Thursday, December 15, 2005

Horrific Voyage: With two little kids, everywhere is a No-Fly Zone

There's a good reason why one parent alone shouldn't take a multi-leg transatlantic voyage as the sole guardian of two toddlers. The reason is that if all goes perfectly according to plan it's awful, and if anything goes wrong it's a disaster.

The story I'm going to tell you is a true story. I have to apologize in advance for the fact that even though it's on the humor page, it's not very funny, or at least it wasn't at the time. You might get a laugh out of it if you subscribe to the theory that "comedy is tragedy plus distance" and/or if you're a big fan of the type of comedy where somebody steps on the end of a rake and the handle swings up and smacks them in the head. I'll tell you the story, and you can decide.

It all started when we determined that, due to work constraints, my husband couldn't fly out to Minnesota to visit my family with me and our two boys but would be joining us there partway through our visit.

We were supposed to fly Bordeaux-Amsterdam, Amsterdam-Minneapolis. The big suitcase was checked through so that I wouldn't have to deal with it until the very end, going through customs on arriving, which is good because I can't transport both boys, plus the carry-on needed to sustain them for the long trip, and the suitcase all at once.

We got up at 4 a.m. and took the taxi to our morning flight.

We then got on the first flight, and got to the point of going down the runway when they realized there was a mechanical problem with the plane. Flight canceled, everybody out, get your checked baggage and try to change your itinerary.

Fortunately a nice airport employee helped me. Nothing was available for us with a single connection for at least three days. If I had known then what I know now, I would have said "OK, book me on that -- see you in three days." But I accepted a new itinerary with one additional connection: Bordeaux-Paris, Paris-Newark, Newark-Minneapolis, knowing I'd have to take my checked bag through customs by hand and re-check it in Newark.

After four hours waiting with the kids in the Bordeaux airport, I was already stressed before the first leg of the trip.

Bordeaux-Paris went fine -- the kids played in the plane. Making the connection in Paris went OK, too. Nico was such a good boy, he kept up and kept a hold of the stroller as we raced -- me with two backpacks and Leo in the stroller -- to our next flight.

The first seven hours of the eight-hour flight to Newark went OK. Leo had to run around in the aisle a bit, but mostly they were OK and didn't throw any tantrums.

Then the last hour we went into a holding pattern just before arriving because of a storm over New York City. No planes landing or taking off. After 45 minutes of holding, we landed in Boston. As we were landing, Leo threw up all over my leg.

Since a bunch of other planes were in the same boat, we had to wait to refuel and then wait for a turn on the runway. They announced a one-hour wait. We were on the tarmac in Boston for three hours. Three hours!!! After that long flight. And there I was stressed out of my mind wondering what I was going to do about my missed flight on arriving, knowing I would have to fight the crowds of 300 passengers on this flight and who knows how many others -- with my two babies in tow and my giant suitcase -- to try to get booked on something. I didn't have any milk left for Nico and precious little for Leo if they were to wake up and start crying. Terrified, I ask the stewardess to call ahead to Newark to tell them I will need extra assistance with my babies on arriving in Newark.

Then after one hour of flight and we arrived in Newark, both babies asleep. It was 9p.m. -- too late to catch the last flight to Minneapolis...

Everything was a mess at Newark, but fortunately one airport employee had been set aside to help me through customs. This was necessary since both boys were asleep Nico wouldn't wake up to walk. So I carried Leo (who is a big boy) all through customs, etc. pulling my big suitcase and the airport lady took my backpack and pushed Nico in the stroller.

The airline had arranged us a hotel, and new return tickets. We sat on the sidewalk with the other passengers for an hour not knowing when or if the bus was really going to come to take us to the hotel.

Waiting for the bus, Leo cuddled and didn't cry. Nico asked for the picture book my parents had made for him about this voyage we were making. Nico "read" each page about how we would take a taxi to the airport and see the airplanes, etc. It almost brought tears to my eyes to see this sweet boy comforting himself in this ordeal by reading this book about how fun his adventure would be. Of course I was practically in tears already.

Getting on the bus, I looked at my flight tickets for the next day. I should have looked earlier -- they had booked Nico and Leo on a different flight from mine!!!!!

The bus took us to a hotel more than an hour south of the airport (like if you'd been grounded in Salt Lake and they put you up in Provo, or farther). We passed many of my old haunts where I used to go all the time, including passing a few blocks from one of my old apartments. Unfortunately I didn't really know anyone in the area anymore and didn't have the phone numbers of the few I did know....

Arriving in my hotel room, it was 1 a.m. With the time difference for me, that made 30 hours straight of nonstop stress, and probably worse to come. I called my parents collect and begged them to call the airline and fix my tickets for the next day.

Fortunately by 2 a.m. they were able to fix everything and got us booked on an 11 a.m. flight. That didn't give much time for recovery sleep, and I didn't even know how I was getting to the airport the next day, except that Mom had said that the airline had said that something would be arranged at the hotel.

Leo slept right away, but Nico stayed awake for hours crying for milk. I had none to give him and no way to get any. When he finally fell asleep, I was still so stressed and terrified that there was no way was I could sleep, so I took a shower. I really needed it, and it helped my relax a little tiny bit. I packed our things back up and washed their drinking cups for the next day.

I got 1 1/2 hours of sleep before Leo woke me up with a big smile, all playful and ready for the day. I gathered them up and went to breakfast. They didn't want to eat any of the unfamiliar food except that Nico wanted some orange juice. He drank plenty of orange juice, and I filled his cup with more for later.

I asked the man at the desk about the transportation, and he told me that there was a bus arranged for us and that it would leave for the airport in 15 minutes. I wasn't quite done packing in the room, so I begged him not to let the bus leave without me, and I raced back with the boys to finish up. Fortunately I didn't miss it.

When we arrived at the airport, they dropped me off at curbside check-in, and I was able to get rid of my big suitcase. So with Nico up and walking again, we were portable without assistance once again.

When I got to the gate, I found that an earlier flight to Minneapolis had just been canceled. It was a madhouse -- people standing in this hours-long line to fix their flight. I had two hours before my flight at this point, and was terrified out of my wits that my flight would be canceled too.

I was a walking zombie at this point -- I couldn't stand up without getting dizzy. I was only able to watch my kids still because it was an absolute emergency. If our flight was canceled, I had no energy left to handle it in the slightest. I was inches away from having a full-scale nervous breakdown right there. But at least I had confirmed seats and boarding passes, so as long as the flight wasn't canceled, it would be OK.

Once we boarded the plane I felt an immense relief. Before we took off, the pilot fired up the engines for a long time without moving. I began to panic once again -- mechanical failure!!! We would have to get off!!! But no, he told us over the loudspeaker that it was just that they had overfueled and needed to burn some off to get down to take-off weight.

Nico colored quietly for the first hour of the 2 1/2 hour flight, and Leo slept like a baby angel the whole time. Once we were at cruising altitude, I slept too.

A few things added up to a delay of about a half-hour on that flight, and I laughed when the pilot apologized to us for such a trivial delay.

When we landed and found my dad, I was so incredibly relieved, it was beyond words.

The whole thing took 41 hours. It was the most extended period of intense fear and stress I have felt in my entire life, beating out even the qualifying exams in grad school (which at least I was prepared for, unlike this!). I took a long nap and had nightmares that I was still off in some strange city and needed to arrange a new flight to take the boys home.

I will never again fly alone with two toddlers through a city where I haven't arranged in advance someone to meet me in case of emergency.

Our little boys aren't always 100 percent perfectly behaved, but when it came right down to it -- and Mommy really needed them to be good boys -- they were very good boys.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor December 1, 2005.

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