Not To Be Outdone: Our Travels in the West

The alarm sounded at an hour no alarm should ever sound. Ever. It was 3:30. In the A.M. It was our last day in Rome, and from Rome we were going to Menorca, Spain, where we’d spend several days just the two of us before beginning the rounds to visit family and friends spread out across the country. The taxi was scheduled to arrive at 4:30. No public transport at this hour. All the bus drivers and train conductors were asleep like sane people.

Despite the early hour, it was a beautifully conceived plan. Near art if I may say so. We’d get to the airport by 5:15 for our flight to Barcelona, which left at 7:05. We’d land in Barcelona at 8:55. Our connecting flight to Menorca, Spain, left at 9:40. It was a tight connection in Barcelona, only 45 minutes, but we’d decided to risk it because, if everything went off like clockwork, we’d get into Menorca at 10:35 and have the entire day ahead of us. If everything went off like clockwork. If.

At 4:32 we were in the taxi and on our way to Fiumicino International Airport. Like a bat out of the domain of darkness, the driver flew down narrow city streets, talking on his hands-free headset in very excited Italian all the way. Then we got to the highway. At that point the charming man redefined speed. During several long, straight stretches of road his speedometer pushed 180 kilometers an hour (over 110 m.p.h.). All I could think was how ironic it would be to have survived four years driving in Kyrgyzstan and then die on an Italian highway. So I prayed—literally—and tried to put thoughts of head-on collisions out of my mind.

Needless to say, we got to the airport earlier than we expected. We stopped and the driver pulled our bags out of the back. The fare was 53 Euros. Yup. Fifty-three. I gave him 55, and without even offering change, he said, “Thanks,” got in his car, and raced off. I suppose the two extra Euros was his fee for not killing us along the way. Or something like that.

At that point, we were feeling pretty good. We found our check-in desk, took a deep breath, and entered the relatively short line. The temperature quickly rose. The woman at the desk insisted that I place one of our carry-on suitcases in the little metal box that defined the absolute biggest any carry-on luggage was allowed to be. Wouldn’t you know it? The suitcase we’d use as a carry-on on I don’t know how many flights didn’t fit in their box. The bag itself did, but those darned wheels at the bottom didn’t. We’re talking an overage of less than two centimeters. I looked at the woman. She shook her head. I looked at the bag. There was no way to get it into the metal box.

She said she would check it for us for free. We insisted we couldn’t do that because of what was inside the carry-on, the very reason we weren’t checking it. We had several small, original paintings for family members and friends packed in there. We tried to explain. The woman had an iron will. No was no.

We pulled out of the line and did some readjusting. We did our best to put the paintings in a smaller bag and put the things that would be OK to check in the suitcase that they wouldn’t let us take in the cabin.

We returned to the woman at the desk. I told her I realized she was just doing her job, but the rule was ridiculous. She insisted it was not. We agreed to disagree. She check our bags and printed our boarding pass. OK, now that that was passed, we could take a deep breath and just get on with it. Right?

We got through security and found our gate. We had over an hour to wait. Because we’d guzzled all the water in our water bottles before security, we wanted to get some water to accompany the sandwiches we had packed for the plane ride. There weren’t any water fountains, so I went to investigate the vending machines. I was lucky in that I chose the one that ate money. I put 2.50 Euros for a small bottle of water labeled a Euro fifty. I never got my water, and the coin return button didn’t work. Do I know how to choose ’em.

I went back to our seat peeved. Laura decided to go to a store right by the gate and get water there. She didn’t know that you had to present your boarding pass in order to buy anything at the store, so after 15 minutes in line, she couldn’t buy the water. By then people were beginning to flood into line to board. Looked like we’d just go thirsty.

We finally boarded the plane. (Without one of our carry-ons, but I digress.) We found our seats and settled in for what we thought would be a quick flight. Then the captain got on the loudspeaker. The airport traffic controllers in France were on strike. Of course they were. All flights crossing French airspace would be delayed. The pilot said we’d be sitting there on the tarmac for probably an hour. There went our connection. Our already lava-like internal temperatures reached a new high.

Laura and I decided to break into our sandwiches.

Time marched on, and eventually we were in the air. Of course, our connection wasn’t delayed and had already left by the time we landed at 10:30 or so. In fact, it was getting ready to land in Menorca by that time. We found the airline help desk, and the nice woman at the window (no sarcasm here, she was very helpful) put us on the next flight, a flight scheduled to leave at 5:15 PM. Seven hours later. Which is why we’d chosen the flights we’d chosen in the first place. Of course, now our getting up at 3:30 and paying over 50 Euros for a taxi had been in vain. We could have gotten a later flight from Rome to Barcelona, meaning we could have taken public transportation to the airport, paid a fraction of the price, and not risked our lives on Italian highways at speeds at which only thieves and Batman drive. At least the nice woman gave us food vouchers.

We tried to readjust our expectations. Cool the lava. We found a café at the airport that accepted our food vouchers and were pleasantly surprised at how much food they were willing to give us. We called the car rental place and told them we wouldn’t be there at 11:30 AM like we’d thought. They said it wouldn’t be a problem. The only thing is that if we arrived past 10:00 PM, they’d charge us an after-hours fee. But since our flight was scheduled to arrive at 6:30 PM or so, surely that wouldn’t be any problem. Surely.

Turned out the French managed to affect a large majority of our airline’s flights that day. The dreaded D word (“delayed”) began to appear next to nearly every single flight listed on the monitors. By the time 5:15 PM rolled around, our flight had been delayed to 6:45. Then it was delayed again to 8:10. The frustration was mounting. We should have been in Menorca at 10:35 that morning. We’d lost an entire day. And we’d spent it sitting in one of the most dreaded places on earth: an airport.

As if to add salt to the wound, another flight to Menorca scheduled for 5:55 left on time, but by the time we realized it, there wasn’t enough time to wait in the long line at our airline’s help desk to change flights and get new boarding passes. So we gritted our teeth, found the new departure gate, and waited. Then we waited some more.

We finally found ourselves toward the front of a very long line waiting to board. We got on the plane, and we waited. The flight that had been delayed to 8:05 didn’t actually take off toward almost 8:50. It was over an hour to Menorca, which meant we were going to miss our car rental deadline and have to pay an extra fee. At some point the lava would pop its top.

The flight itself, the one we’d waited over 10 hours for, was little more than an up and down hop. We shuffled off the plane and made our way to the baggage claim, the great controller of vacationers’ destinies, the tensest wait at the airport, the place were dreams are either realized or crushed. Did our bags make it (both, since we’d had to check two instead of one like we’d planned)?

We stood next to the conveyor belt.

And. We. Waited.

At some point, they turned the conveyor belt off. You’ve got to be kidding. Neither of our bags had materialized. Well, now what do we do?

We went over to the airline’s help desk. We weren’t the only ones in line. Then I spotted something. Behind the desk sat a black suitcase, one that was supposedly just centimeters too big to fit into our airline’s overhead compartments. Could it be? Our other, larger suitcase was nowhere to be seen. I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

The man at the desk had us fill out a piece of paper with the address of where we’d be staying while we were in Menorca. We asked him about the suitcase, and sure enough, it was ours. By some fluke it had arrived on the flight before ours, the one that had actually left on time but that we hadn’t been able to get on. How? No idea. But there it was.

At that point it was pushing 10:30. The car rental place wasn’t located at the airport. Instead, they ran a shuttle, but at this hour, we weren’t sure if the shuttle would come. We called, and they said they’d send someone. We figured we’d still have to pay the extra fee for arriving so late. We weren’t the only ones that had been delayed or that were waiting for the same car rental company. They ended up sending two 11-passenger vans, and all of us almost didn’t fit.

Once we got to their office, we got in line. Our favorite. When we finally talked to the woman at the desk, while they weren’t going to charge us an extra fee for arriving late, it looked like they weren’t going to rent us a car. The lava within was ready to explode. The problem was that Laura was listed as the only driver. We did that because she was the only one of the two of us that had a valid Spanish driver’s license. My international license was already expired. And now there was a new policy requiring that the name of the driver and the name on the credit card to which the rental deposit was charged be the same. But Laura didn’t have a credit card with a high enough credit limit. She had a license but not a credit card. I had a credit card but not a license. The mountain was about to blow.

What to do, what to do? We asked the woman if there was any way we could use my credit card. At first she appealed to the company policy. Then, in one of those moments brought to you by God himself and what I’d chalk up to our shared humanity with the woman working the car rental desk that night, she thought for a minute, grabbed the car, and swiped it. I could have kissed her.

At some point around 11:00 PM, we got in our rental car and began the 45 minute drive to the Airbnb we were staying at. The owner had gotten tired of waiting for us and left the cleaning woman to receive us. She showed us the place and left. By that point, we decided not to try to find anything to eat. We didn’t have our tooth brushes or any clean clothes, and there wasn’t any food or soap or shampoo at the Airbnb, and we didn’t want to venture out to buy anything or find food, so we decided to just go to bed, hungry and dirty though we were. Tomorrow we’d get up and try it again. For me personally, that was the moment the volcano blew. I was so upset I wasn’t sure I could sleep, but eventually, sleep mercifully overtook us both.

The following morning we got groceries and the most important toiletry items. You wouldn’t believe how important brushing my teeth is to me. We bought replacement clothes—most importantly swimsuits—that we hope the airline will reimburse us for. We worked hard to fight frustration and lower our internal temperatures. Our bag arrived two days later. We didn’t die. Not even once. And the beaches of Menorca were white and breathtaking.


Epilogue

I posted here about a trip I took from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan. It was epic. A trip that should have taken four hours or so turned into a nine-hour nail biter. And then this happened, our trip from Rome, Italy, to Menorca, Spain. It’s almost as if European travel didn’t want to be outdone by Central Asian travel. Probably a good reminder for me in many ways. It’s not the place, is it? No, it’s never been the place. Frustrations are as ubiquitous in life as cows are in Iowa and are completely impartial of location or culture. So expect them as soon as you step foot out your front door, be that front door in Asia, Europe, North America, or elsewhere. And especially expect them if you’re thinking of traveling somewhere. Anywhere. I’m rooting for you. May you reach your final destination safe and sound.

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