white clouds seen through an airplane window

Last Steps

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Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll be on my way to Africa. It’s really hard to believe, after two and a half years of planning, that it’s happening NOW.

I’m packed! Somehow, I have managed to pack everything I need for seven weeks and four different climates in two small, soft-sides suitcases and a carry-on backpack. The climates were more of a problem than the sheer amount of time, since I will have access to laundry machines. But I’ll be traveling first in a hot, wet river delta; then in the desert; then in the mountain forests, and finally in Europe at full winter. That was a challenge! I admit that I cheated a bit. I didn’t pack much for the European week… I’ll get by on the clothes I brought for the warmer climates, plus a hoodie and a heavy windbreaker. I might be chilly, but I’ll be okay.

There is absolutely no room for souvenirs, but I am not fazed by this. A fair amount of the space is taken up by PPE stuff — mostly N95 masks — and those are going to get slowly used up during the trip. Hopefully, by the time I need to fit anything new into my bags, there will be room in the space those masks once occupied. There’s also no room for the Pack with a Purpose items that I had intended to bring, and that *does* make me sad. But I don’t have time to buy them anyway, so I’m not sure it would’ve made a difference. I think that was a slightly too ambitious plan and I need to find other ways to give back to the communities I’m visiting.

The first part of the trip is two days of air travel — first on Delta from Seattle to Amsterdam and then on KLM to Johannesburg. I’ll be flying in business class, which is a relatively new experience for me. Like most younger, less wealthy people who love to travel, I used to conserve money by taking the least expensive flights I could find. But between the fibromyalgia and simple age, there came a point at which I had to acknowledge that long-range flying was just too exhausting for me without a flat bed to lie down on, just as I had already had to admit that I could no longer take the train for weeks at a time without a sleeper car. Sleeping on the floor underneath the seats was better left for younger people.

So lately, just as I now find the money for sleeper cars when I’m taking long-distance train trips, I find the money for business class flights whenever I’m in the air for longer than about six hours. I’ve only tried it once or twice so far, but it’s disconcertingly fun. I could get used to being taken care of the way you get taken care of by a good business class flight attendant. Its most important benefit right now, of course, is that I’ll have a separate seat of my own with barriers around it, in which I’ll be safer from picking up stray viruses. But I still intend to thoroughly enjoy the whole experience of a business class seat, as long as I’ve got one. I’ll tell you all about it when I land in Johannesburg.

I’m also hoping to be able to do a little shopping during the layover at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. I’ve heard that it’s a good shopping airport, and I have a very special fifty-euro bill to spend. It even came my way in an airport. Here’s its story.

A few years ago — before the pandemic made the concept of eating snacks in airplane coach class a somewhat risky idea — my teenagers and I went to New York to visit my parents. After we were settled at the gate, I took the kids, one at a time, to the airport newsstand/snack shop/souvenir store, to pick out their preferred snacks while the other kid waited with the luggage at the gate. They were about fifteen and thirteen then, so I was a little concerned about leaving either of them alone there for very long.

But it looked like I was going to be stuck in line for quite a while, because the man in front of me was having endless problems with the credit card reader. First I stood there patiently. Then I got annoyed. And finally, I began to listen to what exactly he was saying.

He was from Germany, and he was getting more and more upset because the card reader apparently wouldn’t recognize his cards, even though they had an international chip in them. He didn’t know why it wouldn’t work, and neither did the clerk. But he was on his way home, and he didn’t have any gifts from his trip to bring to his family, so he was trying to buy them at the souvenir shop — the last opportunity before he boarded his plane. He was becoming terribly distressed that it wasn’t working. He put back some of the gifts, selecting only the ones he considered most important until he got down to a price he could offer in cash. But the cash he had was in euros, not dollars, and so she couldn’t accept it.

At that point, I stepped in. He was becoming really distressed, and I thought about what it would feel like to come home empty-handed to my own family after a trip. I handed the clerk my card. “Try running it on this one,” I told her.

It took a minute before the German gentleman realized what I had done. But the card went through and the clerk began packing up his things for him, and he turned to me in absolute delight. He thanked me enough that I started to get embarrassed, and he firmly insisted that I take the 50-euro note with which he’d been attempting to buy the items a few minutes earlier. I protested that I hadn’t paid as much as fifty euros for his things; it was about forty. And I didn’t have change to give him. But he pressed it on me anyway, and eventually I accepted.

We parted with everyone feeling great. He had his items, and an experience with the kindness of strangers to turn the situation from upsetting to joyful. I had the fun of feeling like a fairy godmother, plus fifty euros to carry until I could finally get to the EU someday and spend it. The clerk got out of an embarrassing situation and made her sale, as well as avoiding too much impatience from me and the other customers who’d been starting to line up behind me.

I’ve kept that 50-euro note in my wallet ever since, planning to spend it on something special the next time I get to Europe. The pandemic made me wait than I had intended to, but now I’m about to be in Amsterdam. If there’s something that feels right to buy with it in the airport, I will. If not, I’ll hold it till I get back to Amsterdam proper with my friend J, after the Africa part of the trip, and we’ll figure out something wonderful to do with it.

Maybe I’ll use it to bring back gifts for my family. That’s how the whole thing started, after all.

What do you recommend I do in Amsterdam with my 50-euro note? Is there any advice you’d like to give me about traveling in international business class? Tell me in the comments!

2 responses to “Last Steps”

  1. Andy Wilson Avatar
    Andy Wilson

    If they let you go visit the kitchen on your own (as they did for passengers on the long hop from LA to Sydney), swipe all the Tim Tams just before you start your descent. Mmmm. Tim Tams.

    1. Naomi Avatar

      Follow-up: no visiting the kitchen, alas. I was pretty wiped by the time I got to that stage of the trip anyway, and not eating much.

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