I have always been a lucky traveler. Every time I return from a trip – whether it’s a weekend in Montreal with my friends, a fortnight in Europe playing tourist with my mother, or a winter in Vancouver blowing off my last semester of second year university – I am usually able look back over my travels and marvel gratefully at the overwhelming number of things that could have gone wrong but didn’t. Even on a weekend minibreak the usual risks of lost wallets or bad directions must be run, and when you throw foreign currency, temporary visas, and language barriers into the mix, it seems incredible to me that disaster is not my constant traveling companion. Such were my thoughts when I neared the end of a semester abroad, in Galway, Ireland. I had spent four blithe months traipsing from Belfast to Bath to Barcelona without even the odd pickpocketing or missed bus to slow me down. So when I found myself, the night before my flight home, checking into a little B&B just outside of Dublin by the international airport, it was with a feeling of awe and great good luck that I dumped my luggage (nothing forgotten in Galway) and sallied forth into Dublin to meet some friends (no-one was late or got lost) for a final night of Irish revelry.
I thus account for the events of the subsequent 24 hours – the most miserable, staggeringly fraught 24 hours of my life – as accumulated cosmic payback for the previous months and indeed years of trouble-free travelling. The disastrous day begins at 2:30 am, when a friend and I return to my B&B to get a few hours of drunken, unsatisfying sleep before our respective flights out of the country. Having been instructed by my hostess not to be deterred by her sticky front door, I give an enthusiastic twist to my key and in one smooth motion snap it off in the lock. When my first tentative, hideously embarrassed buzz on the doorbell rouses no-one, my friend and I, freezing, exhausted, and rapidly sobering, pass through a vigorous course of ringing the bell, pounding on the door, and repeatedly calling the B&B on our cellphones. Nobody answers, and nobody comes. Finally resolving to return in the morning to recover our luggage, we call the surrounding hotels, motels, inns, B&Bs, and hostels in the hope of finding somewhere sheltered to pass the intervening hours. This close to Christmas, there isn’t a free bed in the county for any money. Desperate for warmth, we form the pathetic plan of cabbing to the airport to sleep in the waiting area. But when we recount this woeful story to our cabby (“how’s your night goin’?” he asks), he insists on taking us home with him to sleep in his guest room until morning, when he will return us to our B&B and then take us on to the airport. Uncomfortably surprised by the unexpected offer, we are silent – I, for one, am imagining in rapid fastforward a gruesome horror movie which begins in just such a fashion. Our cabby interprets this pregnant pause as the silence of grateful acquiescence.
Needless to say, my friend and I spend the rest of the night warm, yes, but in sleepless, wide-eyed terror, gazing at the unfamiliar ceiling of the guest bedroom in a remote country cottage and listening breathlessly to every creak and rustle that might indicate the approach of a crazed cabby-turned-killer. “No-one will know where to look for our bodies,” I whisper into the dark. However, I should never have doubted Irish hospitality, for the night passes uneventfully, if slowly, and at 7:30 am we are roused by the smell of frying bacon. Our cabby has shed the sinister night-time aspect cast by our unworthy suspicions, and has taken on the harmless cast of a jovial, even twinkly senior citizen, chatting cheerfully over breakfast about his children off at college.
At 8:30 we’re back at the B&B, and our hostess answers – this time – at the first buzz of her bell. She is vaguely surprised to discover us on her doorstep so early, but listens with ill-concealed inattention to my account of our night’s adventures (which I admit was somewhat tersely delivered since I was holding her defective key and her inhumanly sound sleeping responsible). “Hm, that’s odd,” she says, and hands me a bill for 75 euros. We have no time to nap, wash, or even change before collecting our things and piling back into the cab. After depositing us at the airport, our cabby refuses all our attempts to pay him and drives off with the parting words (verbatim, I swear), “Just remember Paddy O’Hara in your prayers.”
My friend and I hastily part ways at customs, since we’re cutting our timing pretty close, and I hurry to my boarding gate. There I’m informed that my flight from Dublin to Chicago has been delayed by an hour and a half, which means that I will miss my connecting flight from Chicago to Ottawa. When I’m finally in the air, I ask a flight attendant how I should proceed once we arrive in Chicago, and she tells me that it won’t be a problem: trips to Ottawa are frequent, and once we’ve landed I just have to speak to a ticket agent to be put on the next available flight. Seven hours, two terrible movies, some loudly teething twins, an awful meal, and a whole lot of turbulence later, we land safely in Chicago. But I feel my flagging spirits revive a little as I take a look at the departures board and realize that my flight to Ottawa has also been delayed, and is in fact still catchable. I will make this flight, I swear silently, or perish in the attempt. What I didn’t realize in that moment of resolution was the enormous complexity of the O’Hare airport. Checking a map before I set out, I discovered with dismay that I actually had to take a train just to get from one end of the airport to the other. And what’s worse, security also insists that you collect and then recheck your luggage and go through customs all over again. So, encumbered with all my bags, I have to hustle frantically across several kilometres of airport, fuming through lines, shouldering my way on and off trains, and lumbering along moving sidewalks. Once I inadvertently knocked into a fat black lady who ignored my breathless apology and hollered at my retreating figure, “Next time, I shove you BACK!” Yet despite all these obstacles, I make it to my boarding gate with minutes to spare. Miracle! Sweaty, disheveled, but giddy with triumph, I happily line up with the other passengers and beam at the flight attendant who accepts my boarding pass. Until, of course, she takes a second look at it and says, “I’m sorry, Miss, there seems to be a problem with your ticket. If you’ll just come with me to the counter…”.
What had happened, of course, was that the attendant on my first flight, whom I had asked how to proceed if I missed my connecting flight, had decided to be preemptively proactive on my behalf: she cancelled my original booking and put me on the following plane, departing three hours later, before I’d even missed the first one. “She was trying to do you a favour,” my current airline hostess snaps, perhaps provoked from indifference to hostility by my unconcealed fury. “But you would have put me on the next flight ANYWAYS!” I point out, at which she shrugs and offers to make up for the “miscommunication” by generously giving me a ten dollar dinner voucher to the airport cafeteria. Exhausted, defeated, speechless with anger, I snatch the coupon and retreat to the restaurant where I order the only thing under ten dollars on the menu – rubbery chicken fingers and a glass of water. I decide to pass the time by reading a little Pride and Prejudice, my comfort in any time of need. Quickly absorbed by one of the best parts – Elizabeth’s stinging refusal of Mr. Darcy’s proposal – I try to take a sip of water, bringing the glass to my face without looking away from my book. Thus, my eyes on the page and my mind distracted by the cutting exchange between Austen’s lovers, I miscalculate the critical distance from drink to mouth and somehow succeed in ramming the straw of my glass forcefully up my right nostril. Astounded both by the sudden pain and the sheer improbability of what I’ve just done, I drop my glass back onto the table and for one horrifying moment the straw, totally wedged up my nose, dangles ridiculously, a single preposterous tusk on a dumbfounded walrus. Then, dropping my book, I yank out the straw and glance quickly around the restaurant, hoping nobody has seen anything. The occupants of at least three other tables are staring at me, and as I redden under their gaze I also realize that I’m bleeding copiously from the nose. My only napkin is quickly soaked by the flow, so I attempt to staunch the blood with my hands. By this time everyone has turned away, perhaps embarrassed by my plight, perhaps grossed out at the sight of so much blood while they’re trying to eat. I spend a few agonized moments hesitating at the table, torn between the humiliated need to escape to the bathroom, and the fear of what will become of my bags, left untended in an American International airport. Then, thankfully, before the hysterical laughter that I can feel swelling inside me forces its way out, a sympathetic waiter discovers my situation and offers to guard my bags while I clean up. I flee gratefully to the bathroom, where it takes fifteen minutes and half a role of toilet paper to stop the bleeding.
After this point my experience becomes, if less dramatic, even more painful for its prolonged tedium. I have to wait, with a terrible if predictable case of aiport-cafeteria-indigestion, four hours for the next flight to Ottawa (also delayed). Our arrival coincides with two other international flights, and three planeloads of passengers are funnelled into a single line for the only open customs wicket. Finally released into the baggage claim area of the airport, I wait fruitlessly by the conveyor belt for my luggage long after the last bags have begun circling. Mine have been lost en route. 36 hours earlier, sitting on my bed in the B&B and feeling all my good travelling luck, how differently I imagined my return to the bosom of my family! I was going to breeze off the plane, prettily groomed and carefully dressed in my new stylish European outfit, and sashay into their waiting arms amid cheers and happy laughter. Harsh reality saw me, bagless, unwashed, sleep-deprived, weak from indigestion and loss of blood, stumble groggily into their waiting arms and burst into tears. It was a while before I left the country again.
Photo: Evil Erin