By Sarah Pridgeon
If you’re reading this column expecting it to make sense, I’m afraid I have some bad news: I am thoroughly and irretrievably jetlagged. I have just returned from a transatlantic journey that involved spending two entire days on an airplane.
People often ask me what’s involved in a 5000-mile journey back to Europe and my answer is always the same: extreme endurance. There’s no such thing as an easy flight to the United Kingdom, unfortunately. The minimum travel time between my front door and my parents’ house is 16 hours – and that’s only if I’m feeling confident in my ability to sprint between the gates.
The journey back to England is the easy part. I can usually leave at a respectable hour of the day and my bags are taken care of all the way to my destination. I need only turn up at Rapid City Regional Airport an hour before my plane takes to the skies because the first leg counts as a domestic flight.
For reasons best known to the airlines, I generally only change planes once on my outbound journey, while I can look forward to at least two connections upon my return. When I arrive in London, I needn’t even join the winding lines for the customs desk.
My European passport features electronic trickery that allows me to swan straight through a special gate and back into the real world. It takes considerable willpower not to cast a smug glance at the wilting crowd, but knowing that I will suffer the same fate on the return journey makes it a little bit easier to resist.
Despite this relatively fluid process, the journey always feels much longer than it really is because I lose seven hours along the way. Thanks to the time difference, I left home at noon on December 23 and was eating sponge cake with my mother by 11 a.m. on Christmas Eve – almost a full 24 hours later, though the whole endeavor had really only taken 17.
Coming back to America is a different story. I have historically been forced to book a flight at around 7 a.m. if I want to be in Sundance in time for an early night, especially if I plan to return to work the next morning. This, of course, does not simply mean rolling out of bed and yawning my way through the automatic doors.
To catch a 7 a.m. flight, I must arrive at the airport three hours beforehand, because Heathrow is the busiest airport in Europe. Even in the middle of the night, it’s filled with mystified tourists wondering why every door seems to lead to the same place and pulling their suitcases apart in a futile attempt to meet the weight limits.
Though a three-hour deadline means an extended period of sitting quietly on an uncomfortable chair, I have often had reason to be thankful for the overly cautious approach. On one particular occasion, the lines were so long and the airport so large that I made it to the boarding gates with literally two minutes to spare.
To arrive by 4 a.m., I must leave the house at least two hours earlier. This means that I must be awake, showered, packed and ready for the journey by 2 a.m. at the latest, so I’ve essentially already missed half a night’s sleep. I start the return journey as I mean to go on: tired, cranky and wishing it was over.
The journey itself is longer, and not only because of the extra connections. This time, I must pass through U.S. customs at my first Stateside destination and my passport no longer has its magical properties. I must factor in at least two hours for this process to be on the safe side, and I am not above using my elbows during the dash for the gates if a delayed flight has reduced my chances of making it.
I do, of course, take back the seven hours that were stolen from me on the way to England, so I usually make it home by early evening. As the journey really does take 24 hours this time around, I’m sure it’s understandable that I then head straight for my pillow.
This time, however, my flight left Heathrow at noon on Sunday, which made for a more reasonable departure process. On the other hand, I didn’t get home until 2 a.m. on Monday morning.
Whichever direction I am flying, there are other obstacles to overcome. Not every fellow passenger will be as courteous as I would like them to be, sticking their knees into my personal space and pushing their seats back far enough to rest them on my nose.
I’ve endured seating companions with dodgy stomachs thanks to their dubious vacation meal choices and neighbors whose hand luggage takes precedence over everyone else’s comfort. I even witnessed a teenage girl become so infuriated with the little girl behind her that she threw back her seat in a rage – and promptly broke the toddler’s nose.
I am also incapable of sleeping in an upright position, which leaves me staring wistfully at my fellow passengers as they curl up peacefully for the duration. I can just about nod off if I lean forward and lay my head on my handbag, but this comes with its own perils: if the person in front of me pushes their chair back, I’m liable to be knocked out in the process.
The entire journey must also be endured with nothing but airline food to sustain me. Sure, they present you with a tray of drooping chicken and a bread roll that you could use to bludgeon a seal during the transatlantic portion, but that’s one meal during a 24 hour stint of staying awake. There’s no point asking for sustenance on the domestic flights, either, because they’ll request a dollar amount that would buy a week’s worth of groceries and hand you a miniature tube of Pringles in return.
Fortunately, the airports are a haven of fast food. Even at 4 o’clock in the morning, it’s possible to stock up on sandwiches and chips in Heathrow airport or sit down for a full English breakfast.
In Chicago, I feel compelled to repeatedly test the theory that the local pizza is the best in the world, while Denver has a snack outlet for every three steps that you take. My penchant for leaving extra time between connections is not, I admit, solely related to my fear of the customs desk.
I will always successfully choose the seat in which either the tiny television screen refuses to turn on or the headphone socket is broken. If neither of these things is true, I will already have seen every movie on the menu. On the domestic flight, meanwhile, I will select the only seat with a busted light bulb and will scowl into the darkness while everyone else reads their books.
Transatlantic flights are an experience to be endured, but I will always be prepared to do so. Whether I am darting between travelers to make my next flight or poking sadly at my tin foil-covered carrots, I always know that I am counting down to something wonderful. Jetlag may be one of life’s least pleasant states and being on a plane even worse, but this is the price I gladly pay for the honor of becoming a child of two countries.