flying during lockdown

Flying During Lockdown

While many of my planned trips this year evaporated in the Spring, there were still some trips I chose to take for business and personal reasons.  During a brief window in the summer when PCR tests weren’t required, I went to visit family and friends in the States.  Inside Europe I managed short trips to Croatia, Mallorca, and Andorra.  I did all this on my US passport, despite the alleged “American ban” in Europe, and even without my French Carte de Sejour.  But I still had a final business trip in the calendar for 2020: Salzburg in November.

As you do when traveling in Europe these days, I was checking the ReOpen EU site regularly, to see what new regulations were in place.  I don’t remember exactly when I found out I was going to need to take the dreaded PCR test, but when I did, I immediately made an appointment at a lab in the 11th.  In early October the appointments were at least 2 weeks out and I needed a test that was done fewer than 72 hours before my arrival in Austria, in early November.  I managed to get an appointment for the right day and time and I showed up to a virtually empty clinic.

Covid-19 Testing

This was to be my third Covid-19 test.  The first had been at my doctor’s request during lockdown, when I described the flu-like symptoms I had earlier in the year.  The second had been before a summer trip to Croatia, when I thought they might ask for a test even though I was coming from France, not the US.  But those had been blood tests.  The PCR test was “invasive,” I had heard, but I hadn’t really read much more about it.

When I came to the clinic I was ushered right to a receptionist who verified my appointment and asked for my Carte Vitale.  Since the summer the French government had started fully covering the cost of Covid testing so I wasn’t asked for any money out of pocket.  After a few minutes I was handed a printout and some stickers which would ostensibly go to the lab with my swab.

Personne suivante,” came a calm voice from behind a mostly closed door.  I came in and sat down in the chair that she beckoned me towards.  She told me I would need to remove my mask, which I did.  She then asked if I had done this before.  I shook my head and she told me to sit back and relax and that it would not take long.

I assumed the pose that I normally do at my dentist’s.  Relaxed, head back, remembering that the person who is doing this does this all the time, professionally, and is not interested in hurting me.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the PCR test, it involves sending a swab about three inches into your nose to grab some samples of upper respiratory mucus.  As you might guess, this is not a pleasant feeling.

This is not so much a question of pain as unpleasantness.  Your nerves in this area sound an alarm: what is this thing doing here?  When she had inserted the probe the entire way in she actually moved it around a bit, ostensibly to make sure she collected enough of a sample.  She saw me tighten up and after withdrawing it she waited a beat before asking if I was ready for the “next one.”

Then I realized she meant the other nostril.  Okay, I know what to expect this time.  I braced myself and a few moments later it was over.  I thanked her, got my stuff, and headed home.  I got the results by email the next day, which I then printed out so I could present it in Austria when I landed.

Arriving in Austria

As I said, the trip was originally planned for Salzburg, and had the trip occurred one week before that would have been fine.  But in the days leading up to the trip Austria announced a lockdown and this led to many hotels and airbnbs closing their doors (as the government promised to make them mostly whole if they complied).  Not wanting to take a risk of being in Salzburg without a place to stay, I decided to improvise and go to another location where I knew I could stay, outside Vienna, close to where my colleague on this trip actually lives.  But there was an additional wrinkle.  Austria had asked for a 10-day quarantine on visitors, even those with a negative test.  I decided to chance it.  My trip was scheduled for 7 days and if they made me stay an additional 3 days in Austria, I wouldn’t fight them.  Though, my business involved me working in the same room as my colleague, so if they actually planned to enforce this quarantine, my trip would be pointless.

The flight was about 80% full and during the flight we filled out contact tracing paperwork (which they collected) as well as an “Entry and Transit Declaration” (which they did not collect).  This document asked for:

  • Name, Nationality, Date and Country of Birth
  • Flight Details
  • Stays in the previous 10 days
  • Address in Austria for the next 10 days
  • Contact details

I was asked to sign and date this form, next to a declaration that said, “I hereby confirm that I will self-quarantine at home or in suitable accommodation for a period of ten days, that I will cover the costs of any such accommodation and that I will not leave home or this accommodation for the duration of the quarantine.”  The flight attendants said to keep this form on us and that we might be asked for it at anytime.  I considered that curious, as if the form were true, the only place I could be asked for it would be inside an isolated accommodation.

At the very bottom of the document it said, “The details provided here will be sent to the health authorities of the province where you will be staying for the next ten days and, at the end of this time, destroyed.”  So, this form was supposed to be turned into someone, not carried with me inside an isolated accommodation in case a police officer stopped by, who couldn’t possibly know I was staying there unless I had turned it in in the first place.

No matter, the main concern for the Austrians for those of us arriving was a valid PCR test.  They had military personnel, not customs agents, looking at our passport and PCR test.  Because of the perfunctory manner in which the soldier dealing with me looked at my paperwork, I realized he was looking for two things: a name match, and a valid 72-hour window.  That meant that anyone who wanted to forge up an official-looking test could easily do so.  There was no electronic scanner to verify that this was an actual lab which had administered an actual test.  It was a simple check of paperwork using the technology of 1920, not 2020.  He handed back my paperwork and my passport.

I then proceeded to the passport window.  Surely, I’ll be checked, I thought.  Vienna had just had a terrorist attack the previous week.  But no, the lady at the window was busy on her phone and just waved me through.  The Austrians didn’t care what my purpose was in their country or if I even had a valid purpose to be there.  They only worried if I had a valid PCR test, which I could easily have forged, it seems.  As has been the case for most of this year, I was watching biosecurity theater, and not even good theater at that.

“Lockdown” in Austria

A friend picked me up at the airport and we headed back to his place to have lunch.  As we walked into his apartment building I marveled at the people not wearing masks.  “Is there no mask mandate?” I queried.   “Not outdoors, that’s weird!” he said.  Indeed it is, I thought to myself, but felt like a kid on Christmas day just because I wouldn’t have to wear a mask outdoors all week.  We had had an outdoor mask mandate in France for some months now.

Later in the week I was walking around Vienna with another friend when I realized that pretty much all the shops were open and a lot of restaurants were offering takeaway service.  I tried to explain that in France “lockdown” meant I couldn’t leave my house without a permissible reason, that I could be stopped and asked to justify myself at any time, and all this was to take place within 1km of my house, outside of particular extenuating circumstances (although, just as in late Spring, the French were not taking this seriously at all).  He wrinkled his nose.  “We had something like this back in the Spring, but not now.”  While it seems that since my visit Austria has been put into a much stricter lockdown, I was happy to take the opportunity to, among other things, get my hair cut while I was there, as I didn’t know when I would have the opportunity again in France.

Coming Home

When I came back home to France I presented my passport at the border.  The agent scanned it and after some time my linked Carte de Sejour showed up digitally on his screen and he waved me through.  No tests, no quarantine, and not even any paperwork pretending to enforce either.

So, traveling during lockdown?  If you’re worried about how to do it, don’t (the authorities clearly have no idea what they’re doing).  Just have your paperwork in order and be ready to be patient and smile.

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

passport pages

Traveling Without My French Resident Card

So in an earlier post I shared that I had been pickpocketed late last year and hence no longer had my physical four year Carte de Sejour, which was perhaps the hardest-earned French document in my possession.  In that same article I noted that it really wasn’t such an important document in terms of daily life in France, and after this most recent theft, I had a number of trips in which an EU residence card had no relevance: visits to Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK, Italy, then Bulgaria.  However, then a little thing called lockdown happened and when we were finally deconfined, the EU residence card took on a new meaning.  I knew in the back of my mind that I should have some kind of replacement document, but knowing that I was putting in for my ten year card quite soon led me to rely on my confidence on how the system worked and my inherent knowledge of and patience with French immigration.

First Flight Back

The end of July saw me at the Aer Lingus counter in Chicago, following a whirlwind three-week trip to the US which I took because of a convergence of very low airfares and the possibility of doing some work with a client as well as on one of my business projects.  I’d also get some family time.  I was tired, but the accomplished-a-lot-and-feeling-good kind of tired.  The agent at the counter asked for my passport and then she asked if I had residence in France.  I said that I did and handed her a photocopy of my residence card.  She didn’t really know her way around it so I pointed to the expiration date, which is in September of next year.  She nodded, but slowly.  A colleague hovered nearby.  “No way a photocopy is good enough,” he said in a voice probably intended to be low enough that I couldn’t hear, but I did.  “Legit, I think he needs to have the actual card.”  She seemed swayed by this and asked me to wait while she “checked on something” (read: go ask my boss).  She came out after a few minutes during which time I continued to smile and look composed.  She didn’t seem to look too dire when she came back, but wanted a bit more context.

“I understand where you’re coming from,” I said, “but here’s the police report noting it was stolen, and obviously since lockdown I haven’t gotten an appointment for a replacement.”  I smiled and simply gave the attitude that this was not a problem at all.  I live in France, I lost my card, leave this to the French.  For their part, an airline that incorrectly transports someone without entry rights has to bear the cost of repatriation, so she was not being unreasonable in pushing back a bit on me, but the fact that she didn’t really put up a fight was an indication of something I would continue to see: a willingness of those to be “understanding” to travelers in this time period.

Landing in Dublin turned out to be no big deal, as this was an inbound EU flight so I was just able to do a simple transfer within the airport.  I wasn’t forced out through customs as I had been on the way into the US.  Next stop: the French border.  I handed over my dark blue passport.  The border policeman’s eyebrow immediately flicked up as he saw the emblem of the eagle which grasped olive branches and arrows in its claws.  He assumed English and asked: “Why are you visiting France?”  “J’habite ici,” I smiled and answered in French.  “Ah,” he said, and asked for my residence card.  “Malheuresement…” I explained that I had been pickpocketed and handed him copies of the police report and a copy of the residence card.  He frowned.  He continued in French, asking why I had not gone to get a new card (he noted that the police report was dated November of last year).  I told him I had been traveling, and then afterwards there had been lockdown.  He pointed out that there had been deconfinement and I countered, smiling and polite, that it was hard to get an appointment (I knew from friends; I hadn’t actually tried myself).  He looked at some colleagues who had been obviously listening in.  They shrugged.  He flipped to an already crowded page and stamped.  “Merci; bon journee,” I smiled.  No documents?  No problem.

Not asked for?  The contact tracing form that Aer Lingus insisted we fill out before arrival.

The Croatian Question

I had planned to do some work in Salzburg with a client in August when an opportunity came up for us to do the work in Croatia instead.  Salzburg is still on my list to visit, but summer on the Adriatic is hard to beat.  Croatia was one of the countries that was “open” to Americans with a valid negative Covid test within 48 hours of arrival and proof of accommodation.  But, would they treat me as an American citizen or as an EU resident?  Surely, I couldn’t use the photocopy again?  Should I get a Covid test just in case they decide to treat me like an American?  Life continued on in Paris and a few days before the flight I decided to wander down to the Paris Plages to get one of the free tests they were giving out (the blood test used a pinprick and a few drops, with results in 15 minutes, the PCR test had a minimum 5 day waiting period for results – I opted for the quick result blood test).  The philosophy I have with French administration (always be prepared for everything they might ask for) guided me and while the negative test result printout I was handed didn’t look as “official” as I would like, I felt it would satisfy the Croats.

It was a fairly full flight to Zagreb (unlike domestic US flights, there seems to be zero insistence on the vacant middle seat) and I was one of the first off the plane and hence one of the first in line for passport checks.  When I handed over the American passport he asked where I had come from.  “Paris,” I answered.  “Transiting?”  “No, I live there.”  “Ah, where is your residence card?”  I handed him the photocopy of my residence card.  His face betrayed skepticism.  “It was stolen, here’s the police report.”  I handed it over to him.  I didn’t know if he could read French but his eye caught the filing date: “This was in November.”  “Yes, and we had lockdown so I didn’t get a replacement.”  He looked at everything again to satisfy himself, it seemed, then started flipping my passport pages to find a place to stamp me through.  He handed me a piece of paper with contact information for all the places I could get tested if I wanted.  No demand to self-isolate.

Not asked for?  Proof of accommodation, negative covid test, or contact tracing form.

Coming Home to France

Before March 2020, when I came home to France through passport control, the agents would scan my passport and lazily stamp it, usually while talking to their colleague.  They didn’t ask if I was a resident, because they didn’t care.  When I presented that passport, they assumed I was a tourist and just stamped me through.  I could have always bypassed this process by handing them a resident card along with my passport.  This would mean my passport would not be stamped.  But I never bothered with this.

When I handed my passport to the border agent his eyes flicked up at me as he perceived the dark blue US book.  He scanned it and after looking at his screen for a moment, handed it back to me.  I gave the usual, “Merci; bon journee,” and walked through.

The only way he would have handed my passport back to me without stamping it?  If the record he was looking at on my screen indicated that I had a legal carte de sejour, and hence was a resident of France.  No need to stamp the passport of someone returning home.  Had it always been this way and the border agents just assumed if I didn’t hand them my card I was just a tourist, and they didn’t look any further at my record?  Or is this a new level of digitization that’s been achieved by the French, something we’ve seen a lot of during Macron’s tenure?

Either way, I was home, and I it was my fastest way through yet.

Not asked for?  Carte de sejour.

I’m not saying that you should, as I have, push your luck.  Next week I’m going to stop putting it off and get a recipisse which will serve as a temporary ID until I get the appointment for my ten year card.  What I am saying is if you don’t feel like you’ve gotten everything just so during this period of travel, don’t let that deter you.  A ready smile, a good attitude, a fair number of documents, and a plausible explanation might just see you through.

The photo is one of my passport pages.  As you can see, the French don’t really care whether there’s “room” for a new stamp. 🙂

Long Lost Luggage

“But why didn’t they load it on the flight?”

I was at Orly Airport, at the luggage desk for Vueling Airlines, or more properly speaking, at a desk that serviced 6 different airlines, one of which was Vueling, which if you don’t know, is one of the European ultra-low-cost carriers.  I was beginning to understand a number of facts about lost luggage, particularly when that luggage is lost by a budget airline, though I had no idea how much longer it would be before I would see my trusty Samsonite.

The flight left early…

This all started after a few days away in Copenhagen, which I deeply regret not visiting sooner.  The city, and the country in general, is the embodiment of hygge, which is a concept of enjoyment wrapped within characteristic Danish “unhurriedness” that all of us could use more of in our life.  But on the way to the airport, I missed the train that would have gotten me there 2 hours early, and while the trains to the airport normally run every 20 minutes, the next one was delayed for a lengthy interval, so I took the one after that, which was 40 minutes after the train I originally wanted.  When I arrived I also had to make my way to a different terminal, so as it was I was barely able to make the cutoff for luggage checkin.  Unfortunately, the flight crew was anxious to pull back and we left 8 minutes before our scheduled departure, which would normally be great, except this is probably the primary reason that my bag did not make it onto the flight.

I have traveled a fair bit in my life, but I haven’t often experienced that unique dread that hits whenever you realize all the bags have been unloaded and your bag wasn’t among them.  What made this more worrisome was that fewer than 72 hours from that moment, I was due to leave for America for a three week stay.  While I waited in line I googled “Vueling lost luggage” and read through a bunch of horror stories, mostly around luggage getting lost around their hub in Barcelona.  I was given a claim number and a website to log into to check the status.

What’s interesting is that while this website is ostensibly supposed to give you the most up-to-date information, you could always get the most current information by calling Vueling.  But that wasn’t free…

Outsourcing

The reason previous lost luggage situations felt so different for me is because they were almost always with a legacy carrier, like Air France or American Airlines, which have their own departments and teams that handle luggage and have at least a vague idea of where a bag is at any given moment.  Budget carriers don’t have such teams.  They outsource this function to private companies that handle luggage for many such airlines.  Needless to say, the phone numbers I was given were busy day and night.  But, I could call Vueling’s customer service number, for 15 cents per minute, to find out what was going on.  Sometimes the wait was a few minutes, sometimes 30 minutes, but this was the only way for me to get any kind of information, as the website was always updated 24-48 hours after events occurred.

I called everyone I could – Vueling in Spain, as well as Menzies, the company that loaded the luggage in Denmark, as well as the Copenhagen and Orly airports, trying to get more information.  Every time I made it through to someone who had access to my record they added notes to my case number, which I hoped at some point would allow me to underline the urgency of getting me this luggage before my trip to the States.

I eventually discovered that the luggage was not “lost,” merely delayed, and was there in Denmark; however Vueling only had one inbound flight to Paris per day, and though I landed on Saturday evening and immediately filed a claim, the luggage was not loaded onto the Sunday or even the Monday flight.  I was told that luggage sometimes didn’t make it on because of weight restrictions.  Practically speaking, that meant that luggage that is already delayed has less priority than luggage accompanying actual fliers.  The airline would rather continue to upset someone who has already lost luggage than create a cascade of complaints by loading my luggage and bumping someone else’s, etc.

There Is No Phone Number

Showing my age, I constantly asked for a “telephone number” to the luggage “departments” of these airports, imagining a phone ringing somewhere in a vast warehouse space.  But there was no number.  The luggage tracing system called “World Tracer” has an internal messaging capability only.  You can continue to update a file that baggage handlers can read, but there’s no way for you to know that they’ve read it, and there’s not an immediately available way for you to use another means to reach them.

This dance become more complicated the minute I left Europe because Vueling isn’t in the US, which meant they would need to hand the luggage to another carrier.  The luggage did actually make it to Paris, about six hours after I left the continent.  I was headed to an event in Southern Utah, which meant that if they got the luggage to Las Vegas, which was the airport I flew into and was flying out of, within six days, all would be well.  But you can guess by now what happened.

As was the case before, when my luggage sat in Copenhagen for three days before being loaded onto a flight, this time it was two days before the bag made it to Newark, New Jersey.  Vueling told me that it was scheduled to come to Las Vegas, but they couldn’t tell me who would bring it, so I had to do my own detective research and called the airport in Las Vegas and asked for the numbers of the three big US legacy carriers: American, United, and Delta.  I guessed that the carrier would be United, as they hub out of there and were the most likely to have a direct flight to Las Vegas.  After calling a few times and getting busy signals, I finally got through to someone and they read through all the notes.

It says here that the bag was supposed to be turned over to us by British Airways yesterday and should have landed here last night.  But we haven’t taken the bag from BA yet.”

So you don’t have possession of the bag?

No sir, I’m sorry we don’t.”

Going to an internal place of zen, I thanked him and went about trying to find a telephone number for the British Airways luggage office in Newark.  The number is not publicly available, but lest all this learning go to waste, it is +1-973-849-0562.  I only found this out because the day before I was to take my flight out of Las Vegas to my next destination, they called me with a visible caller ID, ostensibly using the number I had on file in my claim.

Mr. Heiner, it says here in our notes that you’re leaving for Kansas City tomorrow, is that true?

Yes,” I smiled.  “What were you thinking?”  I assumed they would be sending it via another airline.

Can you give us an address that will accept a Fedex delivery?  I think that makes the most sense at this point.”

I audibly breathed a sigh of relief and gave her just such an address in the KC area, and hung up the phone, almost in disbelief.  She called back a few minutes later with a tracking number.

Patience and perspective

Several times during this process I realized that not only was there nothing I could do, but nothing the staff could do either.  Lost luggage inhabits a strange universe in which hope is actually a strategy, and only the most tenacious people get answers, or know at any given time where their luggage actually is.

When the luggage arrived in Kansas City on Tuesday, a full eight days and thousands of miles from when I saw it last, I smiled in quiet relief.  I had spent intervening days reading up on Quora and other sites that explained how luggage got delayed, how unlikely it was that the bag would be permanently lost, etc.  That said, most bags are delivered within five days of being “lost” and I was at nearly double that number, though a continental change probably contributed to that.

Further, I realized that had I simply been at home in Paris, I would have gotten that bag just three days after it had been left in Denmark.  It wasn’t the airline’s fault that I had chosen such a short interval between travel, nor that I had arrived a little late that day and that the flight had left a little early.  Sometimes it’s just a combination of factors that makes the bag(s) miss a flight, and then continue to elude you over days.

I was grateful not to have permanently lost a trusty suitcase that had served me well over a decade, as well as some important and expensive items inside it.  I remain grateful for all the people who helped get the luggage back to me, despite what my “why isn’t it here now?” desires might have been.  I am most grateful to even have the first world problem of delayed luggage, as it implies being able to travel somewhere because of my own desires and on my own means.

I’ll be even more patient and understanding the next time this happens.  That will serve you well if and when this happens to you too.

Photo by Chris Hardy on Unsplash

London Calling

I often tell people I never expected to like London as much as I do.  Don’t get me wrong – I would never, ever live there – it’s too expensive, rushed, big, and dense.  But for a few days at a time, quietly sipped, it’s a wonderful retreat for a native English speaker.

For one, most of the museums are free.  Over eight or so visits I’ve gotten to see the great treasures of the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert, the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern, the Natural History Museum, as well as had the chance to venture out to Greenwich to see the marvelous nautical museums out there.

Then there’s the food.  Just saying the word “spicy” is enough to make French people reach for their throats, pre-emptively coughing.  It’s not their fault.  There’s not any native spicy food in France.  Same for the cuisines in Germany and Switzerland.  But the British palate, stretched by colonial ambitions, can tolerate quite a bit of spice, and so you see many more Indian and Malay restaurants here, done using authentic spice profiles.  You can find those cuisines, and dozens more, for bargain prices.  There’s also the theatre.  As a native speaker of the language I appreciate all the nuance, humo(u)r, and wordplay without the need of a translator or intermediary.

In a way, London is where I go to remind myself what it feels like to freely breathe in my native language, whereas in France, my French reading comprehension has far outpaced my speaking speed, so while I scan through Le Figaro or Le Monde at my regular English reading speed and truly understand what is written, my speed in discussing issues spoken about between those pages, or any issues in general, is slower.  I’m always a bit more cautious and held back with witticisms, jokes, or the casual jump-in of a serious conversation in my new language.

As for getting to London, having flown in and out of Luton, Gatwick, and Heathrow from Paris, I’m a very big advocate of taking the Eurostar.  If you book 6-8 weeks in advance, you can routinely pay around 50€ each way, which is not only competitive with the lowest rates you can pay to fly, but it’s one of those rare instances in which taking a train is actually faster than taking a plane.  The Eurostar is 2 hours and 20 minutes, Gare du Nord to Saint Pancras, and is city-center to city-center, connected by the Metro and Tube, respectively.  Even the fastest trip from Gare du Nord out to CDG is going to take you at least 30 minutes (slightly longer to get out to Orly), then you need to get through security, and then you need to be there at least one hour before your flight.  By the time you have done all that, you could have already been in London, and you haven’t even left Paris yet.  So, if you want to take a few days’ trip to London, you can get there and back pretty quickly, and pretty affordably.

The question might be accommodation.  And that’s a fair point.  Over the years I’ve developed a really wonderful group of friends in London and if they are in town I can often crash at their places.  But if everyone is out of town, I can find a hostel (25-35€/night) or an airbnb/hotel (55-75€/night).  Just be prepared: in London they aren’t shy about renting out spaces that would be glorified closets in America.  You can get more space, of course, if you’re willing to pay for it.

You don’t need to regularly visit, as I do.  Just go once and see how you feel.  I definitely underestimated it when I first visited as a tourist, back in 2009.  Summer, with Wimbledon and sunshine everywhere, is a great time to give it your first try.

I took the picture from Westminster Bridge on the day after the Brexit Referendum, just some minutes after I had left College Green by Parliament, where I had been doing some short informal interviews with some MPs and MEPs on their reactions to the referendum result.  The article I wrote on it is here.

travel

Don’t Use Opodo

When I lived in the United States I unfailingly used the (now defunct) Hipmunk to search for flights.  They use an “agony index” which scores layovers, price, etc. to give you the best option for your journey, not necessarily just the best price (you can always click “sort by price” if you want).  They also have a simple and beautiful design interface that makes reading and understanding the fares simple.  Odd inclusion these days?  Amtrak.  Expected exclusion?  Southwest.  But you can always search Southwest in a separate tab.

Hipmunk simply doesn’t work in the European market as well as Skyscanner, which is the go-to travel website over here.  Skyscanner searches an absurd number of airlines you’ve never heard of, and then proposes all kinds of itineraries that don’t take into account any manner of logic.  Oh, you want to go to Budapest?  You probably want to stop in Dusseldorf for four hours on your way there.  No I don’t…wait, I mean, I’ve never been to Dusseldorf…and it looks like the direct flight is 100€ more.  Hmm.  Maybe I could go to Dusseldorf… (not a random example – I did do this last year, and Dusseldorf is definitely worth a few hours of your time, at least).  Alternatively, you’ll also want to check out Skypicker, which dynamically shows cheap flights in real time geographically.

I was headed to Romania to see some friends recently and had difficulty finding direct flights to Bucharest, Romania’s only airport, at reasonable prices.  It was short notice and it was December, so I understood.  I spun the Skyscanner bottle and landed on…Munich or Frankfurt for 8 hours on the way.  I polled my friends in a large facebook travel group and the vote was unanimously Munich.  Done.

I booked the ticket through Opodo for seats on Lufthansa.  Wait, what?  Why didn’t you go to Lufthansa?  Well I would have, but it wasn’t an option at that pricepoint.  Skyscanner lists a number of resellers of varying levels of excellence which have bought seats in advance for the express purpose of reselling them.

Some you will recognize – Expedia, for example.  Others, you will never have heard of, but like most Americans, will cautiously use because no one ever cheats you on the internet for flights, right?  I had used Opodo before, I think, with no serious issue.  I can also vouch for travelgenio/travel2be, though they look shady and my bank initially denied my purchase due to “high fraud with that site” they told me later.

Anyway, I paid for the flight through Opodo, got a confirmation number via Lufthansa, and even went into Lufthansa’s system with the confirmation that showed that yes, indeed, I had a flight to and from Bucharest from Roissy (Paris CDG).

Until I didn’t.

I was in my online banking website, preparing for a meeting with my accountant when I noticed that Opodo had refunded all but $5 of my ticket.  Hmmm.  I called Lufthansa after a login to their system revealed my return flight still, but no outbound flight.  In its place was an ominous error message: there has been a change in your reservation.  I explained all this to the bemused customer service agent, who, after conferring with her supervisor, informed me that the reservation number was simply a hold.  No ticket number had been issued.

I checked my email and nothing had been sent to me from Lufthansa or Opodo.  Four days before my flight and I had been dropped without notice – not even an email – and I only noticed because I was, by chance, looking at one of my accounts in online banking.

Opodo – which seems to be run like a vending machine – great when it works, but useless when it doesn’t –  at the time simply had an FAQ page where there should have been a “contact us.”  As of January 2016 they’ve added an actual phone number on the site.  That’s at least some progress.

I didn’t want to bother over an issue of $5, which they had effectively stolen.  I did another search on skyscanner, but this time I did a quick cross-check in my travel email for an aggregator that I had successfully used in the past – travelgenio won that lottery – and I booked my ticket.  Again.

And now I’m telling you this story over dessert in a cafe in Munich.

I should note I’ve successfully used Opodo at least twice in the past, but such a catastrophic letdown, which led to me re-buying the exact same ticket I had bought originally, but this time for 50€ more, is a dealbreaker…and I didn’t want any of you to make the same mistake when you take your casual trips around the continent.  And trust me, mine isn’t an isolated tale.  These guys are muppets.

If you have any resellers you really like or have good experiences with, please share them with us in the comments.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

starbucks

Starbucks in Europe

Americans take it for granted that they can sit in most coffee shops or Panera-like establishments and work for hours, after buying one token item of food or drink.  If the place is busy enough or you don’t plan to be there very long, you don’t even have to buy anything.

Starbucks staff, I feel, are trained not to come up and accost customers who haven’t purchased.  This is probably due in part to Howard Schulz’s “third place” philosophy, in which he aims to create an additional place of comfort that isn’t work or home that people wish to go to in order to relax, meet friends, or work (for more on Schulz and his underrated ways of thinking or management, read the worth-your-time Pour Your Heart Into It).

Why is Starbucks a valuable resource for the practical European traveler (who doesn’t carry the angst characterized by “I would never go into a Starbucks in any country” hubris of the wannabee coffee snob or aspiring hipster)?  Three simple reasons:

1)  They are everywhere.  You’ll find them in Berne, Switzerland, a little gem of a town, or in the heart of bustling Paris.

2)  They will let you sit down, charge your devices, use the wifi, and go to the bathroom, all without necessarily making a purchase.  The last particular point in a city famous for its lack of available toilets is an “amenity” truly worth the price of admission.

3)  You can sit and work, or chat with friends, uninterrupted, for as long as you need.  This has been a big part of why my Paris Chess Meetup meets at Starbucks (and why I have a book club event there next month).  Sometimes the staff comes over to watch us play, even, but we are always made to feel welcome.  The majority of us buy food and drink, of course, but that’s more about wanting to, not feeling obliged to.

This is to say nothing of the dozens of students that camp out at the huge Bux locations on Rue de Rivoli or near St. Paul in the Marais.  Laptops and books splayed out among study groups – these students are doing what they CAN’T do in a traditional Parisian cafe: study and work together.  Parisian cafes are great for writing (I’m writing this piece in one of my favorite ones right now, Le Poncelet in the 17th), but for student work and collaboration, when you likely live in a closet like my first apartments in Paris, you really can’t beat the Bux.

Every now and then the New World teaches the Old World a thing or two.  Even if the Old World doesn’t listen, or as in the famous case of the Montmartre Starbucks, fights back, it doesn’t mean you can’t leverage the secret.

Photo by Dmitriy Nushtaev on Unsplash

Forgetting My Passport

A huge pit formed at the very bottom of my stomach.  A hot flash of embarrassment started at my chin, ducked below my eyes, and lurched forward onto my forehead, spilling down my cheeks.  These physical reactions usually accompany the realization I have done something catastrophically wrong.  I said the words to myself, just for effect:

I forgot my passport.

I rehearsed quickly what I would tell my French cab driver, which would start with an apology and a request that he immediately turn around.

But my brain had already run ahead of me (as it is wont to do), presenting two factuals:

1)  If you turn around now, you will certainly miss your flight.

2)  On several occasions you have flown within the Schengen zone and not been asked for your passport.

This stood against the conditional:

1)  How do you know they will ask for your passport?

Since turning around to get my passport offered the same risk as trying to board my scheduled flight and being turned away (missing my flight), I decided to proceed.  My brain asked the conditional “but what about returning” question but answered it within seconds saying: “let’s worry about this first.”

If the driver had looked back during the two minute colloquy that had begun with that flush of embarrassment, he might have seen my furrowed brow accompanying my eyes glancing out the back window, moving side-to-side in a slow calculus, because surely part of me was wishing I took a short international flight more seriously than a bus ride.

Worse – I still didn’t have my permanent carte de sejour – I wouldn’t have it until April.  All I had was my temporary recipisse, which simply indicated that I would get an ID.

I showed up at Paris’ southern airport, Orly, about 30 minutes before boarding time.  It was a 07h20 flight to Rome.  It was my grad school friend Donald’s birthday, and he was due to be in Italy for a few days, so I thought to join him for dinner before coming back to Paris the next day.

As I passed through security the only thing they asked for was my boarding pass, which I was carrying electronically in Passbook.  I cleared security with a little bit of private nervous laughter.  As I moved towards the front of the boarding queue, I unfolded my recipisse and steeled myself with a confident insouciance (imagine a “What, I need a passport?” type of look).  The gate staff were really only looking to see that my name matched the one on the ticket so I’m not certain she even realized what class of ID I was presenting.  I shook my head after I passed through and wondered why I had been conditioned to think that in a 1st world country it was vitally important to always show ID.  Grateful for the nonchalance of the gate agents I started planning for hitting the ground in Italy.

Donald had booked a cooking class beginning at 10h00.  Since I was due to land a bit before 09h00 I knew I would have to take a cab.  Traffic cooperated and I arrived there and had a 6-hour culinary experience of learning, prepping, cooking, and eating.  It was lovely.

Since the theme of this blog has always been focused on Paris and France, I’ll perhaps share the details of the Rome trip at another time and in another place.  For now, know that I am writing this to you somewhere over northern Italy.  On my return to France the Italian gate agent had taken exception to my recipisse, but fortunately two (quite lovely) Russian ladies who also did not bring their passports had already been asked to stand aside while a supervisor was called.  I was asked to stand with them and we started speaking in French about the Schengen area.  “I didn’t forget,” said the older one, “I simply didn’t bring it.  You don’t need it in Europe.”  I shared that I had needed it in Romania, Poland, and Croatia, but then added, “but I’m not an EU citizen, you know, so I never go in your line.”  “Ah yes, she nodded.”  The gate agent returned and waved us through.

This time the cool wave of relief started at the top of my forehead and slid slowly and luxuriously down my head, cascading over my shoulders, and down the rest of my body.  I flipped to “music” on my iphone, tabbed to David Gray, put on Shine, and slipped my noise-cancelling headphones on.

***

Moral of the story: write a huge note to yourself of DON’T FORGET YOUR PASSPORT YOU NON-EU CITIZEN and put it on your computer monitor the night before any international flight, Schengen or not.

Photo taken of some of the pages in my passport.

The Power of Old Churches

Wow, it sounds like you’re really into churches.”  My companion was to my right.  Corsica was outside our window and below, to our left.  He was a Spaniard and we were both headed to Romania that weekend.  I, for a wedding, he for a bachelor party.  Our conversation that afternoon had covered all kinds of ground but we had finally come on to why I had been in Madrid.  I told him I had taken opportunities to go on day trips to Ávila and Segovia.

“Honestly,” I said, “churches are the most important things to see.  They matter most, in a way.”  As the words left my mouth I realized I had never articulated such a thought before but that I believed it deep down in my bones.  I began to make my case.

“Think about whenever you visit a new place.  Apart from enjoying the language, food, culture, and customs, you want to enter into how these people are the way they are.  You can examine their buildings, see their art, and see their places of worship.

“Castles are majestic.  Museums are fascinating.  But they are, in their own way, simply an artifice.  The Louvre was a working palace before it became the world’s largest museum, and El Escorial (my favorite royal palace in Spain) is magnificent, but I’m only permitted to see it because it’s no longer the king’s residence.  If things were now how they were then, it would only be under some extraordinary circumstance that I would be able to so freely traverse the private apartments of the king.

“But the irony is that despite being constructed in the happiest times of monarchy, these churches are the most democratic of buildings.  Overwhelmingly they were built by the contributions of the whole community, be they great persons or small.  People contributed their time and expertise and money to raise these stony testaments to God.  Stained glass provided otherworldly lighting for the space and catechism to the illiterate.  Statues of wood or alabaster or marble brought the lives of the saints and stories of Scripture into real and convincing relief.  Some of the people were paid for their work as artisans, but many volunteered their time: these buildings would be legacies to be handed down from generation to generation.  They weren’t buildings frozen in amber, as museums often are, but these were living things, the pride and joy of the communities in which they were always located in the center.

“Go to any small town in the countries that comprised Christendom after the Protestant Revolt.  You will find inspiring cathedrals surely, but you will also find beautiful little churches, ironically proud in their humility.  People started their lives here when they were baptized.  They ended them here when they had a Requiem Mass.  They may have been joined to another human for life in the company and witness of all their beloved in the enduring tradition that is marriage.  Or they consecrated themselves to God’s service.  People gathered under those roofs in all times – in peace and in war – in plenty and in famine – in good weather and foul – and in times sad and happy.

“As you breathe in the incense and candlesmoke of centuries in a place where so many spoke to God – or didn’t – or simply sat and listened, your senses can be afire.  Churches are places that remind us, by their majesty, that all things must end, no matter how glorious.  This is why I go to churches whenever I travel: to remember that I am immortal.”

He simply nodded.  I looked out the window at a beautiful bank of clouds.  I closed my eyes and was again in the dark beauty of a Spanish church.

Photo is of a side altar in one of those dark Spanish churches.