I oft think dramatic scenes in films are really just overdone, unrealistic portrayals of real-life events that are, in fact, quite boring. My departure from the states, however, was a drastic proving-lizzie-wrong moment.
J, my significant other, and i arrived at the airport some two hours prior to my expected departure time. As RDU’s standard fare for security and ticket-counter time tends to be a mere 20 minutes on my usual Southwest flights, i anticipated only an additional twenty minutes or so to check two bags and print a boarding pass.
I was mistaken.
The American Airlines counter was amok with passengers-to-be dragging enormous baggage and wearing tremendously confused expressions. When we could not find a line that stated anything of clarity, J and i joined them in their befuddlement. Finally, after mis-printing two boarding passes at the self-check-in, i was loosely directed to the queue for “kiosk errors.” In this line we waited for over an hour.
Over an hour. There were barely eight people ahead of us, and yet there we waited. We remained calm – exceptionally calm for normally anxiety-ridden-overly-early-me – and tried to pass the time by savoring our last few hours together in the states. I kept fiddling with my luggage tags and checking the time and generally trying to distract myself from the two monstrously fretful things ahead of me: the fact that i might miss my flight, and more importantly, the impending goodbye that loomed in the corner of my every thought.
At last, a frantic first-class counter lady checked me in. “Now you don’t have to run to your flight, but you do absolutely have to go straight there after security!” she warned. It was 5:30. My flight left at 6:00.
With a flurry of rolling bags and hand-holding that hardly lasted long enough, we said goodbye. It was excruciating.
I sobbed my way through security. At 5:45, shoes re-zipped and passport in my clutch, i searched the signs for gate C 23. It was at the far end of the airport. As if in a film, i began sprinting through the throng of people. My black carry-on bag has been in my family for some fifteen years – and it’s starting to show. The right wheel clacks when it rolls – you can hear me coming from down the hall. Every airport i was in, people craned their necks to hear what that horrible thwacking every two seconds was.
However, the clacking came in my favor as it easily made a parted Red Sea for me as i dashed past parents wheeling babies in strollers and businesswomen with briefcases.
At 5:49, i arrived at my gate – weeping, wheezing, and wheeling what i now called Gimpy the Suitcase that Could. If i hadn’t been so overwhelmed by stress and sadness the whole situation would have been outrageously comical – my face ruddy, my lungs in revolt, and barely two minutes to spare.
I asked the gentleman ahead of me in line if this was the right queue for the London flight. He replied yes and, catching sight of my face, exclaimed in a lovely London accent, “Wow, you really ran here! … And had to say goodbye to someone too.” I nodded, clutching a stitch in my side and trying to wipe my nose in one very un-synchronized motion. “Call them when you land,” he said kindly, turning back.
To my surprise, he faced me once more with a tissue in his hand.”Here,” he profferred, smiling gently. I spluttered a thanks, catching sight of his face properly for the first time. For a second, i though he was Chiwetel Ejiofer – the actor from Kinky Boots and Love Actually and a million other things. The resemblance was so striking to me i almost asked if that’s who he was. Had i been in a state where i could breathe, i might have.
I learned later he’s named Terry. I learned this when he came back to check on me once the plane was in the air.
“Are you feeling better?” Terry asked me.
“I am, much better. Thank you for being so kind to me,” i replied. He asked who had made me cry so much before leaving and, before i could explain much more than J and how long we’d been together, he remarked, “Teary eyed again?” I couldn’t help it. And yet he was so sweet, telling me five months was going to fly by and that i should try and get some sleep before landing. We talked about what i was going to study, exchanged names, the usual small talk.
“I’m just – i’m letting myself be sad for 24 hours and then i’ll focus on the adventure of it all.” I was spluttering again, in spite of my every effort not to.
“It is an awfully big adventure.” He grinned again, joking about me needing some wine and crossing myself with each glass (i’d told him about the religion major). I chortled, and Terry went back to his seat.
The rest of my flight was spent in a far better state because of his compassion. I slept an hour or so, drank down plenty of water, and studied the map of the city some more.
I never saw him again. Terry, the angel in human form, whose five minutes spent in my life made it all the warmer.
Heathrow was fine – customs went smoothly, and i found my gate with relative ease. There was an all-too-brief conversation with J from a payphone in Terminal A to let him know i was safe and on time and trying to be brave.
And then, before i knew it, i was in Edinburgh. Having not slept, really, in 24 hours by then, it was a woozy greeting. I’d had a magical moment when we flew over London – snapping a few pictures of the twinkling lights spread wide like a net beneath us – but i’d had a nap then.
As it turns out, the movie-like drama was not done with me yet. I’d been afraid, when traveling to Uganda two summers ago, that i’d lose my checked luggage. I had so many connections and was so worried about flying alone that it had been a constant source of stress. Not for this trip. Of course, i’d tucked extra underwear and t-shirts into my carry-ons (just in case), but this was always more symbolic than out of real worry.
I was wrong.
Half of my checked luggage came, but the bag with my sweaters and socks and books was still in London, to be sent later. In a delirious state, i gave my Edinburgh address and US phone number. Unbeknownst to me, i only gave my building address – not my flat number. Also unbeknownst to me was that my US Phone number would not work here (i’d assumed the charges would be astronomical until i got a new SIM card, but plausible nonetheless).
For this reason, the rest of my bags did not arrive until today – when i finally called from a university phone. It wasn’t really that horrible – Uganda did, after all, teach me how to be more flexible (the bags required no flexibility there, in the end – but there were plenty of other opportunities for growth!).
And, when the wooziness wore off courtesy of a chai latte, i realized: i am in freaking Edinburgh, Scotland. Birthplace of Harry Potter, home to me now, filled with kirks and a castle and kilts.
Which is where i am now. Making friends, learning the streets. Gearing up to decorate my walls and select a choice outfit for orientation tomorrow. Grateful i studied so many maps and grateful i bought chocolate this afternoon while exploring some of the city in pursuit of a new SIM card (which i found!). Grateful for Terry the Airplane Angel, grateful for the privilege of being able to travel, grateful for the challenges and cheers ahead of me. Grateful for all the reasons why i’m sad to be apart from loved ones in the states. Grateful for the opportunity to fall so in love with this city i’ll be sad to leave it.
When i gave my (real) surname to the courier of my bags, he exclaimed “Well it doesn’t get more Scottish than that! You’re home at last, lass!”
Not yet, i thought. But soon, i will be home here. Soon and very soon.
current jam: ‘english house’ fleet foxes.
best thing: terry the airplane angel.