Monday, July 18, 2011


by Gina Sestak

I realized something a few weeks ago.  Despite security threats, inconvenience, confusion and delays, I still love to travel.  There's something exhilarating about stepping onto an airplane, no matter where it's likely to touch down.  It's fun to drag your luggage through an unfamiliar airport, or listen for the call of train arrivals in a station.  Standing in line, waiting to clear customs, I can imagine almost anything is possible.  So what if the bored guy in the booth barely glances at my passport and asks questions in a monotone?  It still feels like an adventure.

As you can tell, I lead a dull and boring life.

Last month I traveled to Kerkrade, Netherlands.  It's not an easy place to get to.

Rolduc Abbey, a medieval monastery, was the setting for the annual conference of a group I belong to, the International Association for the Study of Dreams.  Pre-conference directions made it sound easy to reach the abbey from several airports.  I saved a few hundred dollars by flying into Brussels, and that could have been where the fun began, but it began much earlier, in Pittsburgh, when the magic electronic ticketing machine couldn't read my passport.  I was directed to a special airline employee, who managed to verify my identity and notice that my planned flight to New York was running too late to make the connecting flight to Brussels.  She routed me through Atlanta at no extra charge.  So far, so good.

The flight reached Brussels only a little late.  Then I had to figure out how to find a train.  There is a train station in the airport itself, complete with a totally unhelpful ticket seller who sold me a ticket but who wouldn't, despite apparently being fluent in English, tell me which of three widely-separated tracks carried the train I needed to catch first.  [Yes, I did say "first."  There were three trains in all.]

I fell back on my standard way of dealing with such situations, which gets easier the older I get - I begged passing strangers for assistance.  One kind woman with a young child got me to the right set of tracks in time to catch the first train, which plunked me down in a great big train station with dozens of widely separated tracks.  By then I felt confident enough to try to read the schedule.  I found the train I needed.  It would be leaving from a particular track in a few minutes.  I ran to that track, dragging my luggage behind me and hauled it up a flight of stairs.  There was an elevator, but it was out of order.

The moving letter display that announces the next train was announcing a different train.  I glanced across two sets of tracks and saw my train being announced on the display above the platform over there.  It was due in one minute.  I grabbed my stuff and ran again - down the steps, through an underground passageway, up another flight of steps - just in time to jump onto the train which had arrived, its doors already open.

Then there was a long train ride - hours - through rainy countryside.  I managed to get off at the right stop and board the next train without too much trouble.   The conference instructions said taxis would be available at the Kerkrade station.  Problem was, there was no Kerkrade "station," just a parking lot.  Aided by another kind stranger, I managed to locate a taxi and make it to the abbey.

It wasn't until a few days later, when I started checking the train schedules again, that I realized I wouldn't be able to make it to the airport on time for my return flight.   Even if I got the first train out of Kerkrade and made every connection perfectly, I would arrive at Brussels airport fifteen minutes before takeoff - not enough time to get on an international flight.  The person at the conference center desk suggested taking a taxi - for about 150 Euros (more than $200!).    The trains all put together had cost around 35 Euros, plus another 10 Euros for cab fare to the abbey, which turned out to be out in the country.   I walking a mile or so into the nearest little town, where the nearest MAC machine was located, and drew out a lot of Euros.  I also posted a note on the conference bulletin board looking for someone - anyone! - going to the airport who could share the cost.

Luckily, someone else was going to Brussels airport, and he had a rented car.  Although his plane didn't leave until later, he had already decided to take another person to an early flight, and so I got a ride.  I gave him the money I would have had to spend on the cab and trains.  Believe me, it was worth it, even though he did get lost a few times and terrified me (and his other passenger) by trying to read a map while whizzing along a super-highway in heavy traffic.

I almost missed getting on my plane anyway.  I simply couldn't find it.  The monitor said the plane would be leaving from Gate 14.  There didn't seem to be a Gate 14.  I wandered around for a long time until I spotted a Delta employee who sent me to a different gate, and so I did manage to board.

Then the plane sat on the runway for a long time while I watched security personnel searching our luggage on the tarmac.  Somebody said there had been a bomb threat.

My fellow passengers were getting cranky.  A baby started screaming - and kept screaming for a few hours after we took off.  I'm never sure what to do in such situations.  You realize that the child is in distress and you want to comfort it, but then - especially after the first half hour or so - there's the impulse to whack it over the head with something large and heavy . . .

We got to Atlanta late and I rushed onto the next plane.  It pulled away from the gate, then stopped.  We waited.  Finally, a catering truck drove up and started loading boxes into the side of the plane.  They had forgotten to replenish the soda and pretzels.

And so I made it home.

Reading it here, it sounds like a lot of hassles, but I really enjoyed every minute of it.  There's a mind-set I shift into when I'm traveling, a state of having no expectations, that feels like a form of meditation.   Whatever happens, happens.  There is little you can do but go with the flow.  Sit back.  Enjoy.  It's an adventure!


Martha Reed said...

Hi, Gina - welcome home!

Great post. I love traveling, too, and it's all about the kindness of strangers. That's why, when I'm here in Pittsburgh and I see someone with a map, I always ask if I can help. Turnabout is fair play!

Joyce said...

I knew there was a good reason I rarely go anywhere. I've never been out of the country. Except Canada about twenty years ago, but that doesn't count.

Great attitude, Gina. I would have been one cranky bitch.

Gina said...

Right, Martha. I always go out of my way to assist lost strangers, too.

I admit it, I was getting a little antsy toward the end there, Joyce, because I absolutely had to be at work early the next morning - the bankruptcy court had graciously decided to schedule 18 conciliations, starting at 9 a.m., which meant I had to get in early enough to check if anything had changed since I'd reviewed the files before leaving on vacation. At one point I was envisioning having to go straight to the office from the airport. Luckily, that wasn't necessary and I actually got some sleep. In fact, I got a lot of sleep. I got so good at sleeping on airplanes during the long trans-Atlantic flights that I'm still finding it difficult not to nod off whenever I sit down.

Ramona said...

I like Martha's helpful attitude. You certainly are intrepid, Gina. It sounds like the conference was worth the hassle.

I dislike the inconvenience of travel, but I dislike staying home more than that. Now that I'm older, I think I've mellowed. Once you travel by air with twin babies, one of whom hasn't had a boom-boom in a week and decides to let fly when you are airborne, your perspective changes drastically.

Annette said...

Gina, your trip sounds like an episode of The Amazing Race!

Patg said...

Needless to say, I love traveling, and I too feel the exhilaration of a foreign airport. All the bussle, bumping and talking to people, but I'm one of those people who's eyebrows go up in wonder when people say they hate crowds and big cities. I consider the year a bust if I haven't left the country at least once. Homebody, I Ain't!!
But I'm not much of a wander around on my own either--I have major expectations, and I don't leave it to myself to attain them.

Gina said...

Um, Patg, I'm one of those folks who hate crowds and big cities . . . That doesn't detract from the excitement of being in a new place, though. Really.

As a lawyer, I can't help noting my magic verification word. It's judgenha.

Dave S. said...

Gotta give you credit: Describing what you went through, you could easily have complained about the difficulties and obstacles that reared up at every turn. Instead, you viewed it as an adventure. A nice approach and a good life-lesson.

Dave S.

Gina said...

Not to mention fodder for future writing projects . . .

djapollo2k said...

Great travel essay. I used to spend fifty percent of my work time traveling before 9/11. Lots of time in the air. Ran off the runway in Atlanta. Gear-up foam landing at Kennedy. Nearly violent confrontation with gate personnel in Denver. I come from a railroad family and, if at all possible, I go by train these days. Actually all in it takes about the same time to go to LA from SF by train as it does by plane. Comfort vs cattle-car ambiance. Dignified boarding vs invasive Gestapo groping.

Perhaps I'm spoiled. I remember airline travel before deregulation: excellent meals, service and spacious seating. One could run from the gate right into the plane.

Yes, there is the excitement of a new place and new faces. I loved wandering around a new city at night with no particular destination, even on a business trip. Adventure:) Glad you had a wonderful trip Gina.

Gina said...

I remember airlines before deregulation, too, Henry - except for the excellent meals. My recollection is of tasteless tv dinners, with little ability to meet dietary needs. [Remember, I am vegetarian.] It was nice, though, pre-9/11 when we could meet our friends right as they got off the plane. I guess that's what cell phones are for - communicating as best you can to figure out where to meet and pick them up.

Appropriately enough, my verification word is "baysend."
[For those of you still scratching your heads, this is appropriate because I'm responding (i.e., sending this response) to a comment from someone who lives near San Francisco Bay.]