I am a nervous traveler. I worry about all sorts of disasters, calamities and mayhem. I’m glad I set it aside, or at least dealt with it enough to go to Paris. When the trip was months away, I could put it out of my mind and not worry about it. But then, it was here. And despite my nerves and vivid thoughts of violent tragedy, I went.
First worry was the tiny plane that took us to Philadelphia. It was so small I was not sure about getting on. But then I comforted myself by thinking that the small size would give the pilot options if trouble arose. Options can be good.
We survived and made it to Philadelphia. The airport there had something I had never seen, a vending machine for electronic devices. It had headphones, cords, iPods and other electronic items for sale.
Then it was time to get on the big plane. Actually, a huge plan. Two seats, then five seats, then two more seats across. Hundreds of people. I always look for babies, thinking they provide better odds for the flight. I saw none.
We sat on the plane in Philadelphia for almost an hour before taking off. One person’s seat belt was broken. I am not trying to say “one person”, like that person did not deserve a working seat belt and if it was 20 or 30 people with broken seat belts it would be better. It’s just that if that person knew it would take an hour, they would tie themselves down the best they could so we could go. Hopefully. The mechanic came, the fix took a minute tops, and we were off.
My first trans-atlantic flight. It was about 6:00pm and we flew into darkness very quickly. The flight attendants did the safety spiel and talked about the cushions being flotation devices and the stairs having rafts in them. I knew it was a facade. The seat cushions and rafts would not help us if we plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. And you know what? I never even saw the ocean. We were above the clouds the entire time.
We landed at Charles deGaulle airport around 3:00am Eastern, 9:00am Paris time. We were supposed to go to Terminal 3 to get Metro passes. It took time to get oriented. It took time to get our bearings the best we could. Finally, we found Terminal 3. We found what looked like the booth to buy Metro tickets; it was not staffed and was closed. There were machines to buy tickets, they were roped off. We wandered more, we talked about what to do, we went outside, we went back inside. We saw the door to what looked like a place to buy bus tickets. The door would be open for about 2-3 people and then it would be locked. Then it was locked for good. We saw some other people try the door and then walk around to the other side which was outdoors. We followed them.
Outside was a maze of busses and people. There were several charter type busses taking airport passengers away, so we got on one of them. Turns out the RER workers, who ran the trains out of deGaulle, were on strike and it was our unfortunate luck to enter a foreign country where we didn’t speak the language right at a challenging travel time. We got on one of the busses and it dropped us and our luggage off at the nearest functioning Metro station. We had no idea where we were.
We looked around, walked around a bit, and decided to try and buy the Metro tickets we needed there. It was not easy. The man at the counter spoke very limited English. I barely understood him; he barely understood me. But, the entire time, he was polite, helpful and unfazed by the already long and growing line behind us. He focused entirely on serving us until we got what we needed. What we needed was this, a seven day Navigo pass.
With our Navigo passes in hand, we headed out. We knew we wanted to head into the city and away from the airport and that’s what we thought we were doing. After traveling thorough a few stations, we realized we were going in the wrong direction, away from Paris into tow outer suburbs. We got off and tried to figure out how to travel in the opposite direction. There were a few choices of train tracks and it just felt confusing and irritating. You know how on the Amazing Race after the novelty has worn off and you are tired of not understanding anything, tired in general from being up well into the night, and just plain irritated by life. It felt like that for a moment or two. Maybe three.
Finally a man noticed our distress and told us to get on the train going to Gard de Nord and he showed us what track it was on. Thank you kind stranger number one. We went where he told us and when the train came, it was taking us in what we thought was the wrong direction, but we trusted kind stranger number one and got on the train. It turns out that Gard de Nord was a transfer station where a number of train lines came, we had to backtrack to get to it, but from there we were able to get on a line that could get us closer to the apartment.
Meanwhile we supposed to call the apartment people when we got to France to tell them what time to meet us. OK, I will admit, I did not think some things through. I did not have the international plan added to my cell phone and my cell phone did not work. So, we are on the train talking to each other when kind stranger number two entered the picture. He was African and from the UK and just seemed happy to be able to speak English with someone. He got off at the Gard de Nord station and called the apartment people for us with his cell phone and set the appointment for us to meet at 3:00pm Paris time (9:00am Eastern – up over 24 hours at this point). Thank you kind stranger number two.
Figuring out that Gard de Nord was a transfer station helped. The next thing that helped was figuring out how to tell which train line was which. Once you had the correct train line, the final thing was figuring out how to tell which direction it was going. This little bit of navigating made all the difference to our spirits and we used the Paris Metro with ease (mostly) the remaining days.
It took one train from Gard de Nord and a transfer to another train to get to what we thought was our stop. There was a closer stop to the apartment, but we did not know it yet. We dragged our bags and walked until we found it. We had time to kill before 3:00 so we went looking for food. We found a neighborhood bistro, sat down, got a menu, and it was in French. Of course, it was in French, with no English subtitles. The waiter was helpful and I got the poulet (chicken) and a glass of wine. It might have been a small bottle.
We were exhausted, but happy, when 3:00 arrived and we were able to enter the apartment and put down our bags. Throughout all of this, I worried about Matt and Danielle. They were on a flight from JFK to Dublin to deGaulle. Turns out they had the good fortune to sit beside a man who knew all about the strike and told them how to get a bus to the apartment, no drama or trauma. They were waiting for us. We all got checked in, poked around the apartment, went to a local market to get a few staples (the labels on the food are, you guessed it, in French), and got ready for our Paris adventure.