A Recent Visitor’s Thoughts on the Brussels Lockdown

I’m looking at a photo of soldiers on patrol during the Brussels lockdown, and I keep thinking "This is not the Brussels I saw."

In mid-October, I spent five days staying in the now-infamous Sint-Jans-Molenbeek neighborhood with my wife and 10-month-old daughter. It was part of a trip that, over two weeks, took us to Germany to visit family, to the UK to visit friends and to Belgium just because. We stayed at Hôtel BELVUE, which was our favorite hotel on this trip by a long shot. We took day trips to Ghent and Bruges.

Brussels lockdown
This is the Brussels I know.

It’s really shocking to compare the Brussels lockdown images in the news to what we found in Belgium. Most of our wandering took us south of the canal that separated Sint-Jans-Molenbeek from the city center. If I had to sum Brussels up to another traveler, I’d say things like "Stylish but easy-going. Great food, coffee and beer. Good public transit, very cool architecture, lots to do."

Brussels lockdown
This is Molenbeek, the neighborhood you’re hearing so much about during the Brussels lockdown.

I always try hard not to fall into the trap of over-estimating a city’s good side when I travel. When you’re traveling, the view is always rosier than living and working somewhere. But still, Brussels seemed to have this vibe of a healthy attitude toward balancing work and life. The streets and restaurants all seemed busy and upbeat. It was just an unbelievably pleasant place even if you’re not a fan of the secondhand smoke (which I’m not). The population was diverse, and people of all backgrounds seemed to intermingle. Only one small spray of graffiti that I couldn’t even translate but clearly mentioned Islam seemed to be the only sign of tension.

Brussels lockdown
The only sign of tension I saw, and I can’t even translate it.

Thinking of Brussels braced for a "serious and imminent attack" is sobering and sad. Recognizing places in the news photos makes this situation hit closer to home. Maybe it shouldn’t – we should, I suppose, feel the same regardless of whether we’ve been there before. But I can easily imagine some of the same people who smiled at my daughter or sat next to us at a cafe now wondering what the hell is happening in their city. And that definitely makes this personal.

I don’t have any answers about what Belgium should do. I don’t want to offer any platitudes to Brussels and the people who live and work there. I just want to offer a different view of what you’re seeing in Brussels right now for those who have never been there. And I want Belgium to do its best to keep people safe without trampling on the rights of decent people who have nothing to do with the current threat, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

Read about my recent encounter with the TSA to see what happens when “security” runs amok.

Icelandair Review – JFK to Reykjavik

IcelandAir review
IcelandAir’s “Surtsey” pulls into Gate 2 at JFK’s Terminal 7, ready to take another load to Iceland.

I originally wrote this IcelandAir review for Yahoo.com and its Voices platform. I’ve updated some info to give you an idea of what to expect today if you fly IcelandAir to Keflavík International Airport.

If you’re headed to Iceland from the United States, you don’t have many options. It comes down to Delta Airlines, WOW and IcelandAir. Here’s my IcelandaAir review to give you a first-hand idea on the original option for visiting Iceland.

A Step Back in Time

When was the last time you boarded an airliner and saw a pillbox hat and black glove-wearing flight attendant? It gives the IcelandAir staff a classy retro vibe. The airline even names its airplanes: The Boeing 757-200 that I boarded for my flight from New York to Reykjavik (and back) was named Surtsey after a new volcanic island that emerged from the sea in the 1960s.

IcelandAir review
Now boarding in Bergen – the daily flight to Keflavik, Iceland.

And crossing into the aircraft itself is a revelation of how pleasant a commercial airplane can be. Despite being just short of 20 years old, Surtsey was immaculately clean, softly lit and equipped with on-demand entertainment systems at every seat. I was able to watch a movie, some TV and even use the system to take a few lessons in mastering Icelandic phrases. Or maybe I should say "get schooled" rather than "mastered." That’s a tough language!

IcelandAir review
A chilly morning at Keflavik International Airport in Iceland.

There was also plenty of legroom between rows. Also kind of fun: Each seat had an Icelandic phrase and its translation on the headrest.

Stomachs Run on Empty

After boarding, it didn’t take long for the crew to start handing out free bottles of very nice Icelandic glacier water. That was especially considerate considering a nearly two-hour delay in taking off – we spent most of that time sitting on a taxiway.

Aside from the on-demand entertainment, that was the last of the perks. No free meals or drinks. Considering this is otherwise a slick, classy airline, I’m a bit dismayed – especially for the price. Flying to Reykjavik was only marginally cheaper than Qantas flights that were more than twice as long (Los Angeles to Auckland, Los Angeles to Sydney). In contrast, the Qantas flights also included free meals, snacks and drinks along with some very friendly service. The IcelandAir staff was uniformly pleasant, but nowhere near as exuberant as the Australian crews on Qantas. It was more like the polished formality of a premium Asian airline like ANA or Asiana. I keep going back to the words like classy and elegant.

Odds & Ends

Beautiful plane, good service, comfort, entertainment – all are impressive on an IcelandAir flight. Bring some snacks, and you can overcome the meal quibble. It makes IcelandAir somewhat less of a value than other airlines – but if you want to shop in Reykjavik, hit the hot tubs at the Blue Lagoon or backpack the Landmannalaugar highlands … well, you have few alternatives. Another word of advice: Sign up for the IcelandAir netclub. They will send you some legitimately good offers for flights, tours and accommodations. I wish I’d signed up before my trip. I really can’t imagine either of the IcelandAir competitors winning me over the next time I go to Iceland.

So what about WOW and its super-cheap fares to Iceland? I crunched the numbers to see if it’s really a better value than IcelandAir.

What I Learned From a Cancelled United Airlines Flight

cancelled United Airlines flights
I love the view, taken aboard a replacement flight or not.

A cancelled United Airlines flight gave me plenty to think about the day I returned to the U.S. with my family. We’d been in Europe for more than two weeks – a great trip, but we were ready to be home (just try finding a good West Coast-style IPA in Germany!).

The TSA made sure my homecoming was less than friendly.

And then United Airlines boarded its flight to Phoenix – a Boeing 737 that has seen better days (the carpet was battered, and my window shade hung at a diagonal – yet it had seem enough shop time that it had split-scimitar winglets). Still, it had DirectTV; I swiped my credit card and was happily watching soccer -- then the flight attendants alerted the pilots that they heard a banging noise in the rear of the plane. They delayed the flight, delayed it again, delayed it again for good measure. They tried to find a replacement plane, and then they cancelled it.

Here’s what I learned from this cancelled United Airlines flight.

airline choices
United Airlines is modernizing with planes like the 787 Dreamliner. They generally have decent short-haul flights, too, but there’s still some old beaters in the fleet.

Pilots Wisely Listen to the Flight Attendants

You might think they just lecture you about electronic devices and bring you drinks. But flights attendants spend a lot of time in the air. They know when something isn’t right. And I’d rather they cancel a flight than ignore a warning sign and put me into the air aboard an unsafe aircraft. I have to give props to the cooperation between the United pilots and flight attendants. Yeah, a delay or cancellation is a pain for passengers. But it’s nowhere near as bad as flying an unsafe aircraft. I give absolutely unequivocal kudos to United Airlines for the flight deck-flight attendant cooperation.

Cancelled United Airlines Flight
I flew a United 777 to Brazil, and it the Economy Plus upgrade was well worth it. Yet another positive data point for United.

Passengers Need to Chill Out

"This is why I never fly United," a guy behind me said. He told me about his double-secret-unobtainium status with American Airlines. He didn’t exactly seem thrilled when I replied that this was the first problem I ever encountered with United. I also overheard a surly passenger telling a United customer service employee to "call me ‘sir’" and "you owe me your undivided attention." That is so unnecessary. A cancelled flight is a giant pain for everyone involved – yelling and being demanding does nothing for anyone. And no, the cancellation won’t get you a first-class upgrade on the next flight. There were about 160 people on that airplane -- and only a few first-class seats.

Cancelled United Airlines Flight
Oof, I’m a bit squeezed here.

Customer Service People Could Do Their Part, Too

Here’s where I had a problem with spending a night in Chicago because of our cancelled United Airlines flight: The customer service rep booked us at a hotel 30 minutes away for a 5:30 a.m. departure. For some people, this might not be a big problem. But we’d just gotten off a 9-hour flight with a 9-month-old. She was a trooper, but there’s only so much you can expect -- we promptly returned to the airport, grabbed an on-site hotel (for less than the advertised rate of the place where customer service booked us) and gained some extra sleep. Why the customer service person didn’t put us there in the first place, I just can’t say. Still, he was personable in the situation, and he knew a serious flogging was in the offing from the other passengers.

The Return Flight – Not So Great

Our plane for the 5:30 am flight was a decent 737 with the cool Boeing Sky interior. It unfortunately had a seat pitch not designed for a person who stands 6’2: My knees were up against the seat in front of me the whole way. The flight also left an hour late, and with the WiFi and DirectTV out of order.

United Airlines Made Things Right

When we returned, I wrote an email to United Airlines summarizing this situation. I asked them to pick up the hotel bill, along with my DirectTV payment (I’d paid my $7.99 for the flight) and the cost of our Uber ride back to O’Hare. I also asked for a chunk of air miles for my wife and me. I skipped the "I’m never flying United again" because it’s counterproductive – and I’ve had too many positive previous experiences with United to be hostile like that (though I admitted losing my patience with them on Twitter).

They agreed and have since credited our account. We also received a check for our expenses.

Cancelled United Airlines Flight Still Made Them Look Good, Ultimately

United Airlines cancelled the flight because the plane seemed to have a mechanical problem its team couldn’t sort out. So they made the safe choice.

They also recognized the shortcomings in how they handled the hotel situation and did their part to make things right. That’s all I can ask – sometimes, in air travel, things won’t go according to plan. Someone, somewhere, will make a mistake. And when it’s airline making the mistake, you have to wonder how well they’ll respond. United Airlines handled it every bit to my satisfaction.

I can no longer say I’ve never had a problem with United Airlines. But I can say that, the one time I did have a problem, United made things right.

Now, let’s say United received my email and said "forget about it, pal." Well, they probably could’ve gotten away with it. And the amounts are just too small to any other way, and I’m not willing to let something like that waste my time on general principal.

But with American Airlines now the biggest operation at my hometown airport, a bad and unresolved experience with United could’ve pushed me toward them. Instead, I’m sticking with United Airlines as my first-choice domestic airlines because it did its best to fix a very difficult leg of my trip. It looks like United understands that empowering employees to take a relatively small step to help a customer can pay dividends.

Read more about my previous experiences with United Airlines. And if you want to read about a long-haul flight on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, I’ve got you covered.

Schwäbisch Hall – Views of a Different Germany

Schwäbisch Hall
The river isn’t just pretty – it was essential to Schwäbisch Hall’s prosperity through salt production.

When people found out I was going to Germany in October, the reactions were almost identical.

"Munich! Oktoberfest!"

Sure, that might’ve been happening while I was there. But I was headed to a different part of Germany for different reasons. I figured that after nearly three decades, it was time to visit the German part of my family. On my father’s side, I’m a first-generation American (and only second on my mother’s side).

I thought that, with a new little person in our family, it would be a nice time to re-connect with people who were part of some of my favorite childhood memories. This would take Sarah, Anneka and me to a part of Germany that’s not even in the travel guidebooks -- to a region of Swabia that sees few American travelers. We were headed to Schwäbisch Halll.

These are photos I took in Schwäbisch Hall, though there’s also the odd shot of Gaildorf (my father’s hometown) and Rosengarten. If you’re headed to Germany, I hope it gives you a few thoughts about going beyond the typical itinerary. In a later post, I’ll post a few helpful hints for travelers. For now, have a look at a postcard-perfect vision of Germany.

Schwäbisch Hall
Schwäbisch Hall is straight out of a postcard.
Schwäbisch Hall
A more modern side of Schwäbisch Hall – a brewery turned restaurant, and a terrific, free art museum.
Schwäbisch Hall Saint Michael Church
The St. Michael church in Schwäbisch Hall
Rosengarten Germany Johann Schutt artist
My Uncle Johann is an artist, and this is one of his pieces hanging in the Rosengarten village hall. He also does more realistic landscape pieces – talk about pushing your artistic limits!
Schwäbisch Hall Einkorn
This is near the Einkorn, the highest point in the Schwäbisch Hall district. Is that a beautiful forest?
Schwabisch Hall
This little girl from the desert is delighted by fall in Baden-Württemberg.
Schwäbisch Hall
A sunny, perfect fall day in Schwäbisch Hall.

If you’re wondering about the family visit – well, my German relatives were exactly as I remembered them. I also had a great time meeting some of them for the first time. They took time to show us around the villages and fill me on some great history -- both family and local. I can’t say enough about my cousin Andrea, her husband Jurgen, and to Mirjam, Simon, the twins Maria and Johannes, and Martin and Malena. (Andrea introduced Anneka to spaetzle, her new favorite food.)

And of course, I’m not going to forget my Aunt Siglinda and Uncle Johann. To me, they hadn’t changed a bit and were every bit as great as I remembered. After seeing them again, I definitely don’t want to let too much time pass before visiting again.


Running the Desert Boneyard 10k

Desert Boneyard 10k
I never thought I’d run a 10k in an aircraft boneyard while wearing a frilly pirate shirt.

The Desert Boneyard 10k at Davis Monthan Air Force Base isn’t a race for hardcore runners. The course is slow thanks to its uneven surface and occasional mud patches. And the scenery – which runs through the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group boneyard and thousands of aircraft from C-130s to F-15s – will add minutes your time if you’re even remotely interested in aircraft. If you’re a full-on avgeek, forget about it: You’re going to lose minutes when you stop to snap photos. So it’s not the quest for a personal record that makes the Desert Boneyard run an extremely cool 10k race: It’s the backdrop.

I only did a few 5k training runs before I lined up for the Desert Boneyard 10k, and it had been nearly a year since my last 10k training run. I’m pretty sure my last 10k race was a few years ago in Norway. So I didn’t have high hopes of a personal record, especially considering the post-apocalyptic vibe of the parked aircraft.

Desert Boneyard 10k
Old F-16 Vipers lined up for storage, with some F-15 Eagles in the background.

I accidentally added to the desolate flavor of the race by starting at least 10 minutes late: I had to make a run back to my car to drop off my race pack, and my car was pretty much out in the weeds. By the time I got back, the 10k and 5k events had both started; I’d highly recommend that the organizers add a bag drop near the race area. The fortunate upside is that I was by myself for long stretches of the course as I chased the pack. That made the experience a bit more fun.

I don’t know what my official time actually was. I figured it would be posted online somewhere. Even if my time never appears, my GPS had me at 60 minutes and change – not nearly as bad as I’d feared thanks to the mud and photo stops. And my frilly pirate shirt: It was Halloween, so of course I was going to dress up. The race announcer encouraged those finishing near me to run faster so the pirate wouldn’t catch them;but some spectators gave me a good, loud "Fabiooooooooo!" as I finished.

Old A-4 Skyhawks along the course of the Desert Boneyard 10k.
Old A-4 Skyhawks along the course of the Desert Boneyard 10k.

The Desert Boneyard 10k is a low-key, low-fuss affair that relies more on its oddball backdrop of parked aircraft than on big sponsors and lots of frills. I get that – but I’d highly recommend that the organizers consider putting some of the ample scrap to work, teaming up with some local artists and offering some really cool finisher’s medals. The cool location makes it the sort of race that would be highly sought by runners after interesting racers just as much as personal records. I’d definitely pay a higher entrance fee for a personal piece of boneyard history.

Desert Boneyard 10k
A-10 Warthogs – also known as a gun with wings.

Speaking of that, an email from the organizers also said to bring cash for souvenirs. Which I did -- and found nothing for sale at all. Maybe I missed it. I would also love to see some course photographers offering downloads for participants. It seems that some local photographers would love a chance to work in the boneyard and get a cut of the action. It’s also possible that the public affairs staff at Davis-Monthan Air Force base could help.

Davis-Monthan Air Force Base
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, I liked the Desert Boneyard 10k race and will do it again, no doubt. I also thought the Air Force personnel were very welcoming, even while tasked with keeping an eye on a huge crowd in a fairly sensitive area. Keep in mind, some of the stored aircraft are still just a notch below state-of-the-art – so it’s definitely important for them to manage the crowd. There was also an ample number of water stops, and the course markings were pretty solid. These are some of the most-important facets of a good race, and it’s always a positive sign when race organizers get them right.

Want to read more about some of the cool races I’ve done? Check here for more race reports and opinions on running and races.