Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Texan in Italy - 17 Curious days

Over the next several days I will be telling you about my recent challenging, weird and wonderful 17 days in Italy. However, in the peculiar world of blogging that means the first story is on the bottom! So, if you want to begin at the first, go to the bottom. This is Part 2 of Day One

Day One Continued - September 3, 2007
We were finally airborne again after over 3 hours on the ground. We landed in Houston a scant 20 minutes later. I looked at my watch. The time for the Paris flight, 6:45 pm, had passed. My watch read 6:47. Our rain related trouble continued. Because there had been so many flights into Houston grounded all the available gates were occupied by other aircraft. We were destined to sit on the ground in Houston for another 30 minutes as we waited for a clear gate to let us exit into the airport.

Hoping that the airport shutdown had also delayed the Paris flight we hit the jetway in a fast walk. Once inside Houston Intercontinental we found a departures electronic board as quickly as possible. Scanning the board, the flight to Paris was no longer listed. Our luggage, which had been checked only to Houston, would be rotating around the baggage carousel shortly. We walked over to a Continental Airlines information rep to ask about our alternatives for getting to Paris, though with reasonable intuition I believed there was only one flight per day to Paris. Amazingly, the rep told us the flight had not left. She said she would call the agents at Gate 39 and tell them to wait for us. I told her about the luggage. She said “Don’t worry, just tell them at the gate, and now hurry! Run if you can!”This development touched off a series of decisions and choices that would define the course of events for the next several days. We were unsuspecting insects, and the heavy shoe of fate was about to roll down on top of us.

As instructed, we ran off down the corridors of the airport. Scanning the overhead gate direction signs at jog pace we scurried like folks with a time problem to the amusement of other airport patrons. I guess those that were amused have some sort of idea that if a person is in time duress then it is jolly well funny; that it is my problem and not theirs? One ass yelled out the threadbare cliché “Run Forrest Run.” They remain fortunate that I was in an authentic hurry and had no time to insensitively address their need for sensitivity training. I reached the gate agent completely out of breath. BEG trailed by the margin appropriate for an untrained runner chasing a trained sprinter. I had not intentionally left her behind, but I felt if I got there ahead they would surely wait for us both. I asked if the Paris flight was still boarding, though it was asked with about 4 to 5 breaths between words, words that were garbled and yet hopeful. Without looking up a gate agent, later nicknamed ‘Miss Sunshine’, intoned that the flight to Paris was gone. She said it just like that. “Paris is gone.” Three words of finality that meant nothing to her. I noticed there were other agitated passengers standing at the counter. I tried to ask her what alternatives I might have. She remained fixated on her keyboard, completely disinterested in my plight. The other patrons at the desk glanced at me to see what my reaction would be. I explained we were told the flight would be held for us and the lady back down at the other end of the airport had called them to say we were coming. One of the men standing at the desk replied, “yeah, me too.” I looked at him. He pointed out several people that shared our predicament. The stone faced Continental lady was clearly agitated with the entire circumstance. Behind the desk a very calm young man whose name tag read “Raul” looked at the bitch, then at me. With a kind voice he said the problem could be solved. “It’s best not to wait for the Paris flight tomorrow, he said. It’s full and space is going to be hard to come by. There is a flight leaving for Amsterdam tonight. I can put you on it with these other folks.” My response was one of confusion, but I still managed a reasonable question. “How will I get to Bologna from Amsterdam?”

He answered, “That’s no big deal, there is a flight at 2:30 pm that you can be a stand-by for and I can confirm you on the 8 pm to Bologna from Amsterdam right now.”

BEG came jogging up behind me at this point. As it turned out all the other folks at the counter had been left behind also. A total of 14 passengers grounded as BEG and I were. They also ran to the gate. We were all left standing there with Amsterdam as our alternative.

I had decisions to make. There were teammates in Houston not going to Paris that would put us up for the night, but remember I had just been told I had a minimum chance of getting aboard the next days flight. If I missed that one I would also miss the opening days of racing, the entire reason I was going to Italy!

My track competition clothes and spikes were on my back in a backpack. That lesson had been learned by nearly all the athletes over the years. Do not take a chance on lost or delayed luggage! Our checked luggage was by now circling the luggage carousel in some distant part of the airport. I told Raul about our luggage. I told him if it was not tagged to Paris it was certainly not tagged to Amsterdam. He said in the most amazingly calm voice for a man rapidly changing fourteen tickets, “No worries, we will tag it through to Bologna, pick it up when you get there.”

I turned to BEG. She was totally bewildered having arrived later than much of the ongoing conversation. I asked Raul what gate the Amsterdam flight was leaving from and what time it would leave. He calmly pointed across the corridor to a gate in plain view. He said “It leaves in 5 minutes, all the passengers are on board, and you need to decide.”

Standing at my newly arranged Amsterdam departure counter I tried to explain to the gate agents that my luggage was not checked to Bologna. Truth be told, they probably never heard what I was saying. They were incensed with their fellow agents across the corridor for booking 14 people onto their flight at the last minute. Ugly talk and frayed nerves radiated between the employees. They took our 1 minute old boarding passes and shooed BEG and I down the jet ramp as if we were stray cats being shooed out of the airport. I explained again to the agent walking us down the jetway about the luggage. Anxiety had taken control of my senses. Too much was unfolding in too short a time. I had a carefully planned itinerary designed to drop me in Bologna in time to catch a train. The train was timed time to allow one nights rest before the opening quarterfinal heats of the 100 meters in Riccione. I could see my carefully laid plans dissolving in the confusion of a long walk down a jetway to an aircraft bound for Amsterdam. I was doing a new itinerary clock in my head as I talked with the agent. Complicating the task is the fact that Italy is seven hours ahead of Houston. The last thing the agent said was “Don’t worry, the luggage will get to Bologna.”

We walked on board a huge Boeing 777 and even the flight attendant picked up the baton on herding us to our seat and treating us as if as if we were the main reason for the airline’s continuing loss of revenue.

Seated on the plane, which was huge and freezing cold, I turned to look at BEG. She was ashen faced. The run through the airport and the anxiety had caused her asthma to flare. It had all happened so fast she understood little of the details apart from the fact we were going to Amsterdam. She looked scared and concerned. I’m not sure if my face was reassuring. From the plane’s intercom not more than one minute later, the pilot’s voice resonated through the aircraft. “Well, we finally have everyone on board. We are going to be pushed back shortly for our non-stop flight to Amsterdam. If you did not intend to go to Amsterdam, well it’s too late now.” This brought laughter from the majority of seated passengers. The comment made my stomach do a flip. I was committed. We were headed to Amsterdam on a 9 hour flight. Once there we faced an 8 hour layover at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport. Counting the time since we left our door that morning we would be looking at travel and airport time of 24 consecutive hours to arrive in Amsterdam. The flight to Bologna was expected to be 3.5 hours. The trip to Bologna central train station would take 30 minutes. The train ride to Riccione takes 1.5 hours, leading to a grand total of 29.5 hours travel time.

We sat back and settled in. The plane flew down the runway. The wheels below made that familiar sound as they folded back into the aircraft body. Eddie Murphy appeared on the monitor in front of me. Oh good, I really like Eddie Murphy!

(Continued Later)


kathi said...

Seriously guy, you're like the black cat of travel. Is it only like this for airlines, or do you have problems with other means as well?

Robert Shapiro said...

Good grief!