I'm just back from ten days in Eire. Actually, it was meant to be ten days but it was actually nine as our airline carrier decided they didn't want us gone that long. Who can blame them?!
I'd been looking forward to this trip, well, since I booked it in April really. I hadn't been home since March the previous year and, aside from the wonder that is Skype, was convinced I'd forgotten what everyone looked like! (You're all still beautiful ya hear!)
We left early Wednesday morning, June 22nd, after a quick stop in Joe's Grill on Davie Street for a "dirty fry" as we call it in Ireland, to set us up for the long trek ahead.
We arrived at the airport in plenty of time, bought some booze for the family and friends (what else would Irish people bring home only booze?!) And of course I had silly little trinkets for all my nieces and nephews including Canadian socks, money boxes saying 'Someone in Canada loves you very much' (i.e. save up to come visit me kiddies!), mini hockey sticks, and for the grown-ups back home Vancouver frames displaying pictures of myself and my own lucky charm, a.k.a the better half, to proudly display on the mantlepiece. We don't half love ourselves!
I also brought home some obligatory "Loose Moose" shot glasses back for the floozies among my friends (you know who you are!) and even a lucky Canadian penny forged into a keyring, I assume just like the One Ring was forged at Mount Doom (copyright Dark Lord Sauron, I don't want a Middle-earth lawsuit on my hands!)
The sun was shining leaving my lovely Van (this picture was taken that morning) and we had the most delightful flight to Toronto, where I actually texted my family and friends exalting the smooth ride thus far and generally feeling very smug with myself and my travelling companion. Good one Rach, way to jinx the trip!
Yes, it was just about now - seemingly as I pressed the 'Send' button and wondered if I should play with fate - that fate smacked me squarely in the ass. Uncalled for, you!
As the flight was scheduled for 9pm, we decided to have a few bevvies to lap up the holiday atmosphere and pass the time. Now, I should clarify that I am NOT a travel drinker. I just don't see the point as I normally get a severe hangover after two drinks if I leave it at that (I rarely leave it at that!), and sure you're just gonna fall asleep on the plane anyway, now stinking of booze.
However, I had my arm twisted (my boyfriend is a master arm twister, like some sort of Kung Fu warrior) and had a few friendly tipples with a lovely server in Toronto Pearson International Airport who, of course, had Irish ties so couldn't get enough of our accents.
We actually met a really interesting author called Marcello di Cintio who's writing a new book on borders and was travelling to Northern Ireland to document the effect of the north and south divide there.
This was of particular interest to me as my hometown of Dundalk (pronounced Dun-dawk) is equidistant between Dublin and Belfast, and was once known as 'El Paso' as it was often a safe haven for republican terrorists who sheltered here, particularly during the Troubles.
Many locals would have been considered sympathetic to the IRA's plight for a free Ireland until the violence went too far, most noticeably with the Omagh bombing in 1998 which turned the tides towards public disdain. And, while Dundalk recovered its reputation and flourished during the Celtic Tiger years, with shopping centres and apartment blocks popping up every few feet, we were badly hit again during the recent recession as more and more people struggled to get by and many went 'up North' to avail of cheaper goods and services.
So I, more than anyone, know the effects of living in a border town and was intrigued with this man (I did, however, notice my arguments becoming less and less eloquent and more and more slurred as the liquor continued to flow...typical Irish, eh?!)
Our flight was delayed, firstly, by an hour...then two...then three...then four and, by this stage, I was starting to get worried. No more beers for Rachel, time to get the serious cap on - except unfortunately for me it was too late and all I could think about was devouring some crappy airport food to soak up the beer demons.
Of course, by now everything in the airport was shut down apart from one exorbitantly-priced eatery so I bought myself an $8 sandwich and settled in for the long-haul. I'd also packed my warm tops in my now checked luggage as I'd left the blissful Vancouver sun earlier that day, so grumpily invested in a Canada hoodie for $50 of my hard earned, just so I could put it over my head and pretend this nightmare wasn't happening...
Fast forward to 3am and, yep, looks like the flight might be cancelled. Apparently a section of the emergency lights along the aisle were broken and this was a "very unusual occurrence" as we were informed by the poor twenty-something year old girl on the loudspeaker, who had to deal with 200 disgruntled passengers all on her lonesome. We waited all those hours as they flew in "special parts" especially from Montreal...which didn't work.
This left me wondering as to the kind of garage this airport - the biggest in Canada - had onsite. Surely they should have "special parts" (hm, lights don't seem that special to me) and a whole assortment of other equipment at the ready for times just like these? And don't call me Shirley (geeky 'Airplane' reference, couldn't help myself!)
Then, to top it all off, a lightning storm began outside so the lonely lady told us in her agonizing tones that the mechanics were refusing to dock with the tunnel due to safety reasons, meaning we couldn't get any refreshments from the plane! A Good Samaritan American woman actually went to Tim Horton's, which was one of the only places still open in the airport (a closed Tim Horton's is blasphemy in Canada!), to buy six dozen donuts and as many coffees, which we helped to distribute amongst the exhausted crowd.
Finally, an hour later the lightning stopped so we were able to get refreshments from the plane...mmm, warm apple juice and sugary pretzels, that was worth the wait!!
At approximately 4am, we were given the news we were dreading yet expecting - the flight's definitely cancelled. But fear not my motley crew, everyone will be put up in hotels and fully reimbursed. Oh, actually scrap that, there aren't enough rooms to go around as the Bollywood event is on in Toronto this week (could it get any better?!), so everywhere's sold out.
It's now a first come, first serve scenario, so if you'll kindly make your way down the elevator, to the left, to the right, past a black sculpture, down an escalator, along the yellow brick road, round the roundabout, over the hill and far away, past the strawberry fields and along the road to nowhere, you'll find the place to book the few remaining rooms.
Cue people hastily gathering their belongings, looking in confusion at one another as we wonder if this is a joke, then the spritely among us make a beeline for the elevator which is the only part of the directions we can remember, thus starting some sort of human flock reminiscent of those dinosaur bird-like things in *Jurassic Park (Google tells me they're gallimimus. Thanks Google, where would I be without you?)
[*By the way, if I ever make reference to Jurassic Park you must excuse my nerdiness, it's one of my childhood favourites which I tend to reference much too much for even my own liking!]
Me, being the rebel fighter that's inherent in my blood, shouted over my shoulder for Simon to go get the bags which were coming unceremoniously off the plane, while I ran to avoid having to sleep on those horrible plastic chairs they seem to have in every airport worldwide. Why must you play with us airport authorities, you must know situations like these occur every now and again so SURELY you should provide some seats with at least headrests, or non-metallic components?! Yes, yes, don't call me Shirley, I get it, I get it!!
I got to the top of the queue/line-up where one lone man stood dejected. He informed us that his flight, and two others, had also been cancelled that night for reasons unbeknownst to us and that they'd all been accommodated hours before. So, we were the poor sods left bottom of the barrel. He also informed us that this line hadn't moved in over an hour, which made us wonder what the three tellers in front of us were actually doing? Finally, after about twenty minutes, the line moved up and the guy moved forward.
Yes, I was at the top but what for?
Word spread that there were in fact NO rooms left and that we were, to put it mildly, screwed. Oh and did I mention our rescheduled flight was at 7pm the following day??!! The thoughts of sitting in those hard chairs, or lying on the cold floor without even a blanket, sobered me up something rotten and the migraine kicked in. Thanks for joining me love, I missed you like a hole in the head!
One of the three tellers suddenly got up to leave and an angry man behind me asked him where he was going?
Customer rep: "My shift's over, sir. I'm going home."
Angry man: "What do you mean your shift's over, we're all standing here, stranded, and you're just going to leave because your 'shift's over'?? That's unacceptable!"
Customer rep: "I've been working for 14 hours, sir, I'm going home. There's nothing more I can do."
Angry man: "But what about us, our flight was cancelled and we've nowhere to sleep. There's no-one to even give us any answers and you're 'going home' - that's not fair!!"
Customer rep: Well, I can't remember his exact words as I was seeing red by this stage but it was something along the lines of "Deal with it, mate."
So, of course poor angry man gets out his camera to document the situation at hand and starts taking pictures of the crowds, the general confusion and the tellers themselves, to which he was swiftly met with; "Stop taking pictures, sir, you have no right to take pictures, you must delete them immediately."
When he refused, one of the tellers suddenly jumped to attention for the first time in over an hour and called Security to come deal with this errant traveller. Next thing, five burly security guards come along and stand ominously at the top of the line, arms folded and motionless. Interesting to see how quickly they react for a security breach yet there's nar a sniff of a manager nor supervisor around to give us some bleedin' answers!!!
After about an hour of this, an older looking lady came along and confirmed our fears that, yes, all of the hotels in the GTA are booked up. ALL of them, how is that even possible?! When we tried to ask questions she buzzed us away and said she had no other answers other than we would have to accommodate ourselves. Hmpfh, you don't say.
Luckily, just then the Good Samaritan lady came along and said to four or five of us at the top of the line that she'd found a hotel with vacant rooms just up the road, but that we'd need to get on it asap in order to secure a booking. I was on the blower immediately, as they say in Dublin, and put my name down for one room. Several others did too so we decided to cut our losses and make a run for it.
Literally, we ran the whole way back to the baggage area where I bumped into Simon and then out to a shuttle bus which brought us five minutes down the road to the Marriott Hotel - also known as the Toronto Airport Marriott Hotel. Hm, every hotel within the GTA booked out, I think not!!
We arrived at approximately 5am, I put the price of the room on my card ($225) and we conked out till 11am. $225 for 6 hours sleep - bargain! I wasn't happy with this added expense at all but I just kept thinking about the other poor buggers in the airport who had to sleep there all night and the scrooge in me went out the window.
After being woken by room service at 7am, 8am, 9am, 10am and lastly 11am when we decided to reluctantly give in and get up, we packed up and headed down for lunch in the hotel restaurant. Another $40 I didn't expect to spend and will never get back.
Luckily, we have some Irish friends in the city who came to visit us in Vancouver over Christmas and, in a twisted turn of events, we ended up going on an unexpectedly delightful tour of downtown Toronto which gave us a glimpse into life on the east coast. (It was lashing rain but that didn't matter. Coincidentally, I texted a Canadian friend of mine to give her an update on the situation and had to explain what "lashing" was! My reply? "Sorry, it's raining really hard!")
Unfortunately, as only Murphy's Law can predict, we got stuck in traffic and, half an hour before boarding time for our new flight, were still stuck on the highway...! We tried to stay positive but it didn't look good.
We swiftly said our goodbyes and ran back into the airport, exactly 24 hours from our original start date. We ran to the nearest official and asked about the re-scheduled flight to Dublin. "Oh no," he replied non-chalantly, "that flight's closed." What do you mean closed, it can't be closed??!! He kindly allowed us to skip the line and we ran to the check-in desk where we detailed our plight. "Sorry folks, that flight is closed." We know, we know, but is there anything you can do, we were stuck in traffic!! "Let me check with my supervisor."
Cue bemused supervisor.
She looked us up and down, surveying our authenticity and just how sorry we really were. I tried to look as vulnerable as possible (think Puss In Boots in Shrek!) Again coincidentally, the name Rachel means 'ewe' and I remember a keychain my Mum gave to me one year as a child. It had a poem on it that said; "Rachel is a little lamb, she has no devious master plan. Her thoughts are pure, her mind is clear, she really is a little dear!" Now, I don't know about all that but I was certainly trying to channel my inner lamb to convince this woman to take pity on us and to let us through!
I was actually shaking and sweating so much that I couldn't even open my passport to the correct page. How could we let this happen?! I was so close to tears but I knew I had to keep it together, especially as Simon clasped his hands together and said, "Please, please, PLEASE let us through, our flight was cancelled!" to which the supervisor sharply retorted; "Excuse me, sir, but 200 other people had their flight cancelled last night and every single one of them managed to be here on time except you two," so we knew that any more begging and pleading would only irk her further.
She made a call through to - I'm not sure, God?? - to see what our fate would be. God turned out to be a woman called Marisa who apparently didn't want to let us through at all. However, supervisor lady had taken a liking to us (I think because of the Irish accents, that gets us out of a lot of binds!!) and because she saw how visibly upset we were, and she tried to convince the all-powerful Marisa to open up the gate once more. Marisa was not happy!
It didn't look good but two minutes later our now nice supervisor turned to us and said with a smile, "You're in." Oh my good God, the relief washing through my body was enough to nearly make me keel over. However, we were soon to find out that this was just the beginning of our troubles. Our supervisor lady had to get the computer system re-opened in order to tag our bags, and auld Marisa was messing about re-opening the system.
It was now 5.35pm and our flight boarded at 5.50pm...and we hadn't even gone through security! Our one saving grace was that we'd checked in online beforehand (did I mention that earlier that day Good Samaritan lady had found us and had brought us to the business part of the hotel where we could print our new boarding passes...I wasn't sure I believed in Guardian Angels before but I do now!) So, once our bags were checked, the supervisor told us to run and we might just make it. MIGHT?! Holy crap...run Forrest, run!!!!
We made a beeline for security and, wouldn't ya know, there was a huge line ahead of us. The guy at the top was checking everyone's passports and asking where they were going, how their day was going and generally enjoying some chitchat, being the good Canadian guy that he was. But, I didn't have time for good Canadian guys right now I'm afraid, I had a flight to catch!
A kind man in front of us realized we were in dire straits and let us take his place. We rushed through security (two bigger terrorists you've never seen, sweating and twitchy) but, miraculously, they let us through. UNTIL *ding, ding, ding* "Sir, is this your liquor?" Yes, it's duty-free that we bought in the airport yesterday, our flight was cancelled... "Okay, sir, but that doesn't apply today." But the bag's not open, you can see we haven't even touched it! "That doesn't matter, sir, you're going to have to go to Duty Free to get a new receipt." New receipt?? Our flight leaves in ten minutes!!
I shouted for Simon to leave the drink, LEAVE THE DRINK! but, Irishman that he is, he refused to let it go down without a fight! Seeing the steely determination in his eyes, I said I'd run on ahead to hold the gate (as if I could somehow stop the plane from leaving) while he'd go to sort that but, if it was getting too close, to just leave the flippin' drink!!
I literally LEGGED it through the airport, from one end to the other, in a single breath. Oh and did I mention Toronto Pearson International Airport is the largest in Canada? And that I'm not a natural sprinter??!! I sped along those walking flat escalator things, nearly flattening several elderly couples and some children along my way (I actually caught one boy by the arm as he went to fall over purely from the force of air that catapulted him as I ran past, like some sort of madcap Superwoman), and finally made it to the gate with five minutes to spare and panting like a loon.
The line was moving worryingly quickly so I rang Simon to find out where he was. "I'm just coming out of Duty Free now, I'll be there soon." Em, Duty Free's like five minutes back!!! Stay calm Rach, stay calm. I contemplated bursting into tears and putting on my best Oscar-winning performance to make them wait for my love, but I knew they couldn't hold the plane for some lovesick puppy so instead I just jumped from one foot to another trying to get my heart rate down.
Suddenly, literally with just one family behind us and the gate closing up, comes Mr.Smooth around the corner with a poor little Duty Free girl struggling to carry our booze beside him! Apparently they have this weird rule where the Duty Free assisant has to carry the goods right to the gate (so we can't switch the bottles of whiskey with explosives I guess!) and, with a quick word of thanks, we rolled down the tunnel and collapsed into our seats. Wiped is not the word.
We couldn't believe our luck. For the first hour of the flight home we just stared at each other in disbelief. Did that series of unfortunate events actually happen?! Forget pointing fingers of blame, we didn't even care anymore. We were on our way home. A day later than expected, but we were going home. No re-scheduling more flights, no asking our friends in Toronto to turn around and pick us up at the airport again - tails between our legs and big lips out - we had done it!! The adrenaline faded away and we both went into coma mode until we neared Dublin.
The eagle has landed!!
The whole flight clapped when we finally touched down, but not the normal clap of holiday fun; this was a clap of pure relief and elation that the nightmare was finally over.
As expected, we had the most wondrous time at home and revelled in the attention from our family and friends. They couldn't believe our close call - TWICE! - but were just happy we made it back in one piece.
Now that we're back in Maple Leaf Land, it's time for a strongly worded letter of complaint to the airline who shall remain nameless (and who gave each passenger a $100 voucher off our next flight, as if we'll be going anywhere anytime soon!) but, to be honest, I'm just glad we're back. In a strange way, it felt like coming home again. Ireland will always be our home but this surrogate country ain't half bad at all!!