Thursday, September 30, 2010

Who says you can't go home?

While Mike and I were doing all the preparations to move back to the States, I kept thinking back to the 4th of July.

Now, the evening of the 3rd of July Bethy and I had been sitting on the grass before the Predictor run, she painting my nails (which I endured, much to the amusement of the other runners) when one of my Scottish friends queried So, whatta ye be doin' tomorrow fer yer special American day, it is tomorrow, right? How do all of ye celebrate, then?

I explained that the big things to do are to light fireworks, but that I didn't know where to buy them in the UAE, and to spend time with family and eat, especially hotdogs. Ugh, hotdogs, shuddered the Scot, which I thought a bit unfair coming from a fellow whose country invented haggis.

Bethy asked me then. "Mom, what's the 4th of July?"


Yes, time to take the kids home.

Partial education for her until then: our last Independence Day abroad we held a party for all our American expat friends away from their country and families. One of our guests, a Mexican-American, showed me how to make a Mexican-style hotdog, and I have to share how to make those with you as I may never go back: chopped tomatoes, onions, sour cream and bacon, with optional salsa and jalapenos. Lordy, was that tasty.

Letter from Bethy to her Grandma

The day to get on the plane came. Actually the night, since our flight was at 3:15 AM. We were once again going with the clothes on our backs, three suitcases and three carry-ons, though this time we also had a shipping container to catch up with us later, full of beautiful antique wood furniture and memories of life abroad.

To go with us, I had packed things like Halloween costumes, on the off chance that our container didn't make it to the States in time, and the few long sleeved outfits the kids had. The kids, for their part, chose most favored toys that they couldn't live a couple of months without.

Thomas made it very clear that his scooter HAD to come to come with, and though it folded up nicely, it did take a good portion of the suitcase.

About this time the water heater in the ceiling of the kitchen decided to rust through, dumping copious amounts of water. There is nothing funner than finding coming home to find carefully packed boxes of paperwork and books soaked, and two inches of water on the floor. Makes a fabulous impression on the people coming over who want to buy your refrigerator and oven, by the way.

And then there was the dishwasher...but maybe I'll save that story for another day.

I ended up repacking several times, making sure each piece was under the 20 kg limit as set by our first flight from Dubai to Amsterdam. You see, Mike had found us a flight that only had 2 hours of layover in Amsterdam instead of 6. Awesome, right?

However, the flight was on an Indonesian airline called Garuda. Garuda had been banned from European Union airspace for some time due to their abysmal safety record, but has recently earned its way back in. We told each other this undoubtedly made it a now even more safety-conscious and scrutinised airline than other airlines. Really.

Friends were helpful, saying things like only if I had no other choice would I fly Garuda.

Highly reassuring.

Then there was the question, would the airlines transfer our checked baggage from the Garuda plane to the Delta plane or would I have to somehow get it, check it, and make it back to the security area for our flight, two tired kids in tow? You are required to be at the security area an hour before your flight, leaving me with one hour, assuming the plane was on time...

Did I mention that I was travelling back to the States alone with the kids? That's right. Mike was going to fly out a week later. But that's another story...

Anyway, this was solo parenting through time zones once again. Very character building.

I spent a goodly amount of time and earned a few gray hairs making expensive and unhelpful long distance calls to Delta airlines. I'd already failed to garner much from internet research trying to figure out if there was a luggage agreement between their airline and Garuda. I'd also tried to find a phone number and then someone who spoke English with Garuda, which also came up a big fat zero.

Finally I ended up calling Expedia, where we'd gotten our tickets in the first place. Wouldn't you know it, they called Delta for me, (while I languished on hold, praying the call wouldn't get dropped), they knowing the correct back numbers not available to us mere passengers. After all those calls and worries, it turned out our luggage would indeed be automatically transferred from one plane to the other and I would only have to wrangle the kids and carry-ons. Yes!

It says something that I was excited to "only" have to deal with kids and carry-ons.

Mike dropped us off that the airport around 11, even though the flight was at 3:15, worried that we might need extra time at the airport. He'd had our UAE Residencies cancelled, and it seemed like everything was in order, but you never know. We had decided to keep the kids awake, rather than wake them in the middle of the night, so that they might sleep on the first plane.

Thomas managed to stay awake until 12:15, when they opened the check-in counter (until then we shared our once-again lifesaving portable DVD player with other small children waiting through the ungodly hours.) At the ticket counter the fellow in front of me was told in no uncertain terms that he could not have overweight luggage, and that he could either leave some things behind or buy another suitcase and pay for the additional checked luggage.

He went the second route and bought another suitcase. I felt really sorry for him.

Since we still had three hours to burn, security being expeditious as usual (and the passport control Emirati making sure to tell us he hoped we'd enjoyed living in his country, which I thought was a very nice thing to say), we decided to go and see if a teddy bear Bethy had lost in the airport the last time we went through had been turned in.

Thomas conked out on the bench, completely worn out, as we waited for the staff to go check.

Finally one of the staff came back.

Bethy: "Did you find my Snowy Bear?"

Staff member: "I think it has been destroyed, incinerated as it was not claimed. You understand, put in the fire?"

Yikes! Way to break it to her gently. Fortunately she reacted extraordinarily well, especially since it was something like one in the morning.

The Emirati was not actually heartless, by the way, just straightforward. He encouraged us to stay on the nice seats near security so Thomas could sleep, though I was too nervous about being away from a clock, and our flight to take him up on the offer.

When it was time to get on the flight, a nice fellow from Goa, India who works for the airline came up and volunteered to carry everything but Thomas onto the plane, before the rest of the passengers were allowed to board. This was an awesome deal, except that I couldn't find our boarding pass tabs. I had a passport pouch around my neck for important paperwork and I knew I'd put them in there...and it turned out I had, but, tiredly, I couldn't find them until I'd worked up into an embarrassed panic.

No matter, they were found (in a particularly sneaky inner pocket of the thing) and we boarded, while the fellow from Goa hoisted our carry-ons and told us all about how much he hates Dubai. I think he was mostly missing his family, which which I could sympathise, and didn't mention that we were going home "for good".

Once on the plane something new and unlooked for happened: almost all the passengers gathered blankets and started making out beds out across three or four seats apiece. The plane was largely empty, so they could, the 4 seat center rows being a hot commodity. I stayed put, sure the flight attendants would soon come along, chastise the lougers and make everyone buckle up and sit properly for takeoff.

Not hardly. The cabin lights were turned off before the plane even started its taxi. The safety film was very short and very quiet. By the time we reached altitude all the seat groupings around us were filled with those bunked down, and it was then that I realised that the seats reclined only the tiniest bit. Suddenly lying down across seats with a couple of blankets seemed like a really capital idea...and as I had foolishly waited rather than doing what all those around me were doing, I was out of luck.

I could have found a spot with vacant seats, but not near the kids. There was no getting around it, this was going to be an uncomfortable flight.

So the kids and all the other passengers and the flight staff and possibly the pilots slept well, hour after hour, and I sat there with a rotten crick from that fabulous neck snap up again and again as I'd almost go to sleep, then not.

Late in the flight the kids didn't even rouse when overhead came the request for a doctor or nurse on board to help with some sort of medical emergency. Fortunately for us and the patient, we were only an hour out from Amsterdam so the plane kept going.

By this point I got up and tried to lie down next to Bethy, which wouldn't have worked even had she not been the second squirmiest child in the universe (Thomas being the first), but there simply wasn't space for two on the seats anyway. Drat. Not a wink of sleep for the first 6 1/2 hours, which added up to no sleep since the morning before, putting me at some 27 hours of being awake.

Amsterdam was a bit of a blur, I know we bought some chocolate and got onto the correct flight with both kids, all the carry-ons, and no trouble, but the details are a little hazy.

Now the kids were relatively rested, certainly too awake to go back to sleep, and I was a total zombie. I would have liked to go to sleep, but as far as I could figure there was no way to get away with it. No matter how good of travellers our kids are, they simply can't be left completely unsupervised for 10 hours on a plane. So I tried to watch movies with little success, (I couldn't even tell you what the films were, seriously,) helped the little ones with airplane food, making the TV work, and getting to the bathroom at regular intervals.

There wasn't much of anything for Thomas to watch. Bless his heart, he was patient and good anyway.

Bethy's take on the flight. Note the heart containing our three names, so sweet.

Again, about an hour out from our destination, this time SeaTac International, the intercom buzzed, requesting a doctor and also a Russian translator. I always feel a little guilty about not being qualified to help out in such situations. What are the odds of being on two flights with two medical emergencies? Poor dears.

We got into SeaTac (now at 39 hours of no sleep for me) and they allowed the passengers on one side of the plane to disembark, but not the other. Which, of course, was where we were. So we stayed, and got to see the Seattle EMT squad come in and do their thing. Impressive. After the patient was wheeled out, we were allowed to get up.

Ah...Seattle air. Much cooler.

Then we gathered 2 of 3 of our suitcases from the conveyor belt. 2 out of AWOL.

I wasn't too bothered, figuring it would find it's way home eventually. Then there was filling out paperwork, the loving embraces of patiently waiting family, the drive home...and I think I made it until 4 or 5 pm and that was it...I was utterly done.

No bed has ever felt as good as that one, with the comfortable knowledge that there were other loving adults to watch over the kids. Yay Grandparents.

The next few days while I drooled and stumbled over myself in that inimitable jetlagged way I couldn't decide...should I try to adjust to Pacific Standard Time, or stay -sort of- on Dubai time?

Because, you see, I was flying back to Amsterdam in less than a week to meet up with Mike. He would be coming out of Dubai then. And then the two of us had breezily planned to gallivant off on a just us no kids vacation.

Oh yes.


paris parfait said...

Oh Natalie, I've missed your blog; have been so busy lately, just haven't been keeping up enough. Then I come back to find you've gone home! Wow! So many elements of your journey are familiar to me (both living abroad and traveling home), although I had to deal w/ only one sleepy child, who was eight at the time. We went back to the US, because while my daughter was attending an excellent Arabic school, her English teacher wasn't exactly accurate. She would always argue w/ me when I corrected things she'd marked on my daughter's papers. That's when I decided to go back to San Francisco. I hope your trip to Amsterdam was/will be (not sure of your timing) fantastic! And fingers crossed the settling in back home isn't too much of a culture shock. :)

sherrip said...

See, I knew you could do it!!

*Paula* said...

Woah! You made that trip solo? You are a saint!!! I won't even fly to Ireland by myself (with the kids -- I've done it by myself gazillions of times!). Looking forward to the next installment

AKBrady said...

RIGHT On. So glad you're back. Now, when are you coming up here??? Hmmmm?

Mumsey said...

Bethy's picture of the airplane flying back to the USA brought tears to my eyes. Tells you about these past two years. Though we loved the adventure and were thankful for the Skype visits and loved the blog we just had to keep the emotion of missing you in check. That picture of the plane with Bethy looking forward to home just let the tears break through. Tea last week was a joy. Feel the love.

Nathalie said...

So glad to see you continuing to write! Can totally relate with the traveling alone with the kids over time zones and the utter fatigue it brings!
I would love to read about your impressions after coming back, what the kids are saying, etc :)

Natalie said...

You're all just lovely! Erin: I would love to come to AK. Dunno when, but it's definitely on my "things to do before you die" list, and then some. Nathalie, I'm taking notes, girl, I'm taking notes. :)