Monday, December 24, 2007

L'viv Epilogue

Erik is not superstitious, but he cannot help but wonder if the confident proclamation in the last entry about the "end of an adventure" invoked some kind of karmic retribution that propelled him along 68 1/2 hour journey home. Indeed, the L'viv adventure continued for three more days.

On Friday morning, Viktor and Volodymyr took Erik to the airport early, through the quiet, dark, fog-covered streets of L'viv. The fog did not set off red flags in Erik's mind, but should have been a warning of trouble ahead. Since the L'viv airport is little more than a small building with three "terminals" and a long strip of bumpy concrete, it is not properly equipped to handle landings in dense fog. Flights could depart from L'viv, but nothing could land. Erik's flight originated in Kyiv and stopped in L'viv for passengers en route to Frankfurt. The L'viv-Frankfurt leg was canceled, leaving him two options according to Ukraine International employees: stay in L'viv until Tuesday when the next flight to Frankfurt would depart, or go to Kyiv and take the flight to Frankfurt today. He opted for the latter.

After retrieving his bags and making his way from the domestic to international terminal in Kyiv's Boryspil airport, he stood in line to check in. The agent told him that he would have to go to the Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) ticket office to discuss options as he would miss all of his connections.

The UIA ticket office was a small booth with thick glass separating passengers from the representatives, akin to banks in Erik's hometown of Flint. A small slot allowed the passenger to pass documents and money to the representatives, and a microphone that the representatives controlled dictated who could speak and be heard. Three young women worked in the booth, primarily selling tickets for UIA flights. After working for several minutes on his case - long enough for the Frankfurt flight to depart without him - Erik was told that there were no options today. He would have to spend the night in the airport hotel and fly on Saturday.

After finding his luggage, which was still with the gate agent, and receiving instructions on how to proceed with the hotel, he moved on with two suitcases, a rolling bag, and backpack in tow. The promised shuttle bus was nowhere to be seen, and he did not know where it stopped, so he walked - a quarter to a half mile - with all his bags in hand. On his way, he was splashed with mud by a passing car, coating his pants with street grime.

Erik checked in to the Boryspil Hotel, a reasonably refurbished old Soviet building, and went to lunch at the Olga Restaurant. He had been given two coupons for each meal, which were incorrectly labeled for the next day. True to form, the restaurant manager refused to take his coupons because they were not for that day. Moreover, she suspected him of some chicanery because he had two meal tickets. Erik thought that each ticket was for a particular sum of money - say 10 grivnyas - and he was given two so that he would have no out of pocket costs. Instead, each ticket provided a complete meal. Erik explained that the ticket was simply mislabeled. After a call to UIA, and a hushed conversation in which the assistant manager explained that they could get compensated for two meals but provide only one, the manager invited him to sit down. Erik would normally not collaborate on such a plan to defraud UIA of a couple of meals. But, at this point, he wanted to eat, so he handed over both meal tickets and signed off on the receipt for two meals. He was served hot dishes - borshch, fish with potatoes - that were reasonably satisfying. Since the hotel and restaurant are the only signs of civilization around, save the airport, he went to his room, emerging only to eat dinner later at the Olga.

Early in the morning, he headed out to the airport. Once again, he missed the shuttle. Other unfortunate hotel patrons had not walked with their bags in hand like Erik, instead absconding with airport carts that they abandoned in the lobby. He grabbed one, loaded up his things, and headed off to the airport. He checked in, had his passport stamped, passed through security, and settled in for the trip home.

Then came the announcement: "We are sorry for the inconvenience, but the flight to Frankfurt has been delayed." And the second announcement: "Will Frankfurt passenger Herron please come to the information desk." Passing back through security, he went to the Information Desk. An airport representative met him and explained that due to the delay, he had been re-booked on a flight to London. She went off to retrieve his bags and have them moved to the other plane. Upon her return 15 minutes later, she had a sour look on her face. "I am so sorry," she said, but she reported that Erik had been removed from the London flight and would have to spend the night in Kyiv. Erik explained that this was unacceptable as he had already spent the night in Kyiv. She was sympathetic, but had no control over the matter. She escorted him back through passport control to the UIA booth.

Two of the young women recognized him from the day before, but his demeanor had changed. Whereas he was patient and deferential on Friday, he was irate and determined on Saturday. His opening salvo, in Russian, was: "The option where you tell me that I must spend another night in the Boryspil hotel is unacceptable. You will get me on another flight today. Yesterday I had patience. Today I have no patience." The young women were flummoxed, as putting him in the hotel was the only option they considered. "And what happens when there are delays tomorrow," Erik asked, "will you make me stay here yet again?" Several calls to have the manager come down received a cool response - the manager would not come to speak with Erik. He would just have to stay in Kyiv. While the manager was being paged - three calls over the course of 15 minutes - Erik paced in front of the windows of the booth, casting increasingly angry glances inward. One of the mics was on during the third call, and he heard both sides of the conversation: the frustrated employee begging her manager to deal with him. At the same time he heard a boarding call - for a Delta flight to New York.

At this point, a slight digression is necessary. While the Ukrainian educational system has traditionally excelled at producing strong outcomes in math and science, creative problem solving and creative thinking have been lacking. Linear approaches to problems dominate the thought process. In Erik's case, it goes something like this: he can't make his connections, so we put him on the same ones tomorrow. No effort was expended on finding other routes to get him home, so he forced the issue.

Erik went up to the window and said politely: "I understand that your manager will not come to see me. I know that this is not your fault. But, we must find an alternative. I just heard an announcement for the Delta flight to New York. I am supposed to connect with Delta to go to the US - please just get me on that flight." The young woman fiddled with the computer and then passed Erik's case on to another representative who - after spending 10 minutes with another customer - turned to his case. She could get him on the flight, she explained, but he could not connect to Kansas City until Sunday. "Fine," Erik replied, "I will be closer to home." "But, what will you do in New York?" she asked. Erik had two options: contact his sister who lives on Long Island and hope that she could host him for a night, or sleep on the floor of JFK airport. Both options were infinitely better than remaining in Boryspil another day.

At this point, one of the UIA employees began to philosophize: "Maybe you are meant to stay in Kyiv. Maybe there is something you must do here still." Erik's reply: "I have been here almost five months; there is nothing left to do. Maybe I am just meant to be on the New York flight."

With strange handwritten documents in hand, Erik went to check in (after a brief stop in an Internet cafe to warn Lea and others in the US of the new change to his itinerary). The Delta agent couldn't find him in the computer. The manager was called. Minutes passed and Erik was increasingly nervous. He was taken back to the UIA ticket office, where the representative confirmed that yes - he was on the Delta flight. After some apologies from Delta for the mix up, he checked in, again went through passport control, and hoped that he would make this flight. He did.

Erik had a nice conversation with a seat-mate who works for an HIV prevention agency in the US that has offices in Kyiv and Moscow, and actually enjoyed the 10+ hour flight. Mark, his seat-mate, let Erik use his cellphone to call Lea and confirm that everything was okay upon arrival in New York. Erik's sister Kristin and her husband Scott saved the day, arranging to pick him up and have him stay overnight in their home. Erik enjoyed a relaxing evening with his niece and nephew, and headed out the next morning to the airport. Kristin and Scott again deserve Erik's eternal thanks as they dropped everything to take care of him.

After a few minor flight delays, and a stop in Cincinnati (ironically to board the same flight he would have been on had he stayed in Kyiv and made all his connections), Erik made it to Kansas City. With the drive home, the saga ended after three days.

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