So, we made it.
Everything went surprisingly smoothly, at least until we landed. Alarms went off, we left the hotel room in 15 minutes flat, caught the Hotel Hoppa bus, got off at the right terminal, weren’t punished by the passport checking lady when Dave in his tiredness told her that we were doing a month-long road trip around only Chicago, got through security with no dramas despite me accidentally smuggling in a liquid in my backpack (I forgot, it was early!), and were one of the first to get there when the gate number was announced. There was a minor incident when I breathed in some minty Polo dust and was left coughing up what felt like half a lung, but that probably just helped us out and meant nobody wanted to sit near us on the plane if they could help it. We amused ourselves for a while here spotting single males who looked like they were travelling to the big SharePoint conference in Chicago this week, and Dave counted his lucky stars he was not among them. So far so good.
I’d been conditioned to believe that airplane food was going to be hideous, and adding to our worries was the fact that we’d been unable to select a vegetarian option on the website so there was a very real chance I’d go all day without food. Neither thing turned out to be the case. First it was waffles with unidentified berries and scrambled eggs for breakfast (or sausage and egg for him), a surprisingly nice croissant with unspreadable butter, fruit and a muffin. Then halfway through the flight, free ice cream! The “light meal” before landing turned out to be something called a margherita wrap, which was basically designed to be Shell-friendly food, and some vanilla-ey pastry thing. Overall, very impressed. Will totally fly with American Airlines again if that’s the sort of stuff they feed you.
Anyway we watched some Always Sunny (probably laughing out loud a bit too loudly for the comfort of those passengers around us) and then Batman, I did some reading and some crochet, and then we were there. No bother. This day was obviously going to go all our way . . . right? Not right 🙁
The first sign of trouble occurred when we got into Chicago airport, me almost literally dying from desperation to find a toilet (we had a bit of a situation on the plane where we knew there was a toilet behind us, but couldn’t actually locate it and didn’t want to ask), and while I went off to relieve myself Dave looked for a pen to fill in our customs declaration. No pens. We asked a lady, sure that airport staff would be just as helpful and lovely as in the informational videos, and she snapped at us “You better return that!” in a less than professional manner. Hmm.
We were then pointed to the first-time ESTA queue, which turned out to be two queues. There was actually a second queue of people queueing to get into the proper queue, and this second queue stretched up a corridor, around a corner and into the distant . . . er . . . distance. Thank the Noodly Lord there was a toilet available before we had to queue here, that’s all I’m saying. We spent about an hour and a quarter in this first part of the queue, eventually, tortuously, making our way forward into the actual queue queue. I was wearing far too many layers, to save space in the suitcases, and was starting to visibly suffer. Grand statements were made about never coming to Chicago ever again, and insults were flung in the direction of all Bears fans.
Once we made it in view of the immigration booth things, we realised the problem. There was only one guy processing this queue, and occasional jumps forward where when they decided to send some of us to the other booths that were supposed to be processing the US and Canada citizens (almost all of those booths in use, of course). At one point, the one booth serving us just stopped entirely and two men stood in it having a conversation and laughing for ten minutes. We were getting annoyed. People all around us were lamenting the missing of connecting flights, for which they’d left a good two hours thinking that was more than enough time to step off one plane and onto another. Staff were unapologetic. Eventually we heard one woman explain to a poor flight-missing man that the immigration control officers were actually here today, but they were in a meeting and would be back after 12. IN A MEETING! It was five past 12 at this point. The queue shuffled and the frustration became palpable, until she followed up that statement by saying they’d be out any minute and the queue would start moving along.
I realise I’m writing a lot about a queue, but it was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen and by far my worst airport experience ever. By this point we’d been queueing for 2 hours, so were very relieved to see a load of official looking men come from a door round the corner and head toward the booths. No such luck. I think maybe one extra booth opened for our queue, maybe, but the rest headed over to deal with the non-existent US/Canada queue. It’s a shame cameras were banned, because the looks on the faces around us were fantastic if a bit depressing. I imagine our own expressions were the same. Here’s a picture of a similarly depressing queue instead.
And so it continued. Creeping forward slowly, wishing we’d flown in to any other city, thanking His Noodly Appendage that we hadn’t booked a connecting flight to Green Bay as was the plan at one stage. Eventually an official looking man came out of somewhere and said to the staff ladies at the front of the queue “start sending some of them over to this [airline staff processing] booth, they’ve been here a long time” or words to that effect, and earned the undying gratitude and love of 300 women (plus probably a few men) in an instant. At first we thought they were choosing to completely ignore this instruction, but eventually things started moving a little bit faster and we made it to an actual booth queue. The process, once we got there, was fine. Couple of questions, jokes about Vegas, taking fingerprints and having a rather dishevelled photo taken, and the nice man said we could stay. We thanked him, and went in search of our bags. It had taken two and a half hours, fully a quarter of the time it took us to get from a hotel in London across the world to Chicago, to traverse a queue stretching a few hundred yards. It was an experience we both hope never to repeat.
There was some mild panic when we realised that it had been so long our flight was no longer listed on the “pick up your luggage here” screens, but we found it in the end. Our bags had been removed from the conveyor things and just left in the middle of the floor, presumably as the last stage before being taken outside and burnt. Dave was pretty dead on his feet and didn’t spot them, but to your surprise and mine, dear reader, I took charge and located the luggage with speed and efficiency. One more check of our customs form, which we didn’t need to queue for, and we were officially at large.