April 17, 2009

CARES Strap

Posted in Air France, Samwich, travel at 4:59 am by Michael

This was our first trip with Samwich using a CARES Strap (http://kidsflysafe.com/) instead of a car seat on the plane.

Most of the time we’ve used a “Sit-N-Stroll” (http://www.strollerdepot.com/items/sit-n-stroll/) which is a convertible car seat/stroller that can sometimes even be rolled right down the aisle. Its super convenient when you have a rental car on the other side.

We didn’t want to take the Sit-N-Stroll this time because we weren’t going to have a car for most of the time we were gone, making it a bunch of dead weight. In addition our experience with France is that it’s not super stroller friendly (curbs, cobblestones, narrow sidewalks).

Additionally, Air France planes (transcon A330’s) have extra-wide armrests that do not completely fold up – this makes it hard to put a carseat in.

The last time we red-eye’d to Boston, Samwich ended up out of his carseat, laying across Anh and I anyway – in that case, the carseat was a detriment, as that was space that he couldn’t use.

For this trip, we had the flight to Paris, and then a flight from Paris to Marseille.

We were able to use it effectively on all the legs, although on the return from Marseille to Paris the flight crew questioned us a bunch, and the FAA stamp didn’t carry weight, since it was France. In the end, they were ok w/it.

Samwich was way more comfortable, and sleeping worked out much better him. On the Paris-Seattle legs, the seat configuration was 2-4-2, and we had window-aisle-aisle, with Samwich on the window, with Anh next to him. On the Paris-Marseille legs, it was 3-3 – so we had three across and chose to put him in the middle. This was a benefit over the carseat, which needs to go on the window, or in a two-aisle plane (2-4-2, 2-3-2, or 3-5-3) has to be in a middle-middle seat.

The only challenge is that the shoulder straps tended to pull the lap belt “up” – so it was a little high. Because there is no “between the legs” strap, he could slide forward too. This isn’t a big deal in an airplane crash, since airplanes typically aren’t rear-ended, but you need to stay vigilant to make sure that he’s properly positioned in turbulence. We fixed this a bit by having him sit on a pillow, which seemed to work pretty well. (Although I’m not sure that’s “approved”).

In the end it wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the alternative, and certainly reduced the lugging weight.

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February 23, 2008

“Welcome Home!”

Posted in Air France, family, Identification, transgender, travel at 9:07 pm by Michael

The rest of the flight back to Seattle was as uneventful as it was long. Ten hours plus is a long time to sit on a plane. I have to say that the Los Angeles or Newark to Singapore (on Singapore Airlines) flight of 18+ hours just seems like self-flagellation.

As documented earlier, getting into France was easy, but we were wondering how coming home would be – given how picky US Customs has become.

We landed in Seattle, again did the slow-taxi (which was made more painful by the fact that Samwich picked that time to have his one and only freak-out of the entire flight), and pulled up to the gate. We were in the third row of coach, so we were near the front of the customs line, and quickly got to a customs agent. We gave him our passports and declaration form, and he literally smiled to us and said “Welcome Home!”, and that was it.

Wow.

Anh and I have traveled a TON internationally. This was by FAR the easiest entry we’ve ever had. Maybe it was random, maybe we looked friendly, but wow…. I’ve been asked SO many questions before, literally taken ten minutes at the counter – this time – 30 seconds, tops.

We were wondering thought – when they scan in your passport – what data shows up on their screen? How integrated are the US IT systems? All your other trips? Other info? How do they deal with new passport numbers for the same person? (Passport ID #’s are unique per passport, not by the person – this was my first trip w/this passport).

Seattle greeted us upon our return with a sunny, warm (high 50’s, which is warm for Seattle at this time of year) day.

We got in the door, put Samwich down, and he walked over to the windows, and kissed them.

He was happy to get home too, as were we.

February 22, 2008

Paris Departure – Lots of Bee Watcher Watching

Posted in Air France, Identification, Paris, transgender at 5:39 pm by Michael

Up early this morning (515am) for our flight out at 1040am from Paris – Charles De Gaulle. Up and going, and by 615 or so, we were ready to roll. We let the Samwich blow off some steam, and went to check out of the hotel (which we would recommend – see the web address on the last post). No problems.

We had pre-arranged a car to pick us up and bring us to the airport (the pickup from the airport was flawless). We had asked for them to come at 7, but there was a mixup, and they ended up not coming (they wanted a confirmation, wanted only to come at 745am, etc) so we just got a cab.

When we get in the cab, the taxi driver asks us in French where we are going, and we tell him the CDG airport. Which Terminal? Terminal 2! You would have thought we were total idiots! He starts ranting (in French), basically saying “Duh Terminal 2, which one? A, B, C, D, E?”. Uh, we have no idea. He mutters in French something unintelligible, and looks it up in some book, after asking us what our destination is. We think we are heading to the right place. CDG is a huge airport though, so ending up on the wrong end would suck.

One thing that struck me getting out of Paris is that there are no freeways, highways, or even any sort of limited access roads through the city (that we saw at least). As far as I could tell, the city itself is a highway free zone. Granted, the traffic wasn’t horrible at 715am, but it took a half an hour to get from the city center, just south of the Seine to the highway outside of town. I’m not saying this is good or bad, but certainly different than any American city, and different than many cities in Europe as well (to take that long to get from the center to the highway).

Also, our cab driver was super into French talk radio – from what I picked up it sounded like political talk radio (they were talking lot about Sarcozy and also Obama). He liked it LOUD. I can just imagine what Rush Limbaugh sounds like to foreign ears. I didn’t dare ask him to turn it off after the whole Terminal-Dumbass incident.

Anyway, we roll into the airport (Terminal 2 E was our destination I guess) (it took about 30 minutes), with just less than three hours left till our flight, and look toward the ubiquitous “Big Board” to see if our flight is in this area. Bingo – AF 40 to Seattle, E 94, Area 5.

Walking in, we see pairs of guards in fatigues with machine guns. Its always spooky when I see this in airports.

The CDG airport uses the checkin method that I’ve seen before at many other airports (except the US) – where there are specific checkin bays for a flight or set of flights. Luckily, bay 5 wasn’t crowded, and after waiting for just a few minutes, we got to the first bee watcher. (See Dr. Suess’s “Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?”).

Bee Watcher #1’s job was to make sure that you went to the right bay. Now, from watching other people who went up to Mr. Bee Watcher #1, you would have thought there was some sort of advanced calculus exam going on. He spent a minute or two with each, and he turned away at least half of the people.

Our turn, and I’m ready for the Bridge Keeper at the Bridge of Death. Ok, I’m ready, ask me your questions, I’m not afraid!

“What is your destination?”

“Seattle!”

“Ok, go.’

Huh? How anti-climactic.

On to the line for Bee Watcher Watcher #2 Bee Watcher Watcher #2 wants to see passports, and asks you some security questions about your carry on bags. Are you carrying any weapons or knives? Anything sharp? Note – tweezers – ok in the US, not ok in Europe. We had to move some from carryon to checkin.

Bee Watcher Watcher #2 then sends you to the right line or your flight (each flight, different line within the gate). There are also ten electronic checkin kiosks, about half of which are unused. I asked Ms. Bee Watcher Watcher #2 if those could be used, and she said “Yes, you can use those to checkin, then get in the line to drop off your bags.”

Ok, I’m not sure what this is going to save, but whatever, I’ll try it out. Anh gets in the regular line, I go over to a kiosk and start the checkin process. The kiosk says that it works for both with checked bags, and for carryon only. I start through the process, and by using my passport it finds our record, and we are good to go. As is common with international flights, the info from your passport needs to get entered (number, expiration date, country of issue, country of residence). Northwest rocks at this – when you scan your passport, it gets the info off. However, Air France, not so good. Even though there is a passport scanner at the machine and it recognized my passport, I have to manually enter all the data.

Pang #1. I’m entering my data, and it asks if I’m a man or a woman. I pause, and try to think about why it’s asking. These days, this question requires context for me. Ah, to match my passport. On my passport I’m “M”, so I have to enter that. I know I know, I’ve said about a billion times that I don’t care. I cared. I didn’t want to hit the blue button, but I had to.

I finish up with the passport data entry, and I expect it to ask me if I want to check bags (which I do – two of em). No such luck. It spits out three boarding passes. I’m expecting to see Mr. Megan Wallent on mine, but at least they don’t print salutations.

At this point, Anh is almost first in the Bee Watcher Watcher #3 line (this person at least has a real task – to check the bags). We go up to the counter, give her the boarding passes, and say we want to checkin two bags. We have to show the passports, again, and she takes a look at each of us to make sure they match.

We get the bags tagged, and they are off. I’m super curious, but do not ask – what on earth are the kiosks for? You HAVE to stand in the line, even if you have no bags to check. Those kiosks are like Bee Watcher Watcher # 2 and a half at least.

Ok, we are off to security, or so we think. Nope, exit passport control. This is one thing I love about the US – no exit passport control. You want to leave, go for it!

Here we get to first see Bee Watcher Watcher #4, who makes sure that we have boarding passes and tickets, then lets us get in the line. She didn’t even check to make sure they matched – they just needed to exist.

Now, on to Bee Watcher Watcher #5 – again perhaps a real Bee Watcher – who is National Police, and checks our passports, checks our faces, and stamps our passports saying we left. Oddly, they never stamped our passports saying we entered. Odd.

We are not yet to security, but I can taste it. Again, there’s another Bee Watcher – #6 – again with the passports and the boarding passes, and insuring that we have same. He directs us to an appropriate line, which as soon as we get into it closes. We move next door – and it closes. Oh for Two. Line three – success! We can be security screened by the security Bee Watcher Watchers (#7 – although there were at least five of them).

With the baby, we have extra liquid, which means pulling out his bottle, plus out toiletry bags, and making sure it’s all separate.

We get through, repack, and are on to our “Gate”. Turns out that Terminal #2 E is under construction, so there are temporary structures for the gates – no jet bridges, and you get picked up by bus and brought to the plane when the flight is called.

We get there about 45 minutes before boarding, let the Samwich run around a little to burn off more energy pre-10 hours of confinement, and hang out. On time, our flight gets called, and we get to pre-board.

The boarding process required two more Bee Watcher Watchers, #8 and #9. #8 checks our passports and tickets (again!), and #9, an actual Bee Watcher, scans our tickets. Woo Hoo, we can get on the bus! After the bus is full, it waits a good 10 minutes to make sure its really full, and then goes on to the plane at 1kph. Literally. Walking would have been faster.

Anyway, we get to the plane, and there are of course boarding stairs, which need to get climbed. The complexity here is that we have our carry on stuff (backpack, my bag, Samwich’s small backpack), plus him (Mr. Wiggly at this point), plus his carseat. Stairs suck.

We get to the top of the stairs, and get on the plane. The purser asks where we are sitting, and I tell her, and then we try to get on – no such luck. She wants to see the boarding passes. Bee Watcher Watcher #10. At this point, in one arm I have Samwich, the other his carseat, and need to produce the boarding passes which are in my back pocket.

I smile and say “Sorry, I’ll get them. It may take a sec, ok?”

She smiles, and waits patiently while we get our passes, which we dutifully do, and we find our seats and stow our stuff.

As we are sitting waiting for the Bees to fly us to Seattle, I have Pang #2. In three months this hasn’t happened to me.

I miss Michael.

I start to get a little teary, but I don’t think anyone except for me noticed. I’m not saying that I wish I didn’t go through with my transition. I know it was the right thing for me. It is who I am.

Maybe it was the passport craziness. Maybe it was that instead of one of the Bee Watcher Watchers giving us two US Customs declarations forms and not one. Maybe it was the omni-present French choice of Madame v. Monsieur? Maybe it was that it’s not as “easy”.

For all of those reasons, and maybe more, I did and do.

February 16, 2008

Paris – Getting Here

Posted in Air France, family, Identification, Paris, Samwich, transgender, travel at 2:48 pm by Michael

One of the things that we have come to learn from traveling in general, but traveling with kids specifically is that direct flights are your friend. Sometimes you pay a little more, but its absolutely worth it.

Air France just started direct service from Seattle to Paris last year, so we decided that Paris would be a great destination for us.

This would also be our first “post transition” trip, and we are doing this with just Samwich, as Peri and John are with their mom this week.

We both had a little trepidation around if this would be harder than a domestic trip with the TSA, airlines, and also walking around in a new city.

Fundamentally, all of those concerns have been non-issues to date. So far, if anything, Paris has been even easier than other places we have gone.

First off, with Air France – you aren’t allowed to checkin electronically if you are going with a child under two – either on lap, or in a seat. So we had to check in at the counter. We all have passports (obviously), but I was wondering if the ticket agent would ask who Samwich’s dad was, and if he had consented to the trip. (We’ve had this question before when going both domestic and international with Peri and John.) We checked in, no questions.

On to TSA – three passports, three tickets, no problems.

When we went to Italy last year with all three kids (Samwich was five months then), we went with SAS through Copenhagen then to Rome. SAS is a very kid friendly airline. Rome as an airport (and their infrastructure in general) isn’t great – the baggage handlers had a work “slowdown” and intentionally didn’t give us one out of four of our total bags – we had to wait two days. But, the airline – top rate – best kid experience ever. I was curious to see how Air France did.

Like most airlines, they do early board for families with kids, and we did that. We have this super cool “convertible” stroller/car seat for Samwich that does this Transformers deal that allows it to go from stroller to car seat and back. It’s called a “Sit N Stroll” (I couldn’t find an active link for it right now… odd). Its FAA approved, we’ve used it a ton. The coolest thing is that (on some planes) you can stroll it right down the aisle (it fits in general), and then “convert” it at your seat. It is a little hard to convert it w/the kid strapped in, but my arms are long enough to do it. Anh has a harder time w/it – it’s not a strength thing – it’s a leverage and reach thing. Anyway, we get to the seat (I had to convert it early because the aisle was too narrow), and we have bulkhead seats – three in the middle (of four – it’s a 2/4/2 configuration – an Airbus A330-200), but in the bulkhead the armrests are permanently down (to allow for video screens to come out of the armrests), and the seat is too narrow for the car seat. Dammit! Turns out that we tried it the row back, and it was ok – there was just enough space to get it in.  There were two flight attendants (female) in the cabin right there, and they were super helpful. We ended up swapping seats w/some folks three rows back, and it worked out just fine. The flight was uneventful, and they even had baby food (apple sauce and some other veggie/chicken thing) that usually Samwich won’t touch, but he did eat the apple sauce and was great. I’ve never seen an airline automatically carry jar baby food before. Super impressive. They also gave away little toys to the kids (age appropriate), but didn’t give out infant life vests, which SAS and Northwest both do. I kind of think this is no biggie, as quite honestly, when was the last time that *anyone* was saved by an airline life vest, or there was a survivable ditching of an airliner in the ocean – the 50’s?

Getting Samwich up at 2:30am the night before helped him to time-adjust, and he slept for half the trip. We got in at just about 9am (left at 2pm Seattle time – 9 hour flight, 9 hour time difference), and on to the next test – customs.

Again, a total non-issue (remember, my passport says “Megan Jenna Wallent”, but has an M for gender). The customs agent, who spoke English (thank you!), even greeted and said goodbye to us using the plural feminine French term (Mesdames).

We had a car service arranged, that worked flawlessly too, and we got to the hotel, even with customs, checking bags, and a thirty minute drive by 10:30am. Not bad!