I spent my 40th birthday in what must be the least appealing venue: an airport, on a layover. Despite being logistically essential to many journeys, layovers rarely rate with the experience of the destination itself, and people will do anything to avoid it. Get from Point A to Point B, and forget what’s in between.

I used to think this way, too. My birthday coincided this year with our family vacation to Austria. My husband had found the ONE non-direct flight from London, with a three-and-a-half hour layover in Hamburg, Germany. As you can imagine, the prospect of that long-ass layover induced dread. The week before we left, we had a conversation that involved me asking what the hell we were supposed to do in Hamburg for three and a half hours and my husband reminding me he had painstakingly planned every detail of the trip, while I watched and sipped wine, so don’t go there.

The first leg went without incident and we had a nice hour-long flight to Hamburg. But it was vacation time, and everyone seemed to have a layover in Hamburg, because we deplaned into a terminal that looked like … well, an American airport. (If you’ve traveled internationally, you know that American airports are sorry contestants against all other airports in the developed world.)

At Hamburg, international passengers on layover were required to go through security again before boarding the next flight. On this particular day, security staff were on strike, so thousands of passengers milled around in confused queues that snaked from check-in to security – basically the entire terminal. To wait out the mob scene, we set the kids up in a roped-off corner of the security area so they could play while we kept our places in line.

And then. Something happened.

My daughter, engrossed in her iPod, had outsourced the care of her favorite stuffed animal to my son. He was commanding it to do tricks – jumps and barks and such, as you do when you’re six years old and playing with an inanimate object. Apparently one of its tricks involved walking up a wall, and I watched my son wave the toy (or press it against, it was hard to tell) a red sort of wall fixture.

And then…pandemonium! A siren blared, red lights flashed, and a huge iron – well, a huge iron curtain – descended from the ceiling, effectively slicing through the security area and cutting off hordes of people queuing up to it. Airport attendants rushed passengers back away from the iron wall or hustled them through. In true Hollywood action movie-style, one staff member actually pushed an elderly man in front of her to clear the wall. When the curtain finally met the floor with a thud, the sirens stopped. Everyone stared at each other, blinking as if they’d just emerged from post-tornado rubble.

I grabbed my son and held him to me. I couldn’t be sure whatever he’d done had actually tripped the alarm, but I had a pretty good sense it had, so I kept my head down. We all waited several minutes, but the curtain stayed down. When I dared look up, a woman was motioning excitedly at something several feet away.

There was the Hamburg Airport fire brigade, seven burly Germans, marching in their oversized yellow rubber suits to investigate the situation. They milled around the iron curtain, stroking their chins and pointing to the ceiling. They looked puzzled.

The sound that came out of me, upon seeing them, was not unlike the mother in “Christmas Story” when the Chinese waiters chop off the duck’s head for Christmas dinner. I grabbed my husband’s arm.

“I feel like I need to apologize to them,” I said desperately.

“Say nothing!” he commanded, under his breath. “We don’t even speak German!”

A mom with a little girl tapped me on the shoulder. “Say nothing,” she said in a thick German accent. “I’m not saying what he did was right – ” pointing at my son, who had sidled into the shadows so as to be unseen by the fire brigade – “but this is an embarrassment for the Hamburg Airport. Let them figure it out.”

This insider advice was a relief. Who would know better how to deal with German bureaucrats than a German? We said nothing. And now, with much of the crowd trapped on the other side of the wall, the lines moved faster. We finally got through the checkpoint and to our gate. We’d just been at the center of an international incident, and it was my 40th birthday, so we ordered some Prosecco.

As we toasted, my husband triumphantly reminded me that HE had been the one to put us on the flight with a three-and-a-half-hour layover. I realized layovers deserve some respect. Isn’t life basically one long layover? And being 40, or in your 40s, is like a layover, too – between youth and old age, between striving and accepting. For women like me, it’s the layover between being the mom of babies and the mom of teenagers, a whole sort of twilight world in itself. A short break in a journey can be a wonderful reminder that the place you’re in, is just as exciting as the place you’re going.

When we boarded the plane, there was the German mom with her little girl. We promised we wouldn’t let our son touch anything.


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