The Perishable Pundit Visits South Africa
Dispatch I: Miami to London
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, August 28, 2006
This was my first experience with the new airport security, and traveling on British Airways non-stop to London from Miami, I travel under the most rigorous of rules. I am allowed but one carry on, just large enough for my computer case.
I don’t usually carry liquids so that didn’t really affect me too much, though they did confiscate my Chapstick. I am always shocked how many people live truly isolated lives. I would say the single biggest slow-down on the lines were people walking up to the front ready to enter security carrying a large purse, a briefcase, a shopping bag, a rolling suitcase — despite the fact that they are passing many prominent signs telling them this is not allowed. And even if there were no signs, it has certainly been well publicized and you can’t go to an airline web site or toll free number without being told the rules have changed.
Yet they come, rolling their stuff. At first I am tempted to believe that they are attempting to get away with something, and I watch with admiration as I observe we are a world of thespians with abilities to rival Olivier as the people cry and shout, object and demand, alternately pleading and threatening, yet as I watch one after another, their importuning, all rejected by a woman guard just old enough to still be young, her build thick as if she were born to be the brick wall she has become.
I think the position suits her, as she is a believer. A foot soldier of the Empire manning the barricades of the war on terror. She goes home each night satisfied, knowing on her watch she held the line. I imagine her in another time and place manning a check post for ancient Rome on the Apian Way: Who goes there?
But today, the British, if not exactly ruling the waves, at least carry a proud bird in the air.
OBSERVATIONS FROM FIRST CLASS
I am escorted to my seat on the 747-400 series, and the young man who is showing me the way is beaming at the opportunity to seat me in First Class. Perhaps he is a good corporate agent and knows that this ticket cost more… well, I have to call the Padre Pundit to confirm, but I’m pretty sure the ticket cost more than the house my grandparents in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, bought when my father was 16 years old.
There is something else though, something in the culture that makes Brits glad to see things done properly. And, yes, if you are going to fly on a commercial airplane, First Class on British Airways’ long haul flights is very near the best. The very best, however, is that offered by the offspring of the Empire: Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.
Yet, as we prepare to take off, I call my wife and children, I call my mother and father, I call my best friend. I’m just checking in, I say, just letting them know I’ll be out of contact awhile — will call from London. And they say the same.
I wonder if I am the only one thinking of those planes they intended to blow up. I notice that despite everyone having PDAs and Blackberries, Internet connections, radios and TV, nobody mentions to me anything about that Manchester flight.
What is there really to say?
Maybe that is why I’m going First Class. Do you know there was a brief time when people were so certain of the future, of the British Empire, of the pound sterling, that they sold leaseholds for 999 years and fixed rate bonds for the same term?
Now I pull out the picture in my wallet of my little guys, William and Matthew, age 4 and 3. I wonder if I will have had any influence on them at all if this plane goes down. Maybe they would one day understand that I wouldn’t want them to give into fear either. I would like them to grow up happy, but would like them to find that happiness in the pursuit of realizing their complete potential. For now, they only want to know if anyone from the Lion King will be at my speech in Africa.
That’s my fault. I gave another speech at a produce convention, and River Ranch had Popeye there. I took a picture with Popeye, brought it home and told the boys that Popeye was at Daddy’s speech. Ever since, in their vivid imaginations, I give speeches to rows upon row of their favorite cartoon characters. If I ever get nervous, I use that vision.
Traveling when you are single or even married is OK because things are, mostly, the same when you return, but if you have children, especially young ones, you go away for two weeks and return to a different child. You miss something every day. So I view my trip as that of a reconnaissance mission for a family vacation. I’m just an advance man scouting the landscape to one day show them what I will see on this trip. I’m told baboons run free through the streets off Cape Town. Is that so? The kids would love that.
I’m safely in my seat; it is like a little hotel room, where you can really sleep on the flat bed the seat opens into, and while you are in seating position you have lots of room.
There is no rest for the weary though; there are Perishable thoughts to be captured, Pundits to be written, columns to be finished and a business to be run. So out comes my laptop.
Indeed, the terrorists concern me, but the only moment of utter, complete fear that hit me during the preparation for this trip came when, in the wake of the British plot, they announced that laptops could not come in the cabin. Fortunately the regulation was relaxed but between flights, layovers and downtime at the airports, I have about 36 hours each way. Wondered how much I could have written in long hand? I thought about Dostoevsky.
I’ve slipped into the pajamas/sweats they have given, and it reminds me of Ronald Reagan. The media on Air Force One would sit in their seats in back and arrive wrinkled and disheveled in Beijing or Moscow or wherever the President was going. He always came down the steps in the same suit he wore on, good as new. Not a crease in his shirt — his secret was he changed into a sweat suit as soon as he got on board. Now I’ll walk out in Heathrow as good as I got on.
FOOD IS MORE THAN NUTRITION
The menu has arrived. I make it a point in traveling to always try the foods I am least familiar with, figuring that if I wanted to eat the ones I am most familiar with I could have stayed home. (Although I have an exception. My father is not a good eater when it comes to travel so, whatever country we would travel to as a family, my father always wanted to sneak off and try the local McDonald’s. I always remember the small absurdity of flying to Rio and going out with my dad in search of a McDonald’s. In any case, it is a small fealty to a great man, so I’ve kept it up ever since. I understand they have them in South Africa, so that will be another notch on my belt. I wonder if I’ll ever explain to my boys why I do that.)
But for now, I can select from a menu designed by ten master chefs from Capetown to London, from Thailand to California, and my attempts to eat British food on British Airways is frustrated as they really no longer serve such a thing. Everything sounds like the fusion cuisine you would find in some hip place in the meatpacking district of New York or South Beach.
I select a green chicken curry for my entrée as it sounds vaguely Indian and that is the closest to British cooking I will get. But the Thai chef designed a delicious appetizer with baked ricotta cheese, enoki mushrooms and a red pepper coulis.
For dessert I spy a Warm Scottish Fruit tart with Whiskey, topped with vanilla ice cream. It blows the diet to bits but Scotland is solidly in the U.K., and I have obligations.
They serve a cheese plate, which appeals to me but the menu contains a disclaimer: Unpasteurized cheese may pose a health risk to certain groups of people, including pregnant women, the elderly, the very young and those whose systems may be immunocompromised. I dig in all the same, but with slightly less gusto than before.
The cheeses are delicious, athough I wish they came with a description of where each came from. One was a bleu and, I imagine, a good British Stilton. Another was a soft goat’s milk cheese, and a third a hard yellow cheddar, all served with a wonderful selection of crackers. I use the oat-based ones, which are not labeled, but I think they are from Walker’s Shortbread.
I try to imagine where each cheese comes from, but I really have no idea so I think of the voices of Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in the movie version of My Fair Lady practicing elocution: In Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen. I decide these are the three towns my three cheeses come from.
The coffee and tea service comes around, and an older gentleman asks my preference. I say tea and he begins to recite the various teas and herbal teas they stock. I stop the man and explain I am on British Airways, the flag carrier of the Queen and I want a good British tea. I think I see a little grin on this man of quintessential British reserve as if he remembers a time, on some flight to some distant outpost of Empire when they did things a certain way.
The guy across the aisle from me seems very hard working and very sharp. The way he carries himself, the facility with that spread sheet he has open, the expense of that hand-tailored suit. I take him for a hot shot from The Street. From his accent, I know that he is clearly British. He orders coffee. The old man and I exchange a look.
I try to write but am very tired so I set up the bed, which is actually quite comfortable. I ask the gentleman to wake me for breakfast, mostly because years of travel have taught me the importance of getting your body on the time clock of your destination city, but also because that chef who designed the appetizer also has a special Thai Stuffed Omelet I have my eye on for breakfast.
But it is not to be. I wake up as they begin the breakfast service and am approached by my steward from last night. He does not ask what my selection is from the menu. Instead he asks enthusiastically: “Would you like a proper English breakfast this morning? Although I find the sausages and almost raw bacon the Brits always serve for breakfast unappealing, I said yes.
So I ate my bangers and eggs and grilled tomato and I thought of the doughboys on the line in World War I, which people don’t realize but was the war that started the end of Europe and, perhaps, the west, as a generation of the boys from the playing fields of Eton were mowed down in the trenches.
I thought of the typical doughboy and what a treat it was for them when they could get some bangers and mash. I imagined myself in the Dardanelles and in the great campaigns on the Cape.
I thought of the boys under Monty’s command at Alamein in the Second World War, and I felt like I was there, eating with them from a special breakfast just before they went into battle.
That is what food is all about. It is something the Slow Food movement recognizes that mass manufacturers and retailers sometimes forget: Food is not just nutrition. It ties us down a line of history and represents a place and a time.
What is a country, what are a people? If, one day, France is not Christian, and they don’t speak French, and they ban all wine, does it mean anything that the country is still called France?
In our little interchange, my steward and I asked, is it still British if we all eat Thai-stuffed omelets? I confess the breakfast was horrid, but, who knows, perhaps it is eating generations of that awful stuff that gave the British their famous stiff upper lips.
LANDED IN LONDON
We are ready to land. It is 5:30am U.K., but they have us circling. Why? Curfew on the airplanes landing to avoid annoying the neighbors. Can’t land till 6:00am. Heathrow was once the leading airport in the world. It is now #5 in Europe. Heathrow can’t get political support to build needed runways and facilities, so the economic dynamo that contributes so much to British tourism and the economy languishes because they can’t find a mechanism to deal with such issues.
I change back into my clothes and clean up my place. I thanked the steward as I exited and my steward replied, “Thank you, Mr. Prevor,” and held himself quite erect.
And we are out of our First Class cocoon and into a very gritty real world. Ugly halls, a ride on a bus and then an endless wait to pass immigration because my flight leaves from terminal four and arrived in terminal three.
I wait two hours in line and they just seem to have inadequate facilities. Most grin and bear it. I saw a couple who spouted off being taken away.
I am of mixed feelings. Obviously I don’t begrudge needed safety methods but keep thinking this is all caused by a political correctness in society. All these overweight middle-aged British ladies were scrupulously asking questions as to what is allowed and not and throwing out their hair spray and lip gloss without question. I wonder if we wouldn’t be safer if all the resources that go into this effort were actually devoted to identifying terrorists.
But there would be mistakes. Interrogators would ask questions and tell people to go home today, and sometimes they wouldn’t be terrorists and someone would sue. They may be selected because of religion, race, age or gender or some other characteristic.
The poor interrogator would be dragged up on disciplinary hearings, his name would be dragged through the mud and, soon, instead of him feeling that he should err on the side of denying boarding to insure safety, he would feel he should err on the side of letting someone on if he is certain, then they would blow up a plane.
So I take off my belt, my shoes and am limited to one carry on and can’t have my chapped lip stuff. Small sacrifices in the war against terror, I know, but probably not very helpful either.
I go to the British Airways lounge and start to write. You pass through an airport that, like all big airports, is as much a shopping center as anything else.
I am here all day, so I would have normally run into the city for the day, but with a three-hour lead time for check-in, it doesn’t make sense. I might have showered up at the airline lounge or taken a day room, but with only my small carry-on allowed, I have no clothes to change into. I think people will drive more on vacations. It is just too much hassle.
Just as well… I have a Pundit’s mailbag to work on so I will sit here and write. Next installment: London to Capetown.