By DAVE KIFFER
November 16, 2009
The woman behind the counter was only trying to be helpful. Even though I had just spent about two minutes fumbling in my pocket for exact change in Euros and "la gente" behind me in line were not amused.
The woman looked at me and asked me a question in Basque. I recognized the language but not the words. My blank expression showed her that I was clueless.
So she asked a question in Spanish. I understood enough to realize that she was asking me if wanted something, but I had no idea what.
Blank expression number two!
Then she asked me what was obviously the same question in French.
Blank expression number three!
The natives in line behind me were getting restless.
Finally, she turned and pointed to something behind her on the counter.
"Bago?" she asked.
"Bai, Si, Oui!" I quickly replied back and she smiled.
Fortunately, she didn't then ask "paper or plastic?"
The people behind me muttered "estupido norte Americano" under their breath.
Yes, we certainly weren't "in Kansas (or Ketchikan)" anymore.
Back home folks seem to have enough trouble speaking in English. In Europe, even the grocery store clerks are multilingual.
Char and I were in Espana, or more specifically Pais Vasco, the Basque part of northern Spain and southern France along the Atlantic coast. The weather was 65 and sunny. Not bad for late October. Much better than the weather back in "Kansas."
Fifteen years before, we had briefly stopped to switch trains in St. Jean de Luz, a Basque town on the other side of the border and had very briefly thought about staying over, but had gotten back on the train for Madrid. Now we were finally coming back because Char thought it would make a great 50th Birthday present to me. As usual, she was spot on.
Oddly enough, the weather the day we left Ketchikan had been surprisingly mild for late October. After several days of rain and wind (and a little bit of fog) it had cleared.
That was a relief because our trip to Europe 15 years previously had almost been derailed by morning fog in Ketchikan that delayed our flight to Seattle by several hours. Char nearly clocked the counter agent when the woman, rather unhelpfully, pointed out that "if we really needed to be in Seattle at a certain time for a connecting flight we should have flown down the day before."
Fortunately we barely made that Amsterdam flight, but that experience made us nervous about the weather gods this time out. Would they try to foil our escape from The Rock once again?
Not this time. No bad weather here or in Juneau and no "mechanicals."
We got to Seattle in plenty of time this time for our connecting flight to Paris.
Unfortunately, we had the pleasure of a nine hour flight on one of the world's oldest Airbus 341 jets that I am sure had been around since the first Bush administration. On takeoff it shook like one of the old Boeing 737-100s. Not a pleasant feeling because I have never been a big fan of Airbus jets to begin with.
How can you like something called an "Airbus" anyway? It doesn't sound like very posh travel. Rather, it conjures of images of a crowded Greyhound full of sick children, half-psychotic passengers and rank toilets.
Especially in "steerage," uh, I mean "tourist" class.
But then again, it was Air France and we do know that the French tend to have higher standards. We know that because they say so.
Even so, it was not like flying a Boeing for goodness sakes.
I will always admit to being parochial in my airplane tastes. I like Boeing. I do not like McDonnell Douglas (bad habit of planes falling out of the sky). I do not like Lockheed (last good jet they built was the Constellation) and I definitely do not like Airbus.
But we were on essentially free mileage tickets, so Airbus it was. And I have to admit that the food was wonderful. Actual heated meals that tasted like something. In this case tabooleh and shrimp plus Saute of Beef with balsamic vinegar sauce, mashed potatoes and vegetables with cheese and a berry chocolate cake to cleanse the palate. Nothing that could remotely described as a "picnic pack" for an extra six bucks. God bless La Cuisine Francaise!
The seats, on the hand, were not so good. We weren't in first class, so none of those airborne barcaloungers. But the "tourist class" Airbus seats were remarkably bad even by steerage class standards. They were hard and had the wrong angle. They had appropriate leg room for a munchkin. To make matters worse, there was too much space between the seat and window, so I just couldn't stuff a couple of pillows in there and go to sleep.
I'm sure it was part of Airbus' "pan European" approach, the seats had clearly been designed to Spanish Inquisition standards.
So after nine hours of not sleeping, we arrived at Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport to transfer to another Air France flight to Barcelona. And we had a date with the French version of the TSA.
In the US, once you go through security, you have pretty much gone through security. Not so in Europe. Even if you are flying on the same airline, you need to be screened once again. The process was particularly onerous at Charles de Gaulle.
First off, the French obviously don't like the idea of building subways to connect the various terminals at their airports. They prefer to bus you around for two or three hours and return you back to the terminal you landed at. Anyway, that's what happened to us.
First they bused us to a different terminal where they made us walk a kilometer or two and then stand in line for customs. They we walked another couple of kilometers or three and then went through a security screening that was definitely one of Dante's circles of hell. Fortunately, we had four hours between flights because we used up three of them going through customs and "securite."
It reminded me of being in a Department of Motor Vehicles line in a large American city, except that the angry looking officials were shouting at us in French. At one point, they gestured for us to put our passports and travel documents on the screener conveyor belt. We balked. They barker louder in even more expressive French and gestured wildly and several large, armed guards perked up. We complied.
Then we had to walk a couple of more kilometers to get to our "terminal." We still had some time to kill so we had a couple of lovely croissants (even the airport food in France is above reproach). Then we went to our gate and discovered it was simply a waiting room. When it was time to board, they loaded us up on another bus and drove us half way around the airport to a gate that was only a couple of gates away from the one we had landed at.
I think that's the last time we'll fly into Charles de Gaulle by choice. It reminds me of that wonderfully segregated terminal the Brits have for Irish passengers at Heathrow. The French must consider us "Americaines" to be similar "securite" risks. Especially since we changed from ""French" fries to "Freedom" fries a few years back
The flight to Barcelona (also on Air France) was only a couple of hours (a smaller Airbus, but with more comfortable seats) but we still had a great meal that involved an almost perfectly cooked piece of fresh chicken. No in-flight rock hard pretzels for the French. Also plenty of free wine. God is good.
We arrived at Barcelona (the Spanish call it Barthelona, supposedly because some long ago Spanish monarch had a lisp and everyone copied him because he was The King, go figure) and we were met by a driver that our B&B host had arranged for us.
It was the middle of the day, but all we wanted to do was get the B&B and sleep. It was a long drive in from the airport and then we had some more "failures to communicate."
We had chosen the B&B specifically because the owner/host spoke English. Unfortunately, what we didn't realize was that the owner owned two different B&Bs and we were staying (just for the night) at the one which she didn't live at and was overseen by a pleasant woman who's sole grasp of English was the sentence. "I'm sorry, I don't have much English."
Unfortunately after traveling for more than 20 hours we had even less Spanish than we started out with.
Anyway, we were deposited in the lobby with no instructions on how to use the elevator or even where to go. We knew it was on the second floor, but had forgotten that many Europeans do not consider the ground floor to the first floor, so we had to shlep our luggage up three floors.
It was a lovely sunny day and we would have liked to have gone outside but about all we had the energy to do was fight with our phone card long enough to let Liam and others know that we had arrived safely and then fall asleep.
Before we did that, we tried our best to communicate with the host that we needed a taxi to the "estacion del tren" early the next morning. But we weren't sure she had even remotely understood us.
The next morning, we stumbled out of bed - shleped our bags back down the stairs (in the dark because we couldn't figure out where the light switches were). Fortunately, there was a cab waiting, so our request had been understood after all.
The taxi driver was obviously in a hurry and we darted through the empty streets to the Barcelona train station as if we were a mosquito on a frying pan. I wanted to get him to slow down but the only word I could remember from my college Spanish was "vomitar." Fortunately, we didn't.
At the station, we got on a lovely RENFE train for the six hour trip across northern Spain to San Sebastian. The music playing on the train intercom was the "Charlie Parker with Strings" album. It was wonderful. I really, really, really wish we could take trains across the Atlantic.
It was time for the vacation to begin.
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