Thursday, January 13, 2011

Paris on Two Pairs of Panties

Arriving at JFK on the afternoon of Tuesday, December 28, was like walking into a living tableau of Rodin's "Gates of Hell."  JFK was Purgatory, a writhing mass of puffy brown and black down-coated travelers, sweating as they aggressively wheeled ungainly suitcases through the narrow and irregular passageways between lines.  Lines to check in.  Lines to drop off bags.  Lines to nowhere.  You got on a line and then tried to figure out which line you were on.  All along the edges, lightweight Coleman cots, scattered as if blown to the boundaries of the great terminal by the wind, strained under the weight of exhausted and storm-stranded travelers prostrate with bags squeezed between their knees or clutched to their chests in the rigor mortis of sleep.   The scene was worthy of Salvador Salgado. Bodies strewn everywhere. Every electrical outlet filled with the chargers of depleted electronics.  Garbage piled up well past the containers meant to hold it all. The people behind the counters at Panini Express looked like Red Cross workers after Katrina--pale, withered, exhausted from grilling mozzarella and ham, and filling plastic noodle bowls with hot water for cranky foreigners.

Despite walking into this Terminal of Babel, Maxie and I were in high spirits.  We were so happy to be on our way to Paris, after our Monday flight had first been moved to Tuesday morning because of the snow, then back to Monday evening, then cancelled completely.  My husband, an experienced traveler, found what may have been the only way to Paris Tuesday, a Royal Air Maroc flight to Casablanca, which would connect with an Air France flight to Paris.

We sat crosslegged on the grimy carpet at the gate, flipping through People Magazine together and passing the IPad back and forth for games of Scrabble.  All the while, the electronic sign never wavered from its conviction of a 5:45 departure even as we were finally shuffling aboard at

Trouble with the baggage, the flight attendant mentions almost as an aside, long after we board, and long before we'd would finally take off.   We sat  long and hard on the plane at the gate. By the time we took to the air, we were well asleep, blissfully ignorant that "trouble with the baggage" meant our baggage.

Had they mentioned that much of the flight's luggage never got put aboard, would it have turned out any differently?  Could we have done anything about it at that point?  Besides, the attempt to locate our single suitcase packed with all the nice things we'd collected to keep us warm AND fashionable in Paris ate up a good part of our long day's stay Wednesday at the airport at Casablanca.

We were so close to our destination. Paris, France is just a 7 hour flight from JFK, and yet by the time we pulled up to the gate at Casablanca, we may as well have been on the way to Thailand or the Maldives.

The international standard for airport employees to address any customer with a problem would appear to be to foist them off on someone else.  If you go to the Air Maroc desk, then you are directed--with great authority--to the Air France desk.  At the Air France desk, you're dispassionately asked if you have been to see the Air Maroc people.  Where you need to be is always the place you are not, and the person you need to see is the one you just came from.   In this way, we the travelers get to meet so many more of the personnel with whom you have cause to meet with on a long
dispiriting holdover.

Our first order of business was to find out about a connecting flight to Paris, as ours had left hours before.  Those of us lingering around the one desk that all official employees pointed us towards as our solution begin to realize that with only one employee behind that desk, responding to every inquiry with
"the system is down," loosely translated as "You're out of luck here, sister,"  it behooves us to seek help elsewhere. We form a mob of angry travelers seeking redress, and a flight to Paris. An officially outfitted young man appears and enthusiastically leads us through an maze worthy of Casablanca at a fast clip.  After what we've been through so far, we can't help but be suspicious. Why does he care so much? We wonder if we're being scammed, and if he will demand Dinars to release us.

But he does lead us to a window where ticket agents can help.  They're flustered and confused but we push our agenda.  The next flight to Paris is sold out, they tell us, as is the one after that, but we can be put on a waiting list. By this point, my optimism was nearing its limits. I tell my daughter how smart it was of us to pack a carry-on valise with pajamas and a change of underwear as it appeared that we'd probably be spending the night in Morocco.  I was still imagining with great hope, however, that, as promised, our suitcases would be delivered the next day to our hotel in Paris (the aeronautical version of "the check is in the mail.")

Remarkably, after several hours killing time watching the yards and yards of fabric-clad people shuffling in leather slippers through the airport, several dry
baguette sandwiches and countless rounds of Scrabble later, we learn that we have made it on the flight!   Just to keep it real, however, the first announcement we hear as we reach the gate is that the flight is
delayed. As my friend's mother used to say in lieu of actually laughing at a joke:  "That's very funny!"

The plane was well on its way when we woke up.  Next stop, Paris. 

So, we arrive, but our luggage never does.  My daughter is thrilled to have free license to shop.  I lay in bed mornings simultaneously chastising myself for yearning for my material possessions while keeping a running list of everything I remember packing.  I bought my daughter new things, but each night, I rinse out my undies and bra.  Still, we have our boots and coats, toothbrushes, pills and contact lenses, and all of the sights of Paris awaiting us. 

At Charles DeGaulle on our way home, we can see that our small valise bulging with the purchases we'd made would be unlikely to squeeze into an overhead bin.  We would have to check it, I said, and we dutifully added our bodies onto a  line which snaked endlessly through the airport with no discernible forward movement.  But travel makes you smarter.  My daughter suggested we unstuff the overnight bag, add the bulk to the shopping bags we were each holding, and carry it aboard with us.  Smart girl.  That's what you can learn from a trip to Paris.

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