Day 19 – Thursday, 31 December
It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, 3:20 AM is really freaking early. Our driver arrived at 3:45 and helped pile all our luggage into the van…and we were off to the airport for a 6:45 flight. It took just under an hour to get to the airport. Our translator met us there, and told us that our flight had been delayed by an hour, so we had plenty of time to check in. He and our driver piled all our luggage on a cart, found our check-in area, and bid us farewell.
Now, many of you know that I travel quite frequently for work. I know my way around airports. I will now say that Kyiv Borispol beats Philadephia as the worst airport on Earth. I have been through that airport four times. Only one of those times has my passage been smooth. And that’s the one time that we paid for someone else to do everything for us!
We waited in a very slow line to check our luggage and get our boarding pass. When we finally arrived, the young woman looked at our itinerary and informed us that with the delay, we would not have enough time in Amsterdam to make our connection. Now, ordinarily, the airline would just create a backup reservation for the next flight. In Kiev, though, the check-in and ticketing desks are completely separate. The woman informed us that we would have to go to the ticketing office to get rebooked on a later flight from Amsterdam before she could ever speak to us about boarding passes and checked luggage.
I found the ticketing office for Ukraine International Airlines (Northwest/KLM “partner” and I use that term VERY loosely…) surrounded by a crowd of very angry Ukrainians. There appeared to be two young women working behind a very thick glass window. One man was shouting at the top of his lungs, and it was clear that not much was being accomplished. I grabbed the cell phone from Mark and prayed that it had enough money left on it to call Northwest directly to rebook.
I got through to the NWA reservations line, and learned that the next flight we could get on out of Amsterdam that would allow us to connect to Fort Wayne was tomorrow. Much as I’d love to spend New Year’s in Amsterdam, I was really more interested in getting HOME. The reservations agent kindly checked other routings, and offered to get me to Boston tonight—Robin, you almost had a couple of uninvited guests!! After about 15 minutes or so of checking various options, she finally discovered that if we ended our flight routing in Detroit, she could put us on a 2:10 flight out of Amsterdam that landed in Detroit at 5:00 today … SIGN US UP!
I jotted down the details, and ran back to the check-in counter, where we had to wait in line AGAIN. We got back up to the same surly chick that helped us before. I suspect that I had gotten back much too fast to have done this the conventional way, and of course I didn’t have a printout from the ticketing office. Before I handed her anything at all, she looked at me and said “You didn’t rebook.” I’m like “Yes, I did. LOOK in your computer before you talk.” So, ok, I wasn’t quite that unpleasant about it, but I was getting annoyed.
She seemed almost disappointed that we had resolved the problem in a more efficient way as we gave her the flight information for our rebooking, clarified several times that Detroit was now our final destination and starting hauling bags up onto the scale as she sighed and printed our boarding passes.
As Mark set our third of four bags up on the scale, Problem Number Two for the day arose. “You can’t have two bags,” she proclaims.
“Yes, I can,” I replied, and then I put on my Ugly American hat and start waving my SkyMiles card around. Before we left, I confirmed with the airline that my frequent flyer status entitles us to extra checked baggage, and we intended to use it—we had four bags to check. We argued louder and louder as she filled out an excess baggage form for our third bag, and completely refused to accept our fourth. Fortunately, one of the bags was a smallish duffel that was not terribly heavy and didn’t contain any liquids. We chose to carry that one rather than argue about it.
She handed me a small piece of paper that looked like a fifth-generation photocopy of a horribly-designed form; my head almost exploded when she told me I had to return to the ticketing office to pay the excess baggage fee (of unknown amount) before she would turn over our boarding passes. If you’ll recall, that’s where I had just come back from….I argued some more, but there was no getting our boarding passes from her. I left Mark to supervise our luggage and stomped back to the ticketing office to find the woman that had been in line right in front of me an hour before *finally* up at the window to rearrange her connecting flights.
I pushed my way into the crowd; after a few minutes of waiting very impatiently, I found myself standing next to an airline employee that looked like she had the attention of the women inside the glass cage. I looked at her with the biggest, roundest, most pathetic pleading look I could muster and held up my little slip of paper and my credit card. She smiled at me, took them from my hand, reached over the heads of at least two people and stuffed them through the tiny slot under the window. A couple minutes later, the caged ticketing agent stuck them back through with a credit card receipt, which I signed without even looking, and my baggage slips. I thanked the kind woman profusely and bolted back to the baggage check area.
We watched our bag move down the conveyor to where the vicious baggage-check-woman could no longer spit on it (or take it back), then we proceeded to security. We shoved our coats and carryon bags (now numbering four) through the xray, passed through the metal detector and moved along to passport control. Fortunately, the long lines were moving quickly, and we were through to the gate area a good ten minutes before our (hour late) flight was scheduled to begin boarding.
A long line of people were queued up for the B7/B8 gate and we presumed they were for our flight, so we worked our way into the line. As we got through the door and into a little anteroom that led to the jetways, we discovered we were in line for a flight to Katowice, Poland. Uh…..
Fortunately, there were a couple of rows of seats along the wall, so we sat down and waited for them to call our Amsterdam flight. While we waited, we pulled out the internet card that we had forgotten to return to our translator, got online, and quickly checked rental car prices in Detroit. We finalized our rental after we boarded the plane and got settled in our seats, and shut down just as the plane was ready to push back from the gate.
Fortunately, the flight was smooth and uneventful. We were served the strangest concoction of scrambled eggs with carrots, zucchini, and some other unidentifiable vegetable, and a floppy chunk of “fried” potato, but I guess were thankful to even get fed. The oddest thing, though, was the enthusiastic applause from the passengers when the flight landed in Amsterdam. I suppose the expectation of a safe landing as a given is a uniquely American quality; these folks seemed genuinely surprised and elated that they had actually arrived at their destination.
Being seated in the back of the plane, it took us quite a while for the passengers to clear off, and for us to deplane. We knew we had a long layover in Amsterdam (4 hours), so we very casually found a set of monitors and then walked to our next gate. As we were making our way there, we passed the gate for our original flight. We had been in Amsterdam for over 30 minutes at this point, and there was still a VERY long line of people waiting to clear security and board the plane. In other words….we would NOT have missed our original flight. We did not have to go through the agony of rerouting, of thinking we wouldn’t make it home, of having to drive home from Detroit. But now, our luggage was routed on the later flight, so we’re stuck.
It was hard to walk away from that gate, but walk away we did. We wandered around and explored the shops a bit. My heart skipped a beat when we saw Starbucks, but I decided that I wanted to get something that I couldn’t get at home. And I wanted actual food, and not just a muffin or a sandwich wrapped up in plastic. We ended up in the food court area in the center of the airport. After a bit of recon, I found a bakery/sandwich shop that looked pretty good, but Mark decided that McDonalds, of all places, sounded the best. In the interest of simplicity, I conceded and asked him to get me a Big and Tasty and some fries.
He returned to the table after about 15 minutes with the single most expensive fast food meal that has ever been sold on this planet. Two Big & Tasty burgers, two fries, two diet cokes, and a McFlurry. $28. Yes, friends, that is not a typo. Twenty-eight dollars. I might even scan the receipt and post it. Note to self. Pack a lunch if you have to spend any time at Schipol! AND….it tasted awful!
Around noon, when we had consumed as much of the McDonald’s slop as possible, we made our way back to the gate. It was scheduled to open for security at 12:30, so we settled in for a short wait. Our seats had been separated when they moved us to the later flights, so we checked to see if we could get anything together, but the flight was completely full; our only hope was to convince one of the people beside us if they would trade seats.
Mark got the first opportunity, but his aisle seatmate was not interested in my window seat…can’t say I blame him. So I waited and waited and waited for my seatmate to show up. About 10 minutes after the flight was scheduled to leave, the plane was still only about half full. The flight attendants announced that the extra security measures at the gate were taking a while, and that we would leave, well, whenever they were done. About 30 minutes later, a large family made their way up the aisles. When their very, very, very old, burka-clad grandmother planted herself in the seat beside me, I looked back four rows at Mark and he just laughed at me. There was clearly going to be no seat switching going on today.
Fortunately, the media system was working perfectly, so I plugged in my headphones and watched three movies, finally catching about an hour’s sleep during Four Christmases. We began our descent into Detroit, and they turned on the seatbelt sign. Several minutes later, the guy in front of me got out of his seat and began rummaging in the overhead bin. A passenger behind Mark started screaming at the guy to sit down…tensions are a bit high on the Amsterdam to Detroit route these days, I guess! We landed safely, though, and despite the hour delay in leaving, we landed right on time.
We quickly made our way through immigration and moved to baggage claim. Mark monitored one conveyor while I watched the other one; I wrecked my left knee and nearly plowed over a small child pulling our first heavy duffel off the belt. We passed through customs with no problems and I left Mark in the arrivals area and picked up the rental car. Even with a 2.5 hour drive ahead of us, we were just thrilled to be this close to home.
We pulled into the driveway right at 9PM. We walked in the door and hugged Masha like we hadn’t seen her in three weeks. Simon was very excited to see us, too, and he jumped back and forth between Mark and me. By 10:00, we had showered, climbed into bed with Mash between us, and turned on Dick Clark. Unfortunately, we had been up for 26 hours…we just couldn’t stay awake to watch the ball drop. The next morning, Masha reported the end of the evening:
“First, Dad started snoring. Then your legs started twitching and kicking me. So I had to get out. I climbed over dad and sat on the floor by the bed and watched the ball drop while you slept.”
Even though we were asleep, we were back together, and that’s what counts. Happy 2010, everyone!