My Cool Friend Skaidre

March 5, 2018

After far, far too long I am finally back Vilniuje. Not only has it been too long since my last visit, but also I arrived about 44 hours later than my boarding card might have suggested. The entire journey is an epic saga, spanning time and space, superposition, one hell of a lot of time spent in airports, and a dad's sweater.

This is that story.


My trip started off so well and with much enthusiasm. I was intending to arrive at the Denver airport the suggested three hours beforehand; with most of my new life riding on getting out successfully, I didn't want to a "Sandy special" and somehow miss my flight.

I was traveling light; the majority of everything I owned was in my luggage. All I had brought on my person was a few electronics, two days worth of clothes, and the essential toiletries. No warm clothes. I wasn't going to need them. Sure, it was cold right then in Europe, but how often does a bag go missing?

Traffic on the way to the airport was light, and so I arrived almost half an hour ahead of the three hour buffer I had allocated. Upon arrival, I was the only person checking a bag, so I zipped through that line, and made it through security in record time. It was the smoothest airport experience I had ever had.

The flight to Reykjavik was uneventful. The seat immediately beside me was unoccupied, and across the gap was an amicable firefighter from Oklahoma on a week-long trip to Iceland with his friend "away from the wives."

"What's in Oklahoma?" I asked.

"Not much. They probably wouldn't like you there," he replied.

Fair dos. We didn't chat much after that, but on our way off the plane he wished me luck in my new life. The layover in Keflavik was short and uneventful, although the red-eye nature of the first leg had left me a little loopy. I found myself sitting next to a woman from Boston; we both found ourselves excited to be speaking with someone else whose first language was English. She was on her way to Copenhagen, and there probably wasn't going to be much more of English-first-language in either of our lives.

I managed to get a few hours of sleep on the flight to Denmark, blissfully unaware of how much of a shit-show the next few days of my life were going to become.

Upon arrival in Copenhagen, I had a few hours to kill until heading to my gate -- well, had I had a gate to go to. The departures board ominously marked my gate in bold red letters as "info at 14:00" -- roughly an hour after the stated departure time. I ate a famous Danish sausage of some sort, not because I was particularly keen on it, but because it was the only food I could find in the entire wing of the airport. It came with a beer, which helped.

14:00 rolled around, and the board in turn rolled over to its new message: "info at 15:30". I don't know if you've ever been to terminal 3 of the Copenhagen airport, but it's not exactly a place in which it is easy to spend several hours. There is a noticeable lack of power outlets and edible food, and had there not been wifi I'd go so far as to suggest the airport had a lack of basic human necessities. That being said, wifi only goes so far without power, but it sure helped the time go by.

Thank goodness for the wifi.

After what seemed like an eternity, 15:30 came by. The board maintained its previous message for a hot minute, triggering the deepest anxieties within me. My zen was being encroached upon. When finally, the screen refreshed with a new status for my flight.

"Cancelled."

Terrific. An announcement came on over the board, and due to some divine influence, I understood enough Danish to make my way to the transfer office and attempt to sort out the situation. The transfer office was hopping; apparently I'd gotten there slowly. The machine that was supposed to dispense numbers was more of what you might call an machine that "in-pensed" numbers -- as it printed them out they'd roll back into the machine's cavernous internals. I fucked with it for a few minutes, trying to get my ticket out, during which time another big wave of people came into the transfer office.

They knew something I didn't: there was another machine that successfully managed to dispense the numbers whose expulsion make up the entirety of its existence. I got my number: 323; the two tellers were currently serving 289. I settled in for a long wait.

An entirely unhelpful man named Kristofer finally called my number. I missed it, but noticed a few seconds later, and charged my way past the 324 girl on her way to the desk. Not today, lady! BROTHA GOTTA MOVE!

Kristofer told me that my flight had been canceled (he didn't say why.) He handed me a boarding pass for the next flight at 21:30, a meal voucher for $16.54, and a booklet explaining my rights as a traveler in Europe with a cancelled flight. I bought a Guinness and small stew upstairs at the Irish pub for $21, and leafed through the pamphlet, eager to learn my rights. As it happens, I don't have any: the airline is not responsible if the cancellation is due to weather, technical issues, safety concerns, labor disputes, acts of god, snakes, or any other of the possible reasons a flight might be cancelled. I spent about fifteen minutes trying to come up with a plausible reason that might cause a flight to be cancelled that wasn't covered by this law, and I couldn't come up with even a single example.

I dug around online; the flight later that day was due to be on the same aircraft as the one that had been cancelled. Seeing as the plane was still in Italy, it didn't strike me as terribly likely that my 21:30 flight was going to make it either. After having been awake for more than 24 hours, the thought of spending another six hours in what I then thought was the world's second worst airport (hi, Chicago -- O'Hare!) didn't fill me an effervescence of excitement. I decided to change my flight to the next day, fought my way back through the transfer center, and got a new boarding pass.

They kept my luggage overnight. "There was nothing in there I needed," I said. "Great," she said, "I'll put new tags on it to make sure it ends up in Vilnius. Hopefully it will see you there."

A quick taxi ride brought me to the world's coolest looking hotel, where I checked in and went up to my room. My key didn't open the door. I came back. The nice man gave me a new room, so I went up to there. I managed through the door, and plopped down on the bed, thankful to not be in an airport for even one more second. Today had been hell, but things were going to get better tomorrow. I just knew it.

I plugged my laptop into the wall, desperate to get some charge into the beast before I conked out into an impressive sleep coma, but the little charging light didn't come on. That was odd. I tried the other outlet. Nothing. I flipped the light switch, and not even those worked. My room didn't have any power!

After packing my things back up, I once again headed for the lobby. I informed the nice man that this room didn't have any damn power, and he looked at me like I was stupid. "You need to put your key-card in the box by the door; that will turn on the power." I went back to my room, and sure enough, the key-card did engender electricity. I plugged my laptop in, had a shower, and woke up in my bed sixteen hours later to the sound of my alarm going off.

Back to the airport. Day two in Copenhagen. My zen and my attitude had recharged over the night, and I was ready to make the most of the experience. The only time that exists is "now," and so if you don't love now, you're letting life pass you by. Shitty Copenhagen airport or no, I wasn't going to let life pass me by.

The day before I had been feeling nervous about meeting people in Europe, unsure whether their English would be good enough for us to communicate. And besides, the Scandinavian people aren't exactly smiley. But today I was feeling right as rain and I not going to flinch away. Over breakfast I met a nice Lithuanian girl named Krystina, and I was excited to practice my Lithuanian with her. It didn't go very well, but she was very happy I was moving to Lithuania. "I hope you like it!" She herself was flying to Kaunas, a city about an hour's drive away from Vilnius. Her flight was earlier than mine, but she got out no problem.

The departures board finally had a gate for my flight, and I headed there. The gate, however, did not say it was going to Vilnius. Hmm. I asked around, and the man I talked to said that on the internet, the flight was described as being cancelled.

Well, I wasn't going to wait around for that, and besides, I'd learned my lesson. Immediately I headed over to the transfer center, avoided the bad machine, and was served quickly. The man at the counter confirmed that my flight had been canceled, and started rerouting me. My trip gained a few more legs, first to Gutenberg, then to Stockholm, then finally to Vilnius around 11pm. My hostel stopped doing check-in at midnight, so this was a tight schedule, but as long as my luggage came off the belt quickly, it was doable.

The man in the transfer center gave me my new boarding cards, and a meal voucher good for $12.40 to make up for the additional eight hours my flight was going to take. I used it to buy another Guinness for $12.07. They didn't give me change.

In the intervening time, I wandered around the airport aimlessly. I met a woman named Maria who worked at the concession stand in the lonely part of the airport. She had just finished high-school, hated her life, hadn't read a book in a few years if ever, and didn't want to race luggage trolleys with me; I took off after some time despite how keen she was to have someone to talk to.

My flight for Gutenberg was uneventful, though short. The dude beside me was clearly disinterested in talking and so we didn't. Forty five minutes later, I found myself in Gutenberg where there was wifi ahoy and power outlets aplenty. It felt like the chosen land. I ordered some food, and sat down. A Swedish woman sat beside me, and we struck up conversation. I told her I had been playing a game called "making eye contact with Scandinavians" which she didn't think was very funny but I did.

I hopped on the flight to Stockholm, where I sat beside a man from Vilnius who worked for a non-profit for reducing gender inequality. We had an interesting chat about that, and he gave me some good tips for life amidst the Lithuanians, being a foreigner himself.

We got to Stockholm. The departure board said to check back for info regarding my gate. Fuck. It was becoming pretty clear I wasn't going to make it to Vilnius by check-in time, so I tried to send a quick email to the hostel asking if I could do a self-check-in. Unfortunately, as it happens, there is no free wifi in the Stockholm airport, and nothing I attempted to do got around it. In exasperation, I bought an hour of wifi, and the damn thing glitched out without giving it to me. As I learned later, however, it did not fail to charge me $10.

With my enthusiasm seemingly as low as it could be, I headed for the gastropub and ordered a nice-ass looking burger and a beer. There was a cold-looking Scandinavian dude sitting beside me, but I decided to take a chance and say hi to him. This turned out to be the best decision I'd made all week. His name was Björn, he was a world traveler but was currently traveling for business. The gastropub didn't have any beers that he wanted, and after hearing my plight regarding having no wifi, he invited me up to the lounge as his guest.

We made gin and tonics and told stories about our travels. Björn told me the kind of stories that I want to have for myself and tell others. He had spent the night with a random family in East Timor after getting there and realizing there was not a hotel room to be found. He had gotten a tattoo from the first place he found to commemorate landing in his 100th country. He always liked to travel alone, because that's how you met cool people.

Maybe it was the stories, or his attitude, or the gin and tonic, but I was feeling inspired. I checked the departures board, and unfortunately it had a gate and a boarding time -- I had wanted to sit and talk with Björn forever, but duty called.

I was finally on my flight to Vilnius! Happy days! The end was so near! I was sitting beside a large man whose name was Vitas. He claimed to be from Sweden and to just be going to Lithuania for a weekend out with the boys, but he also spoke perfect Lithuanian and so I was skeptical. Also his name was Vitas. He was built and took up the armrest and another inch of my seat without meaning to or being able to do anything about it. It was an uncomfortable trip for both of us.

The plane was on its final descent to the airport in Vilnius when suddenly it swooped upwards and started accelerating. There was an ominous silence on-board. What was happening? Several other people on the flight had also been rerouted from Copenhagen, and so we were all pretty keen to get there.

"This is the captain speaking. It looks like we're having a slight malfunction with our anti-skidding system. We're going to try to diagnose it in the air, and make a few more attempts at landing."

We circled Vilnius for thirty minutes (I was definitely not going to make my check-in time, and had forgotten to send the email to them due to being so entranced by Björn's stories) and eventually the captain came back on the intercom.

"Hi, flight-deck here. We're unable to land in Vilnius, so we're going to fly up to Riga where there is a much longer runway. Don't worry, we'll take care of you when we get there. More info when we have it."

As you can imagine, the mood on the plane was not stellar. Vitas began freaking out, that he only had one night to rage and goddammit it would be tonight. Half an hour we touched down in Riga, and the captain came back on to tell us that the airline would be providing a bus for us to get to Vilnius. By bus, it's about a four hour trip, which nobody was thrilled about. Many of us, myself included, decided we'd take a hotel room and fly out the next morning. What could go wrong?

We were unloaded into the terminal gate around 01:30, and rushed for the transfer office to make arrangements. Well, we tried. We were intercepted by a mean Latvian security guard with a big gun who didn't speak much English. He stopped us, and refused to let us past or to tell us anything. Fifty of us waited in the wing for about an hour before they let us out to the baggage carousel, where we spent another hour waiting before our baggage arrived. Except that mine didn't, and there was nobody working to complain to. The rest of the group was herded out of the arrivals area, and I decided to follow suit rather than be left alone in Latvia.

Word of mouth carried the message around. "They've given up on the bus and are going to give us hotel rooms and new flights tomorrow." Sounded great, but there was only one guy there, and he seemed like more of a bewildered baggage guy than a booking agent. The first flight to Vilnius was at 07:30, and given that it was already almost 04:00, the hotel room bit seemed unlikely. It was; nobody got a hotel room. Some adventurous guys, Vitas among them, decided to take a taxi the four hours to Vilnius. I'm not sure what happened to them, but I hope they had a great time raging.

As for myself, I spent the time wandering around and meeting people. Two others on my flight also hadn't had their luggage show up, and so we commiserated and formed a luggage-finding commission. We were unsuccessful. The luggage people told us that it was Vilnius' problem, and that we'd have to go to the airport there directly and ask. I suspect the information on a baggage tag is sufficient to locate a piece of luggage anywhere in the world, but the Latvian officials claimed it was not and furthermore that it was not their problem.

Welcome to customer service in the Baltics.

By 06:00, the situation hadn't improved. There were no hotels, but some people had gotten emails telling them they had new flights. I was not one of those people. Others had luck by attempting to use the check-in kiosk with their old record locator. I was not one of them either. Instead, we waited until the ticket agency opened, hoping to talk to a human who might have some amount of empathy and be able to solve our problems.

Around 06:45, the ticket agency opened. Those of us who were en route to Vilnius swarmed the office, ignoring any sort of social norms around queuing. I was one of the last to make it to the front, where the woman told me I had been rebooked onto the 14:00 flight to Vilnius. There was no way in hell I was going to spend another six hours waiting in an airport, especially given the airline's established inability to get me where I wanted to go.

During the long night, I had met a woman named Skaidre whose family was driving from Vilnius to pick her up in Riga. I jokingly asked if she would drive me back too, and to my eternal surprise, she said yes. Apparently this boy still got some charm. Her family would be there in thirty minutes, so I had until then to attempt to track down my bags. I spent it queuing and didn't actually get anywhere, and so I returned to Skaidre so as to not miss my divine ride home.

Understandably, I was a little skeptical about driving across country borders with the family of a gorgeous woman I had just met from a culture I didn't understand. But I had decided to spend my time in Vilnius always saying "yes." Whenever a question comes up about "do I want to do X?" the answer is always going to be "yes." It's a good way to get into adventures, doubly so when you're new to a place and don't yet have a big social circle.

As it turns out, I was a jerk to have ever assumed anything but the best possible things about these people. I'm unsure whether to attribute it to having met the nicest people in the country, or to Lithuanians being lovely people, but Skaidre and her family were the best introduction to my new home I could have asked for. They couldn't take me all the way to Vilnius, but they were going to go out of their way to drive me to the bus station. They gave me money for the bus, Skaidre gave me her scarf, and her dad was so concerned about my lack of a coat (which was in my lost luggage, somewhere) that he took off his own sweater and let me borrow it. At first I politely declined, but he insisted (across the language barrier; he didn't speak any English.)

After a lovely few hours driving with them, they finally dropped me off at the bus station. The weather was significantly colder than I thought, and I felt foolish for ever having declined the scarf and sweater. Thanks Skaidre and dad! I probably would have died had it not been for your kindness.

The bus station was in the middle of nowhere, and it didn't seem like the kind of place they experienced many foreigners. As a result, I got a lot of stares. With my neon, techno-colored hair, I kind of stand out. Lithuanian babushkas aren't particularly polite at hiding their disdain. One woman literally stared at me slack jawed for over four minutes. It was... uncomfortable, to say the least. Thankfully the bus arrived, and I was left in peace.

After an hour or so, we arrived at the bus station. I was struck with an overwhelming feeling of relief! Finally, after three days of travel, I was finally in Vilnius, and furthermore, in a place I recognized. This was almost my old stomping grounds! I navigated my way to the hostel without any hiccups, feeling like I was home.

I was home at long last. After an extra 44 hours of travel, two countries I hadn't meant to be in, $28.94 in food vouchers for my inconvenience, the hospitality of a lovely Lithuanian family, and a bus ride through the countryside, I was finally home.


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