Thursday, March 21, 2013

learning to experience the journey

What you do not want to hear in the middle of your transatlantic flight: the captain has informed us that we are turning back. We will be making an emergency landing in St John's due to a problem with a passenger. You come out of your groggy sleep and you watch in amazement as the little airplane icon on the screen before you turns around, even though it is nearly in the middle of its ocean crossing and heads back to the tip of Newfoundland -- the closest possible landing place.

No one says a word. It's insanely quiet. Lights come on, crew rushes back and forth. The drama is in the back of the plane and it is a drama that can affect any flight any time -- a cardiac arrest, this one right over the Atlantic. (Unusual is the age of the passenger: just forty years.)

The eerie thing is that I've been on a plane making an emergency landing in Newfoundland before. Nearly to the month, fifty years ago, flying from England, we landed in Gander because of multiple engine malfunctions. I remember the landscape from that even more dramatic landing (with propellers on both sides of the plane eerily in a resting position as we sunk closer to the ground). This time I'm on an Airbus 340 -- a much larger plane and, it turns out, too heavy for the small landing strip in St John's. And so we dump fuel. And in the partly misty, partly starry night, we come to a tiny terminal where the ambulance is waiting.

It's another several hours before we unload our critically ill passenger, unload her luggage, refuel. And so perhaps we should not be surprised that when we finally do fly out, cross the ocean once more and approach France, the captain once again comes on. This time it's a "rules" problem. The crew has been in flight too long. So even though we are less than an hour from Paris, we are landing again -- at the first possible airport in France -- Brest. A tiny airport. We disembark. We're offered a sandwich. A new crew will be flown in to take over.  At some point.

I take some forty flights in the course of the year and they can't all be without issues. But if the weather is fine (and it was), it's rare that all flights in one itinerary are going to misfire. This time they did. Because it isn't just the transatlantic segment that turned us around. On my flight out of Madison, I had a first: I've been on a handful of flights that have had aborted landings. Where the plane is nearing the ground and suddenly the engines rev up and the plane nose goes up. I always imagine there is a pooch on the runway and the captain wants to avoid it. (You are never told what happened because often it is pilot error and no one wants to quite announce that to the sitting ducks in the back.) But I have never before had an aborted take off.

I have it now in Madison. We are beginning the rush down the runway and I am marveling how commonplace these take offs are these days and suddenly we are not rushing anymore, but slowing down hard. The captain comes on. Well folks… It's never good news when he or she starts with a "well folks."

This time a light indicated an open cargo door. Impulsively, we all glance at the runway, looking for strewn suitcases. Nothing there. Still, the plane does have to go back to the gate where we wait for the mechanic to come to the airport, to diagnose the problem, to communicate with the pilot. Hours. The irony: in the end, there is no problem with the cargo door. Just with the faulty warning light. Many people have missed their connections and the attendants warn that there are very few options on this day as it is, for so many, the beginning of spring break and flights are full. I am lucky. I make my flight to France.

But of course, I'm not really going to France. This was to be a treat stopover: a half day in Paris which, because of the reversals, double landings and what have you, is turning out to be a very short set of hours indeed. Those who hate to travel will say -- it's good to stay home. You wont hear that from me. In fact, I feel myself to be lucky. I did not miss a connection. And I did not have a heart attack and we did not have a faulty cargo door after all.

And I have a few breaths in Paris. Maybe. If we ever leave Brest.


Into our fourth hour in Brest, the natives are getting restless. Not the American passengers, mind you, but the French. (It always hurts more if your own people aren't stepping up to the job.) We understood the emergency, in St John's, but this... how could you do this to us? One of the unhappy campers picks up one of the plastic wrapped cheese sandwich we were handed at the airport. French cuisine, he mutters, tossing it into the trash.

Me, I have no more hope for a Paris day. But I do want, at the very least, a Paris dinner. I'd reserved a place in my newest restaurant of choice (Pouic Pouic). Now, in Brest, thanks to a kind French man (I needed a French cell number), I got online which allowed me to email the restaurant to tell them I'd be late.  Very very late. Would they take pity? Such a small wish compared to those stranded passengers who have so very many adjustments to make in their travels thanks to these compounded delays.

I dont think anyone believed that we'd make it to Paris that night, but, in the end, we did. I wished my fellow travelers well and scooted to the RER station to catch a train to Paris.

So now I have to think that I am facing some kind of a test -- to see how far I can be pushed before I back down, stay home, never travel again. At the RER office, the machines refuse to take my credit card. Okay. I just happen to have enough Euros to get me into the city. But is this for real? Am I in Europe without cash or a functional credit card?

And then there is the RER ride: as always, we pass through some of the saddest immigrant neighborhoods of the city. As I settle into the 45 minute ride, we stop at a station. A guy steps in, reaches from behind and snatches a woman's purse. She screams, but he's gone. It could have been me...

But it wasn't me. I alight in Paris. It's after 9 pm instead of after 11 am. I look around. It's drizzling slightly, But it doesn't matter! It's so enormously wonderful to be here!

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And here's some irony for you in case you haven't spotted any along the way: I came to my little hotel and the night clerk hands me the key to my room. He smiles. I go up and I see that I am given a thank you for my many returns: a penthouse instead of the tiny single that I always book. Ah well... according to my current calculations, I will spend exactly 6 sleeping hours here.

Never mind, it's lovely and I appreciate the gesture.

I go to Pouic Pouic. It's mad, it's chaos, but they find a spot for me and it's so loud here and everyone is so jovial that the last of the tension from the trip fades. I passed the test. I still love to travel. And I still love Paris.

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There's dancing on the streets somewhere in this world right now. Always, someone will be dancing.

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