An Eight-Hour Layover At O’Hare

A tiny plane lets us off on the tarmac. For two hours the girl in the seat behind us has been screaming that the plane is too small to fly. Now slack-jawed ground workers usher us towards a filthy lobby presided over by a slovenly duchess whose nose has cauliflowered fantastically.

I get a glimpse of the control tower – massive, imperious, paned in glass glowing black under the grey morning sky – before entering duchess’s battered lobby. Newspapers, orange safety vests, and bits of trash are strewn across the seating. The escalator up and out of this dingy way station is broken, and a pair of old women look up at the frozen staircase with a mixture of indignation and fear.

From here, those who have chosen this gamblers’ form of travel will begin to navigate their route boldly, gamers following clues and signage with confidence that the system works; or they will fall apart, overcome by stimuli, tricked by their own anxieties into interpreting the complex as unknowable, impenetrable, until they lay down shrieking on the glossy terminal floor and wait to be given a pill that will put everything back into perspective.

Being young and travel-ready, we succeed in interpreting the glyphs of this realm and line up for a shuttle that will take us to the next gate. We pass a Chili’s with a line of fat people beading out from it across the concourse. We are both sharing the thought that there is something a bit decayed, a bit ill-assembled, about the buildings and people here. We also share the thought that we should eat at Chili’s, here in America, while we have the chance.

The shuttle arrives and we’re escorted down a flight of concrete basement stairs to a tiny threadbare wagon that buzzes us out onto a massive staging area. I remember the purpose of this colossal realm. Green-glass buildings with rusting steel girders roll in enormous wave-shapes on either side of us. I see letters and numbers denoting the gates. Then the planes. Not just a fleet but fleets of 757s are parked nosing suggestively at the gangways, robbing them of any visual allusion to steampunk splendor. I see the UA logo and think of fiery mid-air explosions.

No, don’t think of that.

I can’t help it.

Now, at last, we are in O’Hare’s airy marbled halls. Here the best people are at work. We find our gate and sit near pretty, efficient flight attendants. A Dominican woman sings orders to her co-workers. Over the loudspeaker, the City of Chicago promotes its bid for the 2016 Olympics, in between warnings that the threat level is orange and that we must report all suspicious activity. I suddenly fear that perhaps I am a suspicious sort of person, with my shoes off and my feet up, scribbling and glancing around me. We have seven hours to wait for our flight home.

Ducking the Keukenhof Entry Fee

Over the weekend, me and some friends decided to drive out to the area around Keukenhof to see the famous Dutch tulip fields. We didn’t actually want to PAY to go into the gardens, which costs something like 16 euros and is perennially packed, so I didn’t know how much we were actually going to get to see, and my expectations were…not high.

I try to be an optimistic traveler, but when you’re adventuring, and you decide not to follow the nicely marked tourist signs, there’s always that risk that instead of discovering something new and fresh and fabulous, you’ll find yourself in the middle of unspectacular nowhere, faced with a long walk back to anywhere.

Lucky for us, this was one of those times when heading off the beaten track paid off. As soon as we neared Keukenhof, we began to see endless, shimmering fields of not only tulips, but daffodils and hyacinth. Every color of flower imaginable was fully in bloom, and we were able to drive directly down dirt roads into fields, and walk between the glossy rows.

redtulips

We saw huge expanses of uniformly planted red and yellow tulips, as well as more specialized farms that cropped unusual and coyly rustling varieties. The fields were divided by the irrigating version of the canals Holland is so famous for, and occasionally, a boat of drowsy tulip watchers glided by, causing us to vow to procure one of these little vessels (which precisely bring to mind the craft immortalized in the ballad, “row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…”) for ourselves.

Life did seem to be but a dream for at least a few of the tulip visitors we saw. We spent a few minutes watching one young guy in the distance that was making a concerted, and probably exhausting effort to frolic through the flowers, leaping high into the air one minute, before disappearing to, I imagine, crawl or roll amongst the blossoms. Clearly a dude intent on having his one-with-nature moment.

daffodils

pinktulips

But of course, not all the tourists painted such a (goofily) idyllic picture. We saw a lot of people stomping out into the middle of a row of hyacinth to get that perfect shot, and as many couldn’t walk away without swiping a quick handful of soon-to-wilt souvenirs. Not that I can blame them. The tulips and co. were so incredibly abundant and brilliant that it was hard to imagine them being diminished even if every single tourist did feel compelled to grab their own piece of Dutch springtime.

tulipslikefire

meinthetulips

I can’t imagine the cherry blossom season in Japan being more picturesque. As we walked among the rows, a windmill churned placidly in the distance, cyclists sailed by on the wide red paths that crisscross the country, and the strong spring breeze sent the for-some-reason-unexpected scent of flowers whirling around us. Not just the overwhelming hyacinth, but the unique fragrances of tulip and daffodil, that I don’t think I ever fully appreciated until I found myself surrounded by them in the millions.

By the time we had meandered out of tulip country, we were minutes away from the North Sea, so we headed to the long, sandy beach at Zandvoort for beers and frites and sunshine.

All in all, one of the best days I’ve spent outdoors in the Netherlands. I’m sure Keukenhof proper is amazing, but sometimes the best revelatory experiences can’t be bought for any price.

Thanks for the pics, Carrie!

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