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My wife Karen and I just spent three weeks in Europe; the last two in September and the first week of October. It was Karen’s first time in Europe and only my second. (I had studied in Switzerland for five months forty-five years ago.) We left there with many pictures and some great memories as well as new impressions, and not a few contrasts with life in the USA. What follows is such a comparison based on two very different travel experiences.

Transit One

Two anxious travelers left their hotel in Paris for a trip to London with assurances that they were but a short distance from Gare du Nord and that an hour was plenty of time to make their train. It might have been so had they not been traveling in the middle of the day through Paris streets where vendors were double-parked on every second street and third corner to unload boxes and bags of merchandise. It might have been had there not been custom forms to fill out as a part of the formal process of passing between an EU Euro-currency and an EU non-Euro-currency nation. It might have been enough time but it was not. Karen and I missed our train, the one which was to take us through the famed “Chunnel” to London. We were upset. (Okay, Karen gets nervous and worried; I get upset.)

Not to worry; no need to be upset. The signs were good in at least six languages and we had no trouble finding the appropriate Eur-Rail agent who calmly directed us to the appropriate counter where another pleasant agent updated our ticket for the next train.

And when was that going to be? How long would we be delayed?

The next train would depart in one hour.

And how much money was this change from one flight… er, I mean, train to another going to cost us?

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

Oh. [Blood pressure…. ….going down, faces…. …..becoming unflushed…]

Two anxious Americans in Paris, beginning to relax for the first time all day.

We took our new tickets, filled out the necessary customs form and passed through the checks, then waited a brief time in the lounge with many other travelers. When they all moved, we moved and guided our suitcases down to the clearly marked coach, the number for which was printed on our new tickets. A quick lift of luggage into that car – an assist from a Eur-Rail associate – then we stowed our big bags at the end of the coach and we were off to find our reserved seats.

They were big seats, roomy seats with space to bend over and to put the seat back far enough to actually sleep. Not that we slept. We sat across a small table from an English “mummy,” a Costa Rican “nanny” and a three-year old named “Olive.” “Olive’s” “Daddy” (“Mummy’s” husband) was in a wheel chair and so was seated in a different car, one fitted out to accommodate his ride.

Olive, who could have won any Shirley Temple look-alike, act-like contest, was happy to walk back and forth with “Mummy” between “Daddy” and “Nanny” quite frequently. She was a delight. Meanwhile, we sped through the north of France and after a relatively short and mildly humid period of darkness underneath the English Channel, we sliced through southeast England, again, at a deceptively rapid pace. When the road bed is kept in good condition a train traveling 150 or more miles an hour barely vibrates, let alone jerks and rocks like the antiques which roll on the degraded freight beds which we have in the US.

This particular transit started poorly but it turned into one of the many highlights of our three great weeks in Europe. We missed a train which, if we had caught it, would have meant we should not have met Olive!

And,“That would have been no good, silly!

Transit Two

Two weary travelers got off an international flight from Edinburgh via Dublin at JFK in NYC. We managed to figure out the Air-Train (What? Itʼs how one gets from one terminal to another at this massive airport.) and we were not alone in our confusion. Eventually, we reached Terminal 8. Once there, we trudged through mazes of corridors, reminiscent of Dublin’s airport (although nothing I’ve seen is as bad as that place) until we found a huge room where every wall repeatedly announced, “American Airlines.” We got in line behind some other people at the nearest counter and waited for over 30 minutes until we got to the front, where we were told we were in a line to book or confirm tickets for something called “LAN,” apparently a Chilean sister airline to AA. No signage anywhere to explain this or anything else. One was just supposed to know what the small letters, “LAN” on the counter fronts meant and to ignore the term American Airlines which was splashed everywhere else.

We trudged to the other side of the cavern where a surly woman was stationed at the opening for what was apparently first-class and business travel exclusively. This woman’s only job, it seems, was to tell people they were in the wrong place, bouncing one couple or family after another. She informed us we were in the wrong part of the terminal – no signage, no directions; just her – and she pointed off to the right, toward another cavern.

Karen and I are 62 and 64 years old, respectively. We each have arthritis; mine is in my lower spine. After traveling by bus and through three airports in-between hours of being sardine-wedged into “seats” too small and spaces too cramped for human bodies, we were both in pain. We had been traveling for over 16 hours, including the impossible Dublin labyrinth where Aer Lingas had simply lost many of us for about an hour. Now we had either walked or stood on what was essentially shiny cement for nearly another hour.

We headed down a long hall to where we expected to find a situation such as we had left at “LAN:” an orderly wall of agents, securely installed behind their counters and the usual cattle stall of mooing travelers, shuffling back and forth with their bags between their legs. No, not at all. We found ourselves among small clusters of confused and frustrated folks, formed up in knots around harried AA ticket agents who were trying with what little energy they had to teach each ticked-off traveler, in no discernible order, how to use their airline computer equipment!

We eventually barged into one of these scrums and through sheer aggressiveness on my part – we were in NYC, after all – became squeaky enough wheels to get the attention of a beleaguered attendant, who although he hadn’t the energy to be truly New York-nasty about it, helped us check our bags and get the boarding tickets we had been unable to print while we were still in Scotland. Were there other people “in line” before us? Who knows? There were no lines, just chaos. This is no way to run anything, not even an airline.

Now, do I need to talk about the flight? Not if you who read this scree have traveled by air in the last thirty years.

Has anyone else noticed the absurd contradiction between the ancient instructions they give for what to do in case of a crash-landing and the actual conditions on a plane today? They tell us, while seated, to bend over until we are essentially perpendicular to the cabin floor, placing our hands behind our heads. Such a maneuver is not possible under present conditions anywhere in a plane’s cabin except perhaps in first class. How long has it been since airlines gave us enough space at our seats to bend forward to such a position without each mashing our face on the seat in front of us? On planes these days you dare not drop anything in front of you. I lost a chunk of a 35° F. dinner roll in front of me on the long Aer Lingas run. It was not retrievable by anyone until the end of the flight.

Conclusion

I know there is no present technology which will allow people to forgo airline travel over oceans. I know the flights Karen and I took from Edinburgh to Dublin and from Dublin to New York were unavoidable. However, the flights from JFK to Chicago and from OʼHare to home were not necessary and would not even exist if a smooth-riding train, traveling over 150 MPH left NYC every hour for Chicago. So why are we not able to scoot home from a trip like this one, gliding over the scenery of the USA, in spacious seats on a smooth ride, able to actually move about and stretch our legs, our luggage stored at the end of our coach? Or put another way, why does the public-private partnership not exist which would build mag-elev and bullet trains in the USA? Why do we, the so-called “The Greatest Nation on Earth,” have trains from the 1950s and rail beds from the 1930s?

Domestic air travel? Give me a bullet train any time! Unless you have been overseas and ridden on one, you have no idea what the Europeans, the Japanese and now even the Chinese take for granted. You have no idea what we are missing.

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