The miles are getting longer, it seems,
The closer I get to you…
I’m going home.
Chris Daughtry, “Home”
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
This adventure in travel has certainly lived up to its description, and yet somehow, still, I’ve been able to view it as an adventure rather than the nightmare I had been dreading. Perhaps it’s the people I’ve met along the way; perhaps it’s the change I have discovered in myself. Either way, these are what memorable stories are made of…
Yesterday, I spent eight hours in the Toulouse airport. Today, I’m in Paris, Charles de Gaulle, for another 12, at least two of them, I hope, will be spent sleeping.
First, let me recount the events of my stay in Toulouse:
Arrive in Toulouse: Late
11:30: Change tickets
11:31: Realize how much waiting I’m going to be doing in the airport
11:35: Find phone, call Mom, let the tears flow
11:42: Apologize to Mom for tears, tell her I really am ok, explain that the stress of the situation is tough, feel proud that I’ve made it this far, tell myself that, like it or not, I’m going home
11:42:10: Try really hard to believe all of it
11:45: Tell Mom I love her and say goodbye
11:50: Seek out bathrooms, food, and plush bench
11:55: Meet Nice Sandwich Lady and find all of the above
12:00: Find power source behind me, rejoice!, wonder if there is Wi-Fi access
12:03: Discover you have to pay for Wi-Fi access. Curse, open word document, begin entry
3:00: Walk around, call Mom again, complain that I’m bored, tell her I love her, go back to sitting
4:00: Meet Brad Pitt. No, just kidding…Wait some more
5:00: Walk over to the departure screen and wonder when I can get a change of scenery
6:40: Say screw “embarquement/check in not open” message and walk my ass and luggage back over to check in
6:45: Check in, go through security (no frisking, thank you), wander over to correct gate
Can you stand the excitement? I did a lot of sitting, a lot of waiting, a lot of just observing. Perhaps it was the stress of the day, perhaps it was the fatigue taking over my mind and body, but I simply didn’t feel like making conversation, so I spent most of my time thinking, planning, and observing. In some cases, people were interesting — a woman and her daughter were walking around the airport, their elderly dog trailing slowly behind them, off the leash. I couldn’t help but think that if Riley had the chance, he might run away and hop on a plane himself. Then there was a boisterous Italian family sitting near me for a good half an hour. I had no idea what they were saying, but their exuberance certainly made me feel at home.
My time in that airport was uneventful, and despite reading some David Sedaris (fitting, I thought, considering his stories about France) as a useful distraction, I couldn’t help but think how nice it would be once I was on the plane and sleeping. Once I was finally in the air, I thought, all my nerves could settle. And they did.
After I boarded (the correct plane, let’s hear it for small successes on journeys such as these!), claimed my window seat (no one beside me for this ride, another pleasant surprise), bunched my jacket up as a pillow, wrapped my scarf around my shoulders, and shut my eyes, the adrenaline finally began to fade. I didn’t even realize I had been asleep, but suddenly the pilot was saying that we would be making our descent into Paris, and I realized it was an hour and a half later.
Truth be told, landing in Paris at nighttime is pretty incredible. As I eagerly peered out my window to catch a glimpse of the Champs Elysees or the Arc de Triomphe (no luck, but I did spot The Louvre), I realized that despite this adventure (and I’m really trying to refrain from calling it “hell”), I love this city. Le Sacre Coeur, Notre Dam, Versailles, Les Tuileries…These are the monuments with which I’m familiar, rooted in the history and culture that I love so much. And as I watched the lights from moving traffic and imagined the city below me, the city that has always felt so much like home, I breathed deeply. I had spent three weeks in the French countryside, and every single moment of that experience was an amazing, undeniable learning opportunity that provided me with a lifetime of memories and strong connections. But flying over this city…To me, this was France. For me, this was my home away from home.
After we landed, I gathered my luggage and tried to navigate the labyrinth that is the Charles de Gaulle airport. As soon as I reached my terminal, nearly empty, as it was 10:30 at night, I found a telephone and called mom. I could feel the familiar sting of tears in my eyes, but once again, it was more of a release than a panic. I was fine…Just look at how far I had made it, I told myself. And I knew that I could handle this, knew that I could handle almost anything.
I debated on whether or not to get a hotel. My flight wouldn’t be leaving until 1:30 the following afternoon and I thought that a good night’s rest would probably make for a clearer head. But the thought of tackling a taxi and trying to find a hotel that may or may not have vacancy was pushing the limits, even for me. I was right where I was supposed to be, and I wasn’t about to chance fate. I decided that my airport would have to serve me for the night, but the metal chairs just wouldn’t do. So I went in search of the plush, comfy benches that had served me so well in Toulouse.
I found a large café with said plush, comfy bench that wrapped around the parameter of the café. Apparently, my idea wasn’t so strange, as these benches were serving as beds for other late-night airport patrons:
A place to sleep is a place to sleep, and I wasn’t about to pass up on the corner space I claimed for myself, not even fazed that one of the guys across the room woke up just long enough to put his pants on over his boxers. I didn’t blame him. It was cold.
I created a protective cubby for myself with tables and chairs, placed my jacket over my tote as a pillow, wrapped my scarf around me as a blanket, and threaded my hand through the garish ribbon on my suitcase as I lay down.
For about five minutes.
A French man pointed to an empty space further down on the bench, asking if it was taken. It didn’t occur to me that he was speaking in English until after I told him that I couldn’t understand him and wondered if he spoke French. Is this what it means for the mind to blend languages? I told him that the space was free and we began conversing. I’ve since learned that Columbo is very popular in French, as is Obama, if the grand celebrations he was describing were any indication of his political success. I also learned that there is a tiny church near Les Invalides where students go to find jobs such as babysitting and tutoring.
I have no idea. The man seemed nice and friendly and harmless, but I was tired and, quite frankly, I’d had enough. As he settled in to sleep, I unpacked some shirts and started adding layers for warmth beneath my sweater before finally getting comfortable enough to settle in myself.
There were six or seven other people sprawled out on the wraparound bench. Whenever someone else came by, I tended to eye them up, daring them to disrupt our little sleep bubble. We had claimed our places and now they were outsiders, wandering in. I didn’t know these other people (and, in some cases, I rather preferred it that way), but for a few hours that night, we shared a place in the world. Or at least, in that small part of Paris.
I managed to get a few hours of sleep, waking up perhaps every half an hour. Maybe it was due to the exhaustion or the release of stress, but when I woke up at three in the morning, I was practically giddy. Looking around me, the strange absurdity of it all finally hit me. I was sleeping in an airport in Paris.
No, no. I was sleeping in a Paris airport. After spending three weeks in France. By myself.
This is what crazy stories are made of.
In that moment, I was almost overwhelmed with a strength I’d never before known. For the first time, I felt powerful, independent. They weren’t just words anymore; for the first time, I believed it. Here, I didn’t care what anyone else thought…We were all people, in the same place, going in a similar direction (theoretically). If I needed help, I needed only ask. If I felt weak, I knew who to call for support. This was my epiphany. This was my turning point. This was life-changing.
I called Mom after I got up, a smile in my voice. She put Riley on the phone and I cooed his name and told him I loved him. I think he may have snorted and gone back to bed.
The morning brought hot chocolate and a pain au chocolat at the same café that had mere hours before served as my sleeping quarters.
As I sat and tried to patiently play the waiting game again, I noticed a woman with a dog sitting behind me.
“Votre chien est plus jolie.” I said to her with a smile.
“Et gentile, aussi. Very sweet.”
“Boy or girl?”
“He’s a boy.”
A smile, a nod, a caring look the dog’s way, and I respectfully turned back around. I wonder if dogs in the airport have been God’s way of telling me that I was doing just fine…
There was a lull in the registration line, so I decided to take advantage, hoping to change up the scenery and maybe find someplace more comfortable. I struck up a conversation with the woman in line behind me, who was returning to Boston after visiting Paris for a week with her sister-in-law. The lines for registration were short, as was security. Luckily, nothing went off, though they did frisk me again (what is with the frisking, seriously?) and I was motioned over to one of the desks, lucky enough to be selected at random for a search. Would I kindly acquiesce? Because I thought they would arrest me if I refused, I said sure, showed them the inside of my carry-on, and let them swipe the contents as well as the palms of my hands. To test for explosives, the nice guy behind the counter explained. Of course. At least this was a step up from the frisking. In no time I was cleared, and I immediately set off to do some shopping.
Sadly, the Paris, CDG airport consists of one souvenir shop and tons of high end boutiques. I didn’t have time to shop during my stay, so I satiated myself with postcards for my collection, Le Petit Prince (in English and French, thank you very much), a keychain, and one or two gifts for members of my family. I browsed the chocolate shop, sifted through the tacky souvenirs, and walked right by Hermes and Cartier.
An hour later, I bought a water and a sandwich at a café. There was a young Asian man ahead of me in line who didn’t have enough money for his sandwich. When I went to my gate, I noticed him sitting behind me. I got his attention, holding out a 2 Euro coin. Chalk it up to feeling good on this last part of my journey or wanting good karma. Or maybe it was my way of repaying the Generous Janitor Lady in Toulouse, but I didn’t even think twice.
“Go get a sandwich,” I said with a smile, and he accepted the coin with thanks and took off towards the café.
More walking around, more wondering what I could spend money on, more resisting that particular temptation. When I got back to my gate, I saw that they had transferred us, and when I went down to the new gate, I found a couple from Toronto on their way to Cairo. Apparently, my gate had been switched with theirs. The woman, I found out through conversation, is turning 86 next month, and they were going to Egypt for a cruise tour down the Nile. She said that she had been traveling since she was young and that they had most recently visited Russia. I explained that I was on my own, and her eyes lit up in what seemed like delighted surprise. I laughed as I explained that I was done with traveling by myself for awhile, and she agreed that it’s always better with someone else who loves the history and culture as much as you. Still, I said, it had been a great experience, the very definition of a journey.
Toronto Couple, I wish you a very happy stay in Egypt.
As we tried to figure out our gates, I met another nice couple on their way home to PA after going on a cruise around the Mediterranean. About 20% of the passengers on my flight were on their cruise, and they expressed a similar love of travel for the culture and history of the places they had visited.
Not part of the cruise-trip was a cute Italian guy who was on his way to Philadelphia to see his girlfriend. We joked and shared stories of travel and dreams, and after learning that I’m ¾ Italian, he tried to encourage me to visit Italy as part of following my heritage. It would be lovely, I agreed, but not anytime soon, and certainly not by myself again (at least for awhile, never say never). It had been a pleasure talking to all of them for the distractions that they provided and the small source of comfort that connecting with another person allows for.
My flight home was long and tiresome, but seeing my parents waiting for me, broad grins spreading over their faces, made it all worthwhile. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I ran to hug them, not wanting to let go. And when I finally did and we made it home, my reunion with my dog was equally joyous — his hound’s howl matching my own exclamations of love and happiness.
I’m glad to be home, but I’m even more grateful for this opportunity and experience, and for the strength and independence it has proven to me.
I firmly believe that I’ve met some angels on this journey — both at home and in my travel abroad. At least, they are humans who deserve that title. It’s the generous nature of the people I’ve encountered, the answers to my silent prayers of some form of help or comfort that have made this journey bearable…They were my guideposts on an uncertain, hesitant adventure. They are the small miracles that have led me back home.