Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Gaulle of the French

It’s exactly 7:30 pm and I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. Actually it’s called Paris – Charles De Gaulle Airport, to be exact. The concoction of my mental and physical at this point? Well, try 2 parts sweat, 1 part grime or dirt, whatever works better, throw in a dash of odor, sprinkle some bad breath and an entire bag of annoyance. Don’t be shy with jet lag either. You can never add too much of that. In fact, I’m sure you could probably hang my testicles on the wall and use them as an effective, yet aesthetically unpleasing insect repellant. How did I get to this point in my journey, you ask? Well, the answer to that’s quite simple really – I trusted the French.
It was the 7th of July. I left work early that day in anticipation of the heavy “anti-terrorist” traffic jams. Apparently a lot of cars were being checked for bombs, and knowing my luck, would probably be one of them. This, in a metropolitan city like New York doesn’t exactly favor the taxi drivers. Upon chatting with my temporary acquaintance, the Yellow Cab driver, he confirmed that I had left at the perfect time and that traffic had been terrible all day. What a relief! Or was it? As it turns out the all-knowledgeable cabby was, in fact, French. I continued the taxi ride and reached JFK International 3 entire hours before departure. It was evident the Frenchman had lied to me since the traffic was actually the lightest I had ever seen it in NYC. Was this a sign? Was this the first hint that something was awry and about to very, very wrong?
Continuing on, appropriately unaware of the mishaps that were about to befall my poor Indian soul, I checked my luggage and received my boarding passes – from NYC to Paris, and from Paris to Mumbai. Boarding went surprisingly smoothly and before I knew it the two tasteless Filet-O-Fish burgers I ate at the airport food court had set me straight. A good hearty snooze was at hand. Settling into my seat I quickly sailed off into a dream world – dancing among exquisite Indian women dressed in their birthday suits, feeding me unending morsels of scrumptious Pav Bhaji and warm, perfectly sweetened Jalebis. This fantasy seemed to last a long while, the intricate details of which I cannot disclose at this time. I assumed that once I woke up I’d be a good 4 to 5 hours into the flight – this proved to be only an assumption. I did eventually wake up about an hour later only to find that the plane was stationary, exactly where it was when I dozed off. It hadn’t moved an inch! My heart began to race (this, of course had nothing to do with me eating food off naked women) – how was I going to make my connecting flight? I checked the itinerary and it stated that I only had an hour and a half to make the transfer!
Even thought the pilot had tried to reassure many of us that we would reach in time, we landed about an hour late. This gave me a mere 45 minutes to get to the next gate. My inner Speedy Gonzales showed himself as I darted from one terminal to another like a human joystick sliding down escalators, dodging people and baggage alike. I almost made it to the gate too, but was abruptly halted by a swarm of passengers bottlenecking through the only entrance at the security check post. Was this what the French cab driver meant by traffic? I tried convincing the snooty employees that my flight was leaving very soon and that I needed to get ahead of the line. But it was hopeless. I was told that everyone there was in a similar situation and that I just had to wait my turn. Wait my turn? Are you fucking kidding me! To sheer disgust and surprise, I witnessed a white couple in a rush get checked at the Business Class line and get through quickly thanks to a very “helpful” attendant. The only issue was that they weren’t in Business Class and their flight was leaving about 30 minutes after mine. I knew this because I have big ears and heard their brief conversation. Racist, much?
At this point I did something anybody else would do and looked for other people of the same ethnicity and circumstance as I was in – only to find a few Indians peppered amongst a herd of Europeans. Yes, I did feel like livestock being directed into our respective barns - except these barns had a Business Class. The security lines moved at an excruciatingly slow pace as each minute that passed - I was losing valuable vacation time. It seemed like Murphy was hanging out at the Paris airport this time, preaching his stupid laws over and over. Just as I got to the incessant security check “wanding” I looked up at him as he laughed and pointed to my flight status – boarding had ended. Damn you Murphy – damn you and your stupid laws.
I slowly dragged my feet for another ten minutes in the direction of the plane that had left me like an ungrateful one-nighter. I didn’t even get a kiss goodbye. I soon find myself standing in line at the “Customer Service” kiosk with a bunch of other Air France passengers. I love how oxymoronic the terms “Customer Service” sounded in this situation – kindly remove the “oxy.”
It is now 10:40 AM, and a few of my Indian brethren who had suffered a similar fate were patiently waiting in line ahead of me. As I got closer to the front I overheard one of the customer service reps giving a passenger his options. This, of course wasn’t looking good for the passenger in the least. Even though he had missed his flight due to the security check stalling him, he was denied any proper accommodation – only a voucher for a drink and one sandwich. Apparently his flight had landed exactly two hours (to the minute) prior to departure which the reps thought was more than enough time for him to get his butt on his next flight. A brief argument ensued, but to no avail as the passenger was told to come back at the same time tomorrow. As it stands, there is only one flight per day from Paris on Air Frons, so if you miss it then you’re pretty darn screwed. This situation was the first real glimpse into what I could expect at the counter. More passengers reached the front only to get turned away as well, looking very dejected and helpless – like prisoners battered from a torturous ordeal.
Finally I am summoned to the service desk unable to feel my legs after an hour of standing still. I would have sat down briefly, but that is a sign of weakness – and I definitely did not want to show the French I was weak. I glanced at the cute attendant and handed her my particulars. After a few taps on the keyboard she breaks the bad news to me. I’m told the same thing as those before me - which the only available flight is for tomorrow at the same time. Ok, not too bad, I lose a day but at least they were going to put me up in a hotel, right? WRONG! The slightest detail that went amiss was the fact that I needed a visa to leave the airport. Most places have hotels as a part of the airport for this very reason. But did the French? Nope.
So I journeyed across the airport with this cute attendant to try and get a temp visa for the night. I even went to the extent of flirting with her hoping to get some added value out of this entire situation. She flirted back too, I think, but unfortunately this didn’t materialize. What a waste of my mojo. I mean, I wasn’t going to be rude because that would just give her reason not to help me at all! But did I have to flirt as well? Probably not…
Anyway, as I patiently waited for my visa with a fake smile and a National Geographic in my hand I began to converse with a lady sitting next to me who soon became an acquaintance. She hailed from NYC and, very sweetly, began to describe her tormented experience at CDG. On her arrival and subsequent transfer to an NYC flight, she had apparently been sent off in three different directions all leading away from her intended gate. Suffering from a bad case of Osteoporosis, diabetes and a bad back she trumped onward with her cane and finally made it to the security check. All during this time, not once had she been offered a wheelchair or any sort of assistance. She went on about the horror that was the security check. Apparently her knee brace was made of metal, which sent the detectors off on a wild Ecstasy trip from hell. “Take the brace! I don’t even want it. Just please let me get on my flight to New York!” she pleaded – but to no avail. She ended up being detained and the cops were called in. Was a metal knee brace that much of a threat? They didn’t show up in the end, by which time she had already missed her flight. Now, you would think that ANY airline (including Air India, mind you) would feel somewhat responsible for this occurrence. Evidently, this was not the case. The last piece of the conversation ended with her telling me that there were no more available Air France flights to NYC for the rest of the day. I can only hope that she some positive resolution to this mess. It was her 60th birthday.
At this point, I was all alone again – the attractive attendant had left me just like my flight. Her departing words echoed pulses of hope in my brain – “We weel try to, uh, get ewe a veezah for ewe to go to stay in, uh, Holiday Een? Z shuttal iz free, and, uh, runs all z time. Good luck!” That’s it? That’s all I get from my constant, yet classy flirting? What a bitch.
I soon picked up my damaged ego and presumed that this visa thing shouldn’t be much of a problem at all. Indians, as a nation, are politically neutral on the international front, I have an American work visa and a clean record. It should just be a matter of time before I am able to bathe in the luxury of the Holiday Inn and rest my weary body till tomorrow’s flight. Such pleasures did not seem too distant. Unfortunately, I was suffering from a bad case of tunnel vision and these dreams were about 3000 miles away. Seems I got rejected not just by the attendant but by the immigration cops as well! This happened to two of the Indian brethren before me. Only one out of the four of us got approved! Apparently three more Indians in Paris exceed the allowed quota! Following this discovery I am given vouchers for horribly tasteless food and sent on my way like a dejected schoolboy, only to wait it out in the airport till my flight at 10 AM the following day. It is now only 4 PM. Another 18 hours of waiting? Wow, this really gives the phrase “killing time” a whole new meaning.
I make my way to the only terminal that is open past 9 PM, “2B,” where I find the “Terrace De Paris” restaurant. A terrace indeed! This was to be my temporary abode for the next 17 hours – how exciting. The only saving grace at this point is having a handful of people; about 9 actually, to share this pain with you. Conversation sped up the time a little, where a tiny fact was discovered by chance. All the rejects were discussing the recent events when we found out that we had all had some connection with the Arab world. I was born in Kuwait, while the others had recent visits to the area. We understood the world events going on at this, but were these distant links a reason to deny us a night in well deserved comfort?
It is now 2:00 AM on the 8th of July, Paris time and my jet lag has been kicking in big time. I am standing at a table unable to sleep on those conventional French café metal chairs, expressing my frustration through prose and listening to Morcheeba (if only I really had some of the real stuff). The silence of an inactive airport is really quite eerie, especially when you are deprived of sleep. I can only hope staying here tonight will give me the head start I need to make my connecting flight. After this escapade I have promised myself that I will NEVER fly Air France again and, if I am forced to, will make sure I am prepared and packed for a camping trip in the wilderness of Africa. Everyone else is snoring away as I document these recent obstacles that were encountered today. Hopefully this is all a bad dream and I will wake up to the phrase – “Welcome to the Charapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai. The outside temperature is 28 degrees Celsius, and we are about to dock.” I open my eyes – alas, nothing. This French airport is my current reality. Maybe I can get some quick shut-eye before the race to the gate in the morning. Fucking French visa.

7 hours to Paris + 24 hours in transit + 9 hours to Mumbai = 40 hours total traveling Time.

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