Every journey has its ending and – after visiting four major metropolises in three countries during seven days through two long train rides – I am ready to reclaim the hearth and be still for at least a couple of days by Saturday morning. The penultimate leg of my return trip is a mere 75 minute jaunt from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, to Chișinău, departing at 7:35pm, which should have had me opening the door to my apartment around 10:00 at the latest, blessed be. In fact, I congratulate myself on the luck of living so close to so many desirable vacation destinations. Unlike my travel companion, I am not facing an 11-hour, ocean-spanning, six time zones change to make it home. Why I failed to foresee the nebulous, eastern European factor inherent in my own equation, I cannot say. Having lived here for over two years now, I should definitely be wiser.
It starts with the gate assignment: D5 flashing in bold orange neon on the overhead departure board. The Kiev airport is several times larger than I anticipated. With only an hour and some minutes between my arrival from Amsterdam and my scheduled departure, I do not want to take even the whiff of a chance of missing my flight. Peace Corps had been clear in allowing me to fly through Ukraine in the first place: Do not leave the airport under any condition. I dutifully make my way through echoing corridors and double-backed turns to an overcrowded lounge space and wedge my way into a seat, displacing the bags of the woman next to me (gee, I see it’s a Louis Vitton, but it can sit on the floor more comfortably than I can, ma’am.) The next time I glance at the clock it is 7:20 and a vague uneasiness slips into my bloodstream: shouldn’t we all be lining up? The small electronic sign above the departure kiosk has yet to display the flight info and there is no one manning the computer to ask. My feet begin to jiggle. I contemplate getting up to check the main departure board again, knowing that I’ll be gone a good five minutes during which time Ms. Vitton will be sure to erect another baggage fortress in my seat. I decide to wait. Around 7:30pm a rotation of Ukrainian, Russian, and Brit-accented English announcements inform the terminal that the flight scheduled for “Shisenow” (pronounced incorrectly, with a soft “chi” rather than the hard K) Moldova has been delayed. We are now due to depart at 8:35. (I am only slightly concerned that the designated announcer for an international airline does not know how to pronounce the capital of a neighboring country. After all, some Americans have been known to identify Australia as South Korea in man-on-the street interviews.)
As the minutes tick by I keep the kiosk in my right peripheral, waiting for the appearance of airline personnel to assure me that the flight is indeed occurring and preparations are being made for boarding. By 8:17, when the kiosk sign is still displaying an ambiguous logo of detached wings on an empty blue background and with no signs of a human attendant below, I relinquish my seat to go recheck the main departure board. Wow. Good thing. Because my flight is scheduled to depart in 13 minutes from Gate D10, 100 meters down the crowded corridor.
Trotting as best I am able swaddled in winter coat and heavy boots, I arrive at gate 10 to find my corrected flight info posted in crisp LCD above two uniformed attendants hunched over a computer screen and a 50 person queue waiting patiently to board. Okay, this is more like it. I exhale a sigh of relief, putting aside my irritation at the inexplicable omission of changed gate information in the flight delay announcement. For the final stage of this trip, I have scheduled a driver, Igor, to pick me up at the airport in Chișinău and deliver me to my apartment in Strașeni some 40 kilometers away, an unfortunate (and expensive) necessity resultant of the lack of public transportation after 9:00pm. At this point, I will be only slightly late by Moldovan standards. I’ll slip him an extra 50, mentally calculating the amount of Moldovan lei I stashed in my wallet ten days ago.
Alas, 8:30pm comes and goes and the line remains immobile. The attendants are still huddled over their computer screen and no one else seems concerned. Patience, I tell myself. During my Peace Corps service I have learned that, as a general rule, we Americans tend to be a lot more wired and anxious than other breeds. Moldovans, especially, continually amaze me with the degree of placid acceptance they evince in any situation which calls for indefinite waiting. Everyone in the immediate vicinity is either looking bored or absorbed with an electronic device; no one is twitching uncontrollably, much less storming the gate. I quell the inexorable wavelets of worry lapping at the edges of my studied calm. I can do this, I think. Even two hours late is not that bad. He’ll wait for me. And in this small lifeboat of untested hope I am forced to place my trust, having no phone service since I neglected to set my mobile to roaming before leaving Moldova. (I have all but forgotten that the seemingly ubiquitous ability to instantly communicate across borders depends on specific technological details and not my every whim.)
Finally, around 8:50, without any prefatory announcement (pity those who might be off in the lavatory,) the door to the boarding ramp swings open and the line begins to move. Okay, it is happening; I’ll be home by midnight. Yay, yay, yay! I conjure up my waiting bed, fluffy snow adrift outside the windows, the welcome prospect of a lazy Sunday ahead. Perhaps there’ll be a cup of peppermint tea before the oblivion of restorative sleep. I’ve been awake since 4:45 this morning, in transit since 9:30; I’m more than ready for this to be over. Willing the muscles in my neck to unclench, I let the human tide sweep my forward into the fuselage. I take my seat while trying to parse the staticky transmission of the attendant’s English, a mellifluous rhythm of carefully modulated cadences that are, unfortunately, infected by the sort of vaguely Frenchified accent my girlfriends and I used to affect in discotheques during the early 80’s. All announcements must be made in triplicate, with mumbled English accorded the least time and annunciation, it seems. I think I hear our unfortunate delay attributed to ‘technical difficulties,’ however, I can’t be sure. It may have been that the plane we have just boarded was late getting to the terminal. But, after all the jostling of passengers juggling overlarge suitcases into overhead bins and skirmishes over usurped seats has finally abated, the cabin lights dim and the engines thrum to life. We are actually moving, backing away from the terminal gate, when a horrid screeching noise ensues. My god, are those the brakes? Because they sound multitudinously worse than any teenager’s mechanically-neglected beater car I’ve ever had the misfortune to ride in. WTF? Our all to brief momentum abruptly ceases. Lights remain dimmed. The minutes tick by. Five, six, eight, twelve, fifteen. I try to stifle obsessive time checking by shutting off my phone. Flight attendant? Where are you with your informative, albeit largely unintelligible, update?
The growing minutes of silent stasis are abruptly punctuated by the bespectacled face of the young woman in front of me popping above her seat back. “It’s snowing,” she informs me, nodding her head sagely. I’m not quite sure what to make of this declaration. Surely, a dusting of snow doesn’t preclude a 747 from taking off? I may be from California but I know I’d remember hearing if JFK or O’Hare shut down for the winter, for god’s sake. She interprets my blank face as an invitation to initiate; we commence small talk: Elena’s a Moldovan attending school and working in New York “for a long time now.” Specific inquiries about her job and where she is attending school are deftly shunted aside. Instead, she marvels that I am living by choice in Moldova. “Don’t you miss America?” she asks. “I could never come back to Moldova.” Diaspora personified. Her English is quick and effortless, American-accented, littered with slang, her attire modish western European, lacking the obsessive attention to color-matched cosmetics and accessories that defines the typical Moldovan female. And she has a globally-enabled T-Mobile phone that she is now using to contact her dad at the Chișinău airport. She is my new best friend. I consult my useless phone’s contacts and locate Igor’s mobile number. Elena gets a hold of him after she hangs up with her dad; he’s still at the Chișinău airport and wants to know if he should wait. Umm, YES. How the hell else am I going to get home???
Meanwhile. the man sitting next to me has leafed obsessively through all the reading material in the seat back pocket, including the laminated safety precautions card he peruses ever more intently while loud hydraulic noises issue from somewhere outside. I look past him out the window to see flashing lights and men in reflective coveralls swarming the tarmac around the plane like busy worker ants attending their supine queen. My neighbor turns to me with desperate eyes. ” Ei repara avionul?” (They repair the plane?) “Eu sper așa,” I reply. (I hope so.) Elena hears me and emerges again from behind her seat back. “I think it better that we don’t fly on this the plane.” Luckily, this is in English; I’m beginning to suspect that my seatmate is not a seasoned flyer. He commences picking fretfully at the sticker admonishing passengers in four languages to keep their seat belts fastened in flight. I marvel briefly at the anomaly: I’ve never seen a Moldovan display anxiety. Passengers are now sharing foodstuffs and retrieving items from overhead bins. The aisles begin to fill. (Sit down people, I want to scream, or we may never leave!) Still no sign of any flight attendant. Perhaps all the Ukrainian Airways employees have left the plane? If this was America, angry business travelers armed with brief cases would be banging on the pilot’s door and demanding explanations and refunds. Instead, we seem to be devolving into the first stages of an impromptu masa. I check the time. 9:45. I’m now almost two hours late and at least a couple more from arrival. Igor, stay with me, please, I pray silently.
I am beginning to fantasize myself as Liz Lemon confronting Matt Damon on the 30 Rock airplane episode when the overhead speakers crackle to life. The first announcement is made is made in Ukrainian/Russian (I can’t tell the difference) and immediately people are standing, retrieving luggage and donning coats, and yelling out to family across the aisles . I follow suit, unable to hear the tacked-on, much abbreviated English version that is inaudible beneath all the noise. Elena, noting my apparent confusion, graciously informs me that we are debarking the plane. She appears to have a talent for translating the obvious, but I am grateful she thinks to include me. Apparently the plane is so broken they can’t even pull it back round to the building; we are forced to cram a planeload of passengers, complete with carry-ons, into a shuttle bus for the short ride back to what appears to be a fire escape funneling us up three rickety flights of swaying metal stairs back into the now largely vacant terminal. 10:08. If there has been any explanation for what happened to the plane or what our future might hold, it was not translated into English. I look around for Elena, whom I lost in the mad dash between plane and shuttle bus. If circumstances become desperate I may need to importune her dad to drop me at a hotel in Chișinău, ratcheting up my projected return trip expenses threefold. I spot her across the lounge, phone glued to ear. I hope it isn’t Igor, notifying me of his resignation. I realize I haven’t eaten since I left Amsterdam more than 12 hours ago; I set off in search of sustenance.
Apparently I am now several steps into the nether side of wrong as evidenced by the dearth of foodstuffs available for purchase in a space just slightly smaller than your average American mall. The lonely open counter offers cappuccino and two orphaned containers of rice pudding huddled together on an otherwise empty refrigerator shelf. I buy one, and the cappuccino I know I will regret if my head is lucky enough to hit a pillow tonight. It is my small gauntlet flung to fate: Ha! Prove that I’ll even have an opportunity to sleep before Monday! I eat the pudding while keeping a nervous eye on Elena across the way. I can’t afford to lose her at this juncture; if I end up stuck in Kiev I will need a translator for sure. The airwaves remain ominously silent. No news is good news? So far, this has not proved to be the case. I am scraping the last vestiges of pudding from the container when a sudden swirl of thronged movement arises. We are boarding! (How did everyone know? What sort of weird, telepathic ability do these people have that I am missing?) I abandon my empty pudding container and half-finished cappuccino on a nearby table, all vestiges of consumer responsibility abandoned in my desperation to join the thrust of people clustering about the departure kiosk. Notions of queuing seem antiquated at this point. Been there, done that already and what has it got me?
Some twenty minutes hence we are stuffed like brooding hens nursing bruised expectations in our respective seats. Dare we remove our coats? Buckle ourselves in? Reinvest in time schedules? In what may be a misguided attempt to thwart the fates, the attendant doesn’t even bother with the English version of the standard departure announcement while miming the required safety instructions in triple time at the front of the plane. The engines rumble and the lights dim before she finishes with the oxygen mask. She needn’t have bothered rushing. We sit for another 22 minutes (I time it) on the tarmac without moving. My seatmate starts in on the new safety sticker on the seat back in front of him, pleading “eu sunt enervat” (‘I am nervous’ – what is it with these people and the patently obvious?) when our eyes meet. I begin to sense the creepy outlines of my future life, a truncated, post-Soviet version of Groundhog Day, endlessly traversing the Kafka-esque corridors linking cramped, ambiguous waiting rooms with hopeless flights of fancy up disintegrating stairs. I feel myself sinking into a bottomless region of dank despair. The only shred I of thankfulness I can salvage is the dubious decision I made to check my 22 pound backpack. At least I won’t have to haul it back and forth with me forever. As I contemplate the prospect of borrowing Elena’s phone to notify my family that I will, in fact, never return from Peace Corps service, the wheels begin to grind in a (just) slightly less horrible fashion than they did two hours ago and our flight to Moldova commences. I don’t care if the brakes don’t work. We don’t need them for lift off anyway.
I find that I’ve gained but a brief momentum towards closure once we hit the tarmac again, however, where I soon find myself skirting the outside flanks of approximately 300 hundred other passengers from two previous flights waiting for luggage to manifest on the 50-foot long, humping strip of dental floss that comprises the baggage claim function at Chișinău airport. (This, of course, is SO typically Moldovan. In summer of 2014 a much-vaunted project to upgrade the airport was launched with the premier of a “VIP Lounge” that usurped much of the already ill-furnished common waiting area and inserted an expanded duty-free shop for all those (NOT) well-heeled tourists departing the country. Could we pay some attention to basic infrastructure, folks, and less to surface pretensions of prosperity?) The clock on the wall reads 12:14. I fish my phone out of my purse and send off an optimistic text to Igor: Be out soon – just waiting for my bag! His texted reply is unintelligible, a mishmash of clustered consonants that appear more Germanic than Romanian. Perhaps his fingers are frozen to the steering wheel? Or maybe I’ve just roused him from deep sleep at home in his bed. I put my phone away and decide not to think about it, though I do lock in on Elena’s blond head bobbing amidst the crowd, just in case. Utilizing that uncanny ability for picking up on the the obvious, she somehow senses my apprehension and pushes through the throng to stand next to me. I can’t help it, I love her. This is exactly what they mean by Moldovan hospitality. Our brief exchange over airport seats has bonded us; I am family. Glimmers of hope are sparking. Perhaps this night will not end badly and I will get to see my American family, too, again someday. By the time my bright red bag lumbers into view, I have managed, ugly American that I am, to scrape together sufficient confidence to grab it and push my way forcefully towards the exit, completely neglecting to say goodbye to my would-be translator. I silently vow to pay it forward someday to another bewildered tourist lost and confounded by LAX. Right now I am longing, with a deep and physical ache in my gut, for my bed.
One frantic phone call and I locate Igor outside the front doors of the airport building (has he been standing outside in the freezing cold for three and a half hours? Please say no.) He relieves me of my backpack and motions for me to follow. We exchange the obligatory pleasantries while wending our way briskly through a conglomeration of taxis and late-model luxury SUVs vying for precious curb space (the gaping economic chasm on parade.) At this point in its ‘restructuring’ the airport is sans parking lot, forcing Igor to park out on the frontage road some 200 yards away. I scramble to keep pace; this man does not want to be doing this, I can tell. (Maybe I am catching a little of that sixth sense….) Attempting to bypass the crowd, Igor scurries over from the asphalt roadway to the ice-slicked path alongside it. Stupidly fooled by his seemingly effortless agility I plunge after him and immediately land – hard – on right hand and knee, then hip and and elbow. I try to get up quickly, before he notices, but mummifying layers of winter clothing and quads that have atrophied from 10 hours of sitting thwart me. I call out weakly, unsure whether I merit any more tolerance from this man. Thankfully, he stops, trudges back and reaches out his free arm to help me. Two steps and I’m on my ass again. This time his sigh is audible, probably because I am quickly losing the ability to marshal my own muscles; he has to all but haul me to my feet. We return to the ranks of the madding crowd. I surreptitiously check my throbbing right hand – the only injured body part currently visible – for shredded skin but it is too damn dark to tell if the wet is from blood or snow. I soldier on, focusing on Igor’s squared shoulders and determined stride. I will get home, I will get home, I will get home, I chant under my breath to the rhythm of my plodding feet, breaking into a trot every third or fourth step to keep up.
Once ensconced in the front seat of the car, I allow myself to entertain the notion that this saga might be finally drawing to a close. There remains just one more hurdle to face: the gate in the fence that encircles the perimeter of the senior center where I live. More than once I have returned late at night (though never this late) to encounter a padlocked gate and an unattended phone that rings in the residential unit, heedless of my plight. On one unfortunate occasion I attempted to climb over the spiked wrought iron fence in question only to be caught by the crotch of my favorite pair of jeans. Luckily my husband was with me and maneuvered me (with great effort) loose, otherwise I would’ve hung there helpless until morning. I debated mentioning this possibility to Igor but after listening to protracted word-for-word reprisals of the many telephoned inquiries he fielded from his family during the past three hours regarding his estimated return home, I decided that silence might be the better part of discretion at this point. Around 11pm they had finally given up on him and eaten dinner, he reports. At midnight they shut off the lights and went to bed. He might just dump me out on Stefan Cel Mare if he surmises that what was supposed to have been an hour-long pick-up job might end up extending into Sunday breakfast.
I try my damnedest to keep up a light banter in Romanian while simultaneously filtering through a list of fall back options if said gate is, indeed, locked. I had stupidly forgotten to send an email on Friday to the staff at the day care center, reminding them to be sure to alert the residential nurse to not lock the gate. Despite having several conversations with various employees prior to my departure, I harbor little faith in their memories. Moldovans don’t do future tense. The kilometers crawled by while my anxiety waxes and wanes along with my steadily eroding coherence. I am dead on my feet – or my butt, as the case may be. Can I just refuse to vacate his car? Why have I not cultivated a friend who could offer me a bed in Strașeni? My failures as a Peace Corps Volunteer threaten to engulf me in this moment of utter and abject need. So this is what one truly achieves through successful integration: a place to lay one’s head when the final hurdle cannot be surmounted. I decide to think about this tomorrow, as I am beginning to respond unthinkingly to Igor with the scraps of guttural Dutch I picked up over the past three days. The dashboard clock reads 1:21am. There is just no more energy left for worry.
As anticlimactic a denouement though it ultimately might be, I will happily report that, some fifteen minutes later, the gate swings easily inward at Igor’s touch; I was too scared to try it and so fumbled with the car door latch until he had already had it opened. I dig in my purse and retrieve the entire amount of bani I had stashed – 500 lei – and press it into his hands. He does not even pretend to protest for form’s sake (our previously agreed upon fee had been 350.) We both know, even if we do not say it aloud, that I have leaned quite heavily upon his graciousness this evening. For the second time this night I give fervent thanks for the goodness of Moldovans as I stumble off down the driveway towards a much-anticipated bed. Lights out 2:05am, cappuccino be damned.