A few years ago, I was making my way to Florida for Christmas. My mother had started renting a condo there for the holidays after my dad died, and from the moment I laid eyes on the place, nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and the Intracoastal Waterway, I loved it madly.
The first trip was during the great economic meltdown of 2008-2009, which also happened to be during El-Nino, and the weather was perfect. Eighty degrees and sunny for the three weeks I was there. I met new people, danced on the beach and found new happy places.
In 2009-2010 I invited some friends to help me celebrate my birthday. The weather was cool and the energy different, but as we danced at the local beach bar on New Years eve I loved it even more.
Maybe it was the following year, I’m not sure, as dates have a way of getting away from me, but I was very excited as I made my way to Heathrow, anticipating a rather fabulous time. I was excited about the pool, the random chats with strangers, the food, the shopping… everything. I was all but humming with excitement as I stood in the queue at check in. As I approached the ticket agent (if that’s the right term?) I knew something was up by the way she dropped her eyes when she saw my reservation before saying, ‘The second leg of your journey has been cancelled. You will be overnighting in Philadelphia. There’s nothing I can do so I don’t want to hear about any of your problems.’
It was clear she loved her job and had exemplary customer service skills, refusing to look up and barking at me the way she did. I was angry, for a second, then I shrugged and said, ‘there’s nothing you can do about it, why would I yell at you?’ It was a subtle dig at her in many ways, but I’d flown enough to know these things happen, and I’d get there eventually. She looked up at me in surprise and said, ‘I like the way you handled that.’ Then she gave me my boarding pass and sent me on my way.
I remember using my credit card to call my sister and let her know what was happening so she could cancel my shuttle van. Then I walked around the terminal, taking in the familiar and fabulous sights.
I got on the plane and found myself sitting next to a young girl, nineteen, maybe twenty. She was talking to her mom, asking her to book her a hotel. She was crying, scared of being in Philadelphia on her own maybe, or perhaps desperate to get home after a long time away.
After she hung up I said, ‘I’m sure the airline will provide us with accommodations. Call your mother back, tell her I’ll make sure you’re ok when we land.’ I forget her name now but I will never forget her smile when I said this. ‘Tell her I’m Canadian, so she has nothing to worry about.’ To this day I have no idea why I added that part.
Flights, airports, everything is different during the Christmas season. People feel the kindness of the time. The magic. I remembered the year I took a shuttle to the condo along with six other strangers. The driver was wearing a Santa hat. When Feliz Navidad came on the radio we all started singing along to the chorus. I was the last person to reach my destination and I felt giddy and teary, watching my fellow passengers being dropped off, walking into big hugs as people waited outside for them, Christmas lights blinking in the darkness of the land surrounded by water.
This flight was subdued, perhaps everyone on board had dealt with the same agent I had. I don’t know why but it was quiet. It didn’t feel so jolly.
Then, we arrived in Philadelphia. Those of us who were overnighting unexpectedly were asked to make our way to a kiosk to get our new flight information. I remember thinking, here we go, navigating a new airport at ten at night, me looking out for someone’s kid. But we didn’t have to look because employees met us as we got off the plane. They were wearing Santa hats and had all our information ready and organised, including a shuttle to our hotel, to which we were escorted. As we made our way I pretended I was famous, being guided by bodyguards through the thronging mass of adoring fans. This also perked me up considerably.
It was snowing lightly as we stepped out into the cold night into the waiting shuttle van. It made the drive pretty, seeing the white flakes against the lights on the highway. When we arrived at the hotel the driver opened the van doors and took out our luggage, carrying it to the door of the hotel. There were maybe eight of us, and as he ferried back and forth I dug in my bag for the US money I had from my last trip. All I could find were a handful of ones, and not a big handful either. I folded it up to make it look better, thanked him, and said Merry Christmas. Then I raced inside before he could see my four dollar tip.
As I stepped inside the lobby I could feel a different energy. The quiet, subdued passengers from the flight all seemed to be getting a second wind, a new sense of joy, as we stood about, not quite sure how to proceed. It was quiet, the bar empty, but someone asked if they could get a Philly cheesesteak nearby and then someone else said that sounded like a great idea and the person working reception called the kitchen and the bar lights came on and everyone suddenly seemed rather delighted with this unexpected stop. I stood watching until it was my time to check in. I didn’t want a Philly cheesesteak. I wanted to take a shower and go to sleep. I asked if it would be possible to get an apple, some crackers, and a mug of herbal tea. The worker came back with stuff she found in the kitchen. When I handed her my voucher she said, ‘Save it honey, use it for breakfast.’
I melted at the kindness, and at being called honey. Grabbing my suitcase I found the elevator and made my way to my room.
Now, I love hotels. I love the way they smell. I love the quiet when you walk down the halls. I love looking at the décor and deciding if I like it or if I would do something different. I love the quiet. This one was very much to my liking: a king size bed with white sheets and a jumbo tv. At the time I was sleeping on a bed from Ikea and didn’t own a tv, so it felt like a suite at the Ritz. The bathroom was gorgeous, clean and modern, and I stood under the hotel shower until I was embarrassed by all the hot water I was using. I turned on the TV and found the Big Bang Theory, a show I liked at the time. Heavier snow was falling, and as I watched it land in the parking lot, a little part of me hoped there was a storm, and I got to stay another night.
My flight was leaving at just after eight, and I made my way to checkout very early. I had a mug of coffee while I was waiting and skipped breakfast. The same clerk served me, and this time I was ready. In my large suitcase I had copious amounts of British chocolate – Cadbury Roses and all kinds of stuff. I had pulled some out for the woman who had been so kind the night before. As I handed it to her she said, ‘Girl, you gonna make me cry,’ then she came from behind the desk and gave me a hug.
We got to the airport, and I found my gate. Then I took a little stroll. Nothing makes me happier than an airport. They are the portals to new dimensions. Gateways to new experiences.
On the flight I was sat between two children. The parents were on the other side with one child and I offered to move but the kids were happy. One wanted to sit next to the window and one wanted to sit next to his mother, across the aisle. So I sat in the middle. Somehow we all ended up watching Despicable Me together. I hadn’t seen it and thought it was hilarious. The little boy took on a Siskel and Ebert approach, resting his hand on my knee as he filled me in on the backstory. The parents slept. I had fun.
And then I landed at the Tampa Airport. My happy place. How I love it. When you get on the tram and you see the outside, the blue sky and the palm trees, I feel like life makes sense.
I made my way to baggage claim then outside to hail a cab. I hadn’t rebooked a shuttle because I didn’t want to wait.
The driver asked me where I was from and before I knew it I was hearing about some footballer he loathed and I’d never heard of, so I looked out the window and watched for cool billboards, something I only do in Florida. I love seeing adverts for Cracker Barrel and shopping malls and restaurants I’ve never heard of and factory outlets I love. I love crossing the bridge that seems to float just above the water. I love seeing the sign that welcomes you to Treasure Island, Florida. I could go on for days about the things I love, the same way the driver was still bleating on about football when I said, ‘Stop! Stop! There’s my sister! Pull over.’
I had the door open before he came to a full stop as my sister looked slightly alarmed at everything that was happening as she tried to carry a bag of groceries. She climbed in with me, saying, ‘I saw this little blond ponytail and thought, that looks like Marina…’ she rambled. It was a nice break from hearing about some overpaid goon who played for Chelsea. Only I could go to Florida and find a cabbie obsessed with the premier league, something I almost avoided in NW England, where I lived at the time.
But it was nice. I was excited to see my sister, and she was happy to both see me and set down the groceries she had walked all the way to Publix to buy.
The guard at the complex waved us through, and I gave both him and my cabbie some British chocolate.
Later that day we walked on the beach and I told my sister about a funny movie I’d seen on the plane, with ‘little yellow characters that looked like buckets’ as she yelled, ‘minions!’
I laughed as I thought of how the ticket agent dealt with me in Heathrow, and how things had turned out. I loved my hotel in Philadelphia (I think it was called the Four Points) I loved the interaction with the staff, I loved the airport and I loved how the young girl who was so scared on the plane sat at the bar and told me she was fine, so I could go to bed. I loved the staff wearing Santa hats and the shuttle driver and the hot shower and how comfortable the bed was. I loved the sunshine and buying groceries and drinking a cold Bud Light Lime by the pool. I loved meeting up with people I’d come to know on earlier trips. I loved the feeling of the place, even with the hiccups that come with traveling with family.
With travel, as with life, approach is everything. How the agent dealt with me was her approach, how I replied was mine. Maybe she’d been yelled at by all the customers who came before me. Maybe she had a friend coming in and she’d been excited to meet them and now they were delayed as well. I don’t know. What I do know is that giving her grief was not going to help, and perhaps she could have been a bit kinder in how she informed me. But it all turned out ok. And I hope she had a great holiday.
The world seems to be on fire, and the United States is changing. The off the chart customer service you once took for granted is not there anymore. The weather is crazy and so is the politics. I haven’t been since before the pandemic and don’t know when I will return. But I remember that trip and it still brings me happiness. I think it is better to celebrate the joy in the memory than lament the current state of affairs.
Approach is everything. And so is pretending.