It's the Fourth of July, and the Fourth of July demands an obligatory American post.
I'll say this. At the airport in Helsinki, the luggage carts were free. They were as free as the chairs; as free as the toilets. At the airport in Vancouver, the carts were free; as free as the view from the windows; as free as the napkins at the airport cafes. But at the airports in New York and San Francisco, the carts for your luggage cost $3.
That's right, you get off a plane -- hot, sweaty, jet-lagged. You wait to go through customs. You stand among your fellow travelers, eager that your bag made it through the labyrinthine underbelly of your departure point onto your plane. And then, after you lug it off the baggage carousel, you swagger on over to the line of carts, dig out your credit card, and deduct three measly dollars from your savings so that you can use it. This is America, after all; and America's business is making money off of you.
I paid it, of course. But I felt a little dirty. Canadians and Finns were getting things for free that I, as an American, had to pay for. Sure, it was only $3. But in Canada it was free. In Finland it was free. Why is it free there, but not here? I just don't understand.
At the hotel where I stayed in San Francisco, I became increasingly paranoid. The food in the room was hooked up to sensors that went off when you removed an item. I didn't find out about this until I located a small book that warned me of the perils of eating a Snickers bar in a San Francisco hotel. It would cost me $4 plus sales tax and a 20 percent restocking fee to eat said bar. Therefore, candy I bought across the street for $1 could wind up costing nearly 10 times that in my hotel!
I became worried that other things were not free. Maybe there was a special charge for flushing the toilet, or even turning on the TV. Maybe I would go to check out and find out I had watched TV for 15 minutes at $4 per minute. I am sure it was written in fine print somewhere in my room. TV+San Francisco real estate prices = money, right?
So I didn't watch any TV and I am smart (and cheap). I went to the little Arab-owned and operated convenience store across the street, bought a new Snickers bar for $1 and replenished my own hotel mini-bar. Inside the shop, the clerk watched a French film from the 1950s dubbed into English.
"How cool is this country," I thought to myself. "Arab guys watching French film noir while guys like me buy Snickers bars." There was also an Asian guy there with a goatee and an Obama '08 t-shirt. The fog covered the buildings outside. On the counter, under a panel of glass there was money from all different countries. Mexican money. Malaysian money. And, representing Europe, a five kroon note. I proudly whipped out my 25 kroon bill featuring Estonian national writer Anton Hansen Tammsaare and showed it to the Arab clerk.
"Are you from Estonia?" he asked. "No," I responded. "My wife is." "Do you know who that is?" he inquired. "Sure," I said. "It's Paul Keres, the chess player." He looked me in the eyes. "Keres was very famous. Veeeerrrrrry famous." I paid for my chocolate and was on my way. But I felt immensely proud of the country of my birth. Here was a place where Arab store clerks watched French films and collected Estonian money in a city founded by Spanish missionaries. Fees for luggage carts aside, it's hard to get any cooler than that.