Monday, February 22, 2010

Departures and Arrivals

Driving through the shrouded countryside on the way to Dublin Airport, I was aware of how much I love Ireland and of how much I will miss it. It is easy enough for an American visitor to love the gentle countryside and brightly painted towns. What came back to me during the drive was the emotional scent of my short stays here, the string of visits stretching over 20 years now, from my first arrival in 1988. The particular musk of the land and buildings recalled from those visits, the mixture of anxiety and regard I felt always on the last journeys to the airport each year, passports and tickets, paper then electronic, checked and rechecked, as we worried about shifting the bags from car hire return to departure gate, these sensations returned as we made our way in the darkness to catch the 6:45 flight to Salzburg via Frankfurt.

On our drive north in the early hours, I glimpsed fragments of road signs, place names written in English and Irish, quick flashing reflections in the head beams. Despite the darkness, I tried to picture the unseen landmarks, now familiar to me, thinking of how they will be soon, again, recalled not felt. It’s not that the landscape of Austria and Continental Europe won’t be as beautiful. Perhaps I’ll find it even more beautiful, but it won’t be felt as home, as Ireland now is.

One day earlier, I had been startled by a drift of light snow falling through dense silver morning fog. Lasting only 25 minutes, it was enough only to dust the yard. So I was surprised to see thick snow covering fields, trees, roofs, footpaths, cars and fences starting when we came to Durrow, a town about an hour northwest of our house in South Tipperary. The landscape was white and the roads slushy all the way to Dublin, where snow covered car parks and cars. Snow is not common here, and I had not expected it at all so late in February. The runways had been cleared, but the airport and all we could see beyond was covered in snow.

As it turned out, snow caused something like havoc all day. The aircraft we were supposed to board about 6:30 had been diverted to Manchester. It couldn’t get from Manchester to Dublin because of crew scheduling problems or because of heavy snow in England, I’m not sure which. As a result, our departure time was delayed until 11:30, which meant making our Salzburg connection in Frankfurt would be impossible. So they put us on a later Salzburg flight and checked our bags through. However, when we went to the boarding gate, it turned out the aircraft hadn’t left Manchester. Our flight was now pushed back to after 2, again making it impossible to make our Salzburg connection.

So despite having cleared security, we returned to check in and managed to get on a flight scheduled to leave at 12:30, though it was also delayed, a matter of 20 minutes or so. What’s more, they upgraded us to business class, a perk I’ve never received before, which meant we could wait in the relative comfort of the business lounge. Our luggage, however, had been tagged for the flight now scheduled to depart at 2:45, meaning it would arrive in Frankfurt after we had left there. There was nothing to do about that, they told us, except notify Lufthansa/Austrian Air’s lost and found when we arrived in Salzburg.

Our flight touched down in Frankfurt at more or less the scheduled boarding time for our Salzburg connection. All passengers from the flight boarded a bus, which took us to a point from which we could go to baggage claim or boarding gates. First though, we had to join the passport queue. Travelling on an EU passport is easy enough in Europe, but my anxiety grew as the line shuffled forward. A few metres along, we joined even slower queues for security. Their thoroughness, demanding every one take off all coats and jackets, belts and watches, methodically putting everything in deep trays, meant the line crawled forward. Our flight was scheduled to depart in just minutes. My stomach swelled with anxiety as people behind us pushed forward; others asked to jump the queue, claiming connecting flights.

‘We have connecting flights too!’ said the woman in front of us and I as we waved our boarding passes and shook our heads.

Just as I finally handed over my coat and handbag and lifted my heavy carry-on onto the belt, I turned around to say something to my husband. Instead, there was a stranger, behind whom I could see Himself.

‘We have connecting flights too!’ I yelled at him.

‘Yes, yes! But I have a phone call,’ he said, which seemed a non sequitur. He pushed forward, despite me. Furious, I grabbed my things from the tray and stomped forward, thinking to find a Lufthansa gate agent to ask that they inform our gate we were there. No good; the gates were up another level. I turned back and accosted the man.

‘Why did you do that? You have no right! We have connections to make too!’

‘But I have a phone call!’

It didn’t make sense, but neither did arguing. I was conscious of people looking. Making a scene could mean we’d be delayed even more. Himself was gathering his coat and belt from the tray, as we half ran to the escalator, carry-on bags bumping behind.

The gate area was nearly empty, quiet. We rushed forward. ‘Auf Dublin?’ said one gate agent. They were expecting connecting passengers. Through the gate and down steps and into another waiting bus, we went dragging the bags along, finally settling.

Across the aisle in the crowded bus a tall man with gold-red hair laughed at us. ‘Relax! No stress!’

I tried to calm my panting. I must have been red in the face. I nodded, ‘Yes. Of course.’

He kept laughing and talking to us, cutting across the clamour. He patted his stomach, saying something more about stress I didn’t get. Did he mean that it made your stomach fat, as some claim? It turned out he was laughing because Himself was only then able to buckle his belt. ‘I’ve been travelling for 30 hours,’ he said. ‘Relax. It will be okay.’

And he was, of course, right. The Austrian Air turbo-prop craft landed in Salzburg just as the light was turning the buildings gold. We came down the tiny narrow steps, and I looked up to see against the colourless late sky white-covered mountains in every direction. The airport was quiet, calm even, and, in spite of the pressures that remained, something like peace descended.

As it turned out, the luggage did not follow us. Last night they had no record of it at all; this morning they tell us one of the two is on its way to the hotel. We’ve bought a couple of toothbrushes, toothpaste, a razor and shaving cream, and Himself is off to the office to settle in.

It will work out, somehow.

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