Airplane travel connected the dots on my childhood map of the world. It was how home evolved from one Foreign Service post to another: you got on a plane and the United States appeared, only to vanish a month later when got on another plane and Italy, or Colombia, or Spain appeared. As we repeatedly crossed national borders, our diplomatic passports moved us quickly through what was even then an uncomfortable process for others.
It all began in 1955 when I was six months old and included in my mother’s brand new diplomatic passport. In his book about the Venezuelan political crisis of the 1950’s, my father reflected back on the very first time he realized that the new job came with a prestige out of line with his humble Midwestern roots:
I produced my wife’s and my official passports and my new boss pulled from his pocket a small folding leather card with escutcheon and ‘Cuerpo Diplomatico’ stamped in gold on its face. He caught the eye of one of the airport officials investigating papers pertaining to someone else in line, and he presented our two passports along with his brown leather identification, a beneficent smile of assured authority, and two magic words, delivered in impeccable Spanish: “Embajada Americana.”
The official nodded and smiled, gave our documents a cursory glance, and waved us through the gates. The diplomatic documents worked their power again as we moved our bags through customs: the inspector airily waved us by without so much as a look inside anything. We had suddenly become members of the privileged class, a circumstance that produced mixed feelings in this midwesterner who, perhaps ingenuously, had always prized egalitarianism above special favors for the rich or powerful. (Amerson, Robert, How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, The American University Press, 1995.)
When I aged out of the Foreign Service and into the ranks of ordinary Americans, I traded in my diplomatic passport for a civilian version and stepped to the back of the customs line. When my parents retired to Cape Cod, I traveled abroad less often, but even domestic travel generated in me a happy flutter of anticipation: despite the increasingly onerous security processes, an airport is still a door to the world.
However, that flutter was smothered by exhaustion when a 10-hour seated trip between our home near Fort Lauderdale and a Baltic cruise ship docked in Amsterdam took more than double the time, exceeded my daily 5 mile tracker goal, and threatened to end my husband’s and my vacation before it had even begun.
It all began simply enough: our daughter dropped us off at the Fort Lauderdale airport, closer and so much less congested than Miami, and we had been beaten down by the immigration process in Miami during our last overseas trip. Going through JFK had to be easier, and it was cheaper, too.
Lesson One: always fly direct. If the caterers loading the meager eats onto the Delta airplane in Fort Lauderdale been a little more careful, the trip to JKF and our connecting flight to Holland might have been unremarkable. Instead, a flight attendant got hit hard on the head with a metal tray as we boarded. It took a half an hour for the EMT’s to respond: the flight attendant looked uncomfortable and embarrassed as they wheeled her past us up the aisle. It took another 40 minutes for a replacement flight attendant to be found. As we took a collective breath of relief, the captain informed us that we were being ordered by New York to stay on the ground for a while longer. Back into the gate we all filed. My step tracker counted up to one thousand as I searched out some real food. Another hour, and now for sure we’d miss our connecting flight. The bad news grew even worse as I tried a work-around online that temporarily eliminated our existing seats on the outgoing plane.
Lesson Two: don’t rebook en route. The good news was that the agent at the gate squeezed us back in (this is how lemonade is made) and assured us that, once on the ground at JFK, Delta would have re-booked us and our checked suitcase through to our destination.
My second thousand steps were in loops between the two so-called Help Desks in distant corners of the Delta terminal at JFK in search of the promised re-route. Eventually, a sleepy employee with a super-relaxed attitude discovered that “You’re going to London! And then on British Airways to Amsterdam.” How exotic this sounded.
The flight to Heathrow departed an hour later from a gate right in the same terminal, and the sympathetic gate staff upgraded us to Business Class.There was great legroom and an empty seat between us, a bedtime kit with toothbrush, ear plugs and eye mask, and the $2 headsets were free! This was starting to look like a great adventure.
Lesson Three: adding a country to your travel plans is not as much fun as it sounds. And then we got to Heathrow, which now we know is The Busiest Airport in the World. We arrived with all the other Red Eye travelers, zig zagging en masse through a half mile of corridors before emerging into Hall of Eternal Lines. Still, we’d had a bit of sleep and the line snaked steadily, though very slowly, and there were lots of exotic travelers to watch. Our three hour window for the connecting British Airways flight had dwindled to two hours when we finally reached the passport agent’s kiosk.
His charming accent wiped away my concerns, and we more or less walked right through customs. We had only our carry-ons: a Delta agent in Baggage Claim informed us that, yes, our checked suitcase was waiting for us in Amsterdam. The irony was not lost on us.
Off we went through the Heathrow labyrinth toward the British Airways terminal, a journey by train made less annoying by the turbaned conductor monitoring the “tram” and a delightful recording asking us to “mind the gap!” as we pulled our carry-ons in after us. We had about an hour to make our next flight.
Lesson Four: train rides within an airport do not make it a more scenic trip, even with accented recordings. I’d tracked another mile by the time we made it to the front of the queue at the British Airways counter and produced the ticket information we’d gotten from Delta. The agent’s eyes narrowed as she consulted the paper and tapped at her keyboard, and when she reached for her telephone without looking at us I knew we were in trouble. As she hung up, she handed me back the paper and pointed down toward the end of the terminal. “Please go purchase your tickets.” What?
Lesson Five: don’t argue, run. We had a reservation for the flight to Amsterdam, but not actual tickets. Unsure, but determined, I led the way down the concourse, our carry-ons rattling alongside as we race-ran along. I knew Ray was struggling through hip pain, but what a trooper. Another queue — oh hell, let’s just call it a line — to beg our way through, and then we were in front of Jo, the BA Angel, who doggedly worked the computer system to get us two seats on the flight as the system began to lock down. Done! We almost kissed her.
Off we joggled to Security, again. Things were a little slow but we were through the scanners and putting our shoes on when my carry-on got pulled. The young officer motioned over an older gentleman of perhaps Indian descent: “Oh, you’re in the hands of the expert now!” the lad said as his very polite and exceedingly deliberate colleague began to examine item by item with some sort of light. The Shoes. The Camera. The Camera Case. (“Oh, dear, our flight leaves in 15 minutes,” I tried. “Oh, you’ll easily make it,” said the gallant and very careful inspector.) The Toiletries Bag, from which that I had so carefully removed and disclosed three-ounce liquids. Daily disposable contact lenses? Yes. The two drops of liquid in each sealed packet registered the offense. The agent lifted the packets out as if they were nitroglycerin, lowered them into an official British security plastic bag, and smoothed his fingers along the seal. “Here you are, madam. Enjoy your trip.”
Lesson Six: you will never know the security rules. All bets were off. Ray’s hips were barely holding him up. I checked to make sure my running shoes were tied, nodded to my husband, and took off flying down the concourse, purse whacking my torso, carry-on bruising my shins, rubber soles squealing as I skidded past knots of mortal travelers with loads of time. The gate numbers ticked by in slow motion. Finally, around a corner, there it was, The BA Gate To Amsterdam. I flung myself at the counter, wheezing “Lopez.” The agent smiled. “Of course. We’ve just begun boarding.” I glanced back, happy to see Ray rounding the corner.
We floated aboard and were soon soaring over the wind turbines in the English Channel.
We hiked our way through the quiet corridors of the Amsterdam airport and through downright breezy passport control and customs— after all, we were six hours late, and all the Red Eye passengers from the morning flights had long since cleared out. My tracker clicked toward five miles as I marched through a series of luggage areas and down a dim corridor in pursuit of the suitcase that had made it to Amsterdam before us. I felt like a mother late to retrieve her kid from daycare.
Bag retrieved, we weaved our way out of baggage claim and into a cavernous transportation hall full of people holding signs. I searched for the Celebrity Cruise placard: nope. Although we’d prepaid for a transfer to the hotel, the only telephone number I had was the 800 call center in America, where it was now long past business hours. I refused to accept defeat, and, sure enough, after wandering through the hall under the kind but not very helpful guidance of several very tall Dutch citizens, we found the bright yellow Information Booth and the lovely lady that said: “Oh, yes, Celebrity had to leave but asked me to direct you to that limousine service right over there.” I wanted to kiss her, too.
Lesson Seven: it all works out. And so, we arrived at our hotel in Amsterdam by limo 24 hours after we left home, having logged three flights between three countries and 9,000 airport concourse steps, half a day too late for the hop-on-hop-off bus and canal dinner tickets we’d purchased weeks before, but still in time for the next day’s ship boarding. We were asleep for the night before our heads hit the pillows.
The next day, our vacation began. And twelve days later, we traveled home, again through the Twilight Zone.
Lesson Eight: always fly direct.