Paris Progress: Train of thought
Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Raise you're hand if you're on a train right now.

Anyone? No? Just me?

You don't know what you're missing. But we'll get to the train in a bit. First, an update on our Paris Progress.

Day Two of "Stuck in Houston" started with us waking up at a Holiday Inn Express (feeling quite smart), having a sizable American breakfast (delivered via room service -- spared no expense!), and then hopping back in the car and parking in an airport park-n-ride for the second day in a row. We arrived as early as we were physically able, and instantly wished we had gotten there sooner as we joined the very long line for check-in.

No sweat. No worries. Day Two Airport Warriors we are. Airport Ninja.

When we finally made contact with a bonafide Continental representative, he was very helpful. In fact, as promised: Hi Vince Limparti. You're a swell guy, and I love you.

Yeah. That's his real name.

So Vince was able to get us both on standby for the 3:30 p.m. flight to Paris, and he even helped us out on the extra bag we had paid for the day before. No chance of getting confirmed seats, but there was still reason to be hopeful.

Going through security this time, and remembering the previous day's TSA-provided pat-down, I asked about "that new-fangled scanner thingy." Kara rolls her eyes when I ask questions like this, usually in my best, most charming good-ol-boy tone, but honest-to-God it helps. When people think you're just some dumb redneck "on his first airplane trip" they tend to treat you nicer, and move you along quicker. Try it. I swear it works. It's very disarming.

/rant

Now here's the thing ... I'm going on record right now as saying that those airport scanners are an invasion of my privacy and personal liberty. I'm also going on record saying that all airport security is an invasion of personal privacy and liberty. All of it. X-ray machines and metal detectors and body scanners and pat-downs and profiling and facial recognition software and drug-sniffing dogs ... name a security measure and I can march an army of experts in front of you who can tear it to pieces on the basis of the fourth amendment alone. But none of that matters, because "it's for our safety and national security," which somehow has come to trump everything else. It's a little like saying, "I'm sawing off your arms and legs for your own good ... so you can't wander off and get into trouble."

/end rant

I made it through the body scanner more or less intact, except for those few sperm that didn't survive the exposure to radiation. Then it was on to our gate, good ol' E18, which I had come to think of as a home away from Europe.

On the way to our gate, we grabbed a luggage cart. After the previous day's exploits, we readily appreciated how awesome an invention the airport luggage cart really is. In fact, by the end of that first day I was an expert at loading that cart in such a way that everything we owned could fit on it securely. I could load that cart in less than 5 seconds, and would occasionally time myself to judge my awesome manliness.

Cart before us, airport security behind us, we were on our way to E18. WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE. Heh. Sorry. Facebook in-joke.

When we got to the gate, it was evident that as early as we had managed to leave that morning, it just wasn't early enough. There was already a line of people waiting to check in and ask about standby. They were all familiar faces. One guy had commented on my Action Comics T-shirt the day before ... the same shirt I was wearing at that very moment. I became instantly recognizable and something of a pariah.

Kara took up position in line and I rolled our cart around, retrieving food and beverages as needed, spotting her for bathroom trips, experimenting with the conveyor sidewalk (TIP: Do not try to stand on it and roll a luggage cart to the side. It does work, but causes tremendous shoulder strain).

Once Kara had made it to the check-in and had our passports verified and such, she joined me for a seat and we proceeded to wait. And wait. And wait.

The plane started loading. Our hopes were still soaring!

The attendants started calling names from the standby list. Our hopes were still high!

The guy behind the counter announced that the doors were now closed and the flight was leaving the terminal. Our hopes were dashed.

"Quickly!" I said. "To the customer service line!"

Unfortunately, everyone else had the same idea. None of them, however, had to do deal with Kara's feet, which had gone through foot surgery several months ago but were still not quite ready for running. Kara couldn't manage the speed we needed. We fell behind. We ended up at the end of a long line. She tried, God knows, and she was valiant, but it just wasn't enough.

We waited. Again.

Hours went by, with the line hardly moving. I committed myself to full-time snooping and intelligence gathering, looking for any edge or advantage that might get us onto an airplane to Paris as soon as possible. That's how I heard one of those electric cart drivers say to his passengers, "I'll take you to the other customer service line. It's less crowded."

Sidling up, says I, "What of this other, less crowded customer service line, kind sir?" Only less Olde English, and more conspiratorial.

"'Tis between E2 and E9, sir," he said (edited for more Kevin-esque effect).

I thanked him and snuck over to Kara to told her, in near-to-ear-whispers, the good news.

"Should we risk it?" she whispered back.

"Fortune favors the bold," I declared.

Trumpets played. Crowds cheered. Young mothers wept, and unicorns farted rainbows. Or something. I'm not really sure, because we were moving so fast through the airport that time actually slowed down and people were talking and moving in slow motion.

We dodged through suitcase wielders and loose toddlers and "MIND THE CART" drivers, Kara running along the conveyer walkway while I jogged with the luggage cart in front of me. We shouldered our way past slower-moving traffic, dodged potential roadblocks, and ignored the complaints of lesser Airport Denizens, unschooled in the Ancient Airport Kung Fu. In this way we made excellent progress, and got to the other customer service line just in time to ...

... realize that a flight to Barcelona had also been cancelled and there was a huge line here, too.

Being on this end of the airport, at this customers service line, was like experiencing a glitch in the Matrix. It was like stepping into a parallel universe, with Bizarro twins of our fellow Paris travelers, standing in an almost identical line wrapping through those little "line forms here" poles, complaining that they had been trying for two days to get on a flight to Spain.

It was a surreal experience, standing there and seeing a dark mirror version of the other line. And then, it just got surrealer.

"Ah well," Kara said. AND THEN SHE SMILED.

Holy crispy crackers and cocktail sauce, I really have been transported to another reality, I thought. It's not that Kara doesn't smile. It's that she normally wouldn't smile now. Flight cancelled. Hotel bill incurred. Standby fail. Line-standing an unavoidable conclusion. These were not smiling conditions. These were wailing, crying, tears-of-frustration conditions. Kara should be ready to rip me apart at the first sign of inappropriate wry humor, not smiling about having to stand in yet another line!

But there it was. A Christmas miracle.

And really, I was feeling it too. Yes, we were delayed yet again. But there had never been a guarantee of getting on that plane, and we knew it. It had been a longshot all along. The fact that it hadn't paid off meant nothing. We were no worse off than before.

We resumed our positions. I was on retrieval and spotting duty again. Kara waited, chatting up fellow travelers in the line. We both had the unspoken task of gathering any intel that came our way. Talking to fellow passengers was a must.

A couple of hours later Kara managed to get to an employee and start the "we need to get to Paris tomorrow morning" process yet again.

The woman behind the counter was also very helpful, though I never did manage to catch her name. She was hispanic, maybe about my age, and pretty. She was also Pollyanna-pleasant, to the point of making me want to grab a courtesy wheel chair and pull a few wheel spokes free just to jam into my eyes.

"Oh, there is no way you'll be able to get to Paris tomorrow morning," she said, smiling. "Just not possible."

"Is there any combination we can use?" Kara asked. "Fly to Amsterdam? Heathrow?"

"All booked," Pollyanna said.

"Can we at least be put on standby?"

Polly starts tinkering with her computer then, alarmingly, she sighs in muted frustration. "It won't even let me put you on standby. Which means that flight is completely full. No way to get you on it."

Folks, we've heard this before. In fact, every single person we talked to from the moment our flight was cancelled told us that there was absolutely no way to do any of the things we were asking to do. No way to get on another flight until Wednesday. No way to reroute us through Frankfurt. No way to get on standby. No way. No way. NO WAY.

"Oh," they always said, eventually, "I just accidentally found a way."

Let this be a lesson to all diverted travelers: Keep asking. They will tell you no. They will say it's impossible. They will become frustrated with your pestering and pleading, and possibly want you dead just to end their torment. But eventually, miraculously, they find some magical, heretofore non-existent way to get you on that flight, or the next one. Keep asking.

"It just let me book a seat for Kevin," the lady said. "And put Kara as number one on the standby list."

We looked at each other, expressions of slight consternation on our faces.

"This is a good thing!" Polly said. "Believe me, it's a miracle to get Kevin on that flight."

"Maybe we can switch it so it's Kara in that seat?" I ask.

Oh no. Not possible. Never. Can't happen. Quite impossible.

"Don't worry about it," Kara said. "I'm first on the standby list. If I don't get on the plane, we'll just wait for our flight to Frankfurt at 6:50 p.m."

Done. That was now, officially, our backup plan. For the time being, though, we now had a better chance of getting into the air directly to Paris, and about three hours earlier, than we'd had for two days now.

"What about our baggage?" Kara asked. "Do we want to leave it and come back tomorrow? Or claim it and bring it with us again?"

That was the question. It was the difference between easy-breezy exiting and returning to the airport and laboriously lugging three suitcases and three carry-on bags around. Still ...

"I don't trust this place to get me from the second floor to the first floor by throwing me over the rail," I said. "We'll get our bags."

Nice speech, huh? Way with the words I have. A regular Wordslinger I am. THOSE SEALED OUR FATE.

For a few hours, anyway.

If you've never had to deal with lost luggage or reclaiming luggage at Bush IAH, here's a primer. First, go to baggage claim. In one corner of baggage claim is a glassed-in office with several cubicles. Go in and sign your name on the waiting list. Wait. Eventually a (usually) very nice lady will call your name, and you will sit with her as you describe your luggage using a pre-prepared visual chart. All of this is very efficient. The first time we did it, we were able to claim our luggage after only 30 minutes or so.

"It's going to be about four hours," the nice lady said.

Four. Hours.

"A lot of European flights were cancelled," she said. "So there's a lot of luggage floating around. I'm really sorry."

It's ok. It's ok. It's ok.

We dragged our sagging and tired behinds to the seats closest to baggage claim 11, where our bags might magically appear one day. At this point, it really wasn't a hassle. We had been in the airport for two days now, more or less full-time, with a brief, sleep-filled stay at a hotel to break things up. What was four more hours?

We settled in and I pulled out the iPad and two sets of headphones. We started watching the last season of Tudors to pass the time. We watched three episodes before I glanced over and watched our bags slide into baggage claim 11.

Score! We got a reprieve! Four hours had been reduced to about two-ish, and dag-nabit I could not have been more pleased.

We loaded our cart (4.3 seconds), and rolled out to the bus pick-up, hopping on the first bus to our park-n-ride.

Once we were back in our car (again) and had paid for a day of parking (again), we had a decision to make. Hotel? Home? Or, a back-pocket option: The condo on Lake Conroe.

Our in-laws own a very nice little condo that literally hangs over the lake. Before we got married, Kara and I sat out Hurricane Rita with the ins in that very condo, after 12 hours of mostly-stop-and-very-little-go driving to get out of Houston. For several days we held up in that place, chatting and getting to know each other. It was on that trip that I pretty much decided I could live with Kara forever, since it had already felt like we had.

The thing is this: Conroe is fairly close to Bush IAH, as the crow flies. But it's still 45 minutes away. At 10 p.m., as two tired would-be travelers made their way there, it felt like driving across the country. All we wanted was a shower and a comfy bed.

Still, when we got to the condo it was perfect. The air was crisp and cool, but not cold. We were able to shower. We were even able to wash and (mostly) dry our clothes in the combo washer/dryer. We even snacked on some girl scout cookies of indeterminate age. And then we crashed. We crashed the crash of the crashed dead.

The next morning we were up, showered (Hey, I shower before and after sleeping ... I never claimed to be a conservationist), dressed in the previous days clothes (Day Three!), and got on our way. We stopped just long enough for Starbucks and Chic-fil-a for breakfast.

AIRPORT DAY 3 was pretty much like AIRPORT EVERY OTHER DAY. We parked, we rode the bus, we got in line. This time we asked the nice guy behind the counter (Alejandro, whom I will call "Alex") if there was anyway we-will-name-a-character-in-one-of-my-books-after-you if we could somehow get Kara a confirmed seat on that flight.

"No. Impossible. It can never happen. The moon would have to shrink and come to visit Earth as a tourist wearing a parka and gym shorts before anything like that could even remotely be considered," he said. Or something equivalent and equally adamant.

And then he called over someone I presume was his manager, and proceeded to chat with him beyond our hearing for the next 45 minutes.

Kara and I stood by and made jokes. Ok, I mostly made jokes while Kara remained pleasant and chipper and very, very tolerant. We chatted about other passengers from our cancelled flight, and whom we recognized standing dazedly in line behind us. We joked about the gorgeous super-model-esque woman who insisted on dressing to the nines for her flight, including wearing her aviator sunglasses indoors during the entire check-in process. We even joked about the fact that we looked exactly the same as we had three days prior. Could we be certain this wasn't a "Groundhog Day" moment? Or maybe some kind of hinky, parallel timeline thing from "LOST?"

Around minute 30 I said, "You know, I think we've been remarkably patient in all of this."

"Yeah, I do too," Kara said. "Once we relaxed and just went with it."

It's true. I can't say that there was significant gnashing of teeth when we first heard that the flight was cancelled. There was a bit of annoyance at most. I think, though, that we went into each plot point of this tale thinking that it was inevitable that we would get on a flight at some point. It was sad to miss out on Munich, and that made Kara very upset for sure. But I think that we had some kind of patience breakthrough after that. We were tired, but not beaten. We had high spirits, for two lost travelers.

It may have put things in perspective when we read that other travelers were not nearly as lucky as we were. News reports were saying that people in Heathrow were forced to herd like cattle, to sleep on inch-high plastic cots, to turn back and not come to the airport if they were not guaranteed to be on a flight. It gave us a strange sort of "we are blessed" feeling, to know that so many people had it so much worse than we did. If we had been stuck at an airport in Frankfurt, instead of sleeping in a lake condo 45 minutes from the airport, that would have been a horror story. We had a travel fair tale, complete with cautionary morals.

Finally, after a lot of whispering and conferring, Alex says, "Ok, I have Kara confirmed for the flight."

Umm ....

"What?" I asked.

"Kara is confirmed for the flight at 3:30 p.m." Alex said.

Umm ...

"So ... am I still on the flight?"

"Yes, sir," Alex said, confused.

"And I have a seat assignment?"

"Yes."

"And so does Kara?"

"No, she is only confirmed to be on the flight. She doesn't have a seat assignment yet."

There it is.

"Ok," Kara said. "How do I get a seat assignment?"

I chimed in, "I'm assuming they aren't going to let her stand for the whole flight."

Nothin'. C'mon, people. These are the jokes. Nothing?!?

"They will assign her a seat at the gate. Things are still being shuffled around," Alex said. "But there's no guarantee she'll be on the flight. Now that she's confirmed, we're obligated to give her a seat. If we can't, it's bad for us. Costs us a lot of money. So it's in our best interest to get her a seat."

Kara and I looked at each other. This was not the worst news we'd heard all weekend, but was far from "Now we dance the dance of happy dancing!" No guarantee is still no guarantee. But now there was a new hope. May the Force be with us.

And ... we're off.

Cart our luggage to security. Take off shoes, belt, coat. Separate container for computers and clothing. "Hey I have a pacemaker, can I go through that fancy scanning doo-dad?" "Yessir, this way, sir. Hold your hands in a triangle shape above your head sir." Reclaim stuff on the other side, find a cart, reload cart (3.8 seconds) push at near-jogging speed to E18, ignore the food court (we'll come back later). Hey, there's all the people who were on the flight with us Saturday. Wave to Comic Book guy. Find two chairs close to each other. I'll watch the bags while you go to the bathroom. Hey, let's buy some drinks. I'm hungry. Go buy BBQ sandwiches. Wish I hadn't eaten that. I think they sell antacids over there. I really need to pee again. When will the attendants get to the gate? Oh, there they are. Wait in line again.

In other words, essentially the same routine we had been in for two days prior.

Kara chatted with the guy behind the counter, hopeful that he would be able to assign her a seat and end this purgatory we'd been in for three days. I watched, hopefully, from a seat fenced in by our pile of cart-supported belongings. I remained hopeful, right up until I saw Kara's dour expression as she came back to her seat. No go. "They can't assign seats until we're closer to takeoff."

Perfect.

Still, here we were. One way or another, we were leaving the country today. Unless, of course, there was another freak snow storm. But that wasn't likely. Or shouldn't be, in a kinder universe. Still, it was for us to simply wait, and wait we did.

Then came another Christmas miracle.

The plane was late. The whole time we sat at the gate, the attendants announced that they were offering $500 vouchers, free meals, and free hotel to anyone willing to give up their seat and fly the next day instead. Those announcements were for the benefit of poor souls such as ours, who would not be able to board that plane unless someone was willing to give up his or her seat.

And then, someone was.

They called Kara's name, and in moments we went from "still hopeful" to "we're in!" Our seats were nowhere near each other, but that was fine. We were both well-stocked with entertainment. We could manage.

One last round of trips to the bathroom, and they started calling out seat rows. We boarded, settled, and waited.

I had landed an aisle seat in a two-seat row next to the window. Several rows up, Kara had scored an aisle seat in the middle section, on the last row before the section divider. We waved and mouthed communications to each other for several minutes before I realized we could just text each other. Duh.

"Will she switch?" Kara asked.

"No. She 'needs' the window seat," I said.

Minutes go by, "Come here. The guy I'm sitting next to will switch!"

Success!

I grabbed my things and made my way toward Kara's seat. The fella I swapped with was a very nice Middle Eastern guy, kind of young, who asked only that Kara be the one to ask permission for the seat swap. "The last time I asked, they grilled me about why I wanted to switch seats."

Gotta love racial profiling.

So there we were. We had done it! It had taken three days, innumerable hours sitting around the airport, gallons of coffee with Red Bull chasers, several airport-available meals, multiple sticks of chewing gum, numerous trips through airport security, four times as many trips to the bathroom, and waiting in lines that, if they were bridge segments stuck end-to-end, could have allowed us to walk to Paris.

We landed at 9:30 a.m.-ish, happy to be alive and even happier to be on European soil

Going through Customs in France is a breeze. Less than five minutes from plane to official French soil, with nothing but a quick check of our passports. It seems, oddly enough, that French government recognizes that all the more strenuous checking actually happened before we left, and it's oddly unlikely that we converted to terrorism or government subversion while in the air. So no need for ridiculously long and tedious processes and lines to get into the country.

U.S. customs: Take note.

We get through customs and head for baggage claim. There is a brief panicked moment when we wonder if our bags were even loaded on that flight, which fades as soon as the first of our suitcases comes flying violently out of the chute. A few minutes later we have all of our luggage loaded on a FREE French luggage cart (3.4 seconds) and we are bouncing along, following the signs that say "Exit" in plain English and "Sortie" in French.

We come to one of these vaunted "Sortie," ("sorties?") only to find that it was closed. There was a sign reading, "Closed. Use Exit."

Holy carp, we have come all this way just to be trapped in another, much more slapstick airport.

The thoughts that go through your head. They are hilarious.

Of all things, we had to find an information desk to ask how to get out of the airport. Turns out it's the last exit at the end of a long, curving corridor, to which there are no directions given.

When we finally broke free of French airport confinement, we started to make our way to the sidewalk where taxis were waiting. A guy stopped next to us, holding sign that said "Taxi" in large letters.

"You look for Taxi?" he said, somehow spotting that we were American before we'd even said a word.

Kara says, "You're also looking for a taxi? I think you go that way."

I started to speak, but the guy shook his head and held up his sign.

"I am taxi," the guy said, though it sounded a little like "No taxi."

Which is apparently what Kara heard because she got a slightly panicked look in her eyes and said, "There are no taxis?!?"

Again I started to say something, but the guy shot me a sort of sideways glance and spoke before I could. "No, I am taxi."

Understanding dawned for Kara. For Kevin, mental notes were taken for a future blog entry recounting this "Who's on First"-type encounter.

Finally we all came to the same mental place, language barriers be damned, and the guy grabbed one of our bags and led us to his cab. After we were loaded he asked for the address, which we offered on a scrap of paper. He glanced at this without taking it from Kara's hand, and started tapping a screen in his dash ... while also driving forward.

"Car," I said.

"I need address again," he said.

"Car," I repeated.

He looked up in time to quickly swerve us around a stopped car, which honked at us a few times before he honked back, saying some French words that I recognized for once.

The next 30 seconds found us all whizzing down the highway at light speed, zipping in and out of clusters of cars, dodging motorcycles, crossing medians to get to where we were going, and all while our driver and presumably every other driver on the road remained blissfully ignorant of the imminent danger that surrounded them on all sides, and at approximately 60 miles per hour.

I remained very Zen about all of this. I had, after all, reached a near-euphoric state of traveler's bliss only a few hours before, and very little riled me at this point. Had we actually crashed into one of those other cars, flipping us into the icy river, I would have calmly shivered my way onto snow-covered but dry land and waved down another taxi.

Against all odds we made it safely to our destination, at a cost of about 50 Euros. Within the next 10 minutes we were inside, bathrooms having been used and luggage having been deposited. An hour after that we were showered, fed breakfast, and swaddled in coats and scarves in preparation for our first jaunt into Paris proper. That night we walked along the Champs d'Elysee, with the Arc d'Triumph at one end and a huge ferris wheel at the other, and hundreds of little vendor stands in between. It was a Christmas village, with a sort of midway feel. Turns out, carnies are the same in any language.

As the night came to a close, we went to a cafe in sight of the Eiffel tower for a bit of dinner. As I sleepily consumed duck in a peppercorn sauce, we chatted about the trip, the upcoming destinations, the absence of family and friends, the trials and tribulations of a life overseas. We started "losing Kevin" after the food was consumed and the delicious red wine was drunk. Indeed, Kevin was fading fast ... so fast he was referring to himself in third person.

We stumbled back to the apartment, a few blocks away, and I peeled off layers of clothing to get to the delicious Kevin center inside. It took practically no time to collapse into a French coma.

Exactly eight hours later I awoke, refreshed and capable, though unwilling, to jump right back into action. "I'll just doze for a bit," says I. "I'll just relax. It's a vacation. No need to get up. No need to stumble to the keyboard and write. The keyboard will be there later."

I slept until noon.

Shit. Balls.

The reason that's a profanity inducer is because that day was supposed to be about leisurely laying about, allowing various electronic devices to charge while I chatted, ate breakfast, sipped coffee, and generally took my time getting ready. We were to be on a train at 3:30p.m, headed for Strasbourg, France. WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE. And now there was just no time to waste.

Up. Shower. Dress. Pack. No coffee. Call cab. On our way. Feeling familiar.

It wasn't until we got to the train station and I tried to buy some inserts for my boots that I discovered that the "PIN" in a "PIN and chip" card system is an actual PIN, and is 100% necessary if you are to actually use the card. 100%. Period.

The PIN was on a slip of paper, in a brown leather bag, back in Paris.

Shit. Balls.

Oh well. We had some Euros in cash. We could pull money out of an ATM, if need be. We were good. We'd make do. It's all OK, I promise.

That brings us to now, and here I am, on a train. I have my fedora and my brown cashmere coat. I have a cup of strong joe and a pack of gum for later. I'm essentially five decades out of my own time, enjoying a nostalgic jaunt across the snow-covered French countryside. I'm feeling a little like Bogart (though someone on Facebook said I looked like Truman Capote. Cold Blooded, man).

This is the first time since the whole trip started that I actually feel like I've arrived in Europe. Sure, eating at the foot of the Eiffel Tower is inspiring, but I was in such a jet lag daze it barely registered. Today, though, on a train to Strasbourg, I feel like we've pulled it all off. We've reached a sort of classic, black-and-white movie moment.

Here's lookin' at you, kid.


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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