I was really looking forward to my first trip to Japan this Spring. First time for hubby and me, and the trip was a surprise gift for him, as he has studied martial arts since the age of 14 and shiatsu massage for the past 10 years. And it was going to be two weeks just the two of us, a parent’s wet dream 🙂
So the Brussels attacks came at a bad timing – but don’t they always? I even consider myself lucky to be alive, since the metro station which blew up, Maalbeek, is the one I take every morning to go to work. With the airport shut for at least a week, and no clear news from airlines who wouldn’t even pick up the phone, our trip looked pretty compromised, especially in the light of the fact that we first had to get the kids to their grandparents in the South of France and then ourselves onto a plane to Milan and from there to Tokyo.
Being helpful doesn’t help
My first thought was that it would work out fine. We would drive or take the train to Paris, where we have family, and from there grandparents could come and pick the kids up while we waited for a flight to Milan. It all sounded perfect, except… except for the STUPID rules of airlines and travel agencies which state that if you haven’t taken the first leg of a plane trip, the whole trip is considered invalid.
So, basically if your departure airport is blown up by terrorists, and you take the trouble to find another ticket to join your first leg of the journey, well, your ticket (including the return ticket!) isn’t worth anything anymore. Yep, you read that correctly. We discovered this after finally being able to get someone on the phone from the airline we were flying with to Japan at around 9pm last Thursday. We learned that unless we were the next morning at 7am at Liège airport, the substitute airport for Brussels, our whole trip to Japan was basically cancelled because our flight would be invalid.
By that time, however, the last train to Brussels had departed from Paris, and we were stuck in Paris as we had come by train. I would like to add at this stage that of course, all these additional expenses aren’t covered by the airlines, and I can only imagine what the situation meant for people who had to travel at that time but couldn’t afford buying new tickets. Luckily, we found a car sharing system which helped us get back to Brussels in the middle of the night. It was our first Blabla car experience, and we loved it! We spent 4 hours chatting about the terrorist attacks with two Algerian guys, the driver studying in Brussels and the passenger working as a florist who had just spent the last 2 days trying to get back to Brussels from Tanger in Algeria (via Barcelona, Madrid and Paris…).
It was a fascinating night and one we would have never experienced without our unfortunate situation. We safely arrived home in Brussels at around 3am.
When things look desperate, think about the worst case scenario
2 hours of sleep later we hopped on a taxi (most expensive taxi I have ever taken in my entire life) that took us to Liege airport. We weren’t alone there!
There was a line from one side of the airport to the other side, full of people trying to check into their flight. Ours, to our great surprise, wasn’t even announced on the boards, although later flights were. We rush to a counter to tell them, and their answer is: oh well, Alitalia and the airport had a row and we think the flight is cancelled. Seriously?!? That’s when meditating really helps, because at this stage I was all like “you know what, I really couldn’t give a damn” but the reality was that I was more exhausted than zen and ready to give up on our trip to Japan.
My husband went to the Alitalia counter and there a really nice and professional guy helped us out. He really appreciated our calm and relaxed manners, so became our best buddy for the next couple of hours. He got us on the next flight to Rome and there on the next flight to Tokyo. Our connection was tight but still possible. We were smiling again 🙂 The emotional roller coaster was far from over as we soon discovered. After we checked in and passed security, we went to our gate where we saw that our flight wasn’t on the board – again!
By this stage, we were again feeling like “I frankly couldn’t care less” so we just sat there and waited. I started thinking about refugees and their journey from the Middle East through Turkey to Greece, Macedonia, and so on. So much uncertainty, so much stress, so much cold, so much hunger. I felt tears come to my eyes and at the same time, I remembered how lucky I was: if I was hungry, I could get a snack; if it turned out badly, I would just go back home; my kids, instead of being dumped in some refugee camp, were safely enjoying their holiday with their grandparents. I realised – again and again during this horrible week – how blessed I was to be with the person I love the most and to be safe, wherever I was.
After a 5 hours wait, we finally boarded the plane. Everyone was cheering and clapping their hands, it seemed so unexpected. The flight was delayed of course, and so we missed our connection, which meant that we had to spend 24 hours in Rome since there is only one flight to Tokyo per day. We were rushed into the next Marriott and had a wonderful time – we mostly slept and paid Rome, probably my favourite city in Europe, a short visit the next morning. After a scrumptious gelato, I was ready for everything, even to hear that our flight to Tokyo was cancelled, for whatever reason.
To my surprise it didn’t happen. We were so used by now to shit happening that “normal” looked a bit eery and suspicious to us. But everything went fine and the journey to Tokyo was long (I just can’t fall asleep sitting, unlike all the Japanese around me) and absolutely stunning, thanks mostly to the incredible landscapes I witnessed through the window, from Lake Baikal to the Eastern shores of Siberia.
I have never been to this area of the world, and the view really felt humbling. I would never survive in this place and these territories were still mostly inhabited and filled with wolves, endless stretches of taiga and mighty and tortuous rivers with such incredible names such as Love, Amgoun and Zeïa.
We arrived in Tokyo around lunchtime and rushed to our first train experience after having picked up our Japan Rail Pass, a pass that lets you travel on a lot of trains across the country. The ride to our apartment near Shinjuku, a lively district of Tokyo full of shops and restaurants, went smoothly despite the stress of trying to make sense of the complicated transportation system – several train and metro companies with different ticketing systems, but we made it in the end to our apartment in a super quiet and cute neighbourhood.
And our adventures in Japan began… at last.