Jan. 12, 2016: Atlanta to D.C. to Reykjavik
“Let’s go to Europe!” Kimberly said one day out of the blue.
And now, a mere three weeks later, we’re soaring into the blue on a Frontier Airlines airbus that will take us to Washington, D.C., where we’ll catch an IcelandAir flight to Reykjavik, and then another IcelandAir to Paris. That will be the first of 11 major cities in 6 countries that we will explore in the coming month. It will be my first time to Europe ever. Kimberly went 30 years ago when she and a few other teens were shepherded around a few select sites on a church-sponsored jaunt. So for all practical purposes, this is her first time too.
We had a narrow window of opportunity to make the arrangements for this spontaneous trek, so we had to work quickly. One day we decided that Europe lay somewhere on our upcoming route between South Carolina and Arkansas; the next day, we had our flights booked. In the interim, we did a lot of research to find the best possible deal. (We learned that ideally, we should have booked about 150 days in advance of departure; we didn’t have that luxury.)
For one thing, we had to narrow down our point of departure and our point of landing. The best deal would have been Houston to Istanbul; and the latter is the one city in the galaxy that I’d most like to visit. Unfortunately, we couldn’t include it on the itinerary this time because it was so far removed from all of our other planned destinations, which made it impractical for us to include it on our train routes. And we decided that Houston was too far out of the way as a departure point. So we ultimately settled on Atlanta to Paris.
With some tight connections slated on both planes and trains, and a great deal of shoe-leather express travel ahead of us as well, we knew we had to travel light. So we carry no bags. Instead, everything is stuffed into what we call our backjacks. Don’t bother looking for it at REI or Wal-Mart. It’s Kimberly’s invention, which she worked furiously (sometimes literally so) designing and sewing during those 3 weeks.
We also had to think carefully, of course, about what we put into them. Here’s a partial, but nearly complete, packing list for me:
Teabags (the day doesn’t officially begin until I’ve had my tea)
Collapsible bowls (watertight and they unfold very flat; clever Japanese invention – a sort of kitchen origami)
Collapsible mug, microwaveable
Sporks (fork on one end, spoon on the other; durable plastic)
Passports and Eurail pass (carried in waist pouches)
Sunscreen (One bout of skin cancer was enough. Hard to find travel size that is also decent stuff)
Dietary supplements (not my customary arsenal, but a selection packed in small plastic envelopes designed to replace pill boxes)
Emergency dental repair and painkiller (I’ve had too many dental emergencies not to be prepared for another one.)
Reading glasses, including a spare pair
Sun hat (lightweight, compact)
Notebook and pens (I prefer to take notes like these in Stone Age fashion)
Electronic devices (phone for K, iPad for me – so we can stay in touch with folks back home; mine also contains reading material and info for a script I hope to work on.)
Disposable ponchos (Who wants to lug around an umbrella?)
Camping towels (fit inside our hoods)
Gloves and ski hats
Change of clothing, 2 changes of socks and underwear
Small, Kimberly-made blankets
Sleeping mask and earplugs (quite essential for me)
Hand sanitizer and hand wipes, travel size
Inflatable travel pillow (didn’t work)
Disposable razors (Yes, you can take them on the plane – just not the regular kind)
Other toiletries (in regulation 3.4 or fewer ounce bottles, all in a quart zip-lock bag)
Kimberly’s list, of course was a bit different. She doesn’t drink tea, so that saved her about half an ounce of weight. But she also carried a small surge protector so we could plug in more than one device at once. She also brought an electrical adapter, since outlets in Europe are different from those in the U.S., having round holes for round prongs. This is a lesson we learned on our trip to Japan.
She also made two small backpack-type bags we can use if needed. Being unable to make anything without adding a unique creative flair, she fashioned mine of snake-pattern cloth and added a tongue, and hers of zebra-pattern cloth and added eyes and a nose. They’re especially useful for carrying food, since we want to avoid eating out, and above all to avoid the overpriced horrors of airline cuisine. We have them filled with fruit and nuts, bread, hummus, cheese, nutritional bars, hard-boiled eggs [an entire dozen, which Kimberly will get terribly tired of before they’re gone] and a couple of tasty-looking vegetarian burritos we microwaved before leaving.
We are, by the way, fulltime RVers; so we stashed our RV and trailer in a storage place not far from the Atlanta airport. It was difficult to find such a place, especially since most storage facilities don’t have enough room to accommodate both vehicles. But we finally found this one, in the suburb of Riverdale, and it’s very reasonably priced and well reviewed. From there, it was a short bus and train ride to the airport.
It’s only about an hour and a half trip to Dulles Airport in Washington. Once there, we have about 3 hours before the plane to Reykjavik. That gives us plenty of time to find a place to sit by an outlet to charge our devices, and to do some yoga. (Doesn’t everyone do that in an airport?) And after I’ve scouted it out, Kimberly goes to a gift shop to buy earphones, which she’s apparently left behind.
At one point we realize we’re getting hungry, and decide that the burritos would really hit the spot. I reach into my bag for them. But they’re not there. Kimberly reaches into her bag for them. But they’re not there. We search all the nooks and crannies of our gear for them. And they’re not there. With mounting horror, we realize that we left them behind to keep the earphones company. With any luck, I left them in the microwave rather than on the table. With any luck, the weather in Atlanta will stay crisp enough that it will be not much worse than leaving them in a refrigerator.
But we have visions of returning to find our RV overrun with cockroaches, rats and who knows what. I did take precautions, sprinkling the ground underneath with mothballs, which are supposed to deter rodents. So are Bounce sheets, which I scattered liberally throughout the RV and in the trailer, and even placed under the hood – those little buggers love to chew the insulation on wires, which can have some serious consequences. I sprayed generously with diluted oil of peppermint and lemon, both of which are supposed to discourage bugs. But still, it might not be enough. [Throughout the trip, those burritos will be a running gag. And every now and then, we’ll both wonder at their current state of putrefaction, and what they’ll ultimately look like when we get back. Nothing like having something to look forward to.]
Not to worry, we’re supposed to have a meal provided on the plane. Aren’t we? That was our understanding. We even selected a vegetarian preference when we made our booking. But with the fate of the universe hanging in the balance, I want to be sure. So I ask a boarding agent if meals are going to be provided on this flight. “Yes”, she says, “for purchase”.
Yikes. Now we’re between a rock and a hungry place. I recall that there’s a Qdoba down the concourse, and it didn’t seem very far when I walked down before. So with nearly an hour until departure, I figure I have enough time to stroll down there briskly, grab a couple of replacement burritos, and stroll briskly back up.
So I head down and soon realize that Qdoba is rather farther than I remembered. And there’s probably no way I can complete my mission within a safe time frame. So I look around for alternatives, and see that there is a restaurant with wraps on the menu, some of which are vegetarian. So I start to get in line, but realize that there is indeed a line, and the server is very very verrrrrrrryyyy slooooowww.
Resolved to return empty-handed, I stroll even more briskly back toward the gate. And then I hear my name called on the P.A., inserted into an announcement that I should come to the gate at once because the plane has been boarding, and the door will close in 10 minutes and will not be reopened for latecomers, dammit.
At this point I forget about strolling and break into a sprint as hearty as O.J. (that’s a reference to his TV commercial, not his evasion of police). Fortunately, it’s only a short distance back to the gate, and I arrive in plenty of time to find a nervous spouse waiting there with my things ready to hand to me. So, breathless and sweaty, I hustle onto the plane, still sans grub.
It’s still nearly an hour before we take off, behind schedule. One reason is that it’s been cold and snowy in DC – we’d watched the huge flakes of snow whooshing by outside the terminal window – and so the wings have to be de-iced. This makes us rather nervous about making the connection in Reykjavik, which already was quite tight. But since it’s the same airline, we figure there’s a good chance they’ll make sure the connections connect.
This still leaves us the problem of filling our growling bellies. By this time, Kimberly has just about sworn off boiled eggs forever. When the flight attendant comes by taking orders for food, I bite the bullet (neither tasty nor filling) and ask her what they have for vegetarians. She says that really the only thing is a salad, and it comes with chicken, but since the chicken is added separately, they can just leave it off. (Somehow this reminds me of a comedian’s line: “I ordered a chicken and an egg to see which one would come first.”) She assures me that the salads are quite hearty and tasty, as they come from an acclaimed restaurant in Reykjavik, and are not at all like most airline salads, which she acknowledges are “rather shitty”. With her Icelandic accent, the phrase actually sounds quite musical.
So I order a couple of them. She’s quite right about their quality – they’re really excellent. But they’re rather small, especially for the price. I have to pay by credit card, and the price on the receipt is stated in Icelandic currency, totaling 39 of Iceland’s monetary unit. I figure an Icelandic thingamajig surely must be less than an American dollar. [I was right, but not by much. The bill came to 33 dollars for two tiny salads.] Moral of the story: don’t leave your burritos behind.
After a fight of nearly 6 hours, in which I’m unable to catch more than a couple of winks, we land in Reykjavik at about 7:00 a.m. local time, which is about 2:00 a.m. burrito time – I mean Atlanta time. The plane disgorges its passengers onto the ground rather than into a skyway, so we actually get to set foot onto Iceland’s soil, which is to say ice, even if just briefly.
Inside the terminal, we go through a passport checkpoint, about which we have a little apprehension. Our passports expire in August, which you might assume would allow us plenty of time. But the regulations, we recently discovered, are a bit tricky and even murky. The nations we’re visiting, including Iceland, are among the 26 countries party to the Schengen agreement, which simplifies traveling between countries. You show your passport upon arrival in the Schengen Area, then you don’t have to show it again when moving between Schengen countries.
All well and good. However, these countries require that you have at least 3 months remaining on your passport after the date you leave the Schengen Area to come back home. Also not a problem for us. But a few days ago, Kimberly read on one official website that France requires that you also have 6 months remaining from the time of your arrival in France. And we would fail to meet this requirement by 4 days. We had visions of landing in Paris, only to be sent back home, or stranded at the airport a la Tom Hanks, all because of FOUR MEASLY DAYS.
I emailed the American Embassy in Paris to ask about this, and I received a prompt reply to the effect that it “shouldn’t be a problem”. But the “shouldn’t” part didn’t entirely put my mind at ease. So I also called the French Consulate in Atlanta, and the person I spoke to there told me pretty much the same thing, and seemed to get a bit annoyed when I pressed him for more definite confirmation.
“Sir, if you’re really concerned about it, why don’t you just renew your passport?” he asked.
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid”, I replied. “Last-minute renewal is expensive.”
I wasn’t just guessing about that. I’d already checked into it. The only way to be absolutely assured that we would get our new passports on time would be to go through a third party service that would expedite the process for a fee of about 500 bucks. Moral of the story: check requirements for passport and visa (which we didn’t need in our case) before you go. While France’s 6-month “rule” seems to be more of a recommendation than a rule, Russia apparently enforces it with a Stalinesque fist.
Ultimately, we decided that the risk of running into documentation problems was too small to worry about. So now here we are in Iceland, and sure enough the official takes merely a glance at our papers before stamping them and waving us through. Since this is our entry point to the Schengen Area, we figure our passports probably won’t even be checked again in France. We breathe a sigh of relief.
Then we board our next plane; and even though we’re considerably behind schedule at this point, we still have to wait in line for quite a while to get into the boarding area. On this plane, I again watch the safety video, which is surely the coolest and cleverest ever devised – it actually makes passengers want to pay attention. Illustrations of the airplane and its safety features are superimposed over a clip of a young couple exploring the great outdoors, and their movements coincide with the actions suggested by the narrator. For example, when the waterslide is mentioned, the woman jumps off a boulder into a beautiful pool fed by a waterfall, and an image of the slide is superimposed over her path into the water. I look forward to watching this again on the return trip.
Then I settle in for a three-hour flight, most of which I mercifully doze through
Next stop: Pareeeeee!!!