I like to think of myself as an adaptable, easy-going person. A person who is not stressed out by everyday things like changes in plans. A person who can roll with it.
But during December 2010 I found myself in a situation that tested my last nerve.
I was stuck the week before Christmas, along with 100,000 other people, at London Heathrow airport — one of the world’s busiest airports at one of the busiest times of the year.
I had been working in Geneva and was heading home to visit my family in London, Ont. It was the first time I’d been home in a year. I was using well-deserved vacation days from a stressful job. I’d been looking forward to this day for months. Nothing could shake my good mood. So I thought.
It started when my plane from Geneva aborted its landing at Heathrow in a sudden snow squall. Instead we landed with a bump at Luton Airport, a few hours outside of London.
A lady from Miami started screaming at the flight attendant that she was going to sue the airline because she was going to miss her connection and not “make it on the yacht.”
I traded a smug eye-roll with the girl in the seat next to me. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
After all, what was the worst that could happen? I was confident that even if I did miss my flight the airline would just book me a room at a nice plush airport Hilton and I’d be on my way to Toronto the next day, sunny blue skies all the way.
It didn’t exactly work out that way.
I did miss my connecting flight — and the one after that, and the one after that. Things started to take on a surreal quality as one by one the status on nearly every flight on the board changed from delayed to cancelled.
But I wasn’t bothered, not yet. I figured if anyone could get me off of the island, it would be my fellow countrymen. I managed to persuade British Airways to change my ticket to Air Canada, hoofed my way to Terminal 3, and threw my lot in with them.
A wonderful woman put me on the standby list and told me to wait at the desk until right before the plane left in case anyone didn’t show up. So I waited. At around midnight, a beleaguered looking Air Canada employee emerged and passed out tiny paper cups full of juice and a letter from management.
It informed us that due to the fact that the entire airport was shut down, the flight we’d been waiting for was cancelled.
They had run out of food vouchers. It was impossible to get a cab, and every hotel in the area was booked.
Also, the subway was down.
There were about five inches of snow on the ground.
I started to have a full-on meltdown, uncontrollably sobbing and begging the employees to let me on a flight. Any flight. Anywhere.
I became that crazy person you stare at in airports. It was Christmas. I hadn’t seen my family in a year. I needed a shower. And I was alone.
A girl on her way home to Ottawa rose to the occasion and talked me off the ledge — despite having known me for all of two hours. She was also travelling by herself.
We immediately became best friends. We took turns watching each other’s luggage and swapping stories about how much we are looking forward to Christmas at home after being away for so long. Eventually we set up camp behind a couple of vending machines and vowed to try again in the morning.
Later we met two other Canadian girls, also desperate to get back to the motherland. We started watching Home Alone on someone’s computer.
People were camped out everywhere. It took 40 minutes to get to the bathroom, weaving through the maze of weary travellers and luggage. A group of Chinese travellers erected a makeshift fort out of aluminum foil, emergency blankets and cardboard.
But despite our shared misery I started to think of the airport as a kind of extended international sleepover party. Everyone was missing someone. Everyone desperately wanted to be somewhere else. But we were all in the exact same situation and really, we all needed someone to talk to about it.
I’d never made such fast bonds with any group of people.
There were five flights to Canada each day — to Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. My strategy was to get out on any one of them and figure out the rest later. But at around 11 p.m. on our second day of waiting, the airport announced there was no more room on any flight to Canadian soil.
I started losing it. Again. My hard-won vacation days were ticking by and I was facing the prospect of spending Christmas in an airport. I felt like I was trapped in a dream where no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get to where I was going.
Again and again, my airport buddy and I would wait at the standby desk hoping to get on one of the few flights that were trickling out. When the subway eventually started running again, we stayed in a hotel room that we paid for out-of-pocket.
On Christmas Eve, we found ourselves back at the Air Canada desk — along with what seemed like the entire displaced population of Canada. A middle-aged man (who had clearly been there only one night) elected himself cheerleader-in-chief.
“Come on everyone, we’re all in this together,” he yelled. Every time the workers called a name off the standby list, he bellowed it out and people repeated it into the crowd.
The lucky person would make their way to the front, beaming, and everyone would clap and wish them well as if they had won the lottery.
I meet an engineer who had been working in Germany and was trying to get home to his mother in Newfoundland. When I told him I’d been stuck for five days he looked at me with deep respect, like I was a veteran of a terrible battle he’d just arrived at.
On the TVs inside the bar, all the news channels were covering us as their top story. The headlines in all the papers at the gift shop said stuff like “Heathrow turns into a refugee camp.” My friends messaged me on Facebook to say they’d looked for me in the crowd during the first story on the previous night’s edition of The National.
I started to feel pretty tough and kind of special. I’d always wanted to be at the centre of a major international news event. Plus, they were starting to hand out sandwiches. Maybe things weren’t that bad.
Suddenly, the flight attendant called out “anyone else for Toronto?”
“ME,” I yelled.
She grabbed my passport and told me I had five minutes to get on the plane.
I looked back into the crowd to see people clapping and smiling and wishing me a merry Christmas.
Despite the fact I was elated to be finally getting out of there, I felt a tiny twinge.
There was maybe even something, just a tiny bit, fun about the whole thing.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on October 23, 2013.