I’m currently avoiding two research papers, so I thought I’d engage in some good, old fashioned procrastination and tell a story. A couple weeks ago, I told you a little about what the Lord was doing in my heart over our Spring Break adventure to Europe. This is one of many stories from that trip. It’s not a deep or profound story, just a funny one. It’s the story of fourteen college students who were just trying to make it back to the States. Sit back, grab some popcorn, and enjoy a laugh on this dreary Thursday night.
It was a spring break for the books. What had initially started as a few friends dreaming about a post-graduation trip had spiraled into this much larger group of best friends planning to galavant through Europe for twelve days in March. The week was jam-packed with six countries, thousands of miles of driving rental cars, a new hostel every night, and long days of sightseeing and skiing. By the morning of our departure from Belgium, we were exhausted but our hearts were content. The week had been full of the kind of laughter and memories that don’t fade with time.
A 5am wake-up call on Tuesday morning had us all packed up and ready to make the 3 hour drive from Brugge back to Brussels. Speeding through traffic, the biggest concern of the morning was whether or not we would make it back to the airport for an 8:30 rental car drop off. There were also concerns about whether or not people were going to be sick in the cars; traveling sickness, dinners that don’t sit well, and fervent driving made for some tense moments. Yet, consistent with the flawlessness of the rest of the trip, each of three cars made it to the airport on time. Saying goodbye to the one member of the crew with a different flight (which would be to his ultimate benefit), our group of thirteen settled down at our gate. We boarded our 10:30am flight from Brussels to Montreal.
Knowing all about jet lag, we knew not to fall asleep on the flight. There was some light dozing, especially given our general exhaustion and early wake-up, but we knew that we were going east-to-west. And we knew that it was daytime in Chicago. We had to stay awake to reset our body clocks. So we entertained ourselves with movies, conversations, and reminiscing about the trip. We rotated seats, found comfortable positions, and shared all the food we had stowed in our carry-ons. Towards the end of the six hour flight, attention shifted from entertainment to preparation; we had 45 minutes to make our connecting flight and everyone needed to be ready to go. No one was getting left behind. We were all going to make it back to Wheaton by 5:30pm. We’d be back in time for people’s Tuesday night classes (after all, we’d already missed the rest of Monday and Tuesday classes – per a calculated decision to visit Paris and Brugge).
The flight debarked and we jogged through Canadian customs to our next gate. Delayed. We hadn’t yet sat down when we got wind of the storm that was looming overhead. Rumors of canceled flights buzzed all around us and the airport quickly turned into a ghost town. Canceled. Deliberations about what we would do if the storm got worse began, while everyone maintained hope that it wouldn’t come to that. After talking to AirCanada representatives, we were all put on an 8pm flight, optimistic that they were still going to try and get flights out in what was quickly becoming a dangerous blizzard. It hadn’t even been an hour after getting our new boarding passes that we were informed that all flights out of Montreal had been canceled. We were definitely not making it back to Wheaton by Tuesday.
We were given taxi, meal, and hotel vouchers for the night. Deciding to enjoy the now empty terminal, we took our time at dinner, enjoying another night of being together. We picked up our checked bags that had never even made it onto another plane. Through Canadian customs again, we finally made our way to the taxi pick-up. Little could have prepared us for what we saw next – a line wrapping around the baggage claim terminal several times. Shocked, we asked around to see just what this line was for and how quickly it was moving.
It was the line to get a taxi. It was rumored to be four hours long.
9pm turned into 10pm, which turned into 11pm Montreal time. On our Belgium schedule, it was nearing 5am. We’d officially been up for over 24 hours. And you could tell. Everyone was losing it.
Taxis were having trouble getting through the blizzard, meaning they were coming infrequently. And there were a lot of people trying to get out of the airport. Committed to the idea of sleeping in a hotel bed, and having already waited for three hours without much progress, we ordered Ubers. They weren’t coming fast, but it was more promising than the taxi situation. Splitting up, we said goodbye to half the group and piled in an Uber XL.
What followed was the most surreal Uber experience of my life, aided by the sleep deprivation I was operating from. Our Uber driver insisted on keeping the windows open, to keep them from fogging. As we were being snowed on in the backseat, traffic turned what should have been a 15 minute drive into a 2 hour one. We barely moved outside of the airport terminal for the first 45 minutes. Even though the other group’s Uber had left after ours, not taking the highway had saved them several minutes. Although, at one point they had gotten stuck in a snow back and had to push the car, so I suppose it all evens out. When they reached the hotel, apparently they asked if we had checked in yet. Obviously, we hadn’t. The only logical assumption was that we had crashed and died. Yet, without international data plans, they had no way of contacting us. And we had no way of reassuring them that we were still just stuck, wet, cold, and sleepy on the highway.
After the most expensive Uber of our lives, we finally pulled up to the hotel. The lady behind the desk handed me a key. I grabbed my backpack and upon finding that we were unable to work the elevator, we hiked up to our room. My friend following close behind, I unlocked the door and flew into the room, wanting to crash upon the bed. Much to my surprise, there were already people in the beds. Hm. We’d been given keys to someone else’s room. Pushing my friend out the door, shh-ing her along the way, I dropped my stuff and ran back down the stairs. I was hysterical. Uncontrollable laughter made it difficult to form coherent words. I managed, between laughs, to get out that someone was already in that room. The woman asked if I was serious. I was. It was 2am. I was very serious.
We finally got to sleep. In a room without other guests.
The next morning, we made our way over to the airport bright and early, ready to get home and convinced we couldn’t miss our 1:00pm flight. At least it wasn’t snowing anymore. We hadn’t even all gotten through customs and security when talk began circling back – the flight had been canceled. Sitting at the gate of yet another canceled flight, we watched this time as a plane took off for O’Hare. Too bad all the flights were full. Too bad the airports were all backed up.
The kind AirCanada woman informed us that the next open flight was scheduled for 11:15am – on Thursday. Everyone lost it, in their own personal way. Anger. Tears. Silence. Verbal processing. This meant missing almost an entire week of classes, job interviews, meetings, and appointments. Our homework was hundreds of miles away and we were still stuck in Montreal. Going back through customs to the front desk, we inquired about hotel and meal tickets. Since it was only 2pm on Wednesday, we had a long way to go until Thursday.
One of the guys who’d planned the trip chatted with the woman. Was there anyway that any of us could get on a flight before Thursday? I’m not sure what happened in those fifteen minutes that he talked to this attendant, but somewhere, in his persistence, she found 9 seats on a flight from Montreal to Toronto, then Toronto to O’Hare. The catch? It was leaving in thirty minutes.
Like in a scene from a movie, we threw nine passports at this woman and proceeded to have nine passports and eighteen boarding passes thrown back at us. We exchanged them while we ran. She said she’d work on the rest of the paperwork but that we needed to go. Calling the gate, she demanded that they keep it open for the nine students who would be running up to it. Then we sprinted. Through security. Through customs. With all of our luggage, because there was no time to check anything. This motley crew of college students was not about to miss the flight. And we didn’t.
Now, one would think that’s where the eventful proceedings end, except that when we got to Toronto, settled into the gate fifteen minutes before boarding, there was an announcement over the loud speaker: can I please see MacMath, McDonald, Westergren, LaRusso, Bergthold, Fritz, McGee . . . That’s us. We shuffled over, like the desperate students we were. She asked if we had any of the necessary paperwork to get on the flight, besides the boarding passes; we didn’t. She said she’d work on it while they began boarding. The paperwork never came. Even though we had boarding passes, they wouldn’t scan without the other documents. Whether because they sensed our desperation or were convinced they could work out the details later, the kind people of AirCanada let us on the flight. Officially undocumented, having been through Canadian customs multiple times, with a dozen previous flight registrations, and carrying luggage bigger than the overhead bins – we finally boarded our flight to O’Hare.
I’ve never been so relieved to see the Chicago skyline. There may or may not have been tears.
And so concluded the extra day of spring break that none of us had anticipated. It was the most surreal traveling experience that I’ve had to date. A memorable 48-hours with some of the greatest people I’ve ever known.
And I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.