The taxi was scheduled to take us to the airport at 4am on Sunday, February 26. We’d only been in Athens a day, but had seen plenty in our 10 or so hours of exploring and were ready to go home.
At least I was ready to go home.
I can’t speak for my friend, R, and how she was feeling about returning to work and grad school and life as usual back in Minnesota after joining me for a little over a week in Greece. But as for me, I felt tired. Road-weary. Saturated with experiences wild and mundane, grand and grating. I couldn’t wrap my head around doing anything more than getting to the airport, getting on a plane to London, getting to my hotel, and, the next day, getting on a plane to go home.
In retrospect, I should have expected my last full day of cross-continent travel wouldn’t be easy. Sure, I’d survived 147 days of buses, trains, planes, Ubers, taxis, metros, trams, and hiking, but when I arrived in London — an English-speaking country after so many months away from seeing or hearing English with any regularity — I let my guard down. I fumbled. Big time — repeatedly.
First, I should mention I was off my game in part because I was off balance. Literally. Due to the ever-fabulous world of budget flying, even though R’s backpack was completely within Air France’s carry-on limitations, they told her she’d have to check it, because they’d decided they were going to check everyone’s luggage that day. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but R had a tight turnaround time in Paris to catch her flight to Minneapolis, and were she to have to check her bag and reclaim it at baggage before heading through round two of security and customs, she wouldn’t make it.
We’d thought this might happen, and the night before had decided that if she wasn’t able to carry her backpack on, I would take it for her. It would only cost another $20 or so for my Ryanair flight to London from Athens and, for my flight home, it would be free: I would just check The Beast and carry R’s bag on with me. I was fine with the plan — her bag wasn’t nearly as heavy as mine and it would only be for a short time and a short distance of walking. Or so I thought.
Cue complication Number One. When I booked my flight home from Europe, I also booked a room at what I thought was the Hilton connected to Terminal 4 at Heathrow. Turns out, there are two Hilton Heathrow Hotels, one being the Hilton Garden Inn London Heathrow Airport, the other being the Hilton London Heathrow Airport Hotel. Both hotels advertise their proximity to Terminal 4, and both popped up on Expedia with deals. Turns out, I had clicked on the Garden Inn option, which is close to Terminal 4, but not connected to Terminal 4.
I didn’t realize this until I was on the bus from Stansted Airport to Heathrow at 9:45am on Sunday. I’d been awake since 3:30am Athens time (1:30am London time) and was feeling out of sorts for many reasons. I was going home the next day. I was exhausted. I had a third backpack with me. I’d just paid $35 for a one-and-a-half-hour bus ride between airports after growing accustomed to paying around $15 for six- to eight-hour bus rides that took me all over Croatia and Bosnia and Serbia. I hadn’t eaten breakfast. I smelled of sweat and exhaust fumes and dirt. And on top of all of that, I had a sinking feeling that the hotel I thought I was going to spend the night at wasn’t the one I had booked a night at.
All of this hit me at once and, without fully realizing what was happening until it was happening, I started quiet crying while looking out the window at the decidedly uninteresting landscape filling the space between the airports.
I let my mini pity party go on for a while, then blew my nose and forced myself into planning mode. I pulled up my Expedia email, confirmed that my sinking feeling had been correct, and started Googling to see how I could get to the Hilton Garden Inn now that my plan to just walk through a skyway was thwarted. After poking around Google Maps and the hotel’s website, I discovered that from Terminal 4 it was a two-stop tube ride to get near enough to the hotel to walk. Not ideal, but it was something. Done. Plan made.
The bus arrived at Terminal 4 and I heaved The Beast onto my back, clicked him into place, then fidgeted with the other two bags to try to find a comfortable way to carry them without losing circulation in my arms. After a few minutes of jostling and hoisting, I realized there was no ideal bag-to-arm ratio, and that I would just have to settle for the tried and true approach of “just make it work.” Off we went.
I waddled my way downstairs to the underground station, found the ticket machines, and was just about to buy a one-way ticket to Hatton Cross when a man appeared beside me and said, “There’s a free bus to Hatton Cross upstairs.” I should note that as I write this, fully rested and having just eaten breakfast and not lugging 40 pounds of gear around, I realize that this man was being helpful, was being kind. But at the time, all I could think about was the fact that he’d put a twist in my already broken and taped-together plan, and I was more annoyed than happy with his little tip. However, I’m not one to pass up free when the alternative is $6 for a two-minute ride, so I asked which bus it was, where I could catch it, said thank you, and made my way back upstairs.
The bus I needed pulled up to stall 6 just as I got my bearings outside the terminal. Running was out of the question at this point, so I fast-waddled my way toward the bus and silently (or maybe not — it’s hard to say what was in my head and what was out loud at this point of my travels) willed the driver to see me and have enough pity to wait for me. Whether he saw me and just didn’t care or just didn’t see me doesn’t matter, because not only did he not wait, but he pulled away just as I was close enough to yell, “Wait! Please!” at the closing doors. Too tired to be embarrassed, I threw what may qualify as a straight up hissy fit (no tears, stomping, dramatically dropping my bags and throwing my head back, and uttering a few choice words) before once again forcing my brain to try to think up yet another alternative-alternative plan.
I remembered the man downstairs saying two buses would go to Hatton Cross. The bus that had just ditched me was the 490; all I had to do was wait for the 482. He’d also said I could catch the buses at stalls 6 or 7. I’d just missed my option at stall 6 and saw a line forming at stall 7, so I headed that way and assumed it was what I needed.
One of my mom’s favorite things to say to me growing up was, “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” My friends always got a kick out of it (probably because hearing my mom say “ass” was as shocking as when you discover in elementary school that your teachers actually have lives outside of the classroom), and it always annoyed me, but it also stuck with me and has proven solid advice in many situations — including my experience at stall 7 outside of Terminal 4 at Heathrow Airport.
Instead of asking the bus driver of bus 482 if he did, indeed, stop at Hatton Cross, when the bus arrived I simply squeezed myself through the doors, plopped onto a row of seats, and allowed myself to relax. That lasted approximately two minutes — then the sinking feeling that something wasn’t right crept back into my stomach. I pulled out my phone again, and again turned to Google Maps, and watched as the little blue dot drove away from Hatton Cross. We were taking the loop in the opposite direction. I was headed to Terminal 5 — where bus 482 terminated.
Fifteen minutes of riding and another 15 of waiting passed until I boarded the correct bus. Another 20 minutes of riding finally brought me to Hatton Cross. My hotel was only 500 meters away according to Google, but there was one last catch: Part of that 500 meter walk involved climbing two flights of stairs to cross a rickety bridge over the busy highway/roundabout keeping me from a hot shower and soft bed. It was raining and windy and cold, and those stairs looked more treacherous than any 16-mile walk I’d dragged myself through in the past five months.
If you’ve ever seen “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” this is the part of my life story where I become Steve Martin’s character after he discovers his rental car is not in its assigned parking spot, and he has to trudge through sleet and snow and across an interstate to get back to the counter, where he subsequently strings together an impressive amount of F-bombs and other profanity at the too-cheery redhead chirping “gobble, gobble!” to her sister on the phone. In short, I was not pleased.
But somehow my legs and arms made it up and over and down the bridge, across the street, and into the hotel lobby. And somehow my room was ready even though I was 30 minutes early for check-in. And somehow I found the strength to be polite with everyone I encountered — to shield them from the crazy I actually felt. And after eating, showering, changing, and getting everything in order for my flight home the next day, I got to collapse into bed and sleep for 12 hours.
I opted to take the overpriced shuttle from the hotel to Terminal 3 the next morning. Security went quickly, and after spending the rest of my British pounds on lunch, coffee, and a couple books, I did as I always to before flights: people watch and, an hour before boarding, wander. As I walked I tried to think about what it would be like to be back in Minnesota — to see my family and friends, to drive and visit my favorite places. But every time I tried to think about it, I drew a blank: I’d become so accustomed to adjusting to the new, the unknown, that to think about adjusting to “normal” was beyond me.
It’s been a month since I got home; a month since I landed at MSP, debated whether or not I wanted to turn my phone back on, went through customs with surprising speed considering my odd assortment of luggage and many passport stamps, and was welcomed by my mom, dad, and sister (and a text from my brother). It’s been a month, and I’m still adjusting. I don’t know what constitutes “normal” anymore, but I know that I’m getting closer to finding out how the things I learned and experiences I had abroad fit into my life and identity in Minnesota. I’m getting closer. I’m feeling more confident. I’m trying my best. It’s all I can do, and I’m becoming okay with that.