A soft, cloudlike pastry oozing with chocolate fudge– a perfectly baked croissant straight from the airport’s hidden oven.
Pizza dough slathered in olive oil and pesto sauce–a steamy bite to share with shivering passengers who wouldn’t depart anytime soon.
A freshly blended smoothie made out of banana, spinach, and coconut milk–drinking too much made me feel queasy, so I had to rush to the only open bathroom on the second floor.
We all ate to pass the time. The food felt like concrete at the pit of our stomach. All we could do was sit. We slept in downtrodden cafes to alleviate the hours. Each second hung in the air-a frozen fractal.
December 19, 1 AM
My mother and I just reached our terminal when the announcement came on:
“All Icelandair flights are canceled.”
The small Keflavik airport went into disarray. Parents grabbed their children’s hands and dragged them through the bustling crowds to stand in line for the service desks. Young students made frantic phone calls to their parents to inform them that they wouldn’t be coming back on time. Security guards tried to console a panicking family who needed to attend a wedding the next morning. Mothers soothed their crying babies while trying to figure out what to do next. There was nowhere to go. There was nothing we could do but wait.
December 19, 7 PM
I ached for my family. It had been three years since I saw any of them. Instead of running into my cousin’s arms and relishing in my grandmother’s hot noodle soups, we were frozen in time at our layover, stranded with strangers who longed for something just as terribly. The Netherlands felt like lightyears away–our paths appeared to come to a dead end in Iceland. At least we made friends with two young women who were each traveling alone: Anita and Skyler –– the college students from Maryland I wasn’t expecting to meet over winter break. When the flights were shut down, we all clung onto each other and decided to form a pact. We made every decision together.
Right now, we decided to sit next to an Irish woman who saw us standing alone in the corner.
“Come sit with us,” she beckoned us over. Her daughter curled up next to her, as she shivered in swaths of scarves and jackets. Her blue eyes were wide with fear.
The woman’s voice had a hint of sweet sunshine, but the long days in the airport took its toll. She reached into a paper bag for some food, only to find out she completely ran out. Sighing, she crumpled it up and threw it away.
“Here,” Anita shuffled through her backpack and took out an unopened bag of pretzels. “Eat this.”
The woman hesitated before taking it gratefully, “Thank you.” She tore it open and gave them to her daughter.
We talked to her for a long time –– I don’t really know how long. She told us about the rolling green valleys at her home in Ireland. She spoke wistfully about the lambs she tended to and how she worried about being away from them for too long. She then mentioned that her daughter knew five different languages; they traveled around a lot.
We never got her name, but her vivid stories of her peaceful life in the lush rural landscape made the ice outside appear a little warmer. I remember falling asleep on the bench squished in between people I once hardly knew.
December 19, 10 PM
Blades of ice dug underneath my skin, and it felt like I was dissolving into tiny glass shards that would fall into the endless heaps of snow. My hands grew numb to the pain, as they transformed into a disgusting purple.
There was supposedly a hotel within eyesight. People were telling us to try and book a room at the Aurora hotel –– it was only a 5 minute walk. Traversing through the winter landscape would bring us to a warm, welcoming shelter that would give us hot water and a fresh bed to sleep in. It would be worth it.
“We’re almost there,” Anita screamed. Her shouts sounded like a distant whisper. “Let’s keep going.”
I physically could not move. My suitcase wouldn’t budge from the thick pile of snow. My shoes had no grip–if I fidgeted, I would slip. I watched three people in front of me drag the dead weight of their luggage through the wintry abyss. I watched the same three people fail to get beyond the first street: Anita, Skyler, and my mother.
“We’re turning back,” Mom shouted.
We were only a few meters from the automatic doors of the airport, but they stretched on for miles. I was longing to return to the gray-tainted first floor, where sludge covered the floors and people slept on airport scales. At least there, I knew we’d be safe.
We cursed our way back to the front door. I relished in the warmer air that welcomed us, but was soon disillusioned by the melancholy scene. People stared at us in disbelief before turning away towards their corner. We probably looked reckless walking out in the cold like that. We were all either too tired to move or too desperate to weigh options logically. Blankets sprawled over benches and half-opened bags of dry crackers spilt onto the ground. Everyone tried to pass the seconds by trying to sleep.
“I cannot believe we did that,” Skyler’s eyes were petrified. She collapsed into a chair. She draped her jacket over her face, but from the uneven breathing, I could tell she was crying.
“This is the only place where we can stay,” my mother said matter-of-factly. “At least we have each other.”
December 20, 7 AM
It was my mother’s birthday. The family was planning a day of surprises and sushi, but she was eating dry crackers and using her suitcase as a seat. This would’ve been the first birthday she spent in the Netherlands in twenty years. At least she had Anita and Skyler to celebrate with. They wearily wished her a happy birthday.
“You’re going to have to celebrate so hard when you get to Holland,” Anita said.
A security guard walked past us. He nodded sympathetically and asked softly if there was anything we needed.
10 minutes later, the security guard returned with a croissant drizzled with chocolate.
“Happy birthday!” He exclaimed kindly. His eyes crinkled in the corners.
“Oh my gosh, no way.” My mother laughed, “I didn’t think you were actually going to come back.”
The security guard put his pointer finger over his mouth, “Shh, it’s fresh from our secret oven.” An older woman tapped his shoulder to ask for a water bottle. He nodded at us before turning away.
My mother unwrapped the parchment paper. She split the croissant in four to give us each a taste. Chocolate filled the inside and had a perfect, thick consistency that oozed out of the center. I closed my eyes and sank my teeth into the flaky, dense crust. Safe to say that was the best chocolate croissant I ever tasted.
My mom chewed slowly and sighed peacefully, “I needed this.”
Anita and Skyler didn’t say a word. They relished in the melted filling and held their portion close to their chests.
The simple croissant renewed our battery. We were now running on sweet chocolate and even sweeter gestures. No matter how frustrating our situation was, there always appeared to be a silver lining that reminded me just how kind people could be. We really were all in this together.
December 21, 4 AM
No one could sleep. We sat for hours cramped in the corner of a Joe & the Juice. Any lingering aroma of coffee vanished into the sterile air. There was a thick silence that clogged my ears.
A man walked past us. He was carrying a warm cup of coffee and a plastic-wrapped sandwich. My mother and I sat up.
“If you need food, one of the stores is open,” he whispered. “Just go down and take a right.”
“Thank you,” we said gratefully.
“Wait here,” my mother said. “I’ll go get stuff.”
She came back with two small boxes of store-bought sushi, cartons of chocolate and soy milk, Biscoff cookies, and pretzels. Skyler and Anita woke up with their stomachs rumbling. We cleared a small circular table and set up our breakfast (or dinner, whatever it was).
We accidentally woke up a lightly sleeping couple next to us. They wearily looked at our food and fumbled through their backpacks to take out their own bags of stale chips and dried fruits.
Without saying a word, we scooted over to make room for them and offered them some cookies. Like an invitation, our little banquet became another meeting spot to exchange stories.
We shared snacks and talked about where we all would’ve been right now. We laughed over crumbly Oreo bites and tomato basil pretzels. The couple was planning a trip to London to check it off their bucket list. They had been saving up to go on a tour around the world. They were only supposed to stay in London for a few days before moving on –– now, their planned itinerary had to be thrown away.
As silence fell upon us again, I sunk back down into the uncomfortable armchair and let myself completely space out. My head hurt and my body felt stiff, but a subtle warmth made my heart glow ever so slightly. Everyone I met exhibited such small yet powerful displays of kindness–from the stories they performed to get our mind off of the endless night to the willingness to share a crowded bench with a complete stranger, these nameless faces reminded me of the good in people.
My eyes began to close again, and I could still taste hints of the chocolate croissant and envision the landscapes of Ireland. Everyone had something beautiful to share.
December 22, 7 AM
The airport finally saw the day. Passengers began to stream into the once-empty terminals. I even saw a plane take off. Maybe the Irish woman or the young couple were on it. My mother and I walked Anita to her gate after we said goodbye to Skyler. We had spent the last night laughing hysterically over the rapid series of traumatic events.
“Have fun in Paris,” I said. “And send me pictures!”
“Will do,” she promised. “Same to you in Holland!” We hugged each other.
I watched Anita arrive at her gate. I wondered if I was ever going to see her again, or if I would just watch her blossom from a distance through her social media posts. Stories of her life would become a memory, all nestled within the grooves and crevices of the Keflavik airport.
It was bittersweet watching the planes take off. They were filled with passengers who became fragments of our memorable story in Iceland. What a wondrous hub an airport can be –– it’s the intersection of an infinite amount of life histories, yet we are often moving too quickly to embrace it. It’s not every day when you have nowhere to go at an airport.
I thought about the kind security guard who went out of his way to make my mother’s day a little more special. I remember how he squatted down to meet us at eye level and listen to our tales of our family in Holland. I never saw him after that one night.
We were all nameless, anonymous strangers who found a new community on the first floor of the Keflavik airport. The stories we told, the sugary snacks that fueled us at 3 AM and the jackets we shared as blankets provided the warmth that we physically lacked. Laughter, a spontaneous sprinkle of kindness, and a secret birthday croissant really does cure the soul –– they make everything slightly easier to digest.