Sunday, November 17, 2013

Odyssey to Japan

The 4th symposium on Polar Science, with a special session on Antarctic Meteorites, was the best chance to go back to Japan with the whole belgian team. Due to bad luck, the journey was a kind of nightmare. Nothing really so terrible, but anyway quite annoying. This is a summary of my troubles with an airline and of the great time in between.

Chapter 1: The Finnish never-ending story.
After checking many possibilities, one of my bosses (V.) and I decided to fly Finnair because cheaper than others, reliable (it has been elected the best european airline) and because the flight to Japan was supposed to be shorter with a stop “on the way”, in Helsinki. I thought that in the case we were stuck somewhere, it would have been better to be in a Euro-country. But I couldn’t imagine that my worst prediction would have become true!

Friday 8th at lunchtime we took a flight to Helsinki and after two hrs connection we were supposed to fly to Tokyo… but a delay was announced. Every 30 minutes there was an update: “in 30 minutes more information about the flight”! At 7:30 pm we were all pissed off. The commandant spoke at the microphone explaining the situation: one engine was not working properly, the technicians were trying to fix it but couldn't understand what was the problem. The situation didn’t improve in the following hours. We received a couple of vouchers for dinner at the airport. At 11 pm the flight was officially cancelled and we have been sent to a hotel for the night. It took 2 hrs to take our luggages and to reach the hotel, where a long line was waiting for registration, as there was only one person at the desk. Only at 1:16 am I was in my room. News on our flight had been promised after 6 am of the following day. Obviously we didn’t sleep much. In the morning the chaos was even worse than the evening before, with people with a transfer in Tokyo who were called for a different flight 10 minutes before the departure. We had to go to the airport to figure out our destiny: V. was booked on an evening flight through Beijing (landing in Japan one day later than planned) and I had to fly on Sunday evening with JAL, landing with 2 days delay.

The lutheran cathedral in Helsinki
Although completely covered by Finnair during our forced staying in Helsinki, the lack of information has ruined the opportunity to enjoy Finland. We managed, anyway, to spend a couple of hours in Helsinki. Helsinki is a grayish, small and expensive town on the Baltic Sea, but with an intrinsic beauty. Honestly, I found Helsinki much closer to my ideal place than Brussels, because small, clean and well conserved. Even if it was Saturday, just a few people were around, perhaps because the cold temperature. The second day I was stuck in Helsinki, I stayed at the airport: I wanted to get rid of my luggage (especially because the belgian cheese that we brought as a gift had started to stink) and to choose the seat on the plane, but the JAL desk opened only 2,5 hrs before the departure time. After all, the flight was quite pleasant. Unluckily I missed the bus to Tachikawa for a couple of minutes and I had to take the train, but wasn't a big issue.

Chapter 2: Before the symposium.
We had planned to have time to adsorb the jet lag, meeting with the curator of the museum and, why not?, having a bit of fun going for shopping in Tachikawa. Thanks to Finnair we had to change our plans. The day I arrived, Monday 11, after lunch we had a tour at the NIPR. That wasn’t the November 11 I was used to, with the official beginning of Carnival with krapfen and waltz and the tradition of the Martinigansl (goose of St. Martin) in Vienna or the “castagne e vino” (chestnuts and wine) in my hometown. At least I’m finally in Japan, not so bad. In addition, this time I’m not alone. If it wasn't for the company, I would have quitted my journey in Helsinki. We stayed in a 4-star hotel, quite busy with western-style weddings. Honestly, I've enjoyed more staying in the guest house, because I don’t like the hotel lifestyle, I prefer the freedom of camping than the rigid schedule and dress-code of a hotel, although this wasn’t the case.

The wedding garden in our hotel
Tuesday was more similar to a conference day: meeting other international participants of to the symposium, waiting for other belgian colleagues, discussing technical details of our collaboration with the NIPR. The latter has highlighted the difference in mentality between europeans and japanese: sometimes asking questions might be frustrating because they say “maybe” or “I don’t know” at the place of a clear “no” and they look more for the problems than for the solutions. Their legendary efficiency actually results in lack of flexibility. Somehow the same as for Germans.

On Wednesday we visited the japanese space agency (JAXA). Wow! I cannot say more, unbelievably exciting! A limited group of us has been allowed to enter the clean lab, where the samples from an asteroid, returned by the Hayabusa spacecraft, are conserved and studied. For that, we were dressed like astronauts, to avoid any contamination. In the evening I’ve skipped the conference banquet because quite tired and because I don’t like much this kind of social events, where one ends talking only with his friends and drinking a lot.

Chapter 3: The symposium.
The official workshop on Polar Research started on Monday but only Thursday and Friday were dedicated to meteorites. There were some good talks, scientifically or practically interesting and outstanding. It was a pity that there was no time for a poster session scheduled, although a number of interesting posters were hanging in the hall. From my side, I’m beginning to know this new community of scientists. Unfortunately, every time I change topic I have to start again to find out who are the big names and who are the crazy guys in the field. This should be the aim of the reception party, but the Japanese are shy when they have to speak english. Therefore, both Thursday and Friday the social events have been a lot of fun for us but not particularly relevant for new scientific collaborations. Anyway, I’ve greatly enjoyed the meeting, the company and the cheerful japanese atmosphere.

Chapter 4: Mission (almost) impossible, back to Belgium.
London Heathrow
If you have read other of my posts recently, you should know that every time I came back to Brussels I have experienced a kind of trauma. This time I had again some troubles with the airline, so I had no time to think to my opposite feelings towards this city. Again Finnair. Although I had a reservation for a JAL flight to Helsinki and then Flybe to Brussels, the threat of a strike has probably frightened enough Finnair for changing my flights. With my great surprise, I’ve realized the day before leaving that I was booked on a Virgin Atlantic flight to London and then British Airways to Brussels. Also at the check-in desk of Virgin the surprise was great: they couldn’t find my ticket until they called Finnair, which should have sent me the new e-ticket reference. No comment! The flight was the longest ever, 12 hrs on a full plane in a tight seat, with partially working entertainment. This is definitively the longest single flight I’ve ever done: 9569 km. I’ve read about a 19 hrs non-stop flight from Brussels to Australia. Well, I could die in a similar situation. The rest of the journey was less close to a nightmare, thanks to a mug of coffee with cinnamon and the shiny shops in Heathrow. Also in Zaventem everything went smooth, except the taxi driver (only French speaking and charged €5 more for the receipt), but that’s Brussels and we have to cope with it.

Anyway, thanks to Finnair I’ve missed two medium size earthquakes in Tokyo area, one on Sunday morning and the last one yesterday evening. As structural geologist, who would like to come back to study fossil earthquakes, what should I say? Perhaps I should really abandon this idea and keep working on meteorites, although I cannot find them as exciting as the shaking of the ground. I wish Japan was closer to Europe. Its culture is so intriguing! For sure I’d like to go back soon.


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