27 July 2007

Anecdotes from Paris: Dernière partie

Airport fiascos

As smoothly as our trip to Israel always seemed to go, Rachael and my flight home was another story altogether. Tuesday morning we left Tel Aviv with more than three hours to spare before our flight left – but a Hebrew/English miscommunication at the train station sent us nearly an hour in the wrong direction. By the time we figured it out (a security guard kicking us off the train at the last stop on the line) and made it back to Ben Gurion International, we had just 50 minutes to spare before our flight was scheduled to leave.

At Seatac Airport this would have been stressful but not a huge problem. The intense degrees of security in all of Israel, however, ensured that there was no possible way we could get through the numerous security checkpoints, have our bags searched, be patted down for weapons and be interrogated about our reasons for traveling to Israel, and still make our 14h30 flight. After being yelled at by airport security for arriving so late, we were informed that there was no possible way we could get on the plane and were sent to the ticketing offices of Malev Hungarian Airlines to try and change our flights home.

Malev was absolutely no help – the earliest flight they could book us wasn’t until Saturday, a full day after R and I were both supposed to be flying home to the U.S. Unable to take that flight, our only option was to buy completely new tickets, so we headed downstairs to the last-minute flight deals counter. There we found an extremely helpful young guy who informed us of what no one else had – that there was an Israeli airport (among other things) strike planned to begin the following morning. If we didn’t make it out of Tel Aviv by midnight Tuesday, we’d be stuck in Israel indefinitely.

With the help of a colleague, our last-minute flight guy found us a last-minute flight. So last minute that we only had a half hour before check-in was scheduled to close. At $450, it was a pricey unexpected expenditure, but far cheaper than any other ticket options (most running upwards of $800). The only problem remaining being that I didn’t have the money – with only 3 days left of my year in Paris I was down to the last centimes of my budget for the year, and definitely hadn’t factored in an emergency plane ticket fund. I ran upstairs to collect-call my parents for a money transfer while R got our names and passport information into the computer.

Once I’d hung up the phone, I raced back downstairs and our last-minute ticket guy finished processing my ticket. Then he took R’s card to swipe and we got some disturbing news – she didn’t have any money either, but with only 10 minutes left before check-in was to close, had no time to rouse her parents at 4h asking for a money transfer that would (because of her bank) take 5 days to process anyway. She ran back upstairs to call and get the number of her dad’s credit card as I ran to check in and tell the Lufthansa people that a second late traveler might be arriving.

By the time I made it to the gate though, having been rushed through back passages by a kind security guard, it was clear that no second traveler was arriving. What could I do? I had to board my flight, and spent the next 12 hours thinking Oh crap, I’ve left Rachael in Israel. What on earth am I going to do? on repeat. Thank goodness for wine on airplanes, eh?

I made it back to Paris at midnight and crashed immediately. R finally appeared around 4pm with wild stories of her own to tell. With no way to get money for a ticket, she’d called the only person she could think of – the Israeli film actor we’d met during our first few days in Tel Aviv. Let me just say that he is one amazing guy. After knowing R for only a few days, he forked over $450 to buy her a plane ticket to Paris (with promises of Western Union payback transfers, of course). She had another stroke of luck when the start of the strike was pushed back to 6h, to allow all travelers time to get out of the airport – her flight left at 5h45.

Bum pizza

R and I had a lot of errands to run today, it being our last day in Paris and all. Some errands were imperative, like closing our bank accounts and canceling our Internet services, while some were of the more frivolous variety (buying the latest Harry Potter book to read on the flight home). We had a lot to accomplish, but they were all handily located in the Saint Germain/ Saint Michel area, so we were able to get a lot done in a limited amount of time.

After picking up our final grades and diplomas from Sciences Po, and before picking up a Western Union money order for Rachael at La Poste, we stopped near église Saint Germain for a pizza lunch. Since it was already nearing 15h, the dining area of our favorite student-y pizza place was closed, so we took our pizzas à emporter and found a bench to eat them on.

What we didn’t notice when we sat down was that we’d chosen a dining seat directly across from three hungry-looking homeless men drinking beers. I was about halfway into my first slice when I glanced up and saw them eyeing us. We couldn’t have picked a more awkward spot to eat. Not only were we weirded out being stared at while we enjoyed our lunches, but we felt like jerks flaunting our delicious pizzas in front of three guys who had probably gone a while since having a good meal.

We ate half of our pizzas, then carefully consolidated the rest into one box and balanced it carefully on the top of a trash can as we left. We’d considered walking over and offering it to them, but decided it might come off as somewhat insulting and demeaning – after all, they hadn’t asked us for any food or money. As we walked away, I glanced back once and saw the men already diving into our pizza.

Saying goodbye…or not

So this is it for me and Paris – my airport shuttle arrives in just under seven hours, and from that moment on, I’ll forsake all my claims on this city. I spent the day wandering around the city and the evening relaxing in R’s apartment. For whatever reason, we didn’t feel any pressure to go out and have a real “last night” in Paris, or do anything in particular “for the last time.” Over the course of a year we’ve had the chance to do most of the things we wanted to do as many times as we wanted to do them. We felt no need to do it up big, and said our goodbyes to Paris by watching Friends and eating ice cream in R’s living room. It wasn’t the most spectacular of evenings, but it was pleasant all the same.

It doesn’t matter anyway: We’ll be back.

25 July 2007

Pictures Pending: Until blogger lets me upload them, check them out here.

Sitting cross-legged on a bed in a kibbutz in northern Israel last Saturday night, squinting and sewing a missing button back onto an Israeli army uniform was definitely one of the more dramatic how did I get here moments of my year. Come to think of it, I’ve had a lot of those moments over the past two weeks.

From spending the night at a free hostel in Jerusalem’s Old City run by Orthodox Jews who kept us up half the night debating Torah; to sitting on the couch next to an Israeli boy whose name I still can’t quite pronounce as he casually flips through TV channels, pausing to say, Oh, that’s my show!; to being cheered at bars for the simple fact of having come to Israel to “hang out” rather than find my heritage: It was a strange and enlightening vacation.

Rachael and I arrived in Tel Aviv on a Thursday and spent our first few days there, hanging out by the beach, exploring Jaffa and going to the Shuk (market) by day and spending our nights with an old friend of R’s who was living in Israel for a few months. He’s apparently friends with a big group of Israeli movie stars, stage actors and musicians, because every time we saw him, whether it was hanging out at the apartment of an actor our age, whose latest movie just went to the Cannes Film Festival, watching the Brazil-Argentina football match or going to the theatre, we were recognizing (with help) people from movies and previews we’d seen back in Paris (and elsewhere).

Through R’s friend, we met an actor named Yoav, who invited us to go see him act in Plonter, a play (in Hebrew with English and Arabic subtitles) about the occupation – so controversial that a couple sitting behind me stood up and stormed out in the middle of a scene of an Israeli soldier harassing a Palestinian boy.

From Tel Aviv, we moved onto Jerusalem, where we spent one night in the clean (though slightly creepy) and free hostel before moving onto the floor of an apartment on the campus of Hebrew University. We spent a day exploring the Old City, another at Yad Vashem. We spent our third day floating in the Dead Sea, and a night seeing an Israeli band (who we’d met at a party in Tel Aviv) perform at a Jerusalem club.

After Jerusalem, we took a bus to Afula to meet another of R’s friends near his kibbutz. We stayed there for a weekend, hanging out with a group of young Israeli-born Americans who had returned to serve their time in the army (their rooms at the kibbutz are paid for by the Israeli army). It was an interesting experience for sure, but I think I might just be too used to my role in capitalist America to appreciate a place where everyone’s incomes go into a shared pot, and each family has a golf cart to drive around to the shared pool and dining hall.

We left the kibbutz Sunday morning to spend a day in Haifa and old Akko before heading back to Tel Aviv for two more nights out and one more glorious day at the beach.

Israel is probably the most westernized of any country in the Middle East – it has an Ace Hardware, for pete’s sake, but even so it’s like a different world. When R and I stopped to ask directions anywhere, the first question we’d get back was are you okay with buses? We weren’t particularly more concerned about being on buses than being anywhere else in Israel – yes they have, in the past, been targets for bombs, but so have coffee shops, restaurants and night clubs. The Tel Aviv beach is swept every night by a huge Zamboni-like machine that sifts through the sand checking for bombs. Still, most people are the wariest of buses – a guy we met in Tel Aviv told us that when he was in middle school he and his friends would insult each other by saying Go take the number five bus. Once on the buses, though, there are constant patrols by security guards, who hop on at one stop, sweep through the bus and disembark at the next stop to sweep the next bus that comes along. There was never a moment when I was seriously concerned about being blown up on a bus.

Something else that really struck me was the presence of religion – I mean obviously, Israel was created to be a Jewish state, and Jerusalem alone contains the holiest sites for three different religions. I knew the question of religion was a predominant one, I just wasn’t quite prepared for the question of my religion to become so important. At first it was just puzzled people trying to understand what I was doing in Israel. Do you speak any Hebrew? Wait, you’re not Jewish? Why are you traveling to Israel? Do you have friends there? Family? You’re not Jewish? These questions made perfect sense to me. I mean why was I in Israel? The honest truth sounded weird every time I heard it coming out of my mouth. Just hanging out, going to the beach… is definitely not an answer passport control at Ben Gurion International hears often.

Are you Jewish? was obviously the first question posed to me at Heritage House (the free hostel), but once they’d confirmed that I wasn’t, the question never came up again. This was where I’d expected to be the most rigorously interrogated, but the people I seemed to puzzle the most were actually the secular Israelis. Fascinated by the fact that I wasn’t, in fact, Jewish, they became obsessed with trying to figure out what I was. So you’re Christian, then, they’d state confidently, Ehhh, not exactly. I mean I have a Christmas tree every year…but I’m just not really anything. This is where they got really confused. I’m not Jewish, not Christian, obviously not Muslim – so what was I? Okay, so you’re agnostic? I tried my best to explain to each new questioner that while I don’t associate myself with any particular religion, I’m not atheist and not really agnostic.

The honest truth is that I’m just not anything. The best way to classify me would probably be something like apathetic – I just don’t care. Most conversations ended with me saying something along the lines of religion is not a factor in my life, and I think at that point people just got bored, so I was let off the hook. I had imagined my visit to Israel as more of an outsider looking in, but once my plane had landed, my spirituality became fair game. It didn’t bother me at all – I had a lot of interesting discussions, but it was kind of exhausting. I think I probably discussed my “religious background” more in the past two weeks than in the whole of my life so far.

After determining my religion (or lack thereof), the next question was invariably pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. Actually, this was never even a question – hanging out with Israelis, I was assumed to be pro-Israel and was thus included in disturbing conversations about things like the “unsanitary” nature of Arab restaurants. There were a lot of times I wanted to speak up and say no, I don’t agree with this, but as a Westerner just passing through the country I became a pansy in the face of the pro-Israel furor. The way this conflict has boiled down to the people who live in it has become almost a question of Jews vs. Arabs. Obviously it’s more complicated than that, but it’s an easy distinction to make – we were warned not to go near the Arab quarters after dark, people make jokes like, Well if you’re worried, you can take one of the Arab buses… and we were confronted with people like the man staying in our hostel who came right out and said I hate the Arabs, but he also told us he hates Shiksa (non-Jewish women – i.e., me), so he was just bigoted in every direction.

Racial profiling is a disturbing but prevalent reality. R, whose ethnicity is not easily discernable (and could potentially be Arab) was stopped at every security checkpoint and quizzed about her origins, while I breezed right through. I guess these are the disturbing realities of living in a conflict zone.

Overall, the trip was fun, relaxing, and at times disturbing – partially because of conflict-related issues and partially because of the Crocs invasion. Seriously, I’ve never seen so many Crocs at once in my life. One notable quote heard on the street was This is Israel – of course everybody has Crocs!

20 July 2007

Hey all, still alive. Been traipsing through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Afula, etc. hanging out with Israeli movie stars and stage actors...haha, no really. Now we're visiting a friend of R's on a kibbutz before heading back to Tel Aviv on Sunday for two nights and flying back to Paris. Updates to come: I'm alive.

13 July 2007

After 9 painful hours of sitting cramped in an airport in Budapest, I found a small shout-out to home when I was finally called to (crankily) board my flight to Tel Aviv. Above the cabin door was a metal stamp tagged with the words "Boeing, Co., Seattle, WA, U.S.A." Yeah! This airplane and I, we were both Seattle gals, both a long way from home, but both keeping on keeping on.

After 11 more hours waiting for Rachael to land at Ben Gurion International, we finally stepped through the automatic doors and into the sun and heat of Tel Aviv - a welcome change from the rainstormy July that Paris has been enjoying.

We spent Thursday finding our hostel, exploring the beach and eating falafel with our new friend Jonathon, a Dutchman. At night we went out with one of Rachael's friends (who's been living here for the past few months)to an outdoor bar, complete with pillows to sit on as you perch in the trees and a rope swing to play on...or sit, I suppose, and demurely sip your glass of wine.

Today we explored Jaffa, relaxed on the beach and tonight are going to a party at the home of an Israeli movie star (he just returned from the Cannes film festival, where his new movie was premiering).

Tomorrow is beach bum day, and tomorrow night, who knows. What I do know is that Tel Aviv fashion is a far cry from what we left in Paris. I've never seen so many pairs of spandex pants, tube tops, platform sandals and Crocs (!!!) in one small space in my life. It's very...uh...beachy.

Everywhere we go, Jonathon and I are being toasted by Israeli Jews, for the simple fact of being here and not being Jewish. This seemed weird at first, but as R and her friend explained it to us, there aren't a lot of people who come to Israel just to hang out and vacation. Most people passing through are on religious pilgrimages or on birthright trips to see the homeland. When people meet J and I, two non-Jewish tourists, just here to see the sights and hang out, they get really proud that we came to see their home with no ulterior motives.

That's all I've got tonight - we're in Tel Aviv until Monday morning when we're catching a train to Jerusalem, so shalom for now.

10 July 2007

My life in Paris is coming to a close faster than I have the ability to keep up with. I’m writing this from Rachael’s futon in the 11ème arrondissement, where I now live, or am at least crashing until I quitte la belle France in two and a half weeks.

Last Thursday I said goodbye to the nanny family at Gare de Lyon, an experience that was somewhat odd and definitely less emotional (at least on my end) than I’d imagined it would be. This is a family I’ve logged more than 600 hours with since moving into their studio apartment last October. It’s a family whose children I’ve spent six days a week with, playing, reading, giving baths, cooking dinner and watching movies. A huge part of my life in Paris was wrapped up in this family and these kids, and my unexpected detachment when hugging them goodbye is probably rooted in the fact that I haven’t fully come to terms with the fact that Paris is basically done for me.

We were all careful to avoid saying our adieus (literally, at God, or, a very final goodbye) at the train station, opting instead for Make sure you drop by the next time you’re in Paris, and If you guys ever want to see the Pacific Northwest… I left them 10 minutes before their train’s departure and headed home to a very bare apartment. I’d gone, in three days, from a girl in a very settled in Parisian apartment with her boyfriend, her brother and her brother’s best gal friend and a nanny family to a girl in a half-empty apartment completely and utterly alone. I spent the afternoon reorganizing the kitchen cabinets and finishing up packing.

Monday afternoon, I moved out of my little French apartment in the 2ème to crash with Rachael and her russe roommate for a few days (a useful development, as R’s building has a free laundry room). I scrubbed every inch of my apartment, left four U.S.-import Shrek Pez dispensers in the kitchen for the kids to find later on this summer and deposited my keys in the mailbox of the nanny family. That was it – I’m still a girl from Tacoma and I’m still in Paris, but most of my friends have left the city for their families’ homes or vacation, I’m no longer an étudiante at Sciences Po, no longer an au pair and no longer have an address. Weird.

I’m not officially repatriating until July 27th, but tomorrow R and I are boarding a plane to Israel for two weeks (hence the sporadic posting you’ll be seeing for a while) and returning with just two days left to spend in Paris – hopefully at Paris Plage, though this is totally dependant on the notion that the weather is going to improve while we’re gone. We spent yesterday moving me out of my apartment and packing up Rachael’s, and today doing final Paris errands (like stocking up on scarves and Bensimon tennis and paying a visit to the free Fragonard Musée de la Perfumerie).

Vacation has officially begun, but it definitely hasn’t hit me yet. It doesn’t feel like I’m done nannying, like I don’t live in my apartment anymore, like I only have two days left to spend in Paris. Paris feels like it always does, and so do I – but now I’m surrounded by packed overweight suitcases and last-minute souvenirs instead of French books on the crises facing Europe and the odd bits of puzzles and various glow-in-the-dark stars that have somehow found their way into my pockets from P and G's room.

And anyway, tomorrow I’m off to be surrounded by sand and machine guns (and probably some falafel and stars of David too). I won’t be posting much between now and June 24th, except for the random I’m still alive message, so don’t get worried, just check back in two weeks.


*** For those of you who have been asking, I am going to keep writing through the summer and next year – I’ll just go back to regular old Tacoma girl in Tacoma (and then Seattle), and my observations will go from the effortless chicness of Parisian women to something along the lines of Wow, I never realized just how much polar fleece there is in Seattle.

09 July 2007

Anecdotes from Paris: Partie trois

In Europe I get a lot of people asking me where I’m from or trying to guess on their own. I’ve gotten Spanish, Italian and a lot of America? Bush!, but yesterday I was not only pegged for a different nationality, but a different ethnicity as well.

After the race yesterday, I was sitting on a bench in the Arênes de Montmartre next to a French African. Trying to make conversation he asked where I was from, but before I could even open my mouth he continued for me. Algérie? he asked, avec un peu des îles Seychelles? This guy apparently thought I was a beur, a second-generation North African immigrant. The term used to be somewhat pejorative, but it’s made its way into mainstream French and lost the offense in the process.

Non, I said slowly, Je viens des Etats-unis. Apparently unwilling to admit that his conjectures had been wrong, he pressed on. Mais vos parents, ils sont pas Africains? Once I’d finally convinced him that I was not any part African his next question was Do you speak good English, then? This is where I realized that he was just seriously confused – I am as white as they get, and yes, English is my native language.

08 July 2007

Every June since my freshman year of high school I’ve run the Tacoma Sound to Narrows. It’s a 12-kilometer road race through Tacoma’s Ruston neighborhood and Point Defiance Park and this would have been my seventh year in a row. Along with Thanksgiving and my little brother’s high school graduation, the Sound to Narrows was one of the things I was pretty bummed about missing this year, so I decided to find myself a replacement on this side of the pond.

Searching through websites like Active Europe and Courir en France, I was able to find a race in Paris scheduled for the same weekend as the Sound to Narrows back home. La Francilienne was only 10 kilometers long, but with a course that wound through the hills of Montmartre, I had a feeling this race would be able to challenge the S2N’s reputation as having one of the hilliest courses around. I paid and registered through Active Europe and excitedly circled June 10th on my calendar, but on June 9th I began to realize that if this race was indeed going to be my Sound to Narrows, it was going to be the horribly disorganized, very French version.

Looking up directions the night before the run, I found a notice on the sponsor’s website – because of the first round of legislative elections (to take place June 10th as well), the race would be postponed until June 24th. That’s odd, I thought, Isn’t the second round of elections happening on June 24th? Sure enough a few days later a new notice appeared on the website – La Francilienne would in fact not be taking place until July 8th – this morning.

Since my goals for the S2N are usually along the lines of Don’t die and don’t walk, I didn’t do a whole lot of preparation for my French fun run. Rachael and I got home late last night from visiting a Science Po friend at his home near Lyon and had a dinner of sandwiches on the TGV in lieu of the optimal pre-race carb load. I woke up at 8h30 this morning, got dressed in my yoga pants and a tee shirt and grabbed a Balance Bar (mailed from home) to eat on the metro ride up to Porte de la Chappelle.

I had no idea where to go when I exited the metro, so I found a sporty-looking man and followed him to a tiny parking lot next to the Stade des Fillettes. This was apparently the place, though I could hardly believe it. In Tacoma, the S2N is an event. Roads are shut down for the runners, sponsors set up huge tents of giveaways near the start line in Vassault park and upwards of 10,000 people run it every year. In this tiny parking lot were maybe 10 runners milling around two tables. At the first were two women (who seemed to be the only organizers) checking people in for the race and passing out tee shirts. At the other table were neon curly shoelaces on sale for 10 euro a pair (I don’t know why).

In Tacoma all you need to register for the S2N is a check for 25 dollars – in France, you can’t participate in any physical activity without a note from your doctor certifying that you are physically able. Luckily I knew about this rule from taking hip-hop classes at different studios all year, so I was ready to exchange my certificat médical for a race number when asked for it. With the help of four safety pins, I became number 85, though if there were actually 85 runners there, I’ll eat my running shoes.

As the runners who were already there began stretching in anticipation of the 11h départ of the race, more and more extremely fit people in spandex jogged into the parking lot and pinned on their race numbers. There I was in my scrubbiest work-out clothes in the middle of about 30 people wearing various marathons de Paris tee shirts and one apparently homeless man who ran in a trench coat, frantically changing my race goals from Don’t die to Don’t lose, don’t lose, don’t lose.

In a race of thousands (or of any number in the U.S.) I’d generally fit in at the middle of the pack, but as I was surrounded by more and more spandex it hit me once again that this was France. It’s hard enough to find people who like to run here, let alone sign up for races. It made perfect sense that the only people who would even consider running a road race would be the fittest of the fittest Parisians. In the middle of my process of completely psyching myself out, a sweaty man jogged into the parking lot and sat down for a drink of water. He was apparently the winner of the 5k, but for his efforts there was no finish line, no cheers, no nothing. All he had to do was jog back into the parking lot and pick up his trophy (and change race numbers, as he was also scheduled to run the 10k).

Once the rest of the 5k finishers had arrived, we moved out to the sidewalk to wait for our départ. (Keep in mind that this was a group of 40 people at the absolute maximum.) At ten past 11h the third organizer wandered into our midst and asked what time it was. Oh! Il est parti! Allez-y. (Oh, it’s started! Okay you can go). With no arrows to guide us, we started off following a teenager on a bicycle.

I shouldn’t have been so worried about my speed – even in a race of the fittest French people in Paris, I still found myself smack in the middle of the pack with a nice group of evenly-paced people to run with. Once I got over my fear of completely losing the race, I realized we had something else to worry about – the fact that there was nothing anywhere telling us where to run except for three teenagers on bicycles riding back and forth along the line of runners. For the first few kilometers we were fine – everyone was still close enough together that we always had someone to follow, but as the fastest runners began to fade into the distance and the slowest runners began to peel off behind us, we found ourselves with nothing to lead us.

Somewhere around Gare de l’Est, my racing goal changed yet again. Don’t get lost. Once we lost sight of the last runner ahead of us and the nearest cyclist, my group’s new strategy became Ask people sitting in cafés which way the runners had gone at every large intersection. It worked fine because we were all running for fun – if any of us had time goals in mind this might have been a problem, but we had one couple with a pedometer telling us how far we’d gone and plenty of Parisians willing to guide us.

We spent the last few kilometers of the race running up and down various hills and staircases around Sacre Coeur. At one point we stopped to ask a group of bicyclists if they’d seen any number-wearing runners go by – arms raised immediately to point in about three different directions, so we just chose the least hilly and kept on. At the 9-kilometer mark (provided for us by the pedometer) we spied a group of racers standing halfway up a set of stairs. Il est parti où? (Which direction?) we shouted up to them. After giving us a rather confused look, one of the women pointed up to the top of the stairs. C’est l’arrivée là (That’s the finish line). We stared skeptically up at the lone man with a camera, but jogged up and were greeted with quick congratulations before being sent around the corner to a park for drinks and the race results. I’m not quite sure how we cut an entire kilometer out of our race, but we weren’t fast enough to place anyway so I suppose our inadvertent cheat doesn’t really matter.

In true French fashion, the S2N’s typical fare of orange slices, sliced bread and water from Costco and Roman Meal was replaced by a snack of San Pellegrino sparkling water, apricots, madeleines and brioches. The winners received their trophies, we each received a pile of goodies and all 40 of us headed back down the buttes Montmartres. Being the only American, I was the only one who seemed to notice the total lack of organization, but even I wasn’t really surprised. This is France after all, and what would my experience here be if not baffling and disorganized?

My loot – for a 10 euro entrance fee we each scored two tee shirts, a keychain and a one-strapped backpack. Not bad, eh?

04 July 2007

Every time I’m called upon to make the hour-long trek out to the airport, I become more and more disgusted with Charles de Gaulle International. I honestly think it’s the worst airport I’ve ever been in – it’s dirty, crowded and horribly disorganized. Why couldn’t Paris have something more like the shiny and clean Schipol airport in Amsterdam, where I once spent five hours on a layover from Seattle relaxing in a near-empty lounge, perusing the Dutch art museum (yes, in the airport) and checking my email at the wifi bar?

I was forced to pay a visit to my least favorite spot in Paris yesterday morning, when I brought my brother Ben, his best gal friend Ali and two extra suitcases full of my clothes (yikes, I’m starting to move out) out to Roissy. At a quarter to nine we were wheeling our four bags out to Place de l’Opéra to catch the RoissyBus – a fantastic transportation option that takes you directly from Opéra to your terminal at CDG for the same price as the smelly RER train. Unfortunately, this is where our misadventures began.

We arrived at the bus stop and joined the rain-soaked queue to pay for our tickets and get on our way. After 10 or so minutes, I climbed aboard with my two bags, paid my eight euro fifty and the driver promptly slammed the door. Uhhh monsieur? I asked him, what about the rest of the people in line? This one was already 20 minutes late, apparently, so they’d just have to wait for the next one. I tried to reason with him, telling him that my little brother and sister were in line and we couldn’t be separated, but he held firm. Vingt minutes de retard, mademoiselle, was his answer to everything. After a bit more pleading in my accented French he sighed and opened the door so B could board – but then shut it again before A could get near the bus. Ma soeur, s’il vous plaît. Elle ne parle pas français… (But my sister please. She doesn’t speak French). He sighed again, as if I was inconveniencing him more than I could ever imagine, and let A board the bus.

Once we’d finally made it to the British Airways check-in counter at Charles de Gaulle, we were informed by multi-lingual signs that anyone flying through or to London Heathrow had to check-in using the automated machines. In fact, there weren’t even any agents staffing the counters – everything was supposed to happen by computer. Unfortunately for both British Airways and all its passengers, the computers weren’t working. When A attempted to check-in, the computer informed her that there was no ticket available for her. When B logged in and tried to check them both in, the computer claimed that the two of them were already checked-in, and simply needed to take their printed boarding passes through passport control and board their plane.

The only problem with this was that there were no paper tickets to be found – anywhere. What there were were crowds of confused British travelers, all totally baffled by the automatic check-in machines and all waiting for help from the, wait for it, two British Airways agents who were milling around. We finally got half of B and A’s tickets, and were told they would receive the other half on the other side of passport control when they checked their baggage. Since I’d forgotten my passport and had no boarding pass anyway, this is where I left them – and where their real adventures began.

While I was sneaking onto the RER train to ride back into Paris center, cleaning my apartment, going out to lunch on Boulevard Saint Germain and nannying, B and A were landing at London Heathrow and finding out that all flights had been cancelled. With the entire United Kingdom on a level “Critical” terror alert (which has since been lowered to “severe”), 108 flights out of Heathrow cancelled, and every hotel in any kind of proximity to the airport booked solid, B and A were completely stranded.

Cute, aren't they?

Being only 18 years old and having just spent two weeks away from their families, B and A’s travel delays became the source of much stress on both sides of the Atlantic. With both sets of frantic parents trying to take care of their freshly-graduated teenagers from 4780 miles away, there was bound to be some miscommunication. Should B and A take a cab into London to the only open hotel room that could be found on Expedia, or should they camp out in the airport with the other hundreds of people all trying to get new flights out of Heathrow? Should somebody drive to SeaTac airport and try to find help at the British Airways counter there? What could they eat? Should they be pushy and play up their young ages, or wait in line to be helped?

Finally B and A found a cab to take them to a hotel in London, found by A’s dad, while my mom drove up to SeaTac airport to see what she could do. The British Airways agents actually found them a flight, London-to-Vancouver-to-SeaTac, but in order to be able to board it, B and A had to battle the chaos in London to obtain an FIM (flight interruption manifesto) from the BA ticket agents that would enable them to get their tickets. They made it back to Heathrow early this morning to begin the battle, but weren’t able to find anyone to help them until less than an hour before their flight was scheduled to take off. The FIM situation was aided by the fact that their London-to-Vancouver flight was delayed. Their expected hour-long layover in Vancouver, however, has possibly been obliterated.

Now four harried parents in Tacoma are most likely going to be spending their Fourth of July on a road trip to Canada instead of eating hot dogs and watching fireworks. At least the border crossing should be a piece of cake – I doubt many Americans will be trying to leave the country on Independence Day. Happy Fourth of July everybody – and may all of your airport experiences be smoother than this one.

03 July 2007

On Saturday I got another glimpse into the more extravagant side of Paris life. Living around the corner from the Opéra Garnier and up the street from the Parisian equivalent of Boardwalk on the Monopoly board I get my fair share of exposure to decadence. Picking the nanny kids up from school each Thursday is like watching a fashion show of enfants wearing Bonpoint next to their Gucci-clad mothers or North African nannies.

As a Vogue-addict and serial stalker of fashion week, I have nothing against the big labels – if you can afford Chanel by all means go for it. There’s just something that disturbs me a little about Baby Dior. Babies grow so quickly that their clothing sizes are measured by monthly increments – not to mention the spitting up, the drooling and the lack of toilet training. I just can’t understand paying 130 euro for a pair of 18 month old Armani jeans that are going to be spilled on, peed in and grown out of in a matter of months.

Saturday though, I was wandering along the rue St. Honoré and up the rue Chevalier de Saint George killing some time before I had to nanny when the windows of Tom Tit caught my eye. Sales are regulated by the French government, and although various stores have markdowns year-round there are only two legal and official sale periods in France – winter and summer. Last Wednesday marked the official kick-off of the month-long summer soldes and since then the number of shopping bags has been threatening to overturn the number of people in the city.

I took B, A and C out shopping on Wednesday to experience day one of the madness – the lines winding around the stores, the burly security guards who looked like they’d been lifted from their duties bouncing doors at night clubs and the hostile crowds of frantic shoppers. Between the four of us we managed to buy… two pairs of pants. After that success we just didn’t have the energy to fight through anymore 50% off racks.

By Saturday things had…not really calmed down at all, but as I passed Tom Tit, a luxury children’s boutique, I was enticed by the lack of people inside. Excepting the two salespeople, there was no one. Baby Burberry isn’t really my bag, but I did need to find a new baby present for one of my favorite families in Seattle who are expecting in July. Might as well just look, right?

I strolled through the door wearing my nannying-for-the-day uniform of jeans, a tee-shirt, a cardigan and a scarf to be greeted by two extremely chic salespeople, one a young male, the other a middle-aged female. Feeling rather schlumpy standing in the midst of all the sparkling baby clothing, each article probably costing more than my entire outfit, I was too embarrassed to head straight for the sale racks. Instead I threw my head back and explained to the saleswoman that I was shopping for a baby present – unsure of the translation of newborn, I went for pas encore né (not born yet), and tried to convey an attitude of careless extravagance. Yes, I have enough expendable income to purchase Dolce & Gabbana onsies for a child I’m not even related to.

Apparently my act didn’t convey anything other than “student, lured in by promises of moins 50% sales," because she nodded and smiled and led me directly to the discount racks. I pawed awkwardly through the racks of D&G, Armani, Dior and Burberry, debating whether I could make a quick escape or if I had to just bite it and buy a rhinestoned embroidered sun hat.

After a bit of plotting, I beckoned the saleswoman back over. En fait, I explained, les parents ne veulent pas savoir la sexe du bébé, donc, uhhh… (Actually, the parents don’t want to know the baby’s sex, so, uhhh). I thought this would be my quick escape – I don’t know whether I’m shopping for pink or blue, so I’ll be back after the baby’s born. Not so much – instead I was a fun challenge, providing something for the saleswoman to do. She beamed at me and dove into the racks next to me, pulling out item after item of soit fille, soit garçon (either girl or boy). I searched halfheartedly alongside her, every once in a while stopping to peer at a price tag. Thirty percent off of 170 euro – even on sale and in size 0-3 months I can’t afford Dolce & Gabbana.

While I was sweating and panicking, my French counterpart hit the jackpot. Voila! she said, pulling out a pastel blue 6 mo. sweatshirt. With snaps up the back, a Baby Dior teddy bear on the front and a half-off 62 euro price tag (apparently already marked down, because the same one sells for 105 dollars in the U.S.), this one was actually kind of in my budget. The saleswoman was beaming at me, and though I’m not totally sure I’d dress my own child in Baby Dior if it was gifted to me, I couldn’t resist. I grinned back, wiped my hands on my jeans and somewhat sheepishly handed over my credit card.