Friday, November 19, 2010

Connecting Flights

Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you.”
--Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine)

My frequent travels have afforded me the chance to meet and interact with so many different and interesting people.  Although airports have become intelligence-free zones of late, they have always provided me with many moments of entertainment.  Sometimes, I get to be part of the show.

I was between flights in the Atlanta airport and had a couple of hours to kill, so I made my way down the huge escalator from the A Concourse into the tunnel that connects all the terminals.  Once below ground I usually take the opportunity to stretch my legs and walk the distance between the terminals.  For anyone not familiar with the Atlanta airport, it’s about a ¼ mile or so between each concourse which makes for a nice, relaxing walk when you have the time.
On this particular occasion, I opted to take the train because my backpack was exceptionally heavy.

Standing there on the crowded platform I began to overhear a conversation behind me.  Despite the noise level in the tunnel, I heard every word because 2 people were yelling and gesturing madly.  As I turned around I saw and heard a woman slowly and deliberately shouting, “YOU HAVE TO GO TO THE B CONCOURSE, THE B CONCOURSE!  IT’S THAT WAY”!  THE B CONCOURSE IS THAT WAY”! She over articulated every word, as though she was hoping that her lips could be read as well.  The man with her chimed in even louder as though somehow it would help, “YOU HAVE TO GO THERE, THAT WAY… IT’S OVER THERE”!  And then he made a pointing motion so huge he could have been shooting a free throw.
I looked at the gentleman to whom (at, really) they were directing this tirade and saw that he was standing there, ticket in hand, eyes wide with panic and incomprehension.  He wasn’t deaf.  He just didn’t speak English.  He hadn’t uttered a word and yet somehow, in that instant, I knew he was Russian.  To this day, I can’t for the life of me explain how I knew, I just did.

 I stepped between Mr. and Mrs. Loud, and asked, “Izvenitye, nuzhen pamoch”? (Excuse me, do you need help?)

 In an instant I saw the relief on his face as he heard me speaking Russian.   He started speaking rapidly… “Da Da, pozhalsta, nye goveritye po Angliski”! (Yes, yes please, I do not speak English!) Then he held his ticket out for me to see.  His ticket was for San Francisco, and he needed to go to gate B-15.   Easy enough.  Digging deeply in to my memory banks for vocabulary, I told him in my rusty Russian to “Come with me I can take you there.  It’s this way”. 
Spaciba! Spaciba! Bolshoi Spaciba! (Thank you! Thank you! Thank you very much!) he exclaimed.

I led him off of the train platform on to the walkway towards the B terminal.  I thought it would be nice if we could walk and talk along the way.  My brain was scrambling to try to remember enough to make some conversation.   I didn’t have to remember much because he started speaking first.  He asked me if it was far to the plane, and I told him no, just a short walk.  He then said that he had just stepped off the plane from Moscow and had gotten lost in the airport.   He told me that he was getting married in San Francisco the very next day and was afraid he wouldn’t be there for his own wedding!  That certainly explained some of his hysteria.  He asked if I was going to miss my flight by helping him and I told him not to worry, I had plenty of time.  He asked me how I learned Russian.  I started to tell him about my time in the Air Force and language school and then I remembered something.  I asked to see his ticket again.  I wanted to know what time his flight was scheduled for.  He held it out to me again.  The flight was due to depart at 7:30pm.  I glanced at my watch and it was 7:15!  I waved and yelled to him,” Let’s go, we’ve got to run”! We both took off in a sprint.   I guess I managed to forget how heavy my backpack was because we were dodging people, weaving left and right.  We ran through the tunnel, made it to the B Concourse escalator and ran all the way to the top.  I turned and ran towards gate B-15 but stopped in my tracks when I saw it was deserted except for one person behind the counter.  There was no plane, no last minute passengers making their way to the door, even the sign at the counter was blank, no city was listed.   By this time we were both breathless and the panic I had seen on his face earlier had returned.  I asked the gate attendant what had happened to the San Francisco flight.  She said, “Oh, there was a gate change, it’s now at A-1”.
I looked at my watch and then at my new Russian friend.  It was now 7:20 and for the second time in a short while, I said, “Let’s go, we have to run!” 
In my best Russian, between gasps for air, I tried to explain that the plane was somewhere else, that he hadn’t missed it.   I was hoping he wasn’t having second thoughts about placing his trust in me.  Here I was thinking I was going to be a hero and so far all I’d managed to do was drag him all over the airport and probably caused him to miss his plane.  
Who knew the gate had changed right back to where we started! Damn!

His faith in me obviously hadn’t wavered because he was still close behind as we sprinted down the same escalator that we had only dashed up moments ago.
No train in sight when we hit the tunnel so the only option was to keep running.  The entire time we were running I kept yelling in Russian, “Don’t worry, it will be ok, don’t worry, we’ll make it”!  He said nothing but stayed right with me. For once I was hoping that a flight had been delayed.
We ran the quarter mile back to the A terminal, flew up an escalator once again, and tore down the full length of the A terminal to the very last gate.  I looked up at the electronic sign:
Gate A-1  Flt#  1749
San Francisco
Now Boarding

I could see about 15 people still waiting in line to show their tickets to the agent so I slowed down and stopped.  I pointed to the sign, and said in Russian, “We made it, this is it,  this is the flight to San Francisco”.  He looked at me with a bit more scrutiny this time and asked me, in Russian, if I was sure.  I looked at his ticket for the last time.  I even repeated the flight numbers aloud to him as I pointed to the sign.   “Da”, I’m sure.
I walked with him to the back of the line and we stood there, sweating and heaving in unison as we both caught our breath.  I took off that damned backpack that had suddenly gotten much heavier and placed it by my feet.
 He was going to make it on time for his wedding.

Playing ambassador, I said, “I hope you like living in the United States”. 
I told him San Francisco was a beautiful city.  I told him there were many Russians there and even a neighborhood called Russian Hill as well, and he laughed.  Over and over he kept repeating  spaciba, spaciba .  I told him, “Pozhalsta!” (You’re welcome) Then I remembered a colloquial phrase that I had learned a long time ago.    
 I said, “Nye zha shto”.
There are 2 translations for “nye zhe shto”.
 It could mean, simply-
 It’s nothing.  Or, think nothing of it.

But in this context, I think one good colloquial expression deserves another,

“Ain’t nothin’ but a thang”, probably describes it best.

He started laughing and shaking his head.  I think I got the connotation right on that one.

The line was growing shorter and it was almost his turn to board.  I picked up my backpack and got ready to leave. I turned to him, and held out my hand.  He took my hand, shook it, as I said, “Do zvidanya, zhelayoo vam oospehka,-Farewell, I wish you success.  It was probably too formal or stiff of an expression but it seemed to fit and it was all I could come up with. 

I started to walk away and he grabbed my arm gently.  As I turned back towards him he reached all the way around me, pulled me off of my feet into a monstrous, Russian bear hug.  When he let me go, he stepped back, took a deep breath and in heavily accented but perfectly clear English said, “Gahd blyess you!

He turned away and handed his ticket to the gate agent.  I stood there watching and then he waved to me one last time as he entered the jetway.  I waved back for as long as I could and when he finally disappeared I walked away.  I only managed to take about 2 or 3 steps before I burst into tears. 


anita said...

Wow...great story...and you tell it well...made my eyes water! Glad I finally got to check out your blog! Sorry I didn't get to it sooner!

ehowton said...

I can't believe how adept you are at drawing out emotion from your readers - like comedy, its surely in the timing, and a gift you have in abundance.

I'm so glad you started blogging, and enjoy getting to know another side of you.

Thank you. Thank you for the story, and thank you for being you - that is to say, the one who makes the story possible to tell.

Michelle said...

What an awesome tale! It's wonderful to hear about positive human interaction. Kudos to you for speaking another language--and being able to use it.

(Eric's cousin-in-law)

Carmen said...

Great to see those skills getting some use! I have had the opportunity, myself, to use my foreign language skills outside my official duties. I've had several opportunities to translate for Korean kids, brought to the states because of parental employment or education, thrust into the American education system without adequate English skills.

I think just having someone who understands their native tongue gives them a bit more confidence to try out their English skills...

Theresa Ruppert said...

Great story. keep writing. I enjoyed it