Saturday, August 8, 2009

Pt 1. Leaving America for the French Adventure

A Trip to France, 1998 - part one

I wrote this series upon returning from two weeks in France in 1998, the first time I had ever left the United States. Various people who have read it have commented that it captures accurately the feeling of being an American abroad. I had fun writing it. I took some daily notes, my wife Joyce dictated her notes into a cassette at the end of each day, and I used the itineraries, tickets, etc. to square up the time line of the narrative.

The following narrative is not a finished manuscript. The intention was to capture the moment, to remember the things which would otherwise have been forgotten. Much was forgotten anyway — I deeply regret not having noted more of our dinner conversations on the boat, but, thanks to the notes written down immediately upon my return, and from cassette notes dictated by Joyce during the actual trip, this document tends to refresh the memory as I read it. It is intended thus — a memory aid for other writing, and not a writing in itself. I hope that it is not a complete waste of time for anyone else to read it — that it conveys some of what we experienced.

Day 1 — Wednesday, Aug 19/Thursday, August 20, 1998
I awoke at 6:30, and for two hours, I puzzled at a map of Paris, to find out where in the city we would land, where we would be staying, and where we would be leaving. After much puzzling, I found that the three points formed an equilateral triangle that spanned the entire city of Paris. Charles de Gaulle airport is in the northeast corner of Paris, our hotel was in the southwest corner, and our departure point for the train was in the southeastern corner of Paris. I wondered what the huge gray areas on the map, labeled “Gare” represented. There was “Gare du Nord” close to our airport, there was Gare de Austerlitz, near the train station. The education begins. It is fundamental to my scheme of directions that I have to know where i’m going before knowing how to get there. “How to Get There” can always be re-done, if you know where you’re going.

If all else failed, I now knew that I could ask for directions to the Eiffel Tower “Ou e la Tour Eiffel?” (remember to accent the last syllable), and get us to within a few blocks of the hotel we had the reservations, Nikko. Joyce woke up, she believed, about an hour and a half late, at 9:30 a.m.. Joyce’s brother Bob took us to the airport. We gave him a key, and he witnessed and took along a copy of my Will (nothing like waiting until the last minute) which hadn’t been revised in over ten years. We arrived in Milwaukee airport, checked in, and with over a half-hour to spare, sat down and had a small pizza at a Pizza Hut outlet at the airport. Already it felt like vacation.

The plane departed on time, and arrived in Detroit within 40 minutes of takeoff. We deserved that. Detroit airport is not as bad as the jaded jet-setters and experienced air travellers had said. Maybe it had improved, maybe we weren’t as choosy, maybe it was because we were on vacation. We found our departure, had about an hour to spare, and we checked our carry-ons into a locker for a dollar. The machine wouldn’t accept my dollar. I desperately tried to get just one of my dollars to work, but Joyce, who had already taken things into her own hands, had returned with four quarters, and we safely seated the luggage in the locker. We needed to show a boarding pass for a foreign destination in order to enter a “duty free” shop. It featured things which people wanted to take back home from the United States, including much perfume, chocolate, liquor, and, very popular among the Orientals, huge boxes of Beef Jerky. Apparently the little yellow guys can’t get enough of this tasty treat. In the liquor section, we found prices were about 30% - 80% higher than domestic prices at the corner liquor store. There was a product I had never seen before -Johnny Walker BLUE Label. I know Black is expensive, but Blue was $100 for a fifth. Still aged 25 years, I don’t see what differentiates it from Black. Must be good. When I get my first million, I’ll send one of the servants out for a bottle. Also at the perfume counter, in men’s fragrances, I noticed something I wouldn’t mind smelling like, called Armani, pronounced “harmony”, but Joyce said that it would probably be cheaper in Paris. I agreed. We moved on to a general “souvenir shop” and found a Weasel Ball, something my sister Carol has for her cat. An eccentric motor in a plastic ball causes the ball to careen around randomly. Attached to the ball is a seven-inch strip of artificial fur which looks like a weasel chasing the ball around, hence the name. Our adventure at the Detroit airport was ended when we heard our flight number over the PA system, so we retrieved the baggage, and found some seats to await boarding. Many of our fellow passengers spoke French. End of the trail for them, I guess. We boarded for Paris.

The plane -- the largest I had ever been on, was completely full. Two aisles ran down the peasant class section, separating two window-side seats on each side, with five seats in the middle. Our seats were on the window side of the aisle. In addition to the headphones, each seat was furnished with a small blanket, and a tiny pillow. I took the window side, and Joyce set to reading the merchandise catalogs supplied in the seats. All flight and takeoff instructions were given in French and English. After about an hour, they began to serve drinks. Joyce said that she would treat us to drinks. She had allowed $3.00 each, and had the cash ready. She wanted a martini and I wanted some type of whisky. The stewardess told us that there was no charge for drinks. Then we found out that these free drinks consisted of Beefeater Gin for her, and Johnny Walker Black Label for me. It was like a side-trip to heaven, I had forgotten how good the Black Label stuff was, not having had any since the 1970s. From the window, we could see the sun, and a blue haze beneath, we were unable at that height and visibility to determine if we were over land or water. On the classical channel, the headphones played a soaring choral piece by a more modern composer, possibly Stravinsky. Then began the sunset.

The sun seemed to set below the horizon, the illusion because of the overcast haze and perhaps the earth curvature made the 360o horizon smaller. It was beautiful, and fast, because of our eastward speed. We were to gain seven hours in the course of our trip. Dinner was served. First a small bottle of French wine, we could choose white or red. Then a surprisingly good beef brisket dinner. We settled in for the evening entertainment. Television programs, then a movie, about a performing parrot, with one channel of sound in French, the other in English. Still thinking there was hope for my French, I listened to the French version. Then an episode of the Simpsons, followed by something else, I went to sleep for awhile. Throughout, the attendants were bringing us water, asking if we needed anything. Woke up, the shows were still running, and the attendants brought out hot lemon-scented towels to freshen up with. Nice touch.

Sunrise on the airplane came at midnight Milwaukee time. The midnight sunrise is like a speeded-up film of a sunrise. Because of the upper atmosphere turbulence and the air speed, bands of gold, purple and red would grow and shrink in less than a minute. The sun rose below the anticipated horizon, and gave the feeling of actually being above the sunrise. Breakfast was served, yogurt and blueberry muffins, juice. Then an endless anticipation of landing, we flew over England, they said. We cruised over distant countryside, finally landing in Charles deGaulle airport.. Customs, we followed the crowd, past a glass partition, and passed our passports and an application form we were given on the plane. The passports were stamped, and then on through to the baggage claim. The next moments were confusing, we followed the crowd, we travelled through escalator tubes to the baggage claim, and waited endlessly for the bags to arrive. Bags in hand, we each now had a suitcase with wheels and a handle, each with a carry-on balanced atop the suitcase.

Next: Part Two: A Daring Escape from Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Thanks for listening and contributing. For up-to-the-minute thoughts, come on over to I'm @dimbulb52

1 comment:

Lydia said...

Wow - this is great!! Wait - have you said yet whether either or both of you speak French?