Hope readers will allow me some self-indulgence with this piece, which is much more light-hearted than usual.
It was, we thought, a well planned holiday: seven nights in England, the first to attend the funeral of my Uncle Jim Stringfellow, followed by a week in a Peak District cottage, before a few days at a conference in Uppsala, Sweden for me (Aya and the twins would stay in London), a week at Scarborough, on the east coast of England, and then home to Edmonton. Along the way, we would see as many relatives and friends as possible as I had not been in the UK for three years. After a week to recover back home, we would all fly to Japan, and remain there for three weeks so that Aya could attend several meetings and we had time to meet her relatives in Kobe and Yokohama.
Aya had applied in early April for a new Permanent Resident Card, which had not arrived before we left Canada. But she had traveled without one in the past so it was not a matter of undue concern. More daunting was the thought of lengthy plane rides with the twins, so we had bought an extra seat for the flight from Edmonton to London Heathrow, via Calgary, and would return from London Gatwick via Toronto, all on Air Canada.
Making the funeral on time was difficult as we stayed overnight at a Heathrow hotel and had to drive about 400 kms into North Yorkshire, setting off before 5am at arrive by 11am. Afterward we found the cottage with difficulty in a hamlet called Hollinsclough, in Staffordshire, accessed by tiny narrow roads. Though idyllic, it consisted of two houses, a church, a school, and a farm. The nearest store was 3 kilometres away. But the scenery was exquisite.
Subsequently. Aya looked after the girls in London while I attended a conference on Ukraine in Uppsala, Sweden May 17-20, a superb and well organized event, attended by well known scholars such as Yaroslav Hrytsak, Serhii Plokhy, Volodymyr Kravchenko, Andrew Wilson (who was on the same plane as me), and others. Upon return we drove to Scarborough to a cottage halfway up a steep hill, a serious challenge for twins in a stroller.
On May 26 we spent the night at the Holiday Inn a Gatwick Airport, having returned our rental car beforehand. We arrived at Gatwick in good time, but close to the check-in counter an Air Canada employee stopped us and asked to see our documents. He at once pointed out that Aya’s PR card had expired, which of course we knew. The official, who had a strong Scottish accent, said: “You won’t be allowed to fly with that.” Aya informed him that we had traveled before this way and he responded that as of November 2016, Canada had amended the rules. A lengthy conversation ensued, with tensions rising, but it was evident that he was immovable.
He advised us to stay in London because Canada has a visa office. Since it was a long weekend in the UK, however, it would be closed until Tuesday (it was Saturday). But, he said with a smile, it usually takes just a couple of days. I could travel on the plane, he then added, and the twin girls could too, but not Aya. That also was impossible, had we wished to travel without her (we didn’t), because I would not have been allowed to fly with two infants. We adjourned to a coffee bar to decide what to do.
I made a phone call to the Air Canada office in London, and managed to change the return date to Edmonton from May 27 to June 1, which would leave us with just two days before the flight to Japan. Aya used Booking.com and eventually found us accommodation for five nights in central London in Pimlico, close to the river. We then took a train from Gatwick directly to Victoria with our cumbersome suitcases, stroller, and hand luggage. Once there we found a taxi to take us to Alderney Street with a long row of impressive, ornate white Victorian houses. It was oppressively hot, and the twins were getting tired. Our apartment was on the third floor about halfway down the street.
But no one answered the door. I phoned the manager, Helen, whose response went something like. “You must have made a mistake. I haven’t let the flat to anyone this week.” Once she realized we had used Booking.com, she gasped and commented that she had not taken into consideration a last-minute booking and that the place hadn’t been cleaned. She gave me the access code to the front door so that we could leave the bags inside, and the key was in a box in an open basement area. The code didn’t work. It later transpired that she had changed the code. She advised us to go to a small restaurant a block or so away and stay for an hour, and she would drive over herself. She would send a cleaner in the meantime to tidy up. It did not augur well. Within two hours, however, the place was clean and very comfortable. The only snag was that it was three floors up and there was no elevator.
We then had three rather uncertain days waiting for the visa office to open. It was located not far from Holborn and by the time we arrived there was a long line of people snaking around the corner. Of course I had forgotten the girls’ passports so while the three of them waited—the girls in the stroller—I took a taxi back to Victoria with an amiable taxi driver telling me why he approved of Brexit. He was a Spurs fan. By the time I returned Aya was on her way out with the information that if she applied in London, the visa might take a week to ten days, which would jeopardize her first meetings in Japan. Plan B had failed.
After another rethink, we thought we might as well fly directly to Japan on a one-way ticket. I found a flight on KLM, via Amsterdam, for a pretty good price. It meant cancelling two flights—one the return to Edmonton via Toronto, and the second the original Air Canada booking Edmonton to Tokyo return, which would have been June 3-25. We got about 80% of the fare returned to us, which I suppose was reasonable though I must have spent another 60 pounds or so in phone calls, all of which required lengthy delays waiting for a response once connected.
On our last night in London we decided to relax. I met with an old college friend Richard Rhodes, and in the middle of that meeting, learned that Edmonton friends Donald Macnab and Susan Smith were in the city. Further exchanges of texts revealed that they were staying no more than 100 metres from us. Safe in the knowledge that I had reserved a car for the morning with a company that ran shuttles to Heathrow, we visited a local hostelry.
The next morning we were packed but no car arrived. After 10-15 minutes, I began to get worried. My phone rang and the company representative said the driver was stuck in traffic on the way back from Heathrow. He would arrive in 30-35 minutes. I haven’t got 30-35 minutes, I responded, and cancelled the booking. I ran down the three flights of stairs to try to find a taxi, a task that would not be easy in our quiet neighbourhood. But luckily I found one, and he agreed to drive us all to Heathrow.
There followed a hectic 15 minutes as I took the suitcases and bags, which the driver promptly put in the taxi. It was a bright, sunny day and traffic was relatively light, and we got to Heathrow in time to check in at KLM. Then Aya realized we had forgotten the smallest suitcase, the one that contained her laptop, ipad, and all the baby clothes and diapers. She was not going to leave without it, she said.
The woman at the check-in counter advised us that we would miss the flight if we went back for it, thereby missing the connection to Osaka in Amsterdam. Moreover she could not sent it on because no airline was permitted to travel with computers without the owner being on board. The words ‘lithium batteries’ came up quite often.
There was nothing to do but leave without it. Before leaving and in Amsterdam I exchanged several messages with Helen from the London apartment, who very decently agreed to pick up the bag herself and send it on to my sister Jill in Cheadle for safekeeping. That provided some relief, though it left Aya computerless for her meetings in Japan. The question of how to get it back remained but it occurred to us that perhaps Jill or one of her sons could access the contents and email them to Aya. Schiphol Airport is well equipped and we bought both baby clothes and diapers before the ongoing fight to Osaka.
There was also the question of a temporary visa for Aya to return to Canada, but since she was going to be in Tokyo and was meeting the Canadian Ambassador among others, we did not anticipate long-term problems on that issue. Once settled in Japan, we started to look at potential return flights and found one through Expedia, on Delta Airlines, Tokyo-Seattle-Edmonton for a good price on June 27. Meanwhile we were preoccupied with the sudden hospitalization of a close family member.
Aya managed to attend her functions and meetings in Kyoto and Kobe, and later in Tokyo at the Imperial Palace and Canadian Embassy. The few days we stayed in Kyoto were delightful though very hot. One evening Aya searched my laptop for details on her passport, which she had sent to Tokyo about a week after our arrival. The passport was not in Tokyo. It was in Manila! The Tokyo office did not issue visas, which was done in the Philippines, presumably because that is where most visa applications were arriving. The information was that it would take ten business days to complete the process. But that apparently did not include transport between Manila and Tokyo, and then Tokyo to Kobe, where we were based. The June 27 booking for the return flight suddenly began to look premature.
As the time approached for the flight (around June 25), Akiko caught a bug that caused her to vomit frequently and we took her to a doctor, a friend of her family in Kobe. He commented that it was nothing serious and that we should not worry about meals, but give her constant water for a couple of days. Given the precarious visa issue, we had already broached the obvious question whether to postpone the return flight. By now though, I had been away almost seven weeks—in fact longer as I had five days in New York before the trip to England. I could not conceivably take any more time off work. We would have to divide the family and each travel home separately with one twin daughter each.
There can be no worse decision than which twin to take. At the time we had no real idea of when Aya’s passport with visa attached would arrive in Kobe. Aya said that overall, she might find it easier if Akiko stayed with her. I would take Kaella, who was traditionally a quieter traveller—Akiko had once caused mayhem on the Shinkansen by refusing to stay in her seat. Once Akiko caught the sickness bug, that decision was reinforced. Aya would also keep the double stroller as I thought I could carry Kaella when she got tired of walking.
Thus on June 27, I left Kobe in a taxi with Kaella, which took us to Kobe Airport. We had sent our heaviest suitcase on ahead to Tokyo’s Narita Airport—one of the great advantages of living in Japan is the quality and uniqueness of service. Thus I only carried a backpack with three changes of clothes for Kaella and several diapers, and no laptop since I had left mine with Aya. All went smoothly at first, with the short flight of 80 minutes between Kobe and Tokyo Haneda. We took a bus from Haneda to Narita, during which Kaella slept. She seemed quite content, though she kept looking for Akiko and her mother.
I received a text from Aya to say that her passport had left Manila, so it was clear that the delay between our flights would only be a few days. As our tickets had been in my name, and purchased by me, I would have to find Aya and Akiko a date for the return flight once I arrived in Edmonton.
At Narita, we did some souvenir shopping and had a meal. Kaella made a lot of friends with other passengers. She had gained a lot of confidence from her time away, and maybe began to show her personality more without her ebullient sister. We had seats toward the back of the plane but the Japanese woman at Delta check-in very kindly found us an alternative seat with a vacant one next to it. Though we were at the very back of the plane, the window seat was free and remained so. Kaella, I thought, mercifully had not caught Akiko’s bug. Only when the plane pulled away from the gate did things start to go wrong. Her little body started heaving and a sudden vomit startled all around. No one could move because we had not yet taken off.
My dilemma was whether to get her off the plane. A year earlier, she had caught a cold just before we left Tokyo and we were not allowed to board the flight by Air Canada, as an official had noticed a plaster on her forehead, a common treatment for colds in Japan. The attendant at that time had given me a long lecture on the hazards of taking a baby on board who might become very sick en route. Now I had a new problem: whether to force the plane to return to the gate and experience a delay as our cases were taken off the plane. I decided to stay put.
Once we took off, however, more vomits followed and the flight attendants circled me with paper towels and tissues. Altogether I changed her completely three times in the first three hours of the flight. I could not change myself and could only wonder, in that claustrophobic pencil of a Boeing 767, what I must smell like.
Kaella slept for the last 4-5 hours, waking intermittently to take water, as everyone advised me to do, after which mini vomits followed, but with nothing like the intensity of the earlier ones. We had four hours at Seattle airport before the Alaska Airlines flight to Edmonton, which was enough time for me to give her a bowl of rice and be vomited on again. By then it seemed immaterial. I was a walking and smelly vomit and would return home one.
One would have thought that by now nothing else could go wrong. But when we finally arrived in Edmonton after a trouble-free third flight, my regular taxi driver, with whom we had left one of the girls’ car seats (the other remained in Japan), was nowhere to be seen. I realized that somehow he had not received my messages because he is always extremely punctual. After 25 minutes, we ventured outside to the long row of Airport Taxis.
The first three drivers I asked were resolute that they could not transport an infant without a car seat. It was against the rules and, besides, they were not insured to do it. The next one, however, agreed to take the risk. After 30 hours of traveling, to say I was grateful is a gross understatement. He was from Somalia, and we chatted all the way home. I gave him a massive tip. My son Keelan and his girlfriend Jenny came out to the back garden to meet us as the front road was being resurfaced. (One reason why the full PR card was delayed was that Canada Post refused to deliver mail for several weeks because of road repairs on our street.)
The next day, Katy Mackay, who had been kindly looking after our dog Nash, returned him. By then Kaella had already begun to recover, though a further day passed before I could get her to eat a full meal. And on July 3, around 0145 in the morning, Aya and Akiko arrived home. Kaella had been sleeping but woke up suddenly and the twins had a happy reunion. We all stayed up until about 3.30am. A week later, Aya’s actual Permanent Resident Card arrived in the mail.
And what about Aya’s suitcase? I will be attending a conference at Uppsala, Sweden, again in September, and will take a quick flight afterward to Manchester to pick it up.
Whether one could attribute all these adventures to our own dilatoriness, bureaucratic incompetence, sheer bad luck, or a combination of all three, I am not sure, though if pushed, I would be inclined to the latter reason. I am sharing it partly because it may entertain and partly so that next time we plan two such substantial trips together, we might think twice before purchasing the tickets.