Twenty four hours before our flight I tried to do online check-in and the website refused to give me the boarding passes, citing unspecified problems with our documents. I was jolted with an immediate feeling of panic.
Although I knew that people coming from the USA were not allowed into the European Union because of the pandemic, from all the information we could gather it looked like people flying from the UK were given a green light, and I had been here already two months. Surely the restriction was based on where you had been lately, and not where you were born? Unfortunately it was already Friday afternoon and government offices were closing. I called the airline but could not be told why the boarding passes were rejected. Some algorithm had deemed us unfit to travel and nobody could fathom why.
So we gathered up all the paperwork we thought could help our case – marriage certificate, bank statements, proof that I had been in the UK many weeks – and prepared to face the airline agent at the check-in desk in the morning, then after that the Spanish immigration desk, if we made it onto the flight.
I remembered several times in the past being in what seemed a hopeless situation, with people warning me that I would fail, but I pushed on anyway and made it through after all. It was how I ended up cycling the length of California Highway 1 without any vehicle traffic in 1998 as crews repaired seven wash-outs in the road. It was how I ended up witnessing a sky burial ceremony in Tibet in 2006 far outside the area permitted to tourists around Lhasa. So with perseverance and luck we would succeed in entering Spain.
The next morning Karen's dad Robin drove us in the rain to catch the express bus to Edinburgh Airport. Within half an hour we stood before the British Airways agent with as much luggage as we could possibly carry, trying to look confident. She took my passport, consulted her computer, and got a worried look on her face. Uh oh...
Karen's UK passport was fine: Spain would welcome her. Did I have a residence permit? No... but we are married... The agent got on the phone with someone while we stood and sweated. Finally the answer came: we could have our boarding passes. It seems that wedlock was the key, and something the online algorithm did not know about us. The British Airways service was superb: imagine a low budget Ryan Air agent taking the time to phone anyone on our behalf.
Now at least our luggage was on the way to Spain. We had a connection at London Heathrow, so there was still a possibility for trouble boarding the international flight there, but my worries evaporated for now. We took seats on a busy flight, wearing the most potent masks we had been able to find, and tried not to breathe much during the jaunt down to London.
Heathrow was the quietest that I had ever seen. We boarded a nearly empty plane to Spain. I saw the English countryside through broken clouds, and then it was a blanket of white below us all the way across France. After two hours we started our descent, and the clouds began to disperse. A lovely yellow sunlight lit verdant, angular hills that cast shadows toward clustered houses with red clay tiled roofs. At last our plane reached the coastline and there was the gorgeous blue Mediterranean Sea with one tiny white ship on the wind streaked waters. We banked to descend to Barcelona Airport.
Now came our final test: would the EU let me come in? We strode up to the glass counters at border control and I quickly eyed the agents. The one on the left looked grumpy; I veered to the right. First I passed my US passport to the agent, who muttered aloud "uh oh!" Not a good sign! He started flipping pages looking for a residence permit. I admitted that I did not have one. But Karen handed through her UK passport, and I used my best Spanish to explain "Ella es mi marida". Karen smiled at the mistake, and the border agent laughed out loud. He started flipping my passport pages again, stopping on an empty one. His hand reached for his stamp. It made the most beautiful "ka-thud!" that I had ever heard.
We were in Spain!
Our long-time friend Josep was already driving to the airport to fetch us. Pushing all this luggage on a trolley, it took some time for us to find a spot to meet him: the pandemic restrictions had changed the traffic patterns through the airport. But soon enough we were crammed into his VW Golf with our luggage and racing up into the hills toward the town of Taradell, his home.