Have you ever found yourself in a different country, by accident? I have. The country was Portugal.
In August of 2000 I planned a trip to Europe to attend the wedding of some friends. The wedding would be in southeastern France, along the Cote d’Azur in a small village called Canadel.
August is tourist season, so everything is expensive. Luckily, I was able to get a couple of cheap airline tickets from a former colleague of mine I worked with when I flew for TWA years earlier. Yvonne, my travel companion, and I wanted to spend a few days in Paris before heading by train to Canadel for the wedding.
My flight-attendant friend, Jose got us the lowest level roundtrip tickets from San Francisco to Paris. This was fine by me because the lower the level, the cheaper the cost, the more money I could spend on clothes and food while in Paris. But Jose warned that these cheap tickets (buddy passes they called them), come with a risk. If flights are overbooked out of NY (our point of transfer), we’d be the first to get bumped. But I wasn’t worried about this – after all, I’d used buddy passes dozens of times before and have never had a problem. Not only that, if worse comes to worse, we could fly to a city near Paris and take a train in.
I was certain that nothing could go wrong. And so, with full confidence, I spend the money saved by getting cheap tickets on a Paris-worthy shopping spree! Why wait to be in Paris to shop? I planned an outfit for each day, (something I’d never done before!). I even got us a place to stay for free near the famous Champs-Elysees. An ex-boyfriend owed me a favor and convinced his sister who lived in Paris to give us a room during our stay. Everything would be perfect.
August finally comes and Yvonne and I have a fantastic flight from SFO airport. Not only did we get a free upgrade to business class, but our flight gets into JFK early. On the way to our connecting gate, we stop at one of those over-priced airport shops to stock up on chocolate and magazines. Giggly and excited we head to the gate. I get in line to check-in while Yvonne grabs one of the few empty seats. It’s busier than I thought it would be.
The line is really long and seems full of frustrated passengers. I look over at a Yvonne and flash a smile with a thumbs up, wanting to reassure her that everything is fine. But, in fact, I’m more trying to reassure myself.
Finally, I make it to the front of the line. Reaching for my ticket, the gate agent says, “This flight is very full, but I’ll see what can do.”
Meanwhile the other gate agent is announcing the names of standby passengers who’ve made the cut. My bulletproof optimism shrinks with the announcement of each name. I start to fear the worst. “I’m so sorry Ms. Fletcher,” says the first gate agent, “but I’m afraid there isn’t a single seat left. There are too many standby passengers and you’ve got the lowest priority passes.”
In the periphery, I can see Yvonne looking in my direction but don’t dare look at her until I have boarding passes in hand. “Well, what about a different airport? There’s got to be another flight going into France besides Paris, n’est-pas?” I say, chuckling at my clever use of French.
“Unfortunately, most flights leaving for Europe for the next day 1/2 are oversold. The only thing I can get you both on is a flight to Portugal – but it’s boarding right now, so you’ve got a minute to decide,” she says with controlled urgency.
“Yes, we’ll take it, at least it’s on the same continent,” I blurt before realizing the idiocy of that comment.
Just then Yvonne walks up and asks, “What’s taking so long?”
“It turns out that every flight going to Paris is is full, so we’re going to Portugal instead,” I say with forced enthusiasm. “I’ll explain later, we have sprint if we’re going to make this flight.”
We make the flight just in time and arrive into Lisbon, Portugal’s capital in the late afternoon of a hot August day. But unfortunately, our bags go to Paris. In the cab ride from the airport neither of us are talking and giggling.
We’re dropped off at a cobble-stoned plaza that looks like it might be the central part of the city. Jetlagged and feeling sorry for ourselves, we randomly choose one of the many streets shooting off from the central plaza. My French Berlitz dictionary is not much help so we end up going with the first proprietor who speaks enough English to tell us the price per night.
With no luggage to unpack, we settle in quickly and within the hour are sitting on the pension’s peach-colored metal terrace. By this time, I had been stewing in regret for not thinking things through, embarrassment at the fact that this didn’t just impact me but Yvonne also, and anger that things didn’t go as planned. Regret, embarrassment and anger, though unpleasant can sometimes be delicious ingredients but they make for a bitter meal that turn you into a real drag.
So I wasn’t surprised that while sharing a bottle of local red wine Yvonne stared me straight in the eyes and said, “You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself. Things didn’t go as planned – get over it!”
I sat there in my stew of negative emotions, knowing she was right but I just couldn’t let it go. I mean what mess I made of things. And not only that, I’ve got no clothes!
I pour a second glass and the owner comes out with a platter of cheeses and bread. Just then, the sun slips beneath the horizon making the sky a brilliant orange-pink color with shades of purple and blue. Each building reflects the light in glowing but unique hues. And Lisbon comes to life right there before my eyes.
“You might be right Yvonne, life’s too damn short…and who knows what tomorrow will bring anyway. I’ve got a feeling that whether I plan or not, we’re on an adventure.”
To hear what happens next, listen to the podcast I did on this trip: https://soundcloud.com/obind/lisbon