Saturday, March 31, 2018

Eating in Indianapolis

I rolled into Indianapolis ready to find the good eats. They had to be here somewhere, right? I know that when one thinks of fabulous food, one doesn’t necessarily think of Indiana (sorry, Indiana). Let’s face it: Indianapolis is known for race cars and basketball and not much else.

I spent my first two days asking for recommendations every chance I got. I was staying in a chain hotel, and the concierge made chain-hotel style recommendations, pointing me towards the usual bland American fare that most tourists probably love.

I, however, am not most tourists when it comes to eating. I’m willing to walk as far as my feet will take me to find great craft cocktail bars and foot-to-table restaurants. I struggled to find both in this town. My first night, a local shop owner pointed me towards a nearby burger joint and there I went, resigned to what I assumed would be a week of mediocre meals.

I admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the place. I enjoyed a local IPA, recommended by the
Burger, Fries, Beer. It was fine.
bartender. The lamb burger with tzatziki and olive relish was terrific. Even the fries were pretty darn good. But, it was still a burger, beer, and fries. When I travel, I try not to eat food that I can readily get at home.

I did strike up a conversation with a woman at the bar. I noticed that the bartender knew her by name, implying that she was a local. She was. Her name is Julie, and she had some great recommendations for me.

Her number one favorite place is Milk Tooth. She raved about this place. It’s a farm-to-table style diner and there is usually a wait. Score! I went there for lunch today and had what might be the best
Ridiculous iced coffee with
carrot and lemongrass.
meal of my life (and I’ve eaten at a two-Michelin star restaurant in the south of France). Even the coffees were fantastic, both complex, and flavorful. I enjoyed an iced Spice Trade: espresso, ginger, and lemongrass, topped with carrot, clove, and cardamom, shaken over ice. It sounds weird (carrot? in coffee?), but was divine.

My meal was even more unusual and yet comforting at the same time. I enjoyed a Spanish manchego & grapefruit dutch baby pancake with shaved brussel sprouts, shallots, hazlenuts, and sherry vinaigrette. I had no idea what a dutch baby pancake was, and I didn’t care. I had to eat this.

I knew it would be too much food but couldn’t resist adding a sour cream and maple roasted sweet potato biscuit, topped with cranberry butter and pomegranate seeds.

I still can’t believe I got to eat such wonderful, delicious food. The only downside to the meal is that
Maple sour cream sweet potato biscuit
with cranberry butter, and that dutch
baby pancake. I ate every bite. 
it was pouring rain so I had to call an Uber rather than walk the 1.3 miles back to the hotel. House later I still needed a nap.

The next day, after my conference was done was for the afternoon, I hit the streets. The sun finally came out after three days of rain and I couldn’t wait to walk the 1.3 miles to Julie’s second recommendation: Blue Beard. This is a farm to table style restaurant featuring craft cocktails with a menu that changes daily. I got there right when they opened and took a seat at the bar.

The next thing I know, the woman sitting next to me was my new best friend. She offered to let me
Steak tartare and the best cauliflower
I've ever had. Note the blueberry
taste her cocktail (it was fantastic), and I returned the favor. We chatted a bit, off and on. She was delightful. She was also a proud mama – her daughter is one of the owners of the restaurant, and the chef. She sat on my left while a gentleman in a business suit sat on my right and nursed a drink while he waited for his companion. We also struck up a conversation. He spent his career as a sound engineer (if memory serves) and has been to every city in the US with a population greater than 250,000.

Chatting with my new friends was delightful, and after Ramona and
Bee's Knees.

I said our goodbyes, a couple sat down in her place and were lovely as well. I don’t know if it was the venue, the city culture, or that I’m getting better at getting out of my introvert box, but I don’t recall having such delightful conversations with folks at a bar pretty much ever.

And – the food. I enjoyed roasted cauliflower that was heaven in a bowl, and steak tartare that easily rivals the tartare I had in Paris. I washed that down with a house-designed blueberry cocktail and then a Bee’s Knees, which might be my new favorite drink.

The restaurant has a Kurt Vonnegut theme,
and it was Good Friday. My check was
presented inside the front cover.
That's my credit card peeking out on
the left. 
I happily walked back to the hotel, quite pleased with myself. I knew the good food was here somewhere. I just had to find it.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Small acts of (human) kindness

My sister lived in Japan for two years in the mid-nineties, teaching English to junior high school students. I was lucky enough to get to visit. For two weeks, we walked or took the train everywhere we went. This was my first trip out of the country, and I’m glad that it was to someplace so different than home. The language barrier was notable not just in terms of being able to speak it, which I couldn’t, but because I couldn’t read it, either. For the first time in my life, I knew what it was like to be illiterate.

When we stepped off the plane, my dad, younger sister, and I had no idea where to go, or how to ask for help. Absent any other options, we simply followed the rest of the people from the plane. Everyone seemed to be going in the same direction, so we did, too. Eventually, the pathway stopped at a dead end. At least two dozen people all stood facing a glass wall. No one spoke. My dad and I exchanged a nervous look. We waited.

After a few minutes, a train pulled up, and the sliding glass door opened to allow us to board. A-ha! We grinned, and stepped onto the train.

I found that, throughout the two weeks, when in doubt of my surroundings, the keys for working through unusual circumstances were to a) not panic, and b) watch what everyone else is doing and try to follow along.

Walking in Nagahama. (That's me
in the pink.)
At one point on the trip, we were out and about walking along the street when it started to rain. We were both unprepared and unconcerned. We were going places in Japan! A little rain wasn’t going to stop us.

Suddenly, a little old lady came running out of her home, yelling something to us in Japanese and offering an umbrella. We were confused. My sister explained that it is Japanese custom to share umbrellas. If you need one, and see one outside of someone’s front door, for example, it’s okay to take it. When you’re done with it, simply pass it along to someone else, or leave it outside your own front door.

This baffled my dad and me. But, don’t people want their property back? No, my sister said. It’s the culture. Umbrellas are cheap yet useful so people simply share them.

We thanked the lady, accepted the umbrella, and were on our way. What an amazing thing, we exclaimed! Such a simple act of kindness yet it makes so much sense.

Walking in Reykjavik.
Years later, I was walking about in Reykjavik, Iceland. My friend and I noticed some gloves on top of a gate, and I stopped to take a picture. An Icelander walked by and explained that this was Icelandic custom. If you find a lost glove on the ground, you place it somewhere up high, like a gate or a windowsill, so that it's visible and will hopefully be reunited with its owner.

What a lovely, thoughtful thing to be so engrained in one’s culture, I thought. Rather than throwing away a single glove, people will do what is reasonable to try to help its owner reclaim it.

Regional touches like these are one of my favorite things about travel. They are so unique to each culture, yet are united and grounded in universal human kindness. I wonder what cultural touches of human kindness visitors to the States take home with them.  

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Safety Matters with Airport Parking

I typically fly out of the small regional airport that is six miles from my house. Occasionally, flight times or fares make flying out of Boston Logan the better option, despite it being an hour’s drive away and having super expensive ($20/day!) parking.

There are a number of private lots around Logan that offer slightly cheaper rates, and I had used one before without issue, so I went that route again. This time, I found a lot through a company called that outsources parking to third-party business in areas around the country.

The website reviews were great, the lot had more than 500 parking spaces, and the best part was the valet aspect of the service:

Our friendly employees help with your luggage and ensure that when you come back your vehicle is warm in winter (with snow removed), and cool in summer!”

I would be getting back at midnight when temperatures were forecast to be well below zero, so the idea of having my car warmed up and ready sealed the deal.

I was confused and a bit apprehensive when I arrived because the lot only fit maybe 20-30 cars. But there were other customers awaiting the shuttle with me, and I figured the staff probably moved the cars to a bigger lot for storage and back for pickup. No big deal. That’s what “valet” means, right?

Upon return, my flight got in at midnight as scheduled. I called the shuttle and the driver picked me up in a marked van within minutes. So far, so good. There were other customers in the van with me. I texted my friend to let her know I was safe.

Then, it got weird.

As we were heading to the lot, the driver asked for our claim check numbers so he could call to have the cars warmed up. Which is great, except he started calling in the numbers for four tickets while driving the van. I didn’t love that he was not focused on driving as he kept shuffling the tickets around and shouting numbers into his phone.  

Search results. 
Then, we arrived at a huge, dark parking lot. This was not the same lot where I left my car. I looked around inside the van for a sticker or notice with an address for our destination. There wasn’t one. One of the other guests and I exchanged nervous looks. It was midnight, it was dark, it was cold, and we had no idea where we were.

Cars for two of the other parties in the van were warmed up and ready for them. My car and that of my fellow shuttle passenger were not there. The driver got out of the van, yelling into his phone to someone about our missing cars, while my fellow passenger and I got more and more nervous.

Finally, the driver gets back in the van, and said he was going to drive us to our cars. Except, he didn’t actually know where our cars were. We drove around the lot, row by row, looking for our vehicles. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw mine. The driver hit the button on the key fob, my lights flashed, we knew we had the right car. I grabbed my suitcase, handed him a tip, and got in my car as quickly as I could.

I did opt to tip him because at that time, the reality of my situation hadn’t sunk in, plus, I didn’t know the operations and whose fault the mishap was. If it wasn’t the driver’s fault that my car wasn’t ready, I didn’t see why he should be penalized. After all, he did drive me to my car at midnight on a frigid
Actual photo of where I brought my car.
night, right?

As I scraped the windows and warmed up the car, I looked around. It was dark. It was cold. I still had no idea where I was. The driver had zoomed off with the other passenger to look for his car. I was alone.

How would I have called for help when I didn’t know my location? There was no where to walk to that I could see, and even if there were any businesses around, what would be open at that hour? If I needed to call Roadside Assistance for a jump start, or even the police, where would I tell them to go?

My car started, I scraped the windows, and drove the hour home. I was safe. I was sound. I chalked this up to life experience and vowed never to use that lot again.

It took about 24 hours to really sink in just how unacceptable this situation was.

How hard would it have been for the company to post a sticker in the van with the drop-off address? Or better yet, include that information on the contract at time of booking? And is it really not possible for them to have a better system for getting the cars warmed up and ready than having the driver shouting into his phone, reading off tickets while driving (which clearly doesn’t work, seeing as two of the four cars were not ready when we arrived)?

The contract included an email address to use to request redress in the form of a full or partial refund in the event of any issues, so I sent an email with the details and requested a refund.

The response:
We would like to express our empathy for the shuttle troubles and will forward your experience to our parking management team.

I wrote again, pointing out that I had requested a refund.

The response:
I do apologize, but because the reservation was used in full, we are unable to refund this reservation.

Because the reservation was used in full? They had to be kidding. This is a non-reason for refusing to address my concern. Of course my reservation was used in full! The issues were upon my return

So, I turned to Twitter.

I tweeted that I would like an actual response to my concerns, and that I was not okay with paying for being abandoned in a dark parking lot at midnight.

Within hours, the company messaged that they would have the customer service representative who had emailed me give me a call.

When she called, the situation got even weirder.

“First, I would like to start by telling you that that was not me who sent those emails,” she said.

“It was not you who sent emails from your account with your name on them?” I asked, bewildered.
The online reviews were great.

She explained that they were very busy, so to alleviate some of the workload, a colleague had sent the emails.

Opening by passing the buck is an interesting customer service strategy.

She asked me to recount my experience, and I did. She confirmed that she had called the valet lot, which was a third party vendor that her company contracted to provide the service, and they had corroborated my experience. The manager there said that they do not explicitly state that customers’ cars are moved to a different lot for storage, because the word “valet” in the title implies this.

I agreed with her on that, but pointed out that nowhere was it stated that I would personally be
returned to a different physical location.

I then explained my concern with being left in an unknown location, at night, in the dark, alone. She agreed that that was not a good experience, and offered to provide a refund for half of my fee. She then said that she could not refund the entire fee because “the third party vendor still has to get paid.”
Valet services were enticing.

In other words, she expected the customer to pay the vendor regardless of quality of service, so that her company would not be financially penalized by their bad business practices.

Granted, this customer service rep had established from the start of the phone call that her company had no intention of taking responsibility for their contract.

I persisted with my request for a refund. She again said that because the contract was fulfilled, the third party vendor still needed to get paid. I explained that the burden of paying them needed to be on her company, and not at the expense of my personal safety.

She finally agreed to refund the full amount, but not before saying that doing so would likely get her in trouble with her manager, because they were supposed to reserve full refunds for “really serious” situations, such as when a car is broken into, or – get this - when a customer was run over by a shuttle driver.

That’s right – they have a policy in place for awarding compensation to people who get run over by cars.

I was speechless. I am still speechless. I was further stunned when, after our conversation ended, the customer service rep emailed me to confirm the refund, and then said:

Also, a small request if not too much to ask. If you could remove your social media posting regarding your recent experience, this will help scale our team for future growth. Our team appreciates your feedback and will work diligently to make sure this doesn't happen in the future.

“This will help scale our team for future growth” ?!?

I do not understand a company that is more concerned with hiding its bad business decisions than it is to work to correct those bad decisions. There are so many ways this situation could have been handled better. It’s really not hard to treat people with basic respect and take responsibility when things don’t go as planned.  I, for one, will not use this company again. I have already found a reputable source for airport parking options that has been vetted by a colleague. I’m embarrassed that I put myself in this situation, but more than that, I am angry that this is a business that feels that my situation was relatively minor because, after all, it wasn’t like my car was damaged or I got hurt.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Finding the Happy

I’m an avowed introvert. I know this about myself. My introverted nature can create an interesting challenge when traveling, because traveling generally means that I must leave my home and go out in public, with strangers. And there’s only so much of that I can take before I want to run and hide. I’m not shy; I just feel worn out around crowds after a while.

Sometimes, though, I will venture out and find myself in the midst of a crowded place, and remember why I enjoy traveling as much as I do.

Today was one of those days. I started off my day in a funk. We had a blizzard yesterday that dropped a foot and a half of snow on us over the course of a day. Today, we got to dig out – in sub-zero temperatures. Walking in to work from my car means trudging through snow in my warmest boots and layers and layers of clothing. I was leaving from work straight to the airport, so I also had my suitcase packed, my backpack to carry-on, my gym bag (for my lunchtime workout), and another bag with my dress shoes for the day. It was a lot of bags, a lot of fussing, and lot of hauling of crap through frigid temperatures and snowy everything.

Was it the end of the world? No. But it was annoying and a hassle.

I got to the airport and struggled with switching out from my snow boots to the sneakers I would wear on the plane while in the airport parking lot. The door to my car kept blowing open, and did I mention it was very, very cold? I made it to the airport and breathed a sigh of relief at the warmth, knowing I was on my way to warmer climates.

Then, the niceness started. First, there was no one else in line at the TSA Precheck lane, so I guess the TSA agents were bored, because the man at the metal detector joked that “you’re finally here!” I went through the metal detector and my new friend smiled and wished me a happy trip.

On my plane, I don’t even know how to describe the crew that boarded after me. I have no idea if they all knew each other or not but they sure all acted like best friends. They were cracking silly jokes while walking down the aisle to their seats, and when the plane lifted off the ground, there were cheers and “Whoohoooooo” coming from the back of the plane. Those of us in the middle of the plane couldn’t help but smile.  

I somehow managed to find the two nicest people to have as seatmates. Jason, the man in the middle seat, introduced himself and shook my hand. He then said that he was aware he had broad shoulders and he would do his best not to touch me but he was sorry if he did. No problem at all, I said. I get it. Plus, we had scored emergency exit seats and had leg room for days. All was well.

The woman in the middle seat was his girlfriend (whose name I did not catch), and we chatted a bit off and on over the course of the flight. They had a tight connection at BWI and asked if I was familiar with the airport. Ha, was I?! That’s my home airport, I know it well. I looked up their gate info on the Southwest app and told them they would have no problem making their flight. They were amazed at the app because they don’t fly much and didn’t realize there was an app.

When the flight attendant came by, they asked for two large cups of ice. She said they only have one size, but she would fill the cups as much as possible. She brought the cups and walked away. The next thing I know, my new best friend brought a full size bottle of rum out of his carry on bag and proceeded to fill his cup and his girlfriend’s. It was so funny I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he could get in trouble if a flight attendant saw that. After I finished my beverage, he offered to share. I took him up on it, because why the hell not?

As the flight went on, Jason was talking about the animals he used to work with at a zoo. I used to work at a zoo. He said he would still work there if it paid enough to live on. Me too, I said. He is Italian and his family is from southern Italy (me too) and he is now learning Italian (me too, me too, me too!).

It’s so easy to feel crammed into a metal tube, with little space, little choice, little freedom of movement. Often, airline travel is to be tolerated as a means to get to the final destination. But sometimes, the stars align and I meet others who are simply enjoyable. Then, I remember why I love travel as much as I do. Venturing out of my comfort zone does mean that I may encounter people whose company I do not enjoy, but it also means I could meet some enjoyable people who make me smile.