A Day of Many Airports

Sometimes plans made far in the future turn out to be flawed. Some of you might wonder how I even know this, as planning is not regarded as something I’m inclined to do that often. I did, however, make one decision long ago that I’m still recovering from. I chose months ago when I would fly back to Europe, and where I would fly from. It seemed a reasonable plan at the time, but events (and my own laziness) conspired to make it rather inconvenient.

So it was that at 4:30 am I boarded a shuttle bound for Albuquerque International Airport. There I would catch a flight that would take me San Jose, California, where I would catch my flight home.

Well, almost. To be precise, I was catching a plane to Phoenix, where I would get on another plane to San Jose, where I would get on another plane bound for Houston, Texas, where I would finally board a plane to London Heathrow. Five airports, and still not home. From Heathrow airport I would catch a bus to Luton Airport, where I would board yet another aircraft and end my long journey in Prague. Naturally, because I’m me, there were a couple of variables in play, which made things a bit more complicated. A bit. You might be interested to learn, for instance, that I am not in Prague as I write this.

The first leg of my journey was uneventful; the only hitch was that I had to transfer a few pounds of stuff from my checked bag to my carry-on luggage. My suitcase was pretty darn heavy, filled with books and notes from the writing workshop. The plane didn’t impress me much. It seemed… just a little bit run-down. The fluorescent cabin lights flickered annoyingly, all of them in synch, and occasionally they would flash very bright. Iffy wiring is annoying, but on a plane it makes me nervous. It was difficult to read, so I turned on my little reading light which shone directly on the shoulder of the large man next to me. Let’s just say that US Air failed to impress me. They also charge for tea, and I had no cash.

So it was that as we took off I was acutely aware that I was on an older aircraft and maintenance was not as diligent as I would like. We all arrived in Phoenix safe and sound, however, and I got off the plane and checked the monitor to see where to go for the next leg of my journey. Right back on the same plane. I scored caffeine in the terminal and away we went.

The clouds formed a solid blanket over San Jose, with the hills that surround the city poking up, acting as a rim to hold them there. We descended into the murk, and I considered idly that there was a time when the pilot would have been going on little more than faith. Indeed, the airport would likely have been closed. Yet here we were, and the pilot knew exactly where we were going, exactly where the ground was. As I considered this I watched the flaps on the wings retract, the engines changes pitch slightly, and we began to climb.

Once out of the clouds the plane began a long turn to loop around and make another run. The captain came on the speaker and said that planes had gotten too close together for safety. When I’m suspended a thousand feet over the ground in a metal cylinder with tanks of kerosene attached, I don’t mind a bit of caution.

We approached again, passed over That Girl’s parents’ house again, passed what I think was That Girl’s sister’s apartment, and set down. That Girl didn’t live very far away, but I would not be seeing her; instead I would be collecting my bag and taking it to another person to give it away again, then I would be doing the Homeland Security hokey-pokey and hopping on another plane for the next leg in my long journey. It all went smoothly, but I was acutely aware of That Girl’s nearness, even though it may as well have been 10,000 miles.

Continental was much more comfortable — more leg room, free tea, and a much fresher-feeling aircraft. There was exactly one empty seat on the plane, and it was next to me. The guy in the aisle seat was friendly, and my passage to Houston went smoothly.

I had a fairly short turnaround in Houston Bush Airport, but it went smoothly (except, janitorial crews please note: Do not close consecutive men’s rooms for cleaning). Away I went, London-bound. Ten hours is a long time to sit in a seat, but time passed. I read, watched a movie, and even dozed a bit. The guy in the seat next to mine was nice enough, even if his respect for personal space was a bit soft. He was heading for a 5-week stint on an offshore drilling platform. There’s a job I would not want.

Right, then. London Heathrow Airport. There is a big tax on airplanes that land there, so the cheap airlines use other options. Sky Europe is one of those lines, and I had a seat on one of their planes, bought far in advance and practically free. (They have a few seats on each flight they sell for esentially nothing beyond taxes and fees.) The bus ride from Heathrow to Luton cost more. That all went smoothly, but then there was the variable.

You see, right now I might be in violation of the immigration laws for the Shengen zone (your spelling may vary), which aggregates most of Europe into a single region with no passports required to move about between countries. It’s a good idea overall, but there’s always a catch. Now that the Czech Republic has joined, they are not as able to ignore their own immigration rules. Whereas before they would allow people from wealthy nations in with a shrug and a look in the other direction, now they are integrated with the same data system the Germans use. What I was counting on was that airlines, which have a vested interest in not transporting people who will be refused (forcing the airlines to take them back), can check the status of a given passport. I have personally experienced this on many occasions. My plan was to make sure that I would be allowed into the Czech Republic before I boarded the plane.

So there I was in my sixth airport of the trip, having slept almost none in the last 48 hours, and I learned that my airline didn’t check immigration status. That wasn’t a big surprise, but then I learned that they couldn’t. “It’s a US passport,” the woman said. “It’s fine.”

But is it fine? in a few more days my status will be much clearer, as my time away hits the magic 90-day mark. Why didn’t I just time my trip for 90 days? Hmm… it seems like there was a reason back then… I think I assumed that I would have papers in hand and an appointment at an embassy. Should have done something about that during the previous three months.

So, if I got on the plane and then was turned away at the border, what would happen? Would I be detained? If I bought a ticket back out of the zone some time in the future would that placate them? I didn’t know. All I knew was that I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep. There would be cheap flights (though not as cheap) tomorrow. I lost my nerve. Sleep, that’s what I needed. Sweet, sweet, sleep. I walked from the airport to a nearby hotel, paid extra for spotty Internet access, and fought off the raging slumber gods long enough to have a beer.

Very early the next morning I reviewed my options: fly to prague, take a train or a bus to France (getting turned back would be less of a hassle, and on a bus the check might not be rigorous), or visit a non-Shengen country for a few days until my legal status is less unclear.

My days as a resident of Europe are winding down, and there are many places I haven’t got around to visiting. Two sprang to mind: Estonia, where a friend lived (you may remember Brutus), and Norway, where resides Dr. Pants, a guy I’ve never met but who long ago was a regular commenter on this blog. I sent some emails. My Estonian connection is back in the states, but Dr. Pants came through, and I started checking flights to Oslo. (I also stumbled on very low fares to Jersey, but I wasn’t sure what I would do when I got there.)

I write this in a bar at Gatwick, the eighth airport of my journey, and not my last. Norway beckons; I just wish I had more socks.

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