To have the ultimate Christmas travel extravaganza, it’s best to let the troubles begin as soon as possible. First of all, I didn’t tell a soul but Caroline that I was coming home, deciding as I bought the outrageously overpriced ticket that it might be best to keep this thing a secret, mostly for my own amusement to see if I was any good at lying. Apparently I am.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, I got up at 5 after having gone to sleep at 3:30. Walking down empty streets to the taxi stand in the middle of the night, alone in the freezing cold, decked out with an oversized purse and severely lacking in sleep is probably not the best idea, but I digress. Taxi to the bus station, 6 a.m. bus to Bilbao. After the flight was delayed an hour, I began worry about time being tight to catch the connecting flight from Paris to the U.S. After it was delayed another hour, I knew there probably wouldn’t be enough time, and after the third announcement for a delay, I knew things were going down. My mood was not elevated by the young man from Seattle who, upon seeing my American passport, approached me in the Bilbao airport wearing a paisley-printed loafers and patchy unkempt facial hair. While he kept asking me questions about what I was doing in Spain and where I was from, I couldn’t stop thinking about how those details really shouldn’t matter to him, and also that he needed braces and Crest Whitestrips something fierce. We weren’t seated together.
The wonderful part about flying from Bilbao rather than Madrid or Barcelona is seeing the coast of the Basque Country from the air. If anyone is traveling anywhere near here, I absolutely insist that you have to fly into this airport no matter what, because it is stunning. That, and in the morning and evening there is enough turbulence to be a bit scary, but which is apparently hilarious to all the children on board who can’t stop laughing whenever the plane swoops or dips. It made up for the screeching of the baby crying several rows back.
Upon arriving in Paris, I learned that the plane was still there, but that the gate was closed and no amount of tearful pleading would allow me through. Someone had the Christmas Eve treat of extra leg-room and was going home. I was not. Two hours of waiting in the customer service line was the next step, and it was worse than it sounds. The gem standing in front of me was a Limbaugh-look-a-like who couldn’t keep his mouth shut about how “this” (what? missed flights? waiting in line? Christmas Eve?) would never happen in Amurrica. With his stomach straining against the buckle of his overexerted belt, he took great pleasure in announcing to the uninterested masses that he’d instructed his (elastic-waisted-mom-capris-wearing) wife to hereupon refrain from buying French wines and that “Hell, there’s plenny-a-good stuff comin’ outta Cali these days.” (You may begin cringing at any moment.)
One delight of the queue, however, was meeting a girl from D.C. who lived in Paris and baked cupcakes for a living, a pastime-turned-boutique catering company. I thought this may have been a fantastic but untrue story until I Googled and found their website. Dream. Come. True. (What may be unknown to anyone not involved (which includes everyone but two people), is that my dearest cousin Kally and I once had dreams of opening a bakery and spent umpteen hours drawing out plans and concocting delicious and frilly ideas for confectionery delights. This was not at age ten, mind you…it was high school, between re-watching SNL episodes from 1975 to 1980…)
Finally reaching the desk, that poor woman brave enough to weather the storm that is Christmas Eve customer service had the distinct pleasure of informing me that it wasn’t possible for me to be placed on any of the remaining (half-empty) U.S.-bound flights, as it conflicted with ticket-contract requirements and that I would definitely not be going home. She handed me a hand-written airport-hotel voucher and wished me luck.
I waited outside in the cold and rain with the others sentenced to an unromantic Christmas Eve in Paris, bummed a cigarette from a kind soul, and boarded a bus to the hotel which was dingy, bleak, and had a view of a construction dump. Joyeux Noël! As I’d mistakenly assumed that I’d be home that night, I’d packed the following in a large purse: two cameras and four lenses, two cell phones, a wallet and passport, sunglasses and a scarf, a Kindle, one pair of underwear, lip balm, Altoids, and one kilo of beans from Tolosa. The clothes I had were the clothes I’d been wearing all day. No socks, no toothbrush, no shampoo, no one to talk to. Disgusting. I was unable to even call my mother, as she believed me to be in Dublin. This was not pleasant. In the shower I turned the hot water all the way on, created a steam room out of the bathroom, and stood there for a long while.
After the luxury of sleep but without the luxury of anything else, I was back at the airport for round two. Fast forward eleven hours and I was in Atlanta after having spent the flight half-smothered by the overabundant fur coat of the woman in the seat next to me. She and her son insisted on arguing at any moment that she wasn’t either asleep or staring drunkenly at the side of my face (awkward…). They were Italian, and so I thankfully only understood every third word or so. Buon Natale! I was viewed as suspicious by the immigration officer who wasn’t amused that I wasn’t carrying any luggage other than a purse, although he could clearly see by my passport and ticket that I was going home for Christmas and then returning, and that obviously, as I was going home, I’d have clothes and shoes there. Some people.
I arrived at the gate for the flight to Jacksonville, and that was a real treat. Since I wasn’t originally on that flight, in Paris they’d told me to be sure to check in at the gate to confirm my seat. Upon inquiring about this, I was told through clenched teeth to “Go sit down and don’t come up to the desk again; this flight isn’t open yet, and if there’s a problem, you’ll know.” Again, Merry Christmas. Later I was assigned to seat 21-C and was allowed to board. Unfortunately for me, seat 21-C was nonexistent, and I had to stand silently at the front of the plane while the frantic and effeminate young flight attendant tried his best to avert disaster with this girl who’d already been traveling for 44 hours on Christmas and stood inches taller than him with a clenched jaw and a blank face of rage. We both knew that this dear boy was going to find a solution to the problem.
A solution was found and I was rerouted to an aisle seat. No one else was sitting in the row, and I had high hopes that no one would be. Ha! Silly me! I looked up and saw an enormous blur of flowing fabric and glittery manicured nails topped by a face smiling shyly at me and saying something about how she was seated next to me, but I couldn’t quite focus. I got up and she got settled, only to be informed by the largest man I’ve ever seen that he was sitting in the window seat. Good. Planning. Delta. It was a wonder that he was able to sit down at all, and then she crammed in next to him. I raised the arm rest on my seat to allow her a little more breathing room, and I’d never felt so small and invisible (me!) in my life next to these two blimps…welcome to America! Between bites of his giant-sized Toblerone bar and trying unsuccessfully buckle his seat belt, he joked that “they just don’t make plane seats like they used to!” Yeah, buddy.
The real treasure of the flight, however, was the family of four sitting across the aisle from me: a large hairy man, his bird-faced wife, their silent and brooding teenage daughter, and a crying baby that was passed back and forth. What I gathered due to their amplified arguing was that if she wasn’t such an irresponsible and self-centered wench, the baby wouldn’t be crying, and if he wasn’t such a fat-ass that only cared about his new iPhone, he wouldn’t have forgotten to put his fleece jacket in the carry-on instead of the checked luggage. Of course, why should he be cold? After all honey, you have a lot of reserves. Yes, but dear, maybe if you’d ever learn to cook, we’d all eat a little better, and don’t ever criticize me: you get to stay at home all day with the baby while I have to work. Shut up and just give me the baby, he doesn’t like it when you hold him. Dear Jesus. This is what I listened to on fucking Christmas.
When we finally landed, I couldn’t escape fast enough and bolted out of the airport. Caroline was running a couple of minutes late (in homage to me?) and when she pulled up to the curb, none other than my dearest mother jumped out of the car. I was tricked! We stopped at a gas station, bought plastic bottles of wine and boiled peanuts for the drive, and went home. The best part of it all, of course, was surprising Mamoo.
Mom, Caroline, Me, Isobel, Michael, Eliza, Mamoo, Papa