Friday, January 8, 2010

A Memorable Journey

It’s 4:30 am, and I am lying on a recliner in terminal F at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris. I’ve been wandering around this airport since yesterday morning, as I wait for the 10am flight to Florence, not my final destination, but the best thing I could get under the current circumstances. And even though I’ve been traveling for slightly more thank 24 hours, it feels a lot longer than that.

In the Beginning

My journey began in NYC, what could be considered two calendar days ago. Right from the start, things didn’t seem to go according to plan. The trip to the airport, which under normal circumstances would take no longer than an hour, turned out to be a 90 minutes bumper to bumper affair. I am not sure why, since in NYC traffic jams occur for no particular reason, but this was one of those instances where I was glad I left myself plenty of extra time.

On a lighter note, once I arrived at the long term parking at JFK airport, I was lucky enough to spot a car seemingly pulling out of a parking space very close to the monorail station. I felt like I was getting a break for a change. Instead, I sat there staring at the engaged reverse gear lights for over 10 minutes. I eventually stepped out of my car and approached the vehicle; and there I saw this very peculiar scene of a man making a BLT sandwich as he sat in the driver seat of his car. I politely asked if he didn’t mind continuing his sandwich making endeavor outside the parking space so that I could catch my flight. He obliged, and I was grateful.

The monorail ride was uneventful, and the train was actually waiting for me as I reached the top of the escalator. This allowed me to get to the terminal exactly two hours before my scheduled departure, as I had planned. As I walked around the terminal trying to find the Air France check-in counter, I felt that I had accomplished the most potentially stressful part of the trip and so I begun getting in the sit back, relax and enjoy the flight type of mood.

A Bad Omen

As I approached the check in counter, I was approached by an Air France employee who directed me to what it looked like a self serve check-in counter. Since I wasn’t planning to check my suitcase in anyway I gladly proceeded to the self serve machine so that I could test my newly issued, microchip laden, U.S. passport. After getting what looked like a boarding pass, I proceeded to the security checkpoint only to be told by the person in charge of screening the boarding passes that I needed to return to the airline check-in desk to get some kind of signature.

Annoyed by the confusion, I went back to the lady that directed me to the self serve machine who tells me that the document I believed to be a boarding pass is simply some kind of pre check-in ticket, and that, for this reason, I still need to go to the check-in counter. While wondering about the usefulness of this extra step, I approach the counter. It was then that I made what in retrospect was a grave mistake: I complained to the check-in person about the confusing directions given by her colleague. She wouldn’t hear any of it and actually dismissed my complain by saying that I had certainly misunderstood her co-worker.

That’s when retribution time begun. First, she asked me if I was going to check in any luggage, to which I replied in the negative. Then she asked me if had a carry on, to which I replied in the affirmative. At that point, she proceeds to make a very unusual request, weight my carry on bag, after which (seemingly because it was not above the limit) she asks me to fit my suitcase in those pre-fitted contraption designed to check the size of the carry on. Mind you, that I had one of those regular carry ones that everyone carries on board. Most of these carry-ons won’t fit in these metal contraption and for this reason, I believe that those exist only for those customers, like myself, who needed to be taught a lesson.

Since I already knew that my suitcase would not fit, I declined the request and told the check in person to simply check my bag in. I also told her that I felt I was being targeted by her apparently because I had the audacity to complain about one of her colleagues. Second mistake. At this point, the check-in person proceeded to inform me that I did not have a seat assigned and that for this reason, I would have had to wait stand-by because the flight was overbooked. This, regardless of the fact that I had shown up two hours before departure, that I had booked my trip over a month prior, and that I had actually picked my seat at the time of booking. I felt persecuted.

I decided I wasn’t going to take it any longer and I requested to speak to a supervisor. She pointed to her supervisor and so I gladly left her station. It took a little be of arguing, but I was finally able to extract a window seat (which is what I had booked in the first place) and move on to the security checkpoint. This was not an easy feat, by the way, as I had to sit while the supervisor was lecturing me about how this was a special favor that she was doing for me even though I didn’t deserve it. At that point, it really didn’t matter how I got my seat, and I was simply glad I did.

From the checkpoint to the aircraft it was a breeze and I settled in my seat waiting for take-off. I was also glad that unlike my last flight to Europe, the person sitting next to me didn’t require a seat belt extension. As a matter of fact, she was a very charming French woman named Livia, which is a name I had never come across before, in a woman at least. It turned out she also worked in the music industry, so at the end of the flight, I gave her my business card just in case.

La Ville-Lumière

The landing was a little shaky. There was a thick cloud cover, and it was snowing. Upon touchdown, the plane swerved left and right a couple of times, as if it was skidding around on the icy runway. It probably was just my impression, but it was an interesting way to wake up nonetheless. I had slept most of the flight and I felt I was going to overcome my jet lag pretty quickly because of it.

Once in Paris, I transferred to terminal G, where my connecting flight was supposed to take off around 3 pm. I could see the snow coming down from the terminal windows, and the departure screens were showing some cancellations, as well as some delays. My flight, while not cancelled, had been delayed by three hours. With some time on my hands, I decided to get something to eat at the terminal’s café.

I sat next to a nice woman who, as it turned out, was a New Jerseyite transplanted in California. She was traveling to visit her daughter, who had been working as a teacher in a small French west coast town for a year. Since I had some time to kill, I decided to call my friend Luisa, my ride at my final destination, to let her know that my flight was delayed, in case she didn’t already know. Surprisingly, someone else picked up her cell phone, but since it was early afternoon, I figured she may be busy at work and simply couldn’t talk.

Unfortunately, my common sense guess was wrong. As it turned out, my friend had been run over by a car two days prior, and she had been in the hospital ever since because she had suffered a concussion. Chiara, my friend’s friend, told me that Luisa was a little confused and it only took a couple of minutes for me to understand what she meant by that. She put her on the phone, and I asked her how she was. She answered saying something about some son of hers and since she’s never had children, I quickly realized she was in an extreme confusional state.

I hang up the phone after telling my friend to get some rest, and then told Chiara that I would go visit Luisa first thing the next day. In the meantime, the Jerseyite woman who shared the table with me had left because her flight was supposed to leave fairly soon, so I decided to go back to the main hall to check on the status of my flight. I was glad to discover that the expected departure time was earlier than previously announced, so I sat in a chair and I started reading a book I had brought along with me.

Bad Things Often Come in Pairs

As the time of departure approached, I could see more and more flights being cancelled, and the TV screens where now littered with red. My flight was still there though, and the time of departure was fast approaching. I was forced to keep an eye on the TV screens because, for some reason, the airline would not announce the gate information until twenty minutes before departure.

It was now two minutes before the supposed announcement, and I found myself waiting with trepidation, as if the announcing of the gate would have marked a definite departure. Instead, almost as if on cue, the estimated departure time changed from 5:30 pm to 11:52 pm. In one split second, my feelings changed from the excitement of departing within twenty minutes, to the despair of having to wait six more hours. But what was I there to do? Nothing, but wait.

As I was staring at the screen, I kept looking at the 11:52 pm scheduled departure time, and I couldn't help but wonder how the airline could announce such a precise time more that six hours ahead when flights were being cancelled left and right and no one seemed to have any idea of what was going to happen in twenty minutes, let alone six hours. I began feeling like I was not going to leave that night, but as long the my flight had an actual time of departure announced, I was determined not to give my hopes up.

I eventually resigned myself to the long wait and so I decided to occupy my time with watching one of the movies I had brought with me from home, rather than endlessly watching the TV screens for more useless updates. I opted for the documentary The Take, which recounts the vicissitudes of a group of factory workers in Argentina who decide to expropriate and run the ironwork factory they had been laid off from before it was shut down for good in the midst the economic crisis of the early 2000s.

A New Friend

One hour and one half later, I looked at the TV screens only to realize that my flight had completely vanished. I gathered my things, and proceeded to the airline counter. Since most of the flights had been cancelled already, the line extended half way through the terminal and I was probably looking at a two-hour wait, to say the least. While I was waiting in line I started talking to the woman standing next to me; her name was Jessica, she was originally from Oregon and looked like she could be in her mid twenties; possibly out of boredom for the interminable wait, she entertained a conversation with me for the duration of our wait.

Over the course of our conversation, Jessica told me how she was traveling to visit an ex boyfriend of hers who she used to date a couple of years prior. At the time, she had broken up with him because she felt that she wasn’t ready to commit herself to a serious relationship; the reason being that she wasn't sure what to do with her life as far as her career was concerned. He, on the other hand, was eleven years older than her and was looking for commitment. This discrepancy in goals and expectations lead to fights and disagreements until one day, on a drive back to Europe from Kenya, she decided to break up with him right then and there and move back to the U.S.. Two years later, with a better idea of what she wanted to do with her life, Jessica decided to give it another try.

Once we reached the airline counter we were glad to discover that Air France was going to provide us with hotel rooms as well as food vouchers for the evening. Since the earliest flight to our destination was at 8 pm the following evening, we opted for a morning flight to Florence, about one hour train ride away from we were supposed to go. All in all, it seemed like we had gone through the worse of our journey and we were looking forward to a warm shower and a comfortable bed.

With hotel and food vouchers in our hand, I and my newly acquired travel companion took the bus to the terminal where our hotel shuttles were supposed to leave from. My voucher said that my bus would pick me up at 11:15 pm while Jessica’s said 11:30 pm. Since we had a little extra time, we decided to get our free sandwiches before heading to the bus stop. After we ate, we proceeded to the outside platform where we were greeted by the sight of hundreds of people waiting in line. Even though Jessica and I were headed to different hotels, it felt as if we both tacitly preferred to stay together at least until we were able to get onto our respective shuttles.

The bus stop was outside the terminal and it was snowing heavily, and while the temperature was extremely cold, it was made bearable by the fact that people were tightly packed into a very small space. I also had my hat and gloves so I was perfectly comfortable, but I could see some people at the edges of the platform who looked ill prepared for this type of weather. As we waited, hotel shuttles kept driving by but, for some reason, it didn’t look like any of the people waiting on the platform were boarding any of the buses.

From Bad to Worse

After about one hour wait, we started wondering why the buses we had been waiting for weren’t coming. We could see the same Hyatt and other name brand hotel shuttles coming over and over, while there was no sight of any buses coming from our hotels. Eventually, a big Air France bus approached the platform and a multitude of people ran to its door thinking that the airline had charted the bus for us. A brief conversation with the driver cooled off everyone’s hopes and the bus drove away as empty as it had arrived.

It was at that point that I noticed a couple of women sitting on the curb with what looked like newborn infants tightly wrapped in their arms. I was dismayed at the a scene and, for this reason, I told Jessica that since it didn’t look like our buses were going to come anytime soon, it was probably a good idea for at least one of us to go to the airline counter in order to find out what was going on. We were a little titubant at first because we were afraid that our buses would come right when we decided to step away from the platform in perfect Murphy’s Law fashion. On the other hand, it had been over ninety minutes since the buses were supposed to arrive, so we gave ourselves a two-hour deadline, after which we would give up on waiting for the bus.

In the meantime, people on the platform were getting restless and some had started harassing whatever bus driver would pull up to the platform; some even tried to bribe the drivers into taking them to their respective hotels. At one point, a Courtyard by Marriott bus (my hotel) even showed up, only to find out it was heading to a different location. Eventually, a few adventurous people started looking for others who were headed to the same hotels they were, so that they could share a taxi. In the meantime, others were calling the hotels to find out what had happened to our buses.

It was then that we learned that no buses from our hotels were going to come. Apparently, the hotels we were headed to were so far from the airport (some of them even in downtown Paris) that they had canceled all shuttle buses due to the heavy snow. The great distance also made it difficult for people to get a taxi because of the high fare involved.

Our deadline had come and gone, and Jessica and I went inside the terminal in order to gather as much information as we could. The lines at the airline counters looked interminable so it looked like the best bet was to ask other people. I saw a woman crying; I saw others who had given up and had thrown themselves on the floor wherever they happened to be. Possibly out of exasperation, I decided to cut on a line so that I could ask what had happened to our buses; it was then that an Air France employee told me, with a straight face, that I should go back to the platform because the bus was there waiting for me. Fortunately for me, I could see the bus stop from were I was, otherwise I would have gone back outside for nothing.

(In regard to this incident, I later on talked to a friend of mine who works in the airline industry. She told me that when this type of thing happens, and hundreds of stranded and upset people are seeking help from her at once, her only priority is to get these people away from her as quickly as possible; and if that requires lying to someone’s face so be it. So much for courtesy, professionalism, and respect. But I am digressing.)

A few minutes later and after enough people had complained that there were no buses taking people anywhere, the airline gave in and they started issuing taxi vouchers for people. But at that point both me and Jessica had had enough of standing in line; we had been waiting for half an hour and the line hadn’t moved a bit. It was already two in the morning and we needed to be back in the airport six hour later. That was when we gave up, and we decided that it was probably best to simply spend the night in the airport in order to get as much sleep as we could. Jessica was pretty tired and upset, and for this reason she told me she preferred being alone for the rest of the night so we said goodbye and went our own separate ways.

The Kindness of Strangers

As I walked trying to find a place where I could lie down for a few hours I remembered that many years before, while traveling through the same airport, I had seen some recliners that looked very comfortable. I approached a security guard and asked him if he knew of such recliners. He answered affirmatively saying that they were in terminal F. The problem, he said after looking at my boarding pass, was that my flight was out of terminal G and, for this reason, I wasn’t allowed to enter a different terminal because of security regulations. “Just my luck!” I thought. And so it was. The security guard looked at me for a second and then said: “Follow me.”

His name was R., something I found out later. I am omitting his full name to protect his identity. We walked from terminal E, where we were, to terminal F. Once we reached the security check point, R. walked toward one of the guards and started talking. He then asked for my boarding pass and gave it to the other guard, together with what looked like a business card. After talking for a couple of minutes, he walked toward me and told me to put my backpack and jacket inside the machine for inspection. As I did that, he told me that he had talked to the security guard on duty at terminal F and that he had vouched for me so that I could enter the terminal, even though I had a boarding pass from a different terminal. I was stunned. Here was a man who went out of his way, possibly risking his job in today’s climate of fear, so that I could get a decent night sleep while stranded in a foreign airport by myself in the middle of the night. Before leaving me R. told me that he would have come by a few hours later with some water and blankets.

I was happy and I didn’t care any longer about my ordeal. Life was good and I felt there was hope for humanity. I walked toward the end of the terminal looking for the elusive reclining chairs and as I walked, I kept thinking how I would have been able to get a decent night sleep without having to either sleep on a cold floor or sitting on a uncomfortable chair. And as I walked, I kept thanking Mr. R. from Charles De Gaulle airport, to whom I was going to be eternally grateful.

Endless Night

Unfortunately my good mood was once again short lived. As I reached the section with the recliners I realized that other stranded passengers had the same idea and every single one of them was taken. There were even a couple of people sleeping on the floor in between two of the recliners as if they were waiting for their turn. For a moment I felt I should look for a place less crowded since I couldn’t get a recliner, but I didn’t want to risk walking out of the terminal and lose my privileged access, especially after what Mr. R. had gone through to get me in. I was also pretty exhausted, so it really didn’t matter where I slept at that point. I first went to the restroom to wash up a little and then I settled in a secluded corner at beginning of the row of recliners. I figured maybe I would get lucky and someone would vacate a recliner before sunrise.

The floor was cold but at least it was carpeted. I also had my heavy snow jacket and so I was fairly comfortable. As I tried to fall asleep I kept hearing the cleaning crews roaming around the terminal with some pretty loud machinery. I could also hear a TV set which I remembered walking by on my way in. I quickly realized I was in one of those situation where I was so tired, I couldn’t fall asleep, but instead of getting up I decided I might as well rest my eyes and muscles for a few hours. Little did I know that my restlessness was what allowed me to spot a couple as they were getting up from their recliners. Needless to say, I raced to claim the chair and lied down happy that I could finally get some well deserved sleep.

I woke up two hours later feeling chilly. Somehow, the terminal had either gotten colder during the night or my core temperature had dropped as I slept and I was now feeling uncomfortably cold. I looked around but there were no spare blankets to be found. I was also thirsty since I had to give up my bottle of water when I went through security. It didn’t seem as if Mr. R. had come as he promised, or maybe I simply missed him while I slept. I certainly didn’t want to risk losing my recliner so I decided to endure the thirst and try to sleep some more. I had my hat on, plus the ear plugs and eye mask I had saved from my first flight. The problem was that I was only wearing a shirt and my jacket could no longer keep me warm enough.

As I tossed and turned the recliner would swing like a rocking chair. As a matter of fact, it sounded as if a concert was taking place in the terminal: a concert of recliners hitting the floor as people continuously changed their position. Out of boredom, I started paying attention to those sounds trying to identify some kind of pattern. While doing so, two recliners to my right, I heard a woman get up, leaving her blanket behind. I jumped up and grabbed it before anyone else could (not that anyone tried). Now, I was finally all set. I looked at my watch: 4:30 am. I still had a few hours of sleep ahead of me so I settled under the blanket, pulled down the eye mask and went to sleep.

Pigs in a Blanket

Since my flight was scheduled to leave at 10 am in the morning and I had to get to terminal G from where I was, I had set my cell phone alarm for 8 am. I figured an hour would have given me enough time to find some hot breakfast before boarding. When I woke up, the glass terminal was enveloped in sunlight, and there were people boarding flights to the left and right of me. Good thing I had set my alarm to vibrate because the earplugs I was wearing turned out to be very effective. After a quick bathroom stop I found what looked like a nice place to have breakfast. I sat down, ordered my Anglo Saxon breakfast (eggs, sausage, and salad) and begun writing this blog.

Upon arriving at terminal G I was happy to see Jessica once again. We exchanged night stories and chatted until it was time to board our flight. I was able to get a little more sleep on the plane and this was surely needed, especially since I still had a way to go before I got to my final destination. At least I felt I was getting closer by the minute and upon touchdown I felt as if my odyssey was coming to a close. What else could possibly go wrong?

It only took the time of going through the passport checkpoint for me to be faced with the next setback. As you may have guessed, my luggage didn’t make it with me, but by then I was so attuned to the apparently endless cascade of disappointments that I didn’t even wait for my suitcase to show up. Because of this, I was the first to show up at the lost luggage claim counter, and thus I was able to get through this new hurdle with relatively little waste of time.

After taking the bus to the train station in downtown Florence, I boarded my train and spent the trip writing some more. Since Luisa was lying on a hospital bed, my next best option was to take a taxi. But upon my arrival I decided to simply walk and enjoy the town. I was so unfashionably late that an extra few hours delay would not have changed much. As I walked, I decided to buy a few things to hold me over while I waited for my luggage to arrive. Had I planned to check it in, I would have brought more necessities with me. But since I was forced to check in my luggage against my will, I literally had nothing with me but the clothes I was wearing. And so I bought myself a couple of nice shirts, underwear, and socks. In retrospect I should also have bought a sweater, but since I thought my suitcase would reach me in a day or so, I opted not to.

'O Sole Mio

It turns out that the cold spell that enveloped much of Europe during the holiday season was one for the annals. On coastal Tuscany, where I was, snow is generally a once in a decade type event; and yet, it snowed twice within the first four days of my arrival. My suitcase, in the meantime, was talking its own little European tour. First it was in Paris, then in Rome, then who knows. Suffices to say that it took four very cold days before I was able to put on a sweater, and when I did, the sun came out.

As if on cue, and as soon as I finally got my suitcase thanks to the aforementioned friend in the airline industry, the temperature rose considerable and there was no longer need for sweaters. Anna, such is her name, told me that I should be grateful that I received my suitcase in only four days. She said that last time something similar had happened, it took one and one half months for some people to receive their luggage. Lucky me, I guess.

The snow turned into rain, and the rain didn't stop. Within a few days, a sizeable river close to where I stayed had over flown. A major highway had to be closed. People were still stranded all over Europe and many people on my flight where probably still waiting for their luggage somewhere. And yet, this trip had given me a renewed appreciation for life and its precariousness. Over the course of my stay, I ended up meeting some old friends which I had not seen in a generation. Most importantly, this newfound appreciation for life allowed me to see a person, for whom I always had a special fondness for, in a surprisingly new light.

In the end, and with all that went wrong, my trip turned out to be delightful. By the time my return flight rolled around, I had completely gotten over the ordeal of getting there and I was already making plans for my return. All in all, this voyage served as a reminder that, sometimes, even the most unpleasant circumstances can hold some unexpected gems of beauty and hope worth cherishing forever. Another, more mundane lesson I gathered from this memorable journey, is that from now on I will always carry along an extra toothbrush.

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