The German departures board flashed “CANCELED” in bright yellow next to my Detroit-bound flight. My shoulders dropped. A night in the Frankfurt airport seemed inevitable. Great. Making it home for Christmas was my top priority, but weather had other plans so I threw my hands up in exasperation and adjusted to the adventure.
A lanky tall German airport official ushered me to the back of a reticketing line that stretched around the airport terminal, through a set of doorways and down a long flight of stairs. It moved at a sluggish pace.
“Where are you going tonight?” he asked, in a thick German accent.
“Are flights going out tonight? I’ll go anywhere in America,” I said. “Seriously, send me to San Francisco, Texas, D.C. New York, just get me stateside and I can figure it out from there.” I heard my voice, pleading to get home.
He and several others around us chuckled. “I think, my dear,” as he patted his wretched clipboard on my shoulder, “flights to America are all gone. Perhaps tomorrow you can fly, but for now, how about a bottle of water?” He motioned to a food cart lady. She circled the line every half hour or so, handing out water and snacks. An hour later I had moved only 20 feet and collected a small pile of granola bar wrappers.
Three hours later, the line slugged its way into the re-ticketing lounge. I shot straight to the back and waited for my number #790 to be called. Seven hours later it was my turn to approach the counter. The airline lady smiled wearily and finagled a seat for me on a D.C. flight the next morning. She reprinted my boarding card and assured me the weather would clear in time to fly.
She then gave me a hotel and meal voucher at the Holiday Inn in Frankfurt. She squelched my reluctance to take it, convincing me that even though it was already almost midnight, a warm bed, hot shower and a German meal were worth the hassle. She pressed the voucher into my hand. I couldn’t refuse a warm bed, 22 hours sans sleep.
I trudged down to the hotel shuttle area, dragging my bags. The Holiday Inn shuttle driver hurtled down the icy highway, whipping by German back roads saturated in snow drifts. Perhaps I was the last run of the night. He seemed eager to get off work, annoyed at shuttling stranded passengers to and from the airport. He jerked the van to a halt and barked, “Here!”
A wide wooden reception counter top stretched the side of the front lobby. Low-lit lamps artfully placed on wooden coffee tables centered in circles of red couches and lazy-boy chairs gave a homey glow to the lobby. It all felt like a dream.
“Can I help you, miss?” said a dashingly handsome German hotel clerk. This definitely was a dream. I handed him my vouchers. He nodded knowingly, “another stranded guest. Unfortunately our restaurant is closed right now but perhaps I can point you in the direction of the hotel bar? You can use this voucher for a couple of beers, if you like?”
I didn’t even waste time bringing my bags to my room. The nearly empty, dimly lit bar, only held four middle aged men on stools at the bar, an older couple in the corner and the bartender. Apparently the rest of the stranded travelers were in bed. I pulled up a stool and ordered a Paulsner, my American accent gave me away.
Suddenly the large man next to me with a salt and pepper bushy beard tucked around the collar of his white, unbuttoned shirt swiveled around in his stool. He watched me for a minute, and after a long gaze he prodded my bag. “Where are ya from?”
“From Minnesota, but I live in New York,” I answered generically, uninterested in a conversation.
“My name is Denis,” he stuck his hand out right over my beer, “nice to meet you. This is Ryan, from Ireland, and Walter from Brazil.” He pointed at two men next to him, looking at me apologetically, as if to say we’re not with him per se, we’re just with him right now.
“Hey guys, I’m Patty.” I took the bait. “Are you all stranded, too?” Ryan and Walter opened their mouths to respond but Denis jumped in.
“Yep! We all just met at this bar tonight, isn’t that crazy? I love traveling. You always meet so many people, I wish my wife was here right now, she’s love your bag. So where ya headed tomorrow, are you trying to get back to New York?”
He wiped a hand across his forehead dragging sweat beads out of his receding hairline.
Walter’s dark eyes darted to my face and he raked a hand through his jet black hair before pounding the bar for another shot. Ryan grinned, a thin, sandy haired man wearing a dark green zip up sweatshirt.”Denis, give the girl a second to catch up with you,” he motioned to my beer and winked. Gratefully, I took a gulp as they started chatting about their day.
Apparently Ryan, a Dublin native, and Walter, a Brazilian-born man living in Argentina with his English mother (who named him Walter as her last ditch effort to instill some European in him) met on a flight to Dublin. Their flight took off from Frankfurt earlier that morning, made it 30 miles from Dublin, and turned back to Frankfurt because Dublin airport shut down. I felt better about my situation. Denis, a Canadian, had been in Munich on business for two weeks and was eager to get back to his wife, who he met on Match.com five years ago. He ran through a long list of Christmas gifts he bought her in Munich nudging me each time he came across a present he was exceptionally excited about.
“What is the first thing you’ll do when you finally make it home,” I asked the three men.
“I’m going to meet some mates at the pub ’round the corner from my nan’s house,” Ryan said. “Then we’re going to cook a Christmas ham and head to church when the rest of the family comes in from Kilkenny.”
Without hesitation, Walter, who had been relatively quiet during Denis and Ryan’s banter, said, “I’m going to ask my girlfriend to marry me.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small diamond ring, encased in a tiny velvet box. “I’ve carried this around for six months.”
Ryan laughed at my dumbstruck face. “Easy Yank,” (they’d all nicknamed me Yank, short for Yankee).”He’s been dating the girl for three years, it’s about time he put a ring on it. Isn’t that a Beyonce song or something?”
Denis chortled, “Yes! All the Single Ladies, I love that song.”
Our laughter faded and we sipped in silence, each of us lost in anxieties about getting home for Christmas. Then Denis cleared his throat and said, “I suppose the first thing I’ll do is hug my wife, pretty damn tightly.”
We all smiled at our beers and eventually when the bar closed at 3am, we headed to our beds. I never saw any of them the next morning at breakfast, or in the airport. But I was glad to have met them, and a day later when I finally made it out of Frankfort to D.C., through Minneapolis to Duluth, I deboarded the airplane into the waiting arms of my family. And those tight hugs in the airport terminal never felt so good. I made it home the day before Christmas Eve.