Thursday, 16 February 2012

Travel Then and Now—A Rant

I love travel. That is, I love being in distant places. But I HATE getting to them.

I remember my first transatlantic flight. In the airport we simply checked in at the counter and turned our luggage over to the agent. I’ve always traveled light, but I remember other passengers checking mounds of luggage with no difficulty.

Once our bags were tagged we walked to the gate. There were no x-ray machines. No full body scans. No pat-downs or invasive body searches. No rude and unpleasant robots invading our personal space or pawing through our carry-on bags.

When we were called, we went downstairs to doors leading to outside. If it was raining, an attendant was standing at the foot of the stairs with umbrellas we could use. We walked across the tarmac to our plane and climbed steps to get into it. If it was a small plane we had to duck a bit at the doorway.

On board, the seats were comfortably wide. Two across, never three or four. There was sufficient leg room for my long legs so that my knees were never pressed uncomfortably into the seat in front of me.

If it was a long flight, meals were served. Real food, served on real dishes and eaten with real cutlery, not plastic forks. There was no charge for this, of course.

Which brings me to the matter of price. In general the “tourist class” seats, the ones of which I always availed myself, were one price and the “first class” seats were another. Back in those halcyon days there were just two prices for seats on any given airplane. It was neither easy nor necessary to shop around for the “best price” in those pre-computer, pre Travelocity, pre Expedia days. We just bought our tickets at the ticket counter or availed ourselves of the services of a travel agent.

Hotels, we booked by letter. We used print guides like Michelin or Fodor to make our choices, and then had leisurely, extended, hand written interchanges with the proprietors regarding our needs and their ability to fill those needs.

It was fun to receive personal notes from small hotels in Paris, Avignon, Vienna and Budapest, assuring is that they ‘awaited our presence with pleasure’.

We spent months planning and anticipating travel. We were traveling on a budget. Often our bathrooms were down the hall rather than ensuite. We picked up bread and fruit and cheese for our picnic lunches and then splurged on dinners in Michelin starred restaurants. Ones where the owner/chef came out of the kitchen and asked us how we were enjoying our meal. We had glorious times.

That was then. This is now.

Today we examine the rooms we’re going to rent before reserving them on the hotels’ websites. Too bad we can’t tell about the comfort of the beds. They’re often hard as rocks. Where down pillows were once the norm throughout Europe in even the least expensive hostelries, now thick slabs of hard foam substitute for pillows almost everyplace. All that seems to matter is that the hotel, inn or B&B have pretty pictures on the internet.

On arriving, with few exceptions, one is not an honored guest, or even a person. One is a “confirmation number.”

And yet I keep traveling. As I said in the beginning of this rant, I love to travel. I love being in foreign ports.

While it is harder and harder to find places where one is a person, not a number, we have found a few. And it is to these that we retreat, year after year.

Occasionally, we branch out and try someplace new. Sometimes we find a jewel. More often we are confronted with yet another plastic palace.

And so we tend to return to the Suzanne in Vienna, the Marco Polo on Rhodes, the Keti in Santorini, the Orlof in Hydra, the Marconi in Sirmione, and other small hotels and inns run by real people who treat us like real people.

Now if we could just get to those places without going through an airport.

“Beam me up, Scotty!”


My books are set in places I know and love and are peopled with characters drawn from my experiences of those places. The Memory of Roses takes readers to the Greek Island of Corfu, where a young woman finds her future while searching for her father's past. In my upcoming book, Delighting in Your Company, the reader is transported to a small island in the Caribbean, with a heroine who finds herself in the unenviable position of falling in love with a ghost. Due for release next fall, the setting for Sonata is the city of Vancouver, with its vibrant multicultural population and its rich musical life, and my heroine is a musician who finds herself in unexpected danger.

Blair McDowell

Watch for Blair’s newest book, Delighting in Your Company , to be released by Rebel Ink Press in April 2012.


Buy 'The Memory of Roses' here

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Blair McDowell