From Sweden, we have to travel almost halfway around the world to Australia and the writer of the next article. The topic, coincidentally enough, is about travel, wherein we learn about such things as Bonsai Pineapple, How to Tell When You're Sitting Next to a Texan, and The Difference Between Australians and Canoes.
'Air Fare, Train Fare' by Ian Gunn; title illo by Diana 
  Harlan Stein
Airline food has a pretty bad reputation. These days, however, airlines are doing their best to live down the bad press their offerings have had over the years, and are coming up with a more appetising variety of edibles.

Sure, it's not like Mother used to make. In my case, however, that's an advantage. I wouldn't say my mother is a bad cook, just unadventurous. She was brought up in the English method of food preparation; if you can't fry it, boil it until it goes transparent. Then serve it on a cold plate with no spices more exotic than salt. Yum. My reluctance to eat up my greens comes from an ingrained childhood belief that all vegetables taste exactly alike. My love of spicy Asian and Mexican dishes is a direct reaction to this.

Airline food, however, has more of an air of mystery about it. You never know what you'll get. Sometimes it can be quite unusual.

The first thing you notice is the size. Everything is served on a dinky little tray with teeny compartments. You're eating within a very enclosed space, anyway, elbows tucked in, head bumping on the seat in front of you, little knives and forks going at it like a kiddie's tea party. The portions themselves are not exactly hearty. The rolls are minute. Little pats of butter and tiny cheese slices. Small main course, small dessert. Even the ingredients are titchy. One time, out of Honolulu, I was served a dish with a garnish of pineapple slices (this is compulsory in Hawaii, along with the traditional garish shirts). I kid you not, that pineapple slice was no bigger than an inch and a half across. Bonsai pineapple. Now I'd be willing to bet that you could search every grocery store from here to Waikiki and you'd never find a pineapple that tiny. It could never occur in nature. It must have been some top secret, bioengineered mutant pineapple bred exclusively for the airline.

With such small portions, though, they do manage to squeeze in quite a variety of courses. I once flew from Tokyo to Melbourne, and, naturally, the caterers had to provide something to suit both Western and Oriental palates. In one compartment was three small, exquisitely presented pieces of sushi, lightly chilled and delicious. In the compartment next to it was a piping hot serving of lasagna.

Sometimes a special request gets confused. Between L.A. and Vancouver, after weird foods and hours of sitting in a cramped seat from Australia, I asked for an Alka Seltzer. The steward returned fifteen minutes later with a chocolate coated cherry. I said, no, I'd really prefer an Alka Seltzer. He returned with a glass of water with fizzy tablet therein. And ice cubes. I had to wait for the ice to melt before I could drink the medicine. North Americans have ice with everything, apparently. I concluded that they have mastered the art of freezing, but not the art of refrigeration.

illo by Diana Harlan Stein Sometimes strange surprises lurk upon those trays. Allow me to set the scene. It's 1977, and I'm on an Austrian Airlines flight from Vienna to London. I'm travelling alone and I'm in the very last row. Next to me is a tallish middle aged man. Wrinkled face tanned by prairie sun and wind. Big, chunky rings on each finger; gold, onyx, turquoise. Cream suit with intricate piping about the lapels. Enormous stetson. Hand-tooled boots. Plaid shirt with bolo tie. Massive, patriotic belt buckle. Texan drawl.

And I think to myself, "He's American."

Yeah, I know, a totally unfounded conclusion to jump to. I mean, I know Americans don't dress like that. I've met them. They tend more towards sportshirts and slacks rather than trying to look like they're on their way to a square dance.

But, hey, some people go crazy when they're overseas. Australians in Crocodile Dundee hats. Canadians with huge red-and-white maple leaf insignia all over their clothing. New Zealanders with kiwis everywhere. (Mind you, I've never seen a Japanese tourist dressed as a samurai.)

So anyway, I'm sitting next to this extra from a Gene Autry serial and he's complaining about everything: European airports are too small. You have to walk across the tarmac to the plane. He's in the back row. All the American newspapers were grabbed by the other passengers. This plane's too small. We're running late... I settled down for an enjoyable flight.

The cowpoke's moaning became so regular that eventually, the Austrian stewardess exchanged cabins with her American-born colleague. Being the same nationality, she could get away with smilingly asking him, "If you hate travelling so much, why on Earth don't you stay home?" We exchanged a wink.

The Texan muttered quietly under his breath, but mostly kept quiet for the rest of the trip...

...Until the meal arrived. It was a varied selection of morsels. One item looked like chocolate cake wrapped in cellophane. I saved it for dessert, and was surprised to discover that it was actually black bread, quite dry and heavy, and I'd run out of butter.

Oh, well. You can't win them all. I washed it down with coffee and chalked it up as another cultural experience.

I glanced over at the Texan. He had made the same mistake. A feeling of sadistic glee came over me as he carefully unwrapped his 'chocolate cake' and popped it in his mouth.

"Bleah!" he exploded, "Dry bread!"

I smiled knowingly. "Nice, isn't it?" I grinned.

That's what I like about air travel. Not only is the food an adventure, but the other passengers can be quite entertaining, too.

Trains, however, really do serve atrocious food. Usually something prepackaged like potato chips, or vaguely meat like and microwaveable. Rumour has it that British Rail buffet car crews throw a party every time one of their pork pies has a birthday. The prices are overcharged, but where else are you going to go? The service is lousy, too; you have to get it yourself. A good chance to stretch the legs, but walking the length of a bouncy train while carrying two steaming cups of coffee back to your seat is no mean feat.

One exception is the New Zealand Railways service between Dunedin and Christchurch where they come round with Devonshire Teas. You get to munch scrumptious scones with fresh cream and strawberry jam as the scenery goes by.

In 1986, I spent a very boring birthday travelling between New York and Toronto by train. Knowing it was to be my last day in the U.S.of A., I'd been scrimping with the last of my American currency, rather than cash a traveller's cheque and end up with an excess of unusable funds. I was down to loose change when hunger got the better of me and I headed for the snack bar.

Working out that I could just afford a coffee and a slice of cake, I handed over my precious pieces of metal. Among them were about fifteen one cent coins. "Hey!" said the guy behind the bar, "I'm not taking that!"

"I'm sorry," I said, "It's all the money I've got."

"I aint taking pennies."

I pointed out that this was perfectly legal tender. Made by his government. Coin of the realm. I had the right price; surely denomination didn't make a difference. I could pay in Canadian money if he preferred. No? We debated the subject for some time.

Eventually he snarled, "Gimme the rest. I'll take the difference outta my tips!"

illo by Diana Harlan Stein Revelation! So that was it! He was hinting that the reason he was angry was because I, dumb tourist, had insulted him by not being able to tip. Now, I never could get the hang of tipping. It's not an Australian custom. They say the difference between Australians and canoes is that canoes tip. It's not that we're mean, it's just that our waiters get a fairly good wage. Sure, you can leave them a gratuity if they've earned it, or let the taxi driver keep the change. But they don't expect it. I tried my best in America, working out percentages and adding a bit on top. Such a confusing system. But this guy was just selling stuff from behind a counter. Do you tip shopkeepers? Do you tip fast food staff?

"You get tips?"

He indicated a bowl on the counter.

"Well," I said, picking up my food, "I've enjoyed my stay in America. I've seen some wonderful sights, visited some amazing places and met some lovely people. But you've just shown me that there's a major gulf between your culture and mine."

"Yeah?" he sneered, "And what's that?"

"Where I come from, a person who's as rude to his customers as you are would never get tips."

His eyes bulged and he started to shake.

Entertainment is where you find it. It's a rare sight to see an angry New Yorker who is lost for words. If I had had any money on me, the facial contortions alone would have been worth more than the price of the food. If only my camera had been within reach -- his face went through some of the most beautiful and spectacular colour changes that I have ever seen.

I do love to travel. It's the people you meet...

All illustrations by Diana Harlan Stein

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