Over the years and through many trips abroad, our family has learned to dread Airplane Days. These are the days when everything must be packed in an ultra-orderly fashion. These are the days when we put on our clothes and our shoes knowing that we’ll have to remove them (most, but not all of them thankfully) and everything in our pockets to go through security. These are the days when our most private and essential items are put under a microscope and occasionally molested by security police.
Usually, I coax myself into the process by promising myself some hard-core-reading-time as we wait for our plane. The night before our flight, I’ll carefully select a book on Kindle that’s really engaging. Then, the day of the flight, I work toward the goal of reading with a calm but focused intensity right next to our gate.
I like Denver International Airport. It’s a clean and peaceful place with WiFi where there’s carpeting here and there, a muted ambience of people moving from one place to another, and fun little shops where we can buy corn nuts, Starbucks coffee, or orange juice on a whim. But other airports in the world aren’t nearly as comfortable.
The Kathmandu airport in Nepal, in contrast, is a hot and dirty place with unbelievably
uncomfortable furnishings. The restrooms have a strange and ominous smell reminiscent of raw carrots. In Puno, Peru, the airport is held together with string and tape. Parts of the building are made of cardboard. But the worst airport we’ve ever experienced was definitely in Bharatpur, Nepal. The heat was oppressive, the waiting areas sterile in appearance, but dirty upon closer inspection, and there were no entertaining shops or refreshments once we got past the initial check-in area. A female security officer at Bharatpur pulled a tampon out of my purse and questioned me about it at length in Nepali. I failed to come up with a gesture or charade that was able to communicate what the tampon was, but since tampons are non-existent in Nepal, and I was in short supply, I was quite dismayed when she removed the wrapper and dismantled it completely. John suggested later that perhaps she thought it was a bomb mistaking the string for a fuse.
Having lived through a variety of uncomfortable situations on Plane Day, John, Lydian, and I have developed very specific roles that we play to try to keep things running smoothly. The night before and the day of our trip, John and Lydian don’t touch the bags. They have to ask for everything they need out of the luggage for fear of my wrath because I’m the one responsible for making sure the carry-ons have all our most basic necessities (with liquids packed according to regulations in a one-gallon plastic bag). Checked bags must be packed so that nothing spills or breaks. And I have to be prepared to defend my “Med Bag” which regularly gets us stopped and frisked as we go through security.
I was particularly worried about the weight of our bags on this trip and as we got ready to transition from England to Italy, I was especially concerned. I had maxed out the weight limits of all of our bags because I knew that it might be hard to find the foods that we can eat (gluten-free, dairy free) after full 12-15 hour days of traveling. I had packed meals as well as a hot plate and my Mobile Kitchen into our bags. On our trip from England to Italy, I was no longer sure how much each of our bags weighed, having left the little scale that I normally use at home. Things had been redistributed because we’d consumed most of the food. Making sure that each of the checked bags weighed less than 40 pounds was a delicate project.
I was also just generally concerned with the stringency of British Airways. In small European countries, they have more time to fiddle with each bag. I hoped they wouldn’t weigh our carry-ons. Airlines rarely did, but once, on an American Airlines flight, a bitchy attendant told us our carry-ons wouldn’t fit. We had to make them smaller somehow. We were forced to stuff everything we could into our pockets to make the bags smaller. Luckily, we had a number of pockets in our cargo pants and jackets. Several of other people besides us had opened up their bags that day and started stuffing things into sleeves and their clothing too. It was a silly charade. When we got on the plane, we took all the socks and snacks out of our pockets and put them back in their bags.
Carry-on Incidents like what happened with American Airlines made me nervous. I was pretty sure our carry-ons weighed more than our checked bags for our London to Rome flight. I worried about it, but there was little I could do about it in advance without a scale. As long as we showed up early enough to the airport we could do problem-solving if one of our carry-on bags got flagged for being overweight.
John had booked a room at the Travelodge in London the night before our flight because it was
close to Heathrow Airport. The goal was to be able to easily drop our rental car off in the morning. While I was stressed about our bags, he was stressed about driving the car in London. In fact, he was at the end of his tether about it. He’d been driving us all over England that week–at least 10 hours of driving– and by the time we’d gotten to London, he was so stressed out that at times he’d forget to breathe. As the most ambidextrous person I knew, he was able to quickly learn the ropes of being on the wrong side of the car and the wrong side of the road really quickly. We’d rented a stick shift on top of all that and I think this is perhaps what pushed him over the edge. He was nervous about driving and nervous about finding our way back to Enterprise-Rent-a-Car and getting us to our gate on time.
There were a number of steps between us and Heathrow. First, we had to get our four checked bags, three carry-ons, and three personal items into the rental car. Since Travelodge doesn’t offer on-site parking or luggage carts, this was a challenge. London is also really enthusiastic about putting fire doors throughout their buildings which added extra impediments to the journey from our room to the street down below. But once the bags were stacked on the street, Phase One was complete. John made the walk to go get the car while Lydian and I watched over the luggage. Twenty minutes later, John pulled up next to us and we stacked the bags in the car. Whew! I felt a tiny sense of relief that we were on our way. One step in our journey had officially been completed.
As I said before, John was tense about finding the Enterprise agency. I could appreciate his apprehension, but we had plenty of time. It was about 10:00 AM and our plane didn’t take off until 1:30. And we were only about ten minutes from Heathrow.
John started spiraling downward on our first attempt at finding Enterprise. The GPS wasn’t working and we needed to fill the car with gas. Before we knew it, we’d been sucked into the Heathrow vortex where gas stations were non-existent. Then we took a wrong turn and ended up in an obscure parking area that required a paying ticket and no opportunity to turn around. A Scottish fellow in a black SUV pulled up beside us as we sat just outside a little yellow barricade with black stripes on it.
“How ‘d ‘yer git outta heerrre?” He purred.
“I guess you just back up?” John said and smiled at the man.
“And aye’ll follow yee!” He said jovially.
John put the car in reverse, fortified somewhat by the fact that we were not alone in our mission. He started backing into oncoming traffic. The man in the black SUV let John lead the way, following us slowly. Cars merged off the main road into the lane where John was slowly driving backward. He backed up far enough to let the black SUV go first.
“I need to fill up with gas before we drop off the car.” John told me.
“I know, honey…we’ll find a gas station. Just go through ‘drop-off’ and it will probably take us out of the airport…” I consoled him.
Impatiently, he waited for pedestrians and their stacks of luggage and other cars dropping people off. Little beads of sweat formed on John’s brow. Then, we were headed toward a highway again. John handed me his phone and urged me to tap on it to get it working.
“John!” I said, “We can do this without the GPS…The GPS is NOT WORKING. And You. Are. Freaking. Out.”
“Okay then. Okay…then you tell me where there’s a gas station.”
John really functions more smoothly in tense situations when his GPS is working. This has always been true. We wandered onto one highway and then into an industrial area that finally lead onto a residential street with a BP. Having filled the car with gas, we were ready to begin the process of finding Enterprise again.
We pulled out onto the main road and took the turn that lead back to Heathrow. I noticed that Gatwick, another airport in London lead the other direction and I had a fleeting thought that, I’m so glad we’re not going there, because a suspected Ebola victim had collapsed getting off a plane from Sierra Leone recently.
We navigated into Heathrow and past the exit into the obscure parking lot only to end up at drop-off again.
“Okay…” I said, “It’s okay…let’s go through again…we can figure this out.” John’s morale was gone. He didn’t want to be driving the car anymore and time was ticking away. It was 11:00 AM now. “We’ve got plenty of time…” I added, trying to convince myself.
We went through a long tunnel where I observed that, “We weren’t riding in the car when we went through this tunnel before…”
There was a brief silence.
“You’re right.” John said.
“Yeah…we were in the shuttle bus when we went through this tunnel, Dad.” Lydian said.
Again we were all silent. “How is that possible?” John said. The tunnel ended and we took yet a different turn this time ending in a new but still obscure parking area. This time, John turned around right away. We got back on the road and again, we went through drop offs.
There was cursing and expletives this time.
Just then, ahead of us I saw an Enterprise shuttle. John hurried to get behind the bus before it disappeared ahead of us in traffic. This was our white rabbit. Finally! We followed the shuttle to the agency and parked the car. John got out and spoke briefly with an Enterprise agent while Lydian and I pulled the luggage out of the car and piled it on the sidewalk.
“Where’s your terminal?” The shuttle bus driver said when it was our turn to go to our gate.
“We’re flying British Airways through terminal N.” John said.
The first driver said he wasn’t going to the British Airways Terminal but the second driver said he could take us. So again, we went through the process of loading the bags.
On the drive to the airport, John was suddenly light and giddy while my mood was taking a nose dive. I was gearing up for bag weighing, security, and my speech about The Med Bag. I tried to revel with John in his relief about finding Enterprise, but I couldn’t get into it. When we got to Heathrow, we again unloaded most of the bags onto a little trolley that John pushed while Lydian and I carried some small bags and pulled some roll-behinds. We walked into the big mall of terminals. It was about noon.
“Hmmm…we’re looking for terminal N.” John told us. He held up his iPhone in front of us with the ticketing information on it. I looked at the big glass panes on the windows painted with numbers.
“I don’t see any letters.” Lydian said.
“It has to be here.” John said.
Just then, a couple of airport workers walked by.
“Excuse me…” John approached them, “Can you tell me where terminal N is?” They looked at him confused. He showed them our tickets on his iPhone.
“This says Gatwick.” The young female airport worker said. She looked at us with sympathy.
I recollected a sign that I’d seen earlier on the road as we were driving just outside of Heathrow and thought it’s probably close by.
“How far away is that?” John asked.
“At least an hour.” She said.
“Oh my God…how do we get there?!?” I asked.
“Central Station…” she said pointing, “Take the elevator to the bottom level and then you can take the bus. Follow the signs.”
We had already started walking away from her to the elevator before she finished her sentence. None of us spoke, but John and I began rearranging the luggage to make it easier to move around. I took the big red rolling bag and a small rolling bag. Lydian took two small rolling bags. John took the cart…We ran.