Waiting is the hardest
The luggage carousel had gone around and around; we were the last passengers left waiting for our bags. After about 15 minutes, the black band remained empty. I knew my wife Megan and I weren’t getting our bags today.
It had already been an exhausting trip to Paris; we had spent the better part of two days on three flights from two airlines getting to the City Of Lights. By the time we landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport, getting to our hotel, taking a shower and changing into some clean clothes were our priorities – not seeing the Eiffel Tower or having a glass of wine at a cafe along the Champs-Elysees. None of that was going to happen, at least not on our first day in town.
Leave it to an ultra-organized German airline (Lufthansa, which we flew from Munich to Paris), located at a French airport, to have to fix a mess made by American baggage handlers (in Philadelphia, courtesy of U.S. Airways). Lufthansa’s gracious customer service officials gave us each an emergency overnight pack, with items such as a T-shirt, toothbrush and toothpaste. Still, it wasn’t the same as our own clothes. With the inauspicious start to our trip, there had to be a joke at work here; it only added to the dark humor of the situation.
We weren’t laughing, though. It was the first time either of us had been to Paris. We intended on seeing the traditional sites; we could only do this trip when we did. We planned on having a baby soon; if we didn’t get to Paris now, the chances of making it there any time in the next 10 years or so would be slim. "Vacations" would likely become trips with the kids to Disneyland or to grandma’s house.
We had originally intended on using the first night in Paris to rest, to acclimate. We didn’t know we'd spend it and nearly the entire next day as lost-luggage prisoners waiting in our room for clean clothes from Philadelphia. Instead of strolling along the Seine, our first Paris experience included watching television, flicking channels between an English-language movie, a BBC news report, MTV from Germany, and, for the sheer unintelligible entertainment value, a group of Arab-language channels that included the ever-popular al-Jazeera. I dubbed the bloc of channels the "Hate America" network.
One Thing After Another
With our luggage showing up at last, our exile within the room came to an end; we were ready to explore Paris. However, the lost luggage debacle seemed to set a tone for the week. Traveling karma had already laughed at us once, and it was set to double over with hysterics at our expense in the coming days.
That became apparent as we made our first foray into town, towards Paris’s fabled subway, the Metro. The staff at the front desk told us it was an easy ten-minute walk to the Les Sablons metro stop. It would have been had I not managed to lead us on a couple of wrong turns. Speaking almost no French, and fearful of offending the average Parisian by trying to ask directions in English, we put our faith in my worn Paris city map. Twenty minutes later and after a bit of backtracking, we were at the metro, on our way to the Arc De Triomphe.
Napoleon intended the Arc to commemorate his Grand Armee’s great conquests across Europe. Unfortunately for him, his forces couldn’t defeat the Russian winter. After that there weren’t too many victories to celebrate. Still, the climb to the top of the Arc offers a conqueror’s view of the city. We had a hard time enjoying it, though. That was because of my wife’s morning, or rather all-day-never-know-when-or-how-hard-it-would-hit-her-sickness that began about 35,000 feet and halfway across the Atlantic. She put on a brave face, but she was often overcome by the agony of feeling like she might get ill at any second. This was to wreak havoc with most of our plans for the week. No matter what we tried to do, or how Megan initially felt, the morning/all-day sickness threw a monkey wrench into the works.
We were set to take a bicycle tour of Paris with Fat Tire Bike Tours on our first day there. We had to change plans because of our lost luggage. Then, when we tried to go again, my wife felt too ill to pedal around the town, so we couldn’t make the ride. A visit to Notre Dame Cathedral lasted barely 10 minutes; Megan felt nauseous shortly after entering the building. Walking through the Louvre – a challenge due to the throngs of people wanting to pay homage to the Mona Lisa – nearly turned into a trip to the hospital; Megan came close to passing out and falling down a set of stairs.
More was to come. A planned day trip to the Mont Saint Michel Monastery had to be canceled because, once again, Megan was too sick to make the 7:00 a.m. departure. The tour company refused to refund the a $400.00 cost, even when I explained our extenuating circumstances. Even a romantic dinner cruise along the Seine had its rough patches. Two months pregnant, Megan couldn’t enjoy a few glasses of wine.
Even with everything that had happened to this point, we were still optimistic – we were in Paris after all.
Going to Normandy – Part 1
Our attempt to visit the American cemetery at Normandy convinced us that, maybe, the travel gods really did have it out for us.
Once again, I organized our trip through Fat Tire Bike Tours. It was to be an all-day adventure in which we would take the train from Paris to Bayeux, meet with our tour group, visit sites such as the American cemetery, the former German defense positions overlooking the English Channel at Pointe du Huc, and the museum at Omaha Beach, which along with Utah Beach, was one of the two American landing beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
My wife and I joke that when it comes to us getting things done, I make the trains run on time. Unfortunately, on this trip to Normandy, I made the trains run too well.
Our tickets listed the last stop on the line as Cherbourg; our instructions were to get out at Bayeux. For whatever reason, my concept of basic traveling instructions failed me; I thought we needed to take the train all the way to Cherbourg. I realized we needed to get off at the Bayeux station about 30 seconds after our train pulled out.
By the time we reached the next station and took another train back to Bayeux, it was too late. We called the tour company from a Bayeux inn, but we had missed our tour by an hour. We could only wait for the next train back to Paris. When we arrived at our inn, we had been gone 10 hours and hadn’t accomplished anything. Our day wasn’t over yet. We needed to check out and get back to our original hotel. I had $500.00 in gift certificates that covered most of our first two nights in town. With that first place charging almost 200 euros a night, I thought "economy", and found a highly recommended, family run place in the Latin Quarter for about half the price of our original lodgings.
There was a reason it was inexpensive. I don’t want to mention the name of the place because there was nothing really wrong with it. It was popular with travelers like us; the family who ran it was friendly and kept the inn in spotless condition. My wife and I learned something about ourselves: we are spoiled.
We wanted television; this place didn’t have one – no televisions in any of the rooms. With Megan not feeling well, a television helped her while away the hours between morning/all-day sickness bouts. The bed was nice and clean, but a twin size, at best. We have a king-sized bed at home, had spent two nights on a king-sized bed; we were accustomed to the space it afforded. The room was well-kept and attractive, but looked like something my grandmother would have designed – so small both of us couldn’t get out of bed and move around at the same time.
After spending the day trying but not getting to Normandy, we hauled our bags back to our original hotel, collapsed happily on our king-sized bed. We did not yet know that we had only completed part one of our sojourns to Normandy.
Going to Normandy, Part Two
Because of a stroke of fate – having to cancel our Mont Saint Michel trip – we ended up with a free day that we hadn’t expected. To me, that meant another chance at Normandy. As with our first attempt to get there, we left Paris on an early train to Bayeux. I was smart enough to make sure we got off the train at Bayeux.
Unlike our first trip a few days earlier, when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, grey was the color of the day; rain poured down in levels that would have made Noah jealous. On top of the downpour, Megan was going through a bout of morning/all-day sickness. By the time we splashed and sloshed our way from the train station to the center of Bayeux, she was close to giving up on the day. I asked the innkeeper at the café we stepped into for lunch if Megan could take a room long enough to cover the three hours or so it would take me to complete the Normandy tour. The price was the same as for a night's lodging – 35 euros.
After a brief lunch, we pulled ourselves together. Megan decided to tough it out, but it was a challenge as the rain fell off and on through the rest of our tour. When we weren’t outside getting wet, we were crammed into our tour van like troops into one of the landing craft that crashed ashore on D-Day.
We eventually made it to Normandy Beach and the American cemetery. The sad, grey weather matched the somberness of the place. After getting back to Bayeux, we had almost two hours to wait for our train to Paris, so we staggered through the town in the rain until we finally found a café that served the French equivalent of sausage pizza. Let’s just say the French should leave pizza making to the Italians. Even when pizza is bad, it’s still pretty good.
Although our visit to Paris had turned into a trip filled with lost luggage, illness and bad weather, it was still Paris. The city was even more beautiful and moving than we had expected. If you have to go through a comedy of errors on a vacation, there are worse places to be than in Paris.