“I think we might have been gone too long,” I whispered to DH, an hour or so into our American Airlines flight from London to Chicago. A bored-looking, dishevelled flight attendant had just flung a packet of pretzels at me and told me, categorically, that there were no children’s meals.
Remembering that getting food is a stroke of luck on US carriers these days, I asked for chicken and looked grateful. “I’m running out of trays…Try the other side,” she replied nonchalantly, motioning at the cart being pushed by a disinterested Joan Rivers lookalike with a headache making her way reluctantly up the other aisle.
“There isn’t a hint of red lippie in sight,” I remarked to DH, with amusement. “We’ve been really spoilt flying everywhere on Gulf airlines, haven’t we?” I admitted.
But nothing was going to dampen our enthusiasm – not the 4am start, the eight-hour transatlantic flight with small children, or the fact I’d been singled out for ‘special screening’ at the gate – akin to being frisked by a human body scanner with octopus arms. This was our first trip back to the States in four-and-a-half years and I’d been looking forward to it since moving to the Middle East in 2008.
I was so excited – literally couldn’t wait to get back. The U.S. of A! We were finally on our way! Actually on the ‘big silver airplane’ we’d been telling the kids about and crossing the pond.
In retrospect, it wasn’t surprising that my words ‘been gone too long’ rang true precisely seven hours later as we attempted to negotiate our way through US immigration at Chicago’s busy O’Hare airport.
During our marriage, we’ve left an electronic trail around the world. America, the UK, Dubai – we’ve had to get our ducks lined up in several countries now, and despite having had a lawyer on the case during our time in the US, there are loose ends, I know.
“When were you last in the US?” asked the steely eyed immigration official, sizing me up from behind his spectacles.
He’d already processed the 75 per cent of my family who hold American passports, but my green card, which I’d proffered proudly along with my trusty British passport, was ringing alarm bells. “Umm, we left four years ago,” I mumbled apologetically – wondering to myself if all the gallivanting we’ve done round the Middle East since had got his attention.
“If you could just foll-ar me,” he beckoned, stepping down from his kiosk and leading me into a room with several rows of plastic chairs and a windowless, artificially lit ‘interview’ office on one side.
I started getting worried – our connecting flight to Minneapolis was in three hours’ time. I really didn’t want to miss it. The boys were bored and scrapping with each other like gerbils.
Students with visa problems, a plane-load of Koreans and three generations of an extended family from Asia were processed before me, despite the fact I’d been sitting there the longest. “Are you going to jail, mommy?” asked BB, still full of pent-up energy.
Two hours rolled by and we discovered that, contrary to the posters on the wall promising respect and courtesy, the woman in charge didn’t give a rat’s arse about customer service (okay, we weren’t exactly customers, but we did have questions).
“Immigration issues ain’t a quick problem,” barked the supervisor. “Ar’ve got a whole load of people we’re sending home – we’re doing ‘em first,” she drawled, closing her office door on our faces.
By now, I was panicking. DH, always the voice of calm, even looked annoyed. The boys, high on half a night’s sleep, were restless.
Our luck only changed when a new shift started and a much kinder official looked into our case. We had, indeed, been ‘gone too long’. As a green card holder, I found out I need to return to the US every year, or apply for a special visa. Two-and-a-half hours after being led into the waiting room, we finally left – $560 dollar lighter (yes, we were fined!) and with less than 40 minutes until our next flight.
There was no choice but to queue jump at the long line snaking its way through security. I whipped off my shoes, belt and jewellery and we hustled the boys through.
But there was worse to come.
The airplane was waiting and the crowd of people at the gate looked like they were ready to elbow their way on board – when some unwanted news changed our plans.
“The 1.30pm flight to Minneapolis/St Paul is cancelled,” the gate agent announced, deadpan. No apology, no explanation. Nada. “Passengers can line up for rebooking” – on a flight nine hours later.
I’ll say that again. Nine hours. Longer than the time it took to cross the Atlantic.
There followed a reminder that travelling round the US these days on bankrupt airlines is like a lottery. You purchase a flight online, but the chances of actually getting your scheduled flight are about the same as being struck by lightning, twice.
Two little ole’ ladies who’d also flown from London looked aghast. A travelling mum with kids even younger and less manageable than ours sat on the floor and wept quietly. Other passengers conversed in hushed grumbles, cursing every now and then as though they had Tourette’s.
It was at this point that my DH, who’s always brilliant under stress and spent four years flying regional jets round the US, came up with an escape plan. “Can we go to Rochester instead?” he asked the lone gate agent in charge of rebooking the long line of disgruntled travellers. “Yes, in two hours’ time,” was the reply. And after much tapping on the computer, we were re-routed and on our way to a new destination.
Arriving at Rochester, Minnesota, was a blessed relief, despite the fact our luggage didn’t make it (it was never going to, was it?). We hired a car after being put on hold by our American credit card company for what felt like ages (yet another fraud check) and set out on the drive to Minneapolis, drinking in the green farmland and marvelling at the open road on which we were travelling.
On which there was very little traffic compared to the UAE – and which had, unbeknownst to us, a ridiculously low speed limit.
You’ve guessed what happened next, haven’t you? (stop laughing!)
Yes, we were pulled over – by a police officer who had no sympathy for our sorry story about a tiring, long journey from London, our cancelled flight and lost luggage, and who issued us a speeding ticket. Straight out of Dubai and with nearly-there-after-one-helluva-journey enthusiasm, we were fair game, I suppose.
Welcome to the US, indeed! Thankfully, things got a lot better over the next two weeks…