My December Puente

The first week of December was a very lovely tradition that the Spanish call a puente. Puente means bridge in Spanish, but the term applies to more than just those things that get you across a river. If, for example, a holiday falls on a Tuesday, a theoretical puente is built from the weekend to that holiday so that everyone gets both Monday and Tuesday off from work and school. In the United States we move all such holidays to a Monday (Memorial Day, Labor Day, Presidents’ Day) in order to minimize missed days of school and such. Not so in Spain. They use any excuse not to work.

December brought the puente of all puentes. Monday was Spain’s Constitution Day and Wednesday was the Catholic holiday, dia de la inmaculada. Naturally the puente covered Tuesday, but it gets even better. My work week is Monday through Thursday, meaning that I would have only worked one day that week. I asked my school if I could take off that Thursday and make up for it in the future by working a Friday sometime. They were all for it. A simple change of schedule for someone to have a whole week off? Of course!

My friend, Caitlin, and I prowled the internet for cheap flights to and from Málaga and came up with an itinerary flying into Geneva and back home from Brussels nine days later. Sounds like a perfect plan, right? Wrong!

In all the traveling I’ve done I’ve been pretty lucky to never have any drastic delays or poor experiences. I guess all my bad fortune was being saved up for this trip. We showed up to the airport on Friday, December 3 for our 2:30pm flight. Geneva was working on clearing some recent snow so we were delayed 40 minutes. No big deal. They finally boarded us, we buckled our seat belts, and we sat and waited. And waited, and waited. The captain made periodic announcements that we were just waiting for confirmation from air traffic control and that we should be pushing back shortly. After sitting on the plane for two hours, they finally announced that there was a strike and that they didn’t know when, or if, the plane would be able to take off. They had no idea what was going on, and there was an airport full of thousands of people looking for answers. Turns out it wasn’t just Málaga, but all of Spain.

At 5:00pm, all of Spain’s air traffic controllers went on strike; literally walked off the job. A few stayed to land the planes that were still in the air, but no planes were taking off. (I learned all these details later in news articles). These air traffic controllers, who are the highest paid in Europe and make an exorbitant amount of money, were crying about the fact that their employer was being partially privatized and they feared cuts in some of their benefits like maternity and paternity leave. They responded by holding the entire country hostage, disrupting, in some cases destroying, the holiday weekend of 250,000 people.

The first day we spent about seven hours at the airport, got no answers, and were told to come back the next day because the situation “should” have been sorted out by then. We showed up at 8:00am, found out there was a flight (!), checked in, went through security, the whole nine yards. We got to our gate (where the plane was still sitting from yesterday) and lined up with the rest of the familiar faces who we had spent all of the prior day with. But there was clearly no boarding going on. No planes moving, no one even getting on planes. We waited a few hours before the airline employees finally told us that today wasn’t looking good either. Once again, I went to get our bag from baggage claim and Caitlin went to the customer service desk to see about scoring us a hotel for the night (They didn’t need to know that I live in the city).

We both had waits of over an hour in our respective locations. Down in baggage claim hundreds of travelers were awaiting their bags, and it was here that I truly learned something about the Spanish frame of mind. All of these people, vacations ruined, not getting to go where they want (need) to go. But they’re not yelling at any airport employee they can get a hold of. They’re not clenching their firsts. They’re dancing. Yes, dancing. You know the phrase “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”? I think a Spaniard had to have written it. I witnessed an impromptu flamenco show on top the luggage conveyor belt. There were people who knew how to dance, there were people in need of entertainment, and there was a makeshift stage. Why not dance?

To shorten the rest of this, EasyJet put us up in a five star hotel for the night, gave us a delicious three course dinner, packed us a lunch the next morning, and finally put us on an 8:00am flight to Geneva the next day, delayed 42 hours from our original schedule.

5 star hotel

The Spanish military had been ordered in and was escorting air traffic controllers back to work at gun point on threat of arrest because what they did constituted a crime, according to Prime Minister Zapatero. Some called his actions a step back towards Franco and dictatorship, but I certainly appreciated it. Otherwise who knows how long it would have been before any planes flew over Spain? They signed contracts to work through the holiday season with promise of renegotiation after that point.

Luckily we hadn’t booked any hostels or trains or made any other arrangements, so our trip wasn’t completely disrupted, we just had seven days rather than nine. We stayed with a friend and her parents in Geneva, who were gracious hosts and completely spoiled us. We spent two nights in Geneva, exploring Christmas markets in Montreux, Roman ruins in Nyon, and getting educated at CERN.

Lake Geneva
Playing with science at CERN
Roman ruins in Nyon

From Geneva we took a train to Strasbourg, France, where we ate a true Alsacian meal at a 500 year old restaurant, found more Christmas markets, and a beautiful cathedral.

This city had some of the most beautiful lights I’ve seen
Vin chaud, or hot wine, a lovely escape from the rain
Crème brûlée, drool

After Strasbourg we headed for Belgium, where our first day was spent in my favorite city of the trip, Brugge. This bias could come from the fact that we had sun for the first time on the trip. But nonetheless, it is a gorgeous city. It is known as the Venice of the North because of its canals, which were frozen over at the time, making them absolutely stunning. We toured a brewery, visited more Christmas markets (see a theme?), and I ate a real Belgian waffle.

View from the roof of the brewery

Our last stop and departing point was Brussels. We went to a bar that carries 2,004 different beers and another bar that has 46 on tap. We ate delicious sandwiches whose name means machine gun in Dutch. We saw a light show projected onto a city building that made me feel like I was in Disneyland. We went to a natural history museum and played with dinosaur bones (Did you know that a giant duck bill, when placed on top your head, looks like a French military hat?).

Despite a bumpy start, I would call that a well spent puente.

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