Snow Storms in Europe: I’ll Be Home For Christmas (I think)

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Three hours. Standing. Sweating. Thirsty. Exhausted. Frustrated.

I’ve waited for three hours in line just to get inside the double doors for the international departure ticket booth. My number, #709, sits far down the list on the numbers of Frankfort’s computer screens. Frustrated, I wait for the 200+ people in front of me to re-route their tickets so I can make it home for Christmas. We’re all trying to get somewhere for the holidays but flights look  bleak. And our current situation is even bleaker. We’re all here, in this dark lounge, for the same reason: snowstorms sweeping most of Northern, Western and parts of Southern Europe, cause cancellations or delays on most flights. Thousands of us missed connecting flights in Frankfort today, and for a Frankfort-based hub like airline Lufthansa, that means thousands of people who need re-routed tickets, free hotel rooms, meal stubs, and water.

The little girl next to me can’t be more than five years old. She’s stretched out on the blue plastic seats, her mousy brown hair piled under her head for a pillow. Her purple socks dangle off her feet and her eyelids flutter in a half-sleep interrupted by constant intercom announcements.

An American man, probably in his low 30’s, asked to share my outlet. He scratches his shaved head, and twirls his white gold wedding ring aimlessly as he stares into space waiting for his computer to charge. His wife just had a baby—he hasn’t met his son yet because he has been out of the country for two weeks on business. He’s eager to get home.

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A smiling woman in a yellow vest offers water and granola bars to everyone. “Sweets! Treats! Food!” she shouts over the loudspeakers. She’s eager to get people drinking and eating. It’s easy to become dehydrated during long hours in the airport and the last thing Lufthansa wants is to send someone to Frankfort’s hospital. But her smile is infectious, and soon more and more people are smiling too.

A young couple, just married, sit across the aisle. The bride wears a white sweatshirt screaming BRIDE in pink, curly letters. She rests her head on her new husbands shoulder and by the looks of their colorful sandals they’re en route to somewhere warm on their honeymoon. Hopefully.

An older man in a trench coat has gray hairs protruding from his inner ears around his hearing aids. He scans the rows of plastic chairs for an empty seat before a strapping teenage boy stands up to offer the old man his.

A loud American woman with a thick Long Island accent chats to her sister on her blackberry. She complains about how tired she is, how frustrated she is, and how she just wants to jump the line to get home. Part of me agrees with her, but part of me resents her for voicing everyone’s thoughts so obnoxiously.

Numbers crawl slowly up the screen.  Four stations of exhausted Lufthansa employees help the several hundred of us packed into this lounge. And we’re the lucky ones. We’ve waited outside for three hours just to get in here to wait more. But at least we have a chair. And at least it’s not Christmas yet. There’s still three days to make it home. But for now, I’ve resigned myself to sleeping in yet another airport tonight. The frustrated ambiance in this ticketing lounge gives a whole new meaning to the Frank Sinatra song playing in my earbuds: I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Here’s hoping, Frank.

3 Strangers in an Airport Bar: A Story of Frankfurt Christmas Travel Delays

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The German departures board flashed “CANCELED” in bright yellow next to my Detroit-bound Lufthansa flight. My shoulders dropped. A night in the Frankfort airport seemed inevitable. Great. Making it home for Christmas was my top priority, but weather had other plans so I threw my hands up in exasperation and adjusted to the adventure.

A lanky tall German airport official ushered me to the back of a re-ticketing line that stretched around the airport terminal, through a set of doorways and down a long flight of stairs. It moved at a sluggish pace.

“Where are you going tonight?” he asked, in a thick German accent.

“Are flights going out tonight? I’ll go anywhere in America,” I said. “Seriously, send me to San Francisco, Texas, D.C. New York, just get me stateside and I can figure it out from there.” I heard my voice, pleading to get home.

He and several others around us chuckled. “I think, my dear,” as he patted his wretched clipboard on my shoulder, “flights to America are all gone. Perhaps tomorrow you can fly, but for now, how about a bottle of water?” He motioned to a food cart lady. She circled the line every half hour or so, handing out water and snacks. An hour later I had moved only 20 feet and collected a small pile of granola bar wrappers.

Three hours later, the line slugged its way into the re-ticketing lounge. I shot straight to the back and  waited for my number #790 to be called. Seven hours later it was my turn to approach the counter. The airline lady smiled wearily and finagled a seat for me on a D.C. flight the next morning. She reprinted my boarding card and assured me the weather would clear in time to fly.

She then gave me a hotel and meal voucher at the Holiday Inn in Frankfort. She squelched my reluctance to take it, convincing me that even though it was already almost midnight, a warm bed, hot shower and a German meal were worth the hassle. She pressed the voucher into my hand. I couldn’t refuse a warm bed, 22 hours sans sleep.

I trudged down to the hotel shuttle area, dragging my bags. The Holiday Inn shuttle driver hurtled down the icy highway, whipping by German back roads saturated in snow drifts. Perhaps I was the last run of the night. He seemed eager to get off work, annoyed at shuttling stranded passengers to and from the airport. He jerked the van to a halt and barked, “Here!”

A wide wooden reception counter top stretched the side of the front lobby. Low-lit lamps artfully placed on wooden coffee tables centered in circles of red couches and lazy-boy chairs gave a homey glow to the lobby. It all felt like a dream.

“Can I help you, miss?” said a dashingly handsome German hotel clerk. This definitely was a dream. I handed him my vouchers. He nodded knowingly, “another stranded guest. Unfortunately our restaurant is closed right now but perhaps I can point you in the direction of the hotel bar? You can use this voucher for a couple of beers, if you like?”

Yes. Please.

I didn’t even waste time bringing my bags to my room. The nearly empty, dimly lit bar, only held four middle aged men on stools at the bar, an older couple in the corner and the bartender. Apparently the rest of the stranded travelers were in bed. I pulled up a stool and ordered a Paulsner, my American accent gave me away.

Suddenly the large man next to me with a salt and pepper bushy beard tucked around the collar of his white, unbuttoned shirt swiveled around in his stool. He watched me for a minute, and after a long gaze he prodded my bag. “Where are ya from?”

“From Minnesota, but I live in New York,” I answered generically,  uninterested in a conversation.

“My name is Denis,” he stuck his hand out right over my beer, “nice to meet you. This is Ryan, from Ireland, and Walter from Brazil.” He pointed at two men next to him, looking at me apologetically, as if to say we’re not with him per se, we’re just with him right now.

“Hey guys, I’m Patty.” I took the bait. “Are you all stranded, too?” Ryan and Walter opened their mouths to respond but Denis jumped in.

“Yep! We all just met at this bar tonight, isn’t that crazy? I love traveling. You always meet so many people, I wish my wife was here right now, she’s love your bag. So where ya headed tomorrow, are you trying to get back to New York?”

He wiped a hand across his forehead dragging sweat beads out of his receding hairline.

Walter’s dark eyes darted to my face and he raked a hand through his jet black hair before pounding the bar for another shot. Ryan grinned, a thin, sandy haired man wearing a dark green zip up sweatshirt.”Denis, give the girl a second to catch up with you,” he motioned to my beer and winked. Gratefully, I took a gulp as they started chatting about their day.

Apparently Ryan, a Dublin native, and Walter, a Brazilian-born man living in Argetina with his English mother (who named him Walter as her last ditch effort to instill some European in him) met on a flight to Dublin. Their flight took off from Frankfort earlier that morning, made it 30 miles from Dublin, and turned back to Frankfort because Dublin airport shut down. I felt better about my situation. Denis, a Canadian, had been in Munich on business for two weeks and was eager to get back to his wife, who he met on Match.com five years ago. He ran through a long list of Christmas gifts he bought her in Munich nudging me each time he came across a present he was exceptionally excited about.

We all took turns buying rounds with our hotel food vouchers and talking about our careers, what our homes were like, where we had traveled before and where we most wanted to go next.

“What is the first thing you’ll do when you finally make it home,” I asked the three men.

“I’m going to meet some mates at the pub ’round the corner from my nan’s house,” Ryan said. “Then we’re going to cook a Christmas ham and head to church when the rest of the family comes in from Kilkenny.”

Without hesitation, Walter, who had been relatively quiet during Denis and Ryan’s banter, said, “I’m going to ask my girlfriend to marry me.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small diamond ring, encased in a tiny velvet box. “I’ve carried this around for six months.”

Ryan laughed at my dumbstruck face. “Easy Yank,” (they’d all nicknamed me Yank, short for Yankee).”He’s been dating the girl for three years, it’s about time he put a ring on it. Isn’t that a Beyonce song or something?”

Denis chortled, “Yes! All the Single Ladies, I love that song.”

Our laughter faded and we sipped in silence, each of us lost in anxieties about getting home for Christmas. Then Denis cleared his throat and said, “I suppose the first thing I’ll do is hug my wife, pretty damn tightly.”

We all smiled at our beers and eventually when the bar closed at 3am, we headed to our beds. I never saw any of them the next morning at breakfast, or in the airport. But I was glad to have met them, and a day later when I finally made it out of Frankfort to D.C., through Minneapolis to Duluth, I deboarded the airplane into the waiting arms of my family. And those tight hugs in the airport terminal never felt so good. I made it home the day before Christmas Eve.

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Athens Travel: My night in a Greek Jail

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Tara and I sat perched on a mustard, moth-eaten couch. On the facing wall, a yellowish stain—vomit or urine, I couldn’t tell—congealed in drip-dry formation down the peeling white paint. It was almost midnight. Two dirty, sweaty men leered at us, thick forearms hanging through steel bars crisscrossed on a large wooden cell door. It reminded me of the dungeon scene from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, except this was a Greek jail.

A tattooed “police officer” sporting a black leather jacket sauntered around us. He was massive.  His greasy, bleach blond hair slicked back in a bun nearly brushed the caving ceiling. His thin lips expunged heavy breaths, agitating the smoldering cigarette wedged between the gap where a tooth should’ve been. He eyeballed us. My instincts flared, I didn’t trust him at all.

We were in jail because of a thief. We met at the Athens airport two hours before—Tara flew in from Madrid, I flew in from London. The promise of spring break, six days filled with gyros, beaches and the Parthenon, absorbed our attention. It happened in a second. The thief vanished into the March night, on the metro platform with my friend’s $600 camera—an elusive shadow.

Our immediate—and admittedly panicked—reaction was to find the police station. Surely Greece had police reports.

Wrong.

At the directions of a sympathetic stranger, we headed to the nearest police station a half-mile away. Outside, five men with M16 guns strapped across navy blue and white uniforms stood in a circle, smoking and spitting on the concrete.

We desperately explained the stolen camera situation and that we’d please like to file a police report. They laughed. Their amused dark eyes saw only three things. Young. American. Women.

Nonetheless, they took us into the station motioned us into an elevator. Were they serious? Their fingers on the trigger told me yes. My mind took off. I wrote my own disappearance headline as I stepped inside: Two American college girls missing in Athens, whereabouts unknown. The missing shaft wall exposed the pulley system. I watched the floors pass, counting as we jerked upward — one, two, three, four, five.

Thirty minutes later, Mr. Leather Jacket handed us a document—supposedly a police report, although I’m certain they later filed it in the garbage. Tara hastily filled it out. Mr. Leather Jacket lurked around, smoking his cigarette, cursing in Greek at the criminals behind bars. My instincts raged. The whole situation felt wrong. Very wrong.

Another officer looked at Tara’s police report, and tore it in half. He angrily told her to redo it, stating that she “lost” the camera.

But it was stolen! she declared, frustrated. STOLEN, NOT LOST.

Everything escalated at once. The officer Tara argued with turned an unusual purple color.  The criminals behind bars taunted filthy broken English, come here babies, good vacation? Mr. Leather Jacket strode around the corner to yell at the criminals. She snatched a blank report and scribbled that she lost the camera.

I grabbed her hand. She tossed the police report on his desk, and we lunged toward the elevator. I pushed the call button a hundred times. An eternity later, we tripped out on the ground floor pushing past a bloody, bruised man in handcuffs escorted by two machine guns.

The next day, in a Greek heritage parade, I saw that same betraying white and navy uniform. And I gripped my bag a little tighter.

Stung by a Jellyfish: Mykonos Beach, Greece

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I didn’t know I had been stung–at first. And then it hit me. My legs burned, screaming for relief from the salty water. I vividly remember three things: the Mediterranean breeze drifting across my brown nose, the whoosh of escaping air from my lungs, and Emilio’s hand in the small of my back pushing me toward the shore.

***

I met Danny when he plopped down next to me on the bus at Mykonos port. He turned his big blue eyes to me and we talked about the solo-backpacking trip I was smack in the middle of. He traveled to Greece with a group of guys—three of his American cousins from Miami, and one Canadian. Within minutes, I tucked in as their sixth roommate. Less than an hour later, the six of us ran into the ocean.

Emilio and I were the only ones brave enough, daring enough, or maybe stupid enough, to swim across the 40-foot man-made shelf on Paradise Beach. It seemed like a brilliant idea to swim from the 15-foot shallow water to deeper 100-foot water in the Aegean Sea. The other five remained on shore in favor of cold beer over our deep-water escapade. But we went anyways.

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We floated in the open water, two specks lost in Greece’s turquoise ocean.  Layers of tropical fish darted around several feet below us in the crystal clear water. We dove deep enough to set our sinuses on fire, somersaulting through the cool salt water.

I didn’t even see the jellyfish behind me.

But after it brushed, ever so softly against my legs, I sure as hell felt it.

It itched at first. And the itch turned into a sharp, annoying pain. And then it felt like someone stabbed my leg with a knife and twisted it around and around. Something was wrong. I had to get out. I called to Emilio and swam toward the shelf. Within seconds he was there. He grabbed my hand. We  slipped our way across the shell shelf. I collapsed off the other side into shallower water and he pushed me toward shore. From afar, I’m sure we looked like two idiots goofing around, but as we got closer Danny knew something wasn’t right.

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He waded in to help Emilio support me as I stumbled through the shallows. He took one look at the Frisbee-size white and red welts on my legs and said, “jellyfish.”

Oh Jesus, they’re going to pee on me, I thought…the infamous jellyfish cure. But in that moment, I could care less. Anything to take the pain away.

But, travel karma was on my side again. Since the boys were from Miami, they had their share of jellyfish experiences. And a few cure-all tricks, too. One hustled to buy two oversized cans of beer. The other packed wet sand around my legs. After several rounds of drizzling beer on my welts and compressing wet sand around my legs, the throbbing subdued.  A few hours later my legs were okay–albeit red.

I still have scars around my right knee that turn purple when I get cold. Travel isn’t always glamorous and I learned solo travel is much easier  when you make friends along the way. But it could’ve been worse, and that night we danced for hours at the disco.