Saturday, April 6, 2013

The best trip ever

Since this blog is supposed to be a diary, I should occasionally make a real diary entry, so here goes.

The fact that I flew to Finland for a one-day meeting and was away from home a total of 80 hours brings sighs of horror to my friends and colleagues.  For me, it was the perfect trip.

My plane was scheduled to depart from Pullman airport at 11:20am, so as is custom for those of us who live in a small town and a five to ten minute drive from the airport, I planned on leaving home an hour before my flight -- plenty of time.  I always seem to get to the airport too early and end up sitting around, so this time, I decided to watch a 20 minute show on TV with my wife, which would get me to the airport about 45 minutes before my flight.  Having underestimated the length of the show and the time, I ended up getting to the airport about 30 minutes before my flight.

As I entered the terminal, I heard the PA announcement, "the ticket counter is now closed."  Since I was traveling overseas, I needed to check in, so I hectically waved at the guy at the counter to get his attention as he was about to leave the gate area through a secure door.  Luckily, he saw me and checked me in, sternly warning me that I should have been there an hour earlier.

By the time I got through security, the plane was fully boarded, so I was the last one to get on the plane.As an added perk, I got to choose a seat in in a fully open row with, giving me lots of leg space and room for my carry-on in the seat next to mine.  This was very fortunate given that the guy next to my assigned seat was overweight and spilled over into my space.

During the short flight to Seattle, I worked through a section of a book on the mathematical foundations of statistical mechanics.  Being seated at the back of the, I was able to get off the plane first (on these turboprops, they use both the front and back doors to expedite the process).

I got to the underground rail just as a train was arriving, and was at my overseas gate in record time.  Since my layover was less than two hours, I had just enough time to get a burger at a fast food near the gate.  The boarding process started shortly after I was watered and fed.

As usual, I used my optimization strategy to get on the plane quickly to get a spot in the overhead bin for my luggage.  Even so, only one spot remained free above my seat.  I read a bit more until the plane took off.  The guy in the seat next to mine was a pleasant version of me, having planned out his medication protocol to optimize his sleep cycle on the 10-hour flight to Amsterdam.

"Dinner" is typically served early in the trip, so I strategically timed my Ambien dose just at the start of the meal service.  Since much of what is served is carbohydrates, I dug into my private stash of Atkins bars and nuts to supplement the sparse airline offerings.  Next thing I remembered was awakening to a cabin that was coming to life as the flight attendants were bringing out breakfast.

We landed about 90 minutes later, during which snacked and chatted idly with my row-mate.

Next was the mad dash to my Helsinki flight.  In Amsterdam, one needs to clear immigrations then go through security.  Long lines and missed connections are the norm.  Since I had a one-hour layover, I again applied optimization strategies to minimize the time waiting in lines.  This time it worked out.  As I made it to the secure side, the monitors were flashing "flight closing" and informed us of the estimated walk time to the gate, 17 minutes.  I ran the whole way and got on the plane within 10 minutes of the doors closing.  Again, I had the luxury of choosing an empty row.

I read a bit and dozed off a bit.  In a couple of hours, we were in Helsinki.  It was 1:00pm and sunny with blue skies.  I was able to get from the plane to the curb in 5 minutes, and caught a cab with a pleasant driver with whom I chatted about Finland and the effects of the financial crises on his life.  He seemed pretty infatuated with the US because he felt he had few options for fun in his life, like doing Motocross, a passion that he could not pursue in Finland.

Mounds of snow were to be found near every plowed street and all the rivers that crisis-cross the city were still frozen.  Though there were bike paths and trails all over the place, many people chose to walk on the river, a weird sight for us Americans whose country does not allow its citizens to take such risks.
A view of the frozen river from my room.  Notice the pedestrian near the boat and others further downriver?

I checked in to my hotel and asked for directions to the nearest restaurant, and was routed around the corner to a place two blocks away.  It was 2:00pm, and I was starving.  As is usual for trips to Europe, this is when jet lag starts to take over, peaking at about 5:00pm with an urge to sleep so intense that I have almost fallen asleep while standing, a real trick for an insomniac such as me.  After a delightful steak lunch, I returned to the hotel.

Given that it was a sunny and crisp afternoon, I decided to fight the jet lag by ice skating at a park - a place that I had researched before my trip.  It was about a 10 block walk.  The ice rink was in a very picturesque part of the city, and the whole atmosphere quite happy, filled with tourists and their families.  I believe that one family, with a little girl who was learning to skate, was speaking Italian.  Given my attempts to learn Italian, I tried to eavesdrop, but with no success.  Their extended family included parents, at least one grandparent, aunts and uncles -- all of them excitedly taking photos of their wunderkid who to them was a remarkable skater.  Judging from her skill level, it was probably her first time.  I shouldn't talk because I myself looked like a beginner on the incredibly dull rental skates.  I almost wiped our several times.
The ice skating park in Helsinki.

After an hour of skating, I walked back to the hotel and did some more reading.  Concerned that I would miss my 7:00pm dinner, I set my iPhone alarm for 6:30pm.  It woke me up just in time to change and meet my host in the lobby at 6:45pm.  I was a bit tired, but without the typically intense jet lag.

We walked to a trolly and took it to a wonderful restaurant with lots of huge windows opening up to a square decorated with lots of white lights.

We had a great meal, and quite accidentally left at just the right time to catch the next trolly back to the hotel.  If we had missed this one, we would have had to have waited for an hour for the next one - an unpleasant thought given that it was getting pretty cold.

We were scheduled to start the meeting early.  Luckily, I fell asleep almost as soon as I got into bed and woke up perhaps at 5:00am.  I showered, packed my bags, did some work, ate breakfast, and checked out by 7:30 am.

The panel was comprised of 5 scientists who were evaluating big proposals for centers of excellence.  Our task was to rate four of the proposals in our areas of expertise.  We had each read and pre-ranked the proposals prior to the meeting.  For each proposal, we spent about 45 minutes comparing notes, then hearing a presentation from the principle investigator and his team (about 10 people from each team showed up), followed by questions/answers and then a post discussion to evaluate the interviews.

At the end of the day, we wrote up our final evaluations.  We had worked almost 12 hours straight with only a 45 minute break for lunch.  At 6:00pm, the building's air handler system automatically turned off to save energy, but we were not yet done.  One of the Academy reps opened all the doors to the room to make sure we had enough oxygen.  I thought she was joking, but she was truly concerned.

The meeting room at the Academy of Finland.

We were done by 7:30pm.  I asked for my host to call a cab to the airport, which was waiting for me right outside the building as we exited.  I bid my farewell to my colleges, and got in the cab.  Thirty minutes later, I was at the airport hotel.  I had dinner after checking in.  The service was rather slow, so I got back to my room at 9:30pm and requested a 4:00am wake-up call.  By the time I got to bed it was after 10:00pm, but I fell asleep immediately and was wide awake by 3:00am, so I got up, showered and packed.  On my way to the breakfast, I stopped at the front desk to cancel my wake-up call.  (several years ago, I did not cancel a wake-up call and found security banging on our door as we were coming back from breakfast).

I checked out and walked to the airport under covered pathways surrounded by the dark early morning and producing vapor in the crisp early-morning air with every breath, the silence broken by my roller wells and those of other passengers in the distance.  I checked in and started my long voyage home.  Being exhausted, I dozed off here and there, but took no sleeping aids.  All the connections went smoothly, and I was home in time for dinner on Tuesday evening.

I went to bed and got up at the next morning at the normal time (about 6:30am), and eventually made my way to work and taught my morning class.  It was the perfect trip! I had no down time to contemplate the miseries of travel, and was back without missing a beat.