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Friday, April 16, 2010

Such a Trip

"Are we there yet?" has taken on a whole new meaning. It's been 43 hours, but who's counting? We are still not there, not sure how we are going to get there, but we are trailing around 6 suitcases and various other backpacks, purses, cosmetic cases and knitting bags, and a toddler (no sling, nice going mama.) I am writing from a McDonald’s in a dubious quartier in downtown Paris, while the kids go up and down the escalator of the eerily empty mall we are in.

We have been caught up in one of the craziest natural disasters to hit the western world in a long time. A volcano erupted, in Iceland (it's always Iceland with me.) The volcanic ash from the fall-out, as it were, has formed itself into a giant cloud that has shut down all of the airports in Northern Europe. So as far as I know, there was not major or minor loss of life, it's not, thank goodness, like an earthquake or a flood, it's merely annoying in a big way.

You know when you hear about all of those people stranded at airports all over with no way home? You think, fess up, I know you've thought it, I have; "can't they take a train, rent a car, find a boat, something?" I'm here to tell you, they're stuck, for real. We have managed to get from London Heathrow to downtown London to Paris. But we really need to get to Bordeaux, 7 hours south of here by car.

In the past two days we have been interviewed by a major British newspaper, taken a break-neck ride to London in a very unofficial taxi, had a long wait for an even longer bus ride and taken a ferry across the English Channel in the middle of the night.

Where shall I start? Our flight was perfect. The staff of British Airways and everyone in the airport were kind, friendly even, helpful and very sweet with the children. Upon arriving at Heathrow, nothing seemed out of place. There were no announcements, notices or other indications all was anything but ordinary. It was while we were waiting in the immigration line for the second time (got sent back when we couldn't prove to the officer's satisfaction that we were all indeed, European citizens. The kids' passports are undeniably blue.) An Australian couple in front of us told us about the “cloud” that had canceled their flight and that Gatwick, the airport we were to fly out of, was closed. Once we made it back to the front of the immigration line, hurried along by Puck screaming when his feet hit the ground, we inquired of the officer examining our pass-ports. He was not sure, thought he heard something about it, but someone further on would surely know more.

When we finally had confirmation that the flight was canceled, we had a moment of discussion about the course of action to follow. As we were talking, a reporter from a British paper asked if she could interview us. As we spoke with her of frustrations and lack of any information or aid on the airline or airport’s part, we remembered our initial “family mission statement” for traveling. “A voyage is an adventure. We need to keep that in mind and go with the flow. You never know what may happen, but it will be an adventure.” The tired, hungry, impatient children were not so enthusiastic about adventure at this point in time, but it did help the adults to keep a relaxed attitude and perspective.

I jaunted up three flights of escalator to find out more. I was given different information at each spot, so we decided to take things into our own hands. The most we could do at the airport was to try to rebook, but there were no flights out for at least 24 hours, maybe more. We had to get out of the airport. I went up and out again to search for a taxi that could take 7 people and 6 suitcases into London. A security guard asked if he could help. He looked aghast when I gave him specifics, but immediately warmed up when I told him I had five children with me. He showed me the line for cabs; at least 21/2 hours of queuing, then said it would cost us at least 250 pounds. However, if I would go around the corner, into a little office on the side, they would give me the number of a minicab service that could take us all for around 70 pounds. I got the number, gave them a call, and within 15 minutes, we were on our way, in two separate cars, one with a new driver who really did not know his way around town and seemed intoxicated, but that was the car Pierre was in, so they stayed until we arrived at Victoria Coach Station.

We were just in time for the 12:00 bus to Paris. The line, though, was a mile and a half long. With the help of a young man in the information booth, we got through to the head of the line, only to find out the bus was booked solid. We made reservations for the next available trip; 9:30pm, or 21:30 hours. Then we settled in with our suitcases and our grumpy babies to wait. There was a pub next door where we had lunch and dinner. The manager lived for years in Chicago, we felt right at home. The fries ("chips" locally) were great, the drinks refreshing, only the restrooms left a lot to be desired, but they were free, as opposed to the disgusting ones at the airport and bus station. We would have loved to see London, but there were children too tired to walk any further, a budget too strained to manage the 26 pounds per person bus tour fee and Lily’s recently sprained ankle to consider. We stayed put.

Needless to say, we were the first in line at 8:30 when the windows opened for check-in. We were also the first in line for the bus, but there were many, many more people in line for the bus than seats on said bus. The crowd started to squeeze, they squeezed my children, one by one, away from me. Pierre had been obliged to take the luggage around to the back of the bus, so we were separated. We really wanted spots close together, since we would be traveling at night, in the dark. I stuck to my spot, and kept pulling my kids back to me. We made it on, found seats on the upper deck, and fell asleep before the bus left the station.

At some point the bus stopped, the lights were turned on and a voice came over the loudspeaker to say; “Passports.” Everyone sort of looked at each other, having no idea what to do, then the driver repeated “passports.” A couple people got out of the bus and the rest of us followed. We went through British immigration followed by French immigration, all in a row, and got back on the bus. We drove a little further, still no information, and waited for an hour, it was midnight. At 1:15 the bus drove onto the ferry and we all got out. It was cold, the boat was huge, there were people camping out all over the place, others partying, playing cards and watching tv. We had hot cocoa, walked out on the deck for awhile, and talked about what great stories the kids would have to tell later. We got to France at 3:30am, then to Paris at 7:30am. Here we are, waiting for the next stage, and eating more French fries.

6 comments:

  1. Oh my goodness,what an adventure,you will so enjoy your final destination, thanks for sharing it all. Cheers Marie

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  2. Wow! I so commend you and your great attitude, esp with 5 kiddos in tow :D Can't wait to read more of your adventure!

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  3. Hey Marie, thank you for reading and writing back! It's always swell to hear from you, we are now in the enjoyment part of the project, big sigh.

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  4. Hello Jen.

    We are now having a great time, the harder it is to get there, the more one appreciates it when you do...I guess. I feel no need to test this theory another time, however! Thanks for writing.

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  5. I'm jealous! What a great story! It seems that all of my worst mistakes and biggest challenges are always my favorite stories to tell. Well done! Master manifest-er! Love you guys. Can't wait to hear about the trip home. :) Love, Mikey

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  6. Thank you for the positive outlook and good vibes, it's so nice to be able to see the good in a situation. Please have a thought for the trip home though, I'd really rather it turn out less eventful than the one here.

    Hugs to you both!

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