“Why did we stop?” I try to sound casual.
“Just more heavy traffic ahead, but you guys have another hour; we’ll get you to your plane; don’t worry.” My friend’s voice is reassuring but her nervous tap on the wheel while trying to smile at me through the rearview mirror betrays a similar emotion to mine.
I chase away the idea of losing our flight by looking out the wet window. Early this morning we finished packing our last belongings – a springboard, a mattress, four pillows and two old blankets – all packed up and stored on the cold cement floor of the musty Gutenberg College basement. The rest of our possessions, jailed up in variously sized brown boxes, are keeping our modest bed company.
For three years we volunteered as resident managers for the small liberal arts college in Eugene Oregon, our alma mater. My husband and I met there when I was a senior and he was a freshman. It wasn’t love at first sight. There was nothing in the stars for us. At least that’s what I used to think. Two years later we got married.
It’s difficult to describe how much Gutenberg means to us. We became responsible adults and built our worldviews under the watchful eye of Plato, Kant, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and many other great thinkers whose works we poured over delightfully. Not only did we find each other and ourselves here, but we also built a community of like minded people, nerds like us mostly, who became our friends for life. It felt right to give something back. So when a position opened up to be resident managers and live among the students to support them in this endeavor which was so dear to us, we jumped on it.
“Did you guys print your boarding passes?”, McKenzie asks.
Clayton answers proudly, “We have them on our phones.”
“Oh good!” Mckenzie sounds relieved. “You guys will have to rush but we’re almost there.”
It’s hard to believe that prediction since the car is moving like a turtle through a long line of traffic that extends all the way from Salem to Portland — a freak event, we would later see on the news, but becoming increasingly more likely as the Northwest outgrows I5.
This trip was dreamt of and planned for since last Christmas, when we discovered that Icelandair has great deals on plane tickets to Europe and offers up to week-long layovers free of charge. There were many reasons why we decided to embark on a seven-week long trip overseas. My family living in Moldova, me graduating from my master’s program, us wrapping up our last year as resident managers, yearning for some travelling adventures before we settle down to have some babies, a lot reasons.
We eventually realized that our travelling dates of August-September were still during high season and the long layover in Iceland wasn’t turning out to be the budget friendly deal we expected. Lodging and transportation was going to hurt. But after several weeks of enthusiastic research, we found a solution – one way tickets! Instead of purchasing round trips we bought two one-way tickets and created our own stopover in Iceland for twelve days, on the last leg of our trip. This would be the shoulder season, when the weather is still nice but most the tourists have left and our rental car should be cheaper.
“I see the Icelandair sign. Grab your stuff, I don’t think I can park here.”
I hug my dear friend Mckenzie hurriedly, barely hearing her well wishes. My hands are clammy and I am sweating as I carry my heavy backpack stuffed with presents for my family and a mint green duffel bag full of camping gear. Clayton is already at the counter, and I come upon a vision of him intensely arguing with the ticket agent, who is furiously punching the keyboard on his computer and shaking his head.
“You guys are so late. I can’t do that. The bags are going all the way to Amsterdam. Please set them on the conveyor belt.”
“Sir, that is unacceptable. The bags cannot go to Amsterdam. We have a ten hour layover in Reyjkavik, and we need to pick up our bags and store them in the airport there. So can you please, please only send them to Iceland.” My husband is losing his temper. I watch his eyes flash as the man at the counter continues to shake his head without even making eye contact with us.
“No. You are too late to entertain that option. You either set the bags down and agree to the Amsterdam destination or you don’t take them at all.”
Barely intercepting Clayton’s chance to retort, I drop my bag on the conveyor belt then swiftly snatch up Clayton’s and do the same.
“That’s fine. Just get them on the plane. Are we done here?”, as I ask tersely. Clayton’s protestations become urgent.
“Yes”, he responds quickly, looking at us for the first time, relieved, if still panicking. “You have your boarding passes?”
I nod and push Clayton towards security.
“Hurry!” we hear him yelling after us.
“Thanks…” I think to myself. I was planning to slowly stroll through security while my plane is taking off. Clayton, slightly shocked by the sudden downward turn of events, walks behind me only to avoid losing me, mumbling to himself and randomly shouting curses at inappropriately loud volume. “Checking those bags botches our whole trip!”
He has a point. The bags are ridiculously heavy, full of expensive equipment, and now not only do we have to lug them all over Europe, but we have to check them half a dozen times – something we promised ourselves we were going to avoid from now on after Alitalia lost and looted our bags last year.
A TSA agent procedurally refuses us entry to the expedited line. So on to the hopelessly long parade two feet over.
“Excuse me! We are missing our flight.” I am trying to sound as polite as possible as I weave through people in the long security line.
Another TSA agent notices us rushing like lunatics and motions to us. We breathe a little easier. He breaks the rules to make room for us in a different line. We finally approach the podium, with one of my shoes half off already, I hand over my passport and the boarding pass on my phone for inspection.
“Please place your phone screen down right here.”, he motions to me.
“Of course.” I quickly obey with a grateful smile. Oh, the wonders of technology. We can now simply check in from the comfort our homes and not even worry about printing anything. It seemed like a godsend.
“Your boarding pass is invalid mam. Please step aside.”
I stare at him wildly. My phone screen elicits from the machine a red blinking light and a stupid farty sound effect. Other people’s soothing blue lights flash silently on either side of me. “Please go back to the ticket counter and get a paper copy of your boarding pass.”, he instructs.
“There must be a mistake. You don’t understand. The ticket agent said we could use these boarding passes. We are missing our flight. I need you to let us through right now.” My voice is shaking and tears are gathering around the corners of my eyes
“You are flying with Icelandair and they haven’t updated their electronic system yet so we only accept paper boarding passes from them. It’s been like this for a long time. When you come back you can skip the line. Just go back there and grab the paper copy. You can still make it.”, he says sympathetically.
I nod and turn around to see Clayton already running back to the ticket counter, holding his bouncing backpack down. All the people in line are making room for us to pass, slightly glad it’s not them. I have been them.
If we miss this flight, it could set off a chain reaction of missing our upcoming flights. Our itinerary is stacked and we can’t afford any major modifications. The idea of buying new plane tickets makes me sick to my stomach in a way I know too well.
I hate airports almost as much as I hate saying goodbyes. I was eighteen years old and bidding farewell to my family the first time I got on a plane. It was from Moldova to New York with a layover in Ukraine. I cried for five hours during my connection while I listened to sappy Russian pop music on my headphones. When I got to New York no one was there to pick me up. My friends mixed up the day I was landing.
“Hello? Can anyone help us please!”, Clayton bellows, his body language threatening to jump over the counter and do it himself.
The Icelandair kiosk is empty. An employee several counters down says there is nothing they can do, and looks down, ignoring us. We stand there waiting for someone to help. My hands are shaking and I’m trying to hold back tears. We hear the announcement for the final boarding for our flight. This is too much.
After causing a bit of mayhem at neighboring counters, we are approached by an employee who shows Clayton where he can make a phone call to reach an Icelandair representative. I am politely asked to calm down. I am crying so hard that I am hiccuping.
“No, we are not on the plane but we are in the airport. Yes, I know it hasn’t left yet. Our boarding passes do not work and no one will print us new ones.”, Clayton calmly and authoritatively explains on the phone. “We are here in good faith with enough time, so I expect to be put the next plain to our destination at no cost.”
These are the moments that remind me why I love my husband so much. He is problem solving while I’m collapsed on the floor wiping snot off my face with the inside of my shirt.
It feels like a bad dream. “This can’t be happening”, I mutter. So much planning. So many weeks working with no days off. Each dollar, each dime counts for something during the trip. And the bags! It just dawns on me. Our bags were on that flight. But before I can speak up, Clayton is on it. “They aren’t sure if the bags made it on the plane. They will let us know in a few hours.”, he informs me with his hand over the receiver.
“We have nowhere to go babe.”, I say at Clayton while he is still on the phone. Another realization dawns on me. We just moved out of our old home, and our new apartment isn’t available for a month. We are homeless as of a few hours ago.
“So you can get us on a flight in 48 hours from Seattle?”
My husband turns to me looking for confirmation. I start rummaging through our itinerary. Sunday where were we supposed to be on Sunday? “Yes! We can fly on Sunday. We at least wont miss our flight to from Amsterdam to Bucharest the next morning.”
Icelandair has quick direct flights to Europe, but they only fly from PDX every couple of days. Something to keep in mind if you are planning to miss your flight.
When Mckenzie pulls to the curb I start crying again. We were supposed to see each other in seven weeks not half hour later. She grabs my backpack and we get in the car, mentally prepping for a long bus ride. She offers to drive us to Seattle, lovingly making up a story about how she planned to visit a friend there anyways. We accept too readily. While I vent about the boarding passes Clayton arranges for us to spend two nights at our good friends’ house.
I waited in the JFK airport for five hours after my first plane ride. My friends were Peace Corps volunteers at my school. I hadn’t seen them in three years so at some point in my desperation I thought maybe I forgot what they looked like. I went up to a few dark curly haired women and a few tall guys with glasses but none of their names were Jen or Ryan. I questioned my decision to leave my home and my family for the sake of an education in the US. I also questioned my decision to fly solo to the other side of the country from where my college was located simply because I wanted to see New York. In retrospect it all seemed rash. At home I had a university scholarship. My best friend and I had planned to share an apartment together. I even had a boyfriend. What had I done?
The drive to Seattle is quiet. We pass around a brown paper bag of artisanal salami, some trail mix, and pink lady apples we packed for our flight. We read that Icelandair doesn’t serve food on board despite being a transatlantic flight, which reduces the cost of their tickets compared to other airlines. But it’s well known that airplane food isn’t fit for human consumption, so we usually pack meals anyways. The rain raps chaotically on the windshield and thick fog swallows the car at every turn. For the last hour I obsessively check my email for the new tickets they reassured us would arrive shortly.
“Here we go!” I am ecstatic. “Sunday 4:30 pm, Sea-Tac to Amsterdam, August 16th.”
Everyone cheers. ”It looks like they issued us the new tickets for free. But they still don’t know where our bags are.”, I sigh. “They will know when the plane we were supposed to be on lands in Amsterdam tomorrow.”
Until now we were upset at the inconvenience of carrying our camping gear through more than six countries. But now a new reality hits us. Although neither Clayton nor I say it outloud we are thinking the same thing. If our bags never made it on the plane to Amsterdam that means that we might not have them with us in Europe at all. The two bags carrying every last thing we needed for our time in Iceland might be locked away in the lost and found office in Portland until we come back stateside to claim them. And we can’t do a ten day car-camping road trip through Iceland without them.
In Seattle our friend Sara already has an air mattress and a pile of blankets waiting for us. She offers us both tea and wine — we opt for wine. I stare stupidly at my phone not really having the energy to talk. I have a message from my mama wishing me a safe flight. Someone else sent me a few restaurant names and museum recommendation is Amsterdam. Nice. Instead of being in Amsterdam for three days visiting the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum we will be in Seattle waiting to catch our next flight. We are grateful to be with our loving friends, who are actually quite excited to see us, but we are disappointed in our bad luck and bad planning. One afternoon is all we get of Netherlands before rushing to catch our flight to Romania. The trip is off to a decisively bad start.
I tried to stay calm when it finally sunk in that Ryan and Jen weren’t coming to get me. I had no cell phone. I didn’t even have their address. It was about 11pm and I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to sleep in the airport. No one taught me the rules and customs of airports in my little village. But I had nowhere else to go. Some airport employees were trying sincerely but ineffectively to help me. Then she saw me.
I still remember her vividly. I actually dreamed about her for years since then. She was tall, in her sixties with high cheekbones, dark eyes set wide, and the barely noticeable smile in the corner of her mouth. Her white wispy hair was carefully combed into a tight high bun. When she approached me I knew before she even opened her mouth. I instinctively grabbed her hand when she began speaking Romanian. She was a piece of home and I was afraid to let her go. She sensed my desperation and spoke softly and reassuringly.
“My name is Aurelia. I work here at the airport. My colleague told me what happened. Don’t worry. I will get you a half hour of internet use. If you have a phone number we can give them a call on my cell.”
The next day I wake up with a headache.
“Why am I still here? I shouldn’t be here.”, were my first words as I unnaturally bounced my weight around on the air mattress. Clayton is already on the phone with the airline. Things don’t sound good. They still have no clue where our bags were. I close my eyes again hoping that things would be different in half an hour.
There was no email from Jen and Ryan. But eventually we did manage to figure out that some friends I was meeting in a couple days would actually be arriving in the in the Newark airport that evening.
Aurelia hailed me a cab that would take me to Newark International. She squeezed my hand, stroked my hair, and told me that everything was going to be just fine. I’ve made it this this far. Hearing her say that in Romanian was both comforting and excruciatingly painful. The midnight taxi drive through New York found me emerging into a state of culture shock that I would not fully wake up from until almost senior in college. The were so many lights, cars, people, stores, ads that sped by. My eyes grew both tired and mesmerized while my brain struggled and failed to process the sensory information. Our village goes dark at night, except on clear nights when the sky is peppered with millions of motionless stars, the fat ribbon of the milky way arched from end to end. Here the sky was just black. I was the only one in the large van and I hid in the back, hoping the cab driver wouldn’t talk to me. He did, in a thick New York accent I could barely understand.
All of our phone calls seem to hit a brick wall. It is as if our bags disappeared into thin air. No one knows anything. We spend our time walking around town, hanging out, and sharing meals with our friends, but with a cloud hanging over us the whole time. In order to take my mind off it, I dive into my book. I’m an expert at shutting reality out and losing myself completely in a story. I’ve done it for years, both when is was a healthy and an unhealthy response.
What an eighteen year old kid from a rural village in Moldova doesn’t know is that an airport has many entrances. When the cab driver asked me where he should drop me off I had no idea what to say. I finally mumbled that wherever is more convenient was fine.
“Do you know which terminal your friends are arriving in?”, he asked suspiciously.
“The what?” I had never heard of a terminal before.
After I reassured him that I would be just fine on the curb, I handed him a 50 euro bill and he dropped me off. I had nowhere to go and no idea where my friends where. But this was my only plan.
Clayton hangs up the phone and walks in from the balcony. He stops and looks ominously at me for a second.
“They found our bags! They are waiting for us in Amsterdam. They confirmed the tag numbers and even knew what they looked like.”
Then he comes over, takes my face in his hands, and plants a kiss on my forehead.
I saw them before they saw me. Both in white T-shirts, staring wearily around them, the zombie look everyone has after a long flight. I approached them slowly since I was afraid my imagination was playing tricks on me.
I wasn’t wrong. It was indeed my friends, and when they saw me, they smiled and waved.
It is difficult to describe how mundane experiences mold and shape us into the people we become. Looking back, things that seemed insignificant prove to be monumental. They stay with us, haunt us, and affect all that we do and all that we are.
Our friend Erik dropped us at the airport the next day, after a warm conversation over a Cuban breakfast of sausage and eggs, cut slightly short by our desire to arrive at the airport cautiously early. We boarded our flight to Amsterdam with no problems, grateful for a second chance, hopeful we would still have the trip of a lifetime.