Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Puzzle Maker

I have started doing puzzles - jigsaw puzzles. There is something therapeutic, soothing, yet stimulating in sitting in front of a puzzle for a few hours each evening. I imagine that we use only about five per cent of our brain during the day, even if we are multi-tasking twelve different screens on the computer. If we break each thing down into its separate part, we really aren’t demanding too much of the brain at all.

But with a puzzle, we must both see each part separately and all of the pieces as a whole. So often we put in the wrong piece, believing that we have a fit, only to later realize that a mistake, however subtle, has been made somewhere, offsetting everything else. And then we painstakingly work our way back, looking for that wrong turn.

One might say that doing jigsaw puzzles is an inherited tradition in our family - a tradition passed down from mother to son. The only time that I tend to do puzzles nowadays is when I visit my mother in Canada. One of the reassuring things of “returning home” is finding a partially completed puzzle spread out on the table, awaiting me. It doesn’t take long before I am sitting there, ensconced, filling in holes, putting together new sections.

But this time, upon arriving back in Israel from my Canadian visit, I decided that I needed to continue the tradition in my adopted land. Partly to sharpen my mind, partly to serve as an alternative to staring at the wall. I know that some of you will say that a good book serves the purpose just as well, but not really. At least, not for me. First of all, a book is linear. Secondly, after sitting in front of the computer screen most of the day, digesting all types of text, my eyes need a reprieve from constantly sweeping from left to right, right to left, scanning row after row. The easy and soft pace of working on a puzzle in the evening provides a welcome visual massage.

My daughter became hooked on puzzles, also, when she visited Canada with me many years ago. We actually picked up on it when we returned to Israel and were even doing two thousand piece puzzles at one point, which required taping together two large hard plastic sheets so that the puzzle could become “mobile” when needed and not totally neutralize a major part of the living room. We had to try and keep Bijou, our Labrador, away from the puzzle, or we would find small pieces chewed up in different parts of the house. There is something about the glue used in the pieces that is quite tasty to dogs. But Nicole grew up and left home, and Bijou passed away, and I was left with an empty table - the plastic sheet going into storage.

Until now. A thousand piece puzzle is once again spread across the table. But working on a puzzle now is different. The house is empty. No children, no dogs. A busy wife usually arrives home late in the evening. Coming home to an empty house after a long hard day at work can sometimes be comforting, but often disconcerting. No one there to welcome you. It is good then having the puzzle there. I pour myself a glass of whiskey and settle down, the pieces coming together on the table, pieces coming together in my mind. Life is but a mosaic, isn’t it. We are constantly looking for which next piece will fit. We should never give up the hunt.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Travelling the Italian Way

What is loyalty, really? I know you can be loyal to a husband, a wife, a country, or a friend... but what about being loyal to an airline?

For five consecutive years I travelled from Tel Aviv to Toronto and back with Air Canada, faithfully collecting miles through their Aeroplan frequent flyer program.  After having flown with many different airlines in the past, I decided to make Air Canada “my airline” for a number of reasons - the leading reasons being that it was a direct flight and I felt I was supporting my “national” airline.

“National airline?” you say. “Isn’t that a little far-fetched? What about El Al? Surely they are more a national airline for you now. And they fly direct to Toronto, also.”

Well, yes. But I have one small, very significant problem with El Al. Put too many Israelis in a confined space and things just get nasty.

So one might call me a loyal Air Canada traveller. Well, at least until December 2012, that is,  when Air Canada and I parted ways and I travelled to Toronto and back with another airline. Did I feel guilty? A little. Did Air Canada really care? Probably not. And there lies the problem.

Over the years, I started to feel that I was being taken for granted by Air Canada. Instead of welcoming my business and adding in a few perks to reward me for my loyalty, Air Canada showed no real signs of wanting my business at all. Not once was I offered an upgrade, or a chance to exchange points for an upgrade. I never knew whether they would be offering special winter deals that year, and when they did offer, it was usually announced late in the year - in October or November. And I couldn’t wait that long before purchasing my December ticket. And when I flew to Scotland with another Star Alliance member airline earlier in the year, Air Canada wouldn’t honour the miles accumulated with that airline, providing some lame excuse. Except for the direct flight, and the feeling of “Oh Canada” as I entered the plane, I began to wonder whether there was really much of an advantage flying Air Canada. And then along came Alitalia.

Six years ago, at about the same time I joined the Air Canada frequent flyer program, I also  joined the Alitalia frequent flyer program on a whim. But when I discovered that Alitalia was experiencing financial difficulties, I decided that they were not an option at the time. However, over the years, Alitalia managed to get its act together through new financial arrangements and they began an aggressive marketing campaign. Which led one day to an offer that I found in my inbox - an offer I found quite difficult to refuse. 15% off any ticket to a destination of my choice. And not only 15% off the base fare, which Air Canada had once offered me (the base fare constituting only about a half of the total cost of the ticket before taxes and services are added on) - but 15% off the final price. The only catch was that I had to purchase a ticket between 10 p.m. that night and 5 a.m. the following morning. Usually I am not that spontaneous (ask my wife), but taking into account that Alitalia’s regular price for a round trip ticket to Toronto was already about a hundred dollars cheaper than Air Canada’s cheapest combination, and that all in all Alitalia’s price would be about three hundred dollars cheaper, I made the leap.

Now, you may say that I sold out my loyalty for $300, and in part, you may be right. But it was more than this. I felt sought after again. I felt that someone valued my business. I just hoped that there wasn’t another catch somewhere.

The only catch I could find was Rome airport where I had to catch my connecting flight. Even a Kupat Holim corridor has more seats than they have in a gate section at Rome airport. With little chance of finding a place to sit, you are left to wander the halls or sit down on the grubby floor. But it was only two hours between flights and I could excuse this small hindrance for the price offered. And when it came to flying Alitalia, I was pleasantly surprised. The flight from Tel Aviv to Rome was a bit cramped, like most flights within Europe, but the flight from Rome to Tel Aviv was spacious, with a personal screen on the back of each seat (although the movie selection was quite inferior to Air Canada’s selection).

So, I made it to Toronto. The only thing remaining was to see whether they would get me back to Tel Aviv in the new year.  And here was the icing on the cake.

You’d think that once they had “roped me in”, they would treat me with the same disregard as Air Canada. But here I was at Toronto Pearson International Airport, awaiting the return leg back to Israel, when I heard my name. “Will David Lloyd please come up to the desk for the Alitalia flight to Rome.” I walked up to the desk wondering whether they would tell me that I had only paid for half a ticket when a very pleasant woman attendant took my ticket and gave me a new one. “We are upgrading you to business class,” she said.

My first flight with Alitalia and I already got upgraded. Air Canada, suck on that! It is almost enough to get you to wave the Italian flag and learn to speak Italian. Would I fly with Alitalia again? Well, right now I see very good reason to travel the Italian way.