The day has arrived to depart for Athens and I had flown to Cleveland 2 days before our trip. I would be gone for about 35 days from start to finish but it was that glimpse of how our air travel would be that I must start here. Typically everyone would fly the traditional and known airlines to Greece for the summer but there was an airline offering super cheap airfare to Athens and it would be revealed to us multiple times as to why the airfare was so cheap. I didn’t question it because I wasn’t paying and it was a trip with my mom I would not pass up!
My dad took us to the airport and escorted us through the terminal to the gate. Remember those days? The three of us sat there patiently waiting for boarding to begin. It was during this time that the people watching began and we started to assess this trip and all its passengers. My mom and I were dressed in the very trending outfits for that summer and in our minds we were flying as though we would be on a PanAm widebody jet with an upper deck bar. We were so very wrong in that assumption. As our departure time was quickly approaching we wondered when we would start boarding. We knew we had a long journey to Athens as we would be flying through Ljubljana (then part of Yugoslavia) and then to Zagreb where we would have a six hour layover before a short flight to Athens. All in total it would be about 20 hours to reach Athens. Have you ever flown through a country on the brink of Civil War? I did and it was an experience. Still patiently waiting to hear that boarding is beginning with the courtesy of boarding by rows when all of the sudden a petite, older woman walks up to the gate, grabs the microphone, raises her one free arm to gesture something and says “Okay”. That was it. That was the cue to just board the plane. No rhyme or reason to how we board. Just get the hell on the plane and all your twine wrapped boxes and crates of whatever you are transporting to Yugoslavia. I cannot make this up. My dad looked at my mom with that expression of “What the hell is this airline?” I won’t lie…I was questioning it too. I looked at my mom and said “This is going to be and adventure so we better get moving.” She hugged and kissed my dad goodbye and then as I did the same I could see both the concern in his face and I saw him chuckle. We boarded the plane and my confidence fell dramatically as I realized our flight crew did not speak any English and we didn’t speak their language. My only thought at this point is that a flight attendant would understand the word “Vodka” once we were at cruising altitude.
We finally took-off and we were hours over the Atlantic and out of U.S. airspace when those moments of miserable travel began. It were as if an announcement was made, which it could have been because we didn’t understand a word of the flight crew that it was time for everyone to start smoking. Yes, from the front of the cabin to the back of the plane everyone started lighting up cigarettes. Again, who remembers when people could smoke on airplanes? Are we the only ones not smoking? It is torture. You can’t open a window for air. We couldn’t get to Ljubljana fast enough and yet that was the most comforting part of this leg of the trip. It was a quick stop to pick up more passengers and then on to Belgrade. As we were beginning our descent into Belgrage there was a lovely short commercial played for us showing us all the beauty of Belgrade with people dancing and singing in various parts of the city. A welcome video of sorts. I was initially excited because I thought we could explore with a six hour layover. It turns out this was all propaganda and we were literally told that if anyone tried to leave the airport, they could not guarantee our safety. Yes ladies and gentlemen, we were about to land in the airport of a country on the brink of Civil War and it would be an eye opening and concerning experience. Before we got off the plane we were each given a ticket for one meal. That would be the only food we could get at a cafeteria and it was pre-measured and you got a glass of water. No where in that miserable airport were snacks or drinks. All we could do is sit and stare at the soldiers holding guns and looking at every person as though you might be the one that starts the war. It was completely unnerving. When it was time to finally board our plane to Athens they escorted us to a private boarding area with guns pointed and explained that in order to board the plane we would be walked out to the tarmac where we had to identify our luggage and then you would be allowed to board. One at a time. Once we were in the air on that flight I looked at my mom and said this would be a good time to start smoking. From this point forward we knick-named Jugoslavia Aero Transport (JAT), Just Any Time airlines. Oh my god, we would have to fly back on this airline so let’s just hope that the war holds out before that happens.