Tuesday, August 22, 2006

THE FLIGHT HOME: Beauty in the breakdown

FROM MY TRIP TO ITALY, I’ve learned two things about traveling: there’s no place like home when you finally want to get there, and sometimes it’s okay to loosen the purse strings (and your vocal cords).

Berit and I began talking about leaving a day before it was scheduled to happen.

“It’s so close…if we were staying for another week, that would be one thing, but we’re leaving tomorrow. I’m ready to go.” Berit explained to me over lunch the afternoon before our planned departure.

I wholeheartedly agreed with her rationale. By the end of the trip, I felt like I was killing time. I could no longer plan a weekend in Croatia or Rome or even spend the night at a nearby beach. There were things – deadlines, farewell parties, goodbyes – holding us in one place.

Like Berit, I was ready to go.

Berit and I awoke at 4:30 on a muggy Saturday morning to leave for the airport. Our flight left Ancona at 6:45 and landed in Milan at 8. We were scheduled to leave Milan and fly to Amsterdam, then leave Amsterdam for John F. Kennedy airport, bringing us home by 3:30 New York time. Berit and I had booked the same three-stop flight by chance and for the same reason: to save an extra 200 dollars rather than booking a direct flight.

We left Ancona on time and both slept the entire way. We arrived in Milan as scheduled, easily found our gate for the next flight, and even managed to buy some chocolate treats for loved ones.

So far, our trip was off to a good (and stress-free) start.

What happened next can only be described as a nightmare.

We boarded the AlItalia plane and weren’t exactly surprised to find out that we weren’t sitting next to each other, just disappointed. I threw myself into a Hello! Magazine, studying Mickey Rooney’s girlfriend’s drunken antics like there was going to be a test later and waited for take-off.

After more than forty-five minutes of the plane being completely immobile, it finally started to move. The plane circled the runway twice before the captain came over the loudspeaker and announced something in Italian. I watched the other passenger’s reactions to try and figure out what he said. There was eye-rolling and teeth grinding, but nothing too outrageous, and I figured since no one was exiting the plane, the scenario couldn’t be too bad.

Then, from a few rows back, I heard a high pitch scream. Several other passengers and I averted our attention toward the back of the plane, where a woman was trudging down the aisle ahead of two stewardesses who were trying to calm her down. “Tranquity,” they whispered quietly as the woman stormed on. I glanced around nervously. No one seemed to have any clue what was going on. I felt butterflies begin to flutter in my stomach.

The plane started moving again, this time, I noticed, without the hysterical woman in her seat. I took several deep breaths, trying to ignore the couple next to me who were chanting some spiritual chant in an attempt, I’m guessing, to calm their own nerves.

The plane moved at top speed for less than ten seconds before stopping. The pilot came over the loudspeaker once again, and this time his announcement made all the passengers began grabbing their luggage and exiting the plane.

After finding Berit, together we realized that there was almost no possible way we were to going to land in Amsterdam in time to make our connecting flight. Panic sunk in.

We waited on several different hour-long lines before getting any real answers. Every time we thought we were getting somewhere, we were instructed to change lines again. Over the next seven hours, Berit and I met an Italian couple traveling to the United States for their honeymoon, a Canadian couple who was told that AlItalia only flew to Calgary (their destination) once a week, and a Puerto Rican woman with three kids who had been stuck in the airport for three days. It was comforting to know that we weren’t the only ones going through this breakdown.

Within minutes of being in the presence of the Puerto Rican woman, Berit and I knew exactly why she was still there: she was too polite and passive.

Pushing our way to the front of the fourth line we were directed to, Berit and I calmly explained our situation. “You cancelled the flight, we want to go home, make it happen” was how we summed it up by this point. We had told our sad tale so many times and were beginning to worry that no one was actually listening. Just sending us to another line.

But when the incredibly rude and apathetic woman from AlItalia informed us that all flights to the United States were overbooked and we probably wouldn’t get a flight home until August 6th, Berit and I realized that we controlled our own fate. Nodding patiently and saying little was going to keep us in the Milan airport for days, even a week. Screaming and making this AlItalia employee realize that her life would actually benefit once we were in the air, crossing the Atlantic Ocean was what was going to get us home.

Ten minutes later, we had the tickets for tomorrow’s flight to Newark in our hands, as well as two free vouchers for a near-by hotel.

I’m not one to condone such aggressive behavior, but when you’re stuck in a foreign country, being treating like you are a moron, it’s okay and sometimes necessary to go a little nuts.

And Berit and I agree, from now on, we will ALWAYS book a direct flight.

- Ann Curran

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