Saturday, December 17, 2011

La grève

Today was officially one of the worst days in the history of my life. That may just be because it was supposed to be one of the happiest. I was supposed to go home today. I was supposed to take an early train, wait around for four hours in the airport terminal, and then fall soundly asleep on a very long flight. Everything happened according to plan, aside from the last step.

Bref: There was a strike at the airport in Lyon and I spent eleven hours there trying to find a way to get back to Arizona with no luck. My flight has been rescheduled for Monday morning. Click the link to read more, but I warn you: It's depressing and there are zero pictures.

I woke up Friday morning at 4:40am to leave for the train station at 5:30 to make a 6:04 train from Valence to the airport in Lyon. There was hardly a car around on our drive into the city and even though my train was five minutes late, I took it as a good sign and that the worst that would happen would be the five minute train delay.

So I got on the train with little issue, took my seat, and kept my luggage near me so that I wouldn’t have to worry about taking down a 15 kilo suitcase from the overhead area. I only had to wait a little more than a half an hour on the train and I was entertained by a lover’s spat between an Asian couple. I think they were speaking French, but I’m not quite sure since everyone hardly speaks above a whisper on the train. I like sitting on the train and trying to guess who is a native and who is a tourist. Since I don’t invent stories much beyond that, it’s a slightly more boring version of just regular people-watching.

I made it to the airport crazy early – something like 6:40. When I went to look at the check-in area, the employees asked me which flight I was planning on taking, and when I said Zurich, their eyes got wide when they told me that my flight wasn’t until 10:40, as if I didn’t already know. Anyway, the check-in and baggage drop-off didn’t open until 8:40, so I was told to just get a cup of coffee and wait. I sat on a bench and played five games of really unsuccessful solitaire before I saw a giant queue form before my eyes, got antsy, and went to wait in the Swiss International line.

There were three other people standing around that area and I immediately heard them speaking English. I know some Americans are a little offended when other cultures describe us as loud and boisterous, but it’s incredibly true. Maybe it’s since I’m predisposed to perking my ears up to English after being immersed in French these past few months, but I think there might be some innate, piercing quality to the English phonology. But what do I know.

Anyway, they were deciding to get in line even though it was only 7:30. We all needed to catch our first flights in Zurich and then from there the couple was going to LA and I didn’t catch where the other man needed to be… maybe LA too. Shortly after getting in line, a woman asked me in French if I was waiting for the 10:40 Zurich flight too and when I said yes, she decided to join in the line. And then another younger woman and her son came in line too. The son was 6 ½ and not bored with standing in line in the slightest. He was busy taking toys out of his backpack and displaying them for me and the other woman one-by-one. And then we moved on to his box of Pokemon cards. Pikachu is pronounced the same way in French as in English, PS. I started chatting with the French women. The lady and her son were on their way to Berlin to visit family for Christmas and then the older woman was going to Canada for Christmas while her older son was going to New York before joining her in Montreal later this week. I talked with the older woman about teaching English and my program because she also teaches English nearby in Avignon.

As 8:40 approached, the workers appeared to get visibly more and more distressed. The security staff at our terminal (1) had decided to go on strike. Flights were delayed because only one person at the security checkpoint in terminal 2 was working. I felt so bad for the main woman in charge at our terminal. She explained to everyone that she and one other employee needed to check us in before we needed to walk our baggage to another gate and then walk to terminal 2 to go through security. After we went through security, a bus was supposed to drive us back to the other side of the building to terminal 1 to take our plane at 10:40 or as long as it took to get everyone through security. I was hopeful that I would make the flight because I was third in line. I was a little worried about missing my connection in Zurich to go to Chicago, but felt assured after she told us that the airline would take care of any problems and get us all re-booked. She had to explain this to about fifty people in English and French. She also wore blue mascara and her name was Laurence. After I checked in I told her good luck because I felt so bad for her and I didn’t take it too seriously when she wished me luck back with a very long sigh. I think she knew her efforts to check people in would be in vain.

I dropped my bag off and happily made my way to terminal 2. At this point it was about 9 o’clock so I thought I had nothing to worry about. Even if security took an hour, I’d still board in plenty of time. When I turned the corner into the terminal, I could not believe the mass of people I found there. I can’t begin to estimate just how many people there were, but it was certainly longer and wider than that one time we waited an hour and a half to get on the Roger Rabbit ride at Disneyland. I couldn’t see the gate 21 sign that I needed to go to for security, so I just kept walking past the line, completely in denial that I would have to join it. Plus it seemed like everyone in the line still had all of their baggage, so I thought the security line must be further up ahead. I ran into an obstacle in the form of three airline employees and was told to head for the back of the line. I started to head for the back of the line, turned back around in denial again to see if maybe the people were wrong and didn’t understand that I’d already checked my bags, and then turned back around feeling dejected and slightly more concerned about missing my flight. 

Luckily I ran into the older woman from the first line and her son who was going to New York. They were about halfway up the line and told me to join them, so I quickly took them up on the offer. I felt a little apprehension over cutting so many people in line, but tried not to think about it much and just focus on getting home as quickly as possible. Needless to say, karma was about to be a bitch.

We stood in line chatting and all having mutual negative feelings toward the security staff that were just standing off to the side doing nothing while their colleagues were stuck working like crazy trying to get people through. The line moved painfully slow, but at least it moved. Then, just when I was one person away from entering the glass doors into the security area, they closed the door. I kid you not. I was one person away from getting on my flight. At first we were hopeful that maybe the workers were just tired and taking a quick break before starting up again, but no. They peaced out. We stood waiting in that line from about 9 o’clock until 12:45. That is not an exaggeration. People were starting to go a little nuts and being packed into a small space with so many people was beginning to get at my inner-hypochondriac belief that perhaps I have my mother’s disposition to claustrophobia.

I hadn’t eaten anything that morning because I wasn’t hungry and even declined bringing along a piece of fruit because I thought I would have time to just sit around in a café before hopping onto my flight. I also hadn’t had water all day aside from morning tea at 5 am. We were completely stuck in the line unless we wanted to give up our spots, which I wasn’t about to do since I was still hanging on to the belief that security would be back any minute to let me through since I was right at the front of the line. People half-jokingly threatened to just break through the glass security window and on through the other side. Babies were screaming, people were arguing, crying, and confronting the police with a mix of complete distaste and la politesse. After every frustrated comment over the police’s lack of information, there always the “well-of-course-it’s-not-your-fault-I-certainly-don’t-blame-you-for-what’s-happened.”

Meanwhile, a few things were going through my mind. There were so many policemen around, why couldn’t they run the security checkpoint? As a policeman, aren’t you somewhat qualified in the security department? Also, had my flight taken off for Zurich already? Also, was my flight going to leave from Zurich to Chicago on time? Also, had my bag already left the country on its way to Phoenix and if so, how would I get it back? Also, why was this happening to me? Also, was this real life?

The police were standing around observing the crowd and keeping things under control, but they knew nothing and eventually it came out that they were trying to figure out the safest way to tell everyone that all flights were cancelled, the strike would last through at least this weekend, the airport was closing, and we all needed to leave the airport as soon as possible without starting some kind of riot. Finally we were told to leave, pick up our bags from gate 17, and figure out what to do on our own. No promise of hotel, breakfast, rental cars, nothing.

I walked down to the tiny Swiss International information desk where I ran back into the Americans I’d first encountered when checking my bag. They were talking about trying to get a rental car to Geneva to take flights from Geneva tomorrow, but I wanted to avoid a Planes, Trains, and Automobiles situation and declined joining. I thought that certainly I could just take a flight the next day or maybe get on a train to go to the airport in Marseille. When I went to the information desk, a younger male employee gave me a phone number to call to get in touch with the airline and find a solution. I obviously would have preferred to just talk to a human being in person and get a new flight arranged on the spot, but I knew they were completely swamped and decided to give the phone number a shot. I went downstairs to find my suitcase before calling the number.

I was on hold for fifteen minutes before I let myself start to get emotional. I don’t have very much credit left on my French phone, so I was scared of wasting all of my minutes to listen to French on-hold music. I decided to go back to the information desk and make it as clear as possible that I do not have a decent phone nor an easy means of just “going home” to wait out the strike. I needed to be blunt and demand a hotel room at least.

When I got back to the front of the line, I asked if I could just figure out my new flight with an “etre humain” because the phone number didn’t work, my phone credit was nearly gone, and I didn’t have anywhere else to go. Pierre (the younger male employee who gave me the original Swiss International phone number) shook his head no. He was clearly trying to be tough and turn away people. His signature, I’m-French-and-can-speak-English-but-still-be-tough line was “I invite you to call this phone number to get in contact with our airline to find a solution that works for you.” I asked if they could at least put me up somewhere in Lyon while I waited, and he shook his head no again. I couldn’t believe how unsympathetic he was trying to be in order to just turn people away, and when I said “Je suis toute seule et completement perdue,” tears starting streaming down my face before I could try to hold them back. I didn’t mean to manipulate anyone with my tears, but that’s definitely what made him crack.

He dialed the phone number for me with the desk phone while he tried to deal with other people. Eventually I was able to get through and talk to a woman. She was trying to be helpful, but she seemed to be completely unaware of the fact that the strike would be lasting all weekend and that I couldn’t just magically get to Zurich without a plane from Lyon. She kept putting me on hold so much and misunderstanding what I needed, that the Swiss International employees needed the phone back. Pierre decided to just do what he should have done in the first place and book me a new flight.

Unfortunately, with incoming snow storms and more airline strikes in Paris and even Marseille, the earliest flight he could get me on was supposedly my same flight, just on Monday. He printed off my ticket, told me I was all set, and when I said thank you, he said, “A lundi.” I still don’t know if that’s a good sign. Am I supposed to take that to mean that there will be another strike on Monday and I’ll have to go through the whole mess all over again? Or will I just be back at the airport, happily getting on my flight on Monday?

I walked back to the train station and stood in line for an hour waiting to get a TGV ticket back to Valence. I texted everyone to let them know what happened. Mme. T called me right away and told me to get a train back to Valence to spend the weekend with everyone. It was hard not to keep tearing up at that point. They’ve already been so incredibly generous and letting me be there for their Christmas gathering on Sunday and the Fete de Lumieres on Saturday… I just felt a love for these people bubble up in my chest and I was smiling and crying at the same time.

An hour later I finally got through to the machine to buy my TGV ticket back to Valence tonight at 7:25. I sat down to breathe for a second and rest my legs after standing for over ten hours straight. Then I went to the bathroom, washed off my face, applied a little make up to help me remember not to cry (which didn't work), and then walked back to the terminal to get something to eat. I scarfed down a tuna sandwich and pain au chocolat at Brioche Doree and then proceeded to write four pages about one of the worst days of my life.

I wanted so badly to be home. I still can’t even believe that it’s real. I’m happy to spend time with my host family and to go to the Fete de Lumieres, but I just miss everyone so much. I want to see Tyler, my family, my friends, my pets, my house. I am so incredibly disappointed. 

Keep your fingers crossed that there isn't a strike on Monday, but I'm not holding out too much hope.

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