Monday, November 23, 2009

From Spain to Portugal, Part II - Seven Hours in the Barcelona Airport

I needed to get in touch with the Habitat trip leader. There were pay Internet kiosks on the other side of security, but I couldn't go through without a boarding pass. The earliest I could check in and get my boarding pass was two and a half hours prior to takeoff. I dropped €1 into a payphone, which bought me two minutes to get in touch with M and walk him through my email to find a phone number for someone at Habitat. It was six in the morning in Chicago, I left a message with a hurried explanation, and said I'd call again.

I idled away a couple hours in the seating area of a fast food restaurant, drinking coffee and trying not to stress out. The two TAP Portugal check-in windows were due to open at 3:05 to start checking passengers in for the 6:35 flight to Lisbon, and by 3:00 people had started lining up - I was first in line. I waited for 3:05 to arrive with a mania. At the appointed hour, two languid women dressed in skirt suits and neckerchiefs took their stations and began plugging things into sockets and pressing various buttons, all the while engaging in a collegial conversation. Neither of them looked up at the line of people that had formed in front of them. When I was sure things were going to get started, the woman at the window in front of me stood up and walked away with no explanation, reappearing a couple minutes later and moving across the floor with all the urgency of a lazy Sunday afternoon stroll on the beach. I bore holes into her head with my stare, my whole body leaning forward over the red line on the floor marking the spot where people should wait until called on. By the time she acknowledged my presence I was fighting back tears of frustration.

I presented my itinerary to the woman, got my boarding pass, and asked her to reconfirm my return flight to Chicago; the prospect of going through all of this again nine days from now was too much to bear. This set off a flurry of questions - you bought this ticket today?, and a phone call to the TAP Portugal ticket window on the other side of the floor. I was so close to tears that I concentrated on tiny details to distract myself - the woman's nail polish, the pen in her hand that she took notes with. She told me to reconfirm my return flight the day before I was scheduled to fly home, and to check in at the Lufthansa counter when I arrived at the airport.

I went through a short but maddeningly slow line at security, and found an information booth on the other side where I was directed to the pay Internet kiosks. I found two kiosks, but neither of them accepted coins or my debit card. I walked to a payphone, my face getting hotter by the second, tears of frustration beginning to slip past my resolve to remain calm and making their way over the edges of my eyelids in a single file. Nothing was working, I had been at the airport for over four hours, and I was at my breaking point. I found a payphone and dropped €1 in it, and when I finally heard M's voice come through the line I was full on sobbing.

"What's wrong?" M asked, not having listened to the two voicemail messages I'd left him in his sleep.
"Everything!" I said, "this has been the shittiest day!" I had enough time to walk him through my email account, and then the phone started beeping and counting down the seconds until we were disconnected. I didn't have any more change, so I called back using my debit card, but before the operator connected me I had to read the digits on my debit card out loud for the benefit of anyone who might have been listening, twice, along with the security code on the back, the phone number I was trying to reach, my full name, and my zip code. M came through the line again and I became a ridiculous spectacle, a grown woman crying on a payphone in the Barcelona airport, cursing and sputtering, tears shooting out of my eyes and running down the inside of my glasses and down my cheeks. I don't remember everything I said, but I think there was a "they don't care, they don't just put you on the next flight, they make you pay," and "I'm so tired of nobody giving a shit!" When I'd exorcised the worst of it I jotted down two phone numbers that M had found in a recent email from Habitat, and hung up the phone.

I dialed the international operator again to use my debit card, repeated the exercise of reading the digits on the card out loud, and the number I was trying to reach. The first phone number I gave the operator didn't go through, so I gave the operator the second one. There was a pause, and the man who was connecting my call said:
"There's a block on this card."
"I just used it to make a call," I said, and in an attempt to impress upon him the gravity of the situation, "I'm having an emergency."
"I'll try again," he said, and came back a few seconds later with "It won't go through, do you have another card?"

I did have another card; it was secreted away in a security sleeve, sewn into the bottom of my backpack, underneath all my clothes, toiletries and electronics.
"Can you hold on for just a minute?" I asked, and let the phone go slack and hang from its metal cord, swaying back and forth with the force of gravity like a pendulum. I hoped the operator could hear me as I unzipped my carefully packed bag and dumped its contents onto the floor, dug into the bottom for the security sleeve - exposing my secret stash of money and backup credit card for anyone who happened to be watching, unzipped the sleeve and pulled out the credit card. Just in case anyone had missed hearing my debit card number, the operator made me read the digits of my credit card and the three digit security code aloud, twice. Finally, through some kind of divine intervention, I heard the voice of Habitat Portugal on the line.

With urgency in my voice and snot in my nasal cavity I explained my situation to the person on the other end of the line, a man named João (rhymes with "wow"). I probably sounded insane, but I got my message across. João told me to get on a shuttle bus headed for Oriente station when I landed in Lisbon, and to call him back with my train information. I said something noncommittal like "okay," and ended the call. I placed the phone receiver back in its cradle and surveyed the scene around me: it looked like a small weather event had hit a very localized area of the airport - my possessions were strewn around the floor by the phone booth, bras and panties mingling with travel sized toothpaste and guides to Barcelona and Portugal. A few feet from me, partially obscured by the phone booth, I saw a pair of crossed legs wearing black leather boots. Until that moment I hadn't realized that I had an audience. I peeked around the corner of the phone booth and made brief eye contact with a boot-wearing woman, then got down on my hands and knees and set about re-packing my bag.

I found a restroom and checked out my reflection in the mirror, my eyes were red and puffy and I looked like I'd smoked too much pot. I ran cold water over my face and headed for my boarding gate. As I boarded the plane Johnny Nash's I Can See Clearly Now piped in over the PA system. I really, really hoped that was the case.


j.cro said...

I feel for you. I hope the rest of the trip went more smoothly. I'm eagerly awaiting more posts to find out.

JP said...

Things got better! I have at least one more post about my crazy travel adventure from Spain to Portugal, but I promise funnier posts are on the way! Actually, parts of my next post are pretty funny, even though they detail my continuing travel mishaps.