Abrasions During our Family Travels: Abrasion 1, Rome, December 2016

It’s practically tragic to love both bargains and business class. They don’t usually go hand in hand, but I do my best to forge their friendship. Hence the tickets I cobbled together for our first trip to Europe as a family of five. I’ve always felt like it’s better to split up long flights, especially with a child, because it gives parents a reasonably timed end to look forward to. You know you don’t have an eleven-hour flight to Amsterdam ahead; you can relax a little when your child wakes up over the Atlantic, knowing you’ll be cradled in the arms of Heathrow soon enough. So I was pretty gung-ho to buy tickets from Houston to Newark on United, then on British Airways from Newark to London and London to Rome. The only catch with an airline-switching plan like this: you have to collect your bags from one airline and recheck them with the other. With our arrangement, we’d also need to change terminals—with about 9 bags and a baby in tow. Much to our dismay, only 7 of those bags showed up in Newark. We were missing the bag holding Josephine’s car seat, where we’d also stuffed our heavy coats, and the bag filled with Josephine’s clothing – all of it. And to really complicate things, we would be boarding a different airline to Europe; why would United need to ship our things all the way to Rome when, to their knowledge, our journey ended in Newark?

As our plane lifted off for London, I was on the phone with United, lodging a complaint and praying they’d mercifully forward our gear to us. I called that same number every day for the next five days, between trips to boutiques in Rome to buy Josephine some substitute threads and search for new jackets for Jamil and me, just in case our bags never showed up. United promised the bags were on their way, having clambered aboard a Lufthansa flight to Munich, the baggage-locator-lady said. But then, crickets. When would the bags make it to Rome, I asked? Crickets. Was there a record number we could use to track their current location? Crickets. Then, on New Year’s Eve, the phone rang. One of our bags was at the Rome airport in the Alitalia storage area. Alitalia? Who knows.

Anyway, at about 4pm, my dad and I trekked out to Terminal 1, where we had a most unpleasant interaction with an Alitalia representative, who argued that it made no sense for our international, United-transported bags to be in the storage closet the United representative had indicated. Boasting that she’d worked in this industry for 27 years and never seen such a thing, she predicted that my bag wasn’t there. My dad bristled, tersely informing her that he’d worked in customs law for 50 years but would still never presume to claim such omniscience. Needless to say, the walk to the storage closet was tense, but when the Alitalia signora threw open the door, a giant smile spread across my face. There it was: shiny, black, and mine. My dad and I battered the lady with “I told you so” in probably fifty different permutations as we wheeled our treasure back to the taxi stand. What a relief.

Back at the hotel, I bounced up to our room, feeling more optimistic than I had in days, and knocked loudly on the door. Seconds later, Jamil cracked the door, took one look at me, looked at the bag, and said, “Whose bag is that?”  … “Um, it’s ours!” I exclaimed.  “No, it isn’t.”  And the next thing I knew, he was calling United to tell them that we had one Mr. Yamaguchi’s suitcase. 

Okay, so this is where things really got interesting for us.

The United people’s reaction defied our expectations. They’re usually cavalier, totally unconcerned. But that day, we learned that there’s liability attached to allowing one passenger to leave with another’s bag. The United rep went into full panic mode, demanding that Jamil return Mr. Yamaguchi’s suitcase immediately. United would send someone to collect it right away if we couldn’t make it back to the airport. Sensing that he finally had someone’s attention, Jamil said, “No. We will not release the Yamaguchi bag until United produces our two bags.” And with that, he said his goodbyes. I kid you not, ten minutes later, the phone buzzed to life, and a voice on the other end told us that our bags were at the Rome airport and we just had to go get them.

It was 7pm on New Year’s Eve in Rome. The streets were pitch-black; the city had shut off the streetlights in preparation for fireworks and revelry. The taxi stand, normally lined with eager cabbies, sat completely empty. Our prospects looked grim. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere glowed the green light of a free taxi. Jumping and waving in the middle of the street, we flagged it down and jumped in, asking the driver to put the pedal to the metal. He took me at my word. We practically soared to the airport, and when we arrived, we asked if he’d wait and go just as quickly back to Rome, so we could make it to our New Year’s Eve dinner. I won’t bore you with the details of going backwards through customs at baggage claim or of finding our bags sitting casually outside the Lufthansa office, just waiting to be collected. Instead, I’ll take you back outside the terminal as we exited, only to find a crowd of recently arrived passengers mobbing our taxi. We parted the seas to find him waiting patiently for us and turning away high Euro offers for a ride to the city. We had the only taxi at the airport that evening.

As we maneuvered our giant rented van out of the city the next day, snug in our warm coats and Josephine buckled safely into her car seat, I said a word of gratitude to Mr. Yamaguchi. I don’t know if he ever saw his bag again, but I feel certain that had it not been for that (suit)case of mistaken identity, we would never have seen ours.

Author: Jessica Givens