Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Not-So-Amazing Race

There are two things I remember most about airports: 1) Waiting at the gate for my flight, and 2) Going through Customs and Security. I wish I could sleep in airports like the contestants on Amazing Race do. I'd be a much less cranky traveler if I could, but my sense of fight-or-flight (no pun intended) in unfamiliar surroundings can't be overridden. I'm mortally afraid I'll either miss my flight, or that someone will abscond with my valuables, or worst of all that I'll start snoring and drool away my jet lag while complete strangers snap pictures of me with my mouth open. So I sit there, people-watching for entertainment when I'm not reading on my Kindle, one foot touching my carry-on bag and my purse snugly in my lap at all times. Needless to say, I arrive home from my vacations more tired than when I left.

Last week I was lucky enough to be able to travel to Belgium for a dog show judging assignment. On the trans-Atlantic flight over, I tried to fool my body into an early bedtime by popping a melatonin, since I lost five hours with the time change. I jammed my earplugs in and turned the movie sound down to a low buzz for white noise to drown out the screaming baby five rows up and pulled my sweatshirt sleeve over my eyes to blot out the glow from the TV directly overhead. But... my internal clock still said, "It's only 9 p.m., you fool. You don't go to bed until midnight." By the time I finally fell asleep, they were rumbling by with the breakfast cart. "What? Coffee at 2 a.m.?" Yeah, I attempted to caffeinate myself into a new time zone.

Two days later I was almost over the jet lag, when we went out to eat for supper after the show. Belly full, I was ready for a good night's sleep. Spent an hour in my room surfing the net, catching up at home, then a little reading. Started looking for my brush to tame the rat's nest that was my hair, when... I couldn't find my purse. Last I remembered, it was hanging on the back of my chair in the restaurant. But worse than my brush being in it, it also had my passport. Oh, #*%@!

So I laid awake all night replaying in my sleep-deprived mind where I might have left it. At the dog show? In the first car I rode in to the restaurant? Dangling from the back of the chair? Somewhere in the parking lot? In the second car I took to the B&B? This maniacal thought process was repeated about 50 times. It then became replaced with: What happens if you have a plane ticket home and no passport? Do they put you in a windowless room, interrogate and fingerprint you and then let you get on the plane? Or do they just turn you away at check-in and say, "Sorry, you are not allowed to go home until someone in the U.S. verifies you are who you say you are and then sends the proper documentation. That should take about three weeks."?

I woke up early the next morning to catch the person who had been my ride the night before and who happened to be picking up that morning's judge. "No, I did not see a purse in the car," she said. Just. Freaking. Great. I closed the door and slid to the floor, resisting the urge to bang my forehead on something solid until a developed a bloody gash. A trip to the hospital about now might make a good distraction. How could I not be more aware of where my most valuable possession was?

Five minutes later, an almost inaudible knock on the door brought me crawling back. I stood up and mustered a painted-on smile. I opened it. There stood the judge's wife, Shelly, clutching my purse. "It slid underneath the seat." Happiest moment of the whole week. I grabbed it out of her hands and gushed profuse thanks. From then until I got home, I kept checking for that little blue passport book every 30 minutes like someone afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

On the day of my return, traffic was light and so we made it to the airport extra early. Relaxed, relieved, I checked my bags and went through Customs and Security (jacket off, laptop out, Kindle out, put all those and my purse in little trays to slide through the x-ray machine, then collect them and arrange everything for ease of carrying). Then I ambled through the airport shops to buy some much-needed Belgian chocolate. Got to the gate, saw the flight was delayed an hour, so passed the time reading. Then some lady with a distinct Southern accent comes by and says, "The flight's been canceled." We all thought she was joking. Uh, no.

Long story short (since you were probably wondering when this was going to end and what the point of it was), they sent us out of the terminal, back through Customs and we had to pick up our bags and get re-booked. Our flight was full and three other flights that day had been canceled, so just imagine how long that line was. My heart sank when several people in line ahead of me at the ticket counter asked where the closest hotel was, because they couldn't get out until the next day. Luckily, I got routed from Brussels through London to Chicago and then on to Dayton, scheduled to arrive at midnight.

Problem is that only left me about 90 minutes between flights and I had to go through Customs and Security at each airport. There was no time for a bathroom stop. I do not kid. Of course, my gates at both London and Chicago were in different terminals from the ones I landed at AND my gate was the furthest possible one. There must be some universal law that when you have minimal connection time, your gates must be further apart, but if you have five hours between, they'll be right next door to each other. I was literally RUNNING down the corridor at Chicago, flapping my ticket over my head, as they were paging my name, the door already closed. By the time I sat my rump in my seat on the last flight home, sweat was pouring down my sternum. No need for a workout that day.

When I found out my luggage didn't arrive home with me, I was completely unfazed. I was just glad to BE home after that marathon day. The dirty laundry inside my bag could wait. Besides, I had my Belgian chocolate in my carry-on bag. I may not know where my passport is all the time, but I do not let my chocolate out of my sight.

In all my years of flying, I've been incredibly lucky. This was the first time I've ever had a flight canceled and I've yet to miss a connection - although I tried real hard this time. After this, I'm putting in for the Amazing Race. I've got the airport terminal dash covered.

P.S. Second best moment of the trip - I'm 90% positive that Michael Flatley (Lord of the Dance) was sitting at the gate at Brussels, flipping through a newspaper. He had a shirt on, which is why I still had the smidgeon of doubt. Since I didn't want to stare and my camera was in my checked baggage, I must've looked 20 times. "Is that him? Yes, I think it is. Well, maybe not. Oh definitely, it IS him." He left after about 10 minutes. He was probably getting annoyed by the American twisting around to ogle at him.

Happy traveling,

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