Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Swiss Miss

Our return flight from Prague brought us to Zurich Airport for the third and mercifully final time in two months. We had originally planned to spend a couple of days in Zurich with Vik’s Stanford friend Franco and his family, but we ended up missing each other after a date change was compelled by our African safari operator. Without Franco’s local guidance, we were left to our own devices in the Swiss hub, a circumstance which ended up yielding mixed results.

After collecting our bags promptly before noon, we made our way expectantly to the ticketing desk for SAS (the only airline in Zurich with the facilities to issue United tickets). Having being previously assured by United that the reissuing of our stolen around-the-world tickets would be a mere formality, we were a bit dubious. To our credit, we left ourselves several extra hours just in case we encountered any obstacles.

With that being said, nothing could have prepared us for the ordeal we were about to endure. As we strode up to the SAS desk, we were immediately cast aside as an annoyance by the aloof, raven-haired woman situated behind the desk ostensibly employed to assist customers. The situation quickly went from bad to worse when our case was referred to one squeaky-pitched Rene Burger, who quickly acquitted himself as the most obnoxious and insufferable Rene of all time (easily eclipsing Rene Auberjonois, “Clayton” of Benson fame).

Rene’s contemptuous nature had clearly been honed with years of practice. He first refused to reissue tickets without first seeing the originals. When we pointed out the rather obvious fact that the tickets were not in our possession (and thus required replacement), he demanded to see a police report. In the next fifteen minutes, we labored to explain that we had been through all of this on the phone with United already and simply needed the tickets reissued. Rene proceeded to imperiously pull up our reservation record, confer with some nameless European contacts on the phone and finally declare that he would not ticket us because he considered our reservation to be “fishy.” When we would not relent, he decided that he could only issue a ticket taking us directly to Tanzania and the directly back to the U..S. (truncating our itinerary of stops in South Africa, Senegal and Portugal).

Shocked and more than just a bit dismayed, we were compelled to pull out our computer to place a VOIP call United’s woeful customer service back in the U.S. (and at 6 a.m. local time). Minutes soon dragged on into eternity. When we finally engaged a helpful service manager some time later, Rene was eavesdropping on our conversation. Things soon went from bad to worse. When Vik relayed to the disbelieving United rep that an SAS employee was refusing to help us, Rene started yelling. He threatened to call the police and have Vik prosecuted for slander. As if on cue, the call with United disconnected.

With the afternoon hours quickly evaporating and our hopes of completing the around-the-world journey evaporating, Kaberi suggested that we employ a division of labor. She remained before Rene to concurrently stroke his ego and plead our case while Vik disappeared to an adjacent terminal to reconnect with United. Over the next two hours, Kaberi managed to attract the attention of Zurich Airport’s lone United employee to intercede on our behalf. Meanwhile, Vik learned from United that several legs of our journey were in hidden fields that SAS could not see. The lackadaisical United rep suggested that we make our way to Frankfurt (some 200 miles away) to have our reservation reticketed.

After another hour had elapsed, fate had taken a friendly turn in our direction. Someone in SAS’ back office had managed to pull up our full travel record. Instead of apologizing to us for his mistake, Rene proceeded to lecture us for not having better documentation. After paying a reissuing fee and an additional (and unwarranted) change fee for good measure, Rene finally printed out our tickets. As he flashed us an oily smile, it took all of our collective willpower not to punch him in the face. Instead, we thanked him politely and walked away.

With our paper tickets now securely in our hands, we resolved to make the most of or afternoon in Zurich. Using the city’s impressive and comprehensive public transportation system, we made our way by train and then bus to our hotel in the city center. After briefly settling into our tiny-but-expensive hotel room (for which we paid a premium not to have air conditioning, a decent television or a waterproof shower door), we forlornly headed to the Zurich waterfront via city tram. Rousing our spirits, Kaberi led us on a walking tour of the town beginning from the magnificent lakefront. As we made our way along the river, we encountered the Fraumunster church housing the famed Chagall stained glass choir windows and St. Peter's Church boasting the largest clock face in Europe.

In the evening, we ventured fifteen minutes from the hotel past Zurich’s red light district to a lively street bursting with nightlife. On the recommendation of one of the hotel’s front desk staffmembers, we stopped at Yosef for an open-air dinner of tapas-sized epicurean delights. As we toasted, we realized to our surprise that we had managed to end the day on a pleasant note after a remarkably-miserable start. We also hoped that we had fulfilled our quota of dealings with smallminded and meanspirited European airline employees.

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