Baguettes and Red Tape

As a recap of my first month spent in the North of France, I have decided to divide my narrative into the good, the bad, and the (somewhat less) ugly.  Not to state the obvious, but the three categories are French food, French bureaucracy, and international air travel.  I’ll let you decide which label fits which topic.
But first, a brief anecdotal mash-up of my past few experiences flying across the Atlantic ocean…

The Hazards of Air Travel

January 2011

I have traveled via airplanes more than perhaps any other form of travel, in total kilometers and trips abroad.  Perhaps statistically speaking, the odds are therefore somewhat less in my favor in regards to missed flights, lost baggage, and flight cancellations.  I mostly chalk that up to two airline carriers: American and Delta/Air France.

Once when my family of six was trying to catch a flight to Colorado on Christmas day, we were promptly told that our entire family was on stand-by.  With much pouting (and a few spontaneous tears on my part), we were rescheduled for two flights the following day, forcing my father to cancel his entire 3-day ski trip.  In the end, after more pouting and tears on the second stand-by failure the next morning, we ended up with a travel voucher that allowed my entire family to take a vacation in Puerto Rico – alas, on the same airline.

One year, my family was touring Switzerland, toting massive backpacker gear, and two of our backpacks never made it to the Zurich airport.  My poor father and younger brother wore the same clothes three days in a row, until we broke down and bought them new clothing.  Since we kept switching hotels and cities, the luggage only caught up with us after half the trip had gone by.  Flying home on this adventure, we had chosen to lay over in London Heathrow airport.  Unbeknownst to us, the airport must have received some sort of security alert that they chose not to explain to the passengers.  Instead, my entire family was selected to undergo a comprehensive search (my father always claims that since he has a small build that corresponds to the profile of a Middle Eastern man, they choose him as an example of reverse racial profiling).  Not only did we have to pass through full body scanners (in the days when these were not yet compulsory) and submit to pat-downs, they also went through every single article of our carry-on bags.  For my thirteen-year-old brother, this meant turning on and off his Gameboy, and they also flipped through my fifteen or so books.  To make matters worse, they made all the passengers wait for an indefinite amount of time in this terminal without the opportunity to leave – they gave us potato chips and snacks as compensation.  Finally, we got the green light to walk to another, undisclosed, terminal, where we went down a flight of stairs, got on a bus, and boarded the plane.  I still to this day do not know why they went to all that trouble.

Once I began traveling internationally on my own, I began to experience what I call “the homecoming curse.”  For three transatlantic flights in a row heading back from Europe to the United States, I have failed to catch my connecting flight and, as a result, have spent the night in an airport-sponsored hotel.  In 2009, I once again (for hopefully the last time) found myself in Heathrow, waiting to catch a plane through to Chicago.  We were boarded without a problem, but once aboard the plane, the flight crew informed us that something was wrong with the second gas canister (I might be mangling the details on this one), and that they would have to replace it before take-off.  Granted, like a good traveler, I had given myself two to three-hour leeway room for my layover in Chicago, but by the time an hour had passed without us taking off, I started to panic.  Upon arriving in Chicago, I found that I needed to take off my luggage and recheck it for my American Airlines flight.  As I finally reached the line (which moved at a snail’s pace), I frantically called my mother about my missed flight.  I was very sleep-deprived, and so I blatantly told the woman at the counter to put me on the next available flight – which happened to be at 6:00 am the next morning.  In retrospect, as they gave me a free hotel room, it probably would have been a better idea to choose a flight that doesn’t require me to wake up at 4:00 am.

For my second international homecoming, in May 2011, I flew from Paris to New York JFK on an Air France/Delta flight.  This time, the waiting took place at the terminal, again for an undisclosed reason.  My fellow passengers and I happened to notice, however, that there were at least three trained dogs on the tarmac sniffing the luggage apparently belonging to our flight.  The delay must not have been longer than thirty to forty minutes, but it was significant enough that it put my 3-hour window in jeopardy.  Especially since upon arriving in New York, I realized what chaos it is to pass through customs at JFK and to attempt to recover your suitcases from among the millions of other suitcases pouring out at the same time.  I made my way to the Delta/Air France counter once I had been told that I didn’t have enough time to recheck my luggage.  Feeling somewhat wiser than I was at age 19, I told them I wanted a direct flight home to St. Louis the next day.  My only option was to fly out of LaGuardia, so I convinced them to book me a hotel room at the adjoining hotel.  The only problem was how to get there.  Still incredibly naive, I almost got into an unidentified cab after being guided by an incredibly pushy “cab driver” in New York City.   As he started loading my bags into his car, I stuck to my gut (and the realization that $60 was probably way out of the park for my short drive), and went back to the line of Yellow taxis.  Luckily, I called my mother again, who was able to confirm the address of the hotel.  All worked out eventually.

January of 2012, I found myself yet again taking the same flight from Paris to New York.  This time I was afraid that I wouldn’t even make my transatlantic flight.  I spent two hours waiting to check my bags, which didn’t get loaded until literally 1:00 pm for a 1:30 pm flight, as there were various problems with AirFrance, including the fact that the workers kept leaving for lunch breaks and not coming back.  They delayed the flight for us, as it was a double-decker AirBus missing a good percentage of its passengers due to baggage delays, but I still sprinted through the terminal and was only calm once I buckled my seatbelt.  I got red wine spilt on me twice by my seat-mate (the same Chinese guy who asked for champagne, red wine, and another bottle of red for the meal), but the food was good, seats comfortable, and the movies wonderful.  Of course, there was no chance of me passing through customs in time to get my bag (among 300 other bags) and make my connecting flight within 30 minutes.  So Delta/Air France put me up in the Double Tree.  Not too shabby.  Of course, I had an additional layover the following day and a 7-hour drive to Omaha the day after, but I eventually made it back to my university.

From St. Louis to Amiens

Valentine, Nebraska

My journey abroad this time was without a doubt the most ambitious I have yet planned: it involved four planes, fourteen hours round-trip in a car, a 30-minute RER train, and an hour and a half train ride before arriving at my final destination.  Of course, it was much more meander, for good reason.  Two of my close friends were getting married the day before my international flight!

My itinerary was thus as follows: I’d catch a plane from St. Louis to Omaha on Friday, where I would meet up with friends still studying in Omaha or otherwise living there, and spend the night at a friend of a friend’s place (with the said friend there of course) and his roommate, a mutual friend.  It resulted in a lot of hilarious adventures through Omaha’s Old Market with two full suitcases, as well as some quality time spent with good friends.

Me and my bags, with friends, in the Old Market

The next stage of the journey was a bit more cumbersome.  Saturday morning, my friend and I woke up early to be picked up by two other college friends – the four of us were roadtripping seven hours to Valentine, Nebraska, a little town in the north of the state with absolutely gorgeous vistas and a real “Wild West” flavor.  We took a tour of the town and then helped out by visiting with the bride and the groom, separately, until the wedding extravaganza took place.  It was so worth traveling a day and a half to see them there!  We spent the night on the floor of the bride’s childhood bedroom, and then Sunday morning, we were back in the car, another seven hours to get back to Omaha.  What a wonderful way to say good-bye to close friends!

In Omaha, the weekend happened to coincide with move-in at my Alma Mater, so my friends who were Seniors ferried me around as the went to used bookstores, a local pizza joint, and a cellphone carrier, before I got ready in their college apartment.  Finally, I arrived at the Omaha airport (tiny that is!) and, with the help of a Chinese friend – an almost 100k United Gold member himself –  managed to convince United to check my bags all the way to Paris!  It cost me $100 for the second bag, but as I had packed literally my entire wardrobe, it was worth it.  The flight was smooth sailing until arriving in Chicago, where I had to walk for a solid half an hour before arriving at the LOT Polish airlines check-in.  I needed to print out my boarding pass and, more importantly, ensure that they had transferred my bags to my international flight.  The wait was excruciatingly long, and I must have been the only non-Pole to board my flight.

Finally, at 10:00 PM, I managed to get onto the flight – let me just say diplomatically, the Polish people must either detest lines or have been in quite a hurry, because it’s a miracle I got anywhere with all the individuals who cut in front of me in line.  The flight was so incredibly different from my previous AirFrance experiences.  I had the impression of being in a Soviet-era airplane, complete with the old communal film projector and the enthusiastic clapping for the pilot as we landed in Warsaw (I had never had the experience of clapping upon arriving at my destination, leaving me more worried than I had been the previous 9 hours! – aren’t the majority of landings safe and smooth?).  The food, as I had chosen a special “Moslem” meal on the online website, was also drastically different from what I had eaten aboard the French airline – fish, in a word.  Grilled fish, smoked fish, something resembling fish for my breakfast.  I wonder what the “Vegetarian” or “Hindi” meals must have been like!  As the seemingly only non-Pole on the flight, I was also constantly addressed in Polish, of which I am sadly totally ignorant.  All in all, it was a good flight, although the nine and a half hours crossing Greenland, Great Britain, and the Scandinavian countries was a bit long.

I passed through customs and immigration in Poland, which was a surreal experience.  Luckily I had a decent layover before my Paris flight, for getting through the line was not the most productive time I have spent.  As a bonus, however, it meant that I wouldn’t have to go through customs in France, which meant that arrival at my final destination took less time and hassle.  I picked up my two bags (I had had to convince the woman at the counter in Warsaw that I did indeed have two bags and had paid for the second) with the other Europeans, and I strolled my way through the European terminal.  Unfortunately, as Hedi was to meet me at the Gare SNCF, it meant I had a ten minute shuttle to wait before finally arriving, tired and sweaty.  As luck would have it, he arrived from the Parisian RER just in time.

The rest of Monday evening was hazy, spent being jostled in the RER and then nearly falling asleep in the TER train to Amiens.  We dragged the two bags across the Rue 3 Cailloux to my apartment, where Hedi spent two trips lugging my 20 kilo suitcases up five flights of stairs.  Finally, I was home.

I’ll continue with Baguettes and Red Tape another day…

Has anyone had any interesting experiences with air travel? Any “unusual circumstances” that have never been explained?

Categories: France, Poland, Switzerland, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What’s a Gap Year?

Most people meet me with blank stares when I evoke the year I spent abroad in Europe Jet d'eau, Genèveas an eighteen-year-old.  “You did what!?”  I try to grin and not take offense, for after all, there are a lot more exotic things to do with one’s time than attend high school in Geneva, Switzerland.  Such as bungee-jumping in Africa. Or touring the world via sailboat.  But for those of you less-enlightened, I thought it might be worth explaining what exactly is a Gap Year.

I was fifteen years old when I first heard the term and quickly became obsessed with the concept.  My older cousin had just graduated high school and was planning on spending a year studying in Denmark, living with a host family, through a high school exchange program called AFS (American Field Service).  Apparently, my aunt – her mother – was chosen when she was her daughter’s age to spend a year in Denmark through the same program, back when sending your daughter to live with strangers involved little more than long-distance communication via letter-writing.  What made this different from your average high school exchange program?  The timing.  Instead of entering university directly after high school, as so many Americans do, my cousin differed admission à l’anglaise in order to attend a fifth year of high school – in a Danish school, in a Danish town, with all classes taught in Danish.

Fellow AFS-ers in Geneva, SwitzerlandAFS-ers

I did some research on the subject and discovered that Gap Years are actually quite common in Europe, especially in England, where beginning university at age eighteen isn’t as ubiquitous as it appears to be in the United States.  After completing A-levels, the French baccalauréat, or the Swiss maturité, many prefer to have more life experience – travel, learn a foreign language, volunteer abroad, earn some money – before going to college.  Far removed from the “campus culture” of American universities, this was both practical and well-received.  Sadly, as costs are rising and programs become more and more competitive in foreign universities, the “Gap-ers” are dwindling in number as utilitarian-based thinking predominates:  “Get a degree.  Get a job.”

After two previous stays in France, I was intoxicated by the idea of living in Europe.  By age sixteen, I plotted my attack.  I attended a private high school and planned on applying to a prestigious undergraduate university, so my junior and senior years of high school were out of the question.  A gap year was my only option.  I figured I could convince my mother of the merits of becoming fluent in French before beginning a university degree, so I strayed away from Finland and Hungary, whose languages I had little chance of continuing at my university of choice.  Finally, my birthdate decided for me which French-speaking European country I would apply for – as AFS at the time had no officially sanctioned “gap year” programs, only Switzerland allowed me to attend a full year of high school if I was born after April 1, 1990.  The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me.  My mother, who went to high school in Canada, had spent the then commonplace “year thirteen” at a Canadian school in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, at the exact same age.  My plan of attack was complete.


My parents were entirely unprepared for my carefully thought out email that I sent one morning from my high school.  I had calculated expenses, thought through my decision, evaluated the importance of having life experience and becoming immersed in a foreign language.  I planned to apply to universities my senior year of high school like everyone else and defer admission for a year.  My parents were defenseless in the face of my unabashed longing to live in Europe, my realistic planning to make it a reality.  Who could resist a sixteen-year-old girl dreaming for an adventure in one of the safest countries in the world?

Everyone I knew was shocked by my plans: high school guidance counselors, close friends, parents.  It’s been a constant refrain as an undergraduate, explaining why I was a year behind, why I didn’t mind graduating in three years.  Very few people could comprehend the magnitude of what I was undertaking at age eighteen.

Geneva, Switzerland, eventually became a land of fairy tales, but my gap year was the hardest, most challenging thing I have ever done.  Upon arrival, I realized to my dismay that there was a big difference between being the best French student in my high school French class and speaking a living language.  I experienced culture shock as I was placed into the last year of high school with Swiss students who had known each other their whole lives, as the only foreign exchange student.  I experienced difficulties with my temporary host family, frustrations that my British-born host “father” refused to speak French with me.  And I felt lonely, isolated, but determined not to regret my decision to go off the beaten track.

Switzerland warmed up to me after coaxing the embers for a good three months, blazing into a roar by the time I left in May.  A few friends among my Swiss classmates was all I needed to find a new Swiss host family, the most generous and loving people I have ever known.  Native Genevans (a rarity in a city that is over 50% foreign nationals), they spoke only French and were interested in discovering more about my culture.  From the first of November, when I was permitted to switch host families, my love of Genevan culture and the French language stemmed from the careful pruning and enthusiastic and patient care taking of my Swiss parents and two host sisters.  I sampled fondues, raclettes, muesli, soufflé, spätzle – each meal was a culinary education.  I went skiing in the French alps, toured the secret Swiss-only travel destinations.  My linguistic abilities improved as we talked about politics amid the 2008 financial meltdown and the “fiscal paradise” debate in Switzerland.  I witnessed Genevan holidays, attended both Christmas and New Year’s celebrations with the extended family.  I was invited to a cousin’s wedding, adopted as the “American daughter” of the family.  And – although my grades didn’t really matter – I excelled at school as I became more and more confident in such a foreign system.

Cortège for the Genevan holiday, EscaladeCortège

Did I regret taking a Gap Year? I missed out on a typical rite of passage for American teenagers.  I was clearly outside of my comfort zone, whether ordering train tickets in a foreign language or becoming the ultimate New Kid in a world alien to my own.  But even the tangible benefits of such an experience – incredible proficiency if not fluency in a foreign language, insider knowledge of a foreign culture, an education very different from the American model – could never express the intangibles I gained from living abroad.  My sense of confidence in my own abilities, my identity as an American in a wider world, my passion for foreign languages, the enduring love of my Swiss family.  It was a catalyst for all my future endeavors, and it has created a longing for a return to Europe that has yet to be fully satisfied.

“What’s a Gap Year?”  It’s many things, but to me, it was the gateway to another world.

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