Anything to declare?
Now let me qualify this with the fact that I was flying standby out of Paris. I already knew that I might be bumped from a couple of flights before I finally got one back to the states. The night before, my friend who had arranged the buddy pass for me, had texted and said both flights to Atlanta were already full and I should try to get on the more open Cincinnati flight. The rule of thumb is to get back to the states on any flight available and then sort out getting home. So, he switched me to the 10:40 a.m. flight to Cinci and I arrived at the airport two hours ahead of time. I should have been there four hours ahead, because here's where the backasswards fuckery began.
The check-in counters were like something from a Costa-Gavras film or maybe the evacuation of Saigon. People of every nationality, luggage piled high, screaming children with the lines to every airline snaking and weaving through the terminal. The line for the Delta counter was wrapped around the terminal several times, and there were immigration people carrying laptops trying to go down the line and check everybody. I told one of the staff that I was on the Cincy flight and I would surely miss it if I had to stand in the line, but she told me to stay put.
About a half-hour later, a woman comes through the line shouting for people who are trying to make the Cincinnati flight. We're all herded together around a guy with a laptop, who takes a cursory glance at our passports and puts a little sticker on back. We're then bumped to the head of the line (you should have seen the look on the people's face who had been waiting there for hours), our bags checked and we're told to run to the gate. Yeah, right.
The gate, of course, is on the opposite end of the airport and you have to go through a slow as molasses immigration line and then security. The only thing I can say positively about this is that at least we didn't have to take our shoes off. By the time I got to the gate, I was a panting, sweaty mess and the flight was already boarding. I looked around and saw nearly a dozen other standby hopefuls, and then I started listening in on their chatter.
There were two Jersey Shore-type girls who had been trying to get out of Paris for two days. They'd had opportunities to take separate flights, but didn't want to leave each other. There was another family who had also been trying to get out for two days and a trio of women who worked in baggage services for Delta who were on holiday and had been stranded for a day. I started having visions of going back to the hotel or sleeping in the airport. Only one standby person got on the Cinci flight -- one of the trio of baggage handlers. The rest of us waited around the gate counter and got re-booked on a flight to Pittsburgh. Ten minutes later, and for reasons still unknown, the entire flight to Pittsburgh was cancelled and we were rebooked to Philadelphia.
Most of the standby folk wandered off to get something to eat or to the other gate, but the two women who worked baggage stayed around to talk to the gate agent, who started looking for options to get out of Paris. They tried looking for connections in Dublin, Amsterdam and even Dubai, but it just wasn't happening. The gate agent said the chances of getting on the Philadelphia flight were zero. They decided to go and buy tickets to get out of Paris, because they had to get home. I decided to go and check on buying a ticket myself, which turned into a huge mistake.
I had to go back to the Delta ticket counter, which meant going back through immigration, security and down to the terminal where the mile-long line was now two miles long. I went over to one of the Sky Miles/Medallion counters that was empty and a very nice lady tried to find me a flight. The cheapest she found was more than $2,000. Moral of the story -- never try to buy a one-way seat an hour before the flight at the airport. The nice ticket lady said my best bet was to pray and hope I got on the Philly flight. That began the odyssey of going back through customs (I have three stamps from France in my passport as I technically left and re-entered the country) and security again. By this time, I was so exhausted, I thought I was going to faint.
I finally got back to the gate where the Philly flight was departing only to learn that it had been moved to another gate on the opposite end of the terminal. My mouth went dry and I just about lost my shit. I managed to get down to the other gate and they had already boarded the plane and again there was only one seat available for a standby passenger. Again, none of the families and friends wanted to be separated and the baggage ladies must have successfully bought a ticket because they weren't there. That left me and one other guy to argue with each other at the counter. And we did. He said he'd been there since 8 a.m. and I laughed in his face. I told him I had to be back in the states for my job and he could shove it. The exasperated gate agent reached over the counter, took my passport and seat request card out of my hand and gave me a boarding pass.
The plane was already on the tarmac, so they had another agent drive me out there in a van. When I was going up the steps to the plane, I tripped and fell. Figures. I was stuck in coach in the middle seat between an old woman, who was already drunk, and a young woman with a screaming baby girl. The girl screamed for about seven of the nine hours we were on the flight to Philly. The old alcoholic next to me kept dropping stuff, demanding more booze and had to get up three times in two hours to pee.
While I was standing in the aisle waiting for the old sot to return, a woman sitting behind me tapped me on the arm and said she had been on a cruise with the alcoholic and she had been a total nightmare. Another woman sitting across the aisle joined in and regaled me with stories about how their trip had been ruined because of her behavior. The woman returned from the bathroom (she had taken a book and was gone for 20 minutes -- oy vey!) and decided she was going to play solitare. I had my headphones on and was watching The Ghost Writer (total shit with Ewan McGregor phoning it in), The Green Zone (Matt Damon doing Bourne-light in Baghdad) and a United States of Tara marathon (Toni Collette is brilliant).
The baby finally exhausted herself and the old gin rummy passed out, her deck of cards scattering to the floor. When I finally got off the plane, she was still crawling under the seats trying to find her cards, her skirt tucked in the back of her underwear and lipstick smeared up the side of her face.
Philadelphia, thankfully, was a snap. I made my connecting flight to Atlanta (although the hike from international to the domestic gate was a death march) and Delta had somehow kept track of my suitcase during all those flight changes. Delta, actually, was quite professional and helpful, but how they operate out of de Gaulle and keep their sanity is beyond me.
So, it's a week later and I'm still trying to adjust back to US time. I keep waking up at 4 a.m. and I'm ready for bed by 8 or 9 p.m. Oh, to be back in England...