One of the longest trips ever!
Trying once again to outdo each other with horror travel stories at a gathering with friends, one trip that I took a couple of years ago became the one for me to share. I had almost forgotten it altogether. I was to meet my wife in Paris after she had spent two weeks in Israel for work. We had decided to take ten days to visit France.
We were almost newlyweds, each bringing our own dowry to the house that we had just purchased. As with most people that do not travel much, we were a bit thin in the luggage department. In view of our deficiency in this area, before her departure, we agreed that we needed to buy a practical and ideally smart looking new bag, to supplement the only two bags in our procession that she was to take on her business trip. She was taking only work clothes with her, so it rested with me to bring along her clothes for our tour de France.
We agreed to purchase a bag not to exceed $120. I began doing some research, focusing on quality, price, material, weight, etc. Ultimately selecting a medium sized hard bag with locking devices. It only exceeded the allocated budget by a bit.
The day before my departure for Paris, I neatly packet my wife’s touring clothes along with mine in our new bag and went to sleep early, knowing very well that the following day would be a long one.
I woke up, got into housework clothes, had breakfast, and finished all the tasks before leaving our house. I placed all the outstanding toiletries in my travel bag, put it into the luggage, and used the provided keys to lock it. I then showered, did not shave and got dressed with the clothes that I had chosen for the overnight trip to Paris. The shuttle vehicle that I had engaged a couple of days earlier drove up the driveway at the previously agreed time. I proceeded to take my new bag to the entrance of my house, then locked the entrance door and got into the van.
I always get excited when I travel, it may be because since I was a child I would love to go the airport. Airports were magical places where people from foreign lands would converge for a brief moment and soon be on their way to even more exotic destinations. When I was a child, only the very fortunate could fly. People would actually dress up to travel on those noisy tin cans. I remember seeing some of my more economically gifted relatives go to the airport, wearing long woolen coats and hats, as if they were going to a night at the opera. Any excuse we had to go to the airport to greet or wish a von voyage was welcome to me. As a child I dreamed of visiting foreign lands, of dressing in fine clothes and becoming one of those select world travelers. Now, I realize that it was a mixture of a desire to visit unknown lands and a bit of snobbishness.
I was wearing blue jeans, very comfortable shoes, not tennis shoes, since at that time, tennis shoes were a sure giveaway that you were an American tourist, and I did not want to appear as one. I had learned that Europeans usually dress more elegantly than Americans, and I did not want to stick out. I was wearing a long sleeve blue and white striped loose tee shirt, since I was to spend at least seven hours in coach on an overnight flight. When I arrived at the airport, I went through the check in process without any problems, passed through what today’s standards could be considered very minimal security, and got to the departure gate.
As an amateur observer of people, I located a seat in the departure area with the greatest vantage point to observe the comings and goings of everyone I could see. I like to look at physiognomy, clothing, body language, posture, etc. and create personas, and believable stories to fit them. Scanning the surrounding area, I found many subjects for my entertainment, although one stood out more than others. He was a tall and slender white man of between 35 to 55 years of age, with unkept hair and beard. He wore blue jeans, a wrinkled shirt, overused tennis shoes and had a small worn bag with him. My first impression was that he seemed like a homeless person. I studied him for a while, and concluded that he was without a doubt the oddest individual there. By where he was seated, I could assume that he was going to be on my flight to Paris.
I began formulating a theory for the possible reasons for his trip. Maybe he was an eccentric wealthy person that did not care about his appearance, and he was going to Paris, to then travel to a large mansion in the countryside, were he was going to spend the summer in luxury. Possibly, he was very poor and was traveling to France to receive an inheritance that would set him on easy street for the rest of his life. Perhaps, he was mentally ill, still not dangerous to society, and had always wanted to visit where Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear. Or even better, he was a terrorist that was going to sacrifice himself in the name of some holy cause, and I was going to become one more casualty in this never-ending holy war. Why me, I don’t even believe in these things. I started worrying and giving more weight to my last theory.
I was engrossed in the possible life and times of the disheveled man, and noticed that I had spent sometime with him and had neglected the rest of the passengers. I put him aside and began re-scanning the area, and noticed that aside from him, I was probably the closest person in appearance to him, since I was unshaven and wearing very casual clothes. I started to get a bit uncomfortable with the idea that we could be seen as associates. The paranoia began distilling its bitter juices.
Soon came the awaited announcement to board our vessel. As usual with the era of my trip, further instructions were shouted with the usual blurring of speech that only very seasoned travelers understand. Of course the nervous, eager ones, as well as all paranoids jumped to their feet and stampeded to the gate, without having been properly invited into the flying vehicle. I always relish this moment, since it allows me to make additional determinations about my fellow travelers. I know and I suppose that everyone knows that the vessel is loaded according to ever changing and utterly confusing rules. All VIPs of course can load at their leisure. The question comes when dealing with the uncontrolled masses that will have to loaded as if cattle to the slaughterhouse.
This subject is without a doubt a favorite of mine. I contend that waiting until the last sensible moment to board is advisable for the various reasons. Having not to stand in yet another line. Having not to elbow the overweight foreign lady with two unwieldy young children carrying not only her purse but also an array of large and small bags. Having to be comfortably seated and buckled in your assigned, and having to assist the same lady to place the aforementioned array of bags in the overhead compartment.
By boarding when there is no line you have some benefits. Similarly to arriving late to any party, you get everyone’s attention, with possible assumptions of self-importance. You also get to scope out the placement of passengers, and avoid potentially menacing characters, such as snoring individuals, wide body persons impeding access or exit from inside seats, and not to discount misbehaving toddlers and crying infants. By entering later you can also assess the remaining empty seats to be able to capture an empty row to stretch out and sleep during the long sojourn.
So I waited until there was no line, even though my seat section has been already invited to board. As I entered our transatlantic vessel I was directed by one of the still then courteous flight attendant to use the left side corridor for faster access to my seat. I walked down the long corridor, not without encountering the slow passenger arranging their belongings on the overhead compartment, with no regard to how with their massive body they block the only passageway for me to use to reach my seat. After clearing several of these obstacles, I was getting close to my seat, by way of the efficient numbering system.
All of a sudden I see the disheveled man on a window seat, imagine my surprise, I was seated next to him on a two-seat row. I tried to contain my horror, based on all my theories about him. I proceeded to place my small bag on the closest overhead compartment. I prefer and whenever possible only to carry as small bag that I can either hang on my shoulder since I am a believer in traveling light and do not like to have anything in my hands when walking.
I proceeded to sit down and buckle up; I figure that if I am going to be seated I should also remain safely bucked up. I took a moment to collect my thoughts and plan my strategy to deal with the mysterious man next to me. I thought, I will order a stiff drink, relax and see what develops. Knowing a bit about human nature not by any academic study but by personal observation, I figured that like most mortals, given our proximity and the absence of any other person closer, that he would strike up a conversation, specially since were going to spend the night together.
The flight attendant now not as chipper as earlier, came by handing out a little bag of salty treats, and asking if we would care for a drink, since I was closer to her, I deferred to my seat companion to order first. He ordered a beer, my first real clue, he was an American, it was the accent, and the fact that it was cocktail hour and he ordered beer. I ordered a scotch whiskey. Alcoholic drinks were still free, dating this trip sometime during the last millennium.
I opened the tiny treats bag and begun consuming its contents. Being a patient man, I know that there was plenty of time before sleeping to start conversing. During this time, we were informed about the many safety measures of the aircraft. Only if you have never been on a flight before, this may of interest. But if it is your first time, it would be hard to take in so much information on top of having so many distractions, such as all the buttons on your armrest, the load of marketing material on the back of the seat in front of you, including the empty paper bag neatly folder without any labeling instructions.
I make a point to listen to bits and pieces of the public address system message, to see how the message has changed with the years. My favorite part is when they mention that “in the event of a water landing…” wait a minute, by definition a landing is on land, unless they have come up with landing strips made of water. This vehicle is not equipped with any water landing gear anyway, so why even mention it. After all I want to go to Paris, not the English Channel or even worst the North Sea, my ticket says so explicitly.
Always after this part I start dreaming or imagining what my slim chances would be of survival in case of the aforementioned water landing. I figured, and this I have proved by personal experience, that if I fall on hard ground, such as practically all ground, the damage to my body would be greater than falling on water. I have experienced both.
Since I am in the middle to the rear part of the vessel where the cattle is stored, my chances would be better than the VIPs in front. I have deduced this by my keen observation on the useful and sometimes terrifying “Safety Instructions Card”. The diagram of the possible “Water Landing” shows a generic icon of an airplane on a nose dive towards what seems peaceful rippling water, no landing gear is shown deployed. Therefore no landing is to be had. The real picture is too horrifying to even ponder, but if I was to survive the initial first impact, thanks to my secure waist belt, and be spared by all initial wave of flying objects such as luggage, shoes, meal carts. I would then only have to duck all VIP section debris moving backwards at almost the speed of light accompanied by the rushing water of whatever body of water we happen to have just “Landed” on.
After recovering from this short and unpleasant initial shock, I would have to locate a “Safety Instructions Card” to figure out what to do next since I did not really pay attention to the public address. In desperation, seeing floating around me a myriad of recognizable and unrecognizable items, I would release my seat, remembering something about “Guiding Lights” that would direct me to the nearest exit. I would reasonably disregard that instruction in view that the nearest exit has just providentially materialized by a large break in the cabin located just above my head. My decision to use this exit would also be precipitated by the fact that the cabin in front and behind me would be rapidly sinking into the very dark and of yet unidentified body of water. This horrific experience would resemble most horror films happening at night confirmed by being suddenly woken up in the middle of an otherwise routine overnight transatlantic flight gone bad, as well as, seeing an incredibly gorgeous starry night.
I get myself free from my seat and feel buoyant in the cold water, by now I have my “Life Jacket” securely attached to my torso, I have not given in to pulling the handle that supposedly inflates the “Jacket” as per instructions. The “Light Beacon” attached to the top of one side of the “Jacket” has not yet started flashing even though water has already made ample contact with it. The “Safety Instructions Card” did not specified when or how it would light up, perhaps it needs to submerged for as long as 5 minutes before kicking in, I cannot hold my breath that long!
Enough, I said to myself as I opened my eyes when the lukewarm flight attendant handed me my second tiny bottle of scotch whiskey. Back to my companion, he was reading a magazine not provided by the airline. Contact was still to be made. I had taken some time to let my imagination run wild with the “Unlikely Event of a Water Landing”. Not more than ten minutes had elapsed. The plastic cup for my drink held only held ice covered with a thin film of the Scottish medicinal brew. I drank it, enjoying its smooth taste, and poured half of the contents of the second bottle, so not to dilute the first with the ice.
I could no further restrain my curiosity, and decided to find a way for me to engage my flight companion. Finding not an awkward moment, I casually turned towards him and asked, “Where are you going”. He replied, “to Germany, to be exact to Bonn”, “and you” he asked, I responded to Paris. I continued to keep the conversation going “I am meeting my wife in Paris, she will arrive tomorrow from Israel” I thought he would find this intriguing, maybe the stuff of spy novels. I wanted to divulge more information to extend him an opportunity for dialogue. He said that he was traveling to present a paper at a conference. I asked, are you a scientist? No, he responded, I am a professor.
Now things started to fall into place, of course, how did I not see it, a professor of some field of liberal arts stuck in some sixties time warp, it fitted very well. I asked, what field do you teach? He said English literature; it made sense, an intellectual. I asked, where are you coming from? I live in DC, he said. I was surprised since he seemed somewhat out of place in the very conservative and more formal DC that I knew.
I also live in the DC area, I said. Where about? He asked. I live in Bethesda, and you? I asked, in Silver Spring, but I am not originally from here. I said, nor I, I was born in Lima Peru. He said I am from Brooklyn. So we continued exchanging information. We got to more personal data, he told me that he was Jewish, and that his parents were heavily involved with the communist party back in the forties, that he remembered how they spoke of being spied on by Hoover and the FBI. It was a fascinating story; he seemed to be proud of his parents’ political involvement. Dinner arrived and we continued chatting.
Later came the movie, the lights dimmed, people got as comfortable as possible, and I started to think of how my day was going to be in Paris while I waited for the arrival of my wife. I went through a series of events, disembarkation into Charles de Gaulle airport, presenting the passport to the appropriate authorities, proceeding through customs and possibly having to open my bag for inspection. Removing the keys to our new bag from the back pocket of my blue yeans.
To confirm the location of the keys to the new bag, I passed my right hand trying to feel for the keys on my right back pocket, nothing there. I stuck my hand all the way in the right pocket, to find it empty. Quickly, I switched hands, stuck my left hand into my back left pocket, thinking that maybe it was a simple error of right or left pocket. When my hand reached the bottom of the pocket my blood pressure began to raise, the sign was a throbbing sound in my right ear.
I searched both my front pockets unsuccessfully, now my worst nightmare was beginning to come true. I jumped to my feet, opened the overhead compartment to search for the missing key in my carrying bag. I brought it down, sat down, searched everywhere without any success. A cold sweat coated my skin. I began imagining a best outcome scenario at my arrival at the Paris airport. If I did not get asked to open my bag, I could take it to a locksmith and have it opened before my wife’s arrival. I had 24 hours before her arrival to sort out my miserable predicament. I would not have to tell her that I forgot the key at home, and ensure her wrath. I could possibly come out unscathed.
But, what if I was asked to open my bag? This worst case scenario was very dark. I would have to explain in my broken French that I had left the keys at, being the good person that I am, they would immediately believe me. At the time, France had been plagued by a series of terrorist acts, bombings specially. The authorities had deployed a massive force of very menacing black uniformed policemen with automatic weapons throughout city. It was somewhat scary. They may suspect me of having a bomb in my bag, they could throw me to the ground and guns blazing, drag everyone out and bring the bomb squad, remove my bag to a secured location and blow it up with all our belongings in it. How could I then explain this to my wife, this would definitely precipitate her usual wrath. My head was spinning, almost to the point of fainting.
But why was I so worried, to the point of loosing consciousness? Let me explain, my wife is somewhat of a perfectionist, type A. She not only is extremely demanding of herself, which I find at times even hazardous to her health, but as I have learned during my years with her, very demanding of everyone, period. Now, I emphasize it with the word period, because it is her favorite means of ending any discussion, of course at a point to her advantage, not allowing any rebuttal. This singular trait was not there, I did not see it, or was not revealed in the early stages of our relationship. Like most people she only put her best face forward, so did I.
Putting my head between my legs to try to bring back some blood to my scattered brain and recover enough to survive the rest of my trip until meeting my final fortune, I considered my companion. I thought that if I disembarked with him, my presence would be potentially more noticeable, since he and I shared elements in our appearance. I had to find a way to extricate myself from his company, then possibly my chances of not being picked for bag search may decrease. So I started thinking of how to do it.
I also remembered that a friend of ours was living in Paris, thankfully I had her phone number with me. If my bag was not destroyed in the blast, I would call her and ask her if she knew of where to take it to get it opened without even a scratch. Knowing full well that my wife would most likely inspect the bag after its maiden voyage, for sturdiness, structural integrity, locking devices functions, and probably many others that I did not even want to think about at this particular moment.
I formulated a plan to rid myself of the disheveled man. I was going to remain in my seat and let my companion and everyone else in the rows next to me disembarks before me. I would use some idiotic excuse, such as not feeling well, or that my feet did not fit back in my shoes after the long trip, or that I was going to go to the bathroom before getting off the plane. This would also allow me to collect my bag immediately, since it would most likely be going around on the conveyor belt, and try to casually walk after the officials had had their full with most of the passengers on the plane.
I began questioning the second part of my strategy. When I was in high school I found that by seating in the back of the classroom, I was most likely to be caught or blamed for misbehaving. It never failed that when something happened, most teachers looked to the students in the back. I guess that most students felt that being in the back of the room would be shielded by the rest of the students in front of them. I decided to sit in the first row, right in front of the teacher, and take my chances there. It was amazing what I got away with, specially when I whistled without puckering my lips. Inevitably the guys in the back got blamed for it. I suspect this is how camouflage works.
I decided to leave the plane as soon as possible, vetoing my earlier strategy. This is my usual method, I am a fast walker, and I can pass some of the passengers on my way to the first encounter with the local authorities. Achieving this goal, is made possible by the interminable series of corridors, stairs and general obstacles to be found at most international arrivals. I went through the immigration checkpoint without any trouble; I am a holder of a passport from a developed nation. I reached the luggage retrieval location, and noticed that I was the first one there; I must have run in my desperation, I was hoping that this did not arise any suspicion.
There was the chime and the light indicating that the conveyor belt was going to start turning. The first bag appeared, the second and so on. Mine was not yet out. My bag was brand new, of that dark plastic color of all bags of their kind. I could easily single it out, since we had spent more than usual to get it, making it less common. It was also medium sized, not the usual size, I thought. There it appeared, when I went to pull it from the belt, and saw that it had scratches that were not in keeping with its age or use, I realized that it was not mine. I released it, and thought what a coincidence, someone else has the same taste as us. I kept my eye on it to see who would retrieve it. It was a smartly dressed, European businessman. I knew this by his clothes.
He walked away, rolling his bag, the same way I would do with mine. All of a sudden it occurred to me that if by any chance there were other bags like mine on the flight, maybe the passengers would have locked them, in which case they would have the keys to open them. I could spot them, and ask them if they could let me try to use their key to see if it would work on my bag. This theory is based not on any scientific knowledge, but on observation. It seems difficult for me to believe that the small keys and or locks that come with inexpensive to moderately priced luggage could be as unique as say a house key. It is preposterous that if you by a .79-cent lock you probably are actually getting a .39-cent lock with an .11-cent key.
With this new tack, I decided to put my theory to work. My bag appeared, I pulled off the conveyor belt, and stood as if waiting for another bag, hoping not to arise any undue suspicion as to my delay. This allowed be to focus on the remaining bags. I saw two of the same bags appear in sequence, waited until they were retrieved. They belonged to a very smartly dressed, well preserved and good looking middle aged American woman traveling with what appeared to be her teenage daughter. I knew this not because of the mother but because of the daughter; she was dressed like an upscale yet typical private school teen girl.
I approached them and with as much charm as I could muster at that early hour of the morning, asked, “Are these your bags” mom responded, “Yes they are” I said, “I have an identical bags as yours, and I locked them leaving the keys behind in DC”. I did not want to appear anymore the fool that I was by divulging any unnecessary and embarrassing information. My plea needed to touch them to make the time to address my request. I continued, “Maybe you have locked your bags, and you have the keys, and I could try to see if they would open my bag” She looked at me perplexed, thinking possibly, that this had been the best pick up line she had ever heard. It took her a little while to react, suddenly, she said, “I do not lock my bags… but I may have the keys with me” I thought, my line really works, even on this beautiful and affluent middle age women. She could have stopped at “I do not lock my bags” but she was being nice even after the long sojourn.
She put her well-manicured and jeweled hand into her Louis Vouitton bag, and produced an adorned key chain with at least 23 keys of all sizes. She said, “It may be one of these” and handed it to me. I was surprised with her openness. I later thought that we where in a controlled area and that I could not have been a scam artist in search of an easy prey, or was I? I quickly scanned the keys and found small ones that resembled the one for my bag. Her daughter got involved, she came forward and said, “I think I know what they look like” She was also being a Good Samaritan. I said to her “I think these are them” to keep them involved in my misery. I bent down and tried both keys on both locks of my bags unsuccessfully. I almost dropped to the floor, not only my lock and key theory had been shot down, but the impending encounter with the bomb squad seemed more imminent. I recovered as well as expected, and extended my hand to return the keys. She seemed genuinely disappointed, sensing that I had touched her maternal instinct. I needed my mother to come to my rescue in my hour of need. I thanked her, and saw them walk away with a mixture of abandonment and manly desire for the woman that had responded to me in a variety of ways.
I had to pull myself together, during this exchange, several other passengers and more importantly several bags had passed by me undetected. I pulled my bag again toward the bag dispenser, and waited for my next subjects. Not more than two minutes elapsed, when I saw another bag like mine. A stout elderly gentleman from the Indian subcontinent took it, he was accompanied by what appeared to be his wife, they where at the far side on the bag dispenser. I took my bag and approached them with a smile. By now I knew that I had touched mom with the puppy in need line, it had worked. I decided to use the same approach with the wife. She was a bit heavy, had an erect posture and was elegantly dressed; she had a kind face, like the face of a favorite aunt. He was wearing a suit and tie. These were the travelers of my early childhood.
I used the same line on the wife; she responded with even more openness than the gorgeous woman, with a more mature motherly feeling. But before she could say a word, her already sweaty husband that had been collecting their luggage, said “She doesn’t let me lock the bags because I can never find the keys”. I felt relieved, I had found a twin soul, this man had a wife just like mine. Would I look like him if I was unfortunate to reach his age? I guess I was fooled by her gentle appearance. He said “I don’t even carry the keys with me”. I understood very well his meaning, he did not dare even carry the keys, in the unfortunate event that he would without malice lock the bags, then misplace the keys and incur the wrath of the one to be obeyed. He was a wiser man than I.
I recalled why my bags were lock in the first place. During our search for the perfect bag, locks had always been a requisite to my wife. I suppose that her traveling experience has shown the necessity for them. She travels to third world countries where things sometimes disappear, and good locks are an everyday necessity. I thanked the Indians, and they began walking away, she was in front with only her small purse hanging from her right arm, he was pushing a luggage cart topped with bags, and had a large bag strapped across one shoulder.
By now my chances I thought had become very slim, most passengers had collected their bags. While watching the Indians disappear through a sliding door, I noticed on the side a bunch of bags and a couple of luggage handling French employees. One of which, motion to me to come closer, I did, he asked if I had any problem with my bags. It seemed that their job was to make sure bags were pick up, and that unclaimed bags were taken care of. I approach him and said in English “I have forgotten my keys, my bags are locked”. He did not fully understand, but his colleague did. He came forward; looked at my bag closely and said with a French accent something that sounded like “Wait here”.
He turned around, got into a freight elevator behind him and disappeared. His tone was very French, if you know what I mean. I did not know what to expect. I waited about five minutes, during this time I thought that he was going to rat me out to the menacing black uniformed gendarmes with automatic weapons. The elevator doors would open, they would storm out, pull my bag, blow it up with OUR things in it, not to ever recover them. I would be detained as a possible terrorist, questioned for two days, would not be able to meet my wife at the airport, she would kill me!
The elevator door opened, the same employee appeared, approaching me, stretching his arm inserted a key and turned it opening the lock. I almost had a bowel movement. He the handed over the key to me. I unlocked the second lock, then looked at him. With eternal thanks, I said “Merci beaucoup”. He actually spoke some English. He said “Take it” I said “Really… thank you”. He said in his broken English “we have master keys for most of the better luggage brands” Our purchase had been finally validated by a very helpful French luggage handler.