I literally missed the train by one croissant from the breakfast buffet stuffed in my purse, one glance back and a hand heart directed at my daughter as she went up one escalator and I headed down another…my last in person sighting of her for the next four months. Of course it didn’t help that I’d been pick-pocketed in the Madrid Metro station just as this nearly month-long journey was coming to an end.
I’m figuring it was the seemingly kind man who helped me lug my suitcase up a congested stairway who distracted me. I said “Gracias! Gracias!” and thanked him profusely as his accomplice swiped my wallet out of the cross body bag hanging on my hip opposite my suitcase. For 24 days, I’d been so conscientious, having heard warnings about roving gypsy thieves in Paris, Marseille and Barcelona. And now my credit cards and the remaining 100 euro I planned to give my daughter as soon as we’d gotten my train ticket to the airport were gone. One “gracias” to a fallaciously helpful man set off a domino reaction that threatened to take me down.
I chose our Madrid hotel for its proximity to the Atocha train station. An elevator popped up from the metro just 30 meters from our room and a guidebook said a train to the airport takes just 20 minutes. It is a little over two hours before my flight so, while I haven’t left much cushion for goodbyes, an email the night before suggests arriving 80-90 minutes before take-off. I should be fine.
Ah, but THAT 20 minute train cost €8 and we only have the €3 in my daughter’s pocket. The metro also goes to the aeropuerto, an agent tells my daughter in Spanish. It costs €2. My mind is still whirling over the theft. I don’t think to ask how long it will take.
As I am on the escalator down, taking that one last glance at my girl, I see the metro train sitting there, doors open. I bump my suitcase down the steps until I get to a man with a very large bag that I can’t get around and I am moving in slow motion just five… more… steps… to… go and the train door closes. It pulls away just as I step onto the platform. But I know there will be another one. I’ve been traveling in Europe for several weeks. There is always another one.
A train going elsewhere is coming in 4 minutes, the screen says. It pulls up, leaves and then the screen goes dead. I have to go to the bathroom, but I am too afraid to miss another train. 25 minutes pass. I should be at the airport in 10 minutes.
The screen sparks to back to life. 8 minutes until the airport train arrives. Ok, if it only takes 20 minutes, I have faith that this may still work out. I still need to go to the bathroom.
Metro security walks through the train, checking tickets. I ask when we are expected to arrive at the airport. 45 minutes she says. This means it will be at least 10:15 when I get there. My flight leaves at 10:55.
I make a friend from Japan, who is clearly smart. She’s on her way to the airport now for a 1pm flight. And a man from Mali who distracts me as he rolls cigarettes and speaks about his African country in broken English.
I really need to go to the bathroom.
When we pull into the airport terminal, it takes 3 escalators to get to departures and just as I find the British Airways counter, two of the four agents take a break and the line is long, but the people in the front are kind and let me go next, as soon as the family of five in front of us is done moving things around amongst their 8 bags to try to make the weight limits.
The agent informs me that I have missed the opportunity to check my suitcase, but he says he will alert the gate that I am on my way, pointing out that it will take at least 20 minutes to get there. I am in Terminal 4. Departures are in Terminal 4S, which means another train ride, and the gate is closing in 25 minutes.
He points to a bank of escalators. “You go down to catch the train.”
Five escalators down. I am running, and yes, I still need to go to the bathroom. I am sweating. I’ve been wearing the same 8 outfits for several weeks and have washed my clothes in the shower. I think I may be the source of the odor I smell. I sniff at my shoulder. Yep, it’s me. I stink.
I hadn’t thought about the gourmet Spanish olive oil I’d purchased as gifts, since I planned to check that bag and so, after people let me cut ahead of them, I am now holding them all up as my dirty clothes are spread out on the counter in the quest to find bottles rolled into shirts and dresses.
I get through security and find the train to the other terminal. It is 10:40. I have 15 minutes.
But just when I have a teensy bit of hope, I come upon a passport checkpoint. Seriously! And another very long line, but again, kind people let me go next, and I am now three escalators away from gate S31. But you guessed it. S31 is the very last gate on a long hall. I am carrying my heavy bag now (made lighter without expensive olive oil) and I am running - no flying - up those escalators. But when I get off it is like Disneyland when you unload from a ride in the themed gift shop, and I am routed through the Duty Free mall and am dodging kids looking at stuffed bears wearing sweaters that say SPAIN and parents considering perfume options (of which I could use a squirt) and I finally see S31, just 50 meters in the distance and I am panting as I collapse into the counter at 10:52. It is too late.
British Airways books me on the next flight and I still have about a two-hour layover in London so that SHOULD be fine. Thankfully there is no cost for the ticket change since I have no money.
I finally have time to use the bathroom.
As the saga continues, I experience a domino effect of kindness around every corner. It turns out British Airways goes into Heathrow at Terminal 5. I will have to go through customs, then baggage claim and then board a shuttle to Virgin Atlantic in Terminal 3. The inflight magazine says that will take 70 minutes. They begin boarding my US flight 60 minutes after I land. I ask a flight attendant how realistic it might be for me to make the connection.
I tell her about leaving my daughter, losing my wallet and missing my train and then my flight. She says she can’t believe I’m still smiling. “Ahh, but I have no choice but to laugh,” I say. Moments later she comes to my seat with a bottle of water at about the same moment I think, “I’m so thirsty.”
Later she brings me a sandwich and says, “If you have no money, you won’t be able to get anything to eat in London.” Her charitable act almost makes me cry. Then she returns and says, “Just before landing, I’ll bring you up front so you can be the first off.” She gives me hope that I might just make the plane heading home.
The reality is that, in the swirl of a multi-week journey through three countries and six cities, I have encountered mostly compassion and tried to reciprocate with coins in the hats and guitar cases of the many musicians who created our city soundtracks. People from countless cultures have crossed our paths, opened doors, shared their talents, their stories and their smiles.
The train, bus, boat and plane connections we did make, the more than 300,000 steps we walked, the flavors we tasted, the rain that barely fell upon us, the moments we made to sit and write in parks, the bottles of wine and pitchers of sangria consumed in outdoor cafes, the resurrection of my abysmal High School French, and my daughter’s expert Spanish translations…those are the connections that count more than the one that I may or may not make in London.
I am the 4th person off the plane and there is no line at customs. I have an hour to get to my gate in the next terminal and am waiting for my bag only to discover something that I’d forgotten...while Madrid is a 9-hour time difference from LA, London is only 8, so it is actually an hour earlier than I thought! I literally just gained back an hour of my life. I can breathe!
I share my adventure with the Virgin Atlantic ticket agent as I check my suitcase, and she gives me a seat with extra legroom in an empty row, and asks another agent to walk me through fast track security. I make it to the gate with time to sit down and update my family. What started out as a journey with a domino effect of disasters ended 11 hours later with me home, as scheduled.