Oscars for Airlines: A Third Culture Kid’s Airline Review

It has been said that Third Culture Kids feel far more loyalty to airlines and airports than to nations and governments, so with that in mind when Jet Blue banners fly across my computer screen with $44 fares highlighted in their familiar blue I always look. The flights are cheap, you get one checked bag at no cost and their boast of “extra leg room” is entirely accurate.

I flew before I walked and can’t count the number of flights I’ve taken, or airlines and airports I have had the privilege to meet. At the risk of sounding annoying and “remembering the good old days”, when it comes to airlines, it was the good old days.

International flights often included overnights in major cities world-wide at the cost of the airline. All inclusive packages with meals and transportation vouchers to and from the airport were the norm. In-flight meals, drinks and toys were complimentary and we even got little wing pins to proudly place on shirts or jackets that said “Fly the Friendly Skies“.  Extra baggage didn’t come at an exorbitant fee and you could often talk your way out of the cost through smiles and thanks.

Consider the average flight today where a grumpy airline employee checks you in, or you check yourself in, and then wander over to make sure your luggage will get on as well.  You wait, sometimes for hours with no information, to find out your flight is delayed and once you finally leave, peanuts, pretzels and drinks are thrown at you across the aisle.

But even in the current abysmal state of the industry there are those airlines that rise to the top and get high marks for everything from flight schedules to customer service, so today I bring you the “Oscar” awards for airlines

For domestic airlines in the United States the Oscar will be shared, going to Jet Blue and Southwest. Both offer great prices, generous luggage allowances, credit cards to help you build miles and all in all a good flying experience. News this past fall that Southwest has purchased Air Tran put a smile on my face!

Bottom of the barrel – no doubt American airlines with their frequent cancellations and rude interactions, and NO – getting an email telling me that my flight scheduled for 8am will be leaving at noon is not ok. United is right down there too, with equally bad schedules, although perhaps not as quick to change flights.

If flying internationally the Oscar goes to Swiss. With their hot towels to refresh you in economy class and their attention to detail and comfort, even with a delayed plane, they rise to the top.  A stop in Zürich, particularly if you have young children, is a treat as the airport has a fully equipped play room/nursery with a special room just for babies. Memories of hours in that nursery remind me that it saved us from what could have been miserable times of waiting by gates during long lay overs – we owe this airport our sanity. A close runner-up could be British Airways as I have always had lovely flights on British Air.

Virgin Air gives a cheap but uncomfortable flight to London, and if you are patient you can usually find British Air tickets for almost the same price. I have heard that Singapore Air could probably get a world-wide Oscar for the best airline (which I tend to believe as the efficiency in Singapore is legendary) but I can’t speak from experience on the airline. Lufthansa could be up there as a competitor, though not winner, and after our recent trip to Egypt, we would swear by the Egypt Air New York/Cairo Nonstop flight.

I’ve been told that Iceland Air is the bottom of the barrel internationally so I will not be swayed by their cheap prices, realizing I will pay the cost some other way (like having to make sure of change in my pocket in order to use the bathroom). I assure you I am not being dramatic – Ryan Air out of Ireland does have a “pay when you go” policy on using the loo.

So what about you? Who gets the Oscars from your experience? Would love to have you weigh in – Favorite Airlines, Worst airlines, Worst airline stories – we want to hear it all!

Goodbye~ God Be With You!

The A train serves JFK Airport via the Howard ...

We entered into New York’s JFK airport with a plane full of other passengers yesterday. While we headed to the line that bore the banner “US Citizens”, a majority of the passengers on the plane headed to one of the other two lines: Residents or Visitors, located farther down in the large impersonal immigration area.

We had said goodbye the evening before to my daughter and oldest son, who is staying on with his sister in Cairo for the next couple of weeks. We held each other tightly and didn’t want to let go – I know we both wish that we lived closer. Just as my mom would love to pop over for a cup of tea to my house without planning, so would I love to grab tea or coffee with my oldest daughter spontaneously, without purchasing a plane ticket.  How I have missed through the years and many goodbyes I have said that the origin of the word “goodbye” comes from “God be with you” is a mystery, but miss it I did. This changes the word completely for me, for to say “God be with you” is at the heart of my world and to say “Goodbye” to my kids with that meaning in mind is a comfort to my ‘mom’ heart.

The collective goodbyes represented in the large immigration room were many. We were all strangers to each other so who knows the scope of the stories and goodbyes that were present, but knowing many immigrants, all with amazing and poignant life stories, allowed me to understand that there was far more beneath that which is visible, there is so much more beyond the surface.  Some were permanent residents of the US, probably visiting relatives in Cairo and now back home. Others were newcomers to the US and the slightly confused looks on their faces and making their way to the wrong lines gave away their confusion and lack of familiarity with the “rules”.

Those of you who read this blog are no stranger to goodbyes. Perhaps your first goodbyes were said at the young age of six or seven as you went to boarding school for the first time, brave on the surface but your stomach knotting inside as you passed through that boarding school “rite of passage” for the first time. Others may have said your first goodbyes in high school, going back to your passport country to complete school to compete successfully in the country of your parents. For others it was when you got married and left your family home, entering into a new world with either your in-laws or a world apart with your new husband who could hardly grow a beard, so young was he.

Regardless of when it was, the feelings of nervous stomach and throat catching are universal. It’s the butterflies and the uneasy energy that seem to take over, and the tears that remain unshed, stored up for a more private time to be poured out like water when you are parched.

And today we say goodbye to 2011 – a different kind of goodbye to be sure, but some of the same elements of joys, regrets, losses and gains, sorrows and happiness. In August I wrote a post on saying goodbye to my daughter, Stefanie as she went off to college for the first time. I am posting it here again as I think of the goodbyes that have been said throughout the year and may be remembered today – It is the bittersweet taste of that word “Goodbye!”. As you close out 2011 and open your heart to 2012 may your goodbyes have the sweetness of “God be with you!”

August 2011 – The Bittersweet Taste of the Words Goodbye

We’re up early. While the rest of the house is sleeping our college-bound girl is doing the last-minute packing, grabbing a winter coat she reasonably forgot given the 89 degrees and 90% humidity of our August morning, and trying to calm her stomach. And though I had not intended to do a blog post as I think on those bittersweet words “Goodbye” I had to reflect.

Those of you who are third culture kids or international travelers know these words all too well. The most poignant memory by far in my life comes from a long ago time when at six years old with my favorite doll in my arms I was driven with older brothers to the Hyderabad train station to catch a train that would take me 800 miles to Rawalpindi station where a large army-green bus would pick us up and take us the remaining 2 hour journey up to our boarding school in the hill station of Murree. The tears flowed without embarrassment – I was, of course, only six. Even after all these years the bitter taste of goodbye and all that meant for me is a sweet and hard memory. The hardest part for my mother came when the train rolled away. At that point her tears fell, and mine stopped. I was with friends. As suddenly as the train left the station, my world was immersed in six-year-old imagination and friendship.

That was the first of more goodbyes than I could possibly count. Whoever first coined the phrase “bittersweet” had tremendous insight. For we know that usually what is beyond will be wonderful for the person to whom we are saying goodbye. But the present brings up that all-too familiar knot in the stomach – a mixture of pain, sadness and nervousness. What I remember even more than goodbye was the memory of waking up the next morning in an unfamiliar bed in complete confusion until I remembered that this was boarding. I had left home. Mom was not there. The hot tears that fell on my six-year-old face were accompanied by a clear whisper – “No, you’re not home – but I am with you. I will be with you”.  I knew without a shadow of a doubt that this was indeed the voice of God himself. And those words were stronger than any verse of scripture or any theological doctrine could be.

Those are the words I hope each of my children hear as they say their very frequent goodbyes. Those are the words I hope Stef wakes up to tomorrow morning.

Those are the words I wish for you as you close out 2011 and move into 2012. God be with you!

“Ragaouna Misr” Take Us Back to Cairo!

“We had barely drifted out of Alexandria’s harbor when I heard my father cry ‘Ragaouna Misr!’ – Take us back to Cairo! It became his personal refrain, his anthem aboard the old cargo ship…from The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit

Just as the Call to Prayer greeted us at midday on arrival a short 9 days ago, it woke us this morning to bid us goodbye as we rushed to pack our suitcases and get to the airport to board Egypt Air Flight 985 nonstop Cairo to New York. Carefully wrapped perfume bottles, colorful scarves and other treasures unavailable to us in the bazaars in the U.S (otherwise known as “malls”) were placed into our bags to greet us on the other side. The side where memories sometimes need tangible items to awake their wonder.

The cry of our hearts has often been that of the fathers’ in The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. “Ragaouna Misr!” Take us back to Cairo! Our children could verify that this was our cry for 7 years after leaving in 1996. And leaving a piece of our heart in the form of our daughter gives us more reason to want to return, to be a more consistent part of her world .

But arriving in Cambridge, my heart is satisfied. We are indeed where we are supposed to be. Unlike when we uprooted our family, we now recognize that though the cry may be loud at times, we are given the occasional gift of a visit to rekindle our hearts and spirits. Though we may still cry out “Ragaouna Misr” – sometimes like the Israelites and other times in a far healthier way, sometimes audibly and other times silently – we are living where we are for a purpose. Even as the cry comes up to my lips, I walk in and put a kettle on for tea and smell the scent of home. Right now that home is Cambridge, Massachusetts surrounded by our memories, pictures and life thousands of miles removed.

View from the Minarets by Bab Zuweila
Another View
City Street leading up to Bab Zuweila
“Ragaouna Misr! – Take me back to Cairo!”
View of the citadel
Minarets of Bab Zuweila

All photographs taken by Cliff Gardner, who climbed to the farthest point on the minaret.

Tahrir Square – Walls and Graffiti

During the 18 days that changed the course of modern-day Egypt Tahrir Square, in the heart of downtown Cairo, became known throughout the world as the epicenter of freedom and change. We couldn’t wait to get a glimpse of the square and talk to people about what had transpired and what is transpiring.

Just a few days before our arrival the area around Tahrir was in chaos, so much so that we made contingency plans for where we would stay. Our daughter lives just a couple of blocks away and by the time we arrived things had quieted down. Quiet is a relative term. We headed out on Friday with plans to eat Egyptian pizza (fateer) and head toward the Nile for a felucca ride. At one end of Annie’s street ten soldiers in full riot gear blocked any movement and just past the soldiers sat four army tanks, ready and waiting to be used at the sign of any trouble.

As we attempted to get to the Nile, every where we turned we ran into obstacles. Large circles of barbed wire blocked street after street. And then there were the walls. These walls are like nothing I’ve seen before. They are massive square boulders built into 12 feet high walls. They are strategically placed in the downtown area to restrict movement and prohibit protesters from gathering. They are quite simply a clever means to block civilian dissent. To put this into context, it would be like New York City blocking off all side roads leading to Zuccotti Park with massive, immoveable, concrete boulders, sending all traffic in the area into chaos and frustration. Taxi drivers shake their heads in disgust as all attempts to drive places are met with detours imposed by the walls.

As quickly as the walls have been built, the graffiti has appeared. It was my children and Shepard Fairey that first challenged me to look at graffiti as an art form and a means of expression. The graffiti on the newly constructed walls does just that as it communicates powerful messages from civilians related to both the January 25th uprising as well as the violence that has been perpetuated this fall. This graffiti is well done. A common theme includes a patched eye, an accusation toward a young soldier who is infamous for shooting out the eyes of protesters – “Yes! I got another eye” is his arrogant quote.

More than anything, the graffiti is evidence of frustration and division regarding the ongoing role of the military in the new Egypt. For me the graffiti was a look into a society where I am an outsider. My Arabic is not good and even as I struggle to communicate, I want to learn more of what people are thinking and feeling. As with any kind of art, those who create the graffiti wish to use more than words to communicate their thoughts and ideas. Take a look and get a glimpse of Tahrir Square through the graffiti in these pictures.

These are the Moments – Alexandria, Egypt


It’s amazing that when I sit in Cambridge, Massachusetts with my computer and my thoughts I have no problem writing volumes about Cairo. Now as I sit at eleven o’clock at night on a couch in the guest house where we are staying, the cool night air busy with the sounds of horns, shouts of vendors and others on the street,and the hum of the city that never sleeps, I am struggling to put my thoughts into words and words into font.

Part of it is the understandable desire to live in the moment, knowing the moments are going all too quickly. They are speeding by like the cars and taxis on the corniche in Alexandria as I stand like a pedestrian trying to stop these moments like I try to stop the cars rushing by. And yet the other wish is to communicate the moments so that I have them next week as life settles into the more normal and the new year takes over with its demands.

So what are the moments? A speedy train to the city of Alexandria on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea; a city with a mixture of Middle Eastern and European flavors that breathes a rich history. Eating lunch at the Metropole Hotel in Alexandria where the ghosts of Christmas past linger in both the decor and methodical slow service of the staff. Walking on the Mediterranean Sea with the sea and palm trees to our left and minarets and old buildings on our right. Cappuccino at the Athineos hotel, known to seasoned travelers as number 47 in the list of 147 things to do in Alexandria, Egypt.  A taxi ride to find a hotel that seemed real online but a figment of the internet and my excitement of a “cheap but beautiful” hotel as we drove…and drove…and drove, finally finding it off a dark alley called a street. Our fears that this would be a dive never materialized – the hotel was as beautiful as represented and the owner even more so. If you’re ever in Alexandria look up Alexandria Mediterranean Suites. And then the moments of talk and mint tea – moments that will be treasured a life time.

These are the moments.  These are the moments to live in fully alive and present, the moments where there are no regrets.

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Cairo Christmas “A Weary World Rejoices”

There is no Christmas tree and no turkey. We have not not heard “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” one time since arriving four days ago and our gifts fit inside small stockings. Our world is stripped of some of the traps that catch me at Christmas time in the U.S where slick advertising tempts all my senses with color,slogan and promise. With this stripping has come a delightful freedom and joy. Joy in cooking over a tiny three burner gas stove with my children and substituting ingredients to mimic familiar tastes; freedom to not put pressure on each other or on the day to be something it can’t be. Tahrir Square is but a block away from where we are preparing our Christmas feast and we are acutely aware of the struggles of many just minutes from our festivities. This is Christmas in Cairo.

At a late night service on Christmas eve we sang Christmas carols in Arabic and English side by side with refugees from the Horn of Africa, Egyptian Christians, and expatriates from around the world. My senses feel alive with the joy of being here and witnessing in person this time in Egypt’s history. Here I have to wrestle with the words of Christmas carols instead of blithely singing them. Here as I read the words “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace.” I ache with a longing that people may know how much God loves them.

As I watch the resilience of Egyptians continuing to hope in their world and future, I think of the hope that is personified in the birth of a small baby, helpless and fragile, yet history cannot keep silent of the joy that came that night. As night falls and I view the scenes around me from high balconies and close encounters I am reminded of the beautiful words that speak to that holy night, where a “weary world rejoiced” and woke to the miracle of a “new and glorious morn.”

Christmas Day - Cairo, Egypt "A Thrill of Hope, A Weary World Rejoices"

Guest Post – Into the darkness there came a Great Light

Ganges River, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India.
Image via Wikipedia

Bhai Lal was our electrician in Varanasi. He lived down near the Ganges River. His wife had died years before and he parented half a dozen hooligans on his own. Bhai Lal was an entrepreneur. He had crazy ideas and they worked! One year he created a boat entirely out of recycled water bottles. He would row into the middle of the river to demonstrate how clever his little boat was. His electrical skills enabled him to add lights to his boat. It glowed red and blue and green down into the water. We’d shake our heads and laugh, which was exactly the reaction Bhai Lal wanted!

Bhai Lal was an electrical genius. If our electricity ever went out, or if there was a mysterious brown out that affected just our house, or if half our house had lights but the other half didn’t we’d go up to the south-eastern corner of our roof and call down for Bhai Lal. If Bhai Lal wasn’t there we’d groan and ask whoever was down in the darkness to give him a message to come as soon as he could. If Bhai Lal was there he’d shout right back up at us that he was coming. He’d come and chatter away as he twisted and tweaked wires, fiddled with fuses, taping and splicing light back into our rooms, current back into our outlets.

Bhai Lal believed in a good sense of humour, he believed in working hard, he believed in the Hindu pantheon and he believed that as long as he stood on a piece of cloth he would not be electrocuted—in fact he’d take off his rubber flip-flops and stand on a measly rag and claim he was now safe!

Christmas in 2005 was a particularly intense holiday. Together with friends we had written a Christmas pageant and I was the director. The play would be performed on our property adjacent to our home. Lowell, the prophet Simeon in our production, had to have an emergency appendectomy on the 22nd of December. He was released from the hospital on the 23rd. We had our last dress rehearsal on the morning of the 24th. I then commissioned the cast to go home and celebrate Christmas. We would meet again on Christmas Day for the performance. The still weakened Simeon-Lowell and I walked back across the yard to our home determined to rest and celebrate the Advent of Hope. Lowell suggested we throw an impromptu party. Let’s invite all those of our friends who didn’t have any other place to be. Let’s celebrate Christmas. That was the plan.

Lowell received a very strange visitor shortly thereafter, just before lunch. Rajesh was a man we had known for years. He had dabbled in the demonic, he battled bipolar, he was a displaced soul with a need to incite and provoke. In the guise of visiting Lowell who was still recovering from surgery, Rajesh showed up. He went straight to the roof, where we often entertained guests in the winter–the river expansively displayed, the sunlight bathing the day in a comforting glow, and he settled in. From there Rajesh proceeded to shout horrendous insults. He blasphemed. He cussed. He set up several Hindu idols and proclaimed their deity over our house and over the city. He threatened our children. He promised to return on Christmas Day to destroy the pageant. He jumped over the wall and stood precariously close to the edge of our roof and the 30 foot drop to the river. Lowell didn’t know if he’d jump or not. And Rajesh wouldn’t leave. We called his wife. We called friends for advice. We called a friend with connections at the psychiatric hospital. Rajesh got louder and louder, his insults more horrifying, his threats more unnerving as the day went on. Lunch time and supper time came and went– still he stayed.

Our friends began to trickle in for the party. We no longer really wanted a party but we wanted desperately to reclaim Christmas and we needed the comfort of friends. I made hot cocoa. We pulled out snacks and tasty treats. We added space in our party for Rajesh’s wife and his two bewildered, pained children.

Suddenly, and without cause, our electricity surged. We were supposed to have 220 volts but it rarely came in any higher than 170. In the middle of that moment the current surged well over 300 volts. Everything in the house not connected to a voltage stabilizer blew! We were submerged in complete darkness. It was the sympathetic element reinforcing the state of our spirits. I felt so trapped. We lit the candles and because our invertor still was working Lowell was able to push play on our Christmas movie. None of us wanted to venture to the roof to summon Bhai Lal. That could wait. For now the party would continue. Lowell pushed play and we all tried to push mute on the sounds still coming off the roof. Alas, it wasn’t the sounds of “eight tiny raindeer”…

Eventually, about three-fourths of the way through our movie, nine and a half hours after he arrived on our roof, Rajesh came down. Lowell and I and Rajesh’s family all accompanied him to the gate. We wished them a Merry Christmas and it was over.

And then we called for Bhai Lal. He wasn’t home. We went to bed despondent in the dark.

Christmas day, after a special family morning of gifts and brunch and remembering the birth of Christ, we began in earnest to prepare for the evening pageant. Lowell rested and reviewed his lines. I supervised the tents going up, the generators set up, the lights being strung, the strings of flowers being hung. The caterers organized the food: the samosas were fried, the tomatoes and onions cut up for the chutney, the tamarind and the yogurt sauces ready for the pani puri. The sound people came in. Speakers were hung precariously from poles. Systems were tested with countless, “hello…. Hello…. Hello”s.

And after Mary had given birth to a doll-Jesus and the shepherds had rushed to see, and knocked over the lantern in the stable. After the wisemen traipsed through the crowd of nearly three hundred guests, one of them tripping over and stumbling after the star, and they discovered the Christ child. And after Simeon, the prophet who was missing his appendix, proclaimed loudly, boldly who the Christ was and why he was born… after all that— Bhai Lal showed up!

The play was over and it had been a huge success! While the music played on and the food was served I went back to change out of my costume and into my Christmas sari. I was so relieved that Rajesh hadn’t shown up! I was thrilled at how many people had come and how well the play had gone off! I was just putting on my bangles when Bhai Lal banged on the door. He shouted through the screen door that he was there! The timing wasn’t great but I was ready for the electrical problems of the previous night to be fixed. But Bhai Lal hadn’t come to fix our lights. He was full of joy and good news.

“Didi!! You won’t believe what I just heard on the radio! Did you know that God sent his son, the only one he had, at Christmas, as a baby? Did you know didi? Did you know that son was Jesus and he was born so that he could grow up and then he would die on the cross? Did you know this didi? I came to tell you! I came as soon as I heard! Jesus would die to save us from our sin? That’s how much God loves us! Did you know this didi?”

I stood staring at him through the screen door, the sounds of the music across the yard dimly playing in the background, a flashlight in my bangle bedecked hand, tears in my eyes. Yes, I nodded, I had heard that. Bhai Lal was radiant. His joy was enormous. Bhai Lal, the electrician was full of light. He had come as soon as he heard. He kicked off his shoes, and stood there, holiness all around him. We both stood, barefooted and aware of the sacred place. The dismal darkness, the spiritual claustrophobia, the entrapped spirit of Christmas eve replaced with Light and Space and Grace. I set down my flashlight. Christ was born!

Shout that from the roof tops!

Thank you Robynn Bliss for this Christmas Eve Read!