by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – It was always a pleasure, at the beginning formation of Boy Scout meetings, to respond to the command, “Report!” with “All present or accounted for, sir.” Now, over 75 years later, it’s still very satisfactory to count noses in the airline gate area at the start of a trip and reach the same conclusion.
There were 30 of us on this tour – mostly from New England, but with one couple from near New Orleans, and probably at least 50 years apart in age – but everyone had showed up on time and in the right place. It was a great relief to me, and an even greater one for our tour manager.
We would be flying on British Airways, a venerable company whose very name inspired confidence. But in its very first move of the evening at Logan Airport (we’d be crossing the Atlantic during the night) our veneration turned to nervous doubt when for reasons unexplained, we took off about an hour late, endangering our connection in London. My friend Bea and I were able to sleep for a while because we’d upgraded to business class. My bedtime prayer was for a terrific tailwind.
Clearly, it was not answered. Pulling late up to our arrival gate at Heathrow Airport, we scrambled – pretty much separately, as it turned out – to get to our connection for Geneva. Several of us were wheelchair/jitney cases, and headed for the transportation area at the end of the jetway, while our more mobile comrades hoofed it to their new gate. At the end of the jetway we met the electric jitney driver from Hell.
Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports, has, in an effort to keep up with ever-increasing demand, metastasized beyond utility. Its maze of separated terminals, various forms of ground transportation, escalators, elevators, moving walkways, multiple security and passport checks, and ever-changing departure gates is beyond the comprehension and navigational ability of the elderly, mobility-compromised traveler. This is where the wheelchair pushers and jitney drivers come in.
Ours came in with a flurry of waving hands, one holding a cell phone to which he resorted every few seconds and the other gesturing wildly in an effort to hurry us to places in his six-seat vehicle. “Hurry! Hurry!” he shouted. “There is very little time!” We hurried. He jumped into the driver’s seat, jumped back out, and began shouting into his phone in (if I guess right) Urdu, alternately directing the other drivers to make it snappy. He was clearly mad. Borrowing a line from Mark Twain’s sojourn in the Sandwich Islands, I decided that if his funeral occurred during my lifetime, I would forgo all other recreation to attend it.
The upshot was that, after one last irritating passport check where the agent was feeling puckish, we made our plane to Geneva, barely. Several of our group did not. Somehow our tour director arranged for a cab or limousine to bring them from Geneva to Chamonix around twelve that night. Those of us in the early group found that some of our luggage hadn’t kept pace. Domingo, one of our members, had placed an electronic AirTag in his suitcase. “It’s only six miles away,” he said at one point during the evening. “I don’t have any idea how it’s getting here, but at least it’s not too far away.”
Next morning, however, after breakfast all together in our hotel and suffering only minimally from the six-hour change in time zones, we emerged to the incredible views of the snow-covered French Alps surrounding Chamonix. A cog railway (think Mount Washington on electric power) took us up to about 6,000 feet and a coffee shop overlooking the famous Mer de Glace (now a shadow of its former self) and looking up at the magnificent north face of the Grandes Jorasses. Alpine choughs squawked for treats on the terrace outside. Some of our group hiked down and back up, about 600 steps to visit a cave carved into the glacier; others enjoyed sweet rolls and tiny cups of espresso in the coffee shop.
Our guide for the experience, Beata, a slender and athletic blonde, called us together to describe our options during our time at the top of the railway. She was particularly annoyed, I noticed, by any apparent inattention or small talk among our crowd. “Quiet, please!” she shouted. “You must be quiet, because what I am telling you is very important!” Disobeying her order, I turned and murmured to Bea. “That lady is not French. That lady is German.”
Nailed it: so she was Austrian, in fact. It had been about 80 years since I’d heard that particular order. Can’t say as I’d missed it. But at least it helped me feel, although six time zones away, right back home.