A couple hours into the flight to Madrid, in spite of a prescription chemical designed to induce drowsiness, I still wasn’t asleep. The woman sharing our pair of seats by the window returned from the bathroom and noticed that there were dozens of empty seats on the plane. We didn’t have to sit squeeed in together. She moved to the pair of empty seats behind us.
I felt a little silly. In earlier times I had routinely waited until the second time the “final boarding call” was announced, saunter on the plane an grab a seat much better than the one on my ticket. Now, though, I’m more likely to lead the heard for fear that if I am not one of the first on board there won’t be any place for my carry-on bag, since current airline policies encourage people to carry on much more than the overhead compartments can hold.
With my seatmate departed, I tried to stretch out on the pair of seats, but even with more space, the chemicals failed to deliver the promised sleep. I watched the movies and listened to music on my noise-canceling headphones and eventually arrived in Madrid.
Not having to wait for baggage was a joy, though even the short delay to get through immigration was enough for the bags to be waiting. I was not able to zip past all of my plane-mates as I had fantasized. Customs was a breeze. I walked through a door that said something like “Nothing to declare,” and there I was in Madrid.
Jenny, my cousin had very generously offered to meet me at the airport. There was no sign of Jenny. Had I screwed up somehow? My sense of concern was somewhat heightened because the morning that I was scheduled to leave Birmingham, a couple hours before I was going to wake up and begin packing, I got a phone call from her. She was at the airport. Waiting. Where was I? I was in bed. Several thousand miles away.
I have a long history of botched travel stories. Once I booked the flight for the wrong month. Another time I arrived at the airport over an hour early for the flight to learn that I had booked the flight out of Nashville rather than Knoxville. And then there was the time that I had intended to stay up all night before I left this lovely little island somewhere in Greece, but decided to take a nap. I overslept. I missed my flight, spent a day in the airport on standby before finally getting a flight to Athens where I stayed the night in the airport. So when my cell phone awoke me from my slumber in Birmingham and Jenny asked why I wasn’t in the airport, I was sure I had screwed up. I hadn’t though. Now, a day later, I was in the airport, and there was no Jenny.
I had my cell phone, but its transmitter was worthless in Europe. In days of yore, people had skills and implicit systems in place for meeting people in unfamiliar places. A friend recently told me that when he was fifteen and traveling out west he had arranged to meet some friends with only the date and name of the town to go on. No problem. Today, though, those skills have left our collective consciousness. If someone hasn’t appeared within moments of the appointed time, mobile phones are activated, words are exchanged, and only then can you find the person in plain sight a stone’s throw away.
What was I going to do?
Until my phone’s battery died, I had her address. Worst case, I could hop in a cab, give the driver the address, and be dropped at her door. Eventually she too would go home and find me.
With the worst case solution in place, I began trying to summon past knowledge for finding people in public places. I decided that to wait at the place where my flight arrived, as it was the only place she would know to look. Even if there were somehow some other place that my flight might have come in (which, it turned out, there was), leaving this spot would mean that she and I might walk in endless circles looking for each other. I had to stay put.
With that decision made, I worked on other plans. I had Jenny’s phone number. How about a public phone? Riiight. All I’d have to do is get change–if the phones take change rather than some kind of card–then figure out how to dial her London phone number. That seemed very difficult. Ha! I could borrow someone’s phone and use it to call Jenny. All I needed to do now was figure out how to say “Hey. My phone only works in the US. I am supposed to meet my cousin, but she isn’t here. I have her phone number. Can I use your phone? Oh. Hell. I can’t make this thing work. Can you dial it for me?” That seemed complicated and involved lots of words I didn’t know. I edited it down to “Excuse me [Sir/Madame]. My phone doesn’t work here. Could you call my friend on your telephone?” I pulled out my little phrase book and was practicing the words under my breath while trying to decide what kind of person I might ask and how to approach them. It was only about fifteen minutes after when I expected to see her. I decided to wait until thirty minutes past the rendezvous hour before starting to approach strangers in my pigeon Spanish. Just as I was deciding who to ask first and getting up the courage to approach a stranger with my bad accent, Jenny came running up. I was saved.
As I was soon to learn from my young cousin, I probably would not have had to say “Se habla Ingles” more than twice to find someone who spoke English and would be happy make the call for me.