The airport felt foreign. I abruptly emerge from what they make you think is a full night’s sleep–but in reality it is about three hours after they clear the dinner trays and you doze watching the awful romantic comedy without the headsets that they never gave you to hear the soundtrack. I’m in a haze. My eyes are itchy and I feel an all-over body crust and my teeth feel like scouring pads. But I am in L’aeroport d’Orly in Paris, France. The chairs are shaped differently than American airport waiting chairs. And that soothing bong sound before the beautiful French voice makes an announcement. People look different. Less colorful clothing and not as fat, in general.
I have my little rolly bag which doesn’t seem to cooperate with me, and my heavy laptop falling off my shoulder, but I’m trying to keep myself together as best I can. I’m nervous. My stomach is agitated and I’m not sure if it is because I am moving to a hotel in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language and I have to work at a client site where I don’t know anyone; or if it’s because I didn’t sleep. Or the Cleveland airport burrito yesterday before I got on the plane. I don’t understand what the signs say, even though there are English translations. I don’t understand the icons. They aren’t American icons. There is no Cinnabon. While I realize the Au Bon Pain is an American rip-off of a French bakery, I kind of wish there was an Au Bon Pain in this airport to make me feel more comfortable.
There is no Starbucks and I really need some coffee. I don’t know how to order a coffee from what looks like a café of sorts, so I’m going to pretend I didn’t see it. I just want a Venti with a little cream.
Customs is grumpy and uneventful. So I followed the crowd to the baggage carousel and waited a hundred years for my two suitcases. I can already see that I’m going to have a hard time getting all my bags out the door to get a taxi. In Cleveland my boyfriend helped me carry everything. He’s not here now and I didn’t figure that into the equation. My hand already hurts from carrying the one bag. It feels like a burn right on my palm. I spot a line of carriages, but realize I don’t have any French money to put in the machine. I have to change some money, and conveniently there is a spot. I dig out $100.
“Can you change this please?”
“Vous voulez de la change en euros?”
“What? I’m sorry, I don’t speak French. I just need some money for the carriage over there to carry my bags.”
“Madamme, you want this changed in euros?”
“Yes, please, thanks.”
She hands me a receipt to sign and handful of different sized and different colored bills, none of which apparently will go into the change slot of the carriages.
“Can you make some change of this bill, please?” I ask politely.
“Change into what, Madamme?”
“Into change. For the carriage machine.”
“I am sorry, I do not know what you are talking about. You have there euros.”
“But I need change, for the machine. It doesn’t accept bills,” I said impatiently.
“What do you want me to do? Please step aside, there are others waiting!” the clerk sharply scolded me.
So I stepped aside, assuming someone would come out of the booth with change. Or something. And I waited. I glanced over at the still empty baggage carrousel.
Like a fool I stood there about ten minutes before I knocked on the window again.
“Is someone coming out to give me some change?”
“Madamme, please!” and she got up from her chair in a huff and literally huffed. I’d never seen anything like it. I think she actually said, “Boff.” It was bizarre.
I drag my bags behind me after grabbing the last of my stuff from the carrousel.
Once I pile everything up and drag it out the door, I don’t see any taxis and it’s raining and cold. I don’t see how it can be this cold when it’s summer. They do have the same seasons here in France as they do in Ohio, right? It’s got to be under 50 degrees. I am not prepared for this at all. I drag my bags about 600 miles up the sidewalk to where it looks like taxis are and flag one down. A short man with an oversized uniform and fluorescent vest comes running over to yell at me. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong. He obviously cannot see that I’m tired and have too many bags and I’m now freezing and soaked. I’ve cut in line, but the line is empty. I am not standing in the right place.
“Can’t you help me?” I screamed at him. That was mean. But he is being really mean to me. This trip doesn’t seem like it’s off to a good start, but I’m keeping an open mind.
I finally get into the taxi but the driver didn’t even help with my bags, he just sat there in the car. I suppose that’s not uncommon. Just annoying. I am so tired, and hungry now, too.
The taxi is warm, but sticky inside. The windows are fogged up. I try not to act like a tourist and stare out the window at the sights, but I am curious. But there are no sights, and this ride is excessively long. Just highways and buildings and apartment houses that don’t look at all Parisian. I guess we’re not in the city yet. The driver is talking on his mobile phone the entire time with long gaps in between his words. Each time he talks I lift my head to see if he’s talking to me. I don’t think he’s speaking French anyway.
We arrive at the hotel and he helps me out with my bags. I give him all the money I had changed since I didn’t expect the cab ride to cost that much. He probably ripped me off, but at this point I don’t want to argue anymore. I’ve been in three fights already today.
I just want to shower, take a nap, drink some coffee, and eat a croissant, but I don’t have time since I’m expected at the office in exactly 25 minutes.
And of course now the hotel doesn’t have my room ready yet.
“Can I at least use a shower to change? I’m going to be here for a month, can’t you help me out right now? Please?”
“Non. C’est pas possible.”
I opened my luggage right there in the reception area and pulled out my suit and cosmetic bag. I marched over the restroom and cried and cried and tried to change without touching the floor with my bare feet. I, like many, have an aversion to touching the floor of a public restroom.
The toilets here are different. They are not as short and stout. They are slender toilets. The flusher isn’t on the left side, it is a pulley on the top. I tried pushing and twisting it, but alas, it pulls. The flush is loud and fast, not like the extended long flushes in public restrooms in the states. The handles on the bathroom stalls are different, too. It’s a different type of latch that I am not used to seeing. It is more like a little handle, with a red and green in use sign on the front.
There is no hot water. I let the left faucet run for a few minutes while I brush my teeth, but no hot water is coming out of it. I try the right faucet while I slipped off my sweatpants and suit up in my hose. I am hoping no one comes in, because I may just crack. There is still no hot water. So I grab some paper towels from the dispenser and wipe down my face and armpits. The paper is so thin that it bunches up and forms little crumbly balls of wet tissue. My toiletry bag keeps falling into the sink, since there is no countertop to rest it on. It’s dripping wet now and my makeup brush is soaked and useless.
I try to wet my hair down a bit to control it, but now it’s too wet and it’s dripping down my back and my blouse is wet. So I stick my head under the hand dryer, but this is like a super-power dryer like none I’ve ever experienced. I lift my head and as I feared, I look like a crazy person with frizzed out hair. I go through my bag to see if I can dig out a clip, or a makeshift rubber band, or something to put my hair back.
I step out of the bathroom and I wish I could say I felt like a new person, but I feel just as crusty, tired, and gross as I did before except now worse.
I am now running a bit late and request a taxi to the address of the client’s office I am supposed to be at for a meeting that is starting in 5 minutes. The taxi driver starts to argue with the doorman.
“Madamme, this address is very close. The taxi will not drive so close, so you may walk there and I will show you.”
“Wait, what? It’s raining and I’m in heels. I don’t know my way around Paris at all. I just landed an hour ago. Can’t he just drive me around the corner or wherever this is? Just this once? Please?”
The doorman looks at me. I expected he would at least translate my plea to the driver. He did not. He just looks at me.
“Madamme, I am sorry, he will not. Please, you can walk it is not far at all.”
I look at the driver.
“Please can you take me?” I hold back my tears.
My headache is pounding, and I know that is because I haven’t had any coffee. I feel like my eyeballs are going to fall out of my head.
“Can you give me an umbrella, please?”
“Sorry, I cannot give out umbrellas but to guests of the hotel.”
“I AM A GUEST! I AM GOING TO BE HERE FOR A MONTH!”
“But you are not checked in, so I cannot give the umbrella.”
“Where is the fucking address? Tell me how to get there?” I grabbed the newspaper from the taxi driver’s hand to cover my stupid hair and walked in the direction he pointed.
My laptop bag is heavy and my rolly bag is getting really wet. It is supposed to be water resistant, but I know that water resistant and water proof are entirely different things. I prepared reports for my client before I came here, and they are all in the rolly bag.
After walking up and down the block that I think I should be on, I can’t find the address. It says, 15 Bis Rue de la Pompe. I don’t understand what the Bis part is. I don’t get that. I see a bakery at the end of the block and I’m going there. But I have no French money on me so I can’t even buy a croissant. It’s now 11:10am here and I am late and lost. And wet. I have stepped in or rolled my bag through dog poo three times already. The poo is embedded in these metal grates that are hard to see on the sidewalk surrounding the trees. While it seems slightly absurd that there is a man cleaning the gutters with what appears to be a large vacuum cleaner machine with pneumatic wheels, there is poo all over the sidewalks.
I find the Bis, en route to the bakery. I am glad, not so much that I found the Bis, but that I wasn’t forced to go into the bakery to ask for directions because I am starving and would have been like Les Miserables and stolen a loaf of bread. That’s not even funny right now.
I ring the buzzer for the company and get buzzed in. There appears to be no elevator so I walk up the steps a few flights, which is awful, but at least I’m drying off.
I make it into my meeting and the clients are very gracious. There is no one else from my company here. My boss was supposed to be here to make the introductions and help me out on the project, but now that I finally plugged in my blackberry, I see a message from him that he must attend a closing this week and he won’t be in Paris. So it’s just me alone here to run the project. Very few of the client’s people speak enough English for us to accomplish anything without my boss here to help translate. But they are nice, nonetheless.
I think they are just acting nice and they think I am an idiot.
Our initial strategy meeting breaks and I ask if there coffee anywhere in sight. I am trembling with caffeine withdrawal. Someone leads me to a machine which looks like it landed from Mars. I don’t know where the cups are. I don’t even know where to start on this thing. My palms are sweating. I open some cabinets and found some ceramic cups. I put one under what looks like a coffee spout. I pressed the button that has a little coffee cup icon on it. Nothing happens. I press it a few more times. I look on the side of the machine for a switch, but nothing happens.
Someone walks by and says something I don’t understand.
“Sorry, can you help me with this?”
“Yes, please, I can, that is what I asked! You don’t speak French?”
“Uh, not enough, apparently. I’m happy to be here but I am going to need some help.”
He presses buttons and opens a thing and adds water. I need to learn this machine.
“Et voila! You just press this button now and your coffee comes out.”
“Thank you so much! I appreciate it!”
I press the button and a squirt of coffee comes into my cup, maybe about an inch. I press the button again, but nothing happens.
So I drink my inch of coffee and look around the office where I will be living for the next month. I tremble, and I worry. This is all so foreign.