Aller-Retour

On January 2, I walked out my front door in San Francisco at about 5:00 AM PST. I unlocked the door to my studio in Montreuil 25 hours later.

While my journey was long, exhausting and mundane at times, it was relatively smooth - especially in comparison to other winter travel/horror stories I heard from other assistants upon my return. I managed to catch every connection on time and my little brown suitcases made its way successfully to France (filled with 45-lbs. of toiletries, food and a few pieces of clothing I exchanged for things I brought home). Basically, it went plane-plane-train-train. Sounds simple, and since I knew exactly where I was going when I got to France, it pretty much was.

It didn't start out so certain though.

Aside from the fact I was nervous about the weather in Washington, D.C., where I was changing planes at Dulles International, I was also looking at a 30-minute connection time in DC between my flights from SFO to Paris CDG. My brother drove me to SFO about four hours before my original flight (and without traffic, it's only a 20-minute car ride from my house to the airport). We walked up to the United Airlines ticket counter, already busy with plenty of passengers there early, either for flights or because of long security line fears after the Christmas Day incident in Detroit. After flying solely with JetBlue Airways and Virgin America within the United States over the last three years, it was bizarre entering a different terminal at SFO, or flying with a different airline. But the employees of United turned out to be kind and friendly from start to finish.

I asked the ticket agent if I could get on the stand-by flight to DC that was departing an hour before my booked flight, and she replied that I probably could fit on the plane! Lo and behold, about 90 minutes later, I was boarding the flight and even got a window seat (albeit, the seat was in an exit row - a first for me - and directly across from the flight attendant in the jump seat). She also put my bag on the earlier flight, so even if I didn't make it on that plane and ended up being stuck on the later one, my suitcase would probably make the connection to France. (I thought this was a bit strange since I thought according to some of TSA's anti-terrorism rules, every bag that goes on to a plane has to have a passenger with it.) But, given that the flight got to DC on time (although there were some other delays at Dulles due to very strong winds, so only one runway was open for landings and take-offs), I got a nice 90-minute window instead of 30. I decided to use my time to buy a burrito for the last time for a while and read my new book (The Boleyn Inheritance).

With the time change and since the first flight (SFO to DC) was only four and a half hours, it was already 5:30 PM EST by the time my second flight departed from DC. I gave a last look out the window from American soil (pictured, right) and let out a big sigh. While it is always difficult to leave home, the murmurs of French voices on the plane already filled me with excitement to return to France. The part that hurt the most, however, was flying over New York City. By good fortune (and asking the gate agent up until the point where I was in line to board if there were any window seats left), I got a window seat on the left side of the plane. As the plane crept north over the Eastern Seaboard, I knew exactly when we would be approaching New York without even looking at the map anymore. And then I saw the Manhattan street grid, perfectly straight from my angle and glittering like threads of gold.

Then there was just darkness. For a really long time. And most unfortunately for me, the only flight I was able to get any sleep on was that first one. So for seven long hours to Paris, I was awake. It's time like that in which I really hate traveling alone. But as the tiny plane on the Google map flew over the island of Jersey, then Rouen and finally landed in Paris, I gained a tiny second (or third or fourth) wind.

I booked it off the plane. Given that I only had a purse for a carry-on, I knew where I was going, confident enough with the language, I felt like a local already. Getting to Immigration and baggage claim was a bit of a walk (with a moving sidewalk), and the baggage claim area at CDG Terminal One was the most bizarre room I've ever seen in an airport. (Maybe ever.) I thought I walked into a giant hamster maze for adults. There were tubes with escalators going every direction. Fortunately for me, there were again more EU citizens on the plane than non-EU citizens, so I zoomed through Immigration, and my bag turned out to be the fifth one to roll down the conveyor belt. After a few "excusez-moi"s, I grabbed my bag and power-walked for the AirTrain to take me to CDG Terminal 2, where the SNCF-TGV station is.

Turns out I didn't have to walk so fast since the first and next train to Lille wasn't leaving for another 45 minutes. Not to mention that since I now have a French bank card compared to when I first arrived, I was able to buy my ticket from the SNCF kiosk (since my card has a chip) and not have to wait in the INSANE line at the ticket counter. After waiting a bit to see which platform would be announced and checking my email on my iPhone (it felt so good to have internet on my cell phone everywhere again), the voie (platform) was posted on the board.

I was about to take the elevator down, when I ran into Liz Louie! France is turning out to be a small place. After a long voyage and leaving home after the holidays, I was already a little down-trodden, so it felt good to see a familiar, friendly face. She was taking the train back to Lille after a trip down south, so we caught up with Vacances de Noël stories while waiting for the TGV to approach. However, we had to sit in different cars since we bought our tickets separately. When I found my seat, it was the most bizarre part of a TGV train I'd ever seen. It must have been the first class car's coat or luggage closet before, since it was part of the first class car, but there were only a handful of seats, and most of them aligned flat against the wall like a subway car.

When I landed in France, it was still dark, at about 7:0o AM CST. Now that it was closer to 9:00 AM, the sun was rising over the snow-covered valleys and farms that I passed on my trip to the airport in December. Except this time there was actual sun. I dare say that it was one of the most beautiful days I have ever seen and experienced in France. Unfortunately for me, I was too tired to appreciate any of it.

After my train arrived at Gare Lille Europe, I dragged my little brown suitcase over to Gare Lille Flandres, where there was the one direct train of the day to Montreuil, leaving at 11:30 AM. I sat in the waiting area reading my book, while vagrants were walking in and out (out because the station guards were constantly checking on them). Considering it was freezing outside (literally), I felt really awful for them since they weren't causing any trouble and not asking anyone for money, just trying to sit inside and escape the wind chill.

Finally, my train to Montreuil was announced, I got up and on to the last part of my voyage. I had the hardest time trying to stay awake. My eyelids felt like hard stones and I couldn't lift them anymore. But I was more afraid of falling asleep and waking up at the train's terminus: Calais. (I'm not afraid of Calais; it's just really far past where I needed to be.) The sunshine was absolutely gorgeous, and I'd normally give anything to have such a nice view from the train. At about 1:30 PM, the TER finally pulled up to Gare Montreuil-Sur-Mer, after which I dragged my suitcase up the giant hill, past the ramparts, through the cobblestone village streets, into the very empty Grand Place and then up the stairs to my studio.

The bizarre feeling upon walking into my studio was: it was like I never left or went anywhere. I was back in some surreal dream. Is it because it's France? A tiny village in the middle of nowhere? Such a contrast from New York or San Francisco? I don't think there are as many contrasts between French and American cultures as some people might think (or like to admit, on either side), but maybe I've really adjusted to living here.

The downside to being back: I had jetlag for over a week.

Coming to America

Getting to Montreuil wasn't easy. Getting OUT was even more difficult. First off, I couldn't take the train to Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport and get there before my flight within the same day within reasonable hours. I could have left at 7 AM, changed in Arras and arrived at CDG 8 hours before my flight, but I preferred not. Thus, I left Montreuil for Lille on Wednesday (Dec. 16) and spent the night at Rachel's place. This turned out to be a great idea as it was quite a fun evening and picked up my spirits before heading home.

However, we ran into a problem with keys. She had class early in the morning, and my TGV to CDG wasn't until noon. Thus, we rushed to Euralille at 8 PM at night with the foolish hope that a key copy shop would still be open. Carrefour (France's Wal-Mart) still was, but as we soon found out, the key place wasn't. Rachel and I tried coming up with several different plans, but given the way her buildng is designed (you need a key to lock the front door, mailboxes are on the inside, etc.) we couldn't think of anything right away. We decided to ponder further over at her friend's apartment, quite close to Gare Lille Flandres. As we were walking over in the frigid weather, I noticed something falling on me. Something soft and fluffy, but it kept disappearing on my coat.

Snow.

I knew France's first snowfall was coming soon since I had just heard news about it hitting England already that day. While it was all lovely and romantic, I knew this wasn't going to be good for my travel plans. I tried to put it out of my mind, as the key situation was more pressing. After debating whether or not I should call someone we knew to meet up with me in the morning and take the keys, Rachel realized we could meet at Porte de Douai while she was taking the bus in between schools, and I could give her the keys there. That was settled, and we enjoyed the rest of the evening with some wine and snowflakes before one of her friend's drove us back to her apartment.

When I woke up in the morning, I wasn't as excited as I normally am when I see what I saw. Lille was a winter wonderland. The fresh and clean snowfall was delightful and a perfect touch to the already-decorated city, but it was not what I needed before my flight to New York. Our key plan worked perfectly, especially since I had a tiny roller suitcase. I took the bus to Porte de Douai, said a fond farewell and save travels to Rachel as she was going home a few days later, and then caught the train directly to Gare Lille Europe, where I waited just a bit for my TGV to the airport.

The landscape outside the windows on my 59-minute high-speed ride was quite the contrast to the one I had taken to Lille three months ago. Back then, the sun was shining, there was some warmth in the air and the fields were relatively green and bright. Now everything was covered in a shiny white blanket of snow. It was also far easier without tumbling along with three giant suitcases. Instead, I just jumped off the train at the very convenient CDG station, as the train continued on to Rennes.

That's when I saw the reality of the situation on the Departures board. A good deal of the flights were canceled, including all of those headed to England. So far, my New York flight was A-OK. I headed up to the Air France departures terminal and got in line to drop off my bag. Then, I hit a milestone in my time in France: for the first time at the airport (or any other place that deals with a lot of tourists in Paris), I spoke to the employee in French...and they replied in French!! It's usually always automatically in English. But I said in French that I printed my boarding card the night before, and she said that was great and asked where I was going, etc. in French! Then I placed my little brown suitcase on the conveyor belt and just hoped everything inside (especially two bottles of wine and a bottle of Ch'ti beer) would make it safely to America.

Everything continued to go smoothly, as I went through French border control, then security and then on to my terminal via shuttle train. I was amazed by how friendly all of the airport employees were towards me. I don't know if it was because of Christmas, the first snowfall, not too many travelers at the airport that day, the fact that I spoke in French first always, or the ridiculous giant grin on my face because I was so happy to be going to NYC. I had an hour or so left before boarding, and the flight was still supposedly on time. I got some spinach quiche, a glass of wine and some petite treats for my final meal and picked up the three very well-designed bilingual magazines published by Air France. (Would LOVE to work for one of those).

By 4 PM, I was just Twittering and waiting by the gate as that's when we were supposed to start boarding. However, we weren't. There wasn't even any indication by the movements of the employees by the gate that we should get ready. After a few minutes, a passenger asked an AF employee in a yellow vest when we would start boarding. Then he replied, in English, "Oh, well we think it might be delayed about five hours." My jaw dropped.

Five seconds before this, all was peaceful around the gate. After this sentence, all the New Yorkers showed their colors and bounced up from their seats, throwing questions at the AF employees left and right. They ranged from, "Are you serious?" to "You better tell us the truth right now" to "It's not even really snowing outside!" And that NYer was right: if that were JFK, we definitely would have taken off anyway. There are always crews going around, clearing snow from the runways and de-icing planes, 'round the clock. In Paris, there was pretty much no one outside doing anything. (And it was only about 28-30 degrees F.)

Normally, I'm quite embarrased when I hear Americans speaking so loud and acting this way in France. It's no wonder they hate us sometimes. But this time, I was proud to be a New York resident. Someone had to express our frustrations, and no one expresses frustrations better than a New Yorker, let alone a whole plane of them. Then one of the passengers asked if we could go up to the AF Elite Member Lounge since we were going to be stuck there for hours, to which the now-frazzled employee said "yeah, probably." So we headed up there, all ready to make up some story to find that the lounge front desk was pretty busy. So four of us just walked in. And it was like heaven. There was an unattended open bar with a fine selection of wines, beers and spirits, along with a table of free food, and a refrigerator of sodas, bottled water and other specialty drinks. There was also free Wi-Fi, free French magazines (I picked up French Premiere, with Natalie Portman on the cover) and free international newspapers (I picked up Le Monde and The Guardian, since I can't get those so easily in the U.S.). Plus, all the chairs were plush and leather, and there were HD flat-screens tuned to France 24, reporting on Copenhagen and then the poor weather at CDG. Of course. I even met a Columbia Journalism school alum who works for Global Post in Paris, and we shared a bunch of stories about professors who seem to never leave. I guess you really can find J-Schoolers everywhere.

After about an hour up in the lounge, there was an announcement that Air France Flight 10 to New York-JFK was finally boarding. I even got to board with First Class since they were just trying to get us all out of there. However, we were all shuttled by bus to the plane, which took about 45 minutes. Then, we sat on the plane for another hour before moving. Finally, after falling asleep for a bit, we finally starting moving, at which point I switched off my iPhone thinking we were going to take off. But then we just moved to another part of the airport where we had to de-ice the plane. This took about another 30 minutes. Basically, it was like going through a carwash. The two guys inside the truck took a hose to the plane and just went at it, as the snow began to fall every which way from the top of the plane to the bottom, and then flying off the wings. It's a good thing they warned us that the sights and sounds from this process was completely normal, or I'm sure we all would have been a little freaked out.

About a minute after this process and about four hours after we were originally supposed to take off, we were wheels-up in the sky. Considering I couldn't see a darn thing out the window until about 5,000 feet from all of the snowy clouds at 8:30 PM CST, it was a very smooth take-off, and so was most of the rest of the flight.

Despite the delays, Air France is truly a great way to travel across the Atlantic. The dinner was delicious (I almost licked the plate from the boeuf à la sauce de moutarde (beef with mustard sauce), plus there was free champagne for an apertif and unlimited free wine. Not to mention that their media library is also quite packed and useful (when it works...it stopped working somewhere over Greenland and they had to restart it). I finally watched The Hangover, which has to have been one of the best comedies I've ever seen.

Finally, after seven and a half hours in the sky, I saw the bright lights of Manhattan's skyline as we gently touched down at JFK Airport. And being near the front of the plane and apparently one of the few Americans in that section, I made it through Immigration almost immediately. Then I got my bag from the Carousel, all safe and sound. Upon making my exit from Customs, I was bombarded by shady taxi drivers asking if I needed a ride to Manhattan, and that big, ridiculous grin returned to my face. I was back home in New York City. I ignored them, and like a proper New Yorker, I got in a Yellow Cab and headed for Stephanie's apartment on the Upper East Side. I even got a very nice driver, and speedy one at that, getting me there in 30 minutes.

Twenty hours after I left Lille, I finally made it.

Arrival en France

rachel-king-air-franceFor the last year, I've been planning on moving to France. It never actually seemed like this time would actually arrive. After a fashion-wine-college-football-packed week in New York City, on September 17, I departed from JFK airport on Air France to Paris CDG. Armed with two large suitcases, a carry-on suitcase and my laptop bag, I wasn't exactly traveling light. After a relatively quick Super Shuttle to the airport, I suffered through another round of French bureaucracy at the Air France counter. (Honestly, I think this is the country's version of hazing.) After having to stand in one line to get my boarding pass from the check-in machines, I got in line to have my bags checked. While waiting in line, I met another New Yorker, Helene, who was very excited for her European adventure (except to Italy, not France). She, too, noticed that I had a lot of baggage, and I told her I was going to France for seven months to teach English, since I couldn't find a job in the U.S. right now. She commented how strange it must be to have to leave America to find a job, and I agree, but I hope it will be a great adventure anyway.

When I got up to the counter, it turned out one of my bags was overweight, thus I had to pay a $50 fee. However, they don't take your bags at the Air France counter. Since my bag was overweight, I had to haul ALL of my bags over to the Air France customer service counter to pay the fee, drop off my suitcases at another stall, and then return to the check-in counter to show my receipt and get my boarding pass back. Security seemed like a breeze after such an ordeal.

After security, I ran into Helene again, and we searched for the first terminal bar we could find. (I'm a very skittish flyer, despite how many times I might be on an airplane in any given year. I don't like turbulence.) It seems you can't go far in New York without finding someone else in the media industry, as Helene worked for a NYC radio station for many years. Thus, media and the recession were one of the big topics. After talking with Helene and the bartenders for about 90 minutes, I was much more relaxed and ready for the 7-hour flight ahead of me. I said au revoir and bon voyage to Helene, who got the lucky chance to sit upstairs on the flight to Paris, while I made my way for my window seat in row 34. Departure from the gate was a little delayed, and I nearly fell asleep for take-off, but I woke up just in time to see us lift off the ground, with the lit-up Manhattan skyline grow smaller and smaller until the plane turned, and I could only see the pitch-black Atlantic Ocean.

The flight itself was relatively smooth. Since I had brought a Chipotle burrito for my meal (the last burrito I figured for a while), I waited for my complimentary glass of wine, and passed out for about three to four hours, with brief moments of turbulence here and there. It's remarkable how long I survived on such little sleep. Sunshine was breaking through the clouds as we descended over the French countryside, with a very smooth landing at Paris' Charles de Gaulle International Airport. As I disembarked from the plane, only the coffee must have kept me awake and sane, as the sun nearly blinded me through the glassy exterior of the gate ramp into the terminal. Prior to leaving for France, I was incredibly nervous for days, to the point where I thought I was developing an ulcer and couldn't eat well for days. From worrying about my poor French skills, to people judging me about being from another country, to wondering what line I should even get in at Immigration, I was a wreck. Well, one problem was solved at Immigration, since all passports had to get in the same line! When I got up to the front, the French Immigration officer was actually very nice, just asked (in French) how long I'd be staying, stamped my passport and work visa, and I was on my way.

At this point, I had about an hour and 15 minutes to get my luggage from Baggage Claim and make my way to my 12:42 PM TGV train directly from CDG to Lille Europe Station. French time is a bit slower than American time, but I noticed even the French passengers getting annoyed with how long it took for the bags to start falling onto the conveyor belt. It took about 30 minutes for suitcases from the New York-JFK flight to start arriving, since they were backed up after a flight that had just arrived from (coincidentally) San Francisco. After checking my watch every minute for about 15 minutes, I became nervous that I'd miss the train I had already booked a ticket on. Thankfully, my bags arrived just at 12:00 PM. I practically threw them onto the (thankfully, free) luggage cart and started power-walking for the TGV station.

Unfortunately, I couldn't determine which check-in machine I was supposed to use for retrieving my e-Ticket. I tried both of my credit cards on both the TGV and SNCF machines, but nothing came out. Finally, an Information Desk employee pointed me towards the TGV office, where I was able to get my ticket. Then I took the elevator down to the platform and got my bags off of the luggage cart with five minutes to spare before the train to Lille arrived. I have learned that running for trains in Europe is not romantic or Jason Bourne-esque with two 50+-lbs. suitcases.

Up to this point on my journey, getting around with my bags actually wasn't very difficult since I could hook up the carry-on suitcase to one of the bigger ones. It was just a strain on my arms. But lugging three bags onto a train by myself proved to be impossible. However, the French passengers on this train proved to be a friendly bunch, as several people offered help when I boarded and disembarked the train. The 59-minute train ride from CDG to Lille was a relaxing break after the last two hours of running across an airport with all of my life for the next seven months packed into three suitcases. Listening to the Marie Antoinette and Amelie soundtracks on my iPhone, the TGV train whisked along the northern French fields faster than you could say "Amtrak."

When I arrived at Gare Lille Europe, I had about an hour and a half to kill before taking a taxi over to the furnished flat that three other American assistants and I were renting for the next four days. I wasn't hungry, and I attempted to read the Air France magazine I picked up on the plane, but after about 10 minutes, I couldn't even turn the page anymore. My biggest task was trying not to fall asleep while sitting in the station. I felt like Forrest Gump for about 90 minutes, as several different characters ended up sitting next to me at different times, including a cute elderly French couple, and a woman headed home for a few weeks to Martinique. She noticed that my French isn't, well, the best, and asked where I was from. I said that I'm American, and she asked all about the program and moving to France, etc. The woman, probably in her mid-30s, was very friendly, noting that I shouldn't be too nervous about France, and that Lille is a nice town. Finally, it came time to get up, find a taxi and say goodbye to the latest person I met on the journey. As I picked up my bags one more time, she said, "Bonne Courage!" I replied, "Merci," knowing that I'm going to need it.