Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Non-Journey from Hell with Virgin America

Contrary to speculation, I did not miss my flight from New York to Los Angeles because I was in the bar. 

Just to fill everyone in: I was six hours early for a Virgin America flight (I had an appointment at the airport), had lunch in the bar and, making sure I left it at least 90 minutes before take-off (I'd paid $50 - wasn't going to waste that!), sat patiently in the American Airlines lounge, working (Virgin America does not have a lounge at Newark International).
As I was also dealing with some issues relating to family illness in the UK and sending texts and e-mails, I didn’t notice the time (the American Airlines lounge boards list only their flights) and had to run for the gate, where I was informed it was closed. I was there with 23 minutes to spare, but it was very much a case of computer says no. My bag was on the plane and travelled without me.
The woman at the desk offered me absurdly expensive flights to places nowhere near LA; the alternative was returning in the morning and going on stand-by. She kept telling me that she had a family and just wanted to get home to her kids. I phoned my friend Chrissy to speak with her as I was finding it impossible to talk through my tears. She told Chrissy, too, that she wanted to get home to her kids.

Ah, right. So was that the reason the gate was closed early? Whatever happened to passenger care? A comforting word, a hint of understanding? I was told she had tried to call me. Yes, on a number I haven’t had for five years, and my Virgin America account very clearly states the one I have had since then. And, to cover all bases because the flight had been booked through a third party, I phoned them that very morning to give them all my information.
Apart from the appalling customer service, the security issue really worries me. I have sat on many a plane waiting for passengers and, if they do not turn up, we have to wait while their luggage is taken out of the hold. When I questioned why my bag had been allowed to fly without me, I was told that it and I had both cleared security. 

Yes - but now they were sending me out of the airport. 

Apart from the fact that not every bag in the hold is thoroughly checked, it raises the question of how easy it is to get your bag on without you - just check it in and turn up to the gate late. That’s a massive, gaping flaw in security, and deeply disturbing.
So, I had to to toddle off to the Marriott and spend $300 dollars I could ill afford to try for the morning flight (fabulous staff at Newark International, by the way; I love Marriotts). I rang Virgin America later and was informed that they could give me a seat on the morning flight, after all. They assigned me the number - 3D - and I was ecstatic. 

When I arrived in the morning, however, I was told that no seat had been assigned and I was on standby. Again, the like of comforting customer care was negligible. More tears. Finally, with only one available seat, I made it, the last person to board. I was stressed. Exhausted. Yes, I know I was late at the gate and I take responsibility for that. 

But closing the gate early and somebody being so damned unhelpful because she has a family waiting for their tea, is just shoddy and unprofessional. 
I fly with Virgin Atlantic all the time and had used the points I have accumulated there to fly with Virgin America - a Virgin Atlantic partner, but a different airline altogether. Virgin Atlantic had already messed up, for three days telling me that I would be able to upgrade with more points if a seat became available, and then informing me the day before that no, 72 hours’ notice was required. So why had they kept telling me to call back at regular intervals and also told me that I could ask at the airport and points could be added with one phone call to them? 
Virgin America were worse. Everyone I spoke to there didn’t even seem to know that Virgin Atlantic is a partner. 
I fly a lot and am a very trouble free passenger, but so much stress is caused by airline staff either not knowing basic information about their jobs, or simply not doing them. 

I could go on about Virgin America - and will. The absence of anyone to meet at greet because staff are chatting with the pilot; the non-checking of seat belts; the rubbish that is allowed to accumulate in the cabin over five hours (not even my kitchen trash bin ever has as debris as what I had to sit with at my feet); the demand that all blinds be closed (on a daytime flight, for goodness’ sake); the blinds being closed for take-off and landing (the most dangerous part of the flight, when light is needed); the seeming inability of any member of staff - ground or airborne - to smile. 

The airline is, quite simply, a shambles.
Reunited with my bag in LA, the same non-smiling faces and rude Virgin America staff were as nonchalant as those in New York. Next week, I have to do it all again (the journey, not the missing the plane bit) and am dreading it. 

The whole experience has cost me money, time, stress, and left a very sour taste in the mouth about a once terrific airline. 

East to West coast on a camel might well prove less traumatic. 

Anyone find me a ride from Camels R Us, by any chance?

P.S. I am now on my return journey and have encountered yet ANOTHER unsmiling, rude person at check-in at LAX. Same thing happened last time at LAX. This time, Monique was so busy slagging off the previous "guest" to her colleague, I had to ask for her attention three times. Then, after removing some weight from my luggage, she started to walk off saying she had finished (without having checked me in!). BIG sighs when I asked her to finish the check-in. Get your act together Virgin America!


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Love, Loss, and Gratitude

The cliche goes: “It’s always around Christmas.” 

Illness. Death. Heartbreak. But, the truth is, “it” is around us just as much every other day of the year; it’s just that at Christmas, it feels more poignant because it is a time when we are all supposed to be feeling jolly with the yo-ho-ho-ness of it all. 

The reality, in adulthood, is invariably different; it doesn’t mean that we are incapable of joy, but pleasure comes tempered with the knowledge of corresponding sadness.
I lost my father just after Christmas nearly 26 years ago. A close friend lost her father on Boxing Day a few years back. In December just gone, two friends lost their mothers. 
It is hard to think of anything new to say about the one thing that every living creature has in common. We are all born, and we will all die - there you go, another cliche, but no less poignant for its being so.
But it is in times of loss that we find comfort in cliches: they are a uniting force in a world that continues to separate us in so many ways. Cliches are the emotional levellers: the things that strip us to the core and reveal that, at their deepest level, our raw, primal instincts are the same: we want to love and we want to be loved, and the pain of either being taken away is, at best, painful; at worst, unbearable.
The manifestation of those two primal urges leads us into all sorts of difficult territory - desire, jealousy, insecurity, paranoia . . . I could go on - but when we lose love, it hauls us back to the heart of the matter: the very beating of existence, physically and emotionally, that defines our existence, independent of the social mores and other “stuff” we find ourselves heaping upon it to make life more difficult than it need be.
Because, as better people have said, in superior cliches from those I am managing, love is all. Corinthians 13 tells us everything that love should be, in its purest form, but it’s pretty unsustainable in the modern world. But, when the physical body of a loved relative or friend departs, one is left with that very spirit, the essence, of love - at least, if you have been lucky in the people with whom you have encountered it. 

We may delude ourselves in sugar-coating the less than savoury aspects; we may hide our grievances and guilt in shadows me might not wish to revisit for many years; we may lie to ourselves and others about life, death, and everything in between. But in that moment of departure and what it entails, we become as babies once more, especially when that death is one’s mother: the being who brought you into the world; the person who, literally, gave you life. You really are on your own now; the umbilical cord severed.
This wasn’t quite how I imagined wishing everyone a Happy New Year, but I’d like to change it slightly and wish you all a loving new year. 

For me, 2015 was a year of some great stuff, some less than good, to say the least; a time in which I learnt a lot and, I hope, shared knowledge I have been lucky to glean, with others. It was a year in which I was a joy and, I have to be honest, at times a right pain in the arse. A year in which my friends loved me for the former and forgave me for the latter - and in which I, too, loved and forgave them for both, too.
Because we’re human beings. That’s what we do. We mess up and we repair. None of us sets out to do a bad job, and the fact that we end up doing so at times doesn’t really matter; it’s how we put it right that counts. And the people who love us know that. 
And so, my sincere condolences to my friends who have lost people dear to them this year; and my thoughts go out to the many people who I know face a difficult year ahead with treatment for their various illnesses.
I am blessed having you all in my life, and thank you for your patience, kindness, acceptance of my eccentricities (even though, to me, I am the most normal person on the planet, obviously), and I send you all the love I have for the year ahead. 


Friday, January 1, 2016

Bloody Christmas!

Vampirism is not all it’s choked up to be. In fact, vampirism really sucks. 

Of all the resolutions I was planning for 2016, the vow never, ever to become a vampire had not made it to the list. 
It’s not something I’d ever fancied, really. Vampire movies terrified me as a child, and I have a bit of a phobia about people with bad teeth. So, two pointed, dripping red oral talons descending upon my neck in the middle of the night was never going to hold much appeal.
But over the festive period, I drank a lot of blood. And I mean a lot. I could have saved entire hospital wards with the profusion of platelets, clots and rivers of bloodiness pouring from my nose.
I remember only once having a nosebleed when I was about seven, and it didn’t last very long. So, 50 years later, it was pretty scary to suddenly find myself in Sainsbury’s in Paddington Station, dripping onto my discount mince pies and feeling helpless as terrified passengers all but ran screaming from the exorcism that appeared to be taking place before their eyes.
The staff were very nice and offered me a chair, but I was rushing for a train, as I had arranged to look after my mum in Bristol, where she was due to have an operation the following day. The nosebleed did not stop en route. In fact, it got so bad, they had to call for a doctor on board. He arrived quickly, courtesy of the lovely steward Dean Jones on First Great Western Railway. And gosh, was he a hot doctor - straight out of Central Casting. A gorgeous Scot called Douglas. In the brief moment when he managed to stop the bleeding, I managed a quick selfie with him. A wheelchair was waiting for me at Bristol Parkway and I made it to my mother’s house without flooding the taxi.
No sooner had I made it through her door than it started again. And I mean really started. When the NHS helpline gave up with advice about bags of frozen peas on my neck and pinching my nose, and there was a trail of blood through every room of my mother’s house, they told me to call an ambulance and get to a hospital asap.
The ambulance took two hours to arrive. It was four hours before I saw a doctor in the hospital. I could not fault the staff, who work unbelievable hours for very little money and in not very salubrious conditions. But the time it takes to get anything done is horrendous. It’s not the staff’s fault; they are stretched to the extreme, and I have nothing but admiration for anyone who would put up with these conditions - not to mention the difficult patients.
I happened to be a rather good one. I’ve never spent a night in hospital in my life, and I was happy to surrender to those who know better than I do in medical matters. I’d had the foresight to take my laptop in with me, as I had a ton load of work to do, and my only offence was to keep Googling my condition in the many spare hours I had, and checking with staff that they had tested me for every possible ailment ever recorded in the history of mankind. 
There are many causes for nosebleeds, and the overall consensus was that mine had been caused by high blood pressure due to extreme stress; I had literally burst a blood vessel. I won’t fill you in on the gory details of what had to be done to stop the flow, but it took 36 hours and involved bowls, nose blowing, inflated tubes up my nostrils, and no sleep as I couldn’t lie down (that last one was a blessing when the gorgeous Polish nurse came to take my blood pressure at midnight; I’d really hit the jackpot with hot male medics that week).
But back to the vampirism. Because your nose is connected to your throat (finally, I learnt what an Ear Nose and Throat specialist is for), you end up swallowing a lot of blood when you have a nose bleed. Then, because your stomach doesn’t like blood and is begging you to explain where the spaghetti Bolognese it usually enjoys has gone, it throws it back up. By the bucketload. The taste is vile. Metallic. It feels as if it’s filling every orifice in your head. The lettuce leaf you just about managed to consume at lunch (no hot foods or liquids for me) returns like a piece of seaweed caught in the tide of the Red Sea.
All of this was no good for my blood pressure, which was going up and up. So was my heart rate. I had two lots of blood tests and two ECGs. They said they were going to keep me in with the balloon up my nose for at least a couple of days. I started to worry that I hadn’t made a will. Meanwhile, my poor mum was on her way to a different hospital, and her poor little Bichon Frise was about to be abandoned for the day while I tried to arrange cover. The good news is, the operation went well, and I managed to cook for them both over Christmas. Alas, I couldn’t touch a thing. All I could see when I looked at the turkey was blood. I’m not a big meat eater anyway, but my foray into vampirism might well have turned me vegetarian for good.
And so begins the real hard task - trying to keep my blood pressure at safe levels so that I am not put on medication. There are plenty of things one can do to bring it down naturally - meditation, diet, exercise - but without removing the main source of stress, it’s not going to come down fast.
So, unless you are going to buy my Cardiff house, please don’t offer any advice. There is nothing I haven’t read on the subject. Heck, I’m almost a doctor now. 
And don’t send me any Get Well reading such as Bram Stoker, who wrote the Gothic novel, Dracula: “The blood is life . . . It shall be mine!” 

A bottle of red wine will do very nicely, though.