Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cursed.

Try as I might, that’s the word that’s repeating in my brain as I head off to Europe this year.  It’s my fourth solo trip.  I’m a seasoned traveler by now, so the apprehension I feel seems odd and misplaced.  First there was London in the summer of 2006, then a wider swing through the UK in 2007 ending with a week in Paris, and then last year Italy. Fourteen days spent living la dolce vita in sweet, lovely Italy. This time it’s a return trip to France to explore parts of Normandy and the Alsace, followed by a journey north and east into Belgium and the Netherlands.  It all sounds wonderful on paper—perfect, really—so it’s a shame that the entire enterprise is doomed from the start.

I’m not entirely serious when I say that, of course, but there is something to it. Unwittingly, the dates I locked in last fall in order to use my frequent flyer points conflict with my nephew’s high school graduation. That’s guilt-inducing enough, but to make matters worse I’ve developed a lingering foot problem that makes walking distances rather like stepping on a nail (over and over), which should make climbing into German bunkers near Omaha Beach and, quite frankly, all of Mont-St-Michel, interesting.

Weeks before I leave, an outbreak of swine flu has me worried about restrictions on international travel. In a mad and quite possibly vain attempt to stay well, I start carrying a bottle of Purell with me everywhere I go. Then, with just days to go, I find out that United Mobile, the company that operates the SIM card on my cell phone, is suddenly out of business and has taken with it all of the money I recently added to my pre-paid account in preparation for my trip. And finally, hours before takeoff, comes the surprising news that my “window” seat on Lufthansa, booked seven months ago, is actually—and ironically—in a row without a window. When I make a mental tally of these things, I know it could be far worse. In this economy, I’m fortunate to be able to travel at all, and yet it feels like a premonition of things to come. There are storm clouds on the horizon. Literally.

So let’s just cut to the chase.  Let’s get to the bottom line.  I’m writing this as a retrospective at home in Vermont in mid-winter, so I might as well say that this is going to be the story of a road trip that is filled with rain, transportation detours and delays, more rain, scaffolding and other forms of obstruction, a broken camera lens, and still more rain.  Really, a ridiculous amount of rain.  So, let’s just thank God here and now for Parisian tartes and café cremes, Belgian chocolate, and Dutch pancakes, before rewinding to the start of the story…

Amen.

It’s early on a Sunday night and I’m at the Philadelphia International Airport waiting to board a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt.  This is what happens when you try to use years of accumulated points in your Dividend Miles account.  You get a tight connecting flight on a partner airline, although I suppose the upside—if I follow the Sarah Palin school of thought on foreign travel—is that I now get to include Germany on the list of countries that I’ve visited!

There is a general moan among the passengers on flight 427 when a short delay is announced for “cleaning and catering.”  Within minutes the crowd grows antsy and it is clear that there will be little patience for boarding etiquette.  Despite the usual invitation for families with small children to board first, everyone begins to press towards the door in an undifferentiated mass.  The Lufthansa employees seem to know it’s a losing battle, so they resort to social admonishment instead.  In a stern German accent, a man says: “I dit not know vee had so many children onboard dis flight!”

Filing in, though, I’m feeling a bit smug. We are told that the cabin is filled to capacity, every seat taken, but before leaving home I checked in online and was able to change my undesirable, windowless seat from 32K to 35A, a maneuver at the time that felt worthy of a fist pump.  But as I make my way down the aisle, I’m suddenly perplexed. Row 32 has a window, a perfectly fine window, identical in every way to every other window.  So much for the color-coded warning on Seat Guru’s floor plan.

As I settle into my new assignment, I find myself squeezed in next to a very large and already very sweaty woman.  She’s quiet and not at all inconsiderate, but between shoulder and knee, there’s truly no way to avoid full bodily contact.  It’s going to be a long and uncomfortable night.  I crane my neck to the right and for a moment stare wistfully at the nice-looking man sitting in the aisle seat of row 32, and the woman resting peacefully by the window next to him. Ah, fate, what have you done to me?

On the upside, we were scheduled to depart at 6:05 PM, and despite the all the nonsense over “cleaning and catering” it’s only 6:15 when we pull away from the gate, which when you think about it, isn’t bad at all.  But the delay has forced us far back in the queue for take-off.  It’s 7:00 by the time we lift into the air.  My one and a half hours of leeway in Frankfurt—an overly optimistic layover from the start—is shrinking into nothing…

Monday, June 1, 2009

It’s always hard to sleep on an airplane, but this has been darn near impossible. When I raise the shade on my window and feel the morning sun on my face, I’m glad the night is over. But with the end of one difficult situation comes another. I still have to make a connecting flight to Paris.

It’s 8:30 AM when we pull into Frankfurt and my next plane boards in 45 minutes. We’ve gained some time, but I wonder if it will be enough. I check my watch and figure I’ll be fine as long as the departure gate is nearby and the lines at passport control are short. When I check the monitors in the airport against the terminal map in my hand, I see that A36 is about as far away from B33 as it is physically possible to be and still be in Germany. Cursed.

I’m road weary and my foot is throbbing, but I move as fast as I can through the airport with my backpack and camera bag, down one corridor, then stairs, then passport control, then an elevator, then security, then more corridors with moving walkways. At least I think. I’ve lost track of exactly where I am. When I find the gate at last, past a series of Camel smoking stations enclosed in glass, their windows gray with a nicotine haze, I have no more than sixty seconds of satisfaction before the plane begins to board.

It is, in the end, an easy hour in the air, and when we touch down at Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris, I feel ready to walk through my usual arrival routine. I call my family at home to let them know that I’ve arrived safe, if not entirely sound, and I pace nervously by the baggage carousel praying my suitcase made the connection in Frankfurt more easily than I did. Then, with all in hand, I head for the tourist information desk to buy a ticket for the RER, and while I’m at it, a 4-day Paris Museum Pass. Checking items off my list makes me feel confident, once again back in control.

The RER B is crowded and hot, so by the time I step off the train and drag my luggage up the stairs, my lungs are grateful for the clean, fresh air. It’s a beautiful day in Paris, the sun so bright that I have squint as I leave the station. I’m reentering the city exactly where I left it two years ago, on the edge of the Luxembourg Gardens. On an afternoon such as this, it seems a shame to take a taxi to the apartment I’ve rented. I decide to walk instead, dragging my suitcase on wheels behind me across the cobblestones.

I turn up Rue Soufflot towards the Panthéon and pause to catch my breath near the Hôtel des Grands Hommes, where I spent my first lovely week in Paris in July 2007. I had hoped to stay there again, but this time found the prices to be well outside of my budget, hence my first brave attempt at booking an apartment online.

I turn right, then left, and walk until I reach the Place de la Contrescarpe, the neighborhood Hemingway wrote so fondly about in A Moveable Feast. I have my own fond memories of the place and of the Sunday afternoon I once spent there shopping and eating ice cream and watching folk dancers in the misting rain in front of Saint-Médard church. I am glad to be back.

As I turn down Rue Rollin looking for number seventeen, a blond haired woman approaches me with a generous smile on her face. It’s Sandy, and she and Philippe have been waiting for me in the flat.

They call the apartment, which is nestled behind the courtyard of an 18th century building, “My Little Home in Paris,” and that feels just right. It’s tiny in size, but perfectly cozy, and bathed with light. There is flat panel TV, a laptop computer, and a telephone that provides free international calls. There are shelves of maps and guidebooks and drawers full of napkins and placemats, electrical adapters and umbrellas. There is no kindness left undone.

We sit and chat for a while, but the initial adrenaline I felt upon reaching the city is fading away and my stomach is starting to growl. It’s a good thing, too, for without that incentive to move I might just curl up and take a nap here and now, and that would violate every rule I’ve every had about coping with jet lag.

I wish Sandy and Philippe a bon voyage to Florida and then set out on foot for the Seine. It’s nearly 4:00 PM when I order a ham and cheese crêpe from a stand next to Notre Dame Cathedral and inhale it while sitting on a park bench in the garden behind the church. Then, feeling fortified, I head to the Cité metro stop to do battle against the powers that be for a Passe Navigo Découverte.

Alas, I am no match for the surly woman behind the counter, who in French demands to see some proof of residency. I try to insist upon the truth, which is that tourists have a right to purchase the pass, but she is impatient with me and waves me away. Not to be undone, I march indignantly to the Saint-Michel station and try again, this time pulling a computer printout from my bag, with the key sentences underlined. It’s not necessary. The young woman nods pleasantly at me, bills the transaction, and even affixes my photo to the card. Perhaps it’s silly, but I feel a genuine sense of accomplishment afterwards. It’s a permanent card that can be easily recharged in the future, a tangible piece of evidence that says that I will return to Paris again.

I walk down Boulevard Saint-Michel, back towards the Luxembourg Gardens and stop in to Dalloyau along the way. I had adored their pale green pistachio macarons on my last trip and want desperately to taste them again. I buy two and head into the park to enjoy the snack, but they disappoint me somehow. They are not as fresh and soft as I remember, but crusty and overly sweet. Perhaps Thomas Wolfe is right. When it comes to some things, maybe you can’t go home again.

I wander through the Luxembourg Gardens for an hour or more, past the “L’Acteur Grec” statue to the shade of the Médici fountain, until exhaustion forces me home. I stock up on milk and juice at a local market along the Rue Mouffetard and pick up an onion tart at Blavette Daniel for a light dinner, which I eat around the small dining table in my apartment.

At 9:30, I start to change for bed when a sudden inspiration leads me out into the cool night air. I take the metro at Place Monge up the short distance to Pont Marie and from there walk across the Île Saint-Louis to the Pont de la Tournelle. The sun is setting in the west, behind Notre Dame Cathedral and its flying buttresses, leaving behind streaks of lavender and pink. At last, I take a long deep breath and feel as if I am exhaling, all at once, the stress that brought me here.

The worst is behind me, for I am in Paris.