[Note from the editor: while your intrepid Spanish correspondent and her co-travelers are no longer in the Madrid airport, and have since finished their 20-hour-plus trek across six time zones and four airports, we bring this dispatch to you, a mix of narrative and non sequitur, to help you feel that you are there without the bedraggling discomfort and inconvenience of actually being there.]
Four in the morning is generally not a good time, whether you’re coming at it from a long night, or meeting it as the start of what will likely be an unconscionably long day. It might be considered a god-forsaken hour (though I don’t think God forsakes anything or anyone, really), and is not what I would have chosen for my last morning in Valencia. But while our day turned out to have various lengthy stretches of entirely wasted time, it was not possible for us to figure out a way to gather those wasted hours up and stick them on the beginning, when we really could have used the sleep.
In various old movies and photos I’ve seen glamorous people getting into or out of small jets on little sets of stairs that appear when you pull some tab and fold part of the plane down to the ground. Picture 60s fashion, maybe Jackie Kennedy with a scarf caught by the wind. Such a little flight of stairs was how we got into and out of our Valencian plane, only we didn’t look glamorous. I don’t think you can be glamorous at that time of the morning. Most of the flights we have taken, including to and from Germany, have begun with the windy walk on the tarmac, and the precarious climb up the stairs. I don’t know whether that’s entirely a function of continent, or more a function of plane size.
In the Madrid airport, there are plenty of overhead signs pointing travelers this way for ground transportation, that way for baggage claim, and this other way for different terminals. On each they helpfully indicate how long it will take to get to the various destinations. As we came into the terminal from our flight from Valencia and tried to get oriented in the direction of our next flight to NYC, we were rather surprised to learn that getting to the R gates would take 24 minutes. I thought, well, that must be somewhat exaggerated—I mean, that’s nearly two-thirds of the air time of our NYC to Boston flight. We obediently dragged our bags along the path indicated by the signs, and in about a minute found another one telling us that we’d be at the R gates in 23 minutes. And then I began to be glad that we had a substantial time cushion. We hefted and dragged, hefted and dragged, up 3 long flights of escalators, around corners, down halls, and into a train, then back out and up and down and around some more, until we found the R gates. Wouldn’t you know it, what with herding the kids and the bags and trying to ease my shoulders in the backpack, I failed to clock our eventual transit time, and can’t tell you how close it was to the 24 minute forecast.
Though we booked these tickets through British Airways, the first leg, from Valencia to Madrid, was handled by Air Nostrum. (I thought nostrum had some shady meaning, but I had to look it up. I can only assume that the company doesn’t mean to project the image of “a medicine sold with false or exaggerated claims and with no demonstrable value.”) Then our flight from Madrid to NYC is on an American Airlines flight, as is our flight to Boston. I’m surprised that British Airways puts its name on our tickets, when their name isn’t anywhere else. But then I guess it’s not surprising that the whole thing is complicated, and generally opaque to me, the passenger.
Also not surprising, but still disconcerting, is the fact that there is an air traffic controller strike in France. Our good friends who lived in Paris for a few years said that strikes are sufficiently common that you learn to treat them as you might snowy weather in New England. You may have a meeting in downtown Boston on Thursday, but if it turns out to be a snow day; c’est la vie. Similarly, your Paris meeting may be unreachable due to a transit strike, which may happen as often as snow in a Boston February. I haven’t been watching the Air Traffic Controller Gazette lately to know how they’re doing, but I do know that Fiddler’s May 15th flight out of Valencia occurred during another strike (or perhaps another chapter of the same strike), which landed him in Zurich overnight and allowed him to make his connection to his summer internship in California with hardly a chance to catch his breath.
The airport announcements are broadcast in both Spanish and British, much to the delight of my anglophile family. They keep telling us that if our flight is “coming from, leaving to, or over France,” we may have a problem, which they cheerfully hold at arm’s length, advising us to check with our airline. I’m not aware that we were going to be “coming from, leaving to or over France” at any time, but our flight has nevertheless been delayed at least a couple of hours. Maybe the plane we’re meant to get on fits the from/to/over category, and that’s why we’re still draped over and around our bags and baggage, or, in my case, sitting on the ground next to the bathrooms, plugged into the only outlet within a hectare of our gate. Or so I thought—it turns out there are lots of outlets in the bathroom. I thought that this airport was relatively new, not built in a time where women would have spent a lot of time in airport bathrooms plugging in various appliances (2006, in fact). As it is, if you’re not fortunate enough to secure the one outlet at the base of a pillar outside the bathroom, you can stand around inside the bathroom and charge your phone or your laptop, accompanied by the sounds of repeated flushing.
On Limonada’s great-to-terrible scale for rating airports, based, as far as I can tell, solely on electrical outlet and wifi abundance, Madrid gets very low marks. On the other hand, Loquita rather impractically values architecture above outlets, and has declared, “whoever designed this airport is my best friend.” Visually, it’s a stunner. Each of the structural supports from one end of the long terminal expanses to the other are painted in the color gradations of the rainbow. There was a gate number associated with the part of the terminal where we waited (and waited, and waited) for our flight, but more importantly, it was in the yellow-to-orange region.
Under the heading, “Kids says the darnedest things” is Ninja’s latest. He came out of the airport bathroom and declared, “cruelty, thy name is automatic air drying thingy.” Apparently he doesn’t feel they do a great job drying his hands in the time he expects hands to be dry. Before you fall back in wonder and amazement at his impressive facility with Shakespearean idioms, I will tell you that I think he learned the form from a Foxtrot comic, and not from the bard himself. I don’t know whether Will would chuckle or blanch to hear such a line.
Update from JFK International Airport, to be filed under “not too surprising, but definitely less than satisfying:” somebody decided that one of our checked bags wasn’t going to log enough travel miles, and so sent it to Miami. This is something we didn’t really need. I guess it’s difficult to picture a situation in which having your baggage lost would be seen as a positive. Looking around us in vain for the suitcase, we did find one small upside, which we acknowledged with gratitude. The process set up by the US Department of Customs and Border Protection involves retrieving your checked bags (or those of your bags that didn’t go to Miami), and hauling them, along with your carry-on and personal items, from the baggage area, through a passport check, through various mazes of stanchions (those waist-high poles with retractable webbing straps that connect them) and corridors, to the big room with more stanchion mazes and the customs officials who will chat with you about your paperwork, and whether you’ve really declared all that needed to be declared. Through all this, we were grateful that Ninja didn’t have to pull both a carry-on and a heavy roller bag larger than he is.
We’ve been told that they’ll call us when our wayward suitcase arrives from the Sunshine State, and that they’ll deliver it to us at my parents’ house. Breath is not being held. If it hasn’t shown up by Monday, we’re flying out again that morning, and we can have another chat at the customer service counter then. In the meantime, there are the remaining suitcases to unpack. Hello, Massachusetts!