Our plane, en route to JFK airport, lost its weather radar and had to make an emergency landing in Detroit. Though no oxygen masks were deployed from the ceiling and no cheery attendants herded us through the side exits like chattel, it was still unnerving. That night we stayed in a hotel, washed our unmentionables in the sink, ate whatever food our miserly vouchers could cover (which was pretty much toast and tap water), and the next afternoon boarded another flight to JFK, then our destination: London-Heathrow.
Upon landing in London, my two friends and I stumbled beneath the weight of our cumbersome backpacks and equally hefty jet-lag. Somehow we managed to travel from airport to train, then find the flat where we were to stay for the next four nights. My friend took a video of me weaving up the early morning -- and therefore deserted -- street. A plastic sack had wrapped itself around my right foot, but I was too tired to remove it. For a few yards I continued to shuffle along in my travel-weary clothes, greasy face and hair, and attached plastic sack. Watching that video now, it really is surprising that no one threw a few pounds at my feet out of sheer compassion, which would've come in handy considering the exchange rate.
After spending the night under a chair at an all-night prayer meeting (thank goodness for ear plugs), our one friend chose to stay at the flat to catch up on rest while my other friend and I ventured into the city. You must understand, I hadn't slept more than six hours in 48, and when those subway doors slammed in front of me -- separating me from my American friends in a country that felt more foreign with every "biscuit" for "cookie" utterance -- I plastered myself against the window and beat it with both hands.
I'm pretty sure I would've hurtled myself along with the subway if my friend (who'd lived in London for over a year and knew the ropes) hadn't hit the button that made the doors open, and I lurched inside with a face redder than a beet. A few stations later, when the conductor said, "Oil change," I asked my ex-patriot friend: "Why does an electric subway need an oil change?"
My friend just looked at me a moment, then -- after the conductor repeated this phrase -- realized my confusion. "He's not saying, 'Oil change.' He's saying, 'All change.' This is the train's last destination. We all must change to a new one."
Southern accents do not translate well overseas.
For the next three days, because my friends and I were trying to travel as cheaply as possible, we ate peanut butter or tuna sandwiches and whenever we came upon free food, gorged ourselves sick whether we had an appetite or not. I started to feel slightly like a camel, and since my hygiene had taken a hit due to all those 3.5 oz. liquid restrictions, I probably smelled as bad as one, too.
Eight days and our three bodies some 20 pounds lighter, we left London for the country. When I blew my nose and the white tissue was not stained black with soot, I almost clicked my heels like Billy Elliot. When our hosts presented us with a hot meal, a cheese course and tea, two desserts (I ate both), then tucked us in between 400 count cotton sheets, I almost sobbed into their down feather pillow.
The rest of the week was something from a Jane Austen novel. We toured glorious manor houses, took a punt (similar to a gondola) down the river bordering Cambridge, explored Shakespeare's home and exquisite garden, had cream tea and scones in the Cotswolds, packed on the weight we had lost in London, and took leisurely strolls around the lake at twilight.
During our eight hour bus trip from Milton Keynes to Edinburgh, Scotland, I sat next to an Australian who had red hair splotched with black like a confused cheetah. He was going to Edinburgh for a bike race and his nickname was Barbeque.
"Why Barbecue?" I asked.
He grinned, then said, "I was taking some shots of absinthe that we'd lit on fire. By the fourth, I drank it before the fire went out and burnt up my head. It's a good thing I'd just shaved off my hair."
Before we disembarked, Barbeque revealed that he'd been in and out of jail 15 times for "brawling" and had another nickname -- Chuck Norris -- which he'd been dubbed because of his red mustache and his powerful roundhouse kick to a place I would rather not repeat.
(It's probably a good thing I didn't learn this at the beginning of the journey, or I probably would've switched seat partners.)
Over the next two days, I buckdanced on the Royal Mile, explored a medieval castle complete with a musty dungeon, climbed Arthur's Seat--a Scottish "lowland" that was so wind-whipped, I had to zip up my jacket or risk getting swept over the craggy mountain and sailing to my death.
It seemed I was just getting accostomed to Scotland when it was time to leave for Ireland. Once our plane had touched tarmac, we walked down the streets of Belfast (apparently, this is a tourist "no-no"), then boarded a train bound for Dublin. A few hours later, we were picked up at the station by our hosts--or, to put it more precisely, by our hosts' son: a 30-something man who'd obviously been looking forward to our arrival for quite some time. We went back to their huge, rambling home that had been passed down from generation to generation, then had tea and biscuits while overlooking the flower garden.
Wanting to take advantage of the little time I had left, the following morning my friend and I packed a picnic lunch and hiked along the Irish Coast. Out of everything I had seen, this was truly the most beautiful. The gravel path eventually gave way to a dirt trail hemmed in by a stone wall embroidered with ivy. Cobalt water lapped against the black shoals below. At one point, when we stopped for a breather, I spotted the smooth, dark head of a seal. Five miles later, the trail cracked open to a coastal village. My friend and I explored it a little, then stopped for some gelato cones, which we licked on our journey back.
Because this glorious day was my last, I didn't want to leave. We cooked a meal for our hosts, then sat and sipped herbal tea while (once again) overlooking the flower garden. I then went upstairs to repack and shower. While I was in the bathroom, our hosts' gray cat started scratching at the window while glaring at me with glittering green eyes. My hostess had informed me that this window was how the cat "got in and out," and that it should never, ever be closed. Well, it was obviously closed now, so I let the cat in, then shut the window because of the fearsome cold. A few minutes later I went downstairs to ask my friend a question and was met by the short, seventy-year-old host with an irate disposition.
"Did you let the cat in the window?" he asked, his brogue as thick as his girth.
"Well, don't you let it in again! I'm sorry, but don't you let it in again! Mary doesn't like cats."
I just nodded, asked my friend the question, then tiptoed back upstairs.
All of a sudden, I was ready to go home.
The next morning I awoke at 4:45 a.m., boarded a bus for Dublin, then my flight to London. Eleven hours later, my plane touched down in Atlanta, and I rushed to customs. For some reason, the visitor line was far longer than the permanent resident one. My flight was boarding by the time I made it through. Wearing my 25 pound backpack, I zigzagged in and out of the crowd and dashed toward the gates. Sweat was trickling down my back when I'd reached the proper one, but there was no need to hurry.
My flight had been delayed an hour.
One hour later, the flight had been delayed another hour. This pattern continued until the flight was canceled completely. A woman who had been on the flight with me from London asked if we should rent a car and drive to Nashville. I didn't think that would be wise considering the fact we hadn't slept in over 24 hours, and this woman looked like she was on the brink of a nervous breakdown already.
The tiny woman behind the booth announced that we were all being rebooked on the 10:50 flight. This didn't make sense since there were over 70 of us, and this flight was almost full. The woman directed us to a booth that would print out our boarding passes. The woman who wanted to rent a car with me waved her boarding pass in my face and said, "This isn't a boarding pass! It's a hotel and meal vouch-er! They're gonna make us spend the night!"
A dark-skinned woman came up to me and quietly said, "If you'll just go over there and print out your boarding pass, you won't have to stand in this line."
I think she was an angel.
Once I did as she'd suggested, I was shocked to see that my flight voucher was set for 9:00 that evening, not 10:50 like the rest. I had 10 minutes to make it to the other terminal. I'm telling you, adrenaline's a pretty amazing thing. I wove in and out of crowds, up and down escalators on no sleep, three cups of coffee, and a year's worth of carbonhydrates. When I finally arrived at the gate, they scanned my boarding pass voucher and waved me through.
It was that simple, and I was the last person to fill a seat.
At 10:30 my plane touched down in Nashville. For two whole weeks I'd been rehearsing my husband and my reunion. I would be wearing a flowing red gown. I'd have on some flashy red lipstick and stilettos to match. Perhaps some beaded jewelry I'd picked up while "abroad." I'd carry with me a worldly air that those that have traveled seem to assume as soon as their passport's been stamped with something other than Canada.
None of these things happened. I was currently wearing American Eagle jeans and a Cambridge sweatshirt that -- when purchasing -- had made me feel very intelligent, but was now wrinkled and stained with greasy airline food and 27 hours' worth of sweat. My hair was an oil slick, as was my face. My teeth were filmy, my legs as unshaved as my Mennonite ancestors'.
Then, matters got even worse. My husband couldn't come in the gates to sweep me off my feet and swing me around while smattering my greasy face with kisses. He would have been able to do that three hours ago, but he'd moved out of temporary parking when he knew my flight was delayed.
"Honey," he asked after calling my cell phone, "you mind if I pick you up at the curb?"
Well, wasn't that romantic! I guess I should feel grateful that he was going to put on the brake and not make me jump in through the window like a circus performer!
"Sure. That'll be fine," I tersely replied.
So, I lumbered out of the airport and plopped my bulk on a concrete bench. Ten minutes passed. My husband's white Jeep was nowhere to be found.
"Where are you?" I called and asked, like he'd just jetted off to Aruba on a red-eye.
"I think you're on the wrong level. Just come up the escalator. I'll be outside."
Nuh-huh! This was far too much! Here was the girl who was so optimistic during the airport delays that she was almost mutinized by her fellow passengers, about to burst into tears because she had to use an escalator!
"I am done with this traveling stuff!" I roared into the receiver. "Done, I tell you!"
Being the wise man that he is, my husband didn't say anything but just waited for me to get up the escalator and make my way out to the curb.
And there he was.
With the visage of him, every airport delay and rerouting, every peanut butter or tuna sandwich I'd consumed, every piece of jet-lag I'd toted around for two weeks along with my enormous backpack, every cultural confusion and traveling frustration disappeared.
Stepping into my husband's waiting arms, I forgot all about Buckingham Palace, the Cotswolds, the Royal Mile, and the Irish Coast.
All I wanted was to be home, for there was no other place in the world I would rather be.