I’m Going Home: Toulouse

I’m going home,
Back to the place where I belong…

Chris Daughtry, “Home”

Susan Pogorzelski, France, November 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

If you’ve ever read “The Game of Life (And How To Play It)” by Florence Scovel Shinn, you would be familiar with the author’s belief that positive thinking breeds positive action, that we manifest the good in our lives, and that anything is possible. This book has been the source of laughter at the retreat as the other writers and I have tried to (sometimes unsuccessfully) change our manner of thought. No more “I’m going to miss my flight,” no more “the trip getting here sucked and I’m dreading the journey back home.”

Our motto has been “What Would Florence Say?” and, indeed, the author would encourage that these negatively sarcastic comments be turned into positive manifestations. Things may not happen as you expect them to — that’s the thing about letting go, loosening up on the controls — but by having a lot of faith, by speaking the words out loud, by believing in something, good things are possible. For instance, according to this logic, by believing that you will make all of your flights and thus have a good trip home means that it can and will happen.

I wrote most of this sitting in the airport because I missed my first flight.

Which means that I also missed my second flight.

I would have made my first flight, except that my train was late.

Seems I missed that part of the equation. I guess I should have been more specific.

So here recounts my travel journey, bit by bit, so that I remember it all, including this until now foreign feeling of empowerment and independence. The greatest adventure of my life thus far, the hardest test, passed with flying colors.

Carcassonne - Train Station, SP, France 2008

Part One: Carcassonne to Toulouse

Introductions to the retreat and my fellow writers will be made later this week, but since I’m name and place-dropping, I’ve provided a very brief introduction: John, one of the owners of the retreat, drove Shahnaz, another writer, and I to Carcassonne at 7:30 this Monday morning so that we could make the scheduled 8:19 train to the Toulouse airport. Shahnaz and I would be traveling together until we parted ways at the airport, where we would commence the next leg of our respective journeys solo. With a delayed train and impromptu taxi ride to the airport in Toulouse, I’ll always remain grateful that she was with me for the start of this new adventure as I make my way home.

The train station was much more crowded than I expected when we arrived, but after dealing with long lines and out of service ticketing machines, we looked up at the board schedule and realized why: the train was late. Thirty minutes late, to be exact. A delayed train was not something I had counted on, and while I remained surprisingly calm on the exterior, inside I could feel the butterflies starting to wake up.

John hauled our luggage to an adjacent café and bought us coffee and tea, engaging us with great conversation that was useful as a distraction as my mind started to work out a solution to this potential setback. John, seeing that I was becoming nervous, soon went to check on the status of our train. Another ten minutes had been added to the delay. Rounding the figure to an hour, I tried to figure it out in my head: my flight left at 11am. By the time we would board the train, it would be 8:45. It took about an hour and 15 minutes to get to the station in Toulouse. I nodded inwardly. Not figuring the 15 minute shuttle to the airport, I would have an hour before my flight departed, maybe a half an hour to spare.

Positive thinking, I thought as Shahnaz reminded me of Florence, and I couldn’t help but grin. It could work; I could do this. Surely Florence wouldn’t let me down.

The original plan was this: Take the 8:19 train from Carcassonne to Toulouse and arrive in Toulouse at around 9:30. Then, take the 11am plane from Toulouse to Paris, arriving in Paris at 12:30. Then, take the 1:30 plane from Paris to Philly, arriving in Philly at 4:30, USA time.

Now, in hindsight, I think I was asking for it, as I obviously didn’t take into account these setbacks. Still, it’s a great lesson in how things don’t ever go as planned. It’s a great testament to how I learned to let go of the things I can’t control.

After expressing our gratitude and saying our goodbyes to John, Shahnaz and I settled in for the ride. There were two scheduled train stops, but due to traffic, we stopped unexpectedly two more times for 5 and 15 minutes, respectively. The clock was ticking. Again, I tried to figure out solutions as the French countryside whirled by.

Was there a plane to New York? Maybe I could take a taxi to New Jersey, where my friend lives, and crash with him for the night before traveling home to PA. Or maybe I could take the train from NY into Lancaster. Or maybe there was an early morning flight to Baltimore.

All the while, as logic took over as I tried to find a solution to a potential problem, I remained amazingly calm, to the point where Shahnaz even commented on my “oh well, I’ll figure it out” attitude. I just kept reminding myself that I was going home, that I would be ok, and that it would all work out.

We finally arrived at the Toulouse train station at 10:15. Shahnaz and I booked it over to the bus station to catch the shuttle to the airport. Without Shahnaz, I would have been at a loss, I’ve realized. I had taken the shuttle from the airport to the train station on my journey there, but I had no idea where to actually get picked up to go back to the airport. Luckily, Shahnaz had taken this trip before, as this had been her second month at the retreat after a brief break for some traveling. So I followed her lead, both of us rolling our suitcases behind us as we crossed the street to the bus port. Looking at the schedule, we could see that we had just missed the shuttle; the next one would be leaving at 10:40.


Shahnaz and I hurried back to the taxi-port, deciding that 30 Euro was nothing compared to making up the lost time and (hopefully) catching our flights. As we said our goodbyes and made promises to keep in touch — promises that I am absolutely certain I will keep with each of them — we parted ways.

I was on my own from here on out.

I rushed to get on line for check in, knowing well enough that while Shahnaz still had time to catch her 12:00 flight, I had undoubtedly missed mine.

As my glance passed from my watch to the few people in front of me, frantic thoughts passed through my mind, kind of akin to this:

Crap, crap, crap. I’m really missing my flight. I can’t believe I’m missing my flight. Can I still make my flight? Ten minutes until take off. Can’t these people in front of me hurry up? How much baggage do they really need? Can I ask them if I can go in front of them? Eight minutes…What if I don’t make it. Can I still make it? Shit, I won’t make it.

I tried to justify, tried to reason, tried to figure it all out. While I remained outwardly calm, my mind raced with options, going over in French what to say when I reached the counter.

When it was my turn in line, I handed my passport to a beautiful French woman and told her that I think I missed my flight. She looked at my information, looked at her watch, then smiled sympathetically at me. In English she explained that I could possibly get another flight, but that I would have to go to the information desk behind me.

So I did. After waiting patiently in another line, I explained my situation again. I missed my flight from Toulouse to Paris and therefore wouldn’t make my flight from Paris to Philadelphia. Was there any other flight to the States? Maybe to New York or Baltimore? Beautiful French Lady came up to the desk and started speaking to the woman. The only thing she could do, Second French Lady said, was have me follow the same schedule tomorrow as I would have today: take the 11 am plane from Toulouse to Paris and then the 1:30 plane from Paris to Philly. There’s a chance I’ll miss the Philly plane, right? I asked, foreseeing what suddenly seemed inevitable to me. She nodded, and I could feel my face go pale. But then she said that I could take a plane from Toulouse to Paris at 8 pm that evening, then take the flight to Philly at 1:30 the next day. It would cost 170 Euro to make the change.

I handed her my credit card.

She changed my ticket and apologized for her English, to which I responded that her English was better than my French, to which she replied that I was speaking beautifully. I’m now convinced that speaking the language has made this trip so much easier. I thanked her a thousand times, then went in search of a phone.

I had told my mom and dad that if I missed my flight, I would call them. If I didn’t miss it, there would be no phone call and they would be able to pick me up in Philadelphia as planned. Luckily, I still had a ton of minutes left on my phone card.

I had a phone call to make.

As I’ve expressed before, up until this point, I had been surprisingly calm — I had managed to deal with a delayed train, a missed flight, change my ticket, and still hold it together. As soon as mom said a sleepy hello, though, the tears came. I was ok, but the relief at hearing her voice proved to be the final straw that led to this release of emotion. A man walking by looked at me sympathetically. I felt like giving him the finger, but I offered a small smile and a shrug instead.

I told Mom to wait while I composed myself, then I explained that I missed my flight. Not the flight that I thought I would miss, in Paris…Oh, no. I was still in Toulouse, stuck there for eight hours.

They could pick me up the next day instead, she assured me. It was going to be alright. And I knew it would be. It would take a lot of waiting, a lot of patience, but I really was doing just fine. After all, I can do anything now. The part that made it so difficult was wanting to be home, yet being so far away and feeling so alone. The stress of the traveling needed to be let go, and I did just that through my tears.

Mom said that she was proud of me, that I had worked it out and gotten this far. She told me that if I needed to get a hotel, I could do that and get a good night’s rest. I thought about it, but then expressed that since I would already be at the airport, I might just remain there — there was no way I would be chancing fate now. Still, I knew that I would take each step as it came. For me, on this journey, I had taken a giant leap, learning to follow that up with baby steps: letting go and moving forward one step at a time, moment by moment, setback by setback.

After I hung up with my mom, I assessed myself. I needed a bathroom and I needed food. Desperately. Hoisting my tote bag onto my shoulder and rolling my suitcase behind me, I found a nice, quiet alcove with comfortable, plush benches near some vending machines, the bathroom, and the registration counter where I could settle in. Another problem solved. Next: shutting up my grumbling stomach.

I studied the sandwiches, snacks, and drinks and dug into my bag for some coins. A member of the janitorial staff was sweeping the floor nearby. I excused myself and apologized for being in her way, to which she responded by asking if I was getting a drink or a sandwich. “Les deux,” I replied with a smile, and told her that it had been a long morning. She said that she had a sandwich that she wasn’t going to eat. Did I want it?

Really? I asked, surprised by this unexpected kindness. She nodded and smiled and took it off of her cart, offering it to me, still in its vending machine packaging. I accepted gratefully and expressed my appreciation as she smiled and walked away, sweeping the floor as she wandered off.

After purchasing a bottle of water, I went to settle in on my bench, found a power source right behind me (no free Wi-Fi, unfortunately…I tried), and plugged in my laptop to type away at this blog post, recounting the barriers and detours I’ve faced and the miracles and everyday angels that have helped me through them.

Could it have been worse? Absolutely. Did I feel like I was handling myself well? Surprisingly, yes. I feel as if my journey to France was an obstacle to be overcome, and this journey home has been a test for those lessons learned.

This is the greatest adventure of my life thus far, of that I’ve never been more certain. It has opened doors, provided profound inspiration, and paved the way for some incredible experiences. But it has also been the most difficult. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy, and the lessons I’ve learned and the strength I’ve found in myself, the belief in strangers and their generosity, and the support from loved ones back home as I travel this road seemingly alone have been something remarkable, something worthwhile.

So this is where I’ve remained, sitting in an airport for eight hours, luggage surrounding me, typing on my laptop, plugged into a power source, a comfortable bench to crash on to ease my exhaustion and vending machines to keep me satiated.

Waiting in Toulouse - Departure, Susan Pogorzelski, France, 2008

A pause, a reprieve, before the final leg of this incredible journey.

Coming soon: I’m Going Home: Paris

4 thoughts on “I’m Going Home: Toulouse”

  1. Susan,
    Thanks for sharing the journey! This is my response:
    you got exactly what you needed
    you got what you believed you would get. You were dead certain that you were going to miss your flights, and nothing, no positive thinking, was going to talk you out of that. So voila.
    The COOL thing is you got this because it showed you so much about yourself. Look at how much you grew in those three weeks. The difference between the crazy trip there and the crazy trip back wasn’t that you were going home – it was that you were stronger and had expanded your capacity for disarray. I think your comfort zone has grown. You can do anything.
    I’m so proud of you. I see you learning that life isn’t about all the external circumstances being neat and controlled, but how we deal with them.
    We think travel is about going to new places, seeing things, buying postcards and goodies. It’s about expanding our capacity for discomfort.
    I had the best trip to Madrid! 13 hours! I wrote, reflected, drew, listened to my TED podcasts, which completely inspired me.
    I missed my train from Barcelona to Madrid, because the Portbou train was 30 minutes late. I went through the same mental machinations that you did. I also did some drawings on the train, using a completely different style – more fast, crazy, unkempt, that reflected my energy. These drawings are awesome and I love them.
    I got this missed connection opportunity to learn how to be calm even when I think I need to panic and create drama. I had 30 minutes to catch the next train and was shuttled from window to window to pay for the new ticket. (!!!) I was a madwoman. Now I look back and see I didn’t have to be that way.
    So glad you made it and are happy with the pooch and your peeps. Have a great Thanksgiving!


    As per usual, you’re absolutely right. As positive as I was trying to be, inside I had a growing feeling that something was going to happen, that I was going to miss my flights. And as hard as I tried to put that feeling aside, it still remained. And look what that negativity bred!

    BUT. I’m so glad that it did. Hindsight is always, always 20/20 — looking back, I never would have learned what I did without these trials. Getting there had been hell, but I learned from it. It seemed that getting back was my test to prove that. And it was a crazy adventure that I can laugh about and share and say Look! Look what I did! It has given way to a pretty cool feeling that I hope I can always remember and hold onto. Your comment is dead-on. The fact that I was going home played a small role — the greater part was in how I viewed the situation, and with that, I’ve felt changed. Incredible.

    And I see that crazy travel happens to all of us 🙂 Glad to read that Panama was a success and that you’re safe and sound in Madrid. And as an added note: you’ve inspired me to take up watercolor painting. You’ve inspired me in so many other ways.

    Thanks for everything. Thanks for you. – Susan

  2. I have had similar experiences where everything seems to go wrong, you miss a flight or some other problem occurs. But more often than not something good comes from the experience that you can remember and appreciate in the future.

    You may not even realise what it is until sometime later when you have had time to reflect about the events in a calmer state of mind.

    So I would wait until you are home and then when you feel safe and content, think about what happened and see what comes from it.

    Brian – Thanks so much for your comment. Traveling really is stressful isn’t it? But the great thing that I can see now is that I’ve had help all along the way: support from my family back home, great people with whom I’ve connected, even for just a few moments, and I’ve learned to rely on myself and my instincts. The journey had been harrowing, but especially on this trip home, the feeling of empowerment, of self-reliance, was something remarkable. Lessons are always being taught, it seems, and I certainly learned mine. Thanks again and best to you! – Susan

  3. At least Shahnaz didn’t leave you behind at something like a Tube stop. 🙂

    You’re awesome, I just wanted you to know that.

    Sarah – I am absolutely convinced that you losing me/getting lost on the Tube was gearing me up for this journey…I just had to figure out how to find my own way back 🙂 Oh, and by the way? Ditto. You rock. – Susan

  4. Susan,

    It was so much fun missing trains with you. Let’s do it again soon.

    Shahnaz –
    Ha. No. You’re nuts. 🙂

    Seriously, though, I do miss you and am so grateful that we were in that part together. I’m sure that your presence is why I was so calm throughout that train ride, so my eternal gratitude for that! I hope that by now you’re safe and sound and happy and where you need to be. Have a very happy holiday; I’ll be keeping in touch, you can count on it! Love, Susan

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