Quick, finish up just one last email and leave work. Already late. Maybe I can cash in on some good traffic karma I’m due. Scurrying to the car, a text arrives from my brother Mike. Hmmm. He rarely texts me for no apparent reason but I must get started driving so will have to read it later at a red light. Stunned! “Bombing at Istanbul airport just now. See CNN. Are you already en route?” I reply “Call me” and he kindly takes a break from his busy day to do so and at my request, looks for more info, but little is known yet. On the long drive home, I listen to news instead of foreign language CDs and hear at least eight were killed, then 10, then 20, with dozens injured. So sad about all the people hurt, dead, their families. And wondering what will become of our long planned trip to Istanbul and Paris.
We try to take a decent vacation every year, sometimes camping in the States or Eastern Canada, and a couple of times somewhere much bigger that I really shouldn’t spend the money on, like my favorite of all, Hawaii, two years ago. This year, before Freeman too soon heads off to college, I wanted the kids to get some exposure to another country and culture. Paris and Rome were tops on their list. Michael and I had been to Paris though long, long ago. I had gone for 10 days for work, with my then most amazing manager, Tony, who after we returned and said goodbye, proceeded to die of a heart attack at 41. My memories of Paris were fond but stale. Michael had been to Rome and as a sculptor, pushed for it. I wanted something else. Barcelona. It meant the kids could put their Spanish to practical use and I’d never been to Spain (though I kind of like the music). Stalemate. We all agreed to Paris but couldn’t choose a second city, if there was to be one. So many destinations, so little time, so little money. But it’s fair to say I live for these trips and this one would work out brilliantly as they all had.
As winter waned and I priced flights, the least expensive to Paris was via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. But adding in another city like Barcelona just seemed too expensive or time consuming for our 10 to 14 days. There was a flight to Paris with a one-day layover in Istanbul. When I looked into what’s to do in Istanbul I came up with too much to choose from for just a day. So we ended up splitting the trip between Paris for six days and Istanbul for four, with two days for flights. It was my favorite option, though not anyone else’s. Planner’s prerogative: you want a different destination, you do the hard work to plan the trip. Choosing the exact dates was a matter of work and activity schedules and price. We settled on leaving on Tuesday June 28 at 11:30 pm, allowing me to work a full day, Freeman to get in a few more hockey games, and Michael a day to return and unpack from his big Art Hamptons show, plus most importantly it was during the week when Kamala’s gym was closed so she’d miss fewer practices.
After booking the flights, I had an uneasy feeling. It wasn’t because both Paris and Istanbul had experienced terrorist attacks in recent months—so had Orlando and a few years before, the Boston Marathon, places I’d been to many times. The odds of being injured or killed were too minuscule to worry about but I did believe our plans could be disrupted by an event, perhaps at Boston’s Logan airport or either city or even events elsewhere with ripple effects. So for the first time ever, I purchased trip insurance, just in case. And I wanted a contact person in Istanbul, in case something happened, to help navigate. A friend at work knew a man from Istanbul who stayed with her family as an exchange student once and they remained in contact. She offered to put us in touch, which I was grateful for.
Then came the evenings of living on TripAdvisor and finding just the right places to stay in each city and roughly mapping out the things we planned to do, the packing, and all the other preparation for going out of the country for two weeks with two kids, leaving a cat and a busy job behind. Now the departure date had arrived and the airport we would be flying to that night had just been hit with a major terrorist bombing.
Once I arrived home, we needed to calmly tell the kids about it. I explained that probably 300 to 600 people arrive at or leave that airport every minute. Odds are very, very unlikely we will personally ever be hurt by these rare (but not rare enough) events. And if we are, that’s just the way it is: could be a heart attack, could be a terrorist attack but someday something will get us all. I asked Freeman to watch CNN and let us know what he heard. That might not have been my wisest parenting moment. Wall to wall coverage of the carnage and no way to tell rumor from fact. He relayed the report that the Ataturk airport was closed to flights from US and our government was advising US citizens not to travel there. Not exactly the bon voyage you want for your family vacation. Freeman railed against ISIS and who could blame him? Sadly, I was at a loss then to offer any consolation or hopeful words to him. I wished there was more we could do than rail. If someone wants to hurt people, they will find a way to do it. We now have to work on the “wants” part, more so than the means, and definitely much less of the stepped-up patrols at sites after the event, which are little more than closing the barn door once the horse has escaped, yet Americans seem to like that form of security as readily as youth enhancing creams and weight loss schemes.
While Freeman watched TV for news, I went to the Turkish Airlines website but it had no news and showed, along with Logan Airport’s site, that the flight was “ON TIME”. It must be a mistake, I assumed. I called Turkish Airlines; none of their numbers were working. I called the booking agency; after 30 minutes of being on hold they said they knew nothing more and couldn’t reach the airline either. While waiting on hold, I alternated between packing and Googling “what to do when airport is bombed” and fruitless variations of that basic term. Maybe it’s a good thing the search engine didn’t find any valid matches. By then, I was super rushed, not having planned for the extra time it takes to check out a bombing before your flight, and I became correspondingly bitchy to everyone. Just what we all needed right then, I know. We’d go to the airport but drive our own car and park rather than take a shuttle in case we were sent home at 1 am when shuttles would no longer running and we could end up stuck. I was grateful I hadn’t booked the same flight the day before, which I had seriously considered, or we’d have been at Ataturk just after the attack! That would have been something beyond auspicious.
When we got to Logan, the flight board reported “ON TIME.” I began to think it wasn’t a mistake because some flights were delayed and canceled, but not ours. Activity at the Turkish Airlines counter seemed eerily normal. We checked our bags and only at the end of the process did the calm and smiling employee mention the situation, saying our flight would proceed as planned despite the bombing. I expressed surprise and she humanely did too: “I didn’t think I’d be coming to work today, but things are going on. It’s odd.” We expressed our sorrow.
Finally, I relaxed a tad. That’s what vacation is supposed to be for, relaxing, right?
While we waited, we tried to get WiFi at the airport or to find a TV with news of the attacks but the free WiFi was being difficult and there were no news stations on. My email wasn’t working well. Seems like normally you can’t escape the flood of reports and can’t spend a minute without some electronic device updating you but for some reason that night there was a dearth. We managed to read a bit online and found that the number injured had climbed into the hundreds with over 40 people dead. My heart literally hurt for all those poor people.
In the air, Kamala didn’t sleep a wink, never does, just like me. She watched movies galore and it looked like she might wear a hole in her iPad. Turkish Airlines was amazing. First they gave us a very tasty Turkish Delight candy, then the hot towels, then free drinks, then a full meal at about 1:00 am and more food again later. Kamala eats almost nothing so I gave her everything from my meal she might consume, which meant all of a roll and dessert. She was so hungry though that she actually ate her pasta with sauce whereas normally she’ll only have it with butter and salt. Though it was 1 am, passengers chowed down. Maybe because it was Ramadan, people could have been fasting all day.
Freeman and Michael were seated on the north side window seat and we were on the southern side. They both sleep and what a waste—not only did they miss the food but the views too. As we peered across to look out their window, we saw it was bright and sunny, whereas our side showed total darkness, as we would expect at home at 1 am. First time I’d seen the summer northern night sky. It occurred to me you might starve if you fasted for Ramadan in Iceland because it probably never got dark there.
Probably half the female passengers wore hijabs. One of the reasons I liked Istanbul as a destination was it would expose us to a majority Muslim population so we could better understand and relate, which seems to be important in the world right now, and it would expose us to the feeling of being perceived as different from most of those around us. I also wanted to learn a bit more about the ancient and rich Islamic culture and religion.
Once daylight came, we crossed Ireland and England but saw little. Over the continent though we had great views of the Alps with snow and craggy peaks, of rivers probably including the Danube, of endless farms, and lakes large and small. Finally, we spotted the Bosphorus Strait, the stretch of water that leads from the Black Sea to the Aegean and separates Europe from Asia, and where our destination, Istanbul, awaited. When we touched down, all the passengers clapped, a custom I heartily endorsed, though other Americans seemed too sophisticated for it.
At the Istanbul airport, we had a three-hour layover and decided to walk it to explore. It is a huge airport, and the international terminal is one very long stretch. Modern and just what you’re used to in an airport. A scant few familiar chains, which I welcomed. We found one with burgers for Freeman, who didn’t eat the yummy airplane food (no sarcasm, truly). My sister, upon seeing this photo, noted the irony of my vegetarian daughter sitting beneath the MEAT sign, which seemed to point right down at her.There were some construction workers way up high outside that made for an interesting photo, and in that not quite finished area of the airport at the far end, nice views of the water. The kids loved all the moving walkways.
We saw a cart wheeling away glass and wondered if it was related to the attack. At the middle of the airport, where arriving passengers come through the security scanners, the section was closed, as if they didn’t require the capacity that day. There was a Victoria’s Secret just behind that, selling only perfume, not unmentionables, and I had recalled one photo of the bombing area showing that shop in the background plus also knew from a diagram in the NY Times that the bombing had been at the arrival area, at the curb in front of the airport. This is where it had happened, less than 24 hours earlier. Where over 40 people were brutally killed and over 200 were hurt. We saw no other evidence that it had occurred, and no acknowledgement of the bombing. If my brother had not texted me, it is possible I wouldn’t have turned on the news and we might not have even known about it until long after we’d left the airport. My feelings about this were mixed. On the one hand, those who died deserve to be properly mourned for and people need to openly share their grief. On the other hand, it’s a good idea not to feed into the terrorists’ goal of disruption and need for attention.
By then it was early evening and we boarded our plane to Paris, concluding the auspicious start to our family vacation.