Saturday, September 6, 2014

View to a Thrill: Made, in China

The Monday blues; I'm surrounded by people who have them. I remember them, and I do agree, they are not the best hue in the rainbow. Having a job involves water cooler gossip, hurt feelings in the staff meeting, ignored recommendations to the supervisor, heavy traffic commute five days a week, two-day weekends to relax, have fun and recover from the fun had. I'll have none of that.

Even a bad day at Mother Airline is usually better than most people's good days. For me, a bad day is quite rare. It's quite often I find myself looking at a 3 or 4-day weekend and I'm always eager to get back to the skies for my next adventure. Often, I'm just so much more at home on a plane at 37,000 feet. I have no supervisors to contend with, I get to meet interesting people and when I am done with work, I'm in another city where a van picks me up and takes me a nice hotel. Maybe I'll catch up on the news. Maybe I'll have a swim and a workout in the gym. Maybe I'll do a bit of shopping or exploring a unique city. Maybe I just relax and do some writing. Or, if I'm lucky, a little of all of the above.
The assignment, fly to Shanghai for 40 hours and return on the 4th day at 9 AM. I love Shanghai; great shopping, wonderful massages, fantastic city. I've been trying to get back to Shanghai for about 2 years; the trips can be elusive for someone as junior as I am at the airline. I've had some artwork I have wanted to get framed, and to do it here is phenomenally inexpensive. One of the best perks of being a flight attendant is the ability to take advantage of great deals all over the world. You could save 90% on a quality framing job by coming to China, but the cost of a visa, a hotel and the airfare wouldn't make it worth while. My visa is paid for, as is the hotel. All I have to do is schlep the framed artwork back home, which is easy to do when you're one of the first 19 people on the airplane and know all the great hiding spots!
Some of the modern buildings of Shanghai

Shanghai is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. The largest city in China, and it's financial capital, it's vibrant, colorful, full of tall buildings and offers everything. The city looks like some futuristic space port, a skyline dotted with buildings decked out in lights, spheres, platforms, bowls, spires, antennae, glass and columns. In Shanghai, it's not a building unless it makes a bold statement or looks like either a UFO, or a place for a UFO to land.
Rainy evening from hotel window

I walked into the briefing room and found it quieter than normal. I felt very out of place, not recognizing any of the other flight attendants. Usually, the briefing sets the mood for the rest of the trip. Some crews don't get along as seamlessly as others. Some crews are very fraternal and there can be many inside stories and backgrounds that someone new to the scene, like me, can feel left out of. Briefing rooms are often loud and full of chatter among flight attendants getting up to date with the lives of fellow crew members they've flown with for years, but the members of this crew were oddly silent.

If I thought this was going to be one of those crews who were not as seamless as others, or that this was going to be one of those trips where I stick to doing things on my own, I was wrong. Some of the flight attendants were quirky, others had a dry sense of humor, but all were very friendly and accommodating. No one seemed overly odd or demanding and the teamwork was soon evident. It wouldn't be a bad because of the crew.

With briefing finished, I now knew where I was working on the flight; economy, as usual, and seated at door 3 Right on the jumbo jet, 747-400, my favorite bird. It's so large and graceful, when it's not got a list of inoperative issues, as older planes are subject to having. The plane is longer than the first manned flight by the Wright Brothers.

I led the procession from the briefing room to the gate, as I needed to stop at the ATM for some cash. Insert card, some random beeping and machine gurgling noises, and a message flashed at me that no cash could be received, as my card had expired. I'm not sure why an ATM card needs an expiration, but now I'd be leaving the country with very little cash. It wouldn't be a bad day, however, as I always carry emergency cash with me.

After my delay at the ATM, I was now towards the back of the line of black-uniformed flight attendants heading to gate 99 to work the flight. As we exited the long moving sidewalk, we found those at the front of the group heading back in the opposite direction, “Gate change, it's out of 94.” Like lemmings, we got back on the opposite moving sidewalk and followed them, only to find out that it was 95, not 94, and 95 was half way between the start of the moving sidewalk and its end. We were snaking our way to the gate and it wasn't the most graceful start to a trip.

At gate 95 was a 747 awaiting passengers. There was talk that it was our plane, not the one we were briefed on, but another, and this one had no working entertainment system. Someone mentioned that the pilots were in the process of refusing the plane. We soon realized that the plane was bound for Narita, Japan. We pitied the poor passengers on their flight to Japan with no entertainment. It wouldn't be a bad day because of the plane.

Our plane? Well, it was at the hangar, all ready for us. The only problem was that there was no gate available for her. We were next informed that the flight would be delayed nearly 3 hours. This is the point when at least 1 flight attendant gets out the contract to find out when we go illegal. This would happen if we did not leave before 4:25 PM. It was close, as we were scheduled to leave at 3.

When the plane finally did leave, it did so from domestic gate 86, meaning a long walk back to the terminal in which we had briefed a few hours earlier. I was glad to be leaving, as I really wanted to get my artwork framed and the thought of an hour massage for about $12 was a driving force.
Street in Shanghai

The service went smoothly and even the Chinese passengers, who can be known for being a challenge, were easy-going. I struck up a little conversation with a young man headed to China for a kid's Olympic program. When we landed in Shanghai, as he passed me to exit the aircraft, he handed to me a thank you card with a very nice note. My first thought was, who travels with thank you cards? My crew thought maybe he was trying to hit on me. I doubted that, as he didn't seem the type, and if had, he would have most likely included his phone number or last name!

Many of the Chinese passengers ask for hot water. I love the accent, “Haht ahwahturr...” They bring their own containers for the water, usually filled with things to enhance flavor, such as tea leaves, mushrooms, dirty socks...who knows what's in those? And the meal service is always fun, “Would you like lasagna or the chicken?” The response was often, “Rice!” That was OK, as the chicken had rice. But for the breakfast service on arrival, when the choice was omelet or noodles, “Rice!” didn't work. “No, omelet or noodles, no rice!”

I reached a row of seats and asked about a drink. Window seat asked for water. I poured a cup and as I handed it to him, he shook his hand in front of it and asked for half a cup. OK, I thought, I'll give this cup to someone else. I asked around, “Water? Water? Who would like a cup of water?” Finally, someone took it. I asked Aisle seat what he wanted to drink...water. I wanted to pour it over his head!

No, not a bad trip. Great crew, fun passengers, wonderful city, deluxe hotel accommodations, successful shopping, had fun hanging out with other crew members, and I even slept during my in-flight breaks, which can be difficult. Yeah, I've got it made. You can have your 9-5 jobs and office cubicles and rush hour traffic. I'll have my foot massage with a tall Tsingtao beer and rose pedals in my foot bath, please! And my 7 pieces of artwork? They will be delivered to my hotel within 12 hours. Thank you, China.

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