My Summer Travel Story from Hell

For weeks, I dreamt of eating Polvo Grelhado. The day before my July flight to Portugal, I did a mental checklist. Vaccine card, passport, sunscreen. It was the NYC Pride Parade, so I even pre-scheduled an Uber. I WAS READY.

At 10 pm, I was checked in, and approached the gate ready to board.

“Sorry, your booster is expired.” I stared, mouth agape, at the employee behind the counter.

“What do you mean it’s expired? I had a booster in December!”

Out of every country in Europe, only Portugal requires a booster to have been given in the last 6 months, not within 1 year. I was not ready.

I knelt on the ground to collect myself. In a matter of seconds, the boarding process was complete and I wasn’t on the plane. It was over, time to go home. I took a midnight cab going back to NYC. I booked an expensive new ticket for the next night and a Covid test for the next afternoon.

Round 2.

If you ever find yourself staring through the window of the Lisbon airport jail, lonely, hungry, deprived of your sanity, ask for the microwaved spaghetti.

I cheered when I got on the plane 24 hours later. I arrived in Lisbon at 10am the next morning, or so I thought, time wasn’t really a logical concept I could grasp at that point. I was standing in the middle of the customs line when suddenly I remembered that I had left my carry-on luggage on the plane.

OH NO, MY PASSPORT!!

“How does someone leave their passport on a plane?” My parents later asked me while on the phone as I was waited in the Immigrations and Security Office at the airport. It was a kind way to ask how their 31-year-old son could be such an idiot. “Xanax,” I responded.

I had taken a tiny bit before the flight as I didn’t want to waste anytime with jetlag. I was already behind schedule! I quickly surveyed the floor and found two TAP Portugal employees flirting with one another. I interrupted them to inform them of my dilemma.

“Ok. No problem, let me call someone for you,” one said.

An hour went by.

Slowly, the Xanax started wearing off and my anxiety started creeping in. I found another employee and asked what I should do. She directed me to the customs agent. The customs agent directed me to the Information agent, a man wearing a blue T shirt with a Question mark on it. Helpful. The Information agent did not have the right information and directed me back to a different TAP Portugal employee.

After a half hour or so of Airport speed dating, I successfully sweet-talked the customs agent into giving me the phone number to baggage claim. My luggage was in the overhead compartment at the front of the plane. They had to have seen it! I called them, they yelled at me for calling them and said they’d get back to me.

Another hour passed.

I was stuck in limbo. It felt like a Kafka story. I couldn’t walk back out of the airport and I couldn’t move forward through customs without my passport. I realized that I was the actual character of Tom Hanks in “The Terminal”. After witnessing me pacing back and forth for seemingly hours, a kindhearted police officer asked me if was ok.

“Am I OK? Are you serious? I’m losing my mind over here!” is what I wanted to say, but I didn’t want to end up in a mental asylum. Although that would technically get me into the country and Portugal has a pretty good healthcare system. I responded that I was fine.  

She saw right through my façade, took me to the nearby immigration/police office and asked if I was hungry. I sheepishly responded no, then yes, then no. Food was the last thing on my mind at that point. Well, her motherly instincts must’ve taken over because she came back with a tin can of microwaved spaghetti and a stale bread roll. It was delicious. After my lovely meal, I called my parents. I received an email from father a little while later. The email had the contact information for the Ambassador to Portugal. Somehow my dad knew the husband to the ambassador of Portugal! I hate to stereotype, but I guess us Jews really do all know each other.

It was 4:30pm when I emailed her. This was it, I thought, my luck had changed. I was talking to the freaking Ambassador to Portugal! No big deal or anything. I quickly received an email back stating that the embassy closes at 5pm and they could only help me once I was IN the country. The airport did not count as in the country. After that cruel tease of false hope, I asked one of the cops what would happen if they couldn’t find my passport.

“We will have to send you home on the next flight”

It was then that I really started to panic. I closed my eyes and prayed to a God I had long forgotten. I promised that if I made it into the country, I would go to Temple at LEAST one time.

My prison for a day

I sat back down, begrudgingly resigned to my fate. Soon I’d be back on a plane to America with my tail between my legs. “Screw the embassy. This counts as me being in Lisbon” I thought to myself. Pathetic. I looked out into the customs area I had walked into hours ago. I put my hand up on the glass in despair and mouthed “help me” to a happy family walking by. The mom looked at me with grave concern. I quickly conveyed that I was joking. I mean I wasn’t but what could she do about it?

Hours passed slowly. Nine of them to be exact. The border agents/police had long forgotten me. I decided to stretch me legs and walked back out into the terminal without being noticed. I noticed a TAP Portugal employee with a clipboard at the start of the customs area. All day I had been playing whack-a-mole with airport employees, desperately trying to find anyone that could actually help me and finally I had found someone. I told her my story.

“Un momento.” She took out a phone and called her supervisor.  “Is your bag black and green with a pocket?”

I practically screamed, “YES!!!”

As she spoke, one of the border agents walked up to me, arms up in the air, baffled at what I was doing. I was Sirius Black, the dementor had come to take me back to Azkaban. *(The officers were actually all very nice people)

“What are you doing? Why did you leave?” the officer asked me.

“She found my luggage” I replied.

I was taken back into the Immigrations office and 30 minutes later I was finally allowed down into Baggage Claim. I had never been more nervous. We cut the line and a lady rolled out my carry-on luggage. I unzipped the pocket, throwing out anything that wasn’t my passport.

There it was! ♫♪ I got the golden ticket! ♫♪ I held up my passport like Simba and kissed it. I walked out of the airport several hours later, battered, bruised, but not defeated. My friend, who I had also been panickily texting all day, met me at the gate. We hopped in a cab and headed for dinner. It took over 48 hours of travel nightmares, but I finally got my Polvo Grenhaldo. Worth it.

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