Monday, October 11, 2010

Finland XIII: No place like home

(In this 13th and final installment of my blog series regarding NHL Premiere 2010, featuring the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, we finally pack up and head for home.)

All good things, must come to an end. And so did our trip to Europe, after ten days and over 11,000 miles, as we packed up in the middle of the night in our Helsinki hotel room, following two losses by the Wild to the Carolina Hurricanes at Hartwall Areena.

And so, here we are, 36 of us mustered in the hotel lobby at 4:20 in the morning to board a bus for the 30-minute trip out to Vanataa Airport, some 18 miles (30KM) north of the city's center. We board, depart, and drive thru the mostly deserted streets of the sleeping city, as the lack of traffic allows us the freedom to move quickly, thru streets mostly devoid of traffic. Not even the trams are running at this hour, those being replaced by special night buses also running on a limited schedule.

From the relative quiet of the city itself, the noise and bustle of Vanataa is a shock to the system, as is the realization that the trip is quickly coming to an end. We check in at Finnair for our flight to Paris, with the connection there for Minneapolis/St. Paul. Thru security for the first time, then down to our gate. I stop to look at all the destinations on the departures board; Las Palmas, Oulu, Berlin, Amsterdam, Oslo, Copenhagen, Moscow, and many, many more.

The concourse, while not wall-to-wall people, is bustling for 6:00 AM, as Europe gets on the move for another day. And the list of airlines is as impressive as the destinations: Finnair, KLM, Aeroflot, MAV (Hungarian), Bulgarian, and offshoots of numerous airlines. Our gate is occupied by an Air Berlin A320 Airbus destined for the German capital. They load, leave, and our plane is dragged into position.

Our Finnair flight, surprisisngly, is not full as we depart a few minutes late, which would hurt us later. A very uneventful flight, as average a flight as one could ask for. And then, there is Paris...

...Charles De Gaulle airport, which is northeast of the City of Lights, and a whole lot different than any other terminal I had ever seen before. The airport is three massive terminals, and for security reasons, all flights across the North Atlantic have been grouped in the same terminal area. All passengers must go thru security again before transiting the airport, even if you went thru security before (you had to go thru it before you boarded your connecting flight inbound, anyways) and that's where our simple trip home, turned into an episode of 'The Amazing Race'.

You need to take a shuttle bus from one part of the terminal to another, the terminals are THAT big. We missed the shuttle by seconds, and then were left to sit for nearly five minutes while the next shuttle loaded. Our bus stop was the second (of three) on the circular route which runs around the terminal, as massive aircraft (Airbus 380's, Boeing 767's, 777's, and the 747-400) occupied nearly every gate as we drive underneath between ends of the massive terminal.

We finally get to the end of the line (for us, anyway) then find out we have to go thru security AGAIN to get thru to the gate areas for aircraft destined for North America. The security line is not moving well. Too many families, too much baggage, too much everything. Throw in the fact that someone put speakers in his carry-on baggage and didn't declare it (and put them in the tray like he should have) and now we were in trouble. We realized, then and there, that we were probably going to miss our flight home, the only one of the day directly from Paris to MSP.

'Go thru', I said, 'let's just go thru. Something may just happen, you never know.' So, we got to our boarding gate just in see the plane being pushed back. It had happened.

We saw our plane leaving. Without us on it.

We saw the agent at the gate, who told us to see customer service at the next counter over. That, believe it or not, is where we finally caught a break.

A kind, intense young woman agent at the Air France customer services counter, took over and really saved our bacon. She worked on our reservation for over an hour in order to try and get us home. We were otherwise stranded in Paris (not the worst place to spend a night, I suppose, but I was out of clean clothes and stamina) and looking at a night in transit somewhere, somewhere we were not prepared for.

'You will be sleeping in your own bed tonight, I promise you'. With those words, she reassured us that we would be going home today, not tomorrow. That really helped what otherwise was a disasterous situation. She found two seats on a 747-400 bound for Logan Airport, Boston, then we would change there for Minneapolis/St. Paul on Delta. She had done it!

With a very heartfelt 'Merci, madame', we took our new boarding passes and then joined the crowd boarding this massive jet for New England and, eventually, our own bed, which was really sounding good right about now.

We had Row 53, Seats 'B' & 'C', near the tail of the aircraft. But, at that point, who really cared? We were just happy to be crossing the North Atlantic at this point, as the 747 departed Paris bound for the USA. I almost wanted to shout 'Hooray! We made it!' or something like that, but I just squeezed my wife's hand and said, 'Here we go'.

They served two meals on this flight, and of course, being an Air France flight, four different kinds of wine. The flight was a long, 7:20 trip across the Atlantic, all in daylight; it was 2:40 PM when we departed Paris, and 2:40 pm when we turned over Quincy, Mass., on final approach to Logan Airport. At this point, we had been on the move for the better part of 21 hours. And, we still had 5 hours to go before arriving at home.

Another round of security, this time inbound, for both baggage and passengers, then re-check the bags onto the Minneapolis-bound flight, then cross the Logan concourses to the 'A' concourse for our connecting Delta flight for MSP.

We went thru security (for a fourth time), then made the long walk to the very far end of the 'A' concourse, and waited for our Minneapolis-bound flight. Another packed plane, but we were able to sit together for the last 2:15 as the familiar sights of Minneapolis approached, we felt a great sigh of relief.

We were finally at home, after 26 hours on the road. Turned on the TV at home, just as the Yankees' Nick Swisher put the final nail in the Twins' playoff coffin, with a home run off 'Moon Shot' Scott Baker. And then we knew.

All was right with the world, once again.

(end of series)

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