Thursday, September 21, 2006

My trip to Prague: Terminated at the Munich terminal

One version of the story of my trip to Prague could be called Terminal II: Munich. Or maybe Terminated at Munich.

The St. Ann choir was on its way to Prague to the St. Wenceslaus (Vaclav) International Music Festival. About 10 of us choir members flew together that night, leaving San Francisco airport (SFO) at around 10 p.m. on Sept. 14. We got off the plane at around 6 pm München time the next day, about an hour after the flight attendants had fed us breakfast. Some of us went off for a beer (my first introduction to breakfast beer), and then we stood up to leave the bar I started gathering my stuff. Our director Professor Mahrt had already walked ahead with a few of the other altos, but Erick and Stewart, bass and tenor, were with me when I realized I didn't have my passport.

One version of the story of my trip to Prague could be called Terminal II: Munich. Or maybe "Terminated at Munich." Octoberfest was going on in the city while I was detained in the airport for 16 hours, but because I lost my passport I couldn't go forward to Prague, backward to San Jose, or out the doors to enjoy the Octoberfest festivities. (One of the bits of German trivia I learned was that Octoberfest actually starts mid Sept. and ends the first weekend in October.)

I can't recall whether I saw my little black bag I used for "airport necessities" after I left a post-security Sushi restaurant called Tomokaz at SFO and went to the boarding gate on Thursday Sept. 14 around 9 p.m. for the flight from San Francisco to Munich.

After I realized my bag was gone, Erick and Stewart stayed with me at Lufthansa Customer Service (LCS ) counter until they were in danger of missing the flight too. That meant a lot to me. But I didn't have to go through it alone even after Stewart and Erick left. The Customer Service employees and even a Border policeman were kind and took care of me in lots of little ways.

When I told the clerks that my passport was missing, a blonde clerk, Ruth from Scandanavia, took my boarding pass (which I released relunctantly) and arranged to get my bags taken off the Prague flight. They reassured me: "We'll send you on the next plane when we find your passport. " I told them we were supposed to sing the next day, Saturday. What time? The rehearsal is at 10 a.m. "We'll put you on the 7 a.m. flight. We'll give you blankets and cushions (pillows). You'll have to sleep here. You cannot go to a hotel here without your passport."

Not only my passport, but a credit card, a new expensive Razr cell phone, my driver's license and $40 were together in that missing bag.

While we were flying to Munich, some of my stuff had rolled out of my backpack under my seat and drifted out of my row. Someone found my electrical adapter in the row behind where I was sitting, and someone else unceremoniously threw one of my shoes over the back of my chair when we were disembarking while I was wondering what happened to the shoe. If I still had the bag when I got on the plane, the bag could have migrated back behind my row also.

I had planned to write some articles about the trip. I had sold one article idea already to the National Catholic Register; the editor said I could write about one of the churches, and I planned to write about Carmelite Monastery where the Infant of Prague statue resides. But now, of course, I cannot write about Prague at all.

After being a virtual prisoner in the airport for 16 hours, I feel qualified to write a definitive article about Munich (Munchen) airport as a travel destination.

Back to the terminal: LCS told me that nobody could go back on the plane I had just left to look for the bag because it had been over an hour since we had landed. They started calling the only number they had for lost items, a department they referred to as "Cabin Lost."

I've got to tell you an odd thing I realized after one of the Customer Service employees told me that without a passport I couldn't go anywhere and that the only thing that could be done with the copy of the passport I had in my luggage would be to send me home. If I didn't have that copy of my passport in my luggage, they told me I would have had to sleep in the airport from Friday until Monday when the American consulate would open again. I was, naturally, unhappy, at the news. Then I prayed Daytime Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours while they continued trying to figure out what to do with me, and I remembered this:

Last week, I had started to have a feeling II shouldn't go on the trip. I told God that if He didn't want me to go that He should prevent me.

A lot of people's reaction to that kind of story, is "You've got to be careful what you ask for."

The next morning after the choir went on to Prague without me, while I was eating breakfast after sleeping across a set of waiting area seats, I told the waitress that I was surprised so many people at the Weiner Kaffee restaurant were having beer, only beer, for breakfast . "In Germany, this is normal."

Did you know that the German name for Munich is München, derived from Munichen, named after a settlement of Benedictine monks next to which the village was built? Munchen is in Bavaria where the Pope is from. I wonder if that Benedictine monastery has anything to do with the Pope's choice of Benedict for his papal name.

More trivia: The coat of arms of the city has a little monk on it. The monk is called the "little child of Munchen." This name Münchner Kindl might be the source of the name for the Munchkins. 

The Bavarian people are veru nice. At least the ones that work at the airport.

A border policeman had to escort me out of the transit area to the baggage area to get the copy of my passport out of my luggage, because I couldn't go into Munich unescorted and when you are in the baggage area you are in Munich. I didn't have my wits about me enough to grab anything except a change of socks and my toothbrush and some toothpaste. So I wore the same clothes for three days.

The guard reminded me that I should not take anything out of my luggage that the security people wouldn't allow me to bring on the plane the next day. Oh no, I can't take my makeup. You don't need makeup,, he said gallantly.. He was a wonderful guy, told me some things about his life and about his two small children. He also told me I should never lose my smile. I told him about how I remembered that I had a feeling I shouldn't go and what I had prayed. He didn't say anything then, but before he shook my hand and left me in the almost empty airport after about an hour, he told me he is from the area that the Pope is from. 250,000 people were there. to see him. "I was one of them." he said proudly. It gave me chills to stand there in the airport so far away from home and find another Catholic who loves the Pope like I do, one with a good heart, in a Border policeman's uniform.

He came back later after his shift was over when I was at another Customer Service desk. The clerks let me use the phone to call the choir in Prague, and they left a phone on for me to use when they left at 11 p.m. The guard was dressed in his jacket and said he would be falling asleep during his hour-long commute home, but that luckily someone else was driving. The customer service people told me they'd give me blankets and "cushions" (that is pillows), and they did, and they left me a big bottle of water and cup. I called the US Embassy in Berlin and the Munich consolate general and both places told me that the only way I could get an emergency passport would be to get to the consolate on Monday, but neither person had any suggestions about how I could get there since the Border police wouldn't let me out of the airport without the passport.

On Tuesday, Lufthansa Lost Luggage department called me from Munich to tell me that my bag was found. Someone had forwarded it to Prague, but it had come back. They sent it back as baggage to SFO and I'll pick it up tomorrow when I go to meet the choir coming back on the plane. I am very happy I don't have to replace my cell phone and driver's license that I had in the bag. I already cancelled the credit card. They had to hand my passport over to the American consulate.. When I called the consulate to find out what they would do with the passport, the official told me that the duty officer at the consulate should have been able to get me an emergency passport that night. What happened to me was a combination of mixups and bad information. He asked me to write down my experiences and that he would look into why the duty officer didn't help me when i called.

From Prague, Susan Weinstein sent me email to say that the poster I did announcing where our choir was singing was up all around Prague. So at least I was there in spirit.

I have to say that my impression of Bavarians is very good from the kindness with which I was treated. But I do wish the outcome could have been different.

I had been studying Czech every spare minute for a couple of months, but the only words I got to use were "Prossim" (Please) and "Dekuji" (Thank you), when leaving a message for the choir director in the hotel in Prague from the LCS counter in Munich.

Every time I explained my fix to the Lufthansa Customer Service people, the clerks kept saying "Like the movie Terminal!" I had seen the movie before, but had forgotten everything except the premise and the names of the stars, so I rented it on the way home from the airport. Yes it is possible to be stuck in international transit area of an airport and to be facing the possibility that you may never get to leave. Life emulates fiction once again, as I know again from personal experience.

When I told Regina, Dave Dittmann's wife, that my bag had gone to Prague, I said, "I wonder if it sang while it was there." She said, "Yes it did" and what it sang was "Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah! I got to go to Prague but you didn't!" :-)

On Sep 16, 2006, at 9:46 PM, susan weisberg wrote from an Internet connection in Prague (I presume):

My dear Roseanne:
I am so so sorry about your sudden and unexpected departure. All of us are extremely disappointed about what happened and I was so looking forward to getting to know you better during this tour! Believe me-- you are missed. Hope that you got home safe and sound and that you have recovered your passport. Immigration can be so mean. My daughter was deported from London 5 years ago and she still has a few remnants of PTSD from that experience. Of course, it was a complete
misunderstanding,but these border people are completely inflexible. Anyhow take good care, and see you when we return.
Again, thinking of you Susan
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