Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Story #21 Trying to get home or There's been a problem...

I may have reached my fortieth birthday, but I haven't reached my fortieth story...on we go!

The summer before my junior year in high school I went to Greece as an exchange student. While there are a few interesting stories from that experience I want to start with the ending...trying to get home.

A few months before my departure the Athens airport was briefly overrun by terrorists and therefore, no one was eager for 20 some high school students to fly directly to Athens. (Although, what are the chances that would happen again so quickly? In fact, I don't think it has happened since.) So, we flew into and out of Yugoslavia. It was a 24 hour bus ride, a lot of which took place in communist country - so there were no rest stops, convenience stores or places to get out and stretch. On the way to Athens we all needed to stop and have a bathroom break. We finally found a small cafe, along the desolate highway. The owner of the cafe said we could use the bathroom if one of the girls gave him her gold watch. She reluctantly agreed. Getting toilet paper took a necklace. It was worth one square per person. ONE SQUARE! Anyway...this is supposed to be about the way back....

We had a similar ride back to Yugoslavia, but this time our bathroom breaks consisted of squatting on the shrub free roadside. After a mostly event free evening (someone tried to buy one of the blond girls from our guide - see why it's better to be a brunette?) we flew back to New York City.

Upon our arrival to the Kennedy Airport we were met by the local student exchange representative who distributed our previously purchased return home tickets. She came to me last..."Are you Michelle Olivier?" "Yes." "Well, there's been a problem with your ticket. It appears that the airlines you purchased your ticket on has gone out of business." "WHAT?!" (I should mention I hadn't slept in over 24 hours.) "What can I do?" I asked her. "Well, if you go to the United ticket desk, they said that they would accept your ticket." "Great - where is that?" She went on to explain that it was in another terminal and I would need to take a shuttle bus to get to it, the actual flight I would be on left from another terminal still - so this wasn't going to be a simple process. She then left.

Two of the other girls, Mary and Siobhan, stuck with me. Siobhan was leaving from the terminal that I was heading to for my new ticket and Mary had a few hours before her flight left. Mary said she would stay with my luggage and wait there, so I wouldn't have to carry everything. Siobhan and I left Mary and headed off to the shuttle. Siobhan and I crammed into the elevator to street level. As the doors opened I felt a sharp jab at my wrist and saw a young man take off running. He had cut my watch off of my wrist. Great. We had no time to deal with that, and hurried to a shuttle bus. This is where I learned that New Yorkers can be really pushy. After two buses came and went without us being able to get on we decided no more mr. nice guy and shoved on our way onto the third bus.

As we traveled along the maze that exists at the Kennedy Airport we heard a loud pop, the bus swerved and then pulled over to the side of the road. The bus driver came over the PA system, "There's been a problem. We blew a tire. You will all need to walk to the next shuttle to get to your destination." So the whole pushing and shoving process began again, this time with grumpier people.

When we finally reached the United ticket booth, Siobhan and I said a quick good-bye and I went and retrieved my new airline ticket. After another wrestling match I was able to return to Mary. It was going to be a close flight was leaving really quickly. When I found Mary she was sitting on my suitcase, sobbing. "What's the matter, Mary?" She went on to tell me, "There's been a problem. I moved over here to the corner to get out of the way - well a couple of guys came over and started giving me a hard time. They stole your camera (which was in the front pocket of my carry on) and mine and who knows what else would have happened if this nice couple hadn't come to my rescue. I'm so sorry!" "That's okay! It wasn't your fault. I'm so glad you're not hurt!" I tried to comfort Mary but was really pushing it time wise to make my flight. We said good-bye and with all my luggage in tow, I went through the shoving match for a spot onthe shuttle bus to get to the terminal. I went racing up to the gate only to discover that I had missed my flight by 5 minutes. I asked the gate attendant if there were any other flights - but other flights that night. I pulled my suitcase off to the side, sat down on it and had a good cry. After a few minutes another gate agent came over and asked if she could help. I explained the situation and told her I didn't know what I was going to do. She did a little checking and discovered another flight that would get me to Salt Lake City via Chicago - but it left from the La Guardia airport. She said if I hurried - meaning a taxi, not a bus - I could make it.

I rushed outside to the porters and told them I needed a taxi to La Guardia. One man went to hail me a cab, while waiting I asked the other man how much a cab to La Guardia cost. "Oh, $20-25 plus tip." he replied. "Oh, thanks." Hmmm, I had exactly $12 American dollars, the rest of my money was in drachmas (Greek). I didn't say anything, but said a quick little prayer. Right as the cab pulled up a woman came up and asked for a cab to La Guardia. The porter asked her if she would like to share a cab with me...HOORAY...thus sharing the fare as well! She agreed and we hopped in and took off. The minute the cab got moving she burst into tears. She told me how she was from Denmark but married a New Yorker. She had just put her parents on a plane back to Denmark and probably would not see them again for several years. She was distraught. She cried and talked the entire ride. I tried to be sympathetic and kept wondering if it was too late to ask her what her first name was...or tell her mine. By the time we got to my stop she told me not to worry about the fare. I had been so nice that she would pay for it. Hooray! I got to keep my $12!! I thanked her and hurried into the airport.

Miraculously, I had not missed my flight! I checked my bags and boarded....nervously waiting for something to go wrong. It didn't take long. After we started to pull away from the gate the captain came over the P.A. system. "Ladies and Gentlemen, there's been a problem." I wanted to jump up and scream "Okay, it's me! I'm the problem, I'll get off the plane! I knew this was too easy." Shockingly, however, I was not the problem. "Ladies and Gentlemen, one of our passengers has had her bag stolen. This bag contains her family's passports and it is imperative that this bag is returned. We will not take off until the bag is returned." We sat the gate for one hour. I'm not kidding. I was starting to get a little nervous; will I make my connecting flight in Chicago?

Eventually, we took off. I have no idea whether or not the bag was returned - I can only assume that it was. I just think, if it was someone else on the flight why not take off on time and strip search us all, if necessary, during the flight. Think how well we would have gotten to know one another.

As we pulled into O'Hare, those of us with connecting flights were given our gate numbers and allowed to ...what's the word...deboard? disembark? How about leave? We were able to leave first and race off to our respective gates. I arrived at mine just in time to see it pulling away from the gate. There are few feelings worse than that of watching your own flight leave without you. It was 1:00am. I was stuck in the airport with no luggage, just a purse containing my passport, $12, some drachmas and a toothbrush. A United ticket agent informed me the airline would put me up in a hotel for the night, since it was their fault I had missed my connection. I said that would be great, since I was exhausted!!!! He asked for I.D. and discovered that I was only 16 years 8 months old. Too young to stay in a hotel by myself. A member of the United team would have to stay with me. An hour and a half later they found someone willing to stay with the minor.

We arrived at the hotel, she with a full bag of clothes, me with my grooming kit and the same clothes I had been wearing for almost 2 days. I climbed into bed exhausted while she got on the phone, started making calls and turned on the cable. The TV was loud. She was loud. I was tired. I pulled the blanket over my head and got to sleep for 4 hours.

A fun little side story. I was flying to Salt Lake to see my sister, who was pregnant with her first child, before returning home to Oregon. They lived an hour from the airport. Since these were the ancient times before cell phones, there was no way to reach Rob once he had left for the airport, to let him know that I would not be there. At this point he had driven there twice.

When we returned to the airport I was put in a special room for minors. The next oldest person was 8. I couldn't wait to get on my flight...these were the pre-diet coke day...I was tired. Don't you love that a soda is a milestone for me? I got on the flight and flinched every time a flight attendant or captain got on the intercom system. I was waiting for the problem declaration...somehow it never came. On Rob's third trip to the airport he finally found me and I enjoyed two whole days being alternately disgusted and amazed at the thing contorting my sister's belly.

I drove home to Oregon with some family friends. They dropped me off in the driveway. As they drove away I lugged my suitcase up to the front porch. I was finally home. I put down the luggage, took a deep breath and grabbed the door knob - only to discover that I was locked out. There's been a problem, I thought. I tried the back gate - also locked. I stood on the garbage can and clambered over the fence to the sliding door. Locked. I was finally able to break in via the garage and welcome myself, the problem, home from my long journey. (Almost as long as this post!!)


michelle said...

Oh my word! And to think that all I knew about this was the stolen camera!

I want to know how long it was after that ordeal that you were willing to get on a plane again...

Jill said...

Holy crap, what a nightmare story! I think this would have put me off traveling ever again!

This line cracked me up. "Don't you love that a soda is a milestone for me?" I can relate, I've been off the sauce for 4 years now, it's like being on the wagon.