Archive for May, 2008

Your time is up at Air France

May 29, 2008

Mon Dieu! It’s bad enough that airlines keep us on hold interminably. But I’d rather be on hold than not be able to speak with anyone. Air France has a new policy this year that if the agents’ telephone queue is of a certain length, a caller is disconnected after holding for 30 minutes! (Yes, they warn you.)

Over the course of several days I tested the Air France reservations line about five times. Once I got through quickly, twice I got a recording saying the wait time would be four minutes (I didn’t stay on to check) and twice I held for 30 minutes before the call was disconnected. (Of course I was multitasking.)

Customer Service, not our priorityThis is what you could call ANTI-customer service. I asked Air France media relations rep Karen Gillo about the policy. Her answer: “I’m pretty sure we don’t have a policy that says people will be cut off.” Mais oui, I countered, which she later confirmed. I asked how many operators the airline uses and when do they turn on that blasted disconnect message, and of course she said, “we don’t answer proprietary questions.”

This issue came up when I tried to reserve seats for an Air France flight from Oslo to Paris. Had I been paying better attention instead of multitasking, I would have heard the *one* recording in the beginning that in-Europe flights can’t get seat assignments until check-in. (Dangit, I’d known that for years and forgotten.) While I was holding for 30 minutes the message was never repeated.

I know what you’re thinking: go online, you idgit. Well, guess what? I did, and there was absolutely no place that said “make a seat assignment.”

Poor Karen spent two days trying to figure out why that option was missing, passing along all sorts of misinformation before concluding it was because the seat-assignment option was blocked, it being impossible to make one from Oslo to Paris.

So why didn’t the website just say that, I asked? That would have saved, like, an hour of my time. (Not counting writing this.)

“That’s an issue with the software,” she said. “I sent a suggestion to the web people about that.” Karen said she’d let me know if they fix it. (My eyes are rolling.) Feel free to help Karen along by making your own suggestion using Air France’s online form. That is only for comments about their online service. I can’t find a general customer-relations email. If any of you can, I’ll post it here.

As I kept telling Karen, this is not about me (well, a little), but about all the other Air France customers going through the same thing. No computer option; no phone option. What’s a customer to do? Choose a different airline.

When the heck is Southwest going to start flying overseas anyway?


A rolling tour through Vietnam

May 28, 2008

Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published April 27, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

From Di’s eyes: This sounds like a first-rate tour, giving cyclists a look at authentic Vietnam. Sign me up! I like Barbara’s vow to leave the country every year, too, as long as Canada counts.

WHO: Barbara Levitov, 60, of Needham, Mass.

WHERE: Vietnam.

WHEN: Two weeks in December.

WHY: “I’ve promised myself for 20 years that I’ll leave the country every year,” Levitov said. “In the last two years I’ve really enjoyed bicycling. What appealed to me about Vietnam was I’d never been in that part of the world, it was more recently opened to tourism, and few companies offer biking trips there.”

Barbara Levitov biking along fishing villages meeting childrenMANY GREETINGS: Levitov joined a trip offered by REI Adventures. “We were all Americans, 12 others, and in our 20s to 60.” The group met in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. For the next two weeks they cycled and rode with two Vietnamese cycling guides and two drivers. “Because of the distance, we traveled in a bus from place to place. They’d drop us off and tell us where we were going and then the bus would be at a certain point, and you’d have snacks and water,” Levitov said. “We were always waving to people. Schoolchildren especially would run from their schoolyards yelling and giggling and saying ‘ah-lo, ah-lo.’ They also loved having their picture taken and they laughed so hard when we showed them their pictures.”

Barbara Levitov at Tomb of Khai Dinh among statues of bodyguard soldiersVILLAGE WARES: One of Levitov’s favorite stops was Hoi An, one of Asia’s important trading ports in the 16th and 17th centuries. “It was an optional ride, and there were a smaller number of us. We went through all these villages, closer up to the people. In one of them our guide saw these gentlemen and stopped, and we were invited inside where they had a wheel for throwing terra-cotta pottery, like little whistles and vases. And what was the ‘motor’ but another guy standing on the pedal with his foot.”

CRACKER CLASS: “In the same village we saw rice crackers drying outside and the guide stopped and asked if we could see some baking,” she said. “There was one woman in a tiny dirt room in a little cooking area baking one cracker at a time, like pita bread. They dry them on these big wood grids. We also passed a lot of people who had piles of tubers from the earth. Very little children and women were chopping them up to dry them out on tarps.”

NATURE PRESERVED: The most scenic ride was through the Pu Luong Nature Reserve. “That was the Barbara Levitov leisurely rides cyclo in Hanoi to end her biking tripday of true mountain biking,” Levitov said. “The road was packed clay and gravel and we were surrounded by limestone hills and rice paddies.” They usually stayed in hotels, but that night the group stayed in a family’s home in a village outside the reserve. “The house was on stilts, like they all were. We all stayed in one room on the floor on mats, in these silk bags and with blankets of traditional patterns.”

Book o’ the week: a great girl-grad gift

May 22, 2008

You know what’s going to happen? I start a Book o’ the Week thingie and miss a week and then what? Well, it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Book cover of The Girlo Travel Survival KitSpeaking of risk, I’m here today to hawk “The Girlo Travel Survival Kit,” by Anthea Paul, and it’s not just ‘cuz I got a free copy. It’s because I get tired of hearing about the “risks” of international travel and I get pumped when I see books pushing travel, especially one aimed at girls and young women prepping for their first big journeys. Yes, travel and everything has its risks, but I’m a statistics kind of gal, not a fearful one. (As in, there’s a greater chance of getting killed on the highway than by a …. take your pick.)

Myself, I had two coming-of-age journeys. One was with my girlfriend Dee, when we flew from Florida to California and then to Vegas, and rented cars and drove the coast from SF to LA — at age 19! That was in 1977, and I planned the whole thing. Then in 1982 I went with college pals on the standard “We’re drinking wheat beer today so this must be Belgium” backpacking trip. I think it was for eight weeks, and I spent the final week on my own. Both were very cool times of fun and growth.

If you’re as old as I am (50) and daughterless (ditto) you likely don’t know about Paul and her “girlosophy.” She’s dished out her sassy, big-sister advice around other earth-shattering teen topics, namely romance, food, and soul-searching in seven earlier books

Author Anthea PaulI know this book is cool because the youthful graphics bug me, plus it talks about packing hoodies, tracksuits and iPod chargers. See what I mean? (Though I do have an iPod!) I love the funky color photos and the upbeat “get-going-girls” ‘tude. Leave it to those travel-crazed Aussies. (Paul lives in Sydney.)

Though Paul’s vibe is breezy, there’s substantial information here, on everything from choosing a destination, preparing, travel tips on the road, safety, and the shock of reentry. If you want to inspire a young woman to travel, give her this book!! (She’ll think you’re really cool, too.)

Deets: $19.95 in USA, published by Allen & Unwin, distributed by Independent Publishers Group. Please consider buying it directly from IPG at, 800-888-4741, or at your local indy bookstore!

Over the hills of Santiago, and beyond

May 20, 2008

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published  April 20, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

From Di’s eyes: I was at a conference in Santiago a year earlier, so it was fun to relive a bit of my time there. “The Chrises”  packed in more than I could. I was impressed! 

WHO: Chris Santos, 55, her husband, Chris Dippel, 54, of Brookline, Mass., and their daughter, Calli Cenizal, 20, of Claremont, Calif.

WHERE: Chile.

WHEN: One week in December.

WHY: Santos and Dippel went to visit and travel with Cenizal, who was in Santiago for five months through an exchange program at Pomona College, where she majors in Latin American studies.

Calli Cenizal (left) and Chris Dippel in Universidad Católica courtyardFAMILY AFFAIRS: They picked a mix of urban and rural spots, starting in the capital city. “Calli met us at the airport and took us to the hotel and just launched right into her Spanish and took charge,” Santos said. The parents stayed at Chilhotel in the Providencia downtown neighborhood. They had lunch with their daughter’s host family after first toasting with pisco sours. Later they presented the mother, a professional cook, with a bilingual Betty Crocker cookbook and the father with a Red Sox cap.

DOING DOWNTOWN: Santos and Dippel wore out their walking shoes around town. “There were many preserved buildings, streets turned into pedestrian ways, and vendors and artists in the Plaza de Armas.” During the week, they visited three houses of Pablo Neruda, Chile’s Nobel Prize poet and diplomat, the first being La Chascona, in town. “It was on a hillside right in the middle of the city and on a lot of levels,” Santos said.

Chris Santos atop Cerro Santa Lucia overlooking SantiagoHILL THRILLS: During one walk they climbed the stairs to Cerro Santa Lucía, a popular downtown overlook. On another they took a funicular ride to Cerro San Cristóbal, a large park topped by a huge statue of the Virgin Mary. When Santos decided to try a glass of wheat tea, she struck up a conversation with an American in front of her in line who later introduced himself as Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods.” She was interviewed for the show.

TO THE COUNTRY: For a change of scenery, Dippel and Santos took a bus out of the city about an hour eastward to Cajón del Maipo, or Canyon of the Maipo River. “You could look up and see the foothills of the Andes,” Santos said. They stayed at Cascada de las Ánimas in a B&B with a view of the mountains on all sides. “We took a hike to a waterfall and another four-hour walk up a steep trail to a mesa above the river. It was beautiful.”

View from La Sebastiana (Pablo Neruda\'s House) in ValparaisoTO THE SEA: Cenizal accompanied her parents to Valparaíso, a seaport and fishing town about an hour northwest of Santiago. “We stayed in The Yellow House in an older part of town with cobblestone streets,” Dippel said. “It was literally perched on the hillside, with three narrow stories that have doors for each floor on each successively higher street.” “It’s a sort of gritty town but they’re creating a walkway along the ocean to make it attractive to tourists. And the seafood was really, really good.”

STOP, THIEF: The family had one unpleasant incident on a bus there, when two men grabbed Santos’s camera as they were exiting. Luckily she was holding on to the strap, and after Dippel gave them a few “wimpy” whacks, they let go. “Everyone around us was very apologetic, but we blamed ourselves, too,” he said. “We shouldn’t have been so close to the door.”


Weigh-in 3 for Biggest Loser: Wiener-Dog Style

May 16, 2008

Sabrina works out at homeSabrina is downright svelte these days! Her latest weight is a mere 13.6 pounds, which is exactly what she was back in September before her excursion in obesity. She’s lost 4 pounds since we adopted her from Dachshund Rescue of North America in early March. That’s a whopping 23 percent loss in her body weight!

Opa with Sabrina on couchWhile I thought Briner the Wiener’s ideal weight would be around 12 pounds, I’m thinking now that it’s more like 13. She’s a sturdy girl, with a big chest and head, a head she loves to rest on people’s laps. Her favorite lap apparently belongs to her “Opa,” Karel, who with “Oma” Francis visited from the Netherlands a couple weeks ago. The minute he would sit on the couch, Sabrina was there, ready to snuggle.

Oma and Opa walk Roxy and SabrinaSabrina’s diet tips? The usual. Less food and more exercise. She loves to run on her own in the yard, and enjoys getting out for a walk, especially when she goes with sister Roxy the Doxy and gets to be led by Oma and Opa. While Roxy is the almost-perfect little heeler, Sabrina feels the need to stop and sniff at everything. Opa indulged her in these detours quite a bit. In fact, I think he kind of fell in love with Sabrina.

Sabrina in stubborn modeWhen I take her out, however, she can get very stubborn, running on her lead one minute and then sitting down and refusing to budge the next. It’s the oddest thing. And it’s not because she’s tired, as she’ll pop back up when she’s good and ready and start trotting about again. I think she’s just asserting herself, something I can relate to. 

Ever seen a wind-powered camper?

May 15, 2008

Below is my version of a short piece on wind-turbine maker Michael Powers that appears, with Wessel’s photo, in this month’s Ode Magazine. After it ran, someone from “Weekend America” on NPR contacted me for more information, as they might do something too. That felt validating because I’d tried to sell this story to Sierra and Audobon mags and got no reply from either. The story came to be because our group of cyclists touring in Delmarva happened to camp near Michael. Only when cycling out of the park after a two-day stay did I decide I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. So I did a quickie interview  and Wessel took photos.

Here’s the piece: 

Wind turbine on campsite of Assateague State ParkTravelers who visit Assateague State Park in Maryland are accustomed to unusual sights, what with more than 100 wild horses freely roaming the grounds. But last summer, something manmade captured the attention of parkgoers as well. At one of the 350 campsites along two miles of the Atlantic Ocean stood a 28-foot whirring wind turbine powering the batteries of a Coleman Camper travel trailer.

Michael Powers next to his self-built wind turbineIts creator was Michael Powers, who will return to the island park in late-July with an even more efficient version of his eye-grabbing contraption. Powers, who lives near Baltimore, got the idea last spring of providing power for the camper’s two 13.8-volt batteries. Having gone with his wife and three children to Assateague for many summers, he figured the island’s constant breeze would be a perfect spot for wind energy.

“As a child, my father and I built a solar water heater for our family pool. Since then, I’ve always been thinking of ways to make solar and wind power,” says Powers, who by day manages a computer engineering team. “For this project I had my own ideas but did a lot of research on the Internet.”

Wind turbine at campsite of Assateague State ParkHe first set up the turbine in his back yard, which, he notes, did not thrill his suburban neighbors. The whole thing cost about $80, which included a $34 permanent-magnet motor and a $25 rotor, both purchased on eBay. He used PVC piping for the mast instead of the usual metal so as not to attract lightening. The wind supplied enough energy to power the campers’ lights, refrigerator, oven fan, and water pump.

This year Powers plans to increase the turbine’s efficiency by using fiberglass for the blades and switching out the steel rotor for a lighter aluminum one. He’s even considering using the wind to power a fan that would blow air across an ammonia-based evaporator to provide air conditioning.

Once he sets up again at Assateague, Powers and his highly visible windmill are sure to draw another round of curious campers.

“Everyone stops to talk to me about it, including the rangers,” Powers says. “My family thought it was weird that I had this up, but they’re used to it.”

Middle Eastern hospitality in Iran

May 13, 2008

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published April 13, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

From Di’s eyes: I liked Richard’s attitude. If more Americans traveled to places that are mysterious to them, even scary, they’d discover what he did. As Richard says of the Iranians he met: “They’re more like us than not.”

WHO: Richard Dobrow, 60, of Marblehead, Mass.


WHEN: Three weeks in October and November

Persian garden at Royal Palace, Shiraz, IranWHY: “I like to go places before they get really discovered. One sure way to do that is to pick countries that are on the tenuous list,” said Dobrow. “I‘ve always been interested in Iran because it’s Persia. It’s always been an important country. And I was interested in seeing if it was as bad as we are led to believe.”

TRAVEL PROS: Dobrow visited the country with American outfitter Geographic Expeditions. “I used them before to camp in the Libyan desert. On a trip like this you get very seasoned travelers and they tend to be politically liberal. People wanted to see for themselves what was going on in Iran.”

The Jameh Mosque in Yazd, IranPOLITICS ASIDE: “When people asked me what I thought about Bush, which wasn’t always complimentary, they smiled and said they felt the same way about their president. We agreed if our presidents would just get out of the way, we’d be OK,” he said. Although Iranians are accustomed to seeing European and Asian tourists, Americans are uncommon. “One man, when he found out I was American, he yelled ‘America!’ at the top of his lungs and gave me a bear hug he was so overjoyed we were visiting his country. Belgium tourists nearby snapped photos of the Iranian and American hugging.”

Young boy near the Iraq border with Red Sox hat from DobrowLAND AND AIR: The group met in Tehran and went by van and airplane to several places, including Hamadan, Kermanshah, Tabriz, Mashhad, Yazd, Shiraz, Persepolis, and Isfahan. “Tehran sits at the foot of mountains that have year-round snow. It’s a very modern city and not that interesting. At Kermanshah, we were right at the Iraqi border. They have some incredible bas reliefs.” It was there that Dobrow gave away his Red Sox cap to a young Iranian boy who had never heard of baseball.

A nomad (not Muslim) woman at bazaar in Isfahan, IranCHANGING YOUTH: Dobrow noted differences in dress between older women, who would be covered except for their eyes, and younger ones. “They’d wear waistcoats and show their individuality with the fabric and jewelry. They came right up to you and talked to practice their English. They’d ask things like, ‘what do you think of Iranian women?’ They had their hair covered, but as little as possible.” A decade of fighting affected the male population, he said. “The Iran-Iraq war basically wiped out a generation of boys. Almost everyone I talked to had lost a son.”

Lotfallah Mosque on Imam Square in Isfahan, IranAMAZING SIGHTS: Dobrow found Tabriz fascinating for its incredible carpets and its diverse population that includes tribal groups, Christians and Zoroastrians. In the desert town of Yazd, the group visited several historic caravanserai, mud and straw fort-like structures where travelers would stop to rest with their camels. “They invented all these ingenious ways to survive the desert.” In Isfahan, the country’s cultural capital, Dobrow was drawn to Imam Square, “one of the most beautiful in the world, and the second largest. On one side is a palace and on the other a mosque, with green down the middle.”

ON THE LOOKOUT: “I met only delightful people,” Dobrow said. “I was looking for a balanced view. I saw love. The economy is terrible and there are all these well-educated kids driving taxis and working at the hotels. They just want to have employment and a middle-class lifestyle. They’re more like us than not.”

When Delta dozes (and Wessel doesn’t)

May 8, 2008

Delta sent Wessel and me information via email (they called him also, but not me!) about a change in our flight schedules from Durham, NC, to Oslo, Norway next month.

“We have bolded the affected flights,” it read. Only one flight was in bold, from Atlanta to Newark, and it was only a 10-minute change. We’d booked this trip months in advance, and these kind of changes are quite typical. No biggie. I noted it and went back to work.

Unfortunately, Delta and yours truly were dozing on the job, but wide-eyed Wessel caught another, much bigger change that was not highlighted but should have been.

On the final leg of our journey home in late June, instead of our original flight leaving at 4:50 p.m. from Cincinnati to Durham it was now scheduled to depart at 3 p.m. And guess what time we were arriving into Cincinnati from Paris? At 3 p.m. Argh….

I called Delta for the low-down. Turned out the 4:50 p.m. flight had been scrubbed.

The representative, who then put us on a later flight, was not the least bit apologetic.

Me: “How did this happen?”

Delta: “The automated system put you on it.”

Me: “Well it doesn’t have very good software, then. Isn’t a human being ever involved?”

Delta: “Yes, they manually put it in a queue for review.”

Me: “So the reviewer dropped the ball?”

Delta: “Yes, I guess.”

Me: “And why wasn’t that big change highlighted on our email?”

Delta: “It was just an oversight.”

Me: “A pretty big one, I’d say.”

Delta: (nada)

So …. I guess I should have just come out and said: Can you please just apologize so I’ll feel better? But I didn’t, and she didn’t, and I just don’t get that.

The flip side to that is when I called Verizon or maybe it was American Express recently about a minor issue and they apologized so many times that I finally said, “please stop apologizing, it’s OK.” Of course their response came out of Customer Service Interaction No. 5.247 on page 184 of the manual.

Note to Big Business: We consumers don’t need a string of rehearsed apologies; we just need one or two that are heartfelt.

Meanwhile, I have a message in to Air France media relations about some of their disappointing customer-service policies. More on that coming up.