I was furious. I yelled, “I want to speak to your supervisor right now! I demand a full refund for our flights!”
A female Iberia Airlines customer service agent, who was just doing her job, responded, “Sir, the Federal Aviation Administration has not issued any travel restrictions from the U.S. to Israel. We are not issuing refunds for flights to Tel Aviv. If you and your travel companion do not board your scheduled flight, you both will forfeit your seats and will be charged the full fare.”
“This whole thing is fucked up!” I shouted, but before I could carry on with another vulgar outburst, my travel companion embraced my arm, and in a motherly tone said, “Marc, let’s board the flight to Israel as planned. Whatever happens to us there, good or bad, is God’s plan for us. There’s no changing God’s plan.”
Eight days earlier, on July 8, 2014, the Israeli Defense Forces launched a series of military strikes on Gaza in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. These military assaults started an all-out brawl which later became known as the 2014 Israel–Gaza Conflict, one of the deadliest Israeli-Palestinian hostile exchanges in decades. As fate would have it, I was headed straight into the heart of the battleground with my travel companion.
My travel companion was a 73-year-old, devout Catholic woman named Helen Cortez — my ex-mother-in-law. Yes, mi ex suegra. I was married to Helen’s daughter, Lori, for thirteen years, and we had two wonderful daughters together. Since the divorce, Helen and I spent several hours per month coordinating early-morning school drop-offs and after school pickups. Both of my daughters lovingly referred to Helen as their Nana, a term of endearment shared by many Mexican grandmothers.
Helen and I also had much in common. We were both born and raised in the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley by Mexican parents. Our shared Mexican heritage shaped our understanding of and respect for one another. Throughout my divorce with her daughter, Helen and I maintained an incredibly — almost unbelievably — healthy ex-in-law relationship. If anything, our family bond grew even stronger after my divorce with her daughter.
“Okay, let’s board the flight and hopefully by the time we land in Israel, an Israel-Hamas ceasefire will be in effect,” I replied.
According to the local South Florida TV news, ceasefire discussions had been initiated, but according to the American-based Israel-Hamas conflict pundits, neither side was ready to declare a truce.
Helen and I boarded our Iberia Airlines Barcelona-bound flight. In Barcelona, we would board an El Al Airlines flight to Tel Aviv.
We had a five-hour layover in Barcelona. We enjoyed a nice airport breakfast together and then I checked my emails.
The first email I saw in my inbox was from Lori. The email’s subject line instantly caught my attention, “CALL ME WHEN YOU LAND IN BARCELONA!!!!”
Lori and the girls were in southern Spain that summer, where the girls were attending a camp while Lori worked remotely nearby.
I called Lori from my cellphone.
“Hi. How are you and my Mom?” Lori asked.
“We’re fine. We’re boarding our flight to Tel Aviv in a few hours,” I responded.
“I don’t think you and my Mom should go to Israel. It’s not safe there. I think we should change our vacation plans and meet in Rome instead.”
“I’ve been thinking along the same lines. According to the Spanish news, Hamas is launching rockets toward Tel Aviv,” I said.
“Change your flights then.”
“Okay. I will call you back,” I responded as I hung up.
Helen and I walked over to the Iberia Airlines customer service counter. A little lady behind the counter motioned to us to approach her.
“Hi, we have a flight to Tel Aviv in a few hours, but do not feel comfortable flying to Israel because of the current hostilities. We would like to change our flight itinerary and fly to Rome, Italy instead. Can we change our flight destination because of the current situation in Israel without paying a change fee?” I asked.
“No, sir. We are not offering any special ticketing changes for Tel Aviv-bound passengers. You would need to cancel your existing flights and book a new flight travel plan.”
She somehow managed to search flight schedules and at the same time hold a meaningful conversation as only ticketing agents know how to do, then continued, “Sir, I recommend that you both travel to Israel as planned, and book your flights to Rome from there.”
“Okay, what about…” as I interrupted her mid-sentence.
“Sir, I am not finished. May I finish?” with another, this time slightly dramatic, breather. “The day before your return flight to Miami, fly back to Tel Aviv from Rome.”
I took a step back from the counter and turned to Helen, “What do you think?”
“Sounds fine to me,” she shrugged.
I called Lori and explained that her Mom and I would fly to Israel, then book flights to Rome from our hotel.
“Please, please take care of my mom!” Lori pleaded.
Helen and I finally started our jaunt to our El Al Airlines departure gate.
As we approached the gate, I noticed a short queue of people waiting their turn to pass through the El Al security checkpoint. A family in front us spoke Hebrew with Israeli passports in tow. An El Al security agent quickly verified their passports, and with what seemed like only a few basic questions, the family passed through the security checkpoint.
“Wow, that was easy.” I murmured.
I’d heard that the El Al security personnel could be quite abrasive and exhaustive in their pre-boarding questioning.
A female El Al security agent in her mid-twenties gestured for Helen and me to approach her.
“Passports please,” she said with a forced smile.
Helen and I handed our passports to the agent.
As the El Al security agent flipped through the pages of my passport, she asked, “What’s your relation to her?” as she tilted her head in Helen’s direction.
“This might sound strange but she’s my ex-mother-in-law.”
“Your ex-mother-in-law? Why would you be traveling with your ex-mother-in-law?” She said with a look of disbelief.
“It’s a long story,” I responded.
“Don’t worry. I have time.”
“Helen and I are meeting her daughter — my ex — and her granddaughters — my daughters — in Israel. My ex-wife, Lori, works for an Israeli company based in Tel Aviv.”
“Why aren’t they traveling with you now? Shouldn’t you all be together?”
“Helen and I just flew in from Miami where I live. The girls have been attending a summer camp in Spain for the past weeks and the camp ends in two days. They will be flying separately from Barcelona and meeting us in Israel,” I responded.
“I would think the grandmother would be her with her daughter and granddaughters, and not with her ex-son-in-law,” she countered.
She had a good point.
“Your story makes no sense,” She protested.
“Which part?” I asked.
“The entire thing. Especially the part that you are traveling with your ex-mother-in-law. What kind-of a man would agree to travel to a different country with his ex-mother-in-law?”
Glancing at Helen, I responded, “She and I have a very good relationship and focus on raising our girls.”
The El Al security agent was losing her patience. Her body language carried an aggravated tone.
“Tell me again who she is to you?” the El Al security agent asked.
“She’s my ex-mother-in-law,” I responded calmly.
“Let me get this straight, your story is that you are traveling to Israel with your ex-mother-in-law,” she asked with a raised eyebrow while looking at me for a head nod or any affirmative gesture.
I nodded my head.
“And what are you planning to do in Israel?” she asked.
“We are meeting my ex-wife and kids in Tel Aviv for a planned vacation.”
“Where do you sleep? Do you and your ex-wife sleep in the same room? Same bed when you vacation together?” she asked.
“No, I stay in a different hotel room,” I responded, completely impressed with her imaginative questioning.
“Stay here. I will be right back,” she said.
I glanced over at Helen, who looked perturbed.
“What’s her problem? She asked you the same questions twice?” Helen asked.
I explained to Helen that the El AL Security agents were notorious for grilling passengers, especially non-Israeli citizens, with repetitive questions during the pre-boarding process. The objective, as I continued to explain, was to identify any inconsistencies in the passengers’ responses, or any indication of traveling to Israel for the wrong reasons.
In the distance, our El Al Security Agent was speaking to a handful of other El Al Security Agents. I couldn’t hear anything that she was saying. But as she spoke, they all had turns glancing at Helen and me. Most of them smiled politely as they looked, but one agent couldn’t contain himself. He laughed so hard that a booger torpedo launched from his rather large Jewish nose.
After a few minutes, our female El AL Security agent returned with one of her male colleagues.
“This is my supervisor. He has a few questions for you,” she said curtly.
“I understand that you are traveling to Israel to meet your ex-wife and children. Is that correct?” he asked.
“Yes, that is correct,” I responded.
“And she’s your ex-mother-in-law?” he asked, as he looked Helen up and down, pausing a couple seconds to examine her breast area.
“Yes,” I said, feeling a little disturbed that any early thirty-something male would gawk at a seventy-year-old’s boobs.
“This is a highly unusual story. To be honest, I just had to come over and meet the poor guy who is traveling to Israel with his ex-mother-in-law,” he said. “You do know rockets are being fired into Tel Aviv. It’s not the safest place for children, especially children not born in Israel.”
“Yes, we are aware of the situation in Israel.”
“How do you feel about the situation?” he questioned.
“It’s very unfortunate. I have been receiving updates from my buddy, Sharon, who lives on the outskirts of Tel Aviv,” I responded.
“Who’s Sharon? Is he Israeli?” he asked with genuine interest.
“How do you know Sharon?” he asked.
“Sharon and I worked together at a software development company in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida ten years ago, and we maintained a very close friendship even though he moved back to Israel several years ago,” I responded.
I told the El Al Security Agents that my girls and I had plans to visit Sharon and his family during our trip.
“Do you know the name of the city where Sharon lives?” asked the female El Al Security Agent.
“No, I don’t,” I responded.
“Do you have his address?” she asked.
“I don’t know it by heart. I have his address on my laptop,” I answered as I pointed to my travel bag draped over my left shoulder.
“Are you staying with Sharon while you are on vacation in Israel?” she continued.
“No, we are staying at the Bell Hotel in Tel Aviv.”
“One minute, we will be right back.”
Both security agents walked off. The male security agent re-joined the group of security agents and the female who had questioned us first went to a telephone at a nearby desk.
After a few minutes on the phone, she came back to where Helen and I were standing.
“Okay, you are free to board your flight now. Please tell your ex-wife I will be looking for her in a couple days when she boards her flight to Tel Aviv,” she said with a smirk.
“Oh, you two are equally charming. You will get along with her very well!” I retorted as I started down the ramp toward our flight.
To be continued….