Friday, September 19, 2014

Welcome to München Land (Or: My Lost Trip to Prague)

This post is a modified version of a story of mine that was published in the Santa Clara Weekly in December 2006. I'm reposting it here because a friend posted a story of her own today about being accused of being a bomber while she was in St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, and that reminded me of this story about my own misadventure when I was on my way to Prague to sing with the St. Ann Choir in September of 2006.  
After being a prisoner in the Munich (München) airport for 23 hours, I feel qualified to write the definitive guide to that airport as a travel destination.

I wasn’t planning to visit Munich. I was just supposed to be changing planes there on a trip to Prague with the St. Ann choir to sing at a music festival.
We had left San Francisco on Friday, Sept. 14, 2006, and got off the plane at 3 pm Munich time the next day. Although it was early morning for us, some of us went off for a beer (my first introduction to breakfast beer), and as we stood up to leave the bar after the beer, I realized I was missing the little black bag I use for airport necessities. Not only was my passport in that bag, but a credit card, a new cell phone, my license and cash. All gone.

When I told a Lufthansa Customer Service (LCS) clerk, Ruth from Sweden, that my passport was missing, she took my boarding pass (which I released reluctantly) and had my bags removed from the Prague flight.

Ruth tried to reassure me: "We'll send you on the next plane when we find your passport." I told her our first rehearsal was the next day, Saturday, at 10 am. "We'll put you on the 7 am flight. You cannot go to a hotel without your passport. You'll have to sleep here. We'll give you blankets and cushions (pillows)."

The clerk repeatedly called a department she referred to as "Cabin Lost” but the bag never showed up there. It gradually became obvious that the passport was not going to be found. She told me that the only thing that I could do with the copy of the passport I had in my luggage would be to go back to my point of embarkation. Somehow I learned that Octoberfest, which actually starts in September, was going on. There I was in Bavaria, stuck the airport, and with no way to get out and join the fun.

I was, naturally, distressed. Then I remembered that the previous week, I had gotten the sense that God was telling me not to go. I had thought at the time that it would be crazy to back out after I had prepared for months, attended all those rehearsals, studied Czech, and had paid for the trip. So I had prayed that if God didn't want me to go that He should prevent me. My friends’ reaction to this part of story has been to laugh and say, "You've got to be careful what you ask for." 

Chairs like the ones I slept on
After recalling that I had been warned not to go, I was pretty much resigned to my predicament when a border policeman named Walter came to escort me to get the passport copy out of my suitcase. Because the baggage area is officially in Munich, I wouldn't even be allowed in that part of the airport unescorted. Because I was too flustered to grab anything sensible while Walter was watching me go through my luggage, except for a change of socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, I was stuck wearing the same clothes for three days.

Walter reminded me that I should not take anything with me that security wouldn't allow on the plane the next day.

“Oh no, I can't take my makeup.”

“You don't need makeup,” he said gallantly. Obviously, he was a nice guy. As we walked, he told me some things about his life and about his wife and two small children. Walter told me that when Pope Benedict had visted his own hometown of Regensberg in Austria the previous weekend, he too had gone there with his parents and the rest of his family, and he said how elated everyone had been. He brought my bags and me to a ticket counter to get my ticket booked onto a return flight to San Francisco. Before he left, he also told me, "Don't ever lose your smile.

Walter came back later to say goodbye after his shift was over and found me at another LCS desk. The clerks there had left the phone on for me to continue to use when they left at 11 p.m.

As I told Walter, when I called the US Embassy in Berlin and the Munich consulate, they told me that the only way I could get an emergency passport was at the consulate on Monday. The duty officers didn’t explain how I would be able to get to the consulate, since I wasn't allowed to leave the airport. If I hadn’t had the copy of the passport in my bag, I wonder if I would still be stuck there.

I didn’t see anyone all night. The only sign of life was the sound of a floor buffer, buffing away in the distance throughout the night. The next morning I was half-awakened from my sleep on a bench when the big screen TV overhead started a loop of advertisements whose core message was the joy of shopping at the airport.
Upscale Airport Shops
Nearby, a curly headed blonde moppet in green tights tootled randomly on a wooden flute while her mother looked on fondly. 

Ordering Breakfast Beer
At the Weiner Kaffe (Vienna Cafe) restaurant half an hour later, I told the waitress that I was surprised so many people sitting around me were having beer, only beer, for breakfast. "In Germany, this is normal." She had a diamond stud in her nose, and she left a cigarette burning in an ashtray while she rang me up.

I believe natives can always tell the Californians at the German airports. Californians are the ones like me, indignantly hacking and coughing as they walk past the smokers.

After breakfast, I followed the signs to an inter-denominational meditation room and read Morning Prayer in a small chamber dominated by a chunk of barkless tree wedged in between the floor and ceiling.  

Follow the signs and symbols to the nondenominational prayer room
On the floor, a painted compass pointed the direction to Mecca, and as I left, a young Muslim couple with a baby in a stroller came in, unfurled a prayer rug facing Mecca, and began to pray.

Object of meditation
After some souvenir shopping, and a sausage, beer, and potato salad lunch, I boarded the flight back to SFO, for the long uncomfortable flight home. 

On Tuesday, Lufthansa Lost Luggage department called me at my home in San Jose from Munich to tell me that someone had forwarded my lost bag to Prague, but it had come back. They then sent it back to SFO as baggage.  My passport was handed over to the American consulate.

When I called the consulate, an official told me to send the consulate an email describing what had happened, and he would investigate.

I wrote, in part, “Because I couldn't get a temporary passport and continue my trip, I lost not only the money I paid for the travel, I lost the priceless experience of participating in the festival with my choir. All I got for my pains was two uncomfortable 12 hour transatlantic flights, a night's sleep on a bench without a shower or change of clothes, and some marzipan and gingerbread souvenirs I bought for my family at the airport.”

The consulate general wrote me back that the duty officer had actually been correct. The embassy only issues emergency passports during regular business hours. The American consulate’s definition of an emergency is obviously not the same as mine.

After having studied Czech every spare minute for months, the only words I got to use were "Prossim" (Please) and " Dekuji" (Thank you), when leaving messages for the choir director at the Prague hotel. When I asked the fellow choir member who had arranged the trip what Professor Mahrt said when he heard that one of the altos had been left behind, he told me. "Oops."

When I later told my friend Regina 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!"

I had made a poster for the choir, which had been translated into Czech with the names of all the churches and all the polyphonic Masses they would be singing during the week of the music festival. The choir director told me later that the Masses had been well attended, that the last Mass had standing room only crowds, and that he gives the poster credit for the high attendance. Everywhere the choir went they had seen copies of the poster, which festival promoters had plastered all over the city. So my poster got to go to Prague without me too.

I met the choir at SFO upon their return. A few of the women had sympathetically bought me little souvenirs. The choir director did not say a word. As it turned out, it seems that someone had found my passport in the airplane we took from SFO and had handed it to someone in the flight crew on the connecting plane. As the choir left the plane when they got to Prague someone on the crew was calling my name and holding a passport. Just think, if the passport had stayed in the Munich airport, I might have been able to get it back and take the next plane to join the choir.  And I sometimes wonder if I would have been able to board the connecting plane without anyone asking for my passport if  I hadn't opened my big mouth. As it was, it appears the Lord had other plans for me. 

On a more humorous note, every time I told anyone in the Munich airport about my dilemma, that person invariably said, in Bavarian-accented English, "Chust like the movie Terminal!" In case the reference escapes you, that's the movie in which the Tom Hanks character was stuck in an airport for months.

I had seen the movie but had forgotten most of it, so I rented it on the way home from the airport and viewed it again when I got home. 

Yup, it is possible to be stuck in international transit area of an airport facing the possibility that you may never again get to leave. Life imitates fiction. A bit of a cliche but true.

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