Travel Chicken or Travel Egg
The age old question of which came first, the chicken on the egg, is easy to answer, but recently I added a similar wrinkle to a question I’ve been asking myself for a while. That question is: Do I like to travel and therefore end up finding myself in airport terminals, bus depots, train stations, and truck stops or do I find myself in airport terminals, bus depots, train stations, and truck stops and as a result like to travel?
By itself It seems a weird question. Who likes to end up in these crowded public spaces that are so vastly different architecturally, functionally, and geographically that often end up being the worst part of the travel experience? My longest work in progress is a story called The Trouble with Travel, parts of which I will begin sharing here soon, but that does not help explain my fascination. It stems more from my desire to look on the underside, or from the outside, with a different perspective and often viewpoint. Case in point, there was no one else atop the Arc d’triumph admiring the drain structures.
Interesting parts of the transportation termini for me include how things flow, the operations, the layout, the method of doing the same tasks repetitively day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, passenger after passenger. I don’t really think anyone who’s gone through engineering school or worked as an engineer looks at the world quite the same way as they did beforehand. In fact, the built environment was viewed differently by us than others before we attended. After attendance we could view it more mathematically, more scientifically, more like the building blocks that make it up. A very common pastime, not just for engineers, is people watching, but engineers often take it to the next level and watch not just people, but how people interact with their surroundings.
So, the chicken to my egg, was posed by my wife: “Do the workers in airports get a bad attitude from the travelers, or do the travelers get a bad attitude from the workers?”
For the most part my air travels, especially internationally, have been alone without my family. Yesterday was the first time I have flown with my family since we moved to Germany in 2016. It’s only the fourth flight I have taken with my wife, and the first two were before we had children. For many years I prayed that God would hurry up and grant me patience, and after a mere three decades, He did. My patience is evident when I travel. I understand the cause of my travel concerns is not usually the fault of the people I’m looking at and it does no good to take out my frustrations on them. That begins (or continues) the downward spiral quickly. But this trip frayed me. Maybe it’s because I’m taking care of my family, maybe it was just what happened. I’ll continue to evaluate that, but it ranked down there, probably second worst trip ever. Trumping even the only time they lost my luggage.
Since we were traveling together we had to find long term parking which threw in an extra wrinkle. A wrinkle which got me to the airport three hours before my flight. I'm never that early. Standing in the first line we got the notice that our flight was postponed three hours. We had a 5 hour layover in Chicago which I felt comfortable with. Chicago ranks right up there with Frankfurt as airports to avoid. Berlin is a distant third. The delay meant we were down on the layover time but I never let Ginger know I was worried about it. O'Hare left no surprise, in fact it felt as if it were battling it out to take the bottom spot from Frankfurt.
Somewhere between the first check-in line and the third checkpoint we lost Faith’s jacket. If you’re wandering through Terminal 2 at München and see a pink jacket that fits a 7 year old grab it and drop me a line. After the fourth checkpoint I didn’t realize we were locked in to the gate and couldn’t get out. There were bathrooms and one small restaurant but no options. We got to that gate about 1120, so it would have hard to make it there in time for the original 1140 flight anyway but we had never stopped moving.
Since it was time to eat we hit the little restaurant. But they were out of bread. Bread. A Bayerische Restaurant without bread. This is like a beach without sand. They ran out of bread by 1130, pre-lunch. If they had run out of beer there would have been a coup and you have to worry about those Munchen Putsches. We ate, then walked back to the gate and sat down just in time to hear that we could get a voucher because the plane was delayed. But that had not been our first bit of ill-timing.
At the first counter they gave us two seats together and the third somewhere else. Then for our connecting flight we only had two seats assigned. She mentioned that they only had “paid” seats left so I’d have to get that seat assigned in Chicago. Somewhere along the way Ginger asked me about that. I said that either they’d give me a free paid for seat or they’d pay me to not have three seats. Which would mean that they had two free seats they could give me. The Catch 22s of this flight keep compounding. But in reality, this lack of a seat bothered me because I knew Chicago was ahead of us.
Back to the gate, I talked to a gentleman there and asked if he could get the three of us together. He moved two seats to be together and told me the guy in the third seat was traveling alone. Since I had a similar aisle seat he would probably switch with me, especially when he saw my seven year old. Then he asked if I’d gotten the vouchers. Thirty-nine Euros worth of free food I could only use that day, in that airport, where they locked me down and I only had one place to use it. And I’d just eaten for 33 Euros.
But things don’t get me down while traveling, we bought 40 Euros worth of candy bars, chocolate, and drinks. By this time my overly patient wife had become short, and my seven year old, who was tired, hungry, and failed to listen when Ginger cautioned her on how much to bring as carry-ons, had just plain lost it. Just before the gate opened I walked back to return the bottles for deposit as they closed off the restaurant so we couldn’t get there from our gate. The ladies we could see told me I couldn’t go through them to get out. I told them, “Thank you, but I’m done with this airport.” Terminal 2 in München is not the joy that is the rest of my European ATL.
I’m American by birth and Southern by the Grace of God, I’m polite, I clean up after myself, and try not to lay on my fellow man. But after 5 hours of lines, problems, family meltdowns, and price gouging my limit was reached. I have not described it sufficient to gain your sympathy, but I assure you I had been generous up to then. I loudly announced that I was about to use the restroom and I was only going to use the wall, not the fixtures. Ginger was not proud. I just said piss on Munich.
As proof that our experience that day I offer the bus ride from the gate to the plane. Several of the folks on our flight had been meandering through the system with us from the beginning--the parking deck. Another oddity of this flight was that nearly everyone spoke English. And having never met a stranger, I talked to a lot of them. But on the bus ride from the gate to the plane (a new experience for Ginger) somehow the group conversation turned into a bus-wide game of “It could be worse.” Everyone was having a bad travel day. The family from the “other” LA (not Lower Alabama, the one in CA), the lady who was traveling to Albany back from Krakow where here biological (she was adopted) family had 17th century roots, the German family wearing FC Bayern Munchen apparel, the lone motorcycle riding mechanic, everyone joined in. And it was a raucous game. But it got everyone into a slightly better mood because cliche or not, misery loves company.
So the plane pushed away from the gate, late, after having been delayed, and the pilot announced it would be forty minutes before we could takeoff. A few minutes later he came back to announce that we had gotten an earlier departure time, but I noticed he failed to mention a duration this time. After we arrived in Chicago, late. we had no delays, other than just time to move through the crowds. We went through customs, rude Chicagoans barking at travelers doing the wrong things. Got our bags, shuffled around the corner to the out of the way United counter to re-check our bags. I asked the bag guy about the ticket. He said go to the new terminal and they’d fix it but because we did not have much time it was better to be there doing it. We shuffled through another passport check, and then out to get onto a shuttle to the terminal. The only time I have ever been in Chicago without having to literally run from gate to gate was when my end destination was Chicago. This was no exception.
I left my family to rush to the ticketing counter where the United attendant told me I could get my seat at the gate. I was very clear when I said I need three, I have two. She said, “No problem. Go to Security 2.” I asked again, “I only have 2 boarding passes, can I get through TSA?” She reiterated, “No problem, You’ll get your pass at the gate.”
Guess what I didn’t get through.
I went back to the same lady and told her she lied, to which she replied, “I can’t help you.” No shit. Finally got it fixed, then shuffled through TSA, then some other checkpoint. Then there was the sprint. Again I left my family and darted through the crowd arriving out of breath and panting one minute before the gate was closing. Did I mention that last week I hit the twenty year anniversary of the day I stopped exercising? A proud moment for me, but O'Hare continues to be my nemesis in that regard. From the time we landed we never stopped. Not for a bathroom, not to feed the hungry seven year old, not even to put my belt back on after TSA. Constant movement.
They knew I was coming. These guys scanned my family’s tickets even though they weren’t there. Once we got on the plane I asked the flight attendant to slip me some pretzels early for my daughter. It didn’t matter how long or short the flights were it had been a bad day to travel for all. The three guys from Wisconsin had had it rough. One trucker said he was never flying into Mobile again, he’d drive from Chicago. Three ladies spoke of never using United again. I didn't talk to everyone, but everyone I did shared with me their troubles even though I did not offer mine first.
Friday’s flight was so miserable it made me reconsider my love of George Gershwin. The greatest American composer of all time. The reason Rhapsody in Blue beats out the Star Spangled Banner for best music of all times is that To Anacreon in Heaven is not an American composition, rather an English one. And these United employees made me rethink my love of George.
At the end of the day I walked out of the Mobile terminal, took two steps to clear the doors and stopped. Head rolled back and arms wide open. As I soaked in the all-oppressive humidity I have missed so dearly I could hear my young bride telling me she didn’t want to hear it. She hates it, but she knows I love the humidity. I am a fish who has returned to water. The airport may be 50 miles west and 2 miles north of where I was born and raised, but that minor difference is insignificant in the overall scheme of climate. No matter where I roam, I am home.
Home, with my whole family. The wife I married, the three children we had together, my parents, my uncles, aunts, cousins, in-laws, and every one else. Travel is great, but nothing beats coming home. It’ll fix what ails you. It’ll make up for a miserable trip. No matter which came first or who caused what at the end of the day the scrambled egg eats as well as the fried chicken.