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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Flights, Etc.

Nicole and I got to Detroit Metro with five suitcases, one of which we knew was going to be over the fifty-pound limit. As we waited in the long line, an agent from Royal Jordanian chanted--as if trying to stress everybody out--"no repacking at counter" and "over fifty pounds, pay $100; over seventy pounds, it's not getting on the plane." We watched numerous passengers get sent away to repack and then rejoin the end of the line and each time the agent said, "You should have weighed your suitcase while you were in line." I'm not sure how you weigh a suitcase while in line, but his point was well-taken.

We got to the counter and while the ticketing agent typed in our passport info, we quickly weighed each of our suitcases. Good, good, good, good...and 74 pounds! "Quick, Nicole, unzip one of those suitcases." Before the agent could look up, I had stashed a copy of 'The Norton Book of Composition Studies' and a pair of Converse All-Stars in one of the Under Fifties. Heavy bag: 69.5 pounds. Disco. And since we were paying to check an extra bag already, Royal Jordanian didn't charge us the $100 fee. Score. But she couldn't access our Amman-to-Beirut boarding passes, so she told us just to ask for them in Jordan during our two-hour layover. Experienced travelers: you can probably guess that it wasn't as simple as she implied. Friends, when you inquire about doing something overseas and someone's advice begins with the word "just" (e.g., "just pick up a voltage converter at any corner store" or "just speak English and everybody will understand"), you can bet the task will be more difficult than suggested.

Waiting for the Detroit-to-Amman flight, and speaking of language barriers, I befriended an elderly, talkative Iraqi guy going back to the Mid East for reasons having to do with a green card. I asked him several times, "tit kellem ingleezy?" which he shrugged off as if to say come on, you know what I'm saying. I really didn't, but he seemed like a good fella and we had a nice chat. He had a lot of questions I couldn't answer (he pulled out his passport and said "stamp?" a few times), and he expressed nervousness about walking to the bathroom, but I feel like we bonded. I put together enough Arabic to tell him of our flight delay and convinced him to make the walk to the bathroom ("tai," I said, waving him toward me, and using one of the only Arabic words, meaning come with me, that I pronounce pretty well).

A late start, but the eleven-hour trip to Jordan was mostly uneventful. Royal Jordanian flight attendants wear cool hats (fedora-shaped but the wooly material of berets) and give out warm towels every few hours. I read Edward Said's memoir and snoozed; Nicole read "Persepolis" and watched the in-flight movies; little kid behind me did lots of kicking.

Got to Amman about 75 minutes late, which gave us a half-hour to make our connecting flight. Royal Jordanian agent at "transfers" desk waved us toward a lower-level gate so we joined the crowd rushing to other flights. We all ended up in another security/screening line. Why in the world did we need to go through the x-rays again? Lines at Queen Alia International Airport are rough guidelines at best. A woman in a wheelchair got wheeled to the front of the line and the muttering began. "She walked fine a minute ago," somebody said. Yikes. You had to put your carry-on down on the conveyor belt--forget about removing your laptop or paying close attention to your stuff--and then muscle your way up to the x-ray walk-through. We looked like five-year-olds playing soccer, except instead of bunched around a ball we were clustered around the entrance to the walk-thru. Since the situation wasn't yet stressful enough, a "last call for flight 301 to Beirut" announcement came over the loudspeaker.

Finally get to the lower-level gate and the agent tells us we should have gotten boarding passes upstairs at the transfer desk. Emphatically I tell her they sent us downstairs so, miracle of miracles, she lets us through the door without boarding passes. Onto a shuttle bus, which takes us across a very hot tarmac, with very armed soldiers, to a little plane where we wait for thirty minutes for more passengers. So much for "last call." At least nobody was checking boarding passes, which of course we didn't have. Chatted with a woman who looked like an older Olympia Dukakis, who like my new Iraqi friend, didn't care that I didn't understand much of what she said. The flight to Beirut was maybe forty minutes and when we exited, the heat and humidity hit us. All our luggage made it and AUB had an 'Allo Taxi' driver waiting for us, holding a "MR. DEGENARO" sign. I've always wanted to get picked up by somebody holding a sign with my name, so now I've got that going for me.

The 80-degrees-at-8:00-am thing surprised me a bit and, despite the warnings, so did the drive to Hamra. You know when you're driving on a busy road and you're careful to stay in your lane? In Beirut, not so much. You know how when you're on a motorcycle you try to avoid going the wrong way on a one-way street? In Beirut, not so much. Once we arrived in Hamra, our driver honked the horn at somebody and began to rapidly roll down the window, so I thought the driver was going to yell at the guy, right? Nope, he was just asking the man if he knew where Viccini Suites was. Already I've seen several drivers do this: you honk the horn loudly and pull up next to somebody, which seems almost menacing to Western eyes, but then the driver will ask for directions and use some term of endearment like "habibi." Horns are used AT LEAST 500 percent more than in the U.S. At least.

So we arrive at Viccini Suites. I suspect that our driver initially didn't know where the place was because, when asked to pick us up, he would have considered it inhospitable to say he didn't know. We saw this last night while walking around Hamra looking for our street--people would rather give somebody (especially a guest in their country) erroneous info than do something as rude as say "I don't know." Finally at our building, two slight blunders. Tired and surveying our five suitcases, Nicole innocently asked if the building had an elevator and the guy at the front desk seemed mildly insulted ("yes, of course, what do you think?"), probably because Nicole asked a "business" question without prefacing it with friendly small talk. I did something similar when, unsure whether AUB (who helped arrange our housing) had clarified that we wanted the apartment for ten months, I asked if I could check the place out before taking possession. The cliches are true: in the Middle East, share a cup of tea and make some small talk, and THEN get down to business. And for goodness sake, don't blow somebody off by saying that you don't know.


  1. Glad to hear you arrived safely!

  2. Sounds like you're already having an exciting time!

  3. Glad to hear you are there safe and sound. Already, what a set of learning with social conventions!!!

    I'm not even good at America's social conventions. When a woman says to me 'you look nice' I never feel comfortable saying it back for fear I'm implying something I shouldn't be.