To Paris via London Heathrow: An Epic Tale
Our recent trip to Europe has come and gone, and taking longer than I expected to recover from jet lag, I had time to do what I always do after we get home from a long trip: edit photos. It’s something I enjoy quite a bit, believing that it helps form strong memories of places I may not experience again. Usually, I’m fairly excited about getting through this process so that I can share them with whomever is willing to be tied to a chair and bribed with liberal quantities of Chardonnay, or is gracious and has the time and interest, but this time, I realized I was procrastinating. Although it’s far more than just an excuse, I have been trying to learn more about batch editing in CS6 and because this was the first big round of shots I’d taken with my new camera, also decided to learn more about the software than I do — which is not much.
I realized something else along the way and it had to do with our time in Paris specifically. I wasn’t sure about how I wanted the shots I took to be shared. You’re thinking I’ve far too much time on my hands and I won’t disagree. However as someone who spends quite a bit of the time I do have peering through a camera lens, and working on the photos I take, I can say that it matters what a collection of photos conveys about an experience once they’ve been edited. Each time I look at them, whatever experience had as they were taken is relived to some extent. And many experiences on this trip were remarkable. So much so, that with two weeks’ time since returning, I know I can focus on what was lovely about it, and not so much on what wasn’t. You know what they say about time and healing. But I’m ahead of myself.
We decided years ago we would celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary by going to Paris. We’d never been and thinking about it now, I believe it’s because we wanted to go by ourselves. Well, I wanted to go by ourselves. We’ve had many opportunities to plan it before, but have chosen other trips instead. I’ve also thought that years of thinking “The City of Lights” to be a place for romance, with vintage images featuring quaint river scenes and delicate ironwork on pastel hued buildings or strains of La Vie en Rose wafting through the window from the street below a part of what I imagined Paris to be whether I knew better or not — and I certainly did. Couple the dream with the idea that I’m a person who isn’t thrilled with a surprise, so relentlessly research everything lest the unexpected happen. It’s a cruel paradox of character traits, but being an optimist helps keep me from imploding on most days and it certainly came in handy this trip. Can a constructive pessimist truly call herself an optimist?
Our flight was late to begin with. This isn’t something unusual. It seems any time we’ve traveled a good distance, the first leg of our journey is late. We continue to expect one will be on time, but they aren’t. We walk around the airport, happy we’re through security, and depending on what time of the day it is, buy coffee and a muffin, or belly up to a bar for a glass of wine. Usually, it’s the former, but one of us routinely wishes it’s the latter. The time passes, and the trip begins. This time, I thought our chances might be improved upon if we caught a late flight — one we could hopefully sleep on, arrive with a bit of time for an evening walk to get our bearings, maybe take advantage of a cafe I’d inquired about ahead of time, then a good night’s sleep to take on the next day. A 15-minute delay wouldn’t change any of that. Even the knowledge that the cabin had to be cleaned before we could board wasn’t enough to get our attention. If you’ve seen the condition of an international flight at its conclusion, then you’d understand and this flight had just come from London nonstop. But my husband had quietly begun to count away the minutes of the two-hour layover we’d have in London before heading to Paris. He’s like that, and he’s good at it.
We boarded the British Airways 777, looking forward to our upgraded seats — something we’ve never splurged for before, saving our points for just that purpose and it didn’t disappoint. There was a welcomed increase in legroom, seats that recline much farther than what we’re used to, leg rests, little packages containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, a soft mask for sleeping along with a pair of earplugs, a blanket, pillow, and headphones. We were plugged into movies, music, and relaxed by the time everyone else had boarded and after a very slow taxi to the end of the runway were feeling the excitement of knowing we would be in Paris in about 13 hours via London Heathrow.
But the plane remained stationary at the point where it should have rounded the bend to make its final approach for takeoff. We sat for quite a long time before realizing an aisle over, just out of our sight, there was a minor commotion. Passengers in the surrounding seats were looking at something on the floor and soon flight attendants were leaning over with pillows and blankets. This did not bode well. The pilot eventually announced that there was a passenger on board in need of medical attention and so we would be returning to the terminal.
Police and paramedics met us at the terminal and boarded the plane after what felt like an eternity. No one seemed to be in a hurry. There was no equipment. What kind of an emergency could it possibly be? One paramedic looked down at the passenger, then another. Police officers stood nearby, observing, talking quietly between themselves. Someone brought a wheelchair, but the paramedic in charge waved it away. Instead, two men grasped the woman, and each holding an arm, pulled her to a standing position and walked her off the plane, hands shaking, eyes avoiding contact with anyone. She walked steadily with them off the plane and it wasn’t until we’d arrived in London that other passengers mentioned the woman had been involved in a heated phone conversation just before leaving the terminal. That at some point, seeming very agitated, she simply slipped out of her seat and onto the floor of the plane, fully conscious. We wondered what had happened to her and why police were called but no matter! We’d soon be on our way.
Once we’d arrived in London, our plane sat near the terminal unable to find a gate. Twenty more minutes slipped away before one was made available and we could get off the plane, so we were happy to see a representative of British Airways holding a sign for our connecting flight. We imagined that we would be wheeled away at lightening speed to make our flight in the nick of time. But we stood with her as she waited for three more passengers also booked for the connecting flight. Instead of taking us to the plane, she calmly explained we couldn’t possibly make it on time, and so led us to an area where we could rebook our flight. It was only at this point I began to feel a tiny prick of doubt as we were led past a line of people so wide and so long I wondered must have happened to their flights. Surely they couldn’t be an extension of the snaking crush of people in front of the customer service area we were being led to. The prick of doubt immediately expanded to an audible pang in the gut but I dealt with it in true “Keep Calm and Carry On” fashion. If menopause has taught me anything, it is don’t let them see you sweat!
The representative deposited us at the tail end of that crush, our jaws headed for the ground, but we were only there a moment or two before we were told we couldn’t stand there and a very large man locked off the area saying there were no more flights to rebook. Sorry. That he didn’t care whether we’d been led there, or that we’d been told that’s what we’d need to do. And he wasn’t doing to discuss it.
Going into emergency mode, I immediately wondered about a variety of things that would be affected by this problem: the person meeting us at the airport at Paris Orly left standing there wondering why we weren’t on the flight (which we later learned actually left Heathrow on time on a day very few flights had so many were cancelled and how interesting is that?); the person who was to greet us at our apartment in Paris and show us around; the driver expecting to meet us on a tour the next morning which we had paid for in full. Surely that could wait, though, because there had to be a way out of Heathrow soon. I could make some calls.
Neither of our phones worked. Every single detail ironed out ahead of time, including International minutes taken care of for the iPad, but neither of us thought of our phones. Murphy’s Law seemed to be raring up for a big one. A nice lady from Canada who was in the same dilemma offered to send a text on our behalf to the woman meeting us at the apartment, so we were able to check that off of our list. We soon realized we had to go through customs to head toward the luggage bays and locate our bags. Would they be there? Had they made our flight to Paris? We had no idea.
What we did learn was there had been an accident at Heathrow that day. A British Airways flight to Oslo had lost its engine casings immediately upon takeoff and one had slammed into an engine which soon began to smoke and was on fire, so an emergency landing caused two runways to be closed. That explained the lines people we’d seen everywhere and why there were no more flights available that day. It also explained why we were greeted by a representative. With about 30 minutes left to make our flight, they didn’t want to risk our doing that because they’d most likely put others in our seats just to get them out of the airport.
The luggage area was completely chaotic. Luggage was everywhere, people were mulling around looking for their bags, trying to find answers. I was determined to try and get hold of the driver expecting to meet us at Paris Orly but had to tackle one of the phones for international calls. This is the part where one wonders whether the calls made to one’s bank or in this case, credit union, will actually pay off and the credit card used to make calls will actually work. This is also the part where remembering the country codes comes in quite handy. Alas, it took a few tries but we finally made it through and thanked the stars that the driver service spoke English and understood our dilemma which was a huge relief. With a promise that we would call them when we learned of a new arrival time, two things could now be checked off our list!
My husband decided to try and find out where our bags were since my efforts wandering through the huge area had turned up with no clues about where our luggage might be and so decided to join a long line of people standing in front of the only area that appeared as if it was an official counter. I couldn’t stand in a line because I needed to do something to feel productive so took his laptop, found a place against a wall and sat cross legged on the floor to begin to find an alternative way to Paris. It was approaching 7PM and in a different world, we would already have been in Paris headed through customs. But I busied myself with my task and decided the Eurostar would be our best bet. All we had to do was find a couple of available seats, locate our luggage, and catch the underground to the St. Pancras station in London where the train would depart. Luckily, I quickly found two seats so looked for my husband to see where he was in line — only a few spaces ahead of where he began. I decided to take another hopeful lap to look for our luggage with no success and began worrying about whether the seats on the train would still be available once he’d gotten information about our luggage.
Two hours later, we received the information. British Airways was holding our luggage. They said they could send it on to Paris for us, but couldn’t book a flight for us until Monday afternoon which was three very long days away. They could release our luggage as well, but couldn’t give us an idea about whether it would take a half hour or three hours. Clearly we didn’t want to wait until Monday for another flight, so we requested they release our luggage. I’d lost track of how long this took, but we were lucky to have all of it show up on the luggage track together when it finally arrived! The bad news was the tickets I’d had my eye on to catch the Eurostar first thing the next morning were no longer available.
As we left the luggage area happy that we had our belongings, but beginning to think about what was next, we ran into a line stretching along the center of the terminal. I walked far enough to the front of the line to inquire about what it was for and was told it was to reserve a hotel room and transportation to it for the night. Did we want to stand in that line? I certainly didn’t. All of the seats in the area were full of people looking tired and cranky. I was tired because I wasn’t able to sleep on the flight, but cranky wasn’t on my agenda. Yet. Some had decided to call it a night and were passed out, asleep on their luggage in corners here and there. Others, like the Scottish couple we met taking advantage of the holiday and on their way to Kuala Lumpur were bright-eyed and bushy tailed, looking for alternatives. We admired their attitudes and wandered elsewhere in the terminal.
We wondered what to do next — stay at Heathrow for the night or stay at the train station in London expecting to find some way out of London. We were advised by a woman in the airport that a night at the train station was not a good idea. It was quite late now, we were hungry, the laptop was running out of battery time and so with not much else to do, found an Internet hub, plugged in, and began looking for options. Neither of us wanted to think about renting a car. Yes, we’d been to England twice and enjoyed extensive road trips, but driving in the dark through the “chunnel” (which we heard was backed up since it was a Banking Holiday) to Paris seemed more daunting than anything else. We searched for other trains with no success and with the laptop charged enough to use, wandered to the closest cafe in the airport — one that looked as if it was barely making it after the throng of people that had been through it on that crazy day. But the coffee was wonderful, and whatever sweet my husband brought to the table was enough to satisfy and help regroup our thoughts.
We’d done a good job of the whole “stiff upper lip and all that sort of rot” thing. We both know that when there is absolutely nothing that can be done about the circumstances we’d found ourselves in that day, getting angry or overly emotional would not help. I’d seen a man earlier in the day so upset he was completely red in the face and fuming loudly over being imposed upon in security, that it only confirmed it is never worth it. No, we just wanted to get out of Heathrow.
Going into London to have a little diversionary trip was never an option. Go ahead and call us boring. Perhaps if we’d never been before — or hadn’t paid in full for a variety of things waiting for us in Paris, we’d have reconsidered a little adventure in London. Maybe. But we were feeling desperate, so my husband decided to look for flights with other airlines. Quickly he found a couple of seats on an Air France flight (oh, the irony!) looked at me, asked what I thought, and I said just do it. I winced over the additional $1000 we hadn’t expected to spend, but was immediately relieved to know we’d make it to Paris by 11PM the next night. We’d also been given a couple of photocopies of letters from British Airways apologizing that they would not be able to book a room for us but that if we did they’d consider reasonable expenses related to the delay.
By the time we’d finished our coffee and booked our flight, the line for hotel reservations had dwindled significantly, so decided to join those remaining hoping to find something near the airport to call it a night. An outgoing Frenchman just in front of us was trying to secure a hotel room as well. We struck up a conversation with him and soon found ourselves agreeing to share a ride with him to a Holiday Inn Express — a 10 minute ride away. He was on a little break to see his son and had been stuck at the airport for hours “sampling all the wine in the lounge” before he’d met us and mentioned he might be drunk. I had to laugh, and as we rode to the hotel together, he offered to buy us a drink once there. Clearly, he was not drunk enough. It was midnight and we were exhausted, but knew it would be rude not to accept and so once checked in, found a table to sit and mull over our experience while the Frenchman went to the bar to order. The lobby was full of German soccer fans dressed in colorful garb — including traditional lederhosen and as we sipped our drinks and listened to the Frenchman talk about Paris, his interesting job, and recommend the best wine to try in France (he wrote a list for me), we thought we couldn’t have been in a more bizarre situation.
Once in the hotel room and ironically not sleepy, I asked my husband to go down to the bar to get me another glass of wine so I could read my book and work up some sleepiness. He was back in no time with the requested wine telling me I was lucky because three buses full of German soccer fans had just pulled up and were flooding the lobby. There is no way he’d have been able to deliver if he had been two minutes later. All we could think of were the poor guys at the reception desk who had already appeared ready to call it a night grumbling about having to serve bar drinks when that wasn’t their job. I appreciated them!
The next morning, I entertained myself watching the soccer fans outside the window below, posing in front of the buses with an enormous trophy. Toasts with bottles of beer and German songs soon followed. My husband follows soccer closely, so told me they were a very good team and most likely going to win the match playing at Wembley stadium near by that day. After making contact with a Verizon representative using the hotel’s phone, we were finally able to use my phone and so able to check one more thing off our list. Unfortunately, we were too late to contact the tour driver expecting to meet us in a couple of hours and began to wonder about whether we’d not only lose an experience we were truly looking forward to, but the money we paid as well. That as well as the $400 hotel bill had us realizing just how expensive this delay was getting to be.
After a fire alarm, mandatory evacuation, and some breakfast, we rode a bus back to the airport with a few of the other team’s fans who weren’t quite sure about how to respond to my husband’s friendly comments about the game that day. He’d predicted they’d lose, but thankfully kept that between himself and I. One of the fans came around with a jovial response in decent English (far better than either of us could have managed in German) and we all laughed. Honestly, at that point, I’d have rather been headed to the soccer match instead of facing a very long wait for a flight at Heathrow. The time difference along with the experience the day before were beginning to take their toll, but I was not giving in. We went to check in and nearly made it until the middle aged man at the counter rocking an interesting punk hair cut realized we were at the airport well before our flight and apologized to us mates, explaining we couldn’t check our bags until three hours before flight time. So back we went into the part of the airport designed more for comings and goings and less for eating and shopping. We played Candy Crush on the iPad. We went outside to enjoy the sunshine and look around. We enjoyed listening to echoing strains of anything from accomplished Beethoven to improv Chopsticks played on a piano positioned just for whomever wished to do so. We waited. We took turns closing our eyes to nod off a bit leaving one of us to man the luggage lest we fall victim to the repeated warnings we heard over the intercom: Any luggage left unattended will be confiscated and destroyed!
I finally convinced my husband we should eat. That we would be getting to our apartment in Paris far too late to do anything but fall into bed. He gave in and we settled in at a brightly painted red cafe that could easily have been found in Paris. Mussels in white wine for me and steak frites for him. We ate slowly, watching the time until we could check in our bags and say hello to our friend at the counter with the edgy haircut. He recognized us and happily checked our bags. One more step had been taken care of and we were feeling good about it.
More waiting. A stroll or two around the exclusive shops in this area of the airport with some time wondering just who might dash into one to purchase something, realizing they’d left their Gucci loafers at home, or perhaps their Burberry trench. A cup of cafe and time spent reading. Lots of monitoring the list of flights to see which gate we’d depart from so we could move to that area. A glass of wine minus the oysters and being sold.
Even more waiting while listening to flights called for Mexico, and the Middle East. London Heathrow is an amazing center of the world.
Finally, our flight was called, we boarded and were off, flying over the hedgerow lined fields of southwest England, across the English Channel, and passing over the reddish patchwork fields of Brittany, France. We were surprised with a light meal of proscuitto, Brie, a croissant, and fresh edamame beans in the short time we were in the air and laughed realizing the tickets we’d purchased in desperation the night before were not exactly economy. Oh, well! But Charles de Gaulle airport was quickly below us and landed without a hitch on a beautiful, clear night punctuated by a huge rosy colored moon hovering just above the horizon. The customs area was blissfully completely empty except for those of us having just arrived. Our luggage came up quickly and we found our driver waiting with a sign about the same time he realized we were his fare.
Thirty minutes to our apartment in Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement, and with the tentative assistance of Google translator, paid our driver after verifying what we owed plus a tip, thanking him for his patience and apologizing for the previous day’s problems. As we watched him back out of the cul de sac, we turned to the building our apartment was in. We’d been advised of the two different security keyboards and respective codes so took care of that in the dim light, trying to be as quiet as possible with our luggage. This would not be the last time I’d recall articles read about the amount of luggage Americans travel with. Up one flight of stairs, two trips up seven flights in a quaint, caged elevator to a dark landing and a key in a door that needed a bit of finesse to open, then one last flight of stairs, shoes removed for old wooden floors, and windows thrown opened to the late night sky.
Rooftops, sparkling lights, and the gift of a chilled bottle of champagne for our troubles from the gracious manager of Perfectly Paris from whom we rented our apartment.
We were finally in Paris.
It was after midnight, but we were there.
p.s. All but a couple of these photos were taken with my iPhone.