Saturday, December 25, 2010

Getting Home (Or: Nie Wieder Lufthansa)

(Thanks to Miriam Schnurr for the German bit in the title; I think it’s “No More Lufthansa” for her either)

December 2010 (or, to be exact, December 29, 2010) marks my eight years anniversary in Canada. Ever since December 2002, when I left, I made it a habit to visit home at least once a year; being Israel’s weather unbearably hot (for me) in the summers, I had long ago decided to visit primarily in December, as weather is much more manageable and, hey, it’s holidays season in North-America anyway.

Over the years, I enjoyed the habit of taking Air Canada’s direct flights between Toronto and Tel-Aviv. 10:30 hours to TLV, 12:30 hours back to YYZ… I got used to it, to the point that those long flights didn’t really seem that long anymore. However, this year, I was surprised to find out that, at my planned departure date, no direct flights were offered at all. In other words: it’s not that there were no seats available on those flights—the flights were simply not happening. I could have waited additional 2 days and get a direct flight, but my homesickness made me take the alternative route, and fly to TLV via Frankfurt, with Lufthansa (my flight back to Toronto would be direct, with Air Canada… As always).

I really had no huge problem with it. One hour layover in Frankfurt’s airport, which is—although being the second largest in Europe (after London’s notorious Heathrow)—still manageable and familiar for me. At the odd case that I’d miss my connecting flight due to the short layover, Frankfurt’s city centre is just a few train stations away—and I am no stranger to trains, especially the German ones who are super-precise and comfortable.

But little did I know… Oh, how little. The entire story of myself getting home now seems like a bad dream. Much like an onion, that story stank more and more as it unfolded. The bottom line is this: Lufthansa will never ever have the privilege of having my ass occupy any of their seats.

And the story started… Well, it actually started nicely.

It started with a smile.

“Welcome”, a mature lady welcomed me into the almost vacant Lufthansa check-in counters in Toronto’s Pearson airport. Warm smile, welcoming me to go ahead and approach one of the three available agents.

I smiled back. Had I known that that was going to be my last smile in a while, I would have made special arrangements, such as taking a picture to commemorate the occasion; alas, this all seemed to me like just another typical Canadian exhibition of extreme politeness. I approached the counter, and was facing yet another smiling lady.

I was responsible enough to weigh my suitcases beforehand. I normally travel with hand-luggage only, but this time, I had to pack two suitcases—for reasons I won’t go into here. So there I was, armed with two suitcases, my carry-on trolley and my Taylor Travel Guitar. At that point, the lady at the counter bothered to tell me that the guitar actually counts as a carry-on item.

Now I have flown with this guitar, along with a trolley, many, many times before, with many airlines. The rules about carrying musical instruments on board vary between airlines, however generally, they are permitted on-board for the instrument’s safety and as they are typically stored in some sort of a wardrobe, they usually aren’t counted as carry-on items. Whether or not it makes sense is not the point; but that’s the situation I got used to.

Apparently, though, Lufthansa decided recently to completely overhaul its carry-on luggage policies and enforce them to the point of insanity. Explaining my situation to the lady at the counter did very little help (the usual “I don’t make the rules” sort of excuse, given by people who are generally too dumb to think outside the box to begin with): to avoid paying a charge of $250 (!), I was told to step aside, repack my stuff and try again.

… Which I did. Moved one thing here, another thing there—good. Lets try again. No—now I’m over 2kg in one of the suitcases, while the other one is under-utilized by about 10kg. Never mind the fact that, considering the items I was carrying, I could never reach a perfect balance; she simply didn’t care at all, and sent me to re-pack again.

I won’t go through the entire story of why I was so reluctant to re-pack; I will just say that one of the suitcases contained items which I had very, very little interest in ever seeing again, let alone re-pack. There I was, though, taking my suitcases to pieces once again, reassembling them in a way that sort-of made sense; even threw out a few things. Approached again—now the suitcases are fine, but my trolley weighs 9.5kg instead of 8kg (the limit used to be 10kg up until three weeks ago; I bought my ticket more than a month ago).

At that point I sort-of lost my temper, and explained my packing situation (that is, my reluctance to repack one of the suitcases) to her. She went away and spoke to a supervisor, who agreed to put an end to my misery and board the aircraft with 1.5kg above my limit. Gee, thanks. Went and spoke to the manager; a few useless minutes of conversation later, I got my seat reallocated to a better seat in economy class – at the emergency exit row, with unlimited leg space.


I was happy to be over with the past hour of hell; made my way to the gate, unpacked my guitar and started playing, to unwind. The time came to board the aircraft, and I was looking forward to the possibility of maybe getting some sleep. Seeing immense space in front of me, I was sure that I’ll be able to fall asleep relatively easily…

Again, no luck. It took me a few hours to determine why: it doesn’t matter how much leg space you have—when you stretch your legs, the problem now becomes your back. The only way to resolve this—which I thought of about one hour before we landed in Frankfurt—is to get your trolley out of the overhead bins, put it in front of you and lay your legs upon it. Apparently, it is allowed (except for take-offs and landings).

“Never mind”, I thought. We’re soon arriving to Germany, and then a short layover, and four hours later—I’m home.

We arrived to Frankfurt right on time and deplaned. Welcome to Frankfurt.

All Lufthansa flights from Frankfurt to Tel-Aviv go through a gate notoriously known as “the C13”, for the simple reason that that’s the gate’s name. It features its own security checkpoint line-up. If you’ve been following the news lately, you might have become aware of the uproar in the USA about the new TSA body-search techniques; let me clue you in on something—in “the C13”, that’s how things have been working for a while. I guess that’s what happens to flights going to a country surrounded by people who wants to kill it. Once you pass security there, that’s it for you—you’re stuck at that gate, and you can’t go back (without being re-screened). No duty free shops inside; there’s one lousy mini-stand selling dry sandwiches and drinks (oh, that “Still water or Gas water” conundrum again) for just about the weekly salary of whoever it is that builds i-Phones in the far east. Oh yes, there’s a Kosher vending machine there, too. Yep, that gate is clearly geared towards “those of us”.

Flight boarded 30 minutes late, due to (and that I learned well after the fact) a strike that took place in Greece, with flight controllers refusing to work thereby turning Greece air-space into a “no-fly zone”.

Plane started to taxi… Then de-ice (using those huge machines that spray de-icing material on the aircraft just before departure). Oops! We missed our departure time-slot, so we have to wait for the next one, in about 30 minutes.

De-icing again.


What the FUCK was that? Turns out that the aircraft, while making its way to the runway, stumbled into a pile of snow. They called some small trucks to help it out of the jam.

Too much time passed, so we needed to de-ice again.


Yeah. COOL. One of the de-icing vehicles had hit the aircraft at the front, making it necessary for technicians to come on board and ensure the aircraft is OK.

That took about an hour. Then, just about three hours after our scheduled departure time, there came the announcement. Apparently, Tel-Aviv’s airport was scheduled to close early that night due to some construction and improvement work on its runways, so, sorry guys, we can’t make it—the flight is cancelled.

I cursed.

When I was done, I cursed again.

Buses came by to take us all back to the terminal building. There we were, about 400 people crammed in three buses. As the buses arrived at the terminal building, they lined-up, but did not let us out. We were stuck standing in the buses for about 30 minutes, until the “ground crew” was ready to take care of us all, giving us vouchers for taxi’s, hotel rooms and dinners for the night.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Well it would be, has it not been for Lufthansa’s completely incompetent staff, and the genetic inability of Israeli people to stand in line.

The latter, I suppose, requires elaboration. For the typical Israeli, the practice of “standing in line” runs counter to everything he/she believe in. A line-up in Israel is perceived as “the place where those, who aren’t lucky enough to be too aggressive, stand up and wait for us apes until we’re done”. In other words, line-ups are for suckers: for the typical Israeli, “waiting in line” is perceived as some sort of a defeat; and who are “those Germans” to make us line-up?

You have to be aggressive in order to get by in Israel, and when Israelis travel abroad, they seldom leave that temperament at home. My flight was full of Israelis returning from Europe, so the entire experience altogether served as a good reminder to the place I came from and its mentality.

Lufthansa’s incompetent staff took between 5-10 minutes to handle each individual; there were between two to three attendants on site—depending on whether one of them suddenly just had to take a phone call on their mobile phone.

In the meantime, we all got a bit too agitated with the entire process—partly because it was slow, but mostly because of an altogether different reason: we all wanted to go home, and it was unclear whether the order in line affects your chances to get home earlier, or not. At first, we were told that the rebooking has been done already so place in line doesn’t matter, but shortly after we noticed a few people being able to squeeze into earlier flights with a bit of aggressiveness.

People cut each other in line… What a mess. Two people were rebooked to the flight later that evening; some people—for the flight the next morning; some (like myself)—for the flight the next evening; and some were completely unlucky and were not rebooked at all.

Therefore, after two and a half hours in the terminal building that seemed like forever, it was my turn. I was done within less than 3 minutes: got my taxi vouchers, my hotel & dinner vouchers and went on my way. Destination: Intercontinental Hotel Frankfurt, right at the city centre. Objective: pass the next 24+ hours without losing my mind.

At that time, it seemed impossible. I was bummed to no end.

The Intercontinental Hotel Frankfurt is located very close to Frankfurt’s city centre, about a block or two away from Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof (Frankfurt’s main train station). The train station is surrounded by low-cost hotels—millions of them, and I tried quite a few; generally OK but leave much to be desired. On the contrary, though, the Intercontinental is an altogether different experience. If there is one positive thing about my 30 hours stay in Frankfurt, it is that I learned about this hotel. If I ever get to Frankfurt for a layover, I doubt I’d ever try a different place to lay my weary head on its pillows.

Arriving at the hotel, I met a group of fellow Israeli travellers; most of the stranded travellers from my flight were sent to the Intercontinental, and whoever stayed with many Israelis in one hotel before, knows that it can be an irritating experience as most of us really aren’t known for keeping quiet. Surprisingly, though, the experience was different this time. As soon as I entered the hotel’s area, I suddenly felt much more relaxed; misery likes company, and it was somehow comforting to be in the presence of people who were going through what I was, at the same time.

Up to one of the better hotel rooms I had visited recently, unloaded my belongings, quick shower and I was set to start counting down the minutes until my flight, some 26 or so hours later. Dinner downstairs, and after going back to my room I realized that time might pass more pleasantly if I’m actually with people. A small gathering of fellow stranded Israelites at the hotel’s bar proved to be a great antidote to the sense of loneliness—we essentially had a United Nations gathering there with Israelis coming back home from all sorts of locations. A couple of hours flew by easily.

We started debating about the probability of being able to squeeze into an earlier flight. As it happened, some of us were scheduled to fly the next morning, others (like myself) the next evening, and yet others had no flight scheduled at all. A group decision has been made, to go to the airport early morning and try getting on the earlier, morning flight anyway. It’s hard for Israelis to stand in line… And it’s just as hard for us to blindly accept fate without at least attempting to flip our middle finger to it.

I then went on to do some work; I figured, if I have some dead time here in Frankfurt, why not catch up with stuff (I am supposed to be working between 2-3 hours daily during my vacation; won’t go through the details, but suffice to say that it’s a fantastic arrangement for me). It wasn’t before 1:00am that I finally returned to my room and took my first attempt at sleeping.

Unfortunately, those attempts didn’t go well. I couldn’t stop thinking about the possibility of missing yet another flight the next day; reports about the forthcoming weather kept flowing through the Ether courtesy of the Seattle Redhead (Hadar Rymer, who else) and I started thinking that maybe there’s reason to be worried.

Endless turnings in bed, a terrible sense of loneliness started creeping in. I was supposed to have a great dinner with my family for the first time in a year, and instead I’m stuck in a foreign land with really nothing interesting to do other than counting down the minutes. Such feelings usually drag me into rather existential  debates: who am I? am I really a happy person? why is it that I’m worried at the moment? why can’t I sleep?

At the end, I reached the conclusion.

It wasn’t me.

It was Frankfurt, and Frankfurt sucks.

Waking up early morning, it was time to meet my newly-made friends at the lobby before heading to Frankfurt’s Airport for our attempt at the early flight. Looking at the clock, and realizing how tired I am, I decided to follow Hadar’s advice and not take things too hard on myself. I decided to go to the airport as scheduled, and try to relax as much as I can until then. The night before, I was able to arrange for an extremely late check-out (3:00pm instead of 12:00pm) and, at that moment early morning, I could think of nothing better to do than continue sleeping.

I don’t remember what time it was when I finally woke up, but I remember feeling surprisingly fresh for a stranded individual. I guess it was around 1:00pm. Hot bath, total relaxation; down to the lobby to check out, left my luggage with them and went up to the 20th floor. The Intercontinental boasts a nice VIP-type lobby, to which I gained access the night before through a newly-made Israeli female friend who got a VIP suite due to her flying business-class with Lufthansa.

The next few hours—between 3:00pm and 6:30pm—were spent in that VIP lounge. Free tasty desserts, relaxing cup(s) of tea and I really felt anew:


(The views are Frankfurt from atop the 20th floor of the Intercontinental)

6:30pm arrived, and it was time to get down to business: head to the airport with hopes that my flight leaves on schedule. Along with a family of three, I hopped on a taxi cab and off we went to the airport, as I was endlessly speculating about how terrible it would be if my flight is cancelled again.

I was expecting to see an extremely busy airport, due to flight cancellations starting to pile up; however, to my surprise, there wasn’t much action going on there. Had two hours to kill before boarding, during which I played my guitar for a bit and spent some time talking with other travellers. Many of the travellers on that flight were people who were at exactly the same boat as I were—having their flight cancelled some 24+ hours before.

As relaxing as the atmosphere was, tension grew as minutes passed by; you know that feeling, that everything is going just “too well” comparing to a recent experience, that you’re starting to wonder where, exactly, things are supposed to start falling apart. However, everything appeared smooth; we boarded on time.

To the next of me, an empty seat; that’s good news. Then the aircraft started taxiing along…

… And taxiing…

… And de-icing…

… And taxiing again…

… And de-icing again!…

And then, about an hour and a half past our scheduled departure time, I heard the familiar engine’s roar. YES! We are definitely taking off. At once, I felt much better.

Home is only four hours away. What could possibly go wrong now?

Lady fate, however, thought differently.

Israel’s one and only sizable non-military airport, Ben-Gurion Airport (IATA code “TLV”, named after Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion) is said to reside in Tel-Aviv but it really isn’t. Instead, it is located in a nearby city named Lod, a huge distance of about 12km from Tel-Aviv. I wasn’t seated at the window, but still was able to catch a glimpse of Tel-Aviv’s lights as we approached over the Mediterranean. Ten minutes later, we touched ground.

I believe it was the year 2005 or 2006 when TLV’s new terminal, “Terminal 3”, opened its gates some 5 or 6 years behind schedule. Ever since, it gained great feedback from international travellers. It is a beautiful terminal building, certainly giving you the feeling that you are in Israel. Jerusalem-like brick walls along the long, long, long, walk towards the passport control area. Biometric identification – done, and there I am waiting for my luggage.

The belt started rolling… And rolling…

And it rolled for about an hour before myself, as well as everybody else who was rebooked for that flight, realized that our suitcases are not with us. Thank you again, Lufthansa; at that time, it was unclear what happened to the suitcases, but in retrospect, it became known that the suitcases were actually left in Frankfurt airport.

About 100 people gathered in an Israeli-style line-up (that is: a random collection of people squeezing in a form that would only resemble a “line-up” if you’re severely drunk), each one taking 5-10 minutes to process by the three helpless attendants in TLV’s “lost luggage” booth. It was about 4:00am local time, with my family waiting for me outside at the arrivals hall, and I really started to feel desperate again. Who knows when, if at all, will I be rejoined with my belongings? There were a few virtually-irreplaceable items in there, some of which I decided to bring to Israel in preparation for moving to Vancouver (to ease the moving process).

Two hours and a half after landing, I was able to fill-up all required forms and stormed through customs on my way to the arrivals hall; and when I say “stormed”, I mean it – I literally ran outside, pushing a luggage cart containing my carry-on luggage and with the Baby Taylor guitar hung on my back—and because the automatic door opened too slowly (for me), I somehow crashed into it.

But who cares. Finally, after so much trouble, I saw my parents again…


I am finishing this post on Saturday, December 25, just about a week after arriving to Israel. It’s been a relaxing week so far. The suitcases finally made it to my house about 48 hours after I got home. The suitcases themselves were damaged; a few CD’s had their shells broken; the MK “Get Lucky” deluxe package had a small tear on one of its sides; other than that—no damage to the contents.

It’s good to be home, especially when the weather here is at the neighbourhood of 20℃.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you all,


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