December 21, 2013

Taking the Long Way Home

 “There’s no place like home…there’s no place like home.  Dorothy, in the “Wizard of Oz”

Carol writes:  Our train ride from Amsterdam to Kaiserslautern turned out to be quite a trial by fire.  Instead of 4 changes of trains, we had 6…plus a bus ride!  Just as we were congratulating ourselves that we were handling the train changes with no problems, we were stunned by an announcement that we would have to get off the train at the next town, which was not a stop on our itinerary, because the tracks ahead  near Dusseldorf had been closed due to discovery of a WW II bomb nearby!  With little instruction what to do, the train stopped and we were quickly ushered off onto the streets of a small German town about 10 miles from Dusseldorf.  After about an hour of aimlessly milling around town trying to find a way to get to our next train in Dusseldorf, all the while pulling our luggage, we were surprised to see a large bus pull up out of nowhere.  Along with about 50 other stranded passengers, we raced toward the bus, which then proceeded to transport us to the train station in downtown Dusseldorf.  Maintaining its first-rate reputation, the efficient German train system had somehow managed to find a bus to rescue its stranded travelers...  Incredibly, we were just in time to make our Dusseldorf connection!  After that, the speedy ride to Kaiserslautern on the German ICE train went off without a hitch.

Our wild day on the German trains held one more surprise for us at the end of the day when we discovered that the room we had reserved for the night at Ramstein Air Base was not in the deluxe multistory hotel just a few hundred feet from the passenger terminal.  Instead, we had been assigned a room at a remote location that was a $35-taxi ride away!  At this point we were too tired to be upset; at least we had a room for the night where we could relax and put the day’s challenges behind us. 

The next day we changed rooms to the wonderful Ramstein Inn, where we had wanted to stay in the first place.  We were a stone’s throw from the passenger terminal, and we had a modern and comfortable room.

We were in perfect position to monitor the space-available seat count on all departing flights, hoping soon there would be two spare seats on a flight—any flight to the East coast—for a pair of weary travelers.  Strangely enough, for the next four days, we stayed glued to the Ramstein Passenger Terminal’s Facebook page, the most up-to-date and reliable source for flight information.  I must admit that flying ‘Space-A’ is not for those who cannot roll with the emotional ups and downs of waiting for a ‘space-available’ seat on a transatlantic flight.  Seats are assigned on a priority basis and in order of date of signup, with active duty service members having the highest priority and retirees like us at the bottom of the list.  Due to unfortunate circumstances, three of the flights with the most seats to Baltimore had been continually delayed over the previous 3-4 days.  Thus, there was a huge backlog of passengers of every priority in the terminal, many of them families with small children, all wanting to travel on space-available seats to the States for Christmas.  At the close of each day, when all the available seats had been assigned, we could always spot tears on a few faces, usually the young mothers with very young children who did not get a seat, poignantly the ones whose husbands were deployed who were trying to make it back to the States to be with family for Christmas.  Our hearts went out to these young families, along with many large groups of active duty service members that we saw waiting patiently in the terminal for their flight home.  They are the real heroes, and they make many silent sacrifices in support of our country… 

We met several interesting retirees who waited along with us for four days as the huge passenger backlog gradually cleared out with each departing flight.  We spent many hours in the terminal trading fascinating travel stories, and we even received a few pats on the back for having the courage to undertake our unique RV adventure; however, some of our new “Ramstein friends” had tales to tell that were so much more remarkable than ours.  There was the colorful retired former A-4 pilot/ER nurse who had traveled extensively throughout the Middle East for the past 10 years, the retired senior couple who had biked many hundreds of miles throughout Europe, and the retired American couple who were living their dream in Ireland on a country farm in County Mayo.  The sense of adventure of these extraordinary fellow travelers certainly inspired us to keep dreaming big.

After waiting patiently for four days, we felt quite a sense of excitement when we suddenly heard our names called for a departing flight.  We were most impressed when we saw the modern and well-equipped 777 Patriot Express.  We had choices of inflight entertainment with TV and  games and movies, and we were fed great airline food like I remember from 40 years ago.  In addition, we had an awesome cabin crew who took very good care of us.  The best part of the experience was the sense of pride we felt to be flying home with so many military service members, all dressed in camouflage uniforms.  It really came as no surprise when there was an enthusiastic round of applause as the pilot announced that we had just entered US airspace. 

At the Baltimore airport, there was a small gathering of civilians who greeted the troops with continuous rounds of applause as they exited the jet way.  The frequent shout-out of “welcome home” directed to the returning troops was very touching…

Knowing our biggest challenge over the next several days would be jet lag, we decided to spend two nights at a Baltimore Best Western near the airport.  Simple things--like Best Western’s complimentary breakfast of scrambled eggs and hash browns--seemed most luxurious.

Two days later we hopped a commercial flight to Jacksonville, where we plan to stay and relax for the next month as we wait for our RV to complete its transatlantic voyage.  Presently, we are experiencing some unaccustomed luxury in a room with a kitchenette at Naval Station Mayport—right on the beach. 

This week temperatures are expected to get into the 80s, record-breaking even for Jacksonville at this time of year.  As we continue the battle to overcome jetlag, I think soaking up Jacksonville’s warm sunny days might be just what the doctor ordered.

“Europe was created by history.  America was created by philosophy.”  Margaret Thatcher


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