Thursday, February 01, 2007


I spent my last morning in Sydney eating at a cafe in Kings Cross. Brandon and I ate breakfast there twice. The food was moderately priced, the slender Kiwi waitress was super-cute with a nose ring and a back tattoo, and they served iced tea even though it was Lipton in a bottle poured into a glass with three semi-melted ice cubes.

I slipped past a tranny hooker wearing pink hot shorts standing in front of a stationary store and bought a newspaper before I sat down outside at the cafe. I rummaged through the cricket pages of the sports section as several backpackers lugged their gear past me after leaving of one of the many hostels on Macleay Street. Over the previous four weeks I got a crash course in cricket and watched as much cricket matches as my brain allowed. I achieved a basic grasp of the rules and was ready to begin my intermediate lessons on cricket which included attentively watching highlights on Fox Sports and reading the boxscores and articles.

I ordered a chicken breast sandwich with avocado and bacon smothered in aioli sauce on Italian wood-oven bread. The Kiwi waitress asked me if I wanted it grilled, which I agreed to let her do. I also ordered a hashbrown on the side. Service outside of America is always 20-50% slower depending on the country and if your server actually likes Americans. Most Aussies that I met were Yank-friendly but since it's a no tipping society, I had grown used to longer meals with several gaps of fifteen or more minutes when I never saw or heard from my server. Adjustments were made. If I had a deck of cards, we'd play. Since I was solo, I read.

I still had a couple hundred Aussie bucks left and spent the last hour or so looking for over-priced souvenirs. That's always a chore and I knew that the airport could be my last resort. The ride in the cab to the airport in a foreign country often comes in contrasting emotional experiences. Either I'm extremely giddy with excitement to get the fuck out or I'm morose, somber, and desperately wanting to stay a few more days.

A cloud of gloom hung overhead (I wanted to stay another month) as my cab driver performed an impromptu exit interview with me on the twenty minute ride to the international terminal at Sydney airport. He asked the standard questions like...
Where are you from?
What were you doing in Australia?
How long were you in Australia?
What places did you visit in Australia?
My uncle lives in America. Do you know where Milwaukee is?
When I got to the United desk, I asked about an upgrade to Economy Plus. They had 5-6 extra inches of legroom. I flew in Economy Plus on my flight to Sydney and I had ample room. The two kids around me sucked emu testicles. The price for that upgrade was $150 AUS. I asked about the cost of an upgrade to Business Class. As the lady pushed a few buttons and waited for the computer to spit out an amount, I calculated in my head that I'd do it for anything under $750 US, which meant if I was close to $1K, I'd have a tough decision to make.

"$865," she said.

"Australian or US bucks?" I asked.

"$865 Australian," she said. "Would you like me to upgrade you?"

I quickly did the math in my head. It would be under $700 US and I handed her my credit card. I had gone under budget for the trip and decided to indulge in a more comfortable flight home after a month long of drinking, no sleep, and a grueling two-week assignment. I'm glad that I did. I've only flown First Class once and that was on a short flight. Pacific Ocean trips of 12+ hours made Business Class enticing. Senor has flown Business Class to and from Asia and told me two things... "It's an amazing experience and totally worth it, but once you fly Business Class, you'll never be able to fly coach again."

My upgrade enabled me to enter the United private lounge. It reminded me of the Diamond Club members lounge at Harrah's casinos in Las Vegas. I'd go there with Grubby to get free meals and drinks. The layout was similar, with plenty of finger foods and lots of comfortable places to sit. I almost expected to see Grubby magically appear near the cookie platter. The drinks were self-serve in three large glass-doored refrigerators. That was the first time I had seen gingerale in Australia and grabbed one. I also drank two cans of Toohey's beer and ate two cookies and a couple of rolls with cheddar cheese.

I enjoyed every second of the upgraded perks, especially getting my luggage tagged which meant it would be the first luggage off the plane. United is known for crappy service so I can only imagine what Business Class on a better airline like Singapore Airlines or Quantas could be like. I was one of the first group of people on the plane and originally seated in an exit aisle. That meant even more room. One stewardess offered me a selection of ice water, orange juice, or champagne. She knew my name and threw me a curveball.

"Would you like beverage, Mr. McGrupp?" she asked.

I picked the champagne. Another stewardess politely asked if she could move me back two rows.

"Mr. McGrupp, there would be nobody sitting next to you and then we could use that space for our service carts."

I agreed and she carried over my drink and iPod to my new seat.

"More champagne, Mr. McGrupp?" the original stewardess asked.

While the commoners in coach slowly made their way on the plane, I was offered a hot towel to clean my fingers and given a dinner menu. The left side listed nine different bottles of wine and champagne and a note that, "Starbucks Coffee will be available throughout the flight."

The right side of the menu listed the dinner choices. The appetizer was Parma ham and marinated prawns with roasted vegetable salad and red capsicum coulis. The also served a big salad with a choice of creamy herb dressing or a beetroot vinaigrette. I went with the creamy herb and ate 35% of my salad. When they served the appetizer with the salad, I opted for a glass of Australian wine as my beverage. I'd end up drinking an entire bottle of Shiraz by the end of the meal.

They also came around with a basket of bread. There were three different types and the wheat looked good as did the garlic bread.

"I have a tough choice," I joked.

"Well you can have both," the stewardess said with a smile and I cut her off before she said, "Mr. McGrupp."

"I'll have the whole wheat roll and two pieces of garlic bread," I blurted out.

The main course was a choice of meat, chicken, or fish. I almost did the Macadamian nut-crusted chicken with mango lime sauce and rice pilaf, but chose the filet mignon with a shiitake cream mushroom sauce instead. The sides were asparagus in a lemon brown butter (which I barely touched) and parmesan potatoes which I devoured.

The dessert was a choice of Brie cheese and fruit or a triple chocolate mousse cake. The cake was the obvious choice. For my after dinner cocktail, I went for the mineral water. After a bottle of wine, two glasses of champagne, and beers at the airport lounge, I was ready to slow down a bit.

The chairs were extra comfortable and almost folded out into a bed. There was a personal reading lamp, foot rest, and a real pillow with a real blanket. I didn't miss those ecoli and anthrax infested blankets in coach one bit. Instead of having to watch a movie at a set time, there was a personal entertainment center. Every two hours or so, the movies rebooted. There were six or seven channels playing simultaneous movies with three or four language options per movie. Each would start out with an Ebert & Roeper review of the film so you got a minor introduction to the plot.

I ended up watching four flicks and parts of two others. I started with The Last King of Scotland with Forrest Whitaker as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He's the favorite to win the Oscar this year and he blew me away as the charming yet maniacal dictator. The second flick was All the Kings Men starring Jude Law and Sean Penn as a politician who runs for governor of Louisiana. Penn's character is loosely based on the eccentric populist Louisiana politician Huey Long. I heard it got bad reviews, but it held my attention for that leg of travel in between Fiji and American Somoa.

I also watched a poorly executed romantic-teen comedy called Accepted with some dorky kid who didn't get into any colleges so he started his own. Hijinks ensue. Then there was the football flick with Marky Mark called Invincible, based on the true story of a bartender from South Philly who went to open tryouts for the Eagles and made the club for three seasons. It was predictable and not as much as a tear-jerker as Rudy. However, I didn't fall asleep during it so it must have been decent.

I also watched several scenes from Neverwas and an hour of The Queen. Helen Mirren is the favorite to win the Oscar for her performance and I wanted to see what all the buzz was about.

There was one flight attendant who reminded me of the Japanese version of Richard Gere who would walk the aisles and pour me cold bottled water into a glass. Every other hour, he'd give me a new chilled glass and offer a different beverage.

"More mineral water, Mr. McGrupp? Some more wine? Perhaps one of our selection of beers?"

Even when I'd nod off for about twenty minutes, I'd awake to find a full glass of water. I barely slept on my 13 hour flight. I tried a few times, but would only fall out for less than 30 minutes before I'd wake up and end up watching a movie hoping to fall asleep during it, which never happened.

Breakfast was served more than halfway between Hawai'i and LAX. I drank two glasses of orange juice and two cups of coffee. The choices were a fruit plate with yogurt for the cold breakfast or a hot breakfast of a chicken and mushroom crepe with Lyonnaise potatoes and a baked tomato. It also came with a croissant. Since Business Class was half full, I asked for another croissant. I was offered two and some fruit.

The flight arrived thirty-five minutes early. Nicky was still at home when I called. I told her to give me almost an extra 45 minutes to an hour after I landed to deplane, clear immigration, and pick up my bags. The upgrade cut that time in half. I was the third person off the plane and third person to go through immigration. My luggage was the tenth bag to be spit out at the baggage carousel, which never happened before. I was the fourth person in line at customs. All in all, it took less than thirty minutes to go from leaving the plane to standing outside in the rain waiting for Nicky to pick me up.

For the first time in a month, I adjusted to winter temperatures. It was 50 plus (freezing by LA standards) and I actually dug through my bag to find a fleece pullover. I got to skip a full month of winter as I snuck in four weeks of Summer in Australia. I left Sydney at 4:15pm and arrived in LA the same day, except six hours earlier. I lost a day going to OZ after crossing over the International Date Line. By crossing it on the way back, meant that I'd get the day that I lost back as I was stuck in living the longest day of my life.

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