• vmangion

Escaping Eyjafjallajokull (That’s Not a Typo) (Volume 104, February 14, 2010 - June 13, 2010)


In April of 2010, my sister and I went to Aix-en-Provence, France, to visit her daughter/my niece, who was studying abroad for one semester while in college. This was my first trip to Europe. The week we went was the same week the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajokull, decided to erupt. Our one week trip turned into a two week trip, with the second week being devoted almost exclusively to trying to figure out how to get home. 6.8 million travelers’ flights were disrupted over six days, due to fears that volcanic ash could disable jet engines mid-flight.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Pre-volcano, we were supposed to be half-way home by now. Our original flight was supposed to leave at 6:55 this morning. We were scheduled to fly through Amsterdam. Amsterdam is a mess — the airport is chaos.

We didn’t know what to do this morning. Once again we couldn’t tell from the Marseilles airport’s website if they were open or closed. KLM’s website couldn’t help us. Jeanne and I turned on french TV to see if we could glean any info. The reporters stood in front of scenes of airport chaos but it was unclear if any progress was occurring.

We headed out for the tourism information office. A young blonde french girl was bizarrely unhelpful. “You had a flight this morning? Why didn’t you take it? You didn’t go to the airport?”

This was right after we asked her if she knew whether or not the Marseilles airport had re-opened. She had no clue. After a few minutes of her acting like an insane person living in an isolation chamber — HAS SHE NOT HEARD OF LA VOLCANE?! — she casually threw in a reference to a KLM/Air France office in Aix-en-Provence. This turned out to be a critical piece of information. We walked there immediately. There were maybe 15 people waiting in line for the office to open, which they did, an hour late.

They had a numbered ticket system, like a bakery. We were 7th in line. We waited roughly 40 minutes for our turn.

We were helped by a pretty, blonde french woman who spent at least 20 minutes working on our reservations. It was a huge relief just to know that the airlines were starting to work to reschedule flights.

After many minutes, she told us that the first possible flight for us would be next Saturday, April 24th. While we reacted with shock and hesitation, that flight filled. Now our first confirmed reservation possible was for next Sunday, April 25th. We said, yes, yes, take it! WOW - another whole week to pay for — at approximately 90 euros per night, with an exchange rate of approximately 1 to 1.4 — not in the dollar’s favor. I’m so grateful that Ellis and I have the money. So many people’s situations are more dire than ours.

The kind KLM-Air France employee could not print out tickets for us because we booked through Delta. So we have no tickets — but we have a piece of paper printed out containing our reservation info. Now we’re flying out of Paris instead of Amsterdam. That’s better because Amsterdam is that much closer to the spewing volcano.

She told us to call Delta in the U.S. Feeling relieved, we tried to return to the bagel place run by a sweet lad from Ireland named Tony. Unfortunately, it’s closed on Monday.

We ended up back at Book in Bar, where we got café cremes (Jeanne and I) and where Darcy and Jeanne had croissants and I had my fifth or sixth pain au chocolat of the trip.

The café cremes (essentially cappuccinos) come with two wrapped sugar cubes, a gingersnap-type cookie, and a square of dark chocolate. I’ve been keeping the sugar cubes for Rabbit, Dewey and Rocky. This morning I got to say my second complete sentence to a french person. (My first was spoken to a soap seller at the open air market, when I bought bar soaps with words carved into them. Of the six I bought, one was olive scented and one was caramel. I said, “Nous avons un chat qui s’appelle ‘Olive’ et un chien qui s’appelle ‘Caramel.’ The vendor got a kick out of that and repeated it a couple times before we left — “un chat ‘Olive’ et chien ‘Caramel’!)

This morning I showed the Book in Bar employee a photo of Dewey and Rabbit and said, “J’ai pris le sucre pour mes chevaux dans l’etats unis!” She reacted like I was an idiot but then asked if I wanted them wrapped.

I am getting a big kick out of french people, whom I like very much.

Poor Darcy had a big meltdown this morning. She’s really missing her boyfriend. And she already bought a $200 ticket to meet a couple friends from Wisconsin in Spain this week-end — a trip which isn’t going to happen because of the volcano. She shouldn’t risk getting stuck there — and we are stuck here — even if we weren’t here it would be unwise for her to go. And Darcy’s classes started again today. I know she feels responsible for making everything okay for us, and it takes a toll on her, being the one who best knows the language and has to navigate things like bus rides involving transfers.

Our worst problem right this minute is killing time. We have a room through Wednesday night, I think. After that, we may have to move.

We wish we were better at doing nothing. I hope we can get in one more day trip before we leave. We’ve spent a large portion of each day lately trying to arrange our return flights, and trying to communicate with Owen, Callie and Ellis.

It was rather disturbing to think that we found the KLM/Air France office mostly by chance. If we’d taken a bus to the airport to make arrangements, it would have cost another 40 euros and, by the time we’d gotten there, we probably would not have been able to get reservations home for at least two weeks or more. Is travel always like that? It’s so random — the way you eventually find out what you need to know.

11:15 pm - We still haven’t been able to get through to an international Delta operator. We’re trying to have our reservation confirmed and we’re afraid the piece of paper we have isn’t going to be good enough. After trying and having all lines busy twice, we tried e-mailing our message to Delta’s e-mail address. Can you send us an e-mail confirmation and can we print out boarding passes as usual? So far, no response.

I called my boss at the library. Nobody gets that this situation is very stressful. It’s not “fun.” We spend hours every day working on finding a way home. Thank God for Darcy and her laptop! I would rather be home now than spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on a hotel room and fattening, limited restaurant food. For some reason, there is nothing to eat here except pizza, bread, pasta and chocolate. Wait staff in the restaurants that we can afford look at you like you have two heads if you ask if it’s possible to get steamed vegetables. I’m tired of pain au chocolat. I’m tired of carbs. Literally, 80% of restaurant offerings in Aix-en-Provence are pastas or pizzas. It’s weird. Even the bakeries have piles of pizza slices to sell every day. I do not get it.

Ah, well. I’ve reached my worry limit for one day.

The volcano’s name is “Eyjafjallajokull.” There’s a video on You Tube showing clips of various reporters attempting to pronounce the volcano’s name. All fail. Or they resort to saying things like “Iceland’s erupting volcano.” The military’s name for the volcano is E15 - for it’s first letter plus the 15 that follow. I don’t know if the way I spelled it is correct. That’s just one newspaper’s attempt. The video was pretty funny. They even joked about it on SNL.

Of course, to us nothing about that freakin’ volcano is funny. The days are turning into a blur of stressful attempts to pin down our return flight or to move it up, if possible.

Yesterday Jeanne and I hung out in the morning while Darcy was in class. We went to Book in Bar and found Judy and Rich “hogging” the only English language newspaper. We walked around the blocks closest to our hotel. We found a cute Italian café called “Francesca” where we got take out food for lunch — one pasta dish and one salad.

We went to Monoprix and back to the open air market. We went to two pharmacies, looking for more allergy pills for Jeanne. I did a lot of interacting, using my pathetic French. It is fun, trying to communicate in my little circumscribed way. I successfully conveyed our desires to a nut vendor (pistachios), an apple seller, a different pear seller, and a macaroon seller. He gave me a bag in which to put as many cookies as we wanted. I put in three small macaroons and handed him the bag. He was so cute. The bag was so light that he looked inside with an expression like “is there nothing in here?” and weighed it, then threw in a couple cookies for free. Or maybe he charged us for them, who knows?

Darcy picked us up at 1:30. We ate our lunch in Madame’s kitchen. Once again we fired up Darcy’s laptop. No luck talking to a person at Delta. It did look like the correct reservation is in the system at KLM’s website.

We checked e-mail and decided to walk back to the Air France office in Aix to ask again why we needed more papers as proof of our flight reservations and to see if any earlier flights had opened up. Beatrice was available — the pretty blonde woman who helped us Monday. There were no lines. There were no earlier flights.

Earlier, Tom had e-mailed Darcy the name of their great international travel agent. We called the number on Skype and couldn’t get their agent but we did get a very helpful person named Ranjeet.

Ranjeet thought she could maybe get us on an Air France flight this Friday. We went on-line and saw that there’s availability. But the cost of booking two one-way tickets was about $5,000. We called back (it was all very confusing — e-mailing back and forth and looking on-line and skyping simultaneously) as we needed to make sure she knew that we only wanted to change flights if there is no additional cost. We do not want to jeopardize our confirmed reservations!! Unless we have a sure thing and for sure it won’t cost us additional money!!

She was on line trying to get through to Air France for so long that she said she’d e-mail us when she knew something and then we’d call her back. Darcy can’t get incoming calls on a phone — we do all our calling on her computer. Life is very weird now.

At 8:00 p.m. we talked to Ranjeet again. She finally communicated with Air France but then they said she needed to talk to someone at a different number. We told her we had to sign off for the night. Hopefully, we’ll find out this morning whether or not she was able to book us on an earlier flight.

If she was, great — but there’s a lot of stress related to that, too — will one hour be enough time to make a connecting flight at Charles de Gaulle ? “It is so draining!” Jeanne just said, and it is. No one will get it back home. (Oh, poor you, too bad, you were stuck in Provence for an extra week — boo-hoo) This is just not a normal vacation. We are not light-hearted. All this planning and the language barrier and the disappointments but most of all the uncertainty (E15 is still spewing, etc., but not as much) sap your desire to take advantage of the chance to see sights. Money — don’t get me started. And all the responsibilities piling up back home…

Thursday, April 22, 2010

This will be my second week without “Survivor.” How will I survive?

Yesterday we all had various degrees of melt-down. We’re all volcanoes, erupting and spewing anxiety at irregular intervals. Darcy must be sick of her mom and her aunt hanging around.

(We did fit in two day trips in two days, while laboring to find a way home. We went to Cassis one day and rode white Camargue horses through a pink flamingo sanctuary the next. I had little time to write the rest of the trip.)

Friday, April 30, 2010

What a week. It’s hard being back. I’m so tired I cannot think straight.

I have to write in detail about our last day in France, and our excruciating trip home.

We checked out of the Hotel Cardinal on Saturday, April 24th. I didn’t want to pay another $100 for that night, when we’d only be there for a few hours.

Madame said we could stay in Darcy’s room that night. She was very sweet. She provided us with little foam beds and sheets and pillows.

That day, we dragged our heavy suitcases from our hotel to the dark, scary, medieval looking entry area of Madame’s home. Her house is a stone-walled fortress probably built in the 1500’s or 1700’s… who knows, but it’s OLD. No one could get in through her 15 foot tall wooden doors without keys. Our suitcases would be safe, sitting there unattended. (Besides which, if anyone really wants my thrice-worn underpants and dorky, ugly clothes, more power to you…)

We had a classic Aix-en-Provence day for the final day of our trip.

We followed our usual routine of going to the Book in Bar, the english language bookstore right by Darcy’s house. There we could glance at the international edition of the New York Times and make sure there was no late-breaking news of plane crashes or ash cloud reversals that would cause our flight to be cancelled. I think I got orange juice instead of my usual café creme.

It was a special day at the Book in Bar. Jeanne bought a book, Talk To The Snail, written by an English guy who has lived in France for 12 years. Because she bought a book, she got a free book and a rose.

As we were preparing to leave, a funny little elderly lady came up to us and started talking to us. She had on a military uniform and a little cap.

For a minute or two we thought she was very interesting. She claimed to have been in Wisconsin, back in the 30’s or 50’s, when she toured the entire United States and the Panama Canal. By the time she mentioned Charles de Gaulle enlisting her aid to free France from someone or other and also said she’d examined the stomach contents of beached whales who had eaten people, we knew she was a LOON. My god, she went on and on and on. I guess every bookstore needs its resident crazy person.

We went outside and immediately ran into Madame Bouteloup and Madame Martineau, who had been shopping and were wearing very funky clothes, as usual. They looked adorable. I asked if I could take their picture, or rather Darcy did. Madame Martineau was so sweet. She went into a different bookstore and asked the proprietor to take a group photo so I could be in it, too. I love those photos. It was so frustrating, not being able to talk to those women. We just loved them, even without being able to communicate worth a darn.

Right after that we ran into Christine and Abby, Darcy’s housemates and fellow study abroad students from UW-Madison. I gave Christine the rose from the bookstore. We planned to meet them later for drinks and appetizers. Then we set out on our errands. We ended up walking around Aix for more than six hours that day.

We finally mastered the French art of wasting an entire day promenading up and down Cours Mirabeau.

We walked to the bus stop to check the bus schedule for the airport one more time.

We discovered “Flunch,” a french cafeteria, too late to do us any good. But hopefully Darcy will get to eat there. It had normal food — steamed carrots and zucchini, mashed potatoes and french fries, desserts and hot dishes. We would definitely have eaten there if we’d discovered it sooner. I have to write Rick Steve and tell him to include it in his guidebook.

We ate lunch at the Irish bagel shop for the third time. That place was a godsend.

We checked out the market. Darcy got earrings and a couple necklaces and I got a weird pair of eyeball earrings from a vendor selling Moroccan stuff. We went to Monoprix, the grocery store, a couple times.

Darcy wanted to take a shower before we met with Christine and Abby. So I e-mailed Ellis for one final time and tried to read Jeff Probst’s on-line blog while Jeanne read a book.

I enjoyed the time with Christine and Abby in one of the ubiquitous outdoor cafés lining Cours Mirabeau. But the service was French service at its worst.

After a long time, a grumpy male waiter cleared the dirty dishes off our table. He didn’t wipe it off. He brought our drinks and our single order of bruschetta and then disappeared for probably 45 minutes or an hour.

We would have ordered a second round of drinks a half hour before he finally showed up to present us the bill. I guess he was going home. He never asked if we wanted anything else, which we did. Once he left, no other waiter ever came to our table to see if we needed anything. I understand waiters aren’t motivated to work because the tips are built into the price of food and drinks — but why don’t management or the owners care that they could double their sales if the lazy, dour waiters would do their job?

(But then there’s “Brad Pitt,” who was wonderful.)

We started to walk with Christine and Abby. We decided to go say good-bye to “Brad Pitt,” at his tucked away restaurant on one of Aix’s many confusing, curving, twisting side roads adjoining the Cours Mirabeau. I could never have found it on my own, even after two weeks of wandering around the streets of Aix.

We’d told Christine and Abby about “Brad Pitt,” a sweet, dear man who looked uncannily like Brad Pitt, who waited on us and was the polar opposite of the stereotypical jerky french waiter (see above). He was helpful and attentive, and willing to banter with me in spite of my mangled french and lack of youthful beauty.

He wasn’t there.

We parted ways with Christine and Abby, who weren’t interested in doing the ten-minute walk outside of town to see Cezanne’s studio. Christine hates to exercise and Abby’s sandals were rubbing her toes.

En route, Jeanne, Darcy and I passed some incredible sites. I don’t know why we never made an effort to see some of Aix’s more noteworthy sites earlier in our trip. We saw an outrageous church with outrageous architectural features, but we were so dumb. We photographed the outside and then got distracted by an art fair across the way. By the time we got done exclaiming over these tiny, intricately carved heads made from horse chestnuts (they were awesome), the church was closing so we missed seeing the inside.

My guide book downplayed Cezanne’s studio so I didn’t make seeing it a priority. Once we walked up to see it, I was so mad! It, too, was closed. We could only look at the property through a locked fence. But his studio is surrounded by gardens, from which the scent of lilacs wafted enticingly. It seemed like a good place to visit. Maybe if we hadn’t been endlessly preoccupied with the vexing question of how to get home after the volcano erupted, we wouldn’t have missed as many neat things as we did.

I did enjoy that final picture-taking expedition.

Coming back, we decided to try one last time to say good-bye to “Brad Pitt.”

Darcy was thoroughly embarrassed so she gave me the words to say — “Nous partirons demain pour les Etats Unis.” — while she stayed well back and around the corner, out of sight.

His restaurant was busy; he was there, but busy. His sweet friend, the host, more or less, who hangs out outside the restaurant, was there. We smiled at him and then waited awkwardly for Brad Pitt to notice us standing there. He could have ignored us totally and we would have felt like idiots, complete morons. He’s somewhere between Darcy’s age and our ages but would be more age-appropriate for her.

But he’s sweet.

He saw us and immediately came over. I said my sentence and indicated that I wanted to take his picture. He motioned for his friend to join him in the picture. I took a photo, only one but it’s good. They’re both smiling broadly. Man, does our waiter look like Brad Pitt!

I think he waited on us twice, but maybe it was only once, and we passed by at least a couple times during our many walks and waved to him. I just wanted him to know why he would never see us again.

He took my hand to shake it. Then he said something to the effect of, “In our country, we have a custom, b? — he said the word that describes the action of kissing someone’s cheeks — the common European greeting — while pointing to his cheek. I nodded to tell him I understood before he finished explaining. Next thing I know I was kissing his cheek, one side and then the other, and he did the same to me. Wow. It was an electric, sensual sensation. I was shocked. Then the sweet host man and I exchanged this greeting while Brad Pitt and Jeanne did the same. I only felt sparks with Brad Pitt.

I was tongue tied. I bungled, bungled my last words to him. I wanted to say, I will remember you, my friends. I said, “je te souviens, mon amis.” First of all, I don’t know if “souvenir” is actually the right word for “remember.” Second, I should have used vous. You can get in big trouble using the familiar form of “you” when you shouldn’t, in France. Also, "te" was exclusionary. I didn’t want to embarrass myself or Brad Pitt by not including his friend in my declaration. “Mon amis” is wrong. I was thinking “mon ami” — again, exclusionary. At the last second I pronounced the “s” on “amis” — but the “mon” gave me away. And my tense was wrong. “I will remember you” is vastly different from “I remember you.”

Anyway, I was so embarrassed. I was blushing! We bumbled away.

I know how homely I am now; I know how old I look. My skin is awful, my hair was a disaster every day of our vacation. I’m old. He really does probably think of me as a mother figure. I’m still touched that he was so adorable to us.

I was on a little bit of a high for an hour or two. My cheek was still tingling! I must sound highly pathetic. Darcy was laughing. I’m sure she thinks I’ve gone off the deep end once and for all.

But that was a highlight of the trip — no lie. We had a connection. We just did.

We went back to Darcy’s room, our dessert in hand (chocolate and LUs). She borrowed the movie “Chocolat” from her sweet suite mate, Sarah. She came over to show off her new dress before she left for (another) night of partying.

Jeanne, Darcy and I sat side by side on Darcy’s tiny bed, watching “Chocolat” on her laptop.

At 11:30 or so, Jeanne and I retired to our foam beds and Darcy tried to sleep in her own bed. Of course, we didn’t sleep for one second. There’s lots of noise in the street as a rule. We were paranoid about not waking up and not hearing the alarm. Plus Darcy’s floor was so slanted that I had to hold on to the edge of the mattress on the high side so I didn’t fall off! I felt like I was on a boat.

We waited quietly in the dark for 3:00 a.m. to arrive. We took turns washing our faces and brushing our teeth in Darcy and Sarah’s teeny little bathroom.

At ten to 4:00, right on schedule, we left Madame’s fascinating old house. Our journey home was officially beginning, six days late.

It was interesting to see Darcy’s alley-like street in the dark. There was a huge moon which I attempted to photograph — my last pictures of France. They turned out to be appropriately surreal. France is charming but so odd! It’s like France is its own little planet.

We dragged our heavy wheeled suitcases over the bumpy cobblestones making up the Rue Mazarin. The street had just been cleaned, thank god, so we didn’t have to navigate around an obstacle course of dog shit. Also, we didn’t have to dodge cars whipping down the narrow alley-street every two seconds so all in all, leaving at 3:50 a.m. had its upside.

Sunday, May 2nd (the trip home, continued)

It only took us 20-25 minutes to get to the bus stop, so we had awhile to wait. One drunk guy started to cross the street toward us, which could have been ugly, but the tall mesh wire fence separating lanes deterred him.

Eventually a young man arrived by taxi with his suitcase. He sat near us, making us all safer.

We got to the airport before the airline personnel had even opened their counters. The Marseilles airport closes every night from 1:00 am - 4:00 am. But the agents didn’t start work until around 5:30. We were first in line for Air France.

I handed over our two pieces of paper — a computer printout from Beatrice, the kind woman at the Air France office in Aix, and the only paper we could get from Delta Airlines — an e-mail we printed out at Darcy’s school’s program office on an ancient, old computer. The result of three days of skyping and e-mailing, this paper was supposed to be an e-ticket. Instead, it was just an itinerary listing our scheduled flights, including seat reservations.

The woman behind the desk typed away on her computer for a few minutes and then said, “I have no record of your reservation.” We spent hours and hours that whole week trying to prevent this moment. But we were not surprised.

Jeanne and I exchanged glances that would have appeared mild to an outside observer — inside we were both experiencing cardiac arrhythmias and spikes in blood pressure. Darcy swore under her breath.

We kept cool and waited. No way were we not flying out of France on our 6:55 a.m. flight! Our agent called over her supervisor. They spoke in French for many minutes, while our agent typed — whatever — into the computer.

Eventually we were told to step out of line. I dragged my heavy suitcase off the weigh-in platform.

We stood off to the side while other passengers checked in. The supervisor had disappeared, hopefully to remedy whatever problem was delaying our check-in. We three just looked at each other. We were helpless. Blustering and anger would only be counter-productive. We knew that much about dealing with French people in positions of “power.” Your only hope is to act and look like what we in fact were — helpless innocents in a state of abject surrender.

Our passivity paid off. Within ten minutes the supervisor came back with two paper tickets in hand. We thanked her lavishly and got back in line. We got our same agent a second time. “Let’s just start over!” I said, cheerily.

This time everything went smoothly. I think our French agent even let Jeanne’s suitcase through, though it might have been a smidge over the weight limit.

Our first hurdle in getting from Point A to Point B - CLEARED! We kissed and hugged Darcy good-bye and went to the security checkpoint.

I was feeling pretty good until the guy on the conveyor belt made me open my backpack for inspection. He was unpleasant. He ordered me to untie a knot in a plastic bag. I couldn’t believe it. He took my two expensive glass jars of artichoke dip that cost about 15 euros — presents for Ellis and Art and Connie. I protested: “But they’re not liquid!” The dip was tapinade — the consistency of hummus, maybe. A supervisor came over. I was really upset. “You can check it,” she said. “In what? My suitcase is already checked through.” She pointed to my backpack. I had two mugs in there, my camera, journal, book, snacks, ceramic “trinket” for Marilyn, etc. “But that’s fragile!” She shrugged. I watched them throw my two jars in the garbage. So far, so bad for the epic journey home, post Volcano Eyjafjallajokull.

Jeanne went to look for coffee but came back empty handed. I was still stewing about my artichoke dip. That stuff was fantastic.

Darcy had planned to hang out at the airport and write in her journal until it got light enough to travel back to Aix safely on her own.

Jeanne suddenly said, “I wonder if I could call Darcy on my cell phone — you could give the dip to her.” I thought that was a great idea. “Well, try it!”

Jeanne’s phone worked! Darcy came back upstairs to her side of the checkpoint. I went back to the supervisor and told her I did want my dip back. I had to dig it out of a wet garbage bag. The jars were wet. I didn’t care — at least I didn’t totally waste all that money. I knew Darcy would love to eat that stuff. The supervisor had been nice enough to tell me I could wash it off in a restroom on the other side.

So I handed off my treasures to Darcy, hugged her good-bye again and went back to the security station. I made a big mistake bringing my purse with me. In the few moments I was talking to Darcy, a bunch of people had gotten in line. I had to wait behind them and run my purse through screening again. But I made it back to Jeanne in plenty of time.

The flight from Marseilles to Paris was short and uneventful.

When we landed, we were herded down a flight of stairs onto a waiting bus. The bus drove around the airport and dropped us in front of an entryway. We all herded up the interior steps and turned left into an area filled with duty free shops and souvenirs. No one from the airlines was there to guide us.

We found one small board listing departures. The last flight on the bottom of the board was scheduled to depart at 10:25. The flight at the top was flashing “final boarding.” We figured as soon as that flight left, it would go off the board and our flight to O’Hare would come up on the bottom. We were in Terminal 2F, which we remembered from our incoming flight two weeks before.

Jeanne was not feeling well, suffering from a combination of lack of sleep, lack of caffeine, and new french allergy pills. She needed to sit down. I volunteered to stand by the board so I could find out which gate we should be at. There was no gate info on our makeshift tickets or boarding passes. I watched the board from 10 to 9:00 to 10 after 9:00. No change.

Jeanne went to ask someone for help. At the same time I spotted an airline desk with a small line. I got in line. Jeanne reported that a woman at a candy counter referred her to the place I was already waiting. We weren’t too worried — we had over an hour to make our flight.

I showed my ticket or boarding pass to the agent. He looked alarmed. “Your flight will be at 2E, not 2F!” I smiled and said calmly, “Oh, thanks, that’s what we needed to know. How do we get to 2E?” There were no signs in sight, nor had there been an obvious indicator when we were herded off the bus. I did scrutinize my boarding pass. Sure enough, it said “2E,” but it wasn’t obvious. It didn’t say “Terminal 2E.” It just didn’t stand out. I think Jeanne and I were so out of it that we didn’t even look at our stubs. Or we were victims of our own magical thinking — we so needed to rest that our flight to O’Hare simply had to come to us.

We started walking, having no idea how to get to 2E. I noticed a security checkpoint — how did we miss that earlier? I politely asked a uniformed woman how to get to 2E, as I showed her my boarding pass. “What time is your flight?!” “10:30.” Why did everyone seem so alarmed? She ushered us through a locked gate and pointed the way. Jeanne asked if we could walk to 2E; she said yes.

What followed next was one of the most stressful hour and 15 minutes of my life.

We followed directions — walk straight (a long ways) until you pass a restaurant called —something — then go down an escalator. Follow the signs, then go up an elevator. The elevator went up and the other doors opened onto a waiting tram. She lied! We herded onto the tram. We started to get nervous. Why hadn’t we understood that we had to follow all the steps we’d taken en route to Marseilles in reverse to get back to O’Hare? I guess we thought we’d already gone through security in Marseilles — or we were just completely out of it from lack of sleep. It still seemed like we had easily enough time to make our connecting flight.

We exited the tram at the 2E stop. Now we were in the thick of it. Now there were so many people trying to move through the same space that we had to take tiny, mincing steps and were essentially trapped in a sea of other frantic, anxious travelers.

We all pressed forward toward an escalator. I thought of all those poor Jewish people being herded into trains or gas chambers. When there are that many people, there is no way out. Then we were on the escalator.

Jeanne and I were on the second step from the top when all movement ground to a halt. The man in front of me had his wheeled carry-on covering the top step where it disappears. I had to do the equivalent of an Irish jig on either side of his luggage to keep from falling backward as my step disappeared. It was so wild! Only at the top could we see the reason for the stoppage — literally hundreds of people stacked up at a security checkpoint. The lines snaked back and forth before they reached the start of the conveyor belts. It was 10:15. Jeanne and I looked at each other. “We’re going to miss our flight!” Cardiac arrhythmias, spiking blood pressure. Final boarding was no doubt under way. Our gate was E73. There was not one thing we could do but wait and squeeze forward with the rest of the barely-keeping-it-together swarm.

After another five minutes of inching and panicking, we spotted a real live airport employee wearing an orange coat, keeping order in the queue.

“Madame, we’re going to miss our flight!” I thrust my boarding pass at her. I think there had been an announcement for Chicago passengers amid the general din. She ushered me through a closed rope, which allowed me to bypass the snaking lines. “I’m with my sister!” I gestured toward Jeanne; the woman let her through as well. There were still many people ahead of us, and the lines weren’t moving.

We were ending up at one belt behind a woman who had three children. She was helping them take off their shoes and backpacks. This was bad. I moved to the next line, behind five or six people. Inside I was dying. It was at least 10:20.

By the time Jeanne and I reached the front of our respective lines, there were no plastic bins left in either of our lines. I could see a man re-stacking bins by Jeanne. I gave up my place in line and ran to the next line where I saw and grabbed three bins. The line had closed in on me. I pushed through and said to the woman previously behind me, “I’ll give you a bin if you let me back in line.” We both knew this was a good deal.

So finally we went through the checkpoint. I was through slightly ahead of Jeanne. I had my shoes on, not tied, by the time Jeanne gathered her belongings. “Jeanne, c’mon, don’t even put on your shoes — we’ve got to go!” She grabbed her purse, carry-on bag, fleece jacket, shoes and belt and followed me, trying to run while carrying all that stuff and holding up her pants with one hand.

We couldn’t really run — there was a solid wall of people ahead of us — but we sort of run-waded as fast as we could.

I heard a voice up ahead yell, “Chicago Passengers!” It was presumably an airline employee. I couldn’t see who was yelling through the packed crowd of people. It seemed like all 6.8 million passengers delayed by the volcanic ash cloud were trying to pass through Charles de Gaulle airport at the same time. I’ve never, ever experienced anything like it.

Jeanne was giving up. “You go ahead,” she told me. I did. I barreled through the crowd yelling, “Chicago! Chicago!” I had an adrenaline surge and a steely determination to make our flight.

After a fairly long while of pushing and yelling, I came to a place where the moving crowd was being held back by a rope barricade. Finally a tiny little space right next to the wall had been cleared for Chicago passengers. This passageway was about a foot and a half wide. I was about to faint but I was still feebly saying, “Chicago! Chicago!” when I came to a table manned by a young black guy, who thrust a green customs form into my hand.

“My sister’s coming! She’s behind me!”

And then, at last, the space opened up. I looked back and saw Jeanne coming, still holding her pants with one hand. I was at the boarding gate! There was no line — everyone else was already on the plane! I forked over my passport and boarding pass, said to the last few employees in the gate area, “My sister’s coming — she’s almost here!” and headed down the passageway, stopping every few feet to check on Jeanne’s progress. I had every intention of standing with one foot on the plane and one foot on the passageway, refusing to budge, until Jeanne arrived. I didn’t have to, though, as she caught up to me in the final passage. WE MADE IT.

In spite of our side by side assigned seats, we didn’t get to sit together. We didn’t care at that point. WE WERE ON THE PLANE TO O’HARE AIRPORT — heading back to the good ol’ U.S. of A.

We were seated for less than five minutes before the plane started rolling. At least a couple people got on after us. Jeanne noticed empty seats, so some weary travelers weren’t as lucky as we were. The one black woman by the escalator made all the difference in the world — I wish I could thank her properly. If we hadn’t cut the security line, we would have missed our flight, period.

Once we were on that plane — oh my god — what a mix of emotions flooded through my brain and body. Waning anxiety mixed with relief, exhaustion and disbelief. I think I was in a fugue state.

For many minutes that previous hour, Jeanne and I were sure we’d blown it. We envisioned sitting in chairs overnight in the airport, wearing the clothes on our back for the 3rd, 4th, 5th day in a row while we waited in vain for a stand-by space to open up on an outgoing flight to O’Hare. Callie and Owen would have driven to O’Hare in vain, Jeanne would miss more work, Callie would have to do her awful commute and continue her dog-care duties into another work week, Ellis would feel lost…it was too awful to contemplate. We let down our guard too early back in terminal 2F.

Once we were on that plane — it wasn’t easy to believe we’d done it! We’d succeeded in finding a way home. I think my body was flooded with adrenaline for another two days.

I couldn’t write on the flight. I announced to the woman next to me as I sat down, “Well, that was hell on earth.” But I was too burned out to carry on a conversation or explain in detail what we’d just gone through. (It turned out she was coming back from some sort of missionary visit to Africa.)

I read Jeanne’s book, Talk to the Snail, and watched two movies, or parts of them — “The September Issue” and “Precious.” I couldn’t hear a word through my headphones. I was too out of it to pay attention anyway.

My little section was the last to be served our meal. By the time they got to us, the vegetarian option, tortellini, was gone. All they had was LAMB. The flight attendant gave me an extra hunk of bread so I had that and cheese, the little dessert and diet coke. That was a fine airplane meal. I didn’t think we’d get any food at all. Food seemed so unimportant — we were on our way home!

We had a very bumpy, scary landing. Once the plane came to a stop and I knew for sure that we’d made it, I was overcome with emotion. I said to the couple across the aisle, “F.U., E15! We made it home!” I stamped my feet excitedly, unable to contain myself. I wanted to shout out to the whole plane full of passengers — but I did not. Jeanne was totally sick, so less exuberant.

Never in my life have I been so happy to be at O’ Hare International Airport. Never have I been so happy to deal with an American customs agent. I was giddy. He was friendly. Home, sweet home…

And then we saw Owen and Callie’s beaming faces…and our luggage was right there. It was raining, it was cold and we were HOME! Owen drove us back to Jeanne’s parked car. Callie drove us back to Elkhorn. Owen took Jeanne’s car somewhere, I guess to Arlington Heights.

We stopped at a McDonald’s so Jeanne could get a Sprite and some salty fries for her low blood pressure. We received our order in about one minute from a smiling latino girl. “I love the United States!," I said. I really did, in that minute.

We got back to Elkhorn. Almost immediately I left for the farm. Ellis’ van seemed weird. The tires were sticking to the pavement and it seemed like the parking brake didn’t release properly. Jeanne went with me on a little test drive down her road. The problem seemed to resolve itself so I started the 3-hour drive back to the farm. I have no memory of driving but somehow I arrived home. Tucker and Rabbit punished me for a day but everyone else except Ozzie was happy to see me. I’m having to rebuild my relationship with him. Ellis was very sweet.

For the next three to four days, I felt like I had post traumatic stress disorder. I relived that moment of almost falling backward on the escalator a thousand times. I reviewed our journey through CDG airport a thousand times.

I worked Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and I don’t think I slept well until Friday night.

"Brad Pitt," the nicest waiter in France, and his sweet friend


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