Cultural Observations & Frustrations

Travel Tales and Travails

A country’s inherent personality and distinct culture becomes apparent in airports.  I don’t mean to succumb to stereotypes, but sometimes you understand the root of certain perceptions.

Air France does its best to make you feel as if you are in Paris, being taunted and mocked by the haughty French while sitting captive in your cabin.  The proudly rude French flight attendants do not comprehend the concept of customer service.  First, they do not like to converse in English.  Jackie was repeatedly badgered about “un boisson” before an exasperated attendant reluctantly offered her a drink.  Second, the French attendants barely deign to provide food and boissons for their passengers.  Rather than push the drink cart a second time during our 9 hour flight, the attendants opted to place a drink gurney next to the bathroom and create a makeshift self-serve bar.  The forgotten food trays lay in our laps for such a long time that the leftovers started to crust over before our eyes.  So much for Bon Appetit!


In Charles de Gaulle airport, the attractive young ladies in the information kiosks are dressed very stylishly in matching skirts and blazers resembling of this season’s nostalgic TV sitcom, Pan Am.  These mademoiselles look modern and chic but provide absolutely no useful help, turning up their pert little noses and shrugging their lithe shoulders in defeat if pressed to actually assist in any way.  Once again, customer service does not exist.  We stood alone before a security point that had no fewer than four French officials manning it.  We all stared (or rather glared) at each other, locked in a game of chicken until it suited their whims to usher us through.


The serious Swiss make a science out of security line maintenance, turning it into a kind of assembly line of efficiency and control.  To ensure perfect sequencing, outlines of the trays are drawn on the conveyor belt.  There are strict rules as to when they will place your tray within each outline.  They will place your computer in it.  They will organize your shoes and neatly fold your coat.  They take total control, kind of like a Soup Nazi, sternly yelling “NO!” in reprimand to any person who tries to insert herself in the process.

By contrast, the Spanish security lines are complete chaos.  For no apparent reason, every liquid brought on a trip must fit into a small ziploc bag that they provide; I’ll call it a special bolsa de plastico.  Even if you have your own ziploc or a clear cosmetic bag, you must unpack everything into the sacred bolsa de plastico.   I tragically forgot a 1 oz. hand cream in my luggage and small tube of lipstick in my purse.  Sirens went off and red lights flashed, signifying the hot-blooded drama of the Spanish approach to security.  An official donned rubber gloves to completely unpack my bag and purse for all to see.  He lifted each piece of underwear suspiciously and made a spirited show of essentially dumping my belongings out on a communal table, swabbing my luggage for invisible micro particles, and taunting me with the bolsa de plastico dangling between two rubber-coated fingers.  It was like a Tango of Stupidity on display for all to see.

In St. Maarten, the island culture of “no worries” is great at the beach but actually quite worrisome in the airport.  A broken conveyor belt at the check-in desk slowed down the luggage collection process.  Because we were late for our flight, a very laid-back, almost detached airline employee told us to pile our forlorn luggage in a corner where it would be collected before the flight. “No worries“.  Isn’t there a rule about unattended luggage?  “No worries.”  Well, I had lots of worries when we arrived in London and saw a sign circulating on the baggage claim conveyor:

Catherine Dishner:  if your name is on this placard, your luggage is not here. (I kid you not!)

How comforting.  It was still sitting in St Maarten, probably being sniffed by dogs and checked by bomb specialists having been deserted in the airport.

Not surprisingly, the British are always civil and cordial.  Their response to the lost luggage incident was a heartfelt, “We do apologize for any inconvenience.”  At the security points they comment, “Terribly sorry, but could you remove your shoes?”.  Upon return at customs they greet you with, “Lovely to have you back in London”.  And the Brits do love a queue.  No elbowing or maneuvering on line, just pleasant satisfied waiting.  You almost expect someone to come around with a cup of tea.

Of course, there’s nothing quite like arriving in JFK and being reminded that you are most definitely not in England.  Shoving, swearing, impatience, and ineptitude define the airport experience.  Everyone is in a hurry, in a situation, in a mood.  No aimless queuing here; it is a race from the moment you step off the plane until you reach your ultimate destination.

As Dr. Seuss once said, “Oh the places you’ll go…You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose…”

..and along the way observe cultural views!





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