Istanbul (not Constantinople): Part I of an expat adventure
We left Muscat in the deep darkness of 1:20 am, (the time most flights depart and arrive in Oman). It was Eid holiday, so the kids had a few days off school, plus the weekend – the perfect time for a late summer vacation to visit Cooper’s sister and husband in Italy.
We boarded the plane, shoved our bags into the overhead and sat down, pulling on eye masks, ignoring the beverage service in exchange for a few restless hours of sleep. Four and half hours later, blurry eyed, with the beginnings of headache coming on, we arrived in Istanbul with less than twenty minutes to make our connection to Venice.
Disembarking at Terminal 1, Jonah, Maggie and myself, (Cooper was working and would join us later), followed signs to the transfer station, moving quickly down the corridor, until we came upon a mass of confused looking people. A large sign hung above the crowd. It read: Transfer Station.
I didn’t want to believe it. How could this be a transfer station? There was no line. No order. No way we were going to make our flight. The scene was the human equivalent of a massive stroke, a clot blocking an essential artery.
I searched for any other signs overhead, hoping against hope to circumnavigate the process. Could there be a ‘fast track’ to gate 705?
This was the line for everybody; EVERY BODY. Every ‘body’ in the whole world, it seemed, was in this line.
Resigned to our fate, knowing we’d likely miss our connection and spend an afternoon in Istanbul airport, we entered the huddle and began the slow, dangerous shuffle forward. ‘Hold onto to my hand Maggie,’ I instructed gravely to my 8-year-old, ‘and don’t let go.’
Beads of sweat formed along her upper lip and brow. It was hot in the airport, but she was scared too. ‘It’s going to be okay,’ I said, forcing a smile, while all around us the sense of desperation grew.
Expressions of panic were palpable. And anger too. On our left, new arrivals were entering the mass, (growing the clot) cutting into what constituted ‘THE LINE.’ The onslaught of travelers made the horde surge forward, but with nowhere to go, we simply pressed ourselves together even more – strangers touching on all sides.
I could see, up ahead, the maze of metal railings and stanchions starting to corral passengers into an organized queue, but how to get there, was the question. People employed every subtle artifice and stratagem that could be devised – some pushing, others jabbing ankles with carry-ons, parents with strollers, in some cases, using them as weapons to advance their line.
Above the din of murmurs and complaints, a man, taller than any other in the crowd, clung tightly to his carry-on and elbowed his way forward, crying, “My flight is leaving, I have to go,” over and over. He was going to get people hurt, that’s what he was going to do.
I stopped him with my loud American voice. “Hey, we all have flights to catch. But we need to stay calm and wait our turn.”
He looked down at me, surprised to hear a voice addressing him. “But my flight is about to board,” he protested mildly.
“And mine is boarding now,” I said, “but we still need to wait our turn.”
“Come on,” he urged, “we should go forward together.”
The crowd was giving way to his aggressive posturing, but I wasn’t about to follow. Maggie looked up at me with an anxious expression. “Don’t worry,” I said, sincerely meaning it this time, “we’ll get there.” Plowing through was not the way.
I glanced around. I’d lost Jonah in the crowd, but I knew he was close behind. There was a double stroller with slumbering twins inside – innocent accomplices – poised to take out my right knee, should I dare slow down.
The crowd was unnerving, but luckily, I’d been in crowds before. Not like this, not in an airport, but once in Athens, when Cooper took me on a date to see Mission Impossible. We’d bought our tickets and were standing, waiting, outside the theater to enter, when the attendant lifted the rope for people to pass. The would-be audience billowed forward, a mob, as it were, running from the bulls. It was the kind of throng where you could’ve stuck out your elbows and lifted your feet, and been carried forward, never having to touch the ground. For all this fervor, you would’ve thought each seat came with a million dollars. But that was Athens.
At the airport in Istanbul, whether we were trying to or not, we moved along with the rest of the crowd, like grain funneling into a mill. I kept my eyes focused on the metal railing we’d have to get around in order to enter the transfer line. I’d noticed some people getting caught unawares by the impending bars, and awkwardly maneuvering past, or worse, getting pinned. I approached the line carefully, my hips skirting the barrier. Jonah spotted us then, caught up to where we were shuffling along, and ducked under one of the metal barriers to join us.
Once in line, we proceeded together, more calmly, tickets and passports in hand. I tried not to calculate the time, and get discouraged by the long rows of people we’d yet have to wait through, when I notice a man with a badge standing at the end of the first turn in our row. He was looking at tickets, waving people onward, letting others go straight through to security if their flight was impending. I held out our tickets and he immediately lifted the rope to let us through.
There was another line in security, but shorter. We were making progress. I began to have hope we might actually make our flight, when in the distance, back in the transfer station line, I spotted the tall man, who’d pushed his way past us. Had he missed the opportunity to exit because he’d been in such a hurry? Was his ticket not as urgent as he supposed?
I didn’t have time to think about it. We had to move fast, emptying laptops and iPads and cellphones into bins, removing watches, striping off hoodies, hustling through the metal detector to get to our gate.
Once through, I took a preliminary deep breath. Now to find our gate.
The Istanbul airport, come to find out, was actually one gigantic shopping mall with gates in between. Numbered from 200 to over 800, one gate to the next, could take forty minutes to walk, or more, and judging from the numbers, we had a good quarter-mile to run.
In addition to Jonah’s backpack, he took Maggie’s backpack and one of my two bags – my Coach leather purse. All that, and he was still able to run much faster than we were. We passed by restrooms we would have liked to stop at, but there was no time. Nor was there time to buy water. Breathing hard, Maggie gave a faint whisper of a cry, “My shoes are untied.”
“Keep running,” I said.
As it turned out, we weren’t the only passengers running to the gate. Along the way, we met up with a group of Filipinos, all wearing matching red t-shirts, going the same direction. We arrived at same time, to the words on the monitor flashing: Last Call. The plane was still boarding. ‘We made it,’ we said, congratulating each other.
We gave the Turkish Air worker our tickets, then passed through a set of glass doors to board a bus – the transport that would take us to our plane. I dabbed sweat from my face, and breathed great sighs of relief. Only a few hours more and we’d be in Italy, eating pizza and gelato, wandering the streets of Vicenza and buying up shrink-wrapped Asiago and Grana Padano to cart home to Oman.
Once on the plane, with my seat in the upright position during take-off, I mused to myself: what would have happened if we’d missed our flight and stayed in Istanbul? Lucky for us, I thought, we would never need to find out. We were on our way to Italy, and I was grateful for Providence, and planes, and things that work out.
…to be continued.