Sun 25

Travel Diary: Day #1 (Melbourne, Los Angeles)

Writing “Daddy!” Fin shrieks, and begins to run toward me across the airport hall floor. There are a million people around but no-one between her and me, and she runs/staggers/falls toward me with a huge grin on her face. I crouch down and she leaps into my arms. Her little fists bunch the material of my sweater, trapping it in her miniature iron grip. It’s so good to hold her again. It’s so good to smell her.

I haven’t seen my daughter since she got bored in the check-in line, about an hour ago, and Jen took her off to play near the fire engine that moves if you put in a dollar.

My quest was to avoid seat 48G. I was booked on seat 48G, but I didn’t want it: thanks to I knew it was the row behind the babies in bassinets, two rows behind the toilets, had reduced leg room, and was in the middle section. Melbourne to LA is a fifteen hour flight; you want a good seat. The only way to change it, the travel agent told me, was to turn up early at check-in.

Which I did, to find that the line is already so long that it snakes through several other dimensions. Whenever I make some progress, an airline employee wanders through the line and calls passengers on flights ahead of mine to come to the front. This continues until finally I am one of those passengers who needs to be called to the front, which occurs exactly six places before I would have gotten there anyway. By that stage, I don’t want their help. It’s like ascending Mt. Everest and then with a hundred yards to go and the summit in sight, my Sherpa offers to carry me.

The woman at check-in can’t change my seat. She says, “If you want to do that, you have to get here early.”

So it’s time for goodbyes. I kiss my beautiful wife and daughter. Fin says, “Bye-bye.” Last time, 14 months ago, she couldn’t talk. She didn’t even have teeth. Nowadays she’s smart enough to come to the bottom of the stairs, rattle the stair-gate, and yell, “Daddy! Daddy!” until I appear. I don’t even want to think about how much I’m going to miss her.

Once through security, I proceed directly to the gate, pausing only to drop into the bookstore and see if they’ve got mine. They do, but it’s on the very bottom shelf, filed under “W.” I can only presume that some unethical author has swapped their books for my prized “B” placement. Appalling. I take my books and swap them for some novel that looks exactly like The Da Vinci Code if you aren’t paying attention.

The flight itself is notable only for the fact that my seat’s entertainment system plays all dialogue at near-inaudible levels. So I can enjoy a movie for its visuals, background noise, and soundtrack, but can’t hear a word anyone is saying, unless they’re doing it off-screen. This strikes me as the kind of fault that is so bizarre someone must have carefully engineered it.

Then it’s US Customs. Ah, Customs. How we have danced, over the years. This time I notice that as a visiting alien, I am granted certain rights; in particular the right to appeal any decision by a Customs official. I know this because on the back of the Customs form, I am required to officially waive these rights. This seems a little like offering somebody ice-cream but only if they first agree to not have any ice-cream. It seems to be getting more common lately that the way I discover that I have various rights is when I’m asked to waive them.

One small thing really bugs me about LAX Customs. There are about two dozen booths, maybe half of which are occupied by officials. Above these booths are scrolling LED screens, which usually tell you something helpful, like please present these papers, or don’t drink and drive because you’ll die. (Seriously.) But on the unoccupied booths, the screens advertise themselves. They scroll messages about how many characters they can display at once (27), how vibrant their colors are, and how simple they are to operate. Not so simple to change the default messages, apparently, because it’s been this way for frickin’ years.

Customs asks me a series of questions about the purpose of my visit, including a request for me to describe the plot of all three of my novels. I’m not sure whether they guy is just curious or my entry to the United States of American really does depend on having sufficiently engaging storylines. But either way, he lets me go through. The next guy asks me about my book as well, and takes a fancy to the way I say “satire.” He says it himself, trying on my accent. On one hand, I appreciate that anyone in this Gulag has a sense of humor. On the other, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this guy can order me stripped, probed and deported if I don’t laugh at his jokes. I bet he finds his audiences mystifyingly less appreciative away from here.

At my hotel, I am pleased to discover that Los Angeles is just how I left it: all eating disorders, tiny dogs, and 70-year-old guys in baseball caps. My first job is to find one of those hole-in-the-wall stores that sells international phone cards, so I can call home without bankrupting myself. But my hotel is in Beverly Hills, and this is hard to do. If I wanted to whiten my teeth or buy diamonds, it’d be no problem. But phone cards are very thin on the ground.

I finally find a Rite-Aid (medicine and booze in the one store! What could possibly go wrong?), secure a card, and head back to my hotel for a phone interview. On the way I’m passed by a fire engine. If Fin was here, she’d say, “Neena, neena.” She likes fire engines. I wish I could teleport my girls here. I wish there was no time difference. I miss them so much already.