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
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
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?