When Traveling, Disasters are Called Adventures

Chronicling my move to an ex-pat life in Portugal

January 4th, was my scheduled departure date from the US. January 5th, at approximately 4:00 pm Portugal time, I should have landed and by 6:00 pm, I should have been enjoying my “panoramic views” from the terrace of my “clean & safe” AirBnB.

So… not so much.

The past week had been spent sorting, tossing, and packing. My very good friend and Tetris Queen, Mary Anne “I’m Not Dead Yet” Radmacher (yes, THAT Mary Anne Radmacher), came down to help me and basically light a fire under my butt. My goal was to get everything — all my possessions — down to eight bins and a guitar case.

NOT EVEN CLOSE. I had four bins of books that I had packed and brought to storage, feeling quite saintly that I had done “ALL THAT” before Mary Anne arrived.

Final count (Best sung to the tune of The 12 Days of Christmas):

All of it skillfully Tetrissed into my 5x5 storage unit by Mary Anne. (She has mad skills.)

Favorite part of this process: Using the vacuum storage bags.

Correction--Favorite Part of this Process: Watching Mary Anne throw herself on the bag containing my oversized comforter like she was throwing herself on a grenade.

We made final decisions about what to take and what to leave. Everything had to fit into my suitcase and carry on. We used packing cubes and the whole thing looked very organized and orderly. You know I wasn’t in charge of that, right?

Mary Anne delivered me to the airport by 1:00 pm; my flight was leaving at 4:00. I waited in line at American for 20 minutes, wrestling my big suitcase, carry on, and my computer bag. I got to the very nice ticketing lady who said, “You can’t go to Portugal; the borders are closed.” I assured her I could because I had a residency visa. She looks through my passport, stares at the visa and nods. Covid test? Check. UK Passenger Locator Health Form? Check. Portugal Health Form? Uh, what? She shows me where to get it online. I try to do it on my phone. You need to know that I can barely answer my phone; I often hang up on the person calling when I attempt to answer. Fifteen minutes of watching me try, bless her and she suggested I go down to one end of the American counter to work on it. I set up my laptop, navigated to the site. Bam. Got it!

During all this, I hear the ticketing agents talking: “Trying to get all the flights out by 4:00 pm. They’re shutting down the Jacksonville Air Traffic Control office. Don’t know why.” They’re not telling the passengers this. I had just been at the counter so long that I pieced it together.

She tickets me. Charges me $75 for the bag, a fee I had already paid online. Grrrr. And an extra $100 for the bag being overweight. Well, that’s cheaper than shipping stuff to Portugal. I tell her I will straighten out the fees later, pay the $175 and head to the gate.

I settle into a seat, prepared to make a few phone calls to finish up some business and I hear my flight being called. Early. Wait! I forgot to find the currency exchange, I have no Euros and I don’t have enough cash on me. More important, I haven’t gone to the bathroom yet! Oh well, two hour flight, I can wait.

Because the flight is full, they are asking people to gate-check their carry ons. You just pick it up at the gate when you get off the plane. Cool. I do the gate check. BIG MISTAKE.

They are trying to get everyone on board and seated so they can push back from the gate early and get us in the air. The plane is PACKED. No empty middle seats on American. We are handed little Ziploc baggies with a sanitizer wipe, a small bottle of water, and my treasured Biscoff cookies (my FAVORITE part of any flight).

Flight attendants do the crosscheck. Cabin lights are dimmed for takeoff and…

The Adventure Stops.


We all troop off the plane. We will be delayed anywhere from three to five hours. Or maybe just one hour. They don’t know. I will miss my connection to Heathrow in Chicago. I check email and find that American has already anticipated this. American gives me an 800 number to call because my flights need to be changed. I call the number. It is no longer in service. Seriously. The recording gives me another number. I call that and talk to a very sympathetic woman who cannot help me. There are no flights to Portugal until Sunday. I am very sure there are flights, I explain to her. Planes fly there every day. Well, flights on our partner airlines, she says. So stick me on another airline. You sold me a ticket to get me to Portugal; you need to fulfill your part of the bargain. We boot it up to a supervisor. I explain to him everything I own is in a 5x5 storage space or on his plane: I have left my condo, I have sold my car. I have no place to go. Am I supposed to live in the airport? If so, will they put me up at the Airport Marriott? Um. No. He is also polite, but useless to me.

All this time I’ve been on the phone, I’ve also been standing in line at the gate. I finally make it to the front and the gate lady is WONDERFUL, but we can’t get my gate-checked bag back. She sends me downstairs to the American ticketing counter. This may come as a surprise to you, but there was a very long line there, too. Full of very unhappy people. I shuffle in line. The person behind me has no concept of what six feet looks like. We’re 10 months into this pandemic and people still aren’t distancing. I start putting my computer bag between us to keep a little distance. There’s a soldier on leave a few people behind me. She is humping two huge duffles and a backpack. My shoulders and arms ache from my stupid computer bag. I am in awe of her.

I finally get to a ticket agent. My earlier agent sees me and says, “My Portugal lady!” It’s nice to be recognized. I’m pretty sure it’s the hat I’m wearing.

We put in a request to get my luggage off the plane. At this point, the plane is re-scheduled to depart at 6:20 or so, but I have spent so much time getting off the plane, standing in two separate lines, that they can’t guarantee they can get my bags on time. We talk rescheduling the flight. Friday at the earliest but wait, no, bad flight because there’s a 24 hour layover in Heathrow. Não é bom.

I go down to the luggage center. Another very nice agent. She says there is a chance — very small — that they will get my luggage off, but it’s close. And it could take an hour or more to get to her office. I tell her, “I’m going nowhere, I can wait.”

I haven’t eaten since breakfast and I am trying not to be cranky. I haven’t been drinking as much water as I should. I am tired and disappointed and truly, want to cry. I wait. I walk over to the luggage office and look at the luggage that is there, hoping my shiny new suitcases are among them. From time to time there is a line of people at the office. One man yells at the lady. I had talked to him in the gate line. He is recovering from a car accident, got hit by a drunk driver. Broken pelvis, broken legs. He’s expecting a big settlement check. It hurts to stand and walk. He may be an asshole, but I understand he is an asshole in a lot of pain. He is young and doesn’t yet know that he will hurt for the rest of his life. He doesn’t know that even a big settlement check doesn’t make up for a life of pain.

I am trying to figure out my next move. After an hour or so of hope, I talk to the luggage lady, Donna. No joy. She will check on it in the morning, takes down my number. She says with everything so messed up, I probably won’t see my luggage back in Tampa until Thursday at the earliest. Good news: It won’t go all the way through to Portugal. It won’t leave the States. And neither, apparently will I.

MISTAKE: I didn’t get a number for her office. I expect to be shuffling through voice mail systems all day Tuesday trying to contact her.

Stranded. Sort of.

I have to get back to my cousin’s condo and cab fares are running around $100 plus tip. That’s a decent bottle of scotch. And the scotch will last a LOT longer. Priorities. The Super Shuttle service closed down years ago, I am informed. I try Uber. I figure it will be good practice for when I am carless in Portugal. The Uber app keeps spinning and loading when I type in my pick up location and desired destination. I try it over and over again, thinking I will get a different result. Duh.

I have been texting with Mary Anne. She is running her mastermind group but will drive down after 9:00 pm to get me. A ridiculously long ride, especially at night. But she would do that because that is the kind of person she is. I tell her no. I consider my options. I know a lot of people in the Tampa area but who can you call at 8:00 pm to drive 40 minutes north and then home again? When you reach a certain age (ahem), most of your friends have trouble seeing at night.

I call my friend Chris Krimitsos of Podfest fame. He is perfect. Lives near the airport, his parents live near where I’ve been staying so he knows the way, and he’s younger so he can see at night. (A very attractive attribute in Florida.) I get his voice mail. Crap. I send him a text and think about who else might rescue me. Chris calls me back a minute later. “Where are you? I’ll come get you.” WOW.

He knows the fastest route to where I have been staying. We chat and catch up on the half hour ride. I offer money for gas/time. He refuses. He drives off into the night. I turn on the lights, water heater, water. Reset the thermostat. Grab my car keys and head to Target. I am focused on coffee, cream, and underwear. Literally, every pair of underwear I own (except for what I have on, thank you), is in my luggage. (Because I gate-checked my carry on. Did I mention that was a huge mistake?) It’s 10 pm, I am tired and unfocused. I realize I need something to sleep in so I get a man’s t-shirt. I get English muffins. I look for “soft pants” like sweats or shorts that I can wear around the house. I can’t come to a decision. I have enough brainpower to pick up a toothbrush. I think about the two new toothbrushes in my luggage.

Back at the condo, I am too tired for a drink even though I could definitely use one. I boil up some angel hair pasta, add butter and parmesan and let it go at that. I watch two episodes of NCIS because that’s all I can handle doing. I head to bed on the nice clean sheets that I had left for my cousin to come back to. They feel good.

Tomorrow Is Another Day, Scarlett.

It will all get handled. Tomorrow.

I usually say that I “slept the sleep of the innocent” when I have a good night’s sleep. Last night I slept the sleep of the exhausted. Physically, emotionally, mentally. It’s a big psychological jump to leave your home country for someplace new. I had to stop Mary Anne several times during the packing and tossing and loading phase because it was suddenly big and overwhelming. All my stuff going into storage. Leaving everybody and everything I know. Not knowing the language or how to get from the airport to the AirBnB, or even whether or not I would be let into Portugal when I got there. With Covid, things shift daily.

So, I slept deep and long and today I have a headache and residual unrest. I will drink my Peets coffee, take some (more) Ibuprofen, and get to work on making new arrangements. On the plus side, I have a little more time to tie up loose ends from here rather than from Portugal. And, on the incredibly lucky side, I have discovered that the UK has locked down all outgoing flights. I could have been stuck in Chicago (very cold). Or I could have been stuck in Heathrow. Either way, I wouldn’t have made it to Faro. Silver linings.

The Grand Adventure Continues.

I am disappointed beyond belief. But for now, more coffee. And lots of work to do. I have always said that I can work from anywhere with my laptop, wifi, and coffee. And I can. I’ll get this train back on track. AND I’ll find my luggage. Work to do.

This post originally appeared on Barbara Grassey’s ExPat Life blog at https://barbaragrassey.com/its-an-adventure/

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are ‘affiliate links.’ This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Probably not enough for decent scotch, but it all adds up and I thank you.

Barbara is a writer, speaker, and marketing consultant. She specializes in helping business authors leverage their books. Learn how: https://barbaragrassey.com/

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