Sunday, June 15, 2008

48 Hours, 5 Airports, 2 Bumped Flights, and 1 Bomb Scare

Let me tell you a story: attempting to sweet-talk bitter airlines' agents in three different languages within the same 48 hours period does not work well. In fact, it does not work at all.

I named this blog "Kosovo or bust" for a reason, but for awhile it was looking like 'bust' was truly going to be the outcome. The original plan was Philly to Paris, Paris to Budapest, and Budapest to Pristina. Ha.

My first hint that traveling on Friday the Thirteenth may not have been such a good idea came in Paris. Of course, the flight from Philly was late. Of course, I only had an hour and a half to make my connection. And of course, after a mad dash across Charles de Gaulle Airport, I missed my flight.

I immediately went to the Transfers Desk to wait in a 25 minute line with about ten other passengers (most from the Philly flight) and a lot of pissed off Italians. When I finally reached someone, they attempted to put me on a 3:45 pm flight (keep in mind it was 9:30 am at this point). Fortunately (or unfortunately? I'm not sure yet), I remembered that Air France and Malev were codeshare partners, and Malev had a flight out at 12:45. While the Texan couple next to me were screaming at their agent in English and waving their hands, I tried to (politely!) ask if it was possible to be put on the Malev flight. This story gets funny here: while the two Air France agents and I start talking about the Malev flight (in French), the agents comment on how much they hate dealing with rude, entitled Americans, and how they don't really care at all if the loud passengers have to wait - "Il n'y a rien a fait." Meanwhile, we continue chatting about the plausibility of me taking the Malev flight, they ask their boss for permission, transfer my ticket, and send me off (with a smile) to the Malev desk to get a boarding pass.

I walk the two kilometers to the Malev desk two terminals away, but of course, it is impossible to find. The random agents I ask for directions have no idea. Not even the Airport Police knew where it was. After legally entering and then leaving the European Union twice in twenty minutes (aka the Schengen Zone of the airport), I finally find the desk down a hidden side staircase in an orange tiled room. A woman looks up at me apathetically, "Ouais?" After I explain to her my situation, show her my paperwork, she shuffles around on her computer for ten minutes before telling me she can't give me a ticket - even though I was on the flight list she had - as Air France forgot to change the number on my printed itinerary. Quoi?

Aaaaaand we are back to another Air France desk, this time in yet a different terminal. Another line, and I get my number. Baaaack to Malev's Terminal (kilometer count at this point: six)... but WAIT! Non! C'est pas possible! I look up to see about ten garcons in French military garb carrying semi-automatic rifles, shouting and herding confused tourists out of the terminal. Bien sur, none of the soldiers speak English, and none of the travelers (mostly Bulgarian, Taiwanese, and American) speak French. I get stuck translating for the police officers, while every ten minutes we are pushed back even further. After about an hour, the bomb squad comes out carrying a destroyed black suitcase - which most likely had only held duty-free chocolate and some poor tourist's dirty underwear. Even so, we are rerouted back into the terminal by walking through the massive traffic jam of chain-smoking French cabbies created by the closure. The Malev desk gives me a boarding pass, and I am off to my gate (with ten whole minutes to spare).

Returning to Budapest is nothing short of surreal. Nothing has changed, but everything has changed. The Repterbusz, the airport, the kettes-metro... Kobanya-Kispest station still stands in all its 1960s Communist glory, with the same Roma camp and alcoholics infiltrating the building. And of course, the Ellenorok (Kontroll) sat behind the ticket punch smoking Lucky Strikes.

After a night in a friendly hostel and a trip to a smoke-filled basement bar (the one thing I didn't miss) with a few other random Americans, it was back to the airport the next morning. As I check in two hours early, I am told that my ticket is now only considered stand-by. Micsoda!?!?!?!?! Apparently, this is a daily occurrence as Malev always oversells the Pristina flight. They allow me to sit at the gate, but I am warned that I probably won't be leaving that day, and maybe not even the next. As I could not buy a ticket straight through PHL to Pristina, Penn's Amex Business Travel Office had bought this second leg separately for me. As such, I was the first to get bumped from the flight, since the other passengers, all connecting through Budapest, had received their boarding passes when they originally checked in.

Back to a transfer desk! The beauty of Hungary is their love of classic bureaucracy: instead of computerized systems, they have three-ply carbon copy sheets and handwritten management lists for every flight. I shit you not. After 45 minutes of wrangling, I convince them to reroute me to Pristina via Vienna late that night. They hand me my (yellow) carbon copy slip, 250 euros cash renumeration, and a slip for free lunch at the First Class lounge. For the fifth bajillionth time, I left the Schengen Zone and sidled up to yet another terminal's transfer desk to exchange my yellow slip for an actual boarding pass.

By this time, the terminal was filling up with passengers of a different breed: dressed in green combat uniforms and heavy boots, about 100 US Army soldiers filled the hall. Feeling enraged at Malev, I offered to share my (unlimited) free lunch with a couple of guys. They accepted, and over rather pathetic paninis, we had a two hour discussion of the war in Iraq. The most verbose - last name Duscold - was a combat EMT from Pittsburgh going back for his second tour in Iraq who did not look a day older than 22. The conversation wandered from the ineffectiveness of Iraqi government budgets to terrorist methods of communicating plans via traditional script funeral announcements (which soldiers had become inured to, and thus no longer ever read) to Philly bars and drunk cowboys.

The rest of the afternoon was spent taking advantage of the wireless, chocolate turo-rudi, and spectacular open bar in the lounge (Tokaj Szamorodni! Champagne! Jack Daniels! It basically looked like they had ransacked the nearby duty-free). Then it was back west to Vienna, a 30 minute layover's sprint out of the Schengen zone and across the airport, and I was on the flight to Pristina filled with Kosovar diaspora and KFOR soldiers returning from break. Each Kosovar family had at least 8 kids (no joke), and once one infant stopped screaming and started breastfeeding, another broke out in blood-curdling screams. I managed to read and chatted to a Danish, tall, blond twenty year old.... in combat boots and uniform, a KFOR soldier at the Mitrovica border (bet you didn't expect that one!).

Flying into the Pristina airport at night, there is very little ground-light. Some ambient light from Pristina bends around a hill towards the airport 16 kilometers away, but otherwise, it is a nearly dark tarmac and a large shed with an Icelandic flag (since Kosovo is not officially a country, they cannot officially have an airport. Iceland shares their airport tender with them). One of the British KFOR soldiers said he would ask his commander if they could give me a ride into Pristina, but that it would probably be easier just to take a cab - the cab driver turned on BBC and told me what a big fan he was of Bill Clinton, then pointed out a thirty foot high mural of Bill on a nearby housing block. The trip into Pristina looks EXACTLY like the drive into Nyiregyhaza: fertilizer smell + farms beget small houses, which beget construction supply stores, which beget newer European chain hypermarkets, which beget housing blocks, which beget more housing blocks and then all of a sudden, the city center.

And that, folks, was how I got to Kosovo.

No comments: