In true Loosey-travel style, there were some hoops to jump through in order to actually getting our butts "across the pond."
The first issue was that there was a winter storm warning on Sunday when we left Rockford. My mom had e-mailed to say maybe we should spend the night in Milwaukee because of the impending ice that was supposed to come our way. Except dropping off X-man in a semi-strange place after we told him we'd be with him the first night, wasn't going to work. Instead, we decided we'd just leave earlier for our flight the next day.
So, we rolled out of the driveway at 8:15 a.m. and drove to Milwaukee. Why did we fly from Milwaukee and not O'Hare? Tickets from Milwaukee were $854 each. Tickets from O'Hare (on the exact same flight crossing the Atlantic) were $2k each. You do that math. Even with the $1,200 in vouchers we had with American Airlines, it was still a deal to drive an extra hour to Milwaukee.
Except when we showed up in Milwaukee, all the United flights to Chicago were already canceled. All the morning flights from American were canceled. Our 12:40 p.m. flight was still up on the board, but when we checked in the agent warned us that it was "highly likely not to go -- or at least to be very late."
They gave us a bus voucher to go to Chicago. But, MacTroll thought it would be nice to, perhaps, see if because of the circumstances they'd just let us drive down and fly back and end our trip in Chicago (saving us four hours, but still giving us the tickets for the lesser price). He called the Executive Platinum Desk and voila -- done. It was only 10 a.m., so we had basically 7 hours to drive to Chicago before our Paris flight left. Snow was coming down in flakes the size of our fists, but it was wet and warm, so we figured, no problem. We did see a couple cars that had crashed due to slippery conditions, but both were heading north on 94. We were fine heading south. Not sure why.
We arrived at O'Hare at 11:45 a.m., parked in Economy E at $17/day and checked our bags inside before making our way to the new sushi place between the American and United Airlines terminals called "Wicker Park." It was good, but as all things in the airport are, pricey. I had the Hawaiian roll (mango, tuna, salmon) and MacTroll had some spicy tuna and some maguro. The miso soup was good, and we're both big fans of edamame.
After lunch we headed to the American Airlines International Flagship Lounge. It's at the end of the K gates, and there is an unimpressive glass door with the eagle logo on it. MacTroll was very excited. He hadn't been in since he went to Tokyo, six years ago. We walk in, the ladies at the desk basically kiss his ring, and then we head into the lounge area. It's all old 1990's leather chairs. "What's the big deal?" I think.
Then I come upon the "free" buffet. In order to get into the Flagship Lounge, you have to be flying first class or be Executive Platinum on an international itinerary. All the free fresh fruit and vegetables I could eat. There was also soup, sandwiches, chips, coffee, espresso, and an open bar that you served yourself with tons of different wines and liquor and beer. "Oh!" I exclaimed, thinking, Why did we just pay for lunch somewhere? Sonia, one of the employees, looked at my face light up at the pineapple and strawberries, and was nice enough to make me a cup of it to take on the plane when we left. (My guess is she doesn't get too many people who aren't used to the lounge, so she spoiled me.)
But between my surprise when we walked in and 4 hours later when we walked out to catch our plane (which was 30 minutes late loading), I was exhausted. I don't normally sit around on my ass. I'd read an entire book. I'd found another book I brought along unreadable and now felt stupid for having it in my backpack to lug across an ocean.
When we arrived at the gate, there was some kind of glitch in the system because the flight wasn't listed on the screen behind the desk and the screen in the hallway said that our flight had left an hour before we were supposed to board. Nice. Gotta love technology. It was still running on time, and the gate agent looked as confused as the passengers to all the weirdness.
Because of MacTroll's status with American, he cashed in his upgrades. He gets six or so each year, and usually lavishes them on my parents when they travel. Every once in a while a friend goes somewhere like Hawaii or South America, and MacTroll will put his name into their code and apply for an upgrade. It's not guaranteed (it depends on availability), but often times just having his account touch someone's trip will mean they don't have to pay for baggage check in. Go figure. So, MacTroll had applied for upgrades for us on the trip. According to aa.com, we'd gotten them and had seats, but when we changed our itinerary in Milwaukee, it had revoked my upgrade, so I had an invalid seat on check in. It wasn't a problem to fix because the plane was only 1/3 full. But it was just another thing to fix. It was also my first chance to sit up in business class on an international flight.
I'd never been on a 767 before. MacTroll and I sat down in these giant seats with controls that can adjust your seat to lean back like a La-z-boy or to lay "almost" flat to sleep in. The plan was: board, eat dinner, go to sleep. Except we sat in line waiting to take off at Chicago for 2 hours. Nice. No electronic items were allowed to be used during that time frame, so I started book 2.
Then when we got up in the air, I was not anticipating a four-course freaking meal. So, I watched an hour and fifteen minutes of a movie while dinner was served. After the movie, I changed into a pair of sweats, turned on my iPhone to some music, lowered my chair into the bed position and tried to sleep. Yeah, not so easy. I took a tylenol PM. Still not so easy. It was only 8 p.m. It took me an hour and 15 minutes to fall asleep, and then I slept for 4 hours, waking up at least once an hour to adjust my position or my seat. My back and my hips were very unhappy. Probably would have been easier just to lay flat on a floor with a sleeping bag and a yoga mat under me. But I was trying to avoid the Jet Lag of Sweden 2004, where I slept for 3 days straight before I finally figured out how to be awake when it was light and sleep when it was dark.
I woke up to breakfast being served. I didn't want to. I figured I had another hour to sleep. But it was noisy, and some people had opened their windows. So, I woke up and had some fruit and yogurt. The fog was extra thick when we landed at Charles De Gaulle. There was nothing to see, and then there was concrete. The other problem -- my feet had swelled to a point where I was lucky I was wearing my ballet slipper Keens, because I wouldn't have been able to put any other shoe on my foot. Plus, they give you bottled water before you try to sleep. I thought that was weird because it was just one more thing to have around. And then I realized it's because when you wake up every hour, your mouth and lips are completely parched on a plane. Ugh.
We got off the plane and entered a "special fast pass" lane for immigration for people in business class. But immigration was very quick for everyone. No questions. Just a very, very grumpy French girl stamping passports. It took 20 minutes to wait for the baggage, so by then, what was the point of getting through immigration faster? We got our bags and left the area-- no customs forms, but also, no welcome of any kind.
We walked down to the information desk, found out where the Air France Bus was that would take us to our hotel and got some Euros from an ATM. Then we waited 45 minutes for the bus, which took another hour to fill up at other locations around the airport. It's not a nice airport. It's very old and dirty. Maybe from the sky it makes sense, but from below it's a total pain in the ass to get around.
The bus was $24 Euros round-trip, which isn't a bad deal. Particularly when the sucker drops you off across the street from your hotel. What struck both MacTroll and I though was the number of poverty-stricken high rises between the airport and downtown. It was all very Cabrini-Green-esque.
We're staying at Le Meridien Etoile. They had a big check-in counter for the "Starwood Hotel Club Members." Since MacTroll was using points for us to stay free for six days, we strolled up and were met with a giant fanfare. They gave us a fruit basket, shook our hands, told us where we could use the gym (they have a deal with the Club med gym across the street) and ran over the other amenities, like free internet, etc. Then the general manager came out to welcome us. (Yes, this is a bit strange to us, too. I mean, MacTroll needs me to remind him to zip his pants before we go out, and I keep calling him X-man or Riley.) Anyway, afterwards, we go up to our room and then I start to notice how tired I am.
We both shower, because we're feeling gross from the travel. Then we get into new clothes and decide to walk down to the Arc de Triomph. It's about a mile from our hotel through what MacTroll likes to refer to as the "Scooter district." Every other shop is a scooter store. Seriously.
A cold wind kicked up and it started to drizzle, so we walked back to the hotel. Our hotel is across the street from a little mall that has a gourmet grocery in the basement, which is very handy. We headed over there and picked up some fruit and veggies to nibble on and then got an early dinner of MacTroll's favorite meal -- sandwich on baguette. That's when we started comparing notes on the travel experience so far. And outside of sleeping for 14 hours last night, that's what we've been doing on our trip. People watching.
It's funny how American Cinema has either made the French the devils (in war movies) or made them some kind of shining example of all that is romantic. I halfway expected to see what I see in the summer in Montreal everywhere in Paris. Pretty girls, short skirts, sky high heels. but no. It's still too "winter" around here for that. In fact, there seems to be a line. Most young French people tend to fall in that very pretty, feminine category. And then the segment of 30-40 seems to disappear from the city. My guess is because that group might be somewhere mothering in the burbs. And then there's a high rate of women in their fifties and older. In fact, all the panhandlers, minus the one guy from Yugoslavia who tried to "make" me today and a little girl who tried to approach MacTroll for money on our 7-mile walk, were all elderly women holding cat food cans.
Indeed, I don't know if it's the cold of the 40-degree winter, or just big city living, but most of the folks around here walk around with really somber looks on their faces. No one laughs or smiles. The crosswalks have the little guy in green to walk and a little guy in red to stop. The epitome of the French people we've seen so far is the little red crosswalk guy with his hands on his hips looking pissed off and impatient while he has to wait to cross the road.
Julia Childs talks a lot about her search for the warm and welcoming French people among the more traditional and stern folks in her book, My Life in France. Not mean, just -- stuffy.
The one girl panhandler who approached MacTroll asked if he spoke English, before she tried to pass him the little card asking for money for her immigrant family. He walked away asking me, "Do I really not look like I live here?"
I laughed. I didn't mean to be cruel. But it was very funny, and his cluelessness was entirely endearing to me. So I started a list of behaviors/characteristics MacTroll has that anyone can see he's not French.
1) You're blonde. And not a fake blonde. It's you and small children here with naturally blonde hair. Oh, and the one other guy who was clearly speaking German. (MacTroll has decided to answer all English questions now with "Nein.")
2) Your shoulders are twice as wide as everyone else's.
3) You're smiling and laughing too much.
4) You're looking around too much.
5) Your jeans are too blue.
6) You have a map in your hands half the time.
7) You read the names of buildings and then say things like, "Oh look, it's the Assemblée Nationale, that's where the National Assembly must meet."
8) You bitch about carrying around coins.
9) You give the thumbs up, like the Fonz, to symbolize that everything is good to wait staff.
10) You don't chain smoke cigarettes.
This is a list I'm sure we'll add to over the next several days, but I find it adorable.
On the other hand, there are some WTF moments.
Like, WTF is behind the idea that if you have a large open space in Europe, you need to put up a ferris wheel or a merry-go-round? Our favorite though, WTF is behind the churro portable snack booth behind the ferris wheel at the Champs-Elysee? (You know they didn't get that idea from Mexico. That's stupid American influence. WTF goes to Paris for churros?)
Or WTF is up with dumping your small car in the middle of the street?
Right now, MacTroll sighs every time we walk by someone carrying two baguettes home or if there's a woman with a short skirt and a little poodle. I guess in his mind, that's what everyone does here. And there does seem to be massive bread consumption (celiacs beware!), but mostly, they just smoke, and litter their butts, a lot.
Yes, this is the world's longest blog post. Tomorrow is Wednesday, meaning another 7 mile walk, now that we know where everything his. Hopefully we'll get into the Louve, the Carrousel (where the Apple store is at the Louvre) and Notre Dame.
I'll also try to do some more photos.