Getting the Dinnerware to the Dinner
or Silverware not Silver Bells for Christmas

Jan loves her antique silver flatware. She has collected it from every flea market, every antique shop, and every yard sale she has ever seen. It is rare that there is more than two of any single design and there is not a single full place setting of uniform design.  Several are monogrammed – with various initials, none matching any of our names.

We have a very nice service-for-eight in stainless steel.  We received it as a wedding present and after nearly 35 years it shows its age less than we do.  Of course, for Jan, that "very nice" is not nice at all when compared to stained, slightly tarnished, nicked and dented silver. Our dinner every night is greatly enhanced by the use of this mismatched silver.

She believes this silver to be obviously superior to stainless-steel and yet easily damaged by a single trip through a dishwasher and so our nearly new appliance sits idle (or at least underutilized - used only for plates) each night while a stack of dirty silver tableware grows on the left of the sink until we begin to run low and she decides to wash them by hand. Of course, after each visit to an antique shop, this necessity becomes more rare.

Now we have recently become bicoastal, or more accurately, bi-residential with homes on both sides of the country. We live in New Jersey when we work and we come to Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound when we play, which is as often as we can manage. But we have not yet been in our west coast home long enough for Jan to build up an adequate collection of silver odds and ends to inconvenience our western dishwashing. So last year when we headed for Washington to eat our Christmas Dinner in view of the water, Jan decided that we needed to bring our entire silver collection. "We have invited friends and we cannot ask them to eat with inferior metal. Offering stainless steel would put an indelible stain on our reputation."

She carefully considered how to get them to the frontier west.  They could be shipped in advance, UPS or FedEx, but what if they never arrived?  No insurance could replace the eclectic collection.  And, of course, we’d have to eat in NJ without them for a couple of weeks to insure adequate shipping time (if they should be delayed, she could not bear the idea of Christmas Dinner eaten with steel).  No, the only safe method was luggage.  But was checked luggage safe?  Luggage has been known to be lost.  And these days checked luggage is x-rayed and cannot be locked.  TSA (the Transportation Safety Administration) employees are not highly paid and a “tip” in the form of silver might enhance one of their Christmases.  Newark Airport (known as Liberty Airport since 9/11) has been known for the liberty some baggage handlers take with luggage contents.  That left carry-on.  But would a knife and fork be viewed as a terrorist weapon.  Fortunately in November Homeland Security had announced a new policy to go into effect after the Thanksgiving rush, to decriminalize butter knives.  Pocket knives, butcher knives and carving knives would still be considered as prohibited weapons but butter knives with rounded ends and fingernail files would no longer be prohibited from carry-on luggage.  This was to permit the guards to concentrate more on nasty-looking sneakers and threatening laptop computers.  The pilot’s union came out in support of the change but the stewardess’ union opposed it apparently being afraid that passengers carrying their own flatware would be even less satisfied by the meals the airlines no longer served them or perhaps it was that frequent-flying salesman in 22C who could press his unwanted advances on them supported by a butter knife.  But the TSA announced that in spite of stewardess’ misgivings the policy would change. At any rate, this seemed to make the carry-on solution viable, but just to be sure Jan called the TSA customer-service line (obtained from their website).  The friendly lady that answered, affirmed the new policy on knives and said that the larger concern would be the forks (some do, after all, use them for stabbing meat), but that it would be ok as long as they were wrapped and well padded.  However, to ensure that their identity could be checked, they should be wrapped in transparent material.  She recommended bubble wrap.  We puzzled about how bubble wrap could be used to disable a weapon.  Do you suppose it would be ok to show up with a pistol or stick of dynamite as long as it was wrapped in bubble wrap?  Anyway, Jan decided that carry-on would be the best method of getting the dinnerware to the dinner [ya, I know, “dinnerware” is supposed to be the plates, but “getting the flatware to our flat” or “getting the tableware to the table” just doesn’t work as well].  But even with official assurance Jan opted for backup insurance – in her carry-on she carried a small box (large enough to accommodate the forks or the knives), collapsed flat and pre-labeled with our western address. 

We traveled five days before Christmas, but arrived at the airport anticipating long lines and security delays none the less.  We had allowed a little over the two-hour recommendation but hoped to have a little time to sit and catch our breaths in the flight lounge before “enplaning.”

We were surprised and pleased but found relatively quick (for Newark) luggage check and shorter than average security lines.  I had forgotten completely about Jan’s possible terrorist classification and sailed through security without a single beep from the detector or frown from the x-ray operator.  Of course, I had dutifully removed the laptop I was carrying from its case and placed my slip-on shoes into one of their wash basins.  I was just replacing my laptop and wriggling into my shoes when I sensed a commotion behind me.  The x-ray machine operator was consulting with two or three colleagues and pointing at Jan.  I looked around to see if other TSA officers were converging onto the scene with hands on holsters but it did not appear to have reached that level yet.  However, Jan was pulled to the side and an earnest conversation begun.  I questioned for just a moment the advisability of admitting any connection to the “terrorist” but decided to approach and offer myself as a character witness.  It was then that I recalled the contraband that my wife was attempting to smuggle.  Well it seems that the forks and of course the spoons were no problem, but apparently Homeland Security had failed to send a copy of their memo to Newark Airport.  The officer that had taken charge of the case admitted that he recalled a news bulletin about butter knives somewhere on TV or his car radio, but that they had not been officially informed about any such change in their procedures and so knives of any sort were still prohibited.  Jan bravely (keeping her voice very calm and conciliatory) mentioned that she had called TSA and had followed their instructions precisely, but the opinion of the national office was of no concern to him.  His rules were clear.  Butter knives with our without bubble wrap could not pass the line in the linoleum.  

Resignedly, Jan asked where she could mail them in a package, extracting her collapsed box and roll of tape.  He said that the only place was a FedEx drop-box with slot one inch high – that she would have to put them into several flat envelopes.  Another TSA agent overhearing the conversation said that three floors down there was a shipping office, QuickPac or something like that, operated by Continental or some private vendor that could ship packages.  I looked at my watch and found that we had over 90 minutes to our flight time, due to the little waiting required so far.  Of course, now days they start loading the plane 30 minutes before flight time and we were near the back which loads first.  Surprisingly no delays in our flight had yet been announced.  But that still gave Jan nearly an hour to go back out of the security area, down three levels, ship her package and come back through the security line.  Things would go faster if I waited in the security area with out other carry-on luggage so that it would have to be checked again.  I was guardedly hopeful.

I quickly gave up any hope for a blood-pressure lowering lounge at the gate and exchanged it for standing in the middle of a hectic, bustling crowd, trying to clear security, checking gates on the monitors and arguing with TSA officers over other prohibitions.  I heard at least a couple of other travelers inquiring about shipping alternatives.  Forty-five minutes passed.  I began to be concerned.  Our gate was at the far end of a long concourse, two over from the one I was stuck beside.  I began to assess options.  I could abandon my wife, catch the plane and wait for her in Seattle, hoping she could catch a later flight.  But with flights full they would never allow me on with two carry-ons: hers and mine.  I went as far as looking around to see if I could donate my supernumary luggage to a needy passenger, but recalled the periodic voice announcement about accepting luggage from strangers.  Plus, even if she did catch a later flight, I didn’t imagine that my abandonment would lead to Merry Christmas.  Ok, so I keep waiting … and waiting (I wrote my first draft of the above on my Palm Pilot while waiting).  We might both miss our flight and be stuck on standby for a later flight, but it would give us quality time together to discuss the value of silver. But then with just 10 minutes to go before plane loading time I see a familiar face in the security line.  Having no carry-on luggage does not move you in front of those who have it, so the time savings is minimal. She gets out and we dash for our gate, getting there a few moments before they begin loading the first-class cabin.  Along the way I begin to get a breathless version of events I had not experienced on the other side of the security barrier.

Jan found that the QuickPac was not three levels down but rather two and was not a shipping agent but rather a service by Continental to help prepare items for shipping by air freight.  It primarily served passengers who needed to arrange accommodations for their pets to travel with them.  Jan was happy to find only two customers ahead of her, until she found that it required about a half-hour per customer.  The personnel seemed to have two speeds – slow and slower.  One lady wanted to ship a dog, but had already missed her flight.  She wanted to check the dog before knowing what flight she would get onto and QuickPac could not accept the dog until she had a flight reservation.  Presumably this was to ensure that the owner was on the same plane as the dog (after all the dog might be packed with explosives).  She was not satisfied with this but the enforcement of the policy required numerous trips to behind the wall with long delays each time before the lady could accept her dog’s rejection.  When Jan finally made it to the front of the short line, she was informed that they could not ship anything over one pound unless you had previously opened an account with them.  The reason for this policy seemed much less clear than shipping a dog before knowing when the owner would follow it.  After lengthy discussion they finally admitted that they could ship the package by FedEx for her.  This seemed acceptable and Jan paid a premium to have it shipped “next day air”, even though this often means two days to Whidbey because the deliveries usually come by ferry.  Jan got the shipping receipt and rushed back to where I had been impatiently waiting.  When we made the plane with moments to spare, we believed that the crisis was over, disaster had been narrowed averted and Christmas dinner would still be enjoyed complete with silver to spread the butter on the rolls. 

As we boarded the plane we passed a lady in first class quietly knitting and puzzled how a rounded-end butter knife could be a more dangerous weapon than two nine-inch pointed knitting needles.

The flight and the drive up to our house on Whidbey was uneventful, except for the minor delay three miles from our house where two cars had gone off the road and the highway was lined with four fire trucks, two police cars, a rescue vehicle and a dozen seemingly idle uniforms.  They were allowing traffic past the scene one direction at a time and at nearly midnight the traffic was light enough for this to only cause a few minutes delay.  The next day, after failing in our attempts to adjust our body clocks to the local time, we began to address some of our holiday preparations, like locating the single place in the area still having Christmas trees for sale.  Jan knew that there was very little chance that her knives would arrive before noon of the first day, in spite of the “next day air” checked box, but she called the automated tracking number to make sure that it would be delivered the next day.  The computer reported, with no remorse, that it had no record of that tracking number.  Now this was a concern.  Had the friendly but slow clerks at QuickPac decided that their Christmas dinner could also be enhanced by mismatched silver knives, even without accompanying mismatched forks and spoons?  Had they been lost into some vast, amorphous pile of Christmas shipments, never to be found until a spring thaw? Would we ever spread our butter with silver again?  Nothing to do but attempt to call the QuickPac office on the other side of the continent and try to learn what had happened.  Jan had not selected any additional insurance since all shipments were covered for $100 but does FedEx’s insurance pay off if they have no record of their having ever pickup the package?  The only lead was the small piece of paper, Jan’s carbon copy of a shipping way bill with no name of the shipping agent (was it QuickPac or QuickShip or …) and, of course, no phone number.  Telephone information barely seemed aware that Newark had its own airport, but eventually found a number for the airport.  Not sure whether she would be talking to an office, the tower or a janitor, Jan called and after a long conversation finally was transferred to the QuickPac counter, where amazingly someone on duty managed to locate her package still waiting for pickup by FedEx (probably adding to the time others were waiting in line to ship their poodles).  He could not explain why it had not left the previous evening.  FedEx picks up every night.  He suggested that perhaps she should call FedEx and schedule a pickup.  This seemed odd, since FedEx was supposed to stop there every day and she didn’t want it pickup from her, but she was desperate.  The lady at FedEx seemed to be equally puzzled as to why Jan was calling and even more confused about the existence of an airport in Newark.  Could Jan give the zip code for the QuickPac office?  No.  It took about 20 minutes for her to admit that they did sometimes pickup packages at the airport.  She had no idea why a package might have gone uncollected the previous evening.  Perhaps the transit strike in New York City that had begun the morning we flew had prevented their truck from getting to the airport (she apparently believed that their trucks used the subway or that they were driven by Metropolitan Transit Authority drivers. She apologized every few minutes for not having better information but seemed to have no way to get any or to schedule a pickup.  She finally transferred Jan to Customer Service who was even more puzzled about the call.  They could no schedule pickups and wanted her to call the number she’d started with.  It seemed nothing more could be done and she’d just have to wait for the next evening pickup and hope for the best. 

After running down her cell phone battery and using up much of the month’s allocation of calling minutes all she knew was that her package was still two levels down in Newark’s Liberty Airport.  We worked on decorating the tree, wrapping packages that had been shipped successfully and went out to eat dinner with friends (eating was made more difficult by having one’s fingers crossed). 

The next day we’d managed to adjust our body clocks part of the way toward local time and enjoyed a nice breakfast.  Jan seemed unconcerned about calling FedEx tracking but I later learned that this reluctance was due to a fear of disappointment.  She finally gained sufficient courage for the attempt.  Eternal Joy, the computer acknowledged the number and stated in its cybervoice that the package would be delivered by noon.  Since it was 11:45 AM this was questionable but hopeful.  We weren’t sure if this took into account the usual extra day deliveries usually required to our island, but it was still wonderful news.  Life was beautiful and the world was good again.  As if on queue, the clouds that campout on Whidbey this time of year cleared and the sun shown on our bay.  We called friends to join us for a walk along one of our favorite beaches.  The tide was in, Ala Spit was nearly all underwater, but the sandpipers were still running along the logs.  We arrived back at the house to find a box leaning against our door.  The box contained the dear knives now made even precious by the investment of parental worry.  The prodigal knives were home.  Kill the fatted calf and get out the butter.

After all the excitement getting to Whidbey, the trip home was amazingly uneventful. Having learned her lesson, Jan packaged up the knives, shipped them home and we breezed through security.

But the year following these events was not uneventful. Terry continued to travel as much or more than before with five or six business trips to San Diego, as well as San Francisco and Vancouver, BC.  Vancouver is so close to Whidbey that Jan came along and spent the time at Whidbey and I joined her for a week after my meetings.  Jan stayed on even after I had to return to work in NJ, conning our daughter and her boyfriend, Bill, into coming and painting the part of our deck, Jan had not done the previous summer – she got to spend time with them, we got our deck painted and they made a little money to pay for their next years rent back in North Carolina.

But the biggest event was Terry’s business trip to Munich the week before Oktoberfest.  We arrived in the early morning after an overnight flight and took the train into town (the airport is about 30 km north of the city).  We were too early to check into our hotel room, so we check our luggage and went out to look around.  Our first surprise was seeing huge convoys of police vans, eight or ten in a line parading around the streets.  We began to wonder if there had been some sort of terrorist threat that we had not heard of.  After we got into our hotel room, Jan wanted to rest and so I took the subway into the old town and found even more police.  On some blocks, police vans had taken every parking spot – twenty or thirty in a row.  When I got to Marienplatz, the open square in the middle of Old Town, I found a couple of thousand people jamming the square and a band playing traditional German music and huge video screen allowing everyone to see the band.  I assumed that this was some sort of end-of-summer music festival.  Again, every tenth person was in police uniform.  Only later did I figure out that the Pope was coming to Munich, landing at the airport only a few hours after we did and coming to Marienplatz that evening.  We had heard nothing about this before we’d left America.  Pope Benedict was Bishop in Munich before moving to Rome and this was his first trip back since becoming pope.  He was spending two days in Munich, five or six in Bavaria (where he later angered Muslims by his remarks linking their religion and violence).  We’d arrived early hoping to spend the weekend before my meetings seeing the city.  When traveling to European cities we usually focus on historic architecture and some of the best preserved are often cathedrals.  In Munich there are fewer due to the damage during WW II and those that survive have been extensively rebuilt showing less of the medieval architecture we enjoy.  But in Munich we had the additional problem that many were closed over the weekend, either by security due to a planned papal visit or because of the staff all wanted to be elsewhere, wherever the pope was.  By repeated attempts we did get into most of them during the weekend or evenings later during the week.

One evening, sitting in a little sidewalk cafe near Marienplatz working on deciphering the German menu with my scant German and a pocket dictionary (obstinately trying to ignore the English translation under each item), my mind wandered back to our first experience at foreign travel 26 years ago.  We'd flown into Berlin for a one night stay before being taken across the border by an East German Intourist Bureau bus to Jena where I was attending a conference on General Relativity.  This was well before the wall came down and traveling into a Communist country on one's first experience outside the US was a bit daunting.   Since we knew about two words of German (nein and danke), we expected communication problems in East Germany but most of the conference participants would speak English.  But we had been told that we have few problems in Berlin at least in tourist areas.  I don't remember if we forgot to being a bilingual dictionary or if we'd left it in our pension but we found ourselves on Kurfürstendammstrasse in what had to be the only restaurant in Berlin with no English speaking waiter.  After figuring out that no one was going to seat us (as in much of Europe you just find an empty table if there is one and if not ask those at one that is not full, if you can join them) we found a table.  The culture shock of facing strange cuisine, described in unintelligible words with our bodies 9 hours displaced, motivated us to take the easy way out - we managed to recognize a section of omelets (maybe there was a picture) and both of us ordered an omelet (by pointing).  Then came the hard part.  We could understand only one word in the waiter's response - nein.  We knew that meant we could not have that item but had no idea why.  So we tried a different omelet, scrambled eggs, anything else on that page, and the response was always the same.  We began to believe that the waiter hated Americans and was just refusing to serve us, but he was clearly as frustrated by our communication problem as we were.  He asked all of the other waiters if any of them spoke English (or at least we believe that is what he was doing) but none did and no other customers volunteered to translate.  We finally understood when he resorted to Charades.  He tucked his hands under his armpits, waved his elbows while making clucking sounds alternated with NEIN and shaking his head.  We deduced that they were out of eggs.  So we closed our eyes, opened the menu at a random page and pointed and had a lovely meal.

After Jena we toured 6 countries in Europe during the next two weeks before returning home and on only one other occasion had a serious communications problem also involving a meal.  I'd quickly learned how to arrange for a zimmer (eine nacht, zwei Personen) expecting the possibility of a question about the time we wanted breakfast knowing I could point on my watch, and thrown only a little if they tried to ask if we wanted a hard-boiled egg.  But our last evening in Italy just before climbing the pass into Switzerland we stopped at a small hotel.  The proprietors were two short, elderly Italian ladies. They helped us bring in our luggage and took away our sack of garbage remaining from lunch.  After settling into our room we went out looking for a restaurant but since it was a Sunday evening in a very Catholic region, we found that all the restaurants were closed.  The hotel had a dining room but it too was closed. We tried to ask the proprietors if they could suggest any place to eat, but they didn't speak a word of English.  Using our hands (Charades again) they finally understood our problem and made it clear that they would feed us.  They had no menu and so now we faced the problem of settling on the choice of food without a shared language.  They asked if we knew French or Spanish but that was no better for us than Italian.  We had a bilingual Italian-English dictionary, so I tried looking up some names of candidate foods and pointing to the Italian word in the translation, but that seemed to only confuse them.  We suspected that they were illiterate. After a few minutes of frustration and no progress, they succeeded in making us understand that they would just go make something.  We decided that trusting them was superior to starvation.   Twenty minutes later they returned and served us a delicious meal with pasta and vegetables.  So now, 26 years and a dozen trips to Europe later, sitting in a restaurant in Munich with a multilingual menu, a waiter that spoke fluent English and hearing English conversations at half the tables around us, seemed too comfortable.

We’d planned to stay over the following weekend as well, but since Oktoberfest started that weekend, the hotels were very full and most were tripling their rates, so we rented a car and drove to Prague for three days.  We found Prague even more interesting than Munich – many more medieval and baroque buildings (very little war damage).  But our first problem when arriving was getting to our hotel.  As usual, Terry had studied the maps we had and planned exactly which bridge to take across the river and how to get through the narrow streets to our hotel near the Old Town Square.  The first problem was the highway into the city became one-way against us before the river forcing us onto other streets with no route markings.  By dead reckoning we arrived at a bridge over the river which turned out not to be the one planned but close.  After crossing the river we got on to the main street paralleling the river which was to take us to near our hotel, but it also forced us off onto side streets.  After weaving around narrow curved streets we found ourselves in the middle of a crowd on what was supposed to be a pedestrian-only zone on the swank Wenceslas Square.  To get off of that, we had to turn onto a street on the opposite side of the square from our hotel.  We were only about a mile from our hotel but we needed to go north and west and even after getting away from Wenceslas Square, we found that every street was one-way south, ended in a dead-end or curved around ending up going the south or east. Then we’d come to an intersection with two or three lanes in every direction and no traffic control – no stop sign, light or other indication of right-of-way – traffic would seem to go in one way for awhile and then when someone was assertive enough to push through the line it would flow the other way for awhile – those trying to turn left had no chance.  Every motion got us farther from our hotel.  Finally we were forced onto the on ramp for an expressway and before we could get off we’d crossed to river to the north.  We made a u-turn, recrossed the river and took the first opportunity to turn in the direction of our hotel but again found that most turns would take us into a circle.  We finally found one street going in the right direction but had to force our way into a long backup of cars to turn onto it.  I was nearly ready to park on a sidewalk and walk to our hotel to ask for directions, when Jan said “isn’t that our hotel on the other side of that intersection?”  I made a wide turn, parked on the sidewalk and went into the hotel to ask where we could park.  The lady sent us back to spot where we’d broken into the long line of cars, where there was an entrance to a public parking garage.  We unloaded our luggage before going to the garage and then gleefully abandoned the car until we left the city to drive back to Munich.

Prague is not a city to drive in unless you know every street.  The maps we had and those we found after we got there were great for walking but since they did not mark the streets that were one-way or pedestrian only, they were useless for driving.  But Prague is a wonderful city for walking.  The most interesting areas, the Old Town, Jewish Quarter, Charles Bridge, Little Quarter, Prague Castle and Hradcany were all within easy walking distance of our hotel on Old Town Square.  Even New Town and Wesceslas Square were not far, but our experiences of trying to escape from Wesceslas Square made us shy away from that area. 

We visited nearly every church in the area.  St Vitus’s Cathedral on Prague Castle grounds is one of the best we’ve seen in Europe, but the Church of St. Nicholas in the Little Quarter (there are several others by that name in the city), St Nicholas, St James and St Giles in Old Town were also particular favorites.  But the most amazing thing about Prague is the music.  Every church, I mean 15 or 20 venues had concerts twice a day, usually 5:30 and 8:00, even on week days.  It must be a musician’s paradise due to the volume of gigs.  Many included organs, a violin or two, a cello and sometimes a vocalist.  Tickets were modestly priced and few had more than 25-30 people in attendance – not sure how they make any money – we got in six or seven concerts during out three days there, including one organ concert on a Sunday morning while the priest was setting up for mass.

The Jewish Quarter was fascinating too.  Like most of Europe, Jews suffered persecutions, pogroms, and enforced ghettos during periods in Prague, but at other times Jews were treated there better than almost any other part of Europe.  Restrictions on living outside the ghetto were lifted in the late 18th Century and the former ghetto became a slum with few Jews living in it.  In the 1890’s the city razed the slums and destroyed many of the historic buildings, but preservationists were able to save several significant synagogues and the old Jewish cemetery, dating from 1478, for 300 years the only burial ground allowed to the Jews, which includes 12,000 ancient gravestones including that of Rabbi Low is supposed to have created the Golem.  Because of the limited space, people were buried up to 12 layers deep.

Overall we had a wonderful trip and are looking forward to Dublin and Rome next year, not to mention the excitement of getting Jan’s silver to Whidbey again this Christmas.