STRANDED AT THE CHARLES DE GAULE AIRPORT IN PARIS, FRANCE

I was seventeen years old when I went on a backpacking escapade with two of my close friends.  Euro and Inter-Rail passes on hand, we traveled by train and wandered like vagabonds all across Europe.  We were three audacious girls, sleeping in off the wall places like ports, train stations, roof tops, train compartments, tobacco fields and even shipyards. We felt as free and carefree as birds.

 

Despite the fact that our funds seriously tempered our choices, we managed nevertheless to enjoy some of the most memorable moments of our lives. By budgeting wisely and eating only one large meal per day, we made it possible for our trip to last an entire month.  Whenever supper hour rolled around, we found the most wonderful and quaint little mom and pop restaurants set aside from the mainstream. It became an exciting, daily ritual for us to sit down together at dinner every evening.  The remainder of the time, we drank water from our canteens.

At the end of our adventure, tired and somewhat on the lighter end of the scale, we trekked back to The Netherlands to catch our respective flights home. I was heading for Casablanca, Morocco, where my father worked at the time. One girlfriend had already boarded her flight and the other one awaited a long trip back to the States.  Since my parents would be meeting me at my destination, I didn’t hesitate to give the rest of my cash to my remaining friend.  As I saw it, she needed the money more than I did.  So, after all was said and done, we hugged, wished each other well and walked off separately toward our departing gates.

On my way to gate 23 I looked at my watch, felt pressed for time and started to run.  But since it was far from being my lucky day, I arrived in time to witness the aircraft pulling away from the portal.  Shocked at my predicament, I stood rigid for a few minutes contemplating my dreadful dilemma and internalizing the fact that I was all alone at the Amsterdam airport, without a penny to my name. On me, all I had was my airline ticket and a book of short stories.  Even my luggage had made the flight. After several minutes, ready to face reality, I returned to the ticket counter in dire hopes of finding a magical solution to my newfound, yet unexpected problem.

Ill fortune being the highlight of my day, the ticket agent informed me that there were no more flights going to Casablanca until the following week. She counseled me to fly to Paris and then upon arrival, schedule a flight to Morocco.  I agreed to this course of action and approximately thirty minutes later, found myself sitting on a plane, destination Charles De Gaulle airport.  Quite pleased to have found an answer to my unanticipated problem, I relaxed, grabbed a pillow, extended the back of my seat and delved into the fancies of my book.

Unfortunately, when we arrived in France, I was faced with yet another brutal awakening.  The entire airport was brimming with Moroccans and they were all looking for air fairs to Casablanca.  French auto manufacturing companies had shut down for the month of August and thousands of factory workers were heading back to their homeland to visit loved ones. Everywhere I looked, I saw people who desperately sought a solution to an unforeseen predicament.

Wiping the sweat off my forehead, I stood in a long line at the ticket counter, behind an important Moroccan political figure who haggled endlessly with the ticket agent.  He was wearing a gray pinstripe suit.  I watched the back of his small frame as he flung his arms around, desperately trying to convince the woman he was important enough for individual treatment and had to get to Casablanca….pronto.  He told her he worked for the king.  He even opened his briefcase to show her his papers.  But still, she could not do anything for him.  It was at this point that I realized how very stuck I was.  And, standing there all alone amongst thousands of people, I had no idea what I was going to do.

Suddenly, I felt a gentle tap on my back shoulder.  I turned around to see a handsome pilot in a blue uniform standing in front of me.  He smiled and said “are you looking for a flight to Casablanca?”. Totally surprised at his question, I looked around to make sure he was talking to me. Yes, he was in fact directing his attention right at me. “I am”, I uttered in complete bewilderment.  “Come on then”, he answered, “follow me”.  And without further ado, I turned one hundred and eighty degrees to follow him through the thick crowd of people.  As we walked in zigzag fashion, he spoke over his shoulder. He explained that he was flying overhead on his way to Morocco and heard of the situation below.  Since there were extra seats on his plane, he made a special landing.  We reached the Air France ticket counter and he told the agent to book my flight.  He then bid me farewell and disappeared into the mass of people.  A half an hour later, I was boarding the plane. I felt such a relief.

When we landed in Casablanca, I was so glad to be home. The empty airport was a contrast to the one I had just left.  It seemed so quiet and peaceful.  I took a deep breath and looked around at all the familiar sights. My parents had come and gone and I needed to call and inform them of my arrival.  There was only one problem.  To do this, I needed a coin for the phone.  I looked around the lobby and saw a man and woman talking by the doorway, so I approached them carefully.

With a puzzled expression on his face, the short stocky man turned his head and looked over at me.  I courteously asked him if he would be so kind as to spare twenty franks.  It came with an explanation of how I needed to call home.  Without hesitation, he agreed to do this and then went on talking to his lady friend, completely ignoring me.  I noticed his arm move and saw him, ever so slowly, reach into his pocket to look for change.  All the while, I felt like a beggar standing beside him, waiting patiently.  Each expectant second felt like an hour. Sluggishly, he removed his hand from his pocket, looked through his change and gave me the coin I needed.  But, in so doing, he never looked my way. I said “thank you”, graciously and walked to the pay phone to make my call. Fortunately for me, my parents were home.

Not too long afterwards, my mother and father arrived at the airport to pick me up. We greeted each other affectionately and then went over to collect my luggage from the back storage room.  We walked outside, put the suit cases in the trunk of the car, got inside the vehicle and drove away from the terminal into the city.  On the way home, I recounted the entire story of my calamitous afternoon.  My parents were appalled.

Two days later, my father came to me and we had a talk.  At the end of our conversation, he gave me a credit card and said, “Princess, don’t ever leave home without this card.   Always make sure you have it with you wherever you go”.  Looking back, I have to say that this was a good move on his part because, as a result of his action, I never experienced such trepidation again.

©2000 by Jean Ligtvoet

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