Every journey to a new life is difficult, but not every one inspires you to teach your friend the American internet slang phrase “FML.”
Let’s start from the beginning:
It’s a sunny early-fall day in Berlin. I’ve spent the whole morning showering, packing, preparing for the final final legs of my trek to Palencia. A little bit later than we agreed, Toni arrives to have a quick lunch with me and accompany me to the airport. I’m jumpy and anxious about the impending flight, train/bus connection (I haven’t decided which yet), and final late-night arrival in a new and completely foreign place. I can't stomach any food right now-- I take my pizza to go.
We lug my two giant 20-kilo suitcases to the bus stop (the Iceland Express flight included two free checked bags, and I thought I’d take advantage of the opportunity to get most of my stuff across the ocean in one go.) As we do, we see the bus pull away. There isn't another one for twenty minutes, and there's still a train connection to get to the airport after that. We contemplate a taxi, but Toni decrees that we can make it. I am yet more jumpy. The bus finally comes, packed with people who stare at us and our outsized luggage.
At the station, we run flat out and make the airport train with 15 seconds to spare. It is at this point that I teach Toni the phrase “FML.” Oh, Alissa-on-the-train-to-Schoenefeld. If only you knew what was coming.
We arrive at the airport and find the EasyJet counter. Okay, I think, this could work, right? There’s still 20 minutes left to check in. We’ve made it. I hand my passport to the EasyJet woman.
Except: the small print. I bought a second checked bag, yes. But I didn't realize that the airline’s policy is that all bags cannot weigh more than 20 kilos together... not 20 kilos each, separately. EasyJet Woman informs me coldly that I can check this bag if I like—it will cost E42 per kilo. I do some quick calculations and then reach for the spare E800 I always keep in my back pocket.
Just kidding! I dissolve into a puddle of tears on the floor.
Just kidding, again! But barely. Toni is far more level-headed than I am. He uses his stellar German to ask the EasyJet Bitch (I’ve switched her name in my head at this point) if there’s a post office in the nearby. Miracle of miracles, there’s a DHL desk in the same terminal just a few feet away.
After some semi-panicked shifting of things from one suitcase to another, EJB checks me in. Then Toni uses that same stellar German to get me a quote from the nice ladies at the DHL desk--- only E42 to ship to Spain. We dither for a moment: where to send it? I don’t have an address yet.
Toni, the paragon of cool and calm through all of this, is starting to get agitated. Check in time is over and they have already started boarding the plane. Panicked, we part without a goodbye. I tear my belt and shoes off, take all my electronics out of my backpack, manhandle my bags onto the conveyor belt, sweating all the while. Toni mouths my gate to me through the window.
I run—RUN—to the gate, through a duty-free mall, up and down several sets of stairs, down a long hall. At the gate, there are exactly two idle neon-vested airport security guards and exactly no passengers. I show them the half of my boarding pass that remains, the other having fled the scene sometime during the preceding chaos, and they talk briefly among themselves. Then one of them says to me, “No, not gate 50. Gate 15!”
I don’t have the energy to run back up and down the stairs, back through the duty free mall, and to the other end of the terminal. Panic is flooding white-hot through my whole body at this point, and my breath is coming fast.
I get to Gate 20 and can’t find any lower numbers. Finally, I find a tiny sign pointing around a corner. Another set of stairs; another long hallway. Then a long line in which I catch my breath. The flight is due to take off in 15 minutes. I'm lucky they haven't shut the door yet.
There are two signs above us for gates 16 and 15. Then I hear someone talking about arriving in Amsterdam. I ask my linemates; yes, this is gate 16. I run ahead to the end of the hall: it’s a dead end. I can’t help it. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I say out loud. The Amsterdam travelers gape at the crazy lady pacing back and forth at the end of the hall, clutching a black traveling bag under her jacket and trying to make it look like part of her clothing in case somebody asks why she has two carry-ons instead of one.
Finally I discover the secret: another staircase down onto the tarmac. I make a mad dash, this time basically in tears. More neon-vested airport workers greet me, comfort me. No, you didn’t miss your flight. Just get in line, miss. I breathe a sigh of relief. (Again, too early.)
I find a seat. There’s no room in the overhead compartments and I have to gatecheck my backpack and take my computer and netbook with me. I’m sitting next to a nice couple from Madrid. For the first time, I’m surrounded by Spanish—I dont’ think there’s a single German person on this flight. I close my eyes and breathe it in for a moment. This is what my new life will be like. And then:
“Sorry folks” --(why do airplane captains always call the passengers ‘folks’?)—“but I’m afraid I have some bad news.” The PA system is fuzzy, and it sounds like the captain is turned away from the microphone. I think I hear something about an earthquake and think of the tremors in Washington DC a few weeks ago. The only thing I understand is we won’t be taking off yet.
The minutes stretch by and I get more confused. I stop a passing stewardess. “Did I hear the captain say something about an earthquake?” No, she corrects me. He said ‘bird strike.’ They’ve found a duck in the engine that got sucked in during landing. They’ll need to see if there is any lasting damage before departure.
There’s no ripple of understanding on the plane following this announcement. Everyone here speaks minimal English--I think I’m the only one here who gets it. The nice Madrileno couple look at me questioningly. I clumsily translate the announcement. There’s a jolly gentleman behind me who starts making pate jokes with his two daughters. We wait.
There’s nothing for it: we have to change planes. It takes 45 minutes to clear us out of the old plane and get us into a hot, cramped waiting room. There’s another 20 minutes of chaotic waiting (I guard my electronics zealously), then pushing and squeezing onto busses which literally (and I wish I was making this up) drive in circles on the tarmac for another 15 minutes. Eventually we make it onto a new airplane, baggage and all. The situation seems still salvageable until we sit waiting for take off another 25 minutes.
In the air I’m starting to panic again. I'm not a nervous flyer, but this time I make an exception. I have nowhere to stay in Madrid, and I don’t know if I’ll make the bus to Palencia. This flight was originally scheduled to arrive at 8:05, leaving me plenty of time to catch a 9:45 bus, but after a tense couple of hours we touch down at 9:25, then taxi for 15 minutes. I grab my bag and have to make a flash decision. Should I grab a cab, make a beeline for the bus station and hope the bus left late? I have a few friends in Madrid but no contact information for them. I don’t know the phone numbers or locations of any hostels. The information desk is closed. I feel drained and jittery at the same time.
I get in a cab. He tells me it’s at least 15 minutes to the city. No way we can get the bus, he says as he gets on the highway. As the minutes tick by, I start crying again. I’m exhausted, overwhelmed, panicked. I can’t contact the girl I’m supposed to stay with in Palencia tonight. I can’t believe this day went the way it did.
The cabbie takes pity on me, calling a hostel to see if there’s room, then overcharges me by E20 before dropping me at the bus station. Points against this situation pile up: I can’t see any sign of buses to Palencia; the ticket booth is closed; I was too rushed to write down the name of the hostel and can't remember it. I wander in a haze of adrenaline for some minutes before finding a security guard who takes pity on me. His Spanish is a chaotic swirl in my brain, but I understand the first part: walk straight for 5 minutes.
Of course, 7 minutes later I’m lost, and I still can’t remember the name of the damn hostel. I ask multiple strangers but “I think there’s a hostel near here; no, I don’t remember the name that guy gave me” doesn’t help much. I know it must be around here somewhere. I remember hearing something about a Corte Ingles department store, and I’ve been around this one at least three times. I have fantasies of sleeping on the step of the store, using my damp hoodie as a facemask and my suitcase as a pillow.
I finally stumble on the hostel almost by accident, 11 hours after I left Berlin. It’s a blessed 8 euros a night. The dour man gives me sheets for my tiny, screechy-springed bunk bed. I put my things away, stumble outside to find food.
Later that night back in the hostel, I’m befriended by a lovely, exceedingly outgoing Chilean girl. I tell her my epic story in halting Spanish. When I get to the part about the duck, she bursts into uncontrollable peals of laughter. She can’t believe a flight would be disrupted because of a duck. “In my country, flights are delayed because of earthquakes or wars,” she says, then is consumed by laughter again. I can barely understand her through her giggles, but I do get one phrase, over and over again “El pobre pato!” she says. “The poor duck!”
Every other Spaniard I tell this story to says the same thing.
The next day I finally get that bus to Palencia.