The Day I Rode In The Belly Of A Whale

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Or: Tales From The Upper Deck

When word came down at work that I had approval to travel to Porto, Portugal to participate in meetings with key folks from around the world, things began to follow a usual path.

Since the place I work for gets a lot of Federal funding, we’re bound to abide by the Fly American Act, i.e. when on Federal business, fly US carriers.

No problem. I’m used to shoving my cookies onto a United Airlines jet and riding around the world, so per the norm I picked out my United flight pairs and the admin booked them. I was all set.

Because I am a little weenie and need more leg room, I like to pay out of pocket to upgrade my government bought United economy seats to United Plus economy seats.

My employer doesn’t pay for business or first class and I don’t fly enough to rack up the miles to get me there, so I ride in the back half of the plane. Economy plus at least gives my long legs a little room. A little less sardine-like.

However, when I logged into my United account and tried to upgrade my seats, I was told I could not. That I would have to wait until the day before the flight to pick out seats. What?

It took a little work but I figured out the deal. Three of my four flights on this trek would not be on United planes but a codeshare on Lufthansa.

Well hell, I’d never flown Lufthansa before so this was an adventure.

Doing some research on the Lufthansa site, I also figured out that my plane for the San Francisco to Frankfurt leg of the trip would be on an Airbus A380-800 airplane. A gigantic double decker of a holy-crap-that’s-huge airplane.

In fact, it’s the largest passenger plane flying today.

Looking up the specs of this plane online, I found people affectionately call it “the whale,” and it’s no wonder. The configuration I rode seats about 500 people.

When I was finally able to select my seats, I found that the second floor of the airplane (this airplane has two floors!!) was mostly first and business class, but the back of the upper deck had a small grouping of seven rows of economy seats. So yeah, I scooped up an aisle seat upstairs right away.

On the day I arrived at SFO, I let out an audible “wuh-huh-hoooooo” when I saw the airplane sitting at the gate. Then I became filled with anxiety. “How will that ever fly?” said my worried mind.

I wondered if my brain had anything I could compare this to. Many years ago I worked for a Lockheed Martin site that was right next to a military airstrip. Every once in a while the military would practice “touch and goes” with various planes and pilots. We’d drag our desk chairs outside and watch the show.

What I’m trying to say is, I’ve seen a fully loaded C-130 execute a touch and go, so yeah, I realized that the A380 could certainly fly. And I was going to get on it.

As I walked down the jetway to the plane, my heart began trip hammering. I always have a moment of pause before boarding any plane but this was different.

I stepped through the nice wide doorway and saw a beautiful gleaming white staircase front and center. “Ah, that must be how I get up there,” I thought.

The oversmiling male flight attendant looked at my ticket and informed me that I needed to go all the way to the back of the plane and find a staircase there.

In other words, your economy-seat riding ass don’t climb these stairs, honey.

Fair enough. I set off on my journey to the back of the plane. I stopped rest once or twice. I had snacks to keep my energy up. I may have camped out overnight. Jesus, that’s a big airplane.

Finally I reached the end of the plane and scurried up the stairs, then slid into my seat.

It was still an economy class seat so it fit tight around the hips. I got snug like a bug in there as the plane began to push back from the gate.

The Lufthansa A380 features three live cameras, one on the nose pointing forward, one on the tail also pointing forward, and one on the belly looking straight down.

Here is a terrible quality image. It’s a photo taken with an iPad of my screen on the plane as we are somewhere over the Labrador Sea. It’s enough that you can see what the view from the tail camera looks like:




I wanted to stick my hand out the window and wave to the camera, but that’s mostly frowned upon


It was mildly surreal to watch this behemoth take off from a bird’s eye view but I was fascinated.

Once aloft, I began to realize why non-US carriers rock the casbah. It’s one word: alcohol. The wine flows freely on non-US airplanes. I had flown a Singapore Airlines plane a few years ago and was gently surprised at the wine served with meals. The Germans have the Singaporeans beat. Wine with snacks, wine with dinner, brandy and irish crème after dinner.

All of this is a plot, however. They ply you with food and booze then turn down the cabin lights. Pretty much everyone falls asleep right away. Except me, I have a flaw in my DNA. I can’t sleep on a plane. Not even a long haul. Nope.

The Good Man shares this flaw and it’s good when we travel together because we entertain each other like little kids while everyone else sleeps. Sadly on this trip I was alone.

The flight attendant overseeing our little cozy area of economy class seats was a rockstar. He noticed I was the only one awake and didn’t let up on the top-notch service. He checked in on me constantly and brought water, juice, snacks and some cookies that seemed way too delicious for economy class.

Even though I was packed into an economy seat I felt spoiled like a little princess up there, inside the white whale.

When she touched down in Frankfurt I was reluctant to leave my cozy little seat and my white glove service. It was a gentle landing as the plane beast docked next to its siblings.

That was one of the most comfortable and happy international flights I have ever known and I am sure I will reflect back on it for years. It has become the high water mark by which all other flights will be measured.

Sadly, when going home from this journey, the Frankfurt to San Francisco leg will be on a plain old United jet, a Boeing 747-400. That plane also has a second deck, but only the pish-posh get to sit up there.

I’ll be seated among the cattle, in an economy plus seat but still among the unwashed. No first class cookies for Karen on the way home.

I think I’ll write a nice letter to Lufthansa to tell them how much I appreciated the flight attendant. As I have learned in my short time in Portugal, I will extend a hearty obrigada (i.e. thank you or much obliged) for his attention and job well done.

And I will wistfully dream of my time inside the whale, a modern day Jonah high above the bustling world.




Thar she blows!






With a nod and a smile to Johnny Jet for the photo and for his awesome blog post about the Lufthansa A380. Read it here.





That’s The Thing About a Memory

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Ya know, the ol’ brain, she ain’t what she used to be. Let’s be honest, my memory always was more of an old gray mare than a fast running thoroughbred.

Over the weekend The Good Man was going through our bag of bags (I’m pretty sure everyone has a bag of bags, right? The place you store plastic and paper grocery bags for reuse) looking for just the right fit for the job he had in mind.

He pulled out a plastic bag that had travelled its way from Amsterdam to California that was just the perfect size. He said, “Oh? Are you okay with me using this bag or do you want to keep it?”

I said, “Nah, no need to keep it, go ahead.”

He opened it up and in the bottom found a paper receipt that he handed to me. “You probably want this,” he said.

The receipt looked a lot like this:





Hmm. One Euro. What the hell did I pay one Euro for in Amsterdam? I found that country to be pretty darn expensive and don’t recall anything costing just one single Euro.

It’s from the Van Gogh museum, so that’s a clue.

I was really stumped. My mind slipped into the Swiss cheese hole full of nuthin’. I had zero recollection. For a moment I thought it wasn’t even my receipt, that maybe I had inadvertently picked up someone else’s.

And then…dull like the backside of a piece of foil, a light came on.

I saw the description “kids juggling Van Gogh” which brought many hilarious fictional images to mind, but then that confused me even more.

I had to work at it. Sweat it a little bit. Strain the brain tendons.

Ah! Yes! I remembered! A forgotten moment. The synapses reattached and the focus ring turned and I could see it clearly.

Me, in Amsterdam, on a rainy Monday. It was late afternoon and the Van Gogh museum was closing. I had prowled all four floors, hungry to see everything. I actually toured it twice. Bottom to top and then top to bottom. In the last thirty minutes of museum hours, I went to visit all of my favorite canvases one last time, like saying goodbye to cherished friends.

On the way out, visitors are forced through the gift shop and as doors were locking, I made a hasty and impulse purchase. A funny card made for kids picturing a stylized Vincent Van Gogh juggling paint blobs. It made me laugh, so I took it to the register.




Image copyright belongs to the Van Gogh Museum Shop

The cashier said “That will be one Euro.” Through bleary jet lagged eyes, and too lazy to put on my reading glasses, I held up a coin. “Is this one Euro?” I asked.

He smiled as he might to a precocious child. “Yes. That’s a Euro.”

I held up another coin, “That’s a two Euro, right?”

He smiled again, “Yes, ma’am. The larger coin is two Euros.”

“Okay, thanks. Here you go,” I said and dropped the one Euro coin into his hand.

Then I reluctantly left the museum, a place I could live, and walked out into the Amsterdam evening. I was overwhelmed with all I had just seen in the museum, hungry, tired, lost and pretty calm. I was filled to blissful capacity with art and creativity and color and joy.

I found a bench on the edges of the Museumplein, a gigantic green park in the heart of Amsterdam, and sat. And watched. And listened. And did what became my most favorite thing to do in Holland: people watch.

On this most recent sunny and muggy Sunday in California, I remembered the noisy but pleasant park, watching the funny multicolored crows hop around, feeling my own bones weary from jet lag, and the unmistakable sense of peace.

It was a nice memory. One that had slopped over the side of the brain bucket and almost got away. Now retrieved, embedded, made solid.

That’s the funny thing about memory, it runs like quicksilver, but catch it, hold it in your hand long enough to let the synapses meet up, and you have something tangible.

I had forgotten my one Euro moment. Thanks to a paper receipt at the bottom of a plastic bag, now I’ll remember it forever.




It’s Such a Small World

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Over past few years of my life I have been fortunate enough to engage in some international travel. I have truly visited some of the great cities of the world.

Traveling outside of the borders of the United States has made me a better person in many ways, not the least of which is that I have come to appreciate my own country more by not being in it for a few days at a time.

I recall spending Fourth of July in England, gazing over the Thames while pondering that the Fourth of July is about so much more than hot dogs and sparklers. It really made the summer holiday mean something to me.

The other thing that international travel has done is give me a front row seat on gaining perspective of just how large this big blue marble really is. Gigantic. And how people are different and yet people are the same.

One aspect that I have experienced on each of my overseas trips has been a small moment of humanity, a connection, finding a shared place with another person even as I feel the dislocation of being in another country.

It happened in Dublin, and is such a fond memory. It also happened in Amsterdam, and I guess it’s taken a little while for the beauty of the interaction to sink in.

Let me tell the tale:

I arrived in Amsterdam on Sunday at about 7:30am. Schiphol airport was quiet and calm in the early morning hours.

My fellow passengers and I came off our flight from Newark and walked into the airport, quickly cleared customs and stood by the baggage return waiting.

And waiting.

You see, in Europe, things don’t always move on the timescale that Americans are used to. It’s just how it is.

I hadn’t slept in something like eighteen hours and I was wobbly on my pins, but resolved. Finally after the eternity of a half hour, the bags started rolling through the baggage return. Hooray!

People scurried to get their luggage and wandered off into the Amsterdam day. I kept watching bags go by that were not mine.

Finally the flow of luggage slowed to a trickle and I knew, I just knew. My bag didn’t make it.

I had a very tight transfer time in Newark, less than an hour, and I had flat out ran to get between gates and onto the plane, so I was just certain my bag didn’t make it as fast as I had.

Shoot. That was the word foremost in my mind. Only not the word with the two o’s in the middle. The other word. I just kept saying that word over and over and over.

I looked around and saw I wasn’t alone. There were about eight of us standing there with no luggage.

We all looked at each other, shrugged and walked in unison over to the United Baggage customer service desk.

I was toward the back of the line so I struck up a conversation with a dude standing in line with a guitar slung over his shoulder.

He told me that he and his wife had come from Cleveland and that they were in Amsterdam to see their son, who is in a band, play a show. They were going to follow him on a couple tour stops.

Then he pointed to his guitar and said, “I’m going to try to do a little busking while I am here. The quality of the people I’ve seen busking in Amsterdam is pretty low, so I know I can do better than that.”

I spent too many years in the company of musicians to do anything other than laugh and agree. And I said, “That’s cool. When I get some Euros, if I see you playing, I will throw some your way.” He laughed and said thanks.

About that time the United customer service person said that the baggage handlers had failed to look in the “basement” of the plane, and our bags should be along directly. Lo and behold, my stuff showed up. I whipped it off the baggage return and stumbled my way out into the beautiful Amsterdam morning.

And then I settled into my little Amsterdam life, walking the canals, eating stroopwafels, visiting the Van Gogh museum, and work. Oh yeah, this was not a vacation but a work trip, and the work meetings were two full days (day and night) and massively intense.

On Tuesday evening, I stumbled out of the offices with my brain dead and my body exhausted. We had been through an intense day and were on a short one-hour break before meeting back at the offices to go to dinner.

I strolled along the Singel, which is the center of Amsterdam. I was so tired and concentrating on not turning my ankles on the cobblestones near the flower market. My hotel was only a few blocks from there.

As I walked, feeling out of my mind and brain dead, I heard someone playing guitar and singing. I remembered the guy I had met at the airport and wondered what had become of him.

As I rounded a curve, I saw a man in shorts and a porkpie hat busking at the end of an alleyway and in front of a closed store. He was putting a lot of gusto into the song, “Santeria” and had his backed turned to me.

I walked past and looked. Sure enough, it was my fellow passenger.

I pulled out my wallet and looked to see what I had to give. I found a five Euro bill, then walked up and said, “I promised I’d give you some Euros” and dropped the bill into his guitar case.

He looked puzzled and said, “Thanks. Are you an American?”

He didn’t recognize me, so I said, “We’ve met. Remember at baggage claim in Sunday?”

His eyes went wide, “Heeey! How cool is this?” He pointed out his wife who was shopping one of the stores a bit down the path. He told me he had seen his son play the night before and that he and his wife were off to Brussels in the morning for his son’s next show.

We chatted for a few moments, then I said, “I just had to stop and I’m so sorry for interrupting your song, that is rude of me.”

“No, no! Here, let me give you something! Here, take one of our CDs.”

So I did, and I thanked him and headed off with a smile on my face and a little more bounce in my step.

I get that Amsterdam is a small city and that the flower market is a popular place to be, but that one moment of humanity made this great big gigantic overwhelming world seem just a little bit smaller.

That felt pretty good to a little tired American girl wandering the canals of Amsterdam.

With a cheers from San Francisco to the fine city of Cleveland.

Here’s the band if you are inclined to check them out:

Cats on Holiday




Copyright © 2014 Karen Fayeth

I took this photo later that same night with a couple of Dutch beers under my belt and a song in my heart. I call this one “Amsterdam Moon” for the The Mavericks song of the same name.







Photo Copyright © 2014, Karen Fayeth, and subject to the Creative Commons license in the right column of this page. Taken with an iPhone5 and the Camera+ app. Post processed with Snapseed.




And Away We Go

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Back in the yesteryear of 2012 I found myself constantly at various airports around the world, passport in hand. I was constantly aware of timezones and dial in numbers and etiquette in different cultures.

I worked a truly global job and had direct reports in five different countries. My days would begin at seven in the morning and end at ten o’clock at night.

That was a really good job and I liked my boss, himself a product of Sweden living in the UK. The gig worked my mind and my skills and my ability to work with different people in different countries with different rules.

It also worked me over pretty good. After almost three years in that role, I knew my mental health was suffering, my doctor told me my physical health was suffering and my husband asked nicely if we could spend a little more time together in person.

So I began a job hunt for a company I would like, a job that challenged me, and the travel and timezones would be kept to a minimum.

Then I found that job. A really wonderful gig, a perfect fit. This is one of the rare times in my life when I can say I love my job, and I do. It’s awesome! Part of the reason I was hired was because I had that international background and could assist on a huge project with a European entity. My current employer is very small and they don’t have a ton of background with international dealings. Great! Happy to help.

I was told I would work on this big project but it was highly unlikely I would travel. Nice! All of the fun challenges and none of the zombie jet lag shuffle through airports.

Until last month when I was asked, on very short notice, to take a trip to Ireland. Fun! That was my first thought. I kind of missed traveling and looked forward to getting back in the game. I loved every minute of Ireland and the work was very productive. Good stuff!

Came home exhausted but satisfied. Happy to have had a nice international trip and ready to settle back into my life.

Then came news that I now am needed in Amsterdam next week. Now, I’ve always wanted to go to Amsterdam, but you know what? There are few things I want to do less than get on another airplane right now.

But board a plane I will, passport in hand, zombie shuffle at my feet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining even though it sounds very much like I am.

I love to travel. I love to see things I have never seen before. I love learning new cultures and customs and doing business across the boundaries of language and culture.

But damn oh damn. I haven’t even caught up on sleep and it is time to go again.

And so, here we go! Amsterdam here I come. Please be nice to me.

I won’t have much free time while I am there so I have to do up my “must do” list. For those who have gone, what do you recommend?









Image found here.




My Fair New Mexico, In the Zeitgeist

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When I travel internationally (or even in the US) I know I have to find many ways to distract my monkey brain. Sitting still in a seat for flights that last anywhere from six hours to sixteen hours means I have to bring a lot of toys and distractions on an airplane to keep me sane.

Lately the best and easiest distraction for me is to load my iPad with movies. Good long movies that will help me while away the hours.

On this recent round trip to Ireland, I had four movies on my iPad and watched two more on the plane. Six movies, all told, have been absorbed into the ol’ brain pan.

They were: “American Hustle” (awesome movie!), “Don John” (far better than I had expected), “The Great Gastby” (far worse than I had expected), “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (way better than expected as I expected to fully hate it), “August: Osage County” (was a little hard to watch, hits too close to home and is rather depressing), and “The Wolf of Wallstreet” (eh, I was lukewarm).

So as I found myself locked and loaded and flying the skies, it was kind of funny to stumble across not one but two references to my fair New Mexico in these movies. A little “hello” from my homestate as I flew thousands of miles away.

The first was in American Hustle. (spoiler alert!) The character Sydney (Amy Adams) has been affecting a British accent and a faked up backstory of being a British aristocrat and finally has to come clean. She and Irving (Christian Bale) are fighting and she admits not only is she not British with ties to banking and business in England, she’s actually just a girl from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

This made me pause. What am I to take from this? She’s not a big time global force, but a simple girl from New Mexico?

Or do I infer that she learned her hustle in New Mexico? Hell, I don’t know and really it doesn’t matter, but it was a little startling to hear the name Albuquerque casually tossed about. However, I was a happy for the name check of my hometown in a big time movie. The Sydney character is pretty cool.

The other reference came along in “The Great Gatsby” when Tom is riding in a car with Jordan and speaking ill of Gatsby, as they have just had an unpleasant encounter in a hotel room in New York City. Tom is apoplectic and the dialogue goes something like this (parentheses added by me to make the speaker clear):

“An Oxford man!” He was incredulous. “Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.” (said Tom)
“Nevertheless he’s an Oxford man.” (said Jordan)
“Oxford, New Mexico,” snorted Tom contemptuously, “or something like that.”

From that exchange I certainly could infer what was being said. Oxford, New Mexico said contemptuously. As though New Mexico is the most backwater place a rich man from East Egg can think of.

That one made me wince a little, even as I was pleasantly startled to hear New Mexico called out again, in another movie.

A little research showed me that this dialogue is in the actual book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which I read a thousand years ago and didn’t remember this.

But there it was, in a blockbuster movie!

I’m not entirely sure why New Mexico is in the zeitgeist these days, maybe it’s chalked up to “Breaking Bad” or maybe it’s something else, but hey here we are in the big time.

Not sure how I feel about that, really. Sometimes it’s best to keep our something very nice as something very secret.






Went back to the very first post on this blog to snag this photo, one of mine. It just seemed right.




Photo of ristra Copyright © 2007, Karen Fayeth, and subject to the Creative Commons license in the far right column of this page.




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