Monday, December 20, 2010

forever in Paris

People will say – if you have to get stuck somewhere, you could only wish that it would be in Paris.

I’ll offer a counter to that: if you have to get stuck somewhere, wouldn’t it be nice if it were Paris and not the Paris airport?

It was interesting to watch the screen with flight departures on Sunday. Our Chicago flight was scheduled for 10:35. We were checked in and waiting by 8:30. In small increments of time, our flight got pushed back 10:50. 11:00. 11:15. And so on. Then the airport closed. Whatever that means. People were checking in, handing over luggage (what a mistake), going through security, proceeding to gates as usual, even though officially, CDG was shut down.

Then, somewhere around noon, it “reopened.” A few flights started taking off. This is when, if you looked outside, you’d wonder what the issue was. The snow had stopped. There was almost no accumulation. But after watching the screen and seeing that our flight was still doing its march through the minutes of the clock – 2, 2:15, 2:30 – and observing, too, that the departures of other flights now seemed stalled, it was clear as anything that we were merely marching into oblivion. Snow or no snow, CDG had broken down. With too many cancellations and delays, it could not get its grip on the day again. It was only a question of when it would admit to it. I got in line long before the announcement came: Chicago is cancelled.

And so my daughter and I are, I suppose, lucky because we got one of the earliest standby spots. Two days from now. After repeat assurances from the agents that my airline loyalty got me the best that they can do.

Mind you, we may not get on. And it appears that between now and the holidays, every transatlantic flight is full on this and other airlines (due to the massive cancellations all week throughout Europe).

So we’re stuck. But not in Paris – at the airport.

We are such unfortunate experts at this, my daughter and I. We’ve learnt all the rules to follow when this happens – how to avoid the ten hour lines (agents will help anyone who asks for help, so find someone at the counter), how to claim cosmetics cases and free t-shirts (because you can assume that your bags will now be lost again and indeed, baggage services got overwhelmed quickly and responded as a child would under the circumstances: slam the door shut. Gone for the day. Fill out claim forms and submit them later. Somewhere, someday you may see you suitcases again).

We know, too, how to ask for a hotel voucher or at least a partial refund on your expenses (even if a cancellation is weather related, because honestly – it’s not about the weather anymore – it’s about chaos at Europe’s airports this December), and so on.

This time, we are given a voucher for the first night. Best Western at Roissy – the pseudo-village adjacent to the airport.

It is an indifferent place amidst other similarly indifferent and dated concrete structures and it serves the purpose of providing rooms for travelers who would much much rather be elsewhere. Hotels that are about as much fun as a dentist’s waiting room. At the Roissy Best Western, there is a Christmas tree, but after that, you’re given the shrug of indifference. Internet not working? Yes, we know. Shuttle bus not shuttling regularly? Yes. One traveler was hungry and asked for food. Restaurant’s closed now. But I’m hungry – traveler tells them. Yes. DesolĂ©.

We are out of the airport and at the hotel by 4, with countless others similarly situated, each batch dropped off at different and indifferent overnight places along the shuttle bus route (one bus serves a half dozen hotels), group by group, like children off to camp – and this cabin is yours, and you go here...

And now it is getting dark. We can wait for the Roissy Best Western to open its restaurant... or not. I am with a traveler who has spirit and grit and she is willing to take the same slow-moving shuttle back to the airport and then the RER back to Paris for a better eating situation there.

Paris. You look so normal! It’s Sunday evening, people are out and about, the temperature is in the mid thirties, the moon is out.


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Why did you ask your troubled child – the CDG airport – to act as the welcoming agent for those who travel here?

When in need of comfort, you go to Le Procope.

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Reliably there, with a fixed dinner option of 19.90 Euro (and a la carte options as well), and such old time and all time favorites as French onion soup, fish meuniere, coq au vin, always served professionally by caring waiters, making you feel like the special person that you are, just because we are all people with good souls who occasionally need a comforting word, or meal, or both.

We finish with a shared flambĂ©ed crepe and I have to laugh here because when I ask – where are the flames, the waiter tells me – these days we do that in the kitchen. And he hands the remains of the cognac and tells me – you can sip what’s left over. Sometimes one has to take short cuts.


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We travel back to CDG and then back to the Roissy Best Western and after further calls and consultations we conclude that there is not a chance in hell that we’ll be leaving Paris in the next day or so and that it is completely pointless to stand around at the airport watching the screens show nothing of help to us.

It’s Monday morning. We’re heading back to the city. For the day, for the night, who knows how many nights. My work back home is accumulating in ways I cannot even begin to describe. Christmas is around the corner and the tree is resting on the floor of my condo garage.

What can you do. At least we’re now officially out of the airport area and back in Paris. Where it’s snowing again. Snowing hard.