Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Trip From Purgatory

A few days before my trip, I began to have intimations of disaster. It was just a feeling that something, somewhere could go wrong, like locking myself out of my apartment. Nothing happened. I was about to take my semi-annual trip to the States to visit my folks. As a matter of fact, it was their 60th wedding anniversary, and two celebratory meals had been planned.

The trip to the States this time consisted of two flights on two separate airlines because that was the only way I could get a decent airfare. The first flight was on Air France, leaving Paris at 6 pm and arriving at Heathrow at 6:16 pm London time. The next flight was on Virgin Atlantic leaving Heathrow at 8:30 pm. That seemed pretty foolproof and left me all day to pack. I left for the airport at 3 pm, and I remember that my trip to the airport was totally uneventful. I even managed to drag my heavy suitcase on and off the public bus without straining my back – a major feat. I then managed to catch a direct train to Charles de Gaulle airport – what luck I said to myself. Hah.

I arrived at the airport in plenty of time for my flight to London and checked my bag – it was tagged direct to Newark, New Jersey. Great. And then things began to veer "off". The Air France flight arrived at Heathrow one and one-half hours late. I was really worried about making the Virgin Atlantic flight. And even if I did, would my suitcase? So, I took the precaution of having the Air France gate person in Paris contact Virgin Atlantic to make sure they knew I was coming.

The plane arrived in London at 7:45 pm London time. By 8 pm I was at the Virgin Atlantic desk to check in. They refused me! I can't believe it, but even with half an hour and having been notified, they refused to allow me onto the plane. I was then sent back to Air France, the original culprit.

Unfortunately all the flights to Newark and New York were full that evening, so Air France booked me on a British Air flight leaving the next morning. They assured me they would put me up in a hotel, with taxi service to and from the airport, plus give me an international phone card to alert my friend who was planning to pick me up in Newark.

Enter purgatory: "a place or state of temporary punishment". It was pretty obvious that Virgin Atlantic was hell. British Air turned out to be heaven, and Air France was a very apt organizer of purgatory.

By hook and by crook I found the special Air France counter that took care of homeless waifs like me. They did indeed give me a voucher for a hotel near the airport, including dinner and breakfast. But, no taxi service. I was given vouchers for a shuttle bus to and from the hotel. Then, "Sorry, no phone cards. You'll have to send in for a reimbursement later". Right. More purgatorial glitches turned up when I arrived at the hotel. Dinner was just closing. Well, I had just about had it. I quickly entered the restaurant at the last moment and threw what I could onto my plate, gathering this and that from various bins. Next glitch: the shuttle bus did not go directly to the BA terminal. Therefore, I had to leave for the airport the next morning on the 6:07 am shuttle bus, followed by a train. The restaurant opened for breakfast at 6 am! I decided to order a "breakfast box" from room service, and I requested delivery at 5:30 am. At 5 am I received a phone call. "I have your breakfast and I will deliver it now." Good thing I was ready. I was not ready, however, for the breakfast box. It was inedible. I'm sorry, but I do not eat chocolate for breakfast. Or sugar pretending to be cereal.

Then I had an idea. I emptied out the "breakfast" box and took the container down to the restaurant when I left the room. I had 7 minutes. This being Britain, the restaurant opened exactly on time and I tried to rush in. Obstacle no. 1. No hand luggage allowed into the restaurant. It must be left at the concierge's desk. Quick run and search for the concierge. Dump luggage. Obstacle no. 2. No takeout allowed. Being now a savvy half French person, I acquiesced. "Fine. Please show me my table". I then took a plate and rushed to find the food. Dumped what I could onto the plate. Then back to the table where I flung everything into the box and ran out the door pronto just in time to make the 6:07 bus (after having quickly snatched my suitcase from the concierge). I did end up having a nice breakfast at Heathrow from my "box" along with freshly brewed English tea.

Next glitch: I made it, but what about the luggage that had been checked through to Newark? No one seemed to know, although the BA staff was consistently friendly and helpful. Just before our flight took off, I was given the news: my bag did not make the BA flight. Welcome to purgatory fulltime.

After landing in Newark Thursday morning, I went directly to the BA lost luggage claims office where a nice lady took down all my info. She then gave me a piece of paper with the reference code and phone number. The very helpful steward who had alerted me about the lost bags had warned me above all to get this phone number, just in case. No one could say anything about the lost bag.

At my parents' house, the next day I went onto the BA website to see if anything came up. It was a good thing I did. For the delivery address, the nice lady had written down the wrong town in a different part of the state! And the BA phone number was simply an automated number with automated choices. When I tried to leave a message for the airport, no answer. In order to speak to a human being, I phoned the regular BA customer service 800 number and succeeded! The agent was very helpful and corrected the address. After that, as I had nothing to lose in purgatory, I experimented with different possibilities. I phoned again and a miracle occurred: I actually ended up speaking with a human being. In fact, it was the lost luggage department and the lady who had registered my lost bag. Still no news about my lost suitcase.

The next day, I went onto the website again as it was a lot easier than phoning and choosing option, option, option. "Your reference number does not exist." What? Phoned again. Got through and was told that the file was in "suspension" and that this MIGHT mean that they had found the bag and were shipping it. Maybe. Probably. More purgatory.

In the meantime, it was time to attend my parents' 60thwedding anniversary dinner. No suitcase. No clothes. No toilet articles. No nice shoes. No presents. By some miracle, I had packed my vitamins in my hand luggage. Plus one jar of hand cream. I also blessed my dentist from long ago in Los Angeles who had convinced me to brush my teeth after every meal. Therefore, I always have a toothbrush and toothpaste in my purse. And since I was staying with my parents, I knew that my mom would pull me through. She did. She lent me a beautiful outfit for the dinner that I wore again the next day for lunch. (different people – no one noticed)

After being in purgatory for awhile, I began to see how attached I am to all my "things". Just think about it – our lives are supported by manufactured products from dozens of stores: drug stores, cosmetics stores, clothing stores, shoe stores, other stores. Without the cushion of all my "things", I really did feel cast adrift and floating in the Sea of Purgatory. But it also showed me how much support I have around me, usually hidden and not appreciated. After all, the intent of purgatory is to purge you of your earthly sins and attachments. I certainly had a good purge in the earthly attachment department.

By then it was Saturday evening, and I was rehearsing in my mind how to yell at BA on Monday.

At 9 pm Saturday night, we received a phone call. He had my bag. Could he deliver it that evening? Like at 1 am? After gently explaining that we were in a retirement home and that was just a wee bit late, he agreed to deliver the bag the next day, Sunday between 11 and 11:30 am. It was at this stage I knew I was no longer in France.

Sunday morning about 9 am I went down to the retirement home office to let them know the bag was coming. It was already there! Covered with leaves and partly opened, but there. I quickly wheeled it to my parents' apartment where I proceeded to pull everything out of the suitcase. Yes! There were the presents, including one pound of French cheese a bit ripe, but still edible.

Wait – the reason the suitcase was slightly open was because there was a terrific dent in the front. It wouldn't close because the metal front was bent out of shape. How could I get home with a bag that wouldn't close? Then I had an inspired thought. It just needed a guy to fix it. And there was one available. My brother. He took a hammer and whacked that puppy back into its original shape. 99% anyway.

By then, I was sure I had left purgatory. But, as I was packing to return to Paris, I noticed that the handle had been whacked off my suitcase! When I phoned British Air in New York about it, the rep told me that they were not responsible for broken handles! Yesterday I sent a long letter to the British Airways Baggage Claims Unit in England. Maybe they can help me finally leave purgatory. I am still waiting.