Adventures In A Wonder-Land

by Susan Pogorzelski on November 4, 2008 · 6 comments

Note: Settle in, as this is going to be a long journey/post as I recount my travels from the past two days. I’m too tired to edit and I’m including details so that I can remember it later. Should I ever want to. Someday.


As I’ve said before, this trip was the first time I’ve ever travelled by myself. I wonder now if I would have gone through with it if I knew what a fantastic adventure it would be. And an adventure it certainly was — exciting, scary, tear-filled, lonely…Sitting here in the library, snuggled up with my laptop by the fire, it seems like just a memory, but yesterday was the greatest challenge of my life thus far, without exaggeration, as I left home and navigated planes, trains, and automobiles, was frisked by Paris airport security, and tried to deal with a severe bout of homesickness that still hasn’t been alleviated.

Believe me, all of this is true. Even in my wildest dreams nightmare, I couldn’t make this shit up. But maybe that’s the beauty of it, too. I’ll make that call when I’m back at home with my family and my dog. For now, onto the journey…

Monday, November 3, 2008

Waiting for the plane in Philadelphia, a couple sat next to me as I bawled my eyes out quietly shed tears after saying goodbye to my mom and dad and wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into. The woman and her husband were visiting family in Orleans, France, it turned out. I apologized for my tears, told them where I was going and why, and explained that I was traveling for the first time on my own. Talking to them kept me calm (again, Xanax helped) as I called my mom and dad repeatedly on their way home to check in seek comfort and spoke to Roommate. All in all, I was a bundle of nerves that stayed on high alert for the rest of the trip. But for those few minutes, I was ok. So, thanks Connie and Jim.

The flight was fine, once I got over taking off (i.e. no turning back). The planes have this thing now where there are video screens on the back of each seat for an individual movie-watching experience. Problem is, they use this feature to show a live feed of the camera on the front of the plane so that you can actually watch the take off. Thanks, Airline. That’s exactly what I want to see. Cue crying session number two. Unfortunately, you can’t turn the screen off, either, so I closed my eyes and tried to shut my mind off instead. I have no problem flying; in fact, I really like to fly. Just not by myself. To another country. For an entire month. Seems like the more I tried not to think about it, the more I thought about it and the worse I got. Crying session number two merged nicely into crying session number three.

I was in the middle aisle for this flight, next to a French couple with their four year old girl seated between them. I so wished to be that little girl, cuddled up in a familiar blanket between Mom and Dad. Her mom was stroking her cute socked feet and I couldn’t stop imagining the comfort I would feel just by not being alone, just by being at home. But then again, that’s one of the reasons why I so wanted this trip — to break out of that shell, to find myself as an individual, as an adult. I can’t remain cocooned forever, no matter how much I want it. And I have to learn that I can take that kind of comfort, that kind of love, with me wherever I go, no matter what the distance. Space and distance are just really just concepts — what’s important is how you fill the in-between.

But it was hard to grasp that idea then, when emotion was running high. I slept on and off for most of the flight and anxiously departed the plane. We were delayed by about a half an hour, I believe, so according to my schedule, I had a half an hour to catch my other connection. And I thought I could do it, which was a huge error in judgement on my part because the airport is huge and we didn’t land in the terminal that I was told we would. So I booked it…through the halls and up the stairs I rushed, trying my best to read the signs. Customs was easy, but finding the terminal wasn’t so much. After a lot of asking (and finding an american couple looking for the same location), I found the terminal, ten minutes after boarding began. I could do it, I thought — I can get through this security checkpoint and still board late, right? They won’t take off right away, will they?

Well, yes. And if I wasn’t late after a delayed flight, I would certainly be late after beep-beeping through the security checkpoint. Security stopped me because, in my haste, I forgot to take my laptop out of my bag as it went through the machine. So I beeped. And I know it’s security protocol and it’s a great story to tell that under-five-foot me was frisked, but in reality, I was frustrated, anxious, and gearing up for crying session number “I have no idea, I lost count.” So, I was patted down and asked to take off my shoes before we all realized it was indeed the laptop in the bag. Oops. I really have no other word, as “sorry” seems a bit too late.

So, I walk away from the checkpoint, hopping around as I try to slip my boots back on, putting my belt on, looking at my watch, and stuffing my laptop back into my bag. this time I’m more angry than anything, but how quickly that will change to panic and tears. Again. I ask a woman about my ticket, telling her that I was indeed five minutes late and wondering if the plane had taken off. She looks at me, looks at my ticket, and says “plane, woosh” with the flying superman motion and a stupid grin on her face.

Great. Thanks, Lady. Eff you, too.

I would love for everyone to believe that I was calm and rational about this. In fact, it’s easy to write nonchalantly because I’ve had time to look back on it. But, as is apparent by the amount of tears I had shed thus far, my thought process was something more akin to this: 

OMFG, shit, shit, shit, what am I gonna do, I want to go home, I hate France, why did I decide to do this, I can’t get another flight, I’m going to miss my train, I miss my dad, I need my mom, I want my dog, I want to go home, this sucks.

And then there were more tears.

Susan Pogorzelski, France, 2008

I asked Effing French Lady what I could do and she told me where the exit was. Stupidly, I almost took her advice, thinking that there was someone I could talk to. But after wandering around looking for two minutes I went back and spoke with someone else, explained the best I could in French and asked who I could speak to so that I could change my flight. They directed me to the airline service desk, where a wonderful woman helped me in more ways than I could imagine. She changed my flight to a later one, but I was still in a panic — that would mean my train ticket would have to be changed, which would mean that I would arrive later and I wouldn’t be picked up but would rather have to take a taxi. And I had no idea how to call the people I’m staying with.

I called my Mom and Dad. Actually, this whole part is such a blur that I can’t remember if I called them before my flight was changed or after, but I know that I was in a complete panic, I was in tears and on the verge of hyperventilating, and it was three in the morning for them. I love my parents.

To make a long story short(er), Nice Airport Lady helped me figure out how to call the people I was staying with, who then calmed me by saying that they would pick up my groceries for me and that it really wasn’t a problem, that these things happen.

That eased my worries a bit, but I was still ready to cry at the drop of a hat. With a voucher from the airline for my first flight having been delayed, I bought a sandwhich and a drink and settled in for the hour and a half wait until the next flight. Occassionally I dozed off, probably wracking up a total of four hours of sleep since I had left the day before. When I woke up from one of these cat naps, a gentleman was seated between me and another woman, who I quickly deduced was his wife. I heard his American accent (to my relief) and smiled at him. Something about the elections came up on the television screen and I made a comment about being in France, to which he replied and we struck up an easy conversation.

He and his wife were from New Orleans on a tour of Southern France for their 40th wedding anniversary. Again, I explained my reasons for being in France, my brief “get to know me” history, and my situation. They made me laugh and forget my panic as we boarded the plane for my next leg of the journey. Thanks, Joe and Wanda, for being so warm and open as I was feeling so alone.

Next stop: Toulouse. The plane landed on time, but I was still hours late for my scheduled train. Always thankful for small miracles, my luggage arrived with me on this later flight. Mom and I had decked it out in gaudy ribbon, so I recognized it right away and said a little prayer that at least I could have clean clothes. I asked about the shuttle, bought my ticket, and hopped aboard for the ride to the train station.

The train station was packed and I had no idea how it operated, but after I asked a woman who was with me on the shuttle if she spoke English (in French, of course), she sighed with relief and said that she was English. So we crossed the street to the train station together as I explained my journey. She was heading to a meditation retreat in the mountains — for a split second I wondered if I should join her for all that this traveling had done to my nervous system. Together we found the ticket counter and waited in line for our tickets. My ticket was rather easy to exchange, but as the train to Carcassone was arriving just as I was waiting in line, I had to wait an hour to catch the next one.

So I sat with about fifty other people watching the big overhead screen for times and locations and waiting for the platform number to appear. As soon as it did, I grabbed my luggage and jetted down the stairs towards platform 7. I asked a family coming down the stairs if this was the right platform for Carcassonne, to which they replied “Oui.” Good enough. On the platform, I sat next to what looked to be a college student hauling a lot of baggage as well as a mother and daughter, at first thinking that they were all family. Were they going to Carcassonne? I asked for further affirmation. Oui, they said, to Carcassonne.

Thank God.

On the train I sat next to another young woman and spoke a little bit of French with her as we examined my ticket. It didn’t look like hers, of course, since I had ordered mine online, and the man at the ticket counter changed my information by writing the new departing time in pen. New worry: would it suffice?

Yep. Small miracle number one billion. And counting.

After arriving in the small station of Carcassonne, I called my Mom. I was calmer than before, or so I thought. As soon as she said hello, I was in tears again. I was late, I still needed to get a taxi, I was homesick, I was exhausted. In short, my nerves were frayed and I wanted nothing more than a safe bed to sleep in. Being the best Mom that she is, always knowing what to say, she calmed me down. Since I was too late to be picked up it was taxi or nothing, so now I had to buck up and figure that out. I asked the man at the information counter where I could get a taxi. Outside, he said.

Except, I didn’t see any taxis. An old man had been standing outside the doors as I was on the phone crying to my mom. I stepped outside, but not sure even where to begin walking to find a taxi, I turned to ask him. He spoke little English — actually, I don’t think he spoke any English — but I desperately tried to understand his French. Still, I couldn’t see where he was pointing. “Ok, I walk you.” So he helped my suitcase down the stairs and guided me down the street where a group of taxi drivers conversed on the sidewalk as they waited for customers. I showed them my directions (which gratefully I received from my previous call to the place where I’m staying), with Nice Old Man helping me out with my exhausted French. If there’s one good thing that’s come out of this, it’s that I know a hell of a lot more French than I thought, and speaking the language makes everything that much easier.

“Let me pay you something” I offered to Nice Old Man in French, but he smiled, his front tooth missing, and shook his head.

“C’est de mon coeur,” he said, patting his heart. And I smiled and shook his hand and told him a million times thank you.

View of Labastide, SP, France 2008

Taxi driver wasn’t familiar with the directions, so he called the place, to which the owner spoke to him in French and further explained. He was indeed familiar with the inn, so, already in the car, we continued our trek up the mountain, past winding villages nestled into the hills, built centuries ago with still-charming stone facades. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the mood to appreciate any of it. I arrived safe and sound, paid him the fee that hurt the pocket (plus a tip for actually getting me there) and shook his hand. Merci, Bernard, for the safe and final leg of this journey and for laughing when I said that I actually understood the American music that was playing on the radio.

So after meeting the fellow participants, with nerves shot and running on about five hours of total sleep, I made it to France. Lessons have been learned and good times since have been had, but homesickness has undoubtedly prevailed.

But I’ll leave that for another post.

Thanks for sticking by me, for offering a piece of home in this seemingly faraway land as I overcome these obstacles and face my biggest adversary: myself.

Bon soir pour maintenant et bon chance pour le prochain president et tous les Américains ce jour historique d’élection.

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