.  I preempted the liquid check and put my miniature toiletries in the airport plastic bag, so they wouldn’t stress about the vapours.  I thought I was in the green for once but then security pulled my bag aside and told me I had two pairs of scissors in my hand luggage – one small nail scissors and the other big kitchen scissors.

While I think confiscating 30ml of eye-make up remover is nuts, removing my scissors seemed reasonable.  I bowed my head, apologized and accepted I would never see them again.

So, I was surprised when security confiscated my nail scissors but returned the kitchen ones with a smile.  I trotted down the airport concourse and found Al browsing duty free.  ‘Look at me Al!’ I said as I waved my scissors and chopped the air.  ‘Look what they let me keep!  Can you believe it?’


It’s our way or the highway

November 12, 2011

I have a confession.  I have stolen about 20 newspapers since I moved to Switzerland in March.

I didn’t do it on purpose.  Hand on my heart, I didn’t.  I took them because I thought they were free.

Vending machines for newspapers are installed on most streets in the Geneva area.  Most of them sell ‘Le Matin’ which is the morning paper in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.  In hindsight, I realize the process to get a paper is this:  1) Insert your money into a slot.  2) Lift the light transparent flap of the metal box.  3) Take one newspaper from the pile.  I left out step one and simply lifted the flap and helped myself.

Most times I walked past a newspaper box, it was in the aftenoon.  The price was clearly displayed but the lid was always open and flapping in the breeze.  I thought, ‘Oh how generous!  Free newspapers!  I wonder why?  Ah yes, I know.  Le Matin is a morning paper.  It is now afternoon so they are probably flushing out their old stock and giving papers away for free.  I’ll take one and use it to practice my French’.

Newspaper boxes in the UK are locked shut and, if you want to remove a paper without paying, you need a wrench, chainsaw or bolt cutters to open the flap.  I presumed that the Le Matin publishers locked their boxes in the morning when people must pay for the papers and then they opened them in the afternoon, which made it a free for all.  Things change so fast in the 21st century – who wants to read morning news in the afternoon?  I imagined that, at 12pm when afternoon began, an office worker at the newspaper headquarters in Geneva flicked a switch or pulled a lever and all the boxes on all the pavements all over Suisse Romande opened at once.

One morning, I walked past a box and noticed the flap was open.  I saw another one and that flap was unlocked too.  ‘Oh gosh, the flaps are always open,’ I thought.  The newspaper publishers trust that people will pay for a paper and only remove one from the pile.  I broke that trust and I felt very bad.

Switzerland has a reputation for being rules-based and anal retentive.  At a wedding in London in September, I sat next to a British guy who went to university in Rolle, near where I live in Switzerland.  He said, ‘The French-speaking Swiss are bearable but the Swiss-Germans are another story.  To adapt to the 21st century, they must first remove the long stick that is shoved far up their old-fashioned, rules-based, rigid asses.’

He saw the stick as a problem but I don’t.  I like it that Switzerland has laws and practices that are enforced by authorities and respected by citizens.  It constantly impresses me that Swiss society operates on trust, shared values and a sense of morality.  This is a pure and beautiful concept and, from now on, I will be honest and law-abiding and do everything I can to preserve this utopia.

The Swiss authorities are autocratic, uncompromising and inflexible.  They enforce rules without exception.  The irony of this our-way-or-the-highway system is that Switzerland is the most democratic country I have ever encountered.  This is a contrast to places such as America, which is democratic, but in a chaotic, Lord of the Flies way.  In my home country South Africa, people push boundaries, do as they please and to hell with everyone else.  The Swiss dare not steal an apple or bunch of grapes that doesn’t belong to them, let alone take someone’s wallet, car or life, as is common practice in South Africa.

The Swiss vote regularly on issues such as aviation fuel taxes, legal rights of animals, euthanasia and the construction of minarets on mosques.  People can’t complain about the way things are in Switzerland because they voted to make it that way.

The Swiss do as they are supposed to and they make sure that everyone else does too.  My fellow expats have warned me that Switzerland is full of Jekyll and Hydes.  One minute someone is your pal and the next minute they split on you.  Everyone is a policeman and people are not shy to tap you on the shoulder, wag their finger in your face and then demonstrate the proper way to crush plastic bottles for recycling, tie up the rubbish, park or pick up dog poops.

Sundays are sacred in Switzerland and no shops are open.  We are not allowed to drill, mow the lawn, bang or do anything loud that may disrupt the karma.  One Sunday, my buddy Eugene from South Africa made Wiener Schnitzels.  He thumped the meat with three quick bangs using his special meat-tenderizing hammer.  Five minutes later, his neighbor tapped on the door and reminded him, ‘No hammering on Sundays.’

The vineyards and orchards near my house have no fences or any security other than a sign that says ‘Don’t touch the grapes’.  If you want to stop people doing something in Switzerland, just put up a sign.  It seems there is no need for razor wire, alarms and electric fences.  It is a bizarre and special concept for a South African like me.

I love it that the signs are polite and don’t scare you with skulls and cross bones.  Come to think of it, I have never seen any skull and cross bone signs in Switzerland other than as tattoos on people’s arms or chests.  The Swiss never say anything direct and threatening such as TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED or DO NOT STEAL THE GRAPES.  A farmer would never be so rude to assume that a Swiss walking past would vaguely contemplate such evil.   Instead they politely ask if the public would be so kind as to not touch their grapes.

I often jog through the orchards and, in October, the apple trees were stooped and heavy with fruit.  Fruit in the UK was emaciated, force-ripened and tasteless so eating a fresh, juicy apple straight off the tree is a thrill for me.  I contemplated picking one once while I was on a run but I felt the birds and the trees were watching me and I couldn’t cope with my guilt.  I saw a sign that asked me so very nicely if I could please not touch the apples.  So I didn’t and I ran home, fruitless.


November 1, 2011

I entered blog competition for fun and found out later I need people to vote for me.  ‘Oh $£%@’, I thought, ‘How embarrassing.’

I sat at my desk and stared at this vote button for over an hour, wondering if I should toss the whole thing in.  I often stew over my past career decisions but one thing I know for sure is I could never ever be a politician.  Asking people to vote for me is not in my DNA.

So, please vote for me … if you want to.

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