Monday, January 2, 2012

My Christmas Disaster-Miracle


I want to tell you about something that happened to me around this time last year.  It wasn’t enough to base a movie on, though at times I felt like I was trapped in the holiday episode of a medium-rate sitcom.  It was one of those experiences that can really make you believe in the Spirit of Christmas.  At the very least it was enough to make me rather eat a shit sandwich than ever fly British Airways again.

I was flying home to the US to spend the holidays with my family.  I’d booked a flight from Rome to Philly with a two-hour layover in London.  That morning I woke up and checked BA’s website, which predicted no significant delays.  I got the same report at Fiumicino.  All systems go.

Unfortunately, while en route to Heathrow, the pilot told us we were going to circle around a few times due to a snowstorm over London.  Fair enough.  But upon landing at the airport an hour late, I learned that all outgoing flights had been cancelled.  In fact, they’d been cancelled for days.  The terminal was full of castaways who’d been stranded all week. 

After all, there was a whole two inches of snow out there.

They were offering to put people up in hotels in the center of town.  They promised to reimburse for transportation, but wouldn’t pay for it up front.  I was traveling with very little cash, and didn’t have a credit card, so I opted to stay at the airport.  They passed out foam pads and blankets.  I stretched out with the rest of the refugees and went to sleep, using my laptop case for a pillow.

I spent the next seventy-two hours trying desperately to get on a flight, any flight, to the States. I started my day at 4am, and averaged two to three hours of sleep per night.  The majority of my time was spent waiting in line, trying to get my name on stand-by lists.  I sustained myself on bottled water and the egg sandwiches the airport was required by law to hand out.  To this day the taste of mayo on white bread makes me want to punch someone in the mouth.

As the hours dragged by, my contempt for the airline spread and festered.  I stewed over the fact that they’d known we wouldn’t have been able to get out, yet had flown us in anyway.  A myriad other factors, such as charging us for wi-fi, fed fuel to the fire.  My rage tripled when word got out that they’d refused an offer from the British military to come in and clean the runway.  Thousands of people’s holidays were being wrecked due to their poor choices and bad management.

My hatred reached its apex at 11:30 on the night of the 22nd.  I came face-to-face with the president of the airline, who quite wisely was being escorted by two armed guards.  When I explained my predicament, he responded to everything with a flat not-my-problem.  Meanwhile, an Italian family was pleading with his assistants.  The women were sobbing, and the men were beside themselves.  I watched, shocked, as the airline officials mocked their accents to their faces.

Dear Santa,

This year I ask nothing for myself, but only bankruptcy and ghonnorrea for the president of British Airways.

---

Later that night, the first of two miracles occurred.  It was around 1am, and I was attempting to get a few hours’ shut-eye, when I was gently woken by a tall, blonde woman.

“Excuse me,” she said.  “Would you like to go to a hotel?”

“Huh?”  I thought she was a hooker.  “I can’t afford it.”

“No, no,” she said.  “The airport’s paying for it.”

“No, that’s OK.  I need to be here at 4am.”

“Well, this one’s right here in the airport.”

My eyes snapped open.  My angel of mercy handed me a voucher and directed me to the hotel lobby.  As I checked in, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror behind the desk.  I hadn’t bathed, shaved, brushed my teeth, or gotten any real sleep in the last three days.  The clerk visibly trembled as he handed me my key and a complimentary gift basket.  I have no doubt that my face haunted his dreams ‘til the end of the season.

I’m not sure if I was hallucinating or not, but when I entered my room I heard the theme from the ’68 version of Romeo and Juliet playing from above.

At that hour there was no sense trying to sleep.  Instead I took the longest, hottest shower of my life, using an entire bar of soap to scrub off the grime of the previous three days.  I then wrapped myself in a bath robe, turned on the BBC, stretched out on the bed, and drank an entire pot of tea.

Leaving the hotel was one of the most difficult things I’d ever had to do.  The guaranteed comfort of my room put up a fierce battle against the slim odds of a seat opening up on the 23rd of December.  But the holidays are the only time of the year I get to see my family, and the thought of spending Christmas morning alone in a sterile hotel room on the other side of the world was enough to push me back into the terminal to resume the struggle.

It turned out to be a good move.  Around one in the afternoon, on my second or third time through the line, I approached a kiosk.  The clerk was an older gentleman, bespectacled, with thinning grey hair.  I’d spoken with him before.  Once again, I poured out my sob story.

He punched a few figures into his computer and said, “I can get you on a flight to Miami.”

“No thanks,” I said, shaking my head.

He looked up.  “You don’t want it?”

“I can’t afford a flight to Philly from there.”

“Oh no, you wouldn’t have to pay for it.”

My heart surged.  “…WHAT?”

“But you’ll have to hurry,” he said.  “It leaves in forty-five minutes.”

I wanted to grab his ears and stick my tongue down his throat.  Instead I shouted my thanks, snatched up my shit, and ran for the gate like the parents in Home Alone.

I rode that flight to Miami in a state of blissed-out contentment that the Dali Lama can only imagine.  I didn’t even mind the broken TV, or the French kid kicking the back of my seat the whole time.

Eighteen hours later, I landed in PHL.  Half an hour after that I was riding south on I-95 with my dad and brother, bags in the trunk, taking swigs from a flask full of rum.  Cliches be damned.  Christmas was saved in the knick of time.

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