Plenty to write home about - The Escapist 2019 - Magazine | Monocle

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1. In it for the long haul

It’s the age of the ageing cabin crew as airlines place faith in personable mature stewards.

By Kimberly Bradley

It’s four hours into the Friday morning flight from Paris to New York on one of the big US airlines. In the dimly lit cabin, passengers curl up with pillows and trashy films while trying for an hour or two of sleep. One traveller decides she might try a glass of something to relax. A quick smile to the cabin crew and a kindly member of the staff is soon advising on the least offensive wine (it’s always red). As the attendant hands over the glass, the recipient blurts out: “Thanks mum.”

In her defence, there is something distinctly parental about the cabin crew. It’s not just the way they reassure nervous flyers, hand out blankets and provide apple juice – it’s because they are all over the age of 60.

In the golden age of commercial aviation, from the 1950s until the late 1970s or early 1980s, flight attendants were generally fashion-model fit, elegant, usually female and definitely young. The cliché? Attractive women meeting strict height and weight requirements who loved to have fun on their layovers and left the profession once they got married – or turned 32 (once the upper age limit in the US).

In the decades since, air travel has changed dramatically (baggage fees, vanishing legroom and a byzantine fare system for starters) and so has the flight-attendant demographic. These days, especially on North American carriers such as Delta, United Airlines and Air Canada, crews can be more parental or even grand-parental than merely pretty and party-hearty.

United Airlines famously has an octogenerian steward, while American Airlines’ Betty Nash, also over 80, has been flying since Dwight Eisenhower was president and one-way domestic flights cost $12. A 2009 population report revealed that in 1980 about 80 per cent of US flight attendants and stewards were younger than 35. But by 2007 half of all cabin crew were aged 45 and older, with almost 22 per cent of them over 55.

Working as a flight attendant has become an attractive second or even third career. For airlines, older crew are a great fit. “The airlines now prefer older people,” one sixty-something American flight attendant told us. “Women don’t leave to have kids and don’t become unavailable when there is a snow day or an emergency. But mostly it’s because we have life experience and don’t mind making less money, as the assumption is that we’ve already done that in our past career.”

Meanwhile, passengers get the benefit of crew who are likely to have mellowed with age and comport themselves like kindly parents. “It’s an easy job if you put your ego away and have patience with people,” says our secret source. “This stuff doesn’t come in a millennial package.”

About the writer: Monocle’s Kimberly Bradley, based in Vienna, covers everything from architecture to affairs.

2. Highway to hail

A prewar exemplar of how to promote a city, San Francisco’s 49 Mile route is still a driver’s delight.

By Gary Kamiya

On a sunny Saturday morning, hundreds of Toyota Priuses are barrelling along Sunset Boulevard. It’s one of the major arterials in western San Francisco and much of the traffic is heading north, as motorists make for the Golden Gate Bridge and the countryside that lies beyond. In the rush to get out of town for the weekend, most drivers and passengers will be unaware of the distinctive blue, white and orange seagull-adorned metal signs bearing the words “49 Mile Scenic Drive”.

Created in 1938 by a booster group called the Downtown Association, the 49 Mile Scenic Drive was designed to encourage visitors to the imminent World’s Fair (scheduled to happen on the then recently built Treasure Island) to explore the city by car. San Francisco had just built two mighty bridges that allowed people to drive into the city and the whole concept of the 49 Mile Scenic Drive evinces an innocent delight in the all-conquering automobile. Like a series of 1950s advertisements run by the Ethyl Corporation, whose motto was “Your car makes any map a magic circle”, the drive promised visitors to San Francisco their own personal hi-tech magic-carpet ride.

To provide that ride, the planners laid out a route that ran along three sides of the city’s waterfront, through large stretches of its two biggest green spaces (Golden Gate Park and the Presidio) and over Twin Peaks, the most dramatic of its central hills. They also tried to capture the city’s most iconic neighbourhoods, routing the drive through Nob Hill, Chinatown and North Beach.

It’s testament to their choices, and the enduring appeal of San Francisco’s unique topography and diverse neighbourhoods, that the drive still works as a half-day city tour. But it offers more than postcard views. It also serves as a kind of palimpsest, an opportunity to compare the optimistic, car-infatuated city of 80 years ago with the optimistic, tech-infatuated city of today.

Which takes us back to Sunset Boulevard. That often traffic-clogged road may not be the most striking part of the drive but in 1938 it made sense to include it. Back then Sunset Boulevard was just eight years old, a grand, largely empty parkway that rolled through a terrain dominated in stretches by sand dunes. For the city boosters who dreamed up the 49 Mile Scenic Drive, Sunset Boulevard represented progress – a state-of-the-art road and man’s dominion over the vestiges of San Francisco’s primordial landscape.

So the innocent 49 Mile Drive is also a cautionary tale. San Francisco today is even more intoxicated with technology and progress than the Downtown Association was. Will our contemporary version of utopia – the 49 Terabyte Drive? – hold up as well 80 years from now? As you fly down Lincoln Boulevard towards the endless Pacific, with the sublime Golden Gate Bridge and the rest of North America disappearing in the rear-view mirror, there’s no use denying it: the 49 Mile Scenic Drive is still a magic-carpet ride.

Hit the road
1. Romantische Strasse, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, Germany: Stretching between Würzburg and Füssen, this route was devised in the 1950s for loved-up couples.
2. Patchwork Road, Hokkaido, Japan: So called because the bucolic farmland that borders the road is a lively bricolage of reds, greens and yellows.
3. Camino de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina: The Road of the Seven Lakes is the picturesque portion of National Route 40.

About the writer: Bay Area author Gary Kamiya’s books include Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco. He’s also a regular columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

3. Flying in the face of opinion

Finns’ concern over air travel’s carbon impact has led to an ec0-awakening in business and politics, not to mention healthy debate at the dinner table.

By Petri Burtsov

In a smart restaurant in Helsinki a group of young movers and shakers is having a heated discussion. One of them has just come back from a trip to Borneo and has been regaling his companions with stories of the island’s big-nosed monkeys and surviving a bootcamp equipped with nothing but a machete. The woman in the Chanel dress isn’t impressed. In fact she’s about to blast him for his wastefully exotic trip.

There’s a rising tide of intolerance towards needlessly long trips and their associated carbon footprint. The topic is so hot in Helsinki that there was recently a travel fair that focused on journeying on the ground. Its participants listened to presentations such as “By Train from Finland to Italy” and “Riding in the Biogas Bus”. Quick to sense the shift in the national mood, Finnish public broadcaster yle chose to cover this ethical travel event instead of the Helsinki Travel Fair.

Train and bus operators have sensed an opportunity too. National rail operator Valtion Rautatiet was quick to remind eco-conscious travellers that 95 per cent of its trains are fully carbon neutral. It launched a website that presents its rail network on a green map. On the website, travellers can calculate the precise ecological footprint of their journey and compare it with making the same trip by plane or car. Meanwhile, national coach operator ExpressBus’s marketing campaign features a woman called Mimosa. “Mimosa doesn’t fly for leisure” reads the tagline. Finland’s national airline Finnair responded by offering passengers the chance to offset their co2 emissions – by essentially paying more. The money will be spent on forest conservation in Mozambique. Its approach is pragmatic: “People want to and need to travel. We want to offer solutions to make it possible to fly responsibly,” reads the company’s bumf.

In politics, too, climate change has become the hottest topic. The grand old man of Finnish politics (and three-time presidential candidate) Paavo Väyrynen even wondered aloud if Finland should rethink its defence because fighter jets pollute so much.

What will all of this mean for the Finns for whom a holiday in the sun is the only way to survive winter? “There’s no way I could have taken a train to Borneo,” says the shamed trekker. His shamer-in-chief extends an irony-laced olive branch. “You should look into virtual-reality travel, it’s a thing nowadays. Besides, the sunshine will give you wrinkles.”

About the writer: Petri Burtsov is Monocle’s Helsinki correspondent and despite the trend towards travel-shaming in his native Finland, he’s certainly not averse to a long-haul reporting trip (or, better yet, a holiday).

4. Bigger than cod

There’s far more to Portuguese cuisine than bacalhau – and Matosinhos is the place to taste it.

By Ivan Carvalho

Gallery owner Fernando Santos loosens his tie to make space for an immaculate white napkin. He takes a moment to admire the fresh prawns on the plate. “This is heaven,” he says, as he eyes another potential dish, an antsy spider crab in the aquarium at A Marisqueira de Matosinhos. Known for shellfish, the restaurant is part of a gastronomic cluster of some 600 dining spots – which claims to be the biggest concentration of restaurants per square metre in Europe – in the Portuguese coastal town of Matosinhos. The settlement, just north of Porto, is becoming the prime venue for the nation’s maritime cuisine.

Porto resident Santos counts himself fortunate to live next to Matosinhos. “I’ve travelled a lot for work – Miami for Art Basel, New York and in Europe – but when it comes to eating out this is still unbeatable.” Matosinhos may not possess the name recognition of famed culinary destinations but city officials hope to change that. Last autumn they put on the first seafood festival and have come up with a none-too-shy slogan – World’s Best Fish – to promote the quality and variety of its species.

Matosinhos is also changing vistors’ perceptions of Portuguese food. Foreign visitors often order the nation’s flagship dish, bacalhau (cod), which is prepared in countless recipes. “It’s funny how we Portuguese are associated with cod but it isn’t found in our waters,” says Michelin-starred Portuguese chef Rui Paula of A Casa de Chá da Boa Nova. “It comes from Norway or Iceland.”

Home to a port and canning industry that has been active for decades, Matosinhos is the perfect setting for diners to explore a world beyond bacalhau. Every day the municipal fish market, housed in a 1950s-era modernist structure with a roof that resembles a rolling wave, presents the local offering of species ranging from corvina, a meaty fish, to claw-like percebes, barnacles that require fishermen to don wet-suits and rappel down slippery cliffs to prize them off rocks in the crashing surf.

At Paula’s restaurant, which is set in a stunning Álvaro Siza Vieira-designed building on the shore, cod is not on the menu. “We are blessed with a great resource: the Atlantic,” says Paula. “Here the ocean is quite cold, oxygen rich and has lots of seaweed. Fish acquire a special flavour and texture. We should celebrate this. There’s variety even within types of fish. In Portugal we have five kinds of red mullet.” Paula shows off this variety in his menu, offering everything from prawns with fennel and mushrooms to blue whiting from the Azores.

At Marisqueira, Santos keeps one eye on the television – his football team, FC Porto, are duelling it out in a Portuguese Cup encounter – as he tucks into his second course: a hollowed out brown crab shell filled with creamy, slightly spiced crab meat served with buttered toast. The waiter arrives with a fresh round of draught beer. “I wouldn’t trade places with anyone living elsewhere,” says Santos. “Here we have the best bounty from the sea.”

Bacalhau alternatives
1. Santola spider crab: Crack open the shell of this spiny crustacean to extract the sweet meat inside.
2. Corvina Meagre: Also known as salmon bass, stone bass or shade-fish. The joy of this fish is that it’s much like seabass but that bit bigger.
3. Sargo White seabream: Known for biting swimmers on the coast of Tel Aviv but also known for being delicious. Steam or bake.
4. Tamboril monkfish: This angler fish isn’t the handsomest before cooking but is delicious when grilled.
5. Blue mussel: The same variety as those found in Belgium or the UK; here they steam the mussels with a little coriander.

About the writer: Monocle’s Milan correspondent Ivan Carvalho went back to his Portuguese roots to write about Matosinhos. He thinks that Portugal’s overlooked haul of fresh fish could net visitors.

5. The silent shopkeeper

Japan’s vending machines now sell saké and molluscs. But the real treat? Not having to talk to anyone.

By Kenji Hall

It’s not easy to find shops in Tokyo that sell Kanetsuru Sunago Shoten’s dried firefly squid. The bioluminescent mollusc is a deep-sea delicacy that’s caught in spring and early summer in waters off Toyama prefecture. You could buy the product online but the thought of waiting for days for the delivery might dissuade you. There is a faster way: ride the Tokyo metro to Otemachi station in the city centre and buy a pack from a vending machine.

The machine is a marketing triumph for the tiny prefecture. With just over one million residents, Toyama is 37th in terms of population among the country’s 47 prefectures. But since launching its first two vending machines in Tokyo in 2015 it has attracted media coverage and edged up in national rankings of desirable destinations. “You can put up an ad poster but it’s just a poster,” says Hidemasa Shima, a Toyama prefectural official. “This is like a poster except it will sell you products.”

Japan has upwards of 4.2 million vending machines – one for every 30 citizens, the highest per capita in the world. Most sell drinks but others run the gamut: newspapers, cigarettes, toys, stamps, batteries, business cards, novels, undergarments, hot dogs, apple slices, frozen dumplings, lipstick and condoms. Sales of drinks alone exceed ¥5.8trn (€46bn) annually.

The vending machine has a special place in the national psyche – it embodies Japan’s love of gadgets – and they are everywhere you look: street corners, train stations and even the top of Mt Fuji. They have inspired films, novels and art. Convenience is the most obvious reason for the ubiquity of vending machines.

To residents of Japan’s crowded cities there’s something appealing about a transaction that removes the human element. On the east side of the capital, retailer Tokyo Shoten’s vending machine experiment has been a hit. Three machines at the back of the shop pour small cups of saké from 30 different chilled bottles for ¥200 to ¥400 (€1.60 to €3.20).

“Customers like the novelty of sampling different saké without having to speak to anyone,” says manager Jun Taniguchi. There are tasting notes and details about the nine Tokyo breweries so staff are spared the job of explaining how one differs from another.

It’s becoming harder to find an ordinary vending machine. They’re now wirelessly connected, with embedded screens showing video ads. The newest ones can sync with a smartphone app. At JR Water Business, a subsidiary of East Japan Railway, Rui Omoro is standing in front of a bulky vending machine with a large digital touchscreen – the company’s second generation of hi-tech machines. The investment is worth it: in summer a single machine can rake in ¥2m (€16,000) a month.

With user data, JR Water Business hopes to nudge consumers to buy more water, coffee, juice and milk. To demonstrate, Omoro pulls up the app on his phone, scrolls through a menu, chooses a citrus drink and pays for it electronically. He can pick it up from the digital vending machines at JR stations around Tokyo but instead he sends it through social media as a gift to a friend. So far 90,000 people have downloaded the app. The idea of smart vending machines is being sold as useful in a country struggling with labour shortages and a shrinking workforce. Questions about the loneliness of such retail experiences, however, haven’t yet been explored.

About the writer: Monocle’s Asia editor-at-large Kenji Hall was pleasantly surprised to be dispatched to report on the rise of vending machines in Japan’s capital. He had pitched a travel story in New Zealand but is sure that would have been much less fun.

6. Flight of fancy

Hungary may no longer have a flag carrier but imagine what a national airline could offer.

By Gabriel Leigh

It’s the start of the holiday season at Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International Airport and people are flooding into departures, craning their necks to look for their flight on the board. The list of airlines is a mass of the good, the bad and the budget. German flag-carrier Lufthansa will be waltzing to Munich in the morning. A low-cost Pegasus flight will wing its way to Istanbul after lunch. And one can escape to Eindhoven, Tel Aviv and a host of European capitals with Hungary’s Wizz Air.

There’s something lacking among this motley crew though: where is Hungary’s reliable, characterful and appropriately priced flag-carrier? The answer: there isn’t one. Hungary hasn’t had its own (affordable Wizzing aside) since Malév Hungarian Airlines went bust in 2012.

Let’s imagine that we can draw up a new carrier for the people of this lovely country (but with questionable leadership). We’ll keep things simple and call it “Hungarian” – in bold but classic lettering along the fuselage, joined by an emblem depicting the Turul, a mythological bird of prey and a symbol of the nation. Nothing too aggressive in the depiction though – this airline should be about the beauty of Hungary in flight and definitely not a nationalistic project. Discreet use of thin red and green cheatlines could complete the look fetchingly.

As passengers step aboard, Hungarian folk music or the works of its great composers play as people take their seats. Travellers can learn more about such melodists, as well as Hungary’s more recent producers of music, film and books, in the inflight magazine, Hungarikum. The name refers to phenomena unique to the nation and the publication offers enviable tips, analysis, insights and reportage on the world as seen from a Hungarian perspective, not to mention profiles of the movers and shakers worth looking up next time you alight in Budapest.

As our Hungarian a220 jets towards Beirut or Nantes, the service begins and offers another slice of soft-power potential. There’s the full range of traditional Hungarian fare such as goulash and lecsó (tomato stew but better than it sounds) with room for some lighter, modern takes on the same plus a rotating list of signature fröccs (a Hungarian spritz) to drink. In fact, the drinks will be a particular highlight – a rotating range of specially developed Pálinka fruit brandies. And plenty of Hungarian wine – this is, after all, home to the first official wine region in the world.

Soon Hungarian will have its red, green and white tails spotted at a growing list of airports around the world. At home it will stake its claim to the premium market, which brings us to our deeply indulgent finishing touch: a reimagined lounge with a built-in traditional Hungarian bathhouse. Passengers in transit could soak in the outdoor area built on the roof while asking themselves how they could ever fly any other airline again. But for now we’re back at Ferenc Liszt International Airport and we’ve got a flight to catch.

About the writer: Monocle’s transport correspondent Gabriel Leigh is most at home when he’s on the move. His past few destinations at the time of writing? Norway, Germany and Singapore, before stopping off back home in Stockholm.

7. Soft landing

An easygoing arrival into Auckland benefits New Zealand as a whole. Other airports take note.

By Andrew Glenn

Following a 12-hour flight from Auckland to Los Angeles, weary travellers slump into the arrivals hall of the Tom Bradley International Terminal at lax. They are then herded into single-file lines in which it can take 90 minutes, at a conservative estimate, to reach a computerised passport-scanning machine. “Turn off your phone,” says a stern female customs officer, with military bravado, to a nearby passenger who had the cheek to check her messages.

There’s a muted silence about proceedings aside from a few anxious passengers muttering about missing their connecting flights. There are the quiet worriers, shifting their weight from foot to foot, while the assertive ones beseech the indifferent immigration agents for fast-tracking assistance.

At least this will all be over after I’ve been through passport control, I think to myself. Sadly not. There’s still another take-a-ticket queuing system to be completed in nervous, near-silent shuffling. The process is like an inquisition, as a flurry of accusatory questions is concluded with coded markings on the arrivals declaration.

On a recent trip it took me two long hours to get kerb-side. “It’s little wonder international tourism to Los Angeles and other American cities is falling,” I think to myself as I purr off into the city. But the journey is a telling tale when it’s completed in reverse. On my return journey, Air New Zealand flight nz1 touches down and quickly taxis to the gate at Auckland Airport. As the door of the Boeing 777-300 opens, a waft of the cleanest, sweetest Hauraki Gulf air fills your lungs; a welcome reminder that you’re now 2,000km from anywhere.

Upon entering the terminal, passengers pass through a 6-metre-wide tomokanga, a gateway carved in totara and kauri wood. I’m met with a Maori welcome chant that reverberates around the concourse. Further along are more camp but charming recorded audio delights: cicadas buzzing; native birds chirping; lambs bleating; children playing; and even waves crashing. Hidden speakers emit a sensory teaser of what’s in store for visitors on their Kiwi travels.

The next stop is immigration, where a kindly, sun-kissed immigration officer takes your passport and offers a “kia ora”, the traditional Maori greeting, with a wide and sincere smile. I descend the escalator into the baggage-claim area and the bags are out a brisk five-minutes later.

The point is that first impressions matter, and the charm and efficiency of the immigration experience can influence the chances of a return visit. It can also become PR gold-dust for tourism boards and building a soft-power case for a country’s intangible assets.

Singapore’s Changi is a case in point, with the Lion City enjoying innumerable column inches each year lavishing praise on its friendly staff and smiley customs arrangement. Could it be that Kiwi warmth is only achievable because there are fewer numbers to process? Not really. Last year 11.2 million international visitors passed through Auckland airport, whereas lax handled 7.5 million.

Back in Auckland I’m kerb-side in minutes. It’s not much more than 15 hours since I left Los Angeles but the fluorescent catacombs of lax seem a world away.

About the writer: Andrew Glenn is a writer and the founder of the Lantern House Inn in Palm Beach, New Zealand. He’s always delighted to touch-down at home to a warm “kia ora” – that’s the local welcome, not the sugary drink.

8. Fermenting revolution

German food has long been das butt of culinary jokes but the naysayers may soon be in a pickle.

By Josh Fehnert

If there’s one thing that proves that all trends come full circle it’s the inestimably unlikely reappearance of the sandal-and-sock combination. I’ve long since given up trying to fathom the tides of fashion but sitting in a sunny window-seat at an east London restaurant I find myself staring, somewhat confused, at the sandal-and-sock’s culinary equivalent: pickles.

Against the whitewashed walls there are wooden counters bearing colourful mason jars of briny cucumbers, batons of beetroot and fennel-seed-freckled sauerkraut. These fermented foodstuffs – brim-full of so-called good bacteria – are the latest in a spate of culinary trends pointing at a turning of the tables. German food may at last be ripe for reappraisal in the restaurant.

Yes, meine freunde, my late German-born, sandal-and-sock-loving grandfather was right (though, like most trendsetters, some years before his time). Lowly German favourites such as pickles, herring and Grünkohl (kale) have, almost without knowing it, come to fit perfectly with the zeitgeist.

It makes sense if you think about it. There’s our insatiable thirst for endless iterations of ever-more-local beer. The good-gut-bacteria-boosting boon of all things fermented (sauerkraut, anyone?). The celebration of all things seasonal (few countries host as convincing an asparagus festival). Then there’s the bread (enough pumpernickel, speciality semmel and small-batch brezel to stock the most achingly on-trend artisan bakery). That’s before we clink a glass to the nation’s Mosel Valley whites, rieslings and grüner veltliners, most of which are already fruity and modishly low-alcohol. To any restaurateur looking to glimpse the future of food, remember that the Korean barbecue is overcooked and the bao bun looks flat. Instead the Germans are coming and there’s a sandal-and-sock moment in the offing.

About the writer: Executive editor Josh Fehnert is obliquely of German extraction. He holds the company record for sausages consumed in a morning, achieving double figures during one Bavarian outing.

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