Thursday, June 30, 2005

a poisoned redtail?

I was eating a most delicious confection of chocolate mousse topped with glazed fruit when a friend called. She and her walking partner had found a dead redtailed hawk, and she wanted to know what to do. I said I would come get it and take it to the humane society in the morning. If it was West Nile virus, the county would want to know. But when she said the bird appeared to have vomited, I couldn't remember if that was a WNV symptom. I jumped in the car and drove out to the park.

It was a good-sized male redtail, a few months old, and other than being dead he was healthy as a horse: full breast, clean fresh-edged feathers, unmarked feet. It was sad to think of the lost potential. The bird had indeed vomited a mix of feathers (good) and what appeared to be red and green dog kibble (quite unnatural; a healthy redtail wouldn't consider kibble to be food). There was also a dead wasp at the edge of the mess -- it would seem it had taken a taste of it and also died. Whatever the poison was, it had worked fairly quickly.

The walking partner said last week she had also encountered a dead hawk of similar size. This was surprising, and worrisome, but there didn't seem much point to looking for it. By now it would probably be too decomposed to know if it too had eaten poison. But it was additional curiosity to an already unusual situation.

There were two police cruisers there as well. Apparently they had called the humane society, who would be coming to pick up the body. I decided I would wait for them, and my friend waited with me. After a half-hour, though, we began to suspect PHS wasn't coming, and the people who lived in the nearest house confirmed it: they had called at 8:00 this morning, and again at 4:30pm. PHS doesn't like to deal with dead animals -- cute kitties, puppies and bunnies make money and good PR. Dead animals are just a chore.

I bagged the redtail and separately bagged as much of the casting as I could scrape up, and put it all in my freezer. Then I finished the remaints of my dessert.

bank followup - it's over

We called the bank manager to add a few neglected details to our story, and learned in addition to the suspicious, there were several definite incidents of theft. It seems our report helped the manager to put the pieces together about the teller's modus operandi and bring in the investigators. The teller has been fired, and the bank may bring charges against him.

I feel better knowing that the bank has taken action. Hopefully this will keep this man from stealing from anyone else.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

a moral financial dilemma

Interesting thing happening at the bank today.

We went in to close a checking account. The teller waved us up and I told him I wanted to close the account. Put my card in the slot and put in my PIN. He asked about how much was in the account. I assumed this was a security question, albeit an unusual one, but answered that it had between 6000 and 8000 dollars, and we weren't sure because we hadn't used the account in a month or so. He asked us if we wanted a check for $8855.31, or if we wanted cash. Check, of course – who would choose to carry around that much cash? In ones, the mate joked. I was also privately pleased to learn that the amount was a bit higher than what we estimated.

The teller printed up a check from me, to me, and signed it. He gave us a receipt that was printed with (essentially) "check for $8855.31" and below that said "Cash $1000 received." This was a bit mysterious and I asked him what that was. He said it was a mistake and didn't know why it was there, and scribbled it out with a black marker. He didn't ask us to sign anything. We went back to the car, which was parked in front of the bank, clearly visible to the teller. Inside, I examined the receipt again, pointing out to the mate the "cash" bit, tipping it to the light so I could read under the black marker.

A minute later, the teller came out and told us he was supposed to give us $1000, that there was some kind of problem and that we were supposed to get this amount. We came in and he counted out the amount in hundreds. Somewhere in the process, he took the black-marked receipt and replaced it with one that looked similar, but with several NCR copies, and which showed the check and cash amounts. I asked him how this could have happened and he said he didn't know, that he was new and had never closed out an account before. At no point did he ever say our account had actually contained $9855.

We left, but something about this incident smelled funny – 'abnormal' was stamped all over it. A receipt is a receipt, and particularly at a bank, for something to be wrong and require marking-out is strange. We returned to the bank and related what had occurred to the manager. She thanked us for bringing this to her today (before the day's receipts were shredded), and let on that there had been previous odd incidents with this particular teller. She had watched the entire transaction and also thought it strange that the teller called us back in to give us the cash. There was no reason for the account to reflect $8855 when there was actually $9855 in the account, and she confirmed that $9855 had been the amount in there.

There was a phone message from the manager when we returned from lunch. When I called back she said she had recovered the black-marked receipt from the trash while the teller was at lunch. She asked if I had signed anything and I said no. She said that he said he didn't get our signature because he was unaware of procedure.

Right now, I am in a contemplative mood about this. "Previous odd incidents" arouses my suspicion. If this teller attempted theft, then as far as I'm concerned, theft did occur the moment we stepped out of the bank, and the fact that he could see us examining the receipt almost certainly spurred him to attempt to correct it. The troublesome part is we don't know whether he has successfully stolen from other customers, and if so, whether or not the bank manager would tell us. This information would allow us to press criminal charges against the teller.

And should we press charges at all? We have nothing to gain from it, since we got our money, but is it right to make an attempt to keep this man from future jobs in financial institutions or jobs that involve handling money? If the bank finds him dodgy, will they privately blacklist him to future employers, or will they hush it up to prevent negative publicity to the bank? Perhaps this incident will scare him away from embezzlement, but if it doesn't, do we have a moral obligation to go through the trouble of protecting others from his future depredations? $1000 is not small money to anyone, not even a millionaire. It's a year of utilities, it's 2 years of cell phone service or cable TV. It's a good chunk of a month's rent, or a year of gasoline. What if his next victim is a little old lady on a pension?

thoughts on language, or lack thereof

Viewing even the incredibly diverse San Francisco area, I'm somewhat surprised to observe a lack of multilingual signs here. I admit there's plenty of Spanish and, in San Francisco, Chinese, but even major European languages such as German, French or Italian are not represented except at bureax de change. Next time I visit a museum I'll check for multilingual translations of brochures.

Language-less international signs are nearly as rare. In all three countries we visited, exits were marked with a running figure and an arrow, and bathrooms with the male and female pictograms, quite consistently. Our bathrooms are usually all right (excepting the type of wannabe-quaint restaurant that uses "Bulls" and "Heifers," or "Hens" and "Drakes"), but exits solely use the word "Exit" far more often than not.

One of the finest language-free signage was the Budapest subway. In the stations we used there were two tracks going in opposite directions, so it might be confusing which side to take. However, above the waiting area for each track, a sign names all that line's stops. The station you're at is indicated with a circle. The direction the train goes is marked with a pointing triangle beside the circle. In older stations the signage is on the wall beyond the track, and again names every stop, notes where you are, and to what stops the train will go. Not even Vienna could make this so clear, but then again, they have more complicated system with multiple lines using the same tracks.

The only difficulty I found with Budapest was above ground, where a yellow sign displayed the name of the next major stop on the line. Since I didn't stop and actually read it, I went to the wrong side as often as not.

A mysteriously positive contribution to my navigation of Budapest was my incomprehension of the language. Hungarian is like no other language in the region – it has a distant relation to Finnish, I've been told. It's not Slavic, Germanic, or Romantic, all language types that I (and probably most Americans who like to think about words) have passing familiarity with, so I could eke no meaning out of anything Hungarian. And yet we hit the ground running, so to speak, navigating the subway with complete ease within a half-hour of buying our transportation pass.

I'm sure a large part of this ease came from a map that named all the stations and the excellent signage. And yet the names of the stations and streets landed in my head and stuck there: Vorosmarty, Ferenciek, the crossing-point Deak, Andrassy, etc. I theorize that the senselessness of the language forced me to swallow these names whole, without the distraction of chewing on bits of familiarity found in Sudbanhof, Wien Nord and Mitte, or Lange Gasse (which are, incidentally, the only names I can remember out of Vienna.)

I suppose in many ways English is truly international in that it's stolen so many words from so many different languages.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

a specific madness in government

On February 29th, 2004, US Fish and Wildlife officers visited about 20 falconers in Colorado. They claimed to be searching for falconers illegally selling goshawks to Arab states. (As goshawks could not survive for ten hours in a Middle Eastern desert, and Arabs have never before expressed an interest in goshawks, this was later changed to 'wild peregrine falcons.') The tactics used by the officers are questionable. Two apprentice falconers (falconers in training) had their computers confiscated because the officers claimed it was illegal that water pans were not constantly available to their hawks. (It is not.)

One of the falconers raided was Becky Brunotte. Even though she had a serious case of the flu, USFWS officers questioned her for 6 hours about paperwork, birds in her possession, and things the officers claimed other falconers had said about Becky and her husband. It got to the point where she was getting Stockholm syndrome.

At the end of the interrogation, the officers confiscated Becky's northern goshawk, Poja. Poja was legally acquired from a nest by another licensed falconer at Becky's request. This man, who wanted to keep private the location of the tree, did not want her to be present. He delivered Poja to her less than 1 hour after take. Becky sent in a federal form, the “Acquisition and Disposition Report” (form 3-186A), indicating that she had obtained a young goshawk from the wild. The other falconer did not fill out any paperwork. This is not an uncommon practice, and Becky was unaware at the time that there was anything wrong with it.

According to the officers visiting Becky on February 29th, this was illegal. They said the other falconer should have filled out a 3-186A form indicating he had obtained a wild bird, then filled out a second 3-186A indicating he had transferred the bird to Becky, and Becky should have filled out her 3-186A indicating that she had received Poja from the falconer. Three forms instead of one, simply for having the bird in his possession for less than one hour.

However, this fine point is not actually addressed in the falconry regulations. There is nothing that specifies the above procedure is the correct one. Upon acquiring a bird, falconers have five days in which to file an acquisition report. That's all the regs say.

Becky is strongly attached to Poja. While in her care he got infected with West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne illness. This is quite often fatal to birds, but Becky acted quickly and was able to save his life. However, the illness changed his personality for the worse, and Becky put a deep emotional investment into re-training and making up for lost time. The confiscation has certainly destroyed anything that Poja once was. If released to the wild, likely as not he will simply die.

After Poja was confiscated, Becky was given the phone number of the facility where the officers allegedly brought the hawk. However, her phone inquiries there were stalled: the facility would not even verify that Poja was there. Over the past year, her requests for information were refused and information would not be released because either a) it was an ongoing investigation or b) covered under the US Patriot Act (because of the alleged Arab connection).

In most minor hunting violations (and the paperwork issue certainly qualifies as minor), people get a ticket, they go to court and pay a fine.

Today, Becky was informed that USFWS is revoking her falconry license and Poja will not be returned.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Flying north again

Our last stop was the train back to Austria, at Mannsworth, a town near the airport. This was probably the most stressful event in our vacation. For the last five days I'd been popping into internet caf├ęs trying to get directions from the Mannsworth station to the hotel. The booking website, inthotels.com , was completely unhelpful. In the first place, after demanding my booking confirmation number, they gave us incorrect directions from the southern train station, Sudbanhof, to Mannsworth. Then they said it was a 10 minute walk to the hotel. Okay, so what street? What direction? They couldn't say. I had no phone, of course, and after websearching, found a map that showed the hotel but not the station. The station stop was imposingly empty: no phone, no stores, no taxi stand, and no people, only an enormous refinery to the north and a grassy expanse to the south. Fortunately, after waiting 15 minutes, someone came to catch the train and that gentleman spoke enough English to tell us to take the street going north through the refineries. It was damned scary for the mate, for whom breathing was getting difficult. It took us a half-hour to get across, over the freeway, and into town.

Then there were two hotels called Das Reinisch, both on the same street and 250 meters apart. We'd booked the bed and breakfast. As it turned out, they're owned by the same people, and the reception is the one on the street we'd come down. By sheer fortune I went into the one with the reception to check if I'd found the right place, because the mate was by now exhausted and a 250-meter walk only to find out we had to check in at the original spot would have been terrible. I don't have enough German to know what Das Reinisch means – for all I know, there's a perfectly good reason to have two hotels with that name and have them be completely separate entities.

We were both wiped out – it was hot – and we changed rooms so we stayed in the hotel rather than walk down to the B&B. It was very civilized (by my American standards). It's a full-service hotel with laundry, a workout room, room service, apples in the lobby, courtesy bathrobes, and even a sauna, for 92 euros per night. I'm sure it caters primarily to business people and those going to the airport, which is only 5km away. In the early morning we got a gruffly manic-depressive cabbie who zipped us to the airport with charm and grace.

A short flight to Heathrow, and a long flight to San Francisco... at last we're home. It's been fun and memorable, and we might just do it again next year.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Never deny the power of ice cream

After two nights we meant to go to Lednice, which has a castle and some nice gardens. To get there, you have to go to Mikulov then bus to Lednice. For whatever reason, the bus never came, and we decided to make the best of it. The tourist information office found us a hotel to check into, then we went off to check out Mikulov castle. Along the way, we took a quick tour of a synagogue. I'm not Jewish, but I've always felt an affinity and fondness for the culture and people. We learned that Mikulov was once home to a large Jewish community and, to my delight, it was the seat of the very well-known Rabbi Low.

Mikulov castle was very cool. Many museum pieces are out in the open, you can touch and poke all you want, and though there's a certain push to keep visitors moving in the tour, our docent never seemed to prod anyone. The fabulous Lombardi bust of a woman with a veil over her face will haunt you: her features are subtly discernible 'behind' the veil, and you could stare at it for an hour wondering how he managed to get that impression out of solid marble. At the end of the tour there's a room with a lot of stuffed birds, including hawks and owls and a European goshawk. They're a bit bulgy, having been done in the old fashioned way, but they were a nice echo to the European kestrel I spotted at the top of the castle before the tour.

In the late afternoon we wandered down the square, had a good dinner, and along the way home the mate wanted some ice cream. I wanted to put my feet on a nice pillow, but relented. As it happened, the ice cream shop had an internet computer. I needed to find out how to get to our last hotel in Vienna, so I decided to log in. The computer wouldn't get to Gmail. A woman who understood English overheard our frustration and tried to help us, but the internet was clearly down. Thanking her, we gave her one of my hawk pins.

She and her husband immediately recognized what the bird was, and then the third person in their party, the husband's sister, told us her own husband was a falconer and bred hawks. I was stunned. What are the chances of this happening?! Jolana offered to come pick us up at our hotel the next day and bring us to visit her husband.

Hotel Eliska, at 1000 korunas ($40) was tiny, spartan and a bit noisy, and used outdoor carpet indoors. But it had at hair dryer, all the soap you could use, good towels, and comfortable beds. As it would turn out, it was better than the next hotel we would stay at.

Jolana's husband Helmut is Austrian and owns about twenty breeding pairs of peregrines and gyr-peregrine hybrids. He's been involved with falcons since he was a child. We spent the morning and afternoon talking hawks and looking at his birds, and I regret not knowing enough about longwing falcons to discuss them intelligently. Being Austrian, Helmut keeps his chambers clean and he's very cautious about diseases. He makes an adequate living as a raptor breeder. His success rate has dropped low this past season, but is expected to improve. He's recently imported some gyrfalcons, but apparently the weather in Czech is a bit too humid for gyrs, and the chances of death are high.

After feeding us a good lunch, Jolana got us onto a local commuter train back to Brno, where the tourist information office recommended Hotel Pegas. This was by far the dumpiest of the lot: the room was good sized and 40 yards from the main square, but that didn't make up for the price (1500 korunas), the noise, crusty towels, and the odor seeping up from the restaurant below. Even little Eliska had a hair dryer that Pegas lacked.

The next day we made it to the Punkva caves, which have some great mineral formations. The whole tour includes a tourist train ride to the entrance, the cave tour which has steep ups and downs, an underground boat ride, and a cable lift to the top of a gorge that one sees from the bottom in the cave tour. Here we met another charming couple: Alex from Massachusetts and his Czech girlfriend Katerina. In another instance of fine Czech hospitality, she offered us a ride to Brno, where she and Alex were going. Even their bickering about Alex's driving was cute.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Brr? No. Warm rain and warm people

The scariness and the magic began happening in the Czech Republic. Our last pre-booked hotel was the Royal Ricc, very fancy and expensive at 129 euros, a luxurious and pleasant soft landing with a genuine bathtub and even a bidet. We stayed there two nights, visiting Spilberk castle and the Capuchin monastery, where you can look at 30 mummified monks and prominent Brnoites for 40 korunas ($1.60).

Spilberk has a true castle feel, what with tall brick walls and a battlement. They've put a lot of energy into creating their upstairs museum, but the military has definitely not left the castle. A bunch of baggy old docents insisted we start at point A and move along in order, even though the English translation of the guide had no correspondence to items in each room. The docents followed us along to make sure we didn't steal anything. I got kvetched at once for touching one of two large broadswords displayed in the open, and a second time for gesturing too close to a painting, which had a proximity alarm.

Downstairs you could tour the prison. Ironically, here the people were much nicer, spoke excellent English, and each point of interest had numbers that corresponded to the guide pamphlet.

We ate several times at "Under the Golden Sword," a restaurant and pub recommended by the Lonely Planet guide, just around the corner from the Royal Ricc. The food was quite good (get the French beans with bacon and cream sauce), the staff friendly, and they have an English version of the menu. One of the items omitted from the English menu is steak tartare, which is truly tasty.

In Czech we got the distinct impression that people actually liked tourists and tried their best to help us. Viennese are a bit cooler in temperament, more self-assured of their superiority, but kind and helpful once you break into their space. Budapest was a toss-up, between our 'secret police' and the genuine police who will fine you on the spot if they catch you not paying for the bus.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The familiar feel of Budapest

Austria's ubiquitous advertisements and billboards (even on St Stephen's) vanished as we hydrofoiled to Budapest, a 4-1/2 hour journey down the Danube. We landed in the Leo Panzio (82 eur). The rooms here are very small, but the furnishings are clean, new, and stylish, and the double-paned window shuts out all but the noisiest sounds from the busy street below. The bed had a huge, well-stuffed pillow perfectly suited to my lazy American head. Its location right over the Ferenciek ter. subway station is super-convenient, too. The only bummer was an odor from the drain, similar to the smell of the hot springs that underlie Budapest, but this was easily fixed by keeping the bathroom door closed. The desk clerk spoke excellent English and was very helpful with directions.

There's a post on one of the travel websites that claims the Leo Panzio converted their Euro price to a Forint-favorable price. Panzio is clearly aware of this claim. The day we checked in, they mentioned the calculation was according to the bank rate. As it happened, the exchange rate was actually better than what I had computed a week earlier.

Budapest looks most like San Francisco, counting bums and dirt. It was imposing at first because we had heard the Hungary discount card was available at the metro stations, but everywhere we asked, clerks would shake their heads and turn away, unwilling or unable to answer any question. We found the card at the tourist information office. It entitles you to all local public transportation, like Vienna's 8-day card, but it also gives you discounts ranging from 10 to 100% on museums, historical sites and other tourist entertainment.

The Hungarian secret police are alive and well, and they're all little old ladies over sixty. Twice (and we were in Hungary only 2-1/2 days) I was trying to eke meaning out of the map when a greying head intruded over my right elbow and talked Hungarian at me. The first time this happened, we were trying to find a cave for a tour. I pointed where I wanted to go. The secret police pointed at the buses, wrote "29" on a piece of paper, and held up 5 fingers to us, eventually getting across that this meant bus #29, and the 5th stop. Then to make absolutely sure, she walked us over to the bus stop and told the driver where we were going. He dropped us off, and pointed the direction to walk. It saved us a huge amount of effort because the cave was far up the hill. Thank you, Budapest.

Visiting the Szechenyi georfurdo baths was great. We soaked, steamed and got massaged amidst Hungarians old, young, skinny and fat. Here they have no self-consciousness about blobs, rolls, and body hair. The mate, who loves the fact that eastern Europe clearly has no fear of hot-water-burn lawsuits, complained that the hottest pool wasn't hot enough and was happiest in the sauna. Afterwards, a half-hour massage drew out the kinks and aches from walking at least five miles per day on marble, cobblestones, and concrete.

At the Budapest train station's information booth, we were forced to confront an bespectacled underwater creature who bobbed like Bill Gates. He spoke French, German and Hungarian, but no English, and while he managed to get across to me (and my lousy French) that the train was at 2 pm, he failed to mention the tickets had to be purchased at a special desk. I suppose if we'd had our eyes and ears a little more open or had asked where to get them, we might have saved ourselves 20 minutes waiting in the wrong line, but one usually expects an information booth to offer information.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Vienna: cool, cool, and a little creepy.

Vienna, Budapest and Brno were our destinations. Four days in Vienna for the culture, two in Budapest for exoticness, and five in the Czech Republic for, well, just out of curiosity. We booked hotels for the first two cities, and one day for Brno, and after that we were going to wing it. Winging it is a little scary, but we felt up to the challenge, and if it turned out horrible, we figured we could always run back to the more civilized Austria.

Pension Baronesse (99 eur for two, includes breakfast) is about a mile from the old city center, on a noisy street called Lange Gasse. Huge rooms, beautifully furnished, a little past its prime, old-fashioned elevator with a padded bench. Like nearly everywhere else we went, it smells like old cigarettes, provides bath and hand towels but no face towels, and has hideously coarse toilet paper. (Even at the best hotels, toilet paper has a texture similar to paper towels.) Pillows were a bit too downy for my taste. They spoke pretty good English – about one in five Viennese do, it seems – and were very kind. On our last day, we had to leave early to catch the hydrofoil, but they opened the kitchen specially for us, sending us off with a decent breakfast. That morning the desk clerk was a hefty guy in a black vest, who had a bandage wrapped around his knuckles and muttered to himself wearily, giving us the impression his other job was being a bouncer.

We spent a lot of time in Vienna's old city, of course. By lucky chance, one of the museums had a special exhibit of Rene Magritte, my favorite surrealist artist. Art in person is nothing like art in books – you can see the light reflecting off brushstrokes and other subtleties that just don't come through in a shrunken version. I don't care that much for Magritte's "this is not a pipe" paintings, but rather his more puzzling works like "The Voice of Blood," and this exhibit showed me those as well as quite a few works I'd never seen before.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum has a great, concentrated selection of some of the most well-known Western paintings. When I was a kid, I saw a lot of these in a book my parents owned, of the collections of several national galleries. Naturally, at the time, I was looking for paintings of naked bodies and creepy things like human bones being dug up. Now I got to see everything of Vienna's, in full color and full size. I had no idea that Rubens' "Miracles of St Ignatius" is at least 14 feet tall and 9 wide.

One of the neat things I wish I'd photographed at Kunsthistorisches was in their Egyptian collection. However, the camera battery decided to die at that moment, but I found it online at http://www.khm.at/data/page2330/08_1_420.jpg. It's a statue of a pharaoh and Horus seated side by side. They both have a dignified calm and a subtle happiness to their features. What I found so charming was that Horus has his arm slightly around the pharaoh, just at the latter's lower back, like Horus is ushering a dear old friend into a warm and cozy club called the Afterlife. There's something baldly honest about this, like the depiction will make it real, I had to smile.


Viennese pastry is as good as they claim. Sugar is used as a seasoning, not a flavor in itself. Light, delicate and overall wonderful. Budapest was middling and Czech the worst of the three for pastry.

After lots of churches, museums, and coffee and pastry shops, we checked out the Prater on our last day. It's open year-round, and it was pretty empty that day. This collection of kitschy rides, games, and mazes must number in the low hundreds. The carnies clap to get your attention so you'll come and play. I believe they're all independent, and they'll run a ride just for you if that's all who shows up. The emptiness and disco-era style put the creepiness level just below that of mechanical fortune telling gypsies and sailors.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Air France sucks

This was the first vacation where I really felt I got away. It had its ups and downs, but only about 3 downs, which I think is pretty damn good for planning this for about five weeks – two of which were interrupted by my significant other having to stay in the hospital for a cystic fibrosis tune-up.

(I'm not a boy and my lover is not a girl, so either one in front of 'friend' doesn't seem right; 'significant other' is dated, 'partner' has a gay implication. 'Lover' has a strictly sexual tone. Obviously, I've never come up with a good term for the other person in my life. I suppose 'mate' will have to do.)

Never choose Air France! Even though my mate never needs oxygen in daily life, the doctors suggested we look into getting it for the plane trip. After a 15 minute hold on Air France's 800 number (due to "increased volume of calls" rather than "decreased number of call operators") I was told to call another number. There I spoke with a longwinded guy named Richard, who suggested a wheelchair as well, interrupting and overriding me when I tried to explain our exact needs. Oxygen costs not just $180 each way for the installation, but you have to buy an entire extra seat for the equipment itself.

Worse yet, Richard turned my request for information into a bona-fide request for oxygen. This was about 8 days before our flight and they wanted 5 working days to get the request through. They wanted a doctor's statement that oxygen was needed. After hashing it out with the doctors, we all concluded it was nice but unnecessary, so no such statement was made. But when I tried to cancel the oxygen, Richard would not allow it. They wanted a doctor's statement saying that oxygen was not needed, and they would refuse to let us board without it. The doctors, ever aware of malpractice suits, didn't want to make that statement.

We tried to cancel. Air France refused to refund our money even though it was their worst-case assumptions that turned an information request into an order. I somewhat understand their position, but refusing to refund our tickets when they won't let us board is ridiculous. After yelling at various parties, we convinced the travel agency to cancel and rushed Orbitz for a flight on British Airways.

The day before we left, we were gratified to read in print that Air France is the worst airline around. Let our own experience underscore this.