Sunday, November 25, 2007

From There to Here: Flying Home

Raquelle: The next morning we arose bright and early and finished our last minute packing. Dad and Gramps patiently hauled the suitcases down the four flights of stairs. Ugh. What a chore.

Heather: Keep in mind that a “flight” of stairs often really means two flights of stairs with a landing. So we actually had to climb about six flights of stairs, with lots of little turnings, and landings and doors along the way.

Raquelle: But hey, we could have had it worse. We actually had some of the “upscale” rooms—we had a private bath. There were other rooms in the Barry House that did NOT.

As I recall, we were leaving before the Official Breakfast Hour. (And we knew better than to go looking for coffee!) So we snacked on granola and such things.

We had carefully arranged ahead of time for a van to come and drive us to Gatwick airport. The hotel proprietor (the nice gentleman with the turban) had arranged it for us and Dad had even called the van company night before to confirm it.

Smug in the knowledge that we were packed and ready on time and that we were headed for home and our own beds, we went out on the sidewalk to wait. Well, a few of us did. It was too nippy to stay out there for too long.

Heather: Perhaps it was just Dad’s sixth traveling sense, but he had been suspicious about that van all along. As soon as we were up, he was calling the van company to make sure the van was coming. “Oh yes, it’s on the way,” they said. In fact, they said that every time Dad called after that… which was about six more times.

As we all got more and more tense, realizing that we would miss our plane if the van didn’t show up soon, Dad became more and more irate with the van company. At last the very polite, very unhelpful people on the other end decided to call ANOTHER van to come pick us up since they SAID they had no idea what happened to the first driver.

By this point, we had all discussed Plan B and Plan C and every other plan we could think of to get to the airport on time. The only thing that might have worked was calling three cabs to take all of us – but the cost would have been astronomical. We could have attempted to take a train but that also meant getting cabs and then buying tickets and hoping we catch the train in time. We were praying hard. At the last possible minute, the van FINALLY showed up.

The driver (the new one, not the original one) was a very affable black man, understood our problem and proceeded to drive like a maniac to the airport (which was about an hour’s drive away). He was kind of a goofy guy and apparently talked a mile a minute to Dad and Gramps, maybe trying to calm them down. I didn’t hear the conversation but they said it was entertaining.

Raquelle: I heard some of it. He had traveled not too long ago to…oh, I forget exactly where, but someplace like Taiwan or something. He was very enthusiastic and was telling Dad all about it and about a lot of the neat things he bought there because the prices were so much better.

“Do you like to shop?” he asked Dad eagerly.

“Some,” said Dad. I could tell that Dad’s mind was really at the airport, not on shopping. J

“I never used to be a shopping guy,” the driver explained and I got the feeling he’d been drug along on a lot of those wife-inspired shopping trips. J “But then I found out that I could buy things for myself!” he enthused, and waxed eloquent over various neat things he’d found and bargains he got. Some of his bargains were of a, er, dubious nature.

“You see,” he told us gleefully, “I would buy my wife a diamond ring and say it was a gift so we could get it through customs. And then I’d sell it over here and make a lot of money.”

Um, right.

Anyhow, I at least was entertained. J And I frankly felt sort of sorry for the guy—he was trying so hard to get Dad to relax and poor Dad would not be able to relax until we had braved the stupidity of the Gatwick airport and were safely on the plane. We had absolutely no wiggle room—everything would have to go EXACTLY like clockwork for us to make the plane.

Heather: When we reached the airport, we all hurtled out of the van, threw the suitcases out and ran for the elevator to take us to the terminal. Mom had dug out some cash to tip the driver, knowing Dad wouldn’t have time while wrestling suitcases. The driver was very appreciative and wished us well.

Of course, if you think that because we were at the airport, our troubles were over, then you are thinking of the calm, sane, sensible airports we have in the US. No, in Gatwick we had to brave an enormous security line, at the same time breasting outgoing traffic. Then you have to race to your gate, which gets changed so you can race to another gate. Then, if you’re me, you flop down on the floor and try to sleep while waiting to board.

Raquelle: The people-traffic was RIDICULOUS. There were HUGE, solid crowds of people cramming the area. The line for security wound around and around and around and around. It was so long that occasionally an airport personnel person would come by and inquire if anyone’s flight was leaving in the next 20 minutes or so. In which case, the lucky dogs would get to go to the front of the line.

Lest you think it was a technological issue, it wasn’t. Gatwick had about a number of X-ray machines. But they were, y’know….yawn….only working three of them or so.

There was also an ENORMOUS line at the ticket counter. However, Dad had an ace card…he is Chairman’s Preferred with USAir, remember? So we were all able to skip the line entirely and deal with an agent who only handled Preferred Members. That probably saved us a good half hour at the least.

At last we were through all the stupid processing and could scramble our way to the gate. I had hoped to find a ladies’ room, but a quick inspection revealed that the nearest ladies’ room was down the hall, down an elevator, and three miles east. J You know, in a US airport there are facilities every couple of gates, ready, accessible and handy. But not here, nope. Sheesh.

However, I wasn’t complaining. We were at the gate! We could make the flight! YAY! YIPPEE!!!! Praise God!!! We were very, very thankful. We only had about ten minutes before they started boarding. Whew!

Heather: So at last, we made it onto the flight itself. And then we all took a deep breath – well, as deep a breath as you can take in those little vacuum-packed sardine tins they call planes – and relaxed.

I think we all slept some, and read some. I got entertained by a baby a few seats further up. It was a British family “on holiday” and the baby was probably 18 months and walking everywhere. She wasn’t crabby, but she had a stuffy nose and was also rather noisy. And she kept trying to greet everyone as she went by. American babies say “hi” but she kept trying to say “hello” with the cutest British accent. It was funny.

At last we landed, and let me tell you, the Charlotte airport is peaceful, calm, quiet, serene, carpeted, and CLEAN. (Did I mention the lack of carpeting in the main check-in areas at the European airports?) It was WONDERFUL!!!

After going through, security we ambled to the door and Dad went off to get the van out of parking. We all felt gay and happy and as happy to be home as we were to leave home at the beginning. Gramps gave Grandma a high-five. “We did it, gal!” he crowed.

Then we hoisted the suitcases into the van, took a deep breath of clean Carolina air, and headed home!

The afternoon was relaxed as we unpacked a bit, took a nap or two and then got cleaned up to go to the Golden Corral for supper.

And that, my friends, is the final account of the final day of our trip to Europe!!!