Day 225: Last Christmas...

Illustration by Marc Johns

It's cute and all that I'm home for Christmas but don't think for a minute that last year's holiday memories haven't been creeping in, especially with this down time without the distraction of the rush of my life in Paris. Idle time really is the devil's playground when left alone with my thoughts. While I certainly wouldn't want it to be last year and am so grateful for all the positive changes in my life, I can't help but reminisce a bit...please don't hate me for doing so.

Picture it. Paris. Last Christmas.

I was supposed to spend it in New York with my family and Monsieur Flâneur was supposed to fly out on the 26th with my mom who was working a Paris Christmas trip, but because of last year's snowstorms in London (legit) and Paris (two inches that sent the country in a crisis), I was stuck in France for the holidays. It wasn't a big deal because my mom was coming anyway and we were invited to spend the day with MF and his wonderful family out in the suburbs. The three of us planned to fly out together the following day on the 26th. It was perfect, it worked out even better than our original plan we all thought...

Being that there were two flights going to JFK, we chose to book ourselves stand-by on the first flight out - the flight that my mom was working - just in case we couldn't get on, we'd take the second flight out. We arrived at CDG where my mom left us at security and check-in in order to join the rest of her crew at the gate to prepare the cabin for the flight. Excited for MF's first trip to America, we arrived at the check-in counter, happy and in-love when the agent asked us for MF's visa. Visa? What? His ESTA. What the frick is an ESTA? I remember asking myself. She explained that there are no longer green forms for foreigners entering into the U.S and documenting visitors is now done online - for a fee of course. Upon seeing my frustration and quest for answers, she smiled at me and with satisfaction said, "Je ne sais pas, c'est votre pays." Yes, it is my country but I don't know either...

Despite her little comment, she was quite helpful in offering information and advice on how to quickly obtain this visa by directing us to the airport brasserie that offers free wi-fi. Thanks to her assistance and allowing us cut the line once we returned, the turnaround time for this extra step was less than fifteen minutes. Before issuing us our stand-by boarding passes, she regretfully informed us that there was news of a snowstorm due to hit New York and that many passengers from the later flight had been moved to the earlier flight, including the New York based flight crew who didn't want to be stuck in Paris for a week. She handed us our boarding passes and with held up crossed fingers, wished us "Courage". Little did we know that we needed it...
Upon arrival at our gate, the flight that was fairly empty a mere 24 hours prior was now packed with huffy passengers as the gate agents were trying to consolidate two flights onto one aircraft. My mom came storming out of the plane to let us know that there would no way in hell that we would be flying out with them, gave us a both a hug and kiss goodbye and told us that she would be keeping track of our travels on the network server. I looked at MF and he suggested that we go back to Paris and try again the next day but after spending a month with his family partaking in their holiday brouhahas and helping out in the restaurant during their busy season, the idea of going back to hear him bicker with his brother, hear his mother tell him what to do and his grandmother ask me how I put up with him, sounded like a terrible plan b. So I made an executive decision and booked us on a flight to Chicago in the hopes of catching the last flight out to New York. How hard would it be to get from Chicago to New York? There are flights every 30 minutes, right?

Getting to Chicago was a piece of cake, we sat in first class, jovially clinked our champagne glasses and enjoyed a lovely nine hour flight in the friendly skies thinking that everything was going to work out just fine. We arrived at O'Hare, looked at the connecting flight screens to find them bleeding with red "cancelled" notifications next to every east coast city. Philly - cancelled, Boston - cancelled, Washington D.C - cancelled, JFK and LGA - cancelled, Raleigh-Durham? - cancelled! We were stuck in Chicago for MF's first trip to the States, ok...ça va...

We got to customs and I stood in the visitors line with MF in order to pose as the translator (what a joke) where I wasn't allowed to just answer the questions for him, I had to translate them, wait for his answers, (even though I already knew them) and then repeat them to the officer in English. "What are you doing in the United States?" the officer asked, "Qu'est-ce que vous faites aux Etats-Unis?" I repeated. "Je viens pour visiter sa famille - la famille de ma fiancée" "He's here to visit my family," I responded dryly. He looked at MF and said "Coming to meet the fam? Sure you don't want to go back?", MF looked at him and didn't respond because he didn't understand which didn't stop the officer from then leaning over the counter and whispering, "I'll save you, buddy." while hovering the stamp over his passport in a way to let him know that he could back out now. Somehow MF understood this part and laughed - what a miracle, the boy can speak English now. I snatched the passport, shoved it in MF's bag, said thank you and with MF in tow headed for the exit to figure out what the hell we were going to do now.

All of the New York airports were closed for days due to the massive snowstorm, so we had no choice but to spend three nights in the O'Hare Airport Marriott with the flu that we both got overnight. We were stuffed up, sweating profusely, sneezing, coughing and sore from head to toe. On our second day, we braved the city to try and enjoy the fact that we were in the beautiful city of Chicago but because we were jetlagged, cold and sick, we we're just miserable. 

Culture shock is a funny thing, it comes when you least expect it and MF experienced his first bout of culture shock when we went to a bank to change our euros into dollars. The teller, a friendly black woman kept calling us baby, who was singing along to the musak ("Angel" by Train) while counting our money and before we left took our hands to wish us (her "babies") a Happy New Year. MF, who comes from a place where bankers are the least happy, least friendly, least helpful and the most impatient people in all of Europe was blown away by the kindness of this American bank. It took him an hour to except the fact that bank was not only nice to us but had a table offering of complimentary flavored coffee and little sprinkled holiday cookies.

After our failed attempt at being true Chicago tourists, where MF kept asking me questions about Al Capone because suddenly I was an expert on mid-west gangsters, the rest of our trip was either spent dying in our room from the flu or force feeding ourselves sandwiches for sustenance at the hotel bar where the bartender, Tito shared his "bar art" with us.

"Bar Art"
Of course I took a photo....

Once news broke that east coast airports had reopened, we decided to brave O'Hare and try to fly out - again. We arrived at 5:00 am and realized that we weren't the only ones smart enough to get there as early as possible because we were numbers 150 and 157 on the stand-by list and only four passengers per flight were making it out. If full revenue passengers were being shut out and sleeping in terminals there was no way that we going anywhere before January.

I refused to except this option of sleeping in another airport hotel or worse, the terminal and with luck found an amazingly helpful gate agent who went through all of our options and the probability of flying out that day. With New York City completely out of the question, we decided to go to Buffalo where where the plan was to take the train down to Manhattan. Per my mom who was following our whereabouts through her work server, saw that all of the passengers trying to get to LGA and JFK got hip to jumping on other flights and Buffalo became the next hot ticket out of O'Hare. Luckily, we were well into the air and sipping our Bloody Marys when these epiphanies took place.

We arrived in Buffalo where it was pouring rain and learned that both Amtrak and Greyhound were sold-out - of course they were. At this point, I had a nervous breakdown, MF came back from smoking a cigarette and found me in the airport crying while smashing the handset of a dirty pay phone against the receiver because the calling card only gave me 15 seconds and I was cut off mid-sentence while trying to communicate with my mom. We only had our French cellphones which was useless in Buffalo, NY.

Despite everything, we spent a relaxing night in Buffalo, where we ordered room service, watched E.T and Married..with Children reruns and the following morning took a Greyhound bus down to New York City. The bus was packed with passengers who were also stuck and couldn't fly out leaving the only available double seat in front of the bathroom where the door would burst open every time we'd hit a bump which would then stink up the entire bus because someone went to the bathroom on the toilet seat. A married couple from the Bronx sat across from us where the wife informed me in her thick New York accent that someone "did cocky" on the seat. Mind you, I'm having to translate all of this for MF. 

After ten hours on the bus and the priceless look of MF's face when he saw the incredible New York City skyline as the bus was approaching the Holland Tunnel, we were let off at the armpit of Manhattan; The Port Authority where we then took the subway down one stop to Penn Station - another beauty of the city. After what felt like an hour on the Long Island Railroad and hearing really loud girls from Ronkonkoma complain that they thought their Christmas presents from their boyfriends were like so lame, we arrived at the train station where my mother was waiting for us, "an angel", MF used to call her.

We arrived at my grandmother's house where we both took hot baths and she had a vodka on the rocks waiting for MF, a large glass of red for me and leftover truffle mushroom risotto that she reheated in a saucepan. It felt good to be in my Monoprix velour ballerine slippers, leggings and my grandfather's oversized knit sweater while eating my grandmother's comfort food next to the fire in her den that smells of old books.

Although our trip was a nightmare, we made the most of it and look back on it fondly but saying that, by no means do I wish we were together this year, that chapter of my life is closed and am making new (less stressful) memories this year.


  1. Gosh what a stressful travel time.
    I remember all that snow from last year. I guess my flight out of Brussels was the last one, because when we arrived at costumes one of the security people explained to me that they didn't think our plan was coming in and so our luggage was going to take more time to come out, as right after us they closed BRU.
    Luckily I made it though and didn't have to experience anything similar to your trip. I'm glad to hear this year is less stressful, even if it is making you miss your ex.

  2. Isn't that story INSANE?!?! Traveling on my mom's passes work without a hitch 97% of the time, but every so often the shit hits the fan!

    You're so lucky to have gotten out when you did. The airports in Europe were a mess! Did your bags arrive eventually?

  3. It's hard not to reminisce, especially at this time of year. So, go ahead and get it out of your system.

    But as one of the people who was stuck in London for a week, I promise that that there wasn't that much snow. I won't get started on the entire Heathrow debacle because we ended up enjoying ourselves...when we weren't spending hours on hold with the airline trying to rebook our tickets to Boston. Oops, there I ago again.

    And the NYC skyline - I love it! :) It's dangerous to be on the road at the same time as me when it's reflected in the rearview mirror as the sun goes down on the NJ Turnpike because I've usually got both eyes on the spectacular view.

  4. Oh dear! What complete chaos!

    I think Penn Station is one of my least favourite places in the whole world. Caca.

    The Belgians came to their senses and my hubby is sitting in the Thalys even as we speak:) Yihaa!:)

    Going to Versailles for the first time tomorrow:) Figured that it wouldn't be overly crowded on Christmas Eve!:) This is my 12th visit t Paris, and I finally get around to going!:) Better late than never, eh?:)

    Too bad we missed each other by a mere few hours if you think about it, but we'll have other opportunities since we're both in love with Paris and keep coming back for more:) Who knows? We'll probably both end up living there at some point:) So until next time:)

    Enjoy your family Christmas:) I'm sure it'll be a riot:)

  5. @MK - London didn't have that much snow either? Damn media! What they were reporting to us in Paris was complete and total pandemonium!! It was so dramatic last year...Paris had a lot of snowfall but melted within half a day. It's not cold enough there, you know? As a Family passenger I can't get too annoyed so I generally stay cool (for the most part) but I couldn't help but think of all of you who paid full fare and were still stuck. Despite our misfortune, my heart went out to you guys!

    @Duchess - LOL! How could you possibly hate Penn Station?! You're crazy! he he. I'm so happy that you will be spending Christmas with The Duke...bravo!

    Yes, Versailles is quiet in the winter and the garden is free. It's so romantic...I went last November and felt like it was my own garden, so enjoy!!

    Merry Christmas to you and enjoy your time in Paris. :) Bisous.

  6. Wow what a travel story! You are definitely a better traveller than I would have been, I would have thrown the tantrum at the first airport! Here's to wishing that your flight back to Paris is easy breezy!

    Wishing you a very wonderful Christmas this year with your family Miss Ella!

  7. What a headache. I agree with the above poster- you handled it quite well esp. being sick and all! I don't know what I would have done in that situation.

    Last year flying to JFK from Geneva after Xmas in France I remember not being able to return to NY and so we ended up in Detroit. Was a bit messy but nothing like your story! Perhaps I flew on a diff. day?