Monday, April 21, 2014

Going Home

All three of us took the train out to Charles de Galle Airport – driven in timing by whose plane would leave first. It looked like Rebecca had to check in and she promised to meet us at the gate where Bonnie’s plane would be leaving as soon as the two of us got on the other side of security. I walked Bonnie to her gate and then asked an agent where I should go with my ticket to pass through security. The last thing Bonnie heard him say to me was Ooh la la, and she knew it was not about my physical appearance, but about how far I had to go to find my gate. Bonnie and Rebecca took care that I didn’t turn any wrong corners all of the time we were in Paris. Now I was on my own and apparently a long way away from where I should be. “Take the airport shuttle at gate 8,” I was told. Finding gate 8 is not all that easy. There are a lot of eights on walls when you don’t know where you are going.

As soon as I made it through security I was sure I wouldn’t see Bonnie or Rebecca again, but there Rebecca was as though she knew where I would be when I didn’t even know myself. A treasure to hang out with her at a Nearly Organic restaurant though the wonderful eight days together caught up with me after I finished my sandwich. “I am so sorry, but there is a wave of fatigue on me and I am going to put my head right down on this table, or else just lay down on the floor,” I told her. She cobbled together a neck pillow and a blanket and I slept there, face down on the table, not too old to travel, but too old to keep near dawn to near midnight hours for eight days in a row.

Security stopped me for one of those more intensive searches. This time to open my carry on and my purse. She looked underneath every piece of clothing and opened and closed every zipper. “That one is my bank,” I said when she looked in the black leathered and zippered belly pouch pocket that contained zip lock bags of euros, pounds and Canadian dollars. “They must be targeting the baby boomers,” I said to a man who was about my age and behind me, ready for his search. But he shook his head. “I don’t speak English.” I keep forgetting that and I am often passing casual conversation. I was tired. My guess was that I would be asleep before the plane took off. I dozed but I kept being wakened by the pilot saying, “Our departure is delayed ... we are waiting for a final check on the engine ... we are waiting to install a new part in the engine, perhaps only ½ hour more, ... and after four hours ... if we don’t take off in the next 30 minutes, we will have to debark because the crew will have been at work over the labor law limit”.

I couldn’t sleep anymore because the drama inside the plane began to heighten. “Would passenger Arta Johnson identify herself.” That was because I was going to miss my Dallas connection and was being given a voucher to stay overnight in Texas. “If you want to deplane, that is fine, but you cannot take your luggage with you. It must go to Dallas now, even though you will be in Paris. However you have every right to leave.” I watched an intense conversation between the flight attendant and the woman in front of me who was worried about her 15 year old son’s anxiety getting out of control. For her the question was, better to be off the plane with no luggage? on the plane worrying about the new part in the engine? on the bus that would take them to the main terminal with others who were leaving but had no place to go?

We had been four hours without food now ... probably more for most people because of the time lag between the last meal and the time it takes to get on a plane. There was no way to heat the dinners on board. Snacks and drinks were delivered up and down the isles without the usual charm – now the goal was just to get something, anything into people’s bodies to keep them calm. With only 10 minutes to spare the good news, “Buckle up, we are leaving”. With my nose pressed to the window, Paris disappeared from my view for 15 minutes. The plane banked and I heard, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are returning to Paris. The engine light is on and it is not safe to fly across the Atlantic this way. Thank you for your understanding.” I enjoyed the pleasure of seeing the dazzling patchwork of new crops again, the greens, the canary yellows, the greys and tans, the thin strips of blue rivers and hedgerows of trees below us, my nose now on the window again.

Calming, really, to know it was safer to go back than to proceed. I heard him say as we landed, “Do not be afraid when you see the fire trucks. This is normal procedure.” I didn’t worry on seeing one fire truck. Then seeing one at every intersection on the runway, I thought, well, it looks like there will be enough water if there is a problem. We waited on the runaway again for the last precaution ... the firemen testing the heat in the tires before we would be allowed to taxi up to the skyway. There was a lineup in the isles of the cabin of the airplane, waiting for a second bus from the airport to take us from the plane to the correct terminal. Being at the door of the plane, I saw an attendant point and say to another, “Look, ... there the bus is on the runway, but it can’t find us. It doesn’t know which plane it is going to. Oh, and all of these people needing a place to stay. This is a real mess.”

Though the flight crew were off duty now, they to had to re-enter France through customs as did we. “Welcome to Paris,” the man said as he found another place in by passport to place a stamp. Why not a welcome? I hadn’t expected to be back this fast. There were new line-ups at every turn. One to pick up vouchers for a hotel for the night. A second line-up at the baggage carrousels, a third line-up waiting for the shuttle to the Park Inn, a fourth line-up at the hotel reception desk, --- this sudden influx of tired travellers with all of their luggage.

“The evening buffet closes in ½ hour, at 10:30 pm,” I heard the clerk say to someone. I ran my bags to my room, though not without some difficulty. In the dim hotel corridors, I can never figure out where that plastic card goes into the slot to open up the bedroom door. Usually Wyona or Greg do the honours. Case in point? One day in Buenos Aires I was trying to get into our room on my own. After many unsuccessful tries, a man whose door was ajar came out of an adjoining room. Without a word he grabbed my card from my hand, put it into the slot, turned his back on me in irritation marched back into his room and slammed the door.
Now, if I didn’t figure out how to open the door of my bedroom at the Park Inn, I was going to miss supper. I ran down the hall and watched another old couple. I can manage with a demo.

I cannot tell you how fun this dining room was. At 10 pm at night, just as the restaurant was closing and with most of the help gone home, now the cook had 50 people in the dining room ... and more coming. The food came out: fish, kebabs, desserts, rice, 4 marinated salads, hot buns – but everything was sporadic in its arrival and the previous food was gone before the next dishes could get out on the table. Now you see it, now you don’t. I saw one traveller sitting at the back of the room go to the buffet. There was nothing left but rice. He took 3 cups on his plate and sat down to eat.

The American Airlines had promised people 2 free calls from the hotel. For access to those free calls the hotel needed a 50 Euro deposit at the front desk. They would give a receipt. You were to claim your phone call from the airline. North Americans aren’t used to that. People were lined up at the desk bitterly complaining. Furthermore the number to American Airlines wouldn’t work from their rooms. And in fact it wouldn’t work at all, for it was a wrong number. When I got through to American Airlines from the front desk, their office was closed for the night.

None of this seemed to bother me.

I have internalized the “I am on holidays” attitude. I did ask the woman in a line-up ahead of me, if I could use a few seconds of her 15 minutes of free internet time in the airport. I didn’t want Wyona driving to the Calgary airport and me not showing up.

There was enough info in the cryptic email to her that I got a 1 am call from Wyona. She is quite the detective. She found me. She said she would rebooked my flight from Canada ... since North America does have 24 hour call lines. She called again at 2:30 am to tell me the job was done and she called at 5:30 am... a wake-up call so that I could get out to the airport on time in the morning. I considered myself as having a good sleep. I can still remember months of interrupted sleep with new babies.

The wake-up call did make me laugh. I couldn’t get the hotel telephone to give me a wake-up call. I had tried. I could figure out which line to pick up to do the automated function, but after I picked it up, then a voice tried to walk me through which numbers I should select. My French isn’t that good. I can pose questions in French. I don’t understand them or answer them in French.

While I am on this subject of things going wrong, the ride back to the airport was no less harrowing than the ride away from the airport had been. To begin that story, there had been a young Nigerian woman in full costume on our flight with 3 children, 2 strollers, one of the babies was in arms and she had mounds of baggage, 2 pieces for each of the four of them. Five feet high when it was all together. She usually waited for help from a porter. When the airporter bus came to our hotel at 7 am and many of us got on the bus, she came at the last minute. An old man, too frail to carry his own bags, helped her with her luggage as did others who helped her with the children. Our bus was already packed. Now it was fuller. Then the airporter stopped at two other hotels to pick passengers up. Everyone seemed to squeeze on, although I have never seen a bus packed so tightly. A fire marshal would have had a heart attack or at the very least, closed us down. I mentioned that young mother because when the doors of the bus opened at Terminal 2 and people began to get off with their luggage, one piece of luggage rolled down the aisle and into the baby stroller that someone else was in charge of. I had surge of adrenalin over that collision that lasted well into my flight back to Dallas. The stroller took the hit. The baby was fine.



  1. Your post got my heart rate up. Talk about a harrowing tale! Isn't sleep deprivation in the Geneva code of conventions as a form of torture? What a marathon you had getting home. I will think of you this week when I see the number 8.

  2. Arta is home and acclimatized after her 48 hr. trip from Paris. That was a long trip.