Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Golden City

Old Prague's "skyline" of towers and turrets
It was in 2002, I believe, that I visited Prague for the first time. My dad had just moved back to Berlin after my mother's death, and to distract him I borrowed my brother's car, told dad to pack a few days' underwear, and get ready for a field trip. And so we just took off. I was so impressed with the city that a few years later I simply had to take Judy there, even though it was during the coldest time of the year. And during this current trip to Europe, Prague was once again on the schedule, together with Sabine.
The river Moldavia / Moldau
From Munich it was about a 4-hour trip with the new IC Bus that is run by Deutsche Bahn, providing an inexpensive, comfortable way via the autobahn. There are trains, too, but they cost more (at least for right now). Staying with my theme of "matress runs," I had set us up for three nights in the two local Hiltons, alternating from night to night to maximize "stays." We spent two nights in the Hilton Old Town Prague, which is maybe 200 meters from the Bürgerhaus, a Nouveau Art gem, and the Prasna Brana, the old Powder Tower that presents one of the entry points into the Old City. Our middle night we spent in the same Hilton as where I had stayed during my former trips, albeit this time in a nice upgraded suite—you gotta love paying for rooms with points when the $$$ signs start spinning out of control.
One of the old towers, Prasna Brana
We spent our three days with what one does in Prague: sightseeing and listening to music. After our arrival on Thursday afternoon, we headed for the Karlsbrücke, a super-solid medieval stone bridge across the Moldau where life concentrates on its way from the Old City to the west banks of the river that runs through Prague. It seemed as if half the globe's population had congregated here, either in the form of tourists or otherwise as beggars, musicians, artists, or street vendors. Just in case, I put my wallet in my chest pocket as this looked like prime pick-pocket territory.
Street musicians on the Karlsbrücke, 1158 A.D.
We walked to the other side of Prague, to the bottom of the castle hill. Since it was getting late and we still wanted to gussy up at the hotel before venturing out for the night, we just took in some of the incredible night sights of this intriguing city.
The concierge at the Hilton had organized tickets for us at one of the best-known jazz venues in Prague, and we totally enjoyed our evening at the cozy Reduta Jazz Club, which was hosting one of the many ongoing 35th International Prague Jazz Festival events. It was a pretty long day for two old folks....
Bill Clinton took the stage here, playing the sax at Reduta
Our first full day in the city was not too exciting in regard to the weather, as it was cloudy and grey, yet dry. The weather forecast had called for just that, so it was easy not to be disappointed. We did our best to hit some of the indoor hot-spots while keeping our eyes wide open walking through the amazing streets of Prague. This city was spared any of the devastation that most European metropolises experienced during the two World Wars. As a result, the inner city more or less looks the way it did 100 or 150 years ago. It seems as if a lot of money is being spent (government money?) for the upkeep of apartment and municipal buildings alike. If it has not  been repainted or revitalized, it probably has a scaffold and work is ongoing. No telling how much tourism money is flowing into Prague these days, and any smart politician is going to recognize that it takes money to make money.
Typical apartment building in various stages of a facelift
Tourist highlights of the day included a visit to the Hradshin, the castle hill on the opposite bank of the Old City. We bought a combination ticket to visit four of the most memorable sights; even the small "Golden Lane" now has to be accessed via a turnstile. Churches all command an entry fee as well. And going to the bathroom anywhere is going to cost you half a dollar. But who can blame them? The upkeep can't be cheap, and visiting Disneyland also costs a pretty penny. Tourism has changed since the days of Alexander von Humboldt.
Inside St. Vitus Cathedral
Atop the Hradshin
See Prague by Segway!
Finally some food and drink, in a small and cozy pub
If Friday had been overcast and a bit on the dreary side, Saturday showed off Prague's finest side: A glorious fall day, with blue skies, nothing but sun, and golden leaves on the trees. We clambered up one of the guard towers at the Karlsbrücke from where we had an incredible view of the entire city. Later we toured the magnificent art nouveau Obecni Dum, an opulent hall built for the people. We watched the street musicians, and we even found a micro brewery where we sampled a bunch of hoppy, malty beers while eating the best beef tartar ever. In the evening, we went to another jazz club (Agharta), the same vaulted cellar venue where my dad and I had enjoyed good tunes years ago.
Vendor preparing the famous Prague ham
Clocktower detail on the main square
The river Moldavia as seen from one of the guard towers of the Karlsbrücke
Busy, busy, busy ...
Art nouveau bar in the "ladies room" of the Bürgerhaus
Music in the park
The crusaders used similar devices to keep their lonely wives celibate
Great view from up here
More jazz, at Agharta
On Sunday we took the bus back to Munich and then the 20-minute train ride to Freising. Wow, what an amazing (long) weekend trip. I wholeheartedly recommend a trip to Prague as it must be one of the most fascinating cities in Europe.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

My first true mileage & mattress run

Note: The pics are inserted in an almost haphazard way and mainly reflect the 24 hrs in Seattle

Thursday, 6:25 a.m.: I've just been dropped off at the Lubbock airport. With nothing but my small Patagonia backpack (holding a change of clothes, my rain jacket as well as my down pullover, plus reading materials, my Nook, camera, laptop, and assorted electronics)  I go to the AA counter, where I am greeted by Darlene with "How are you this morning, Mr. Heise?" Always nice to be recognized.

The view from the front
6:35 a.m.: I chat with the TSA supervisor (who used to be stationed in Germany) while my DL is checked and the TSA officer staffing the carry-on scanner greets me by name, big smile on his face.

6:55 a.m.: Boarding time is here, but nothing is happening. As it turns out, there is a problem with the fueling panel and the captain has to show the local crew how to gas up our MD-80.

7:25 .a.m.: We're supposed to be in the air, but instead I sit in my seat in 5E and watch the Kettles filing by. Our bird doesn't have an empty seat. Good for AA, and thus good for me.

7:45 a.m.: Take-off.

8:40 a.m.: We have arrived at D20 only 5 minutes behind schedule. I start my relaxed walk over to C27, with 30 minutes before boarding time.
Killing time in an Admiral's Club
9:20 a.m.: I am boarding flight AA1484 bound for Austin; this time my seat is 6E. All my upgrade requests cleared two days ago, making it 8 for 8.

10:05 a.m.: We're starting our bumpy descent in to Austin. This must be one of the shortest flights in a full-sized jets on the schedule.
Riding the Light Rail from SEATAC to downtown
11:30 a.m.: I am connected to the internet and enjoy a decent cup of coffee in the Admiral's Club. I have two drink chits for premium beverages in my chest pocket, thanks to my entering the AC as a Qantas Club member—a little known advantage over regular AC membership.

3:25 p.m.: I have just found out that my 4:45 p.m. flight to Chicago is going to be delayed by at least 15 minutes. ORD has been experiencing bad weather all day, so that's not surprising.
Chinatown and downtown
3:30 p.m.: The AAngel at the front desk looks at my itinerary and the connection times (1:20 hrs in ORD) and concerned enough to protect me with a more direct AUS-DFW-SEA flight, confirmed in First, just in case the delays start to increase. After all, tonight I am supposed to stay in the Doubletree at SEATAC as part of my mileage/mattress run.

3:50 p.m.: After a failed attempt to call the Executive Platinum Desk and AA's Customer Service via Skype because of a poor internet connection I have used my by-the-minute dumbphone to talk to somebody about ORC. That's the acronym for "original routing credit." In other words: If I end up flying the shorter route via Dallas instead of via Chicago, I will still receive the same mileage as if I had flown the detour. Better to make sure of these things beforehand and get it all written down in the record than later on having to start pleading. Did I mention that this trip has been hatched so that at the end of the year I will end up with 100,533 flown miles for 2013? That leaves little margin for error.

4:10 p.m.: I'm relaxing with a (free) Shiner Bock and enjoying Jane Monheit via iPod and Bose headphones. Let's see how the rest of the evening develops.
Looks a bit New Yorkish,doesn't it? Harry, that street's about to blow her top....

4:30 p.m.: The incoming plane has arrived, the passengers have disgorged, and maintenance is cleaning up.

5:10 p.m.: Flight AA2408, AUS-ORD, pushes back from the gate and we’re airborne a few minutes later.
Totem pole in Pioneer Park—Sabine carved one of the eyes when she was in Seattle as a Fullbrighter
5:30 p.m.: Flight attendant Diane has just finished up taking everybody’s dinner orders. My seat neighbor fidgets around in his seat while working on a PowerPoint presentation. He doesn’t want any food—just drinks.

5:50 p.m.: A hot towel appears, shortly followed by warm nuts and my G&T. Remember to wipe your hands with a hot towel before handling your nuts! (This was my favorite tagline in a FlyerTalk post a few years ago.)
That's where it starts ...
... and that's where it's sold
7:45 p.m.: A few G&Ts and adult-sized Cabs have passed, and we arrived in Chicago’s O’Hare. I haven’t been here in quite a while. It’s always bustling with life—people coming, people going, from all sides. I head straight for the Admiral’s Club, a 3-minute walk.

8:45 p.m.: Our flight to Seattle is delayed, too, because of weather, so we board about 15 minutes late. The captain emerges from the cockpit while general boarding is continuing. He asks everybody to please hurry up as a thunderstorm with heavy lightning is approaching and we may get stuck at the gate for an hour or two. The Kettles run like cattle. I read Velo and enjoy my iPod.
This gallery featured "local" artist Richard Kehl; works by Degas and Renoir were for sale, too
10:00 p.m.: We finally take off! Seems as if every plane on the ground at O’Hare was trying to get out at the same time, so the line of planes waiting for a slot was long, long, long. Within minutes we’re out of the turbulence, and we settle in for the almost 4-hour flight. I reset my watch to Pacific time. And I switch to Diet Coke and Courvoisier.

Sometime around midnight, in whatever time zone: I am watching the movie Shame, and odd opus that takes some time to digest—just like that sandwich I have been served.
No way to say no to such a bar, the Triangle Pub—especially not since it used to be a brothel
Friday, 12:25 a.m.: we land in Seattle, almost an hour behind schedule. When I double check my hotel reservation I realize that I screwed up royally, and my room in the DoubleTree where I thought I was staying tonight had been booked for yesterday. Holy shit. At least my reservation for tomorrow in the Hilton is still good. So I walk the 10 minutes from the terminal to Hilton, check in, talk to the DoubleTree folks on the phone, and will have to deal with that situation after I get up. Shit. I thought I had been perfect in my planning.

The second time I had salmon sliders (they call them "swimmers" here) in about a week's time. (And did anybody spot Mt. Rainier in the background, just to the right of the pint?)
1:10 a.m.: Lights out, and I am in my big, comfortable $50-plus-12,000-points king-sized Hilton bed. It’s been a long day that has netted 3,699 elite-qualifying miles (and 7,398 miles into my account, after my 100% bonus). The troubles we go through to assure continuing top-tier status....

9:10 a.m.: After a scrumptious breakfast in the Hilton I have walked to the DoubleTree where the front-desk manager, Matthew, takes care of my booking brain-fart. I love this can-do attitude but also realize that it may be reserved for Diamond members only, people like me. But isn't that why I went on this mileage/mattress run in the first place, to be part of that group for another year? Some people are simply a little more equal than others, at least when it involves loyalty programs.
My buddies at Pike Street Market
11:04 a.m.: I am on the Light Rail from SEATAC to downtown Seattle, $5.50 round-trip. Ahead of me is a wonderful day of floating, sightseeing, brew-pubbing, and simply enjoying. I float through art galleries and glass-blowing studios, have lunch in Chinatown, sit on the waterfront watching the ferries come and go, and am just so, so very happy to be able to do all these things. My silly leg complains only mildly about all the walking I do.

6:42 p.m.: Last call for Happy Hour at a little French bistro in Pike Street Market, with the most glorious view upon the bay and the Olympic peninsula. How can you go wrong with $3 Kronenbourg, $6 for a bowl of moules, and $8 for a half dozen super-fresh oysters? I had decide to splurge a little on this trip, and I'll most likely spend the entire $65 that I took along. OK, so you need to be Jürgen to understand Jürgen when it comes to money.
Nice cheese-oriented menu ...
8:25 p.m.: I'm having my penultimate beer of the day, an unmemorable IPA at Rock Bottom Brewing on 5th Ave., and I'm updating this ongoing entry that will go live sometime tomorrow, maybe in Chicago or on DFW, depending on weather delays. I have to say" I love this mileage run! First I thought I'd just fly somewhere, for the miles, and then fly back, but then I decided to have a little bit of fun, and I can't believe that I am futzing around Seattle for a day, just because I CAN!!!!  I'll have to do this more often, and maybe I should build in a few extra days, if possible.
Not bad for tapas

9:30 p.m.: Calling it a day at Rock Bottom. The Light Rail is only a few blocks away, but the ride will take the better part of an hour. I'll have to pick up my backpack from the Hilton and walk over to the DoubleTree, and the alarm will go off at 4:35 a.m for my 5:45 flight back to ORD. G'night, amigos. Seattle is fun!
I LOVE new beer...
Friday, 4:30 a.m.: I wake up, without the alarm clock, five minutes before my target. Switch on prepared coffee maker, quick shower, brush teeth, start coffee routine, pack up the few last items—twelve minutes later I am out of the door and hoofing it over to SEATAC airport.

5:07 a.m.: The stoopid self-check kiosk at the airport tells me to see an agent; six minutes later I get to the front of the First Class line. I’m told that they can’t issue my boarding passes since it is too close to the flight (it’s still 32 minutes from take-off). With a faux pass I start skipping through the Premium TSA line.  Have I screwed up again?
Didn't get the snow but capture the Big River
5:22 a.m.: I am at the gate. No problem. “Here are your boarding passes, Mr. Heise. Have a pleasant flight.” All that wasted sweat ….

6:24 a.m.: I reset the Breitling to CST. I have just lost two hours of my life.

8:45 a.m.: Breakfast arrives: quiche, potato wedges, yummy sausage, biscuit, coffee, fruit platter. I look outside and munch while the snow-dusted Northwest passes below me. Once we’re over Montana and then south Dakota, it looks like a winter wonderland. I regret the fact that my seat neighbor is fully asleep and I cannot take a picture. The view is mesmerizing.

10:45 a.m.: I turn off the Nook, 1:50 hr into Tess, the movie that got old Roman into a bit of trouble with the authorities after his shenanigans with the 15-year-old Nastassja were revealed many years later. What a stunning movie.
The vie toward the front
11:30 a.m.:  I’m back in O’Hare. I spend about an hour in the Admiral’s Club, trying to answer some e-mails, earning a few eMiles with some new surveys, and chatting with a friend on FB. My two premium drink-chits go to a $24 Patron/Gran Marnier margarita. Sometimes quantity beats quality.

12:55 p.m.: Boarding on time, ORD to AUS., AA 2409.

1:15 p.m.: My neighbor in 4F  just showed up—late arrival after an upgrade. A nice fellow from Argentina, math prof at UT, formerly taught at Princeton. He keeps scribbling weird math symbol on a yellow pad…
4:20 to 4:25 p.m.: Land in AUS, behind schedule, FA tells me “two gates to the right,” and next thing I know, seriously, another G&T. 

4:57 p.m.: Ms. Sullivan, the lead on AA 1560, is the worst is the worst I’ve ever heard. I could do better, even without a script. In an emergency, a) we’d be totally screwed, and b) we’d have to rescue Ms. Sullivan.

6:31 p.m.: Thunder, major thunder, in DFW. I have another 30 minutes till boarding before my last flight. I’m going live in a few minutes, after the following  short words.
Seating charts of 757 and, more or less, MD-80. On the return I was in 4E for all but one flight.
6:47 p.m.: All that said, when was the last time an AAngel (Tom) came up to you in the AC, just to say hi and then check on your flight status. With all the lightning, I may be delayed some, but that somebody from AA would recognize my face and seek me out to just say hello, wow, that's really something.

7:02 p.m.: Running off to catch a plane!

So why did I do this mileage run? Simple: to get the miles. While the rain and hail are now coming down, I feel  warm and safe.  The past three days have been new for me: Dude, it was a true mileage run—fly for flying’s sake, to get the miles and re-qualify! For those of you who have read to this point and think, wow, that guy is weird, yes, I may be. Weird in the way that I love to travel, and travel in style. If you have not experienced my way of travel, you won’t understand. If you have, go, baby, go. I still have three more booked flights to re-qualify for ExPLT (Europe, Cancun, Europe), and I am looking forward to it all. And the same goes for the “mattress” run part of it: Being top-tier with Hilton is a big deal. Really is.

With all that said, I hope that the final flight to LBB is going to be without problems (t-storms notwithstanding) and you’ll join me in Prague two weeks from now.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

My first State Championship Road Race since the ‘90s

Moto official behind one of the women's fields
A whiff of the past: Mother Neff State Park, 8 miles, said the sign on my drive down toward Temple (where I stayed with Martha and Alan in their new home). Mother Neff SP  was the site of the last Texas State Championship in which I participated as a racer, and that was sometime shortly before the turn of the millennium. Now it is 2013, and I just finished two days of working as an official the premier (at least from a boasting standpoint) bike race weekend of the season.
The Juniors are lining up for their race start
Andy Hollinger, the promoter of this event and publisher of The Racing Post, had asked me last fall why I never worked any of his races, and I told him that the long drive (and the associated mileage charge) was pretty much the deal killer for most road races, where more often than not the organizer takes a financial hit when fewer racers show up than expected. But Andy had responded that for this race he had lots of financial sponsors and that he could afford bringing me in. Mind you, a road race requires a much larger number of officials than a mountain bike race or a triathlon, and the costs are staggering. To give you an idea: We had a crew of 15 paid officials for a total of 849 registered racers over two days. For the HHH mountain bike race, we had two paid officials for about half that number of racers. You see the financial ramifications for an organizer.
RD Andy discusses race results with some finishers
For the past few years, Andy has organized the State Championships (both skills- as well as age-based) in the perfect venue: the largest military reservation (in the free world, as was mentioned by several people this weekend), Fort Hood. For two days, racers have access to the car-free roads of this truly vast installation, which covers something like 160 square miles. Our race loop was a whopping 33 miles long, completely closed to traffic and with wide, well-paved roads. Go government, go. Of course, you better stay on the road since there are unexploded bombs waiting for the unsuspecting civilian, or there could be some live ammunition exercise in the underbrush. Ample signage lets you know that this is, essentially, a war zone. And somehow Andy managed to secure this venue for the benefit of all Texas racers.
Doesn't need a comment, does it?
I was thoroughly reminded (no, it wasn’t a reminder, it was a cold slap in the face) that not everybody in this country has a pacifist, why, even liberal view of the world; you need to understand that as somebody who left his home country partly to not serve in the military I have a somewhat dark view of everything having to do with guns, tanks, and yes, soldiers as well. So it was not an easy three hours with one of my drivers who quite obviously had convictions diametrically different from mine. A self-proclaimed red-neck and lifelong construction worker she continued to complain about the high price of ammo, the impending take-over of law-abiding civilians by the government, and the fact that Glocks jam too easily when you fire too many rounds. Whenever I tried to direct our conversation back to bike racing, she’d manage to find a link to her life: “By the way, the first-prize winner in this race is going to get something like $400 or so.”— “Hell, with that I could rebuild my M4.” She was a tough woman, obviously, and her anger-management program for her teenage son consisted of buying a watermelon or a pumpkin and his using one of his two swords to “slice ‘em up.” Or she’d just take him to the shooting range, but you know about the price of ammo because of that President of ours…. 
With these ...
... they blow things up here: Little Baghdad, as it is known, replete with fake mosque
So, that was the cultural component of my trip. In all fairness, my three other local drivers were not made of the same survivalist wood as she or spouted off racial and sex-oriented epithets. But Ft. Hood certainly has an influence on the area, as I found out during those long hours of conversation while sitting behind a slow-moving field of racers. Interesting stuff, I tell you. 
One year, Apache helicopters flew a strafing run right next to the race. Seriously.
Apart from learning a little more about an area one hasn’t really visited before, races also present the opportunity to reconnect with old friends, and a state championship attracts its share of familiar faces. The names may not mean anything to the casual reader, but some have featured before and I certainly don’t want to forget about whom all I saw: Of the old guard, there were the ageless Fred Schmid and his wife, Suzanne; Jack and Esther Weiss, who had just sold their triathlon production company; Todd Mann and his former roommate, Stephen Crewe (who’s been married for 7 years and has a darling 3-year-old daughter);  Cath and Ian Moore with their wild daughters, Daria and Sophie; my former student Bridget Alford, who is either married or strongly liaised with Lucas Brousseau, one of the TMBRA regulars back when; Jim Slauson;  and finally all those guys against whom I used to race, among them Willie K. Allen, Frank Kurzawa, Tom Bain, and George Heagerty. There were others, of course, but with all these I exchanged long handshakes and often hugs, and we were able to catch up with one another, time permitting. It was interesting when the chief mentioned to me that lots of people had said to him, “Oh, Jürgen is here—I recognize his car and coffee cup.” 
Part of the crew at lunch on Day 2
Incidentally, Sunday was the 3-year anniversary of Judy’s departure. Lots of people mentioned her, not realizing that this was the day. She still lives on in people’s memories, and she still elicits a smile and a heartfelt “we miss her badly.” As do I, and not only on race weekends.