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.

Front of the World

Tokyo in one word: Incredible. After arriving to Tokyo Narita Airport, we had to sit around for about an hour and a half until the next shuttle arrived, but honestly it did us some good as I think both my mom and I just needed time to sit down and decompress from all the flying and driving we've been doing. Thanks to the recommendation of my friend and former fellow intern, Anne, I booked a room at the Grand Palace Hotel, which turned out to be much better and fancier than I expected. Plus, they're all decorated for Christmas, even though as I understand it that X-Mas isn't really a big holiday here. But it looks like the target demographic here is made up of business travelers, so it probably caters to them well. 

My mom, however, wasn't entirely happy with the room since there was no air-conditioning. Since it's already autumn here and beginning to get cold (which I am so thankful for since I'm SO over hot temperatures for this year), the hotel doesn't have air conditioning available anymore in order to conserve energy. I understand this, but my mom kept pushing me to call the front desk about it. "I'm hormonally-challenged," she said, which I just began to laugh, literally rolling around on the floor at. So she called. While on the phone with the front desk, I could hear the Japanese attendant telling her that there was no air-conditioning when it is below 20 degrees Celsius (68 F), to which she just kept responding, "Why?" (which I also laughed at). Finally, someone brought up a fan, which calmed the room down.

Naturally, I was quite hungry after unpacking, so we decided to head out of the hotel in search for some ramen (and Japanese candy!). One of the Concierge desk attendants gave me a map of restaurants in the area, specifiying two ramen houses. One of them, she said, was more famous but she told me not to go there as it is "kinda smelly in a bad way." So we walked towards the other one. However, every restaurant we walked by smelled delicious. They also all had pictures of menu selections in the windows. Finally, I couldn't keep passing this up, and I saw a delectable-looking beef and rice bowl (I'm not sure what it was called since it was in Japanese...) along with ramen in a window, so we went in. The restaurant was immaculately clean, and it was very small, with a bar of 5 or 6 seats on one side near the entrance and two or three bar seats around the corner, and then two tables of two on the left side next to the windows. A machine with pictures of all the menu options on buttons, like a vending machine, was near the door. My mom and I stared at it a little, not sure what to do, and then we looked to the waiter for help. He stared back at us for a minute too, as if no one in the room knew how to speak ANY language at all. Then he came over and helped us order. It was definitely the most delicious meal I've had on this trip...and probably the best Japanese food I've had ever. And it cost us a total of about $5 USD. I have to go back before I leave.

Afterwards, we walked around the neighborhood to see what else was nearby. We stopped in a drugstore, where I bought a ton of Japanese chocolate and strawberry candies. I also stopped at one of the many vending machines along the sidewalks to try out how one works and also to get the cutest can of Fanta grape soda ever.

japanese-candy

As we were walking, my mom didn't stop commenting on how nicely everyone was dressed and how clean the city is. She has been to Tokyo many, many times, but it seems that Tokyo doesn't stop impressing people. As my Time Out: Tokyo guidebook says, there aren't many trash cans throughout the city, but most citizens bring their rubbish home. Incredible.

Now, as it is past dawn in the place where the sun rises first in the world each day, I'm going out to explore.

Wide World of Sports

For the first time since Sunday, November 3, I got a full night's sleep (even if it was from 9pm to 6am). Most, MOST, unfortunately, I wasn't able to watch the Cal-USC football game at 9 a.m. on Sunday (5 p.m. PST on Saturday) on ESPN here. I got hope on Friday since ESPN was airing the Virginia Tech-Maryland game, and they were airing a Pac-10 football special, which I didn't get to watch since we left for the dentist.  However, when I woke up this Sunday morning, much to my dismay, it was obvious there would be no Cal football for me. I perfectly understand ESPN airing more UEFA football, which I have been watching a lot here and has been far more entertaining than the Asian cricket tournaments I had to sit through in 2003. But instead of world football or American football, ESPN has decided to air…the National Spelling Bee. Great. Just great. As I mentioned before, if you think Christmas season starts early in America, its nothing like here. My mom said that Christmas (as there are no other winter holidays celebrated here really) decorations have been up in malls and around city streets since September. Filipinos really go all out for Christmas here, and it does make the city a bit brighter for a few months. For a very small taste, imagine entire department store floors of home and tree decorations and manger scenes and Christmas carols blaring in mall hallways. My favorite decorations are always the green, red and yellow paroles (large stars usually made out of capiz) either hanging in people's windows or from treetops along the roads.

The only city in the United States where I have experienced the winter holidays really take over is New York City. When I watched Today this morning (I think was Saturday's episode) one of the anchors mentioned the opening of the Rockettes' show at Radio City Music Hall. I mentioned to my mom that I was planning to go with some friends, and she said she'd love to go, but doesn't have the patience to sit through live shows anymore. "If there's not a remote control, I can't sit through it."