Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Time travel

I have to say that this time flying back to Italy has been a very different experience. In so many ways.

For the first time ever I was able to check my bags, walk through security and get my passport checked in less than ten minutes. What to do with the extra two hours and fifty minutes that I had budgeted for Sunday travelers and officious TSA agents and long lines? Well, I walked the entire airport visiting gates I had never seen before and wondering who in their right mind buys stuff at the airport when it's marked up probably a hundred percent? Because you're sequestered there behind the security check, unable to leave it's somehow right to charge more? I also heard a typical Minnesota announcement. "Would the person who left their cell phone (or jacket or single car key) at the security check please return to collect your item." This is the only airport I've been in, and I can now state that I've been in quite a few airports, where I heard an active quest to return an item to the owner. Every other airport only offers the usual fare, "Please supervise your luggage at all times. Do not accept items from strangers. Blah, blah, blah." Only in Minnesota do security agents care if someone forgets something.

The plane was a trip back to the 80's. No giant airbus with all the comforts of home. No, for this trip I got a Boeing 767, narrower by three seats and offering only a screen at the front of the cabin for my viewing pleasure. On the up side, I was offered wine with my meal at no extra charge. Somehow that just didn't make up for the fact that I had to watch the animated airplane trace a blue line across the Atlantic Ocean for most of the trip instead of choosing from a variety of movies with my own personal screen as I've had on every other trip. Plus the large screen lit up the cabin so it became impossible to sleep. Luckily it was only an 8 hour flight.

After a gentle landing at Charle Degaulle airport in France we were allowed off the plane and left to our own devices inside the terminal. Signs led to dead ends or became endless loops for some of my traveling companions. I didn't follow them because I only had two hours to find my next flight. I swallowed hard and approached someone at a ticket desk, ready to be haughtily ignored or redirected to an unused hanger somewhere. I smiled my best smile and asked for directions. The man behind the desk told me that "Yes, the signs are not very well made. Don't follow them...go through those doors and wait for the shuttle bus to your terminal." Without him I'd probably still be wandering around Charle Degaulle, muttering to myself in a weird mix of English, Italian and  the language of my new country (till I find my way out) French.

The universe was smiling on me this day because I made it to the correct terminal and passed successfully through security in plenty of time to make my flight. I waved my boarding pass under a machine that claimed to give me the correct gate number. G32, I was happy to know where I was going. But wait! Those screens that tell you which gate to go to were blank and a small sign at the bottom stated that gates would only be posted twenty minutes prior to take off. What if they changed my gate and I had no way of knowing because I trusted a machine? I decided to wait, just in case. There were  hundreds of people forced to wait in a too small area surrounded by shops and cafes. How convenient for the shop owners! Every time a gate was posted there would be a mad dash for the doors while another hopeful wave of people moved forward for a better view of the screen.

I should have gone with my gut, the gate was G32. But it was fine, I was the first one through the door and so the first person on the plane. Which honest to God looked like a Little Tykes toy plane as I walked across the tarmac to the steps. I've flown in small planes before, but never one where the wings were attached to the top of the plane and my window looked out to a perfect view of the bottom of the wing. There are an amazing number of moving parts on a wing. I was mesmerized, alternately impressed by how everything worked together and then terrified imagining what could happen if just one thing didn't do what it was supposed to do. My curiosity couldn't compete with my exhaustion and I fell asleep with my forehead and nose pressed against the window. When I woke up the wings were doing their Transformers impersonation and with a loud bang the hatch for the landing gear opened up and obstructed my view of the ground.

After landing successfully (good thing my head wasn't still on the window, it was a little bumpy) we were loaded onto a bus and driven 50 meters to the baggage claim/customs area. I could have walked it faster. I watched as the bags started to twirl around the carousel. I claimed my first bag and patiently waited for the second to come through. Ten minutes later four of us were still standing there, with that look on our faces that said  "What the hell?" I headed over to the help desk accompanied by a nice woman from Mexico in the fashion industry who looked like she was ready to kill someone. Using my not inconsiderable Minnesota-nice skills I managed to get the form filled out for them to deliver my bag when it arrived on the next flight from Paris, while the other woman spent a lot of time hissing and yelling at the woman on the other side of the (understandably) bullet-proof glass.

I left through customs, which consisted of a German Shepherd sniffing at suitcases when not playing tug of war with the customs agents. I usually feel a lot of distrust and outright anger when passing through customs, so this was the perfect way to end a flight. Dare I say that American customs could do with a little more tug of war with the dogs and a little less hostile suspicion and frowning?

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