Shortly after taxiing the pilot's voice came over the speakers in cabin of Delta Airlines flight 4952; "Due to congestion at JFK we will be holding here at Columbus for about 30 minutes." It was the first leg of an international flight I was taking to Romania – a flight that involved changing planes twice and air carriers once. Okay, I thought to myself, I had two hours in New York to make my Alitalia flight. I will still have an hour and a half to do it. No problem. My flight to Milan is at 6 p.m.
My Delta flight arrived in New York at 4:30 p.m. It seemed to take forever to get to the gate, and the gate ended up being buses that we boarded for a ride to the gate. Once in the terminal I searched for someone to give me information about where to connect with my Alitalia flight. There was no one I could ask. I didn't even know what Terminal I was in. I spotted a woman in uniform pushing an empty wheel chair and asked her where I could find Alitalia. "Terminal 4," she informed me in very broken English that made me feel like I was already in Romania. She pointed down the corridor and mentioned something about an 'Air Train.'
Once outside I followed the Air Train signs and was soon standing with other bewildered travelers wondering which Air Train to board. Trains were going in two different directions. A debate ensued among the dozen or so people on the platform as to which train to board. We concluded that there were four terminals. The sign at the platform we were on said terminal 2/3. I found a sign that indicated Alitalia was in terminal #1, not terminal #4 as I was told. I got on the first train that came along. I figured it was either going to terminal #1 or to terminal #4. I was lucky because the next stop was terminal #1. I now had less than an hour.
In terminal #1 I quickly found Alitalia – and a long line of people waiting to check in and get their boarding passes. Ha! I already had mine. Delta had given me a boarding pass for the Alitalia flight back in Columbus. I went to the window for passengers with boarding passes and an Italian man told me that Delta had given me the wrong boarding pass. He told me to wait there, and he rushed off. Eventually I was given a "temporary" boarding pass and pointed towards security. As I headed that way I was wondering what was different about my boarding pass. Aren't all boarding passes 'temporary?'
Security was very busy, and I failed to get through the metal detector without removing my sneakers. I didn't know they made sneakers with metal in them. I hadn't had that problem going through security in Columbus. Once through that process I still had 30 minutes to find my gate. By the time I reached the gate – the furthest one from security – the boarding process was underway. Since my boarding pass was temporary I headed for the desk, showed them my 'temporary' boarding pass, and was told that I could join the other passengers. The official there who was checking boarding passes wasn't quite so agreeable and spent an agonizing amount of time looking at it before deciding that I could board. I still don't know how my boarding pass was more 'temporary' than other people's since we all surrendered them at that point.
Finally in my seat on the Boeing 777, I wondered how non-English speaking people would ever manage to find their way at JFK if I, and so many other Americans, had been confused. The experience did not instill any confidence in me for finding my way in Milan or Bucharest.
My Alitalia flight, like the Delta flight, was also 30 minutes late taking off – probably because it took so long to get 500 passengers and 850 pieces of carry-on luggage squeezed into their proper places. Alitalia has flight restrictions that limit each passenger to one personal item and one carry-on bag, not to exceed 11 lbs and 45" (length + width + height) – a limit that was exceeded by almost everyone but me. The guy sitting next to me was returning to Albania and appeared to have all of his possessions in a huge duffle bag that required two professional football linemen to force it into an overhead compartment.
Since the flight time to Milan was going to be longer than some people's marriages, I tried to get as comfortable as possible. It was like trying to sleep in the back seat of a circus clown's car. I was asleep for about a minute when dinner was served. Dinner was actually good, but not memorable, certainly not ample, and the beverage cups were intentionally small to limit traffic to the bathrooms.
Each seat had its own tiny video screen mounted on the back of the seat in front, and it was the first time I had ever needed to put on reading glasses to watch a movie. I watched a Japanese-made sci-fi movie in Italian with western actors and English translations. After that I almost went back to sleep, but the Albanian needed to go to the men's room, and I had to get up to let him out. He must have gone on a tour, because he didn't return for at least 20 minutes. Then the remote control for his video screen stopped working and a series of complaints, repair attempts, and numerous flight attendant visits kept me from sleeping until breakfast was served. By the time I got off of the plane in Milan, I had not slept in 24 hours and was several inches shorter than when I began the trip.
The Milan airport was quite busy but, unlike JFK, they had information desks where one could go and have questions answered. What a novel idea! I was told that my connecting flight to Bucharest did not yet have a departure gate assigned, so I should sit and relax for an hour or two. I'm not sure how one does that after sitting for most of the last 24 hours. I wandered around the terminal until a departure gate assignment appeared. The only thing that I still do not understand is why I had to go through airport security a second time since the flight connection was in the same terminal and with the same air carrier. At least the Italians didn't want me to take off my shoes.
The flight to Bucharest pulled out from the gate on time. Unfortunately it didn't pull out very far. The air conditioning was not working and the temperature outside was very hot. The pilot announced that there would be a delay until maintenance could get the air conditioning fixed. That took about an hour and a half of sitting on the aircraft and sweating. The flight attendants passed out water several times. Finally the air conditioning began working, but now the plane needed to be refueled – which took another 30 minutes. We were told to remain seated but not to fasten our seat belts. I had never in my life been told NOT to fasten my seatbelt, so I had some concerns.
The flight to Bucharest was bumpy and required everyone to remain seated with seat belts fastened, but thanks to all the water that had been served it was quite impossible to do so. We arrived in Bucharest two hours later than scheduled, and the driver from the hotel I had booked was quite irritated at having had to wait for two hours holding a sign with my name on it. This is probably why he charged me $25 when we arrived at the hotel. I gave him a $5 tip. He was already pissed off, and I didn't want to make any enemies my first hour in Romania. I later learned that hotels in Romania don't have courtesy rides to and from airports.
English-speaking friends from Cluj were to meet me at the hotel and drive me to the mountains for my vacation. However, due to an outbreak of avian flu in central Romania, quarantines had been put in place preventing driving through that area. I was told to take a six-hour train trip the next day to a town I couldn't pronounce (Piatra Neamtz) where I would be met and where we would board a shuttle bus to another town where the host would meet us to take us the remaining way by car. What are the chances of all that working smoothly?
The train station in Bucharest would be my first real Romanian challenge, so I decided to scope it out and purchase my ticket that day rather than wait until the next morning. It was only a two-block walk from the hotel, but my driver had given me a rather ominous warning not to walk it at night. At the train station I saw no signs in English except for McDonalds where I had a hamburger and medium diet coke.
Familiarity breeds confidence, so fortified by McDonalds I proceeded to explore the terminal. I identified the number of the train I was to take at 11 a.m. the next morning. It was to leave on track 7, so I decided to check out track 7 and watched a train come and go. Then I went to the room with 21 ticket windows to purchase my ticket. As I was waiting in line a man pushing a luggage cart pointed me to an open ticket window and asked where I was going. I was pleased to find someone who spoke some English, but I had no idea how to say ‘Piatra Neamtz.'
Foresight is helpful in cases like this, so I pulled a slip of paper out of my pocket on which I had written Piatra Neamtz. He said I was in the wrong room and to follow him. At the other end of the station was another room with ticket windows, and evidently tickets to Piatra Neamtz had to be purchased here. I'm not sure why. The paper I showed him also had the train number and time, so he handled the transaction. It cost me 42 RON, or 420,000 ROL, depending on whether one had the new currency or the old currency. I was glad to have the new currency because the thought of paying 420,000 of anything for a train ticket just didn't seem right.
My Romanian baggage assistant explained that I was to be in seat 52 in car number 2 on track 7. I tipped him 3 RON for his help, and he seemed very happy, but he couldn't have been as happy as I was. I returned to the hotel, passing some young teens sniffing acetone in paper bags and some gypsies selling crafts.
The hotel was nice, simple, and I was tired, so I did a bit of channel surfing through Romanian TV programs I could not understand and then fell asleep. My requested wake up call never came, but I had set the alarm on the global cell phone I rented back in Ohio, and it awoke me in time to check out and get to the train station. The train arrived on time and departed on time. I found my seat and shared a four-seat group with three Romanians with whom I could not communicate. The woman with whom I bumped knees for six hours was a fifty-ish, heavy-set woman traveling with her tiny dog. Since it is illegal to have dogs on the train, she had it covered up and was hiding it behind her ample behind, requiring her to sit forward and thrust her knees into mine.
The four of us sat in silence for about 20 minutes. Then someone finally spoke. Conversation increased over the next half hour until the four people in the quad next to us joined the conversation of the people with me. There was lots of laughing and gesturing and attempts to talk to me. The woman looked at me and said "talian?" so I showed her my passport. Several people looked at it and then at me. Someone said "George Bush" and I gave a thumbs down. They all laughed and nodded their heads. The woman rubbed her fingers together, gesturing money, and then pointed at herself and me, and said "America." Everyone laughed. I pointed at the young girl sitting next to me and to myself and said "America." More laughter.
At about five hours into the trip we were delayed at a station where another train had broken down and was blocking the track. That delay was about 30 minutes. Shortly after getting underway again we had to stop for a herd of goats blocking the track. Frequent slow downs for cows and horses in various locations along the route further delayed the arrival. We finally arrived in Piatra Neamtz at 6:00 p.m. My friends had been waiting since 1 p.m.
I was extremely happy to see my friends, and they found a shuttle bus to take us to the next town where our landlady was to pick us up. After we were on the bus and heading out of town, we found out that our shuttle bus didn't go all the way to the pickup point, so some last-minute arrangements had to be made. It all worked out well, and we arrived the same day as scheduled in spite of all the delays.
On my return trip there was only one train per day going to Bucharest, so I had to get up at 5 a.m. and take a taxi to Piatra Neamtz for the 8 a.m. train. On this train ride I bumped knees with another older woman, but she had no dog with her and there were no delays for cows, horses or other livestock on the tracks. The flight from Bucharest had only a 50 minute scheduled layover in Frankfort, Germany to make my connecting flight to New York, so this was the weak link in my itinerary. Of course the Lufthansa flight had maintenance problems before leaving Bucharest and used up 40 minutes of that sitting on the ramp. Finally airborne, there was no way I could see making the connection. I spoke with a flight attendant and she conferred with the pilot about my connection. About an hour into the two-hour flight, the pilot made an announcement that they were doing everything they could to make up some of the lost time, and one of the passengers (moi) had a connecting flight to make. He said he had called ahead, they were expecting me, and that I should not worry. Now that is what I call a "customer oriented" airline.
I arrived in Frankfort with 15 minutes to make the connection. Again, there was no gate and we had to board busses to get to the terminal. Of course the bus took me to terminal #1 and my connecting flight was in terminal #2, so I had to take an airport train to get there. Then I had to go through security all over again. This time there were about 8 security lines with about 30 people waiting in each. It was already past takeoff time for my connecting flight. Would they really hold a jumbo jet (Boeing 747) for me? I made it to the gate 30 minutes after scheduled departure but the flight was still there. The flight was fully booked and I was the last person of about 450 passengers to board. Evidently there were a number of other passengers who were delayed by the security bottleneck, so it wasn't just me they waited for.
Eight and a half hours later I arrived at JFK Airport in New York. One more change of planes but this time I had two hours and 45 minutes. It was a good thing, because there were a series of delays, the first of which was getting 450 tourists and hand luggage out of the plane through one door. Once in the terminal we all had to line up and go through passport control. After passport control, we had to go to baggage claim. My bag may have been the last one on the aircraft, but it certainly wasn't the first one off, but I was glad to see it.
Once I had my bag, I had to get in another line to go through customs. The customs officer asked if I had anything to declare. I said that I had a good time in Romania. Evidently he had heard that one thousands of times, because he looked at me like I had just killed his dog. I should have known better. Years ago when I was in Spain, I purchased a large clay pot and had it carefully wrapped and boxed. When I was coming through customs that time, they asked me what was in the box and I replied "pot." Not a good idea.
I cleared customs in spite of my behavior and without having to declare the bottle of booze in my suitcase. At least I think it was booze. The Romanian host where I stayed in the mountains had given me this medium sized plastic juice bottle filled with what appeard to be alcohol and weeds. I think the weeds were in the bottle to provide flavor to the alcohol. She told my friends to tell me that it was Moldovian Viagra. I certainly wasn't going to list that on my declaration form.
The next stop was at the connecting flight counter where my bag was to continue it's journey on to Ohio with Delta Airlines. There was no one at the Delta counter. I waited for about 20 minutes with one other person. Fortunately she was a beautiful young blonde girl returning from France where she had been studying for the last five months. The Air France counter next to me was staffed, and I asked that person about the Delta counter being empty. I was told that if I came in on Lufthansa, then I should have gone to the Lufthansa counter. Well hell, why didn't someone tell us that? I assumed that I was to check in with Delta since they were taking my bag to Ohio.
At the Lufthansa counter I checked my bag and then waited for the beautiful young blonde to check hers. They wouldn't check her bags because her connecting flight wasn't until the next day. She had to take her bags either to the hotel where she was going to stay or take them to baggage storage. Since she had two bags larger than I was and two smaller ones, I volunteered to help her with them. I would have been glad to take them all the way to her hotel, but I had a flight to catch.
Of course my Delta flight was in another terminal, requiring an Air Train ride and then a long walk to gate 29 which was the furthest possible gate. About 15 minutes before boarding time I realized I was the only one there. Hmmm.... I went back to the departure board -- about a quarter of a mile hike -- and saw that they had changed gates for my flight since the last time I looked. Now the gate was in another wing. I ran all the way and got there just in time. Had I missed that flight, I was already planning to go back and look for that blonde. But it's probably just as well I didn't. My life has enough rejection already. I actually made it to Columbus early and had to wait a short while for my sister to meet me.
This vacation would have been virtually impossible for me to make without my friends and other people along the way who spoke English in addition to their native language. I salute them, and all of the bilingual and multilingual people in the world who are friendly and helpful to idiots like me, stumbling their way around the world in seek of adventure without being prepared. As for New York, it is probably the least friendly place one can go. If you can't speak English, don't visit America. With the exception of France, it is the least tourist friendly place I've ever been.