To set the stage just a little, I was presenting at a weeklong conference in Warsaw (18th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm) and decided to add on a couple of weeks of holiday. My companion for all of the trip was C (my girlfriend). We decided to do an almost fully planned trip as to accommodation and most of the travel arrangements. This is the first time I had traveled this way having preferred in the past to find things as I went along but there was not a lot of time and we didn’t want to spend it searching for places to stay and losing days in airports. So flights and accomos were booked online. All that was left to chance was how to get from Warsaw to Prague and how to get from Madrid to Barcelona. We were thinking trains so that we would see some of the countryside and also be deposited in city centers on arrival.
I booked the European flights online through edreams a Spanish agency which though they had an English webpage only processed reservations in Spanish. With the help of babelfish, I tackled the unconventional phrases and did my best. Some of the pages were time sensitive so I had to reenter on more than one occasion. I did get an email back from the agency that I never did quite decipher which I am sure had something to do with what happened later in the Prague airport.
The flight to Warsaw was booked through Air Canada which used LOT, the Polish airline for the Toronto to Warsaw leg. Naturally when you are flying with someone you would like to sit next to them if only to reduce the likelyhood of being held captive for eight hours by a moronic motormouth, a violent fidgeter, a crying baby, someone successully eluding deodorant or conversely someone who believes that the only thing better than a little cologne or perfume is a lot lot more or any other such event enhancing individuals. The flight to Toronto was no problem but Air Canada said they could not reserve seats for us together on the LOT flight. Very helpfully they gave us LOTs New York number and said that they could do that for us. When I contacted LOT, they very helpfully said only the originating carrier (Air Canada) could actually do that. When I went back to Air Canada, they said (very nicely) that no, only LOT could seat us together. I reached customer service at Air Canada and said that I thought it was a little strange that each airline thought the other could do something it couldn’t do. I also said that my interactions had been very friendly and polite but that I would have preferred a surly but problem solving asshole over a caring incompetent. When I ranted to my coworker (Nigerian, she flies home on a regular basis), she said this happened to her all the time.
So the flights were booked and we could only hope that in Toronto everything would work out somehow. What happened is that on the LOT flight everyone was assigned random seats and many people tried to negotiate. By luck this all worked out. We ended up behind the bulkhead (the washroom) with the emergency doors. The big legroom seats. Now just before leaving I had gone online and looked for customer reviews of LOT and found them almost uniformly negative. In one case, someone wrote that on takeoff, the ceiling started dripping onto them (well, actually something liquid out of the ceiling). It happened! On takeoff, water started dripping onto my knee. Being next to the bathroom makes you think the worst but when I tasted it, it was just water. (Kidding.)
Despite the reviews, this ended up being one of the best flights I’ve been on. Comfortable seats and a ready supply of liquor. When you asked for red wine with the meal (good meal), they gave you a bottle. And it was all no charge, just like in the old days. Made Air Canada look like pikers. We’ve gotten so used to paying big bucks for a flight only to be asked for another $5 for a bottle of water or bad sandwich. If you’re shelling out over a thousand dollars why not just throw on another $25 or so, and make the flight enjoyable. Anyways, I highly recommend this airline. (The only thing I like better on Air Canada are the little tvs with the many entertainment options though as I found out later that is not standard).
We were among the very few nonPolish folk on board and you could tell a different culture held sway and not only from the bad haircuts on the men and really bad glittery tshirts on the women. The safety instructions were conveyed partly by gesture but mostly by a charming animated production which looked at lot like Mr. Magoo takes a flight (old 50s style cartoonery). Service was very much with a friendly formality that we would see everywhere in Warsaw. (If you’ve ever eaten at the Continental Treat, its like the service there). When the trolley service stopped, there was a steady stream of customers to the serving bay for shots of vodka which they downed standing there. Or for Nescafe, another steady influence over the Polish leg of our trip.
On arrival, we found ourselves in the customs area of the airport with other flights just in and all passengers not quite agreed on the concept of queueing. It all sorted out in the end and we were in a taxicab and trying to make the driver understand which Gromada Hotel we wanted to go to. It all degenerated into sign language and I think he just headed to the nearer one to see if that was the one (it was). This was a good introduction to the typical cab experience in Warsaw. Unlike most cities where the cabdrivers are the first to pick up bits of other languages (the better to answer questions about hotels and earn more money that way), in Warsaw it seemed a point of pride to not know a word though the rest of the city is fairly accommodating in this respect. Not only are the drivers unilingual (we tried a few other languages), they drive like meth addicts on their way to more. The only thing scarier than being in one of these cabs would be driving in this city knowing these guys are on the road.