Meeting Strangers from the Internet in Airports (and Why You Should Too)

When we left on this trip, we had to have an honest conversation about the possibility of something going wrong. Being on long road trips, and in cities we weren’t familiar with, and without our usual support networks, something was bound to go wrong. We hope that ‘something’ isn’t really bad, but it’s possible. And we needed to accept that fear, cope with it, and not let it dictate the experience.

That conversation felt really important at the time, and while its goal was to rationalize anxieties (which strikes Janna more than me), the conversation itself brought an odd brand of anxiety – almost a damnation that, in spite of nothing having gone seriously wrong in the prior 14 months, that surely something would in the following 14 months.

And yet, as things have gone wrong, so very wrong, it suddenly seems less important. 3 days before we were due to leave Houston, Janna’s car was side-swiped by a city vehicle. The day after our wedding in Michigan, Janna broke her foot. And it’s all been fine. We found a great mechanic in Houston that pulled off a miracle, and Janna was able to get into the doctor right away, and the fracture was minor. Sure, we left a few things we meant to bring in the chaos of having to pick up the car 2 hours before a 14 month road trip. Yes, I had to piggy-back Janna across downtown Toronto. But in the end, it was all ok.

And so now, 6 months in, nothing seems so scary anymore. The ‘things that go wrong’ have turned from fears and into adventures. It sounds cliche, but it’s so very true.

Example ensues:

This weekend’s adventure was one for the books. As we prepared to depart Pittsburgh for a week back ‘home’ in Houston, and on to a few weeks in Columbus, Ohio, an opportunity arose to travel to London for the inaugural summit of the International Swimming League. I won’t go into all of the details of that event (there’s a website for that ;-)), but in short: a wealthy Russian man named Konstantin Grigorishin, frustrated with the status-quo in Olympic sports, is launching a professional swimming league with teams representing 12 cities around the United States in Europe. In conjunction, there is a push for swimmers to launch what is the first serious ‘associatio of athletes’ in Olympic sports (kind of like a union, but with some different nuance, as is explained here). So, as the Editor-in-Chief of SwimSwam, the largest media box in the sport, it was important for us to be there.

We like London, and we love Europe around the holidays (we did a Christmas Markets river cruise in 2017 through Budapest and Austria and Germany), so after some discussion we decided we’d cut into our Columbus time to make the trip. We were initially unsure of Columbus, but grew more excited about the prospects as the trip neared. Leaving ourselves just about 9 days to digest it, I think we saw about what there is to see in Columbus in the winter. We went to an Ohio State wrestling match (high-level NCAA wrestling is tons of fun); we checked out the fabulous North Market (more food stalls than market stalls); we caught a Columbus Blue Jackets game (hockey); and we had dinner TWICE with my friend Nikki, who was one of my first ‘SwimSwam friends’ after we launched in 2012.

Then we hit the road for Detroit to catch a Wow Air flight, through Reykjavik, and on to London-Gatwick (uhoh). We stopped in Toledo on the way, and by chance happened upon a great local bar-and-grill type of restaurant that had dueling pianos at noon on a Sunday. We also stopped in to the Museum of the Great Lakes. I love Toledo, and I’d go back – it’s got the pure Rust Belt charm that has long been an infatuation of my wanderlust.

So on to London, flight fairly uneventful on the way over. Meetings went well, spent some time with some good people. We hit a few favorite haunts in London (Chicken Shop – which Janna loves, because the menu is simple: quarter chicken, half chicken, whole chicken, and sides); we hit a few new favorites (Franco Manca, which Janna rated as her new top 10 in pizza, using a 15th-century dough starter); and saw a Monty Python-esque, slapstick, fundamental comedy show in its greatest form at the Duchess Theatre with “The Play that Goes Wrong” (from the troupe that brought you “The Comedy About the Bank Robery”). If you ever find yourself in London, make your way to the latter. I don’t think that I’ve ever felt that level of primordial joy at a live performance, ever. It was the bestest and basest lowbrow humor for the 21st-century.

Anyway, if you hadn’t heard, Gatwick was shut down for about 36 hours. Oh, you hadn’t heard? Because Trump was doing something inane and Rome was burning? Well, let me catch you up. Some jagoff with a drone, or possibly two drones, decided to fly his drone over Gatwick airport. For like a day-and-a-half. And the British police were far too polite to just shoot it out of the air. So instead, they stranded a few hundred thousand passengers, were landing planes in Paris and Edinburgh and other airports in London. Things you don’t learn until you’re scheduled to fly out of an airport that’s totally shutdown: London has 6 international airports. In order from largest to smallest: Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, London City, and Southend. Also, nobody in this whole city is quite certain how to pronounce the name of the airport in Luton. Fortunately I’m just writing.

So, for anyone who’s met Janna, you know that following to-the-minute details of major ‘disasters’ gives her more joy than anything in life. If those disasters are aviation related, then she’s inconsolable with joy. I mean, appropriately somber joy, depending on the severity. But joy and sparkle none-the-less.

Our working theories in order of number of ‘ooohs’ when we share them with other people:

– Environmental activists trying to shut down the airport (good job guys, all of the reroutes and cancellations created more air pollution, and you definitely turned off at least half-a-million people from your cause)
– Nearby neighbors who were sick of the noise
– Nerds who wanted to prove to some rival on 4chan that airport were, in fact, still very vulnerable, even with the shoe nonsense, and so were remotely flying the drones from somewhere hundreds of miles away
– Rival airports
– Brexit (not sure how, but it’s all about Brexit somehow)
– 16-year old kid out for a drone joy ride
– Hobbyists that got lost

So, we went to bed with an airport closed and with a 10:30 departure (~6:30 departure from our hotel, given the circumstances). We drew a hard line for ‘refreshing the news constantly’ at midnight (more for curiosity, but with a rationalization of finding out whether we’d leave in the morning).

I woke up at 5:30 with a text from the airline informing me that we’d be departing from Luton instead – which is about an hour north of the city (our original airport, Gatwick, is an hour south). So we cue up our travel plan, and as we’re getting ready to walk out the door, a new text! Gatwick has reopened! Get to Gatwick! So ok, we’re back to Gatwick, just hoping beyond all hope that droneboi got tired and took a nap. Afterall, he was just droning for like a really long time without any sleep.

Back to Gatwick!

Ok so this all sound really stressful and stuff right? Probably should’ve been, but meanwhile, while looking at Twitter for first-hand accounts of how the airport looks (long lines, delays, whatever), I connect with two other folks on our same flight – Erika and Arseniy – and we confirm that we’re all heading to the same place. So at least if we’re wrong, we can present a united front. Arseniy is Russian, Erika is American, but both live in London, and so they drove to the airport and were pulling U-turns on the freeway all morning.

After discussing the best dining options in the airport (all on the internet. CC: @Dad, this is why social media is cool), I make the leap. I ask them…if they want to have an airport meetup. They agree! Someone suggests in front of Jamie Oliver’s Diner! We agree! We’re there! We meet!

And they’re incredible people! Arseniy is a video game producer for PlayStation and worked on the Spiderman game – the one that has a near-perfect replica of New York City where people actually find their real life apartments. Erika works in film production, and is currently on the One Strange Rock (also known as ‘that Discovery Channel thing starring Will Smith’). Erika doesn’t have Will’s phone number yet, but does call him ‘Will’ so I think they’re probably very close to being best friends. Erika also runs a hysterical Instagram account that I think is top secret but has 50,000 followers and revolves around trolling misogynists on Tinder.

And after all of that, our flight took off 30 minutes late, we all made our connections in Reykjavik, and just like the car and Janna’s foot: life proceeded kind of the same, but with new friends and a much better story to tell.

We spent all day at the top of the world chasing the sunset.

Disasters lead you to the best people. Any mechanic willing to replace an entire door (and other stuff) in less than 3 days understands what it truly means to be a community pillar and serve their neighbors. Anybody who cares enough to ask how you broke your foot cares. And people who are willing to meet strangers from the internet in an airport preceding a cross-Atlantic flight while their Christmas plans burn down around them, uncertain if their checked luggage full of presents will arrive in America before they do, have to be people that have had grand experiences (much like this one), and are open to new ones. I haven’t checked with them before using this label, but it felt like instant friendships. It was amazing. I think we’ve really become more open to these things, because when you don’t have your usual cast of friends, and when you’re in unfamiliar cities, if you want to have social experiences and interactions, you really have to be ready for them.

It’s a lesson in humility. Friends can come from anywhere if you’re not afraid of life. Making a friend on a vacation doesn’t have to come when you’ve chosen the perfect English pub where a stranger buys you a pint and strikes up a conversation. Opportunities abound in every nook of life.

So, once you’re fairly certain that your disasters aren’t going to kill you, open up your arms and embrace your disasters. I can’t promise you’ll make new friends every time, and sometimes it will probably just regular old suck. But sometimes it will be great, and that will make you appreciate the world a little more.

Happy #dronesmas, y’all!

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