The Domino Effect

I literally missed the train by one croissant from the breakfast buffet stuffed in my purse, one hand heart-directed at my daughter as I went down one escalator and she headed up another toward her semester abroad in Spain. Of course it didn’t help that I’d been pick-pocketed in the Madrid metro station as my month-long journey was coming to an end.

I figure it was the seemingly kind man who helped lug my suitcase up a congested stairway, distracting me. I said “Gracias! Gracias!” thanking him profusely as his accomplice swiped my wallet out of the cross-body bag on my hip opposite my suitcase. For twenty-seven days, I’d been so conscientious, having heard warnings about gypsy thieves in Paris, Marseille, and Barcelona. Now my credit cards and the 100 euro I’d planned to give my daughter as soon as we secured my train ticket to the airport were gone. One “gracias” to a falsely helpful man set off a travel nightmare domino reaction.

I’d chosen our hotel for its proximity to Atocha station. An elevator pops up from the metro just 30 meters away and a train to the airport takes just 20 minutes. It’s just over two hours before my flight so, while I haven’t left much cushion for goodbyes, the airline suggests arriving 80-90 minutes before takeoff. I should be fine.

Ah, but that 20-minute train costs €7.50 and I now have only the €3 in my daughter’s pocket. The metro also goes to the Aeropuerto, an agent tells my daughter in Spanish. It costs €2.40. I don’t think to ask how long it takes.

As I’m on the escalator, taking that one last look at my daughter, I see the metro train sitting there, doors open. I bump my suitcase down the steps until I get to a man with a very large bag that I can’t get around. I’m moving in slow motion just five…more…steps…to…go and the train door closes. It pulls away just as I step onto the platform.

A train going elsewhere is coming in four minutes, the screen says. It pulls up, leaves, and then the screen goes dead. Twenty-five minutes pass. I should be at the airport in ten minutes.

The screen sparks to back to life declaring eight minutes until the airport train arrives. I board, but when metro security walks through checking tickets, I learn this train takes 45 minutes. This means it will be at least 10:15 when I get there. My flight leaves at 10:55.

When I get to the British Airways counter, two of the four agents take a break. The line is long, but the people ahead of me are kind and let me go next, as soon as the family of five in front is done moving things around amongst their eight bags to try to make weight limits.

The agent says I’m too late to check my suitcase, but he’ll alert the gate that I’m on my way, pointing out that it will take at least 20 minutes to get there. I’m in Terminal 4. Departures are in Terminal 4S, which means another train ride. The gate closes in 25 minutes.

He points to a bank of escalators. “You go down to catch the train.”

Five escalators down.

I’d forgotten about the gourmet Spanish olive oil I’d purchased as gifts, since I’d planned to check that bag and so, after people let me cut ahead of them, I am now holding everyone up as my dirty clothes are spread out in the quest to find bottles rolled into shirts and dresses.

I get through security and find the train to the other terminal. It is 10:40. I have 15 minutes.

Just when I have hope, I come upon another passport checkpoint with another long line, but again, kind people let me go next. I’m now three escalators away from gate S31. I’m carrying my heavy bag now and I’m running up those escalators. But when I get off it’s like Disneyland when you unload from a ride in the themed gift shop, and I’m routed through the duty-free mall, dodging kids looking at stuffed bears wearing sweaters that say SPAIN when I finally see S31, just 50 meters in the distance. I’m panting as I collapse into the counter at 10:52. It is too late.

British Airways books me on the next flight. Thankfully there is no cost for the ticket change since I have no money.

British Airways lands at Heathrow at Terminal 5. I will have to go through customs, then baggage claim, and then board a shuttle to Virgin Atlantic in Terminal 3. The inflight magazine says that will take 70 minutes. My U.S. flight begins boarding 60 minutes after I land. I ask a flight attendant how realistic it might be for me to make the connection.

I tell her about leaving my daughter, losing my wallet, missing my train and then my flight. She says she can’t believe I’m still smiling. “I have no choice but to laugh,” I say. Moments later she comes to my seat with a bottle of water at the same moment I'm thinking, “I’m so thirsty.” 

Later she brings me a sandwich and says, “With no money, you won’t be able to eat in London.” Her charitable act almost makes me cry.

The reality is that in the swirl of a multi-week journey through three countries and six cities, I’ve encountered mostly compassion, reciprocating with coins in guitar cases of the many musicians who created our city soundtracks. People from countless cultures have crossed our paths, opened doors, shared talents, stories, and smiles.

The train, bus, boat, and plane connections we did make, the more than 300,000 steps we walked, the flavors we tasted, the rain that barely fell upon us, the coffee, wine, and sangria consumed in outdoor cafes, the resurrection of my abysmal high school French and the people who didn’t laugh at it—those are the connections that count more than the one that I may or may not make in London.

I share my adventure with Virgin Atlantic’s ticket agent as I check my suitcase. She gives me a seat with extra legroom in an empty row and has another agent escort me through security. I make it to the gate with time to sit down and update my family. What began as a journey with a domino effect of disasters ends 11 hours later with me home, as scheduled.



Suzanne Weerts is a writer, storyteller and producer of storytelling shows. You can read her essays in The Sun, Good Old Days Magazine and on numerous websites. Suzanne lives in an empty nest in Burbank, California, with her husband and pandemic puppy. She’s currently writing a memoir.

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