Molt Be Blog

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Missed Connections, Missed Encounters and an All Around Awesome Time in Europe or “I Can't Believe I Saw the Whole Thing”

This is what you get when I take my laptop on the plane... a seven page blog entry. Don't even attempt to read this all at once or you will fall asleep on your desk in boredom.

The bachelor party for the wedding R and I attended last week was held in Amsterdam. We were visiting our friend AP in Copenhagen and I left on Sunday after going with them to visit the castle in Helsinore where the story of Hamlet is supposed to have been based.


There were 14 guys total that were attending the bachelor party, which was really more of a gathering. The groom, CA, had arranged the whole trip, including making reservations at the hostel that we'd be staying at as well as buying tickets for all of us for the return flight from Amsterdam back to Florence on May 1, which was awesome because it meant we'd all get to travel in together. Additionally, after I'd told him my arrival time when I booked my tickets, we'd figured out that I'd be coming into Amsterdam half an hour before CA and two of his friends from Florence who were flying up together, so we could meet up at the airport before heading into town.

Once off my flight I looked for any information that would tell me about arrivals and gates, but found nothing. I also needed to get downstairs to baggage claim to collect my own luggage and figured I'd just meet them where their bags would come out (I should have realized that they wouldn't have any bags...). I went downstairs, got my own bag and then asked where theirs were coming out. An agent explained that their flight had been delayed until 7:05pm (half an hour more) and that I'd have to wait to find out. Just like in Copenhagen, my cell phone still didn't work, so I used a pay phone to call R and had her send a text to CA to tell him that I'd be at his baggage claim. Unfortunately, I'd given her the wrong number and the text never went through. After waiting outside of CA's baggage claim for half an hour after all the bags were out, I gave him a call with the correct number and he explained that they were already on the train downtown, which I should catch and then meet the at the McDonald's at the train station. Half an hour later, after buying a ticket and taking the next train downtown, I arrived at the station and learned that there was no McDonald's, but there was a Burger King. I got there, found no one, made another call and was finally united with CA and his two friends.
The "McDonald's". Damn!

The four of us then walked from the station to our hostel on the other side of town, where we met up with the rest of the party minus one, ZC, who was still MIA.

We'd managed to land ourselves in Amsterdam the day before their national holiday of Queen's day, which, from what I could figure out, is a lot like Mardi Gras, involves wearing lots of orange clothing, drinking and eating hamburgers while getting lost in the cobweb that is Amsterdam's street system.

Our first night there, after waiting an hour to check in, we all headed down the street to stuff a Shwarma in our mouths and then go to a bar. The 14th member of the group, ZC, was still missing when we sat down at the first bar, but, lo and behold, he was spotted by the groom walking by about 15 minutes after we'd sat down.

“Boy am I glad I found you guys,” ZC said in his Dallas drawl. “I've been looking everywhere for you.”

“Are you joking? There must be eight million extra people in this city today,” CA said. “How did you find us?”

“Well, I just started calling all the numbers I had and then I started looking for you.”

ZC's ridiculous string of luck would continue the next day as we all wandered around the city in huge orange socks provided by CA and ZC was separated from the main group again and again, only to be found each time by someone in the group when they happened upon him elsewhere in the city (by a lake watching swans, in a coffeeshop, coming out of an alley, etc.).
Queen's Day Crowds

On Tuesday, May 1, we woke up at 7am to get all of our things packed up and to head for the airport. CA, the groom, had bought tickets for all of us on Meridiana airlines for a flight at 10:20am. Our taxis were a bit late in picking us up to get the airport, but we arrived by 8:50am and went to check in. The electronic check in wasn't working for any of our tickets, so we had to get into a huge mess of a line at the KLM counter where we were directed by one of the airport agents. Somehow the group got split up, with five guys, including the groom, headed down one line and six of us headed down another. The line moved slowly. After half an hour and with only two groups between us and the check-in counter, we watched as one lady had to twice remove items from her bag because it was too heavy to check. When we finally got to the counter, the woman explained that she could only check in three of us at a time. This seemed a bit strange since we were all traveling together, but since we only had about forty minutes before the flight was to leave, the first three went and she started checking them in. After five minutes she stopped, saying that the computer was saying their tickets were paper tickets, but that we were presenting her with electronic tickets. She made a phone call and five minutes later said that everything was OK and continued checking the first three in. Once their bags were gone and they had their boarding passes, they took off running for security and the remaining three of us put our passports out for the agent. With my bag on the belt, she proceeded to take about five minutes to find all of our names in the computer. I could watch what she was doing from where I was standing and saw that the system was running in what looked like Windows 3.1 and that she was having real problem finding each of our names. The computers was extremely slow to respond to her commands, stalling half a second after each click before showing any results. After she had all of our names found, she picked up the phone again and started speaking with someone. She wrote down a phone number, hung up and then made another call. She spoke again for about three minutes and then hung up saying, “I'm sorry, but the plane is no longer accepting luggage and you each have an item that you will have to check. This means that the flight is closed to you and you cannot get on.”

“What?!? That's impossible! We were with those three right ahead of us! How can they get on and we can't?!?”

“I'm sorry. You were late.”

“But we're part of the same party! We're going to a wedding! We're all in the same wedding together! We can't get split up! We didn't even buy these tickets! All the people we could call are on that plane because we're traveling together!”

She explained the issue again and told us that we'd have to go to the flight assistance counter behind us to see what they could do about finding us another flight. We went and grabbed a number, B075, and looked up to see that they were currently serving B031 and that there were B numbers and P numbers being served at the same three counters that were open. I ran to a pay phone and called CA to tell him what was happening.

“Seriously?” he asked. “How can they say the flight is closed? I'm standing outside the gate waiting for it to board and there's still a half hour.”

“Well, that's what they said and they won't let us check our bags or get a boarding pass. We're going to try to figure out another way to get there and I'll give you a call around the time you're supposed to land.”

Part of why I was so frustrated was that R had arrived in Florence from Copenhagen that morning, had been alone all day to check into the hotel and was expecting me to be there around 1pm. I asked CA to make sure that R found out as soon as possible what had happened so that she wouldn't worry and then went back to see how the other two, JC and ZC, were doing. I'd only met ZC for the first time two days prior when he happened upon us at the bar in Amsterdam, but JC and I had met previously back when R and I lived in Barcelona. ZC is a friend of the bride and groom's from Dallas with a Forrest Gump accent, a great eye with a camera and a carefree attitude.
In the Bardini Gardens

The three of us that remained waited for the number a bit while I held my head in my hands. I went to the bathroom and when I came back JC was over at the original check-in counter talking to a different agent. ZC explained that she had come over and said that she heard about our situation and was going to try to take care of us.

With the new agent helping us in particular, things were finally starting to look up... or so we thought. After ten minutes, she came back over and explained that she couldn't get through on the telephone to try to help us because all of the lines were jammed and that she'd try again in ten minutes. She called JC over again in fifteen minutes and told him that the we would actually need to contact whatever agency originally sold us the tickets. We explained that we didn't actually purchase the tickets, so wouldn't even know where to start in figuring it out. After fifteen more minutes, she came back over and gave us a phone number to call and suggested we do so. We explained that we didn't even have a phone. Being the fantastic person that she was, she called the number for us and brought back the nightmarish news that Meridiana would not pay for us to get on another flight. By this time, it was around 1130am and the rest of the group would be landing in Florence in an hour. They told JC to get another number and to see if the main tickets counter could do anything for us. We ended up waiting behind five Italians who had had the same thing happen to them on the same flight. While JC and ZC where waiting, I headed down to the train station to see what it would cost to get us to Florence by train. After a ten minute wait, an agent helped me plan out the trip at a cost of around 230 Euro apiece. I went back upstairs just as JC was getting the news that there was nothing they could do today and the only flights out were going to be 600 Euro the next afternoon and that he'd just heard the Italians get told the same thing. We went downstairs and got back in line for the train tickets, noticing that the five Italians from earlier were now waiting in the same line ahead of us. While we were waiting, JC went over to the rental car desk and looked into our automotive options. He came back to explain that we could rent a car with French plates for 155 Euro with unlimited mileage, but that we'd have to drop it off in France and then find our way from France to Florence. We pondered this for a bit and then had our number called for the international train reservation booth where we found out that the Italians had taken the cheap seats I'd been quoted earlier and were now looking at 260 Euro each for the train ride.
Frankfurt Train Station

We gave the romantic thought of a road trip one last consideration (asking the agent to look at travel from Nice to Florence) before deciding that a road trip across three countries would be too unpredictable when we all had a wedding to go to. Thus, at noon, we bought tickets for the 12:12 train to Utrecht and, with no time to call anyone in Florence to tell them the plan, rushed downstairs to the platform.

Once there, we met an insane Dutchman who explained that he was taking the train and not flying because he was taking back a computer and “these big five liter cans of beer” which he couldn't bring on the plane. We told him our story and he took pity on us and let us try to send a text message with his phone, which he'd never tried before. I think I figured it out, but still haven't checked with CA to see if he ever got the message.

Over the next seventeen hours and four train switches across Europe, things were relatively uneventful. ZC slept and took pictures of JC and I almost the entire time, which led to a good catalog of shots with me looking angry, tired and frustrated. We almost blew our first train to Utrecht, as there was a local on one track and an express on the other within a few minutes of each other and we almost got on the local (thanks, crazy Dutchman for not letting us do that).

At Utrecht, despite only having 12 minutes to get to our next train, we made it fine and I managed to have time to call CA and let him know that we'd be arriving in Florence at 5:30am. We transferred to a train that would take us to Frankfurt and ended up sitting at one of those table-seats in the middle of the smoking car. Across from us were four gay, deaf Germans who were playing Uno. One of them was cradling a teddy bear and another was breathing loudly through his mouth. “Uno” was said by a small squeaking noise while putting an index finger in the left corner of the mouth. All very strange. ZC took a picture and then fell asleep immediately, not waking up until our next transfer in Frankfurt.
The Moon Outside the Villa

Our next stop gave us a tiny bit more time, but not much. The Frankfurt train station was all too familiar for me as R and I spent eight hours there hiding from the rain while we were waited for a bus to Sweden back in July of 2003. Not much has changed. I picked up some water and apple-flavored mentos for the next leg to Munich and then headed to the platform.

The next train to Munich was completely full. There was a massive push of people to find unreserved seats on the train. I led the way down the aisles and, in the third car we came to, had to lift my entire suitcase over my head to get by someone going the other direction. We ended up at another four-person table, but the signs above the windows said that it was going to be reserved after the next stop. Just after sitting down, I went to grab my train tickets out of my pocket and realized that they weren't there. I asked JC and ZC if I'd handed them my tickets at some point, both looked a bit and then said, “no”. As soon as the train started moving and everyone had sat down I started searching back through the way we came, asking the conductor and the dining car guy along the way if anyone had turned any tickets in. I figured they probably fell out when I had lifted my suitcase over that guy and searched all over the floor as I headed back to my seat. Finding nothing, I started to worry a little bit and assumed that I'd just have to pay again for my ticket to Frankfurt (I'd handed over possession of the joint tickets for the Frankfurt-Munich and Munich-Florence legs to JC as soon as we received them, so at least I hadn't lost those). Just as the conductor was coming up to collect the tickets, a lady tapped on my shoulder and asked me something in German that definitely contained the word “tickets”.

“Yes! I lost my tickets!” I said, whereupon she went back to her seat and brought them back to me. Too relieved to say “thanks”, I just smiled really big and waited for the adrenaline to run out of my system.

Once we hit the next stop, we were supplanted by a group of students who I assumed were from a deaf school (on account of their deafness and backpacks, of course). JC and I secured one empty seat and placed ZC in it where he could sleep (man, did he sleep a lot) and, over the next two hours, the two of us ended up standing in between cars with a bunch of other people, which isn't such a bad place to be on a German train. JC and I were standing with some of the other students when we came to another station and the seat next to ZC became free. JC jumped on it and put his bag down, but then decided to give his seat to one of the students to try to up our karma. Another seat opened up about an hour outside of Munich and I nabbed it and then napped the rest of the way.
Doner Kebap's in Munich

Arriving in Munich around 7pm, our last connection to the train that would take us to Florence gave us an hour to spare in the station. While on the train to Munich, I'd realized that I still didn't know if R had even made it from Copenhagen to Florence, if she'd found the hotel, or if she knew where I was; so I was pretty pressed to get to a phone. We managed to contact CA after getting some change and found that everyone, R included, was doing just fine sitting at a bar in a square somewhere in Florence. CA gave the phone to R whose first words were something along the lines of: “You've got a bunch of my clothes in your bag! I need my flip-flops and stuff for the spa day tomorrow! When are you getting here?”

“I love you, too,” I said, “and I'm fine.”

I got the address of our hotel from R and then CA gave us addresses for his apartment and JC's rented apartment. He said that my hotel was around the corner from his place where ZC was going to stay, so we figured that ZC and I could just go to CA's apartment when we got to Florence and I could find my hotel from there.

Off the phone, JC remembered that there was a Donner Kebab place across from the Munich station from the last time he'd been there and his memory proved correct. The three of us went out and each scarfed one down before heading back into the station for the train.

“I really hope it's a German train,” JC said.

“Me too,” I said, “if it's an Italian train it'll be filthy, slow and late getting into Florence.”

Our string of bad luck continued as a dilapidated hunk of red metal rolled into the station on our track and we all let out a well-practiced groan. Luckily, we had reserved seats on the night train and settled into a six person booth-type deal able to each stretch our legs onto the seat across from us. Our karma being what it was, this only lasted for one stop when an older German man and his wife whose English was as good as our German (see “horrible”) joined us in our booth. Being seven feet tall, JC was NOT happy to have to sit across from me and we ended up having to arrange a I-get-to-put-my-crossed-feat-on-this-corner-of-your-seat-if-you-get-to-put-your-crossed-feet-on-the-corner-of-my-seat arrangement.

Being Italian, the train rolled into Florence's Campo di Marta station about forty minutes late. Unfortunately, this wasn't the station that we'd expected, and we had to look around for how to get to the central station. I asked the lady running the cafe and she said that bus number 12 would take us there. I'd seen a bus pulling up outside as I was going in to ask and ran out to see that it was the number 12, waved them down and hopped on with JC and ZC.

Once at the new station, we split up with ZC and I going to CA's apartment and JC going to the place that he'd rented with a few of the other guys. In front of CA's apartment, I paid the cab driver an asked him if he could direct me to Via Bentacorrdi, where the hotel was.

“It's a left and then the first street on the left,” he said.

I took off, made a left and started looking, but couldn't find the street. I asked someone else and he said it was up on the left back the way I'd come, but didn't sound very confident. I started to get the feeling that the residents that were out at 6:45am didn't want a tourist to think that they had no idea where the a street was. I traced my steps back to CA's apartment and asked someone else.
Looking down the street to the Duomo

“It's a right and then a right,” he said (in Italian).

I took off again, made a right and started looking for the street. Again, no dice. I went back and buzzed up to CA's apartment. He got out a map and explained that it was, “a right, across the square diagonally, then the middle street on the right out of three, then a right on the first street. About a five minute walk.”

Again, I took off, followed the instructions and, reaching the hotel door, saw R waiting for me.

“Finally! I was so worried,” she said. “But I have to leave in 15 minutes for the train station to meet with the girls for the spa.”

R left almost immediately and I proceeded to pass out until 11am before going over to CA's to hang out for a while and then go site-seeing with ZC a bit.

The next four days went off without a hitch. There was a fantastic party at the apartment of CA and LS (I guess LA now, right?) that was loud enough to be broken up by the police, an absolutely delicious rehearsal dinner of authentic Tuscan food right around the corner from where Meg's apartment in Florence is going to be followed by cigars and beer in a square, a gorgeous wedding at a villa on a hill that was perfectly timed to just miss the rainy weather twice and be spiced by a rainbow at the end of the ceremony, and finally a wine tour through Tuscany followed by a pizza dinner.
View from the Villa with a Branch

After four days of festivities, on Sunday morning, R and I woke up at 6am and headed to the airport to catch our Sterling flight back to Copenhagen for a connection on Iceland Air. The Sterling flight left at 9am and would land in Copenhagen at 11:15, giving us about 3 hours to make our 2pm flight. Because we'd had to split up in Copenhagen with me going to Amsterdam and R staying an extra day, I'd booked the travel separately. This was the first time I'd done this and, combined with my recent flying experience, I was a little nervous about making the first flight, because we'd have no recourse to be reimbursed for the second leg if we missed it. We got the airport two and a half hours early and were checked in and through security in no time. After we'd waited about an hour, another friend of CA's who was with me in Amsterdam (and one of the three who'd been lucky enough to get on in our group of six) came and sat down next to us to wait for his 10:15 flight to Paris. Just after he'd sat down, people started crowding around the gate counter where our flight to Copenhagen was going to leave from. We looked up at the monitors and saw that the plane had been rerouted to Bologna and now listed no departure time whatsoever. We checked with those around the counter and they said that a sudden patch of fog had caused the plane we were supposed to leave on to be rerouted and that they were going to put us on a bus to Bologna to meet the plane.

“How long is that going to delay our arrival in Copenhagen,” I asked. “I mean, we only have two hours and forty-five minutes as it is to collect our bags at baggage claim and check in again.”

“It will probably be a two or three hour delay,” the gate agent said.

R and I immediately went into action asking them if they had numbers for Iceland Air, where a phone was, etc. The only pay phone in the waiting area where we were wasn't working at all, so I jetted back out to the main terminal outside of security to search for a pay phone. Finding nothing working there either, I went to the information desk and asked if they could help me.

“This is a Sterling flight, you'll have to ask them for help in the other line there... but there are no Sterling agents,” one employee told me.

“Can't you do anything to help me?”

“I'm sorry.”

I went back through security and found R. She'd started up a conversation with the woman seated across from us, who volunteered to let us use her phone to try calling the one number we could find on our e-tickets for Iceland Air. We called and called, but it kept saying that the number didn't exist. I went and asked the gate agents if they had a number for Iceland Air. They said, “no”. I asked if they had a number that I could call to reach the airport in Copenhagen. Again, the same response.

“Seriously,” I asked, “there's no number that you can give me to help me solve this? You don't even have the number of the airport that this plane is flying into.”

“I'm sorry.”

R went into a jewelry shop within the terminal and asked the clerk if he could look up the Icelandair website for her. He had her sit down at the computer and let her look it up herself. She came back with four different numbers to try and the nice lady across from us let us borrow her phone again. I tried each of the numbers and each time was rerouted to the same call center which, after five menu options, told me it was closed on Sunday and gave me no further instructions. We were stuck. There was no number to call that would pick up. Right as all hope was lost, the screen changed again and said that the plane had come back to Florence and was now slated for departure at 10:30. This would put us into Copenhagen at 12:45 and leave us with an hour and fifteen minutes to get the two bags, check in again, go through security and make the plane. It would be tough, but doable. We both started to relax. Then, at 10:15 when we still hadn't boarded the plane, the departure time was changed to 11:20. This made things a lot tighter and would leave us with only 25 minutes to do everything. My stomach flipped upside down as I started to realize that there was no way we could make our second flight.
View of Florence from the Top of the Duomo

We boarded and were taken by bus to the plane. At 11:30, we were still sitting on the runway and “waiting for the last passenger”, finally taking off at 11:40. Not good. A half hour outside of Copenhagen, we struck up a conversation with a fabulous guy in the aisle seat, Peter, who listened to our story and took pity on us. If only there was something he could have done. We discussed the plan of what to do when the plane touched down and decided that I would run ahead to see if I could get somebody to hear us out while R went and waited for the bags. A flight attendant allowed me to move to a seat in the front row of the plane to give me a fast exit and I brought my stuff up as we were about to land.

As soon as the door opened, I bolted out and ran across two terminals to the gate where our flight was leaving from. I pushed my way to the front of the boarding line and explained the situation. The attendant said that the only thing I could do was wait for R with the bags, because neither Iceland Air nor Sterling would accept responsibility for them since we'd purchased the tickets separately.

R and I hadn't planned on meeting at the gate, but instead were going to meet up at the check-in counter outside of baggage claim, so I ran back down to baggage claim and found her waiting with Peter. I told her to meet me at the main check-in counter out front and ran into the main terminal.

Telling people your flight is leaving in 15 minutes works wonders and had me at the front of the line in no time. Once there, a really nice attendant tried to help me, but I could tell from the look on his face that there was no way I was going to make the flight with our two bags. We'd considered ditching the bags, but with all of the clothes we had in there for the wedding, it really wouldn't have been worth it. I spoke with a supervisor and he checked the flight info again to confirm that it was closed. He sent me over to the SAS ticketing counter and, unlike in Amsterdam, this time the number I pulled (137) sent me to a booth immediately. I explained the story and while the agent looked to see what my options are, I walked back and forth to the check-in counters to make sure I found R when she came out. After 10 minutes, she and Peter came out with the bags. We said goodbye to Peter, who wished us luck, and went back over to the ticketing counter to see what the situation was.

“Well, your tickets are changeable for $200, so that's good,” she said. “But, the next flight that is available with your class of ticket isn't until May 8th.”

“Ugh. How much would it cost to get a ticket for tomorrow,” I asked.

“A lot,” she said. (We had her look it up. $4,000 is, indeed, “a lot”).

“Couldn't they bump us up a class or something?”

“No, I'm sorry. With these tickets you can't move up a class. You would have to buy a new ticket.”

With no real other options, we had her start the booking process to get us on the Tuesday flight back to DC and went to try to contact our friend AP who we'd visited the week before to see if she have us as guests again. After calling a few times an hour for two hours or so, R finally got AP on the phone and all was well. She had another friend, LT, in town who we also hadn't seen in forever and the four of us met up and spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Copenhagen's parks.

The next day, LT, R and I took the train into town and walked the main shopping street, took a boat tour in the afternoon and then dropped LT off at the train station so that she could go to the airport to catch her flight back to London.

Our Iceland Air flights on Tuesday (today, I suppose) were uneventful and here I am.

In all, it was a fantastic trip. I've never missed a flight before in my life and have now missed two in a week. Given the number of planes R and I have been on, I think our record is actually still pretty good. I was really nervous this morning before heading out of AP's apartment to walk to the train station, but along the way had the realization that things could be a hell of a lot worse. Imagine if any of these flight problems had happened during our trip to India. Getting caught in a terminal there would have meant having to go back into the thick of New Delhi's chaos.
A Rainbow in Tuscany

Maybe this was just years of great luck catching up to me, though I don't really believe in luck. The real causes of our recent travel woes were: (1) a KLM agent who could only process 3 people at a time despite the fact that the woman next to her was able to check in a family of eight all at once and (2) a small cloud in Florence that lasted only 15 minutes but cost a few hundred dollars and two more days of negative vacation time. Thanks, little cloud!

I'd never been to Italy as an adult before this trip and can't say enough good things about it. The people were really nice, the city of Florence was clean and welcoming and the countryside was absolutely gorgeous. It was fantastic to see all of the old friends and to meet some amazing new ones. I'd also never been to Copenhagen or Amsterdam as an adult and found these places equally stunning.

Now R and I can settle in and start planning for our own wedding. With no foreseeable trips between now and then, we should have plenty of time.

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