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Paris When You're Frazzled

Or, 'Of Bombs and Baggage'

by Scott McNutt

When Luna and I were together, we were quite the world travelers, real globetrotters...we trotted into innumerable bathrooms in various countries on three continents. Southern France was one such trot. Regarding this trip, I have an admission: In another column, I identified baggage as what's worst about traveling. Baggage is NOT what's worst about traveling. Baggage in France, that's what's worst.

A helpful French city to know is "Arles," because it is pronounced almost the way it looks, "R-L"(silent "s"). This is unlike every other word in French. For example, "Paris" is pronounced "London." But, most importantly, "aRRRRLLLLes!" is a great sound to make when you are feeling frazzled, which you almost always will be in France.

Between our arrival in Paris and our departure for the south, we planned to quickly see some of Paris's famous attractions, like Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and Jerry Lewis. But our baggage ended up on another flight, so we sat around Customs waiting for it and practicing our French by saying "Arles!" a lot. Actually, I said "Arles!" Luna speaks fluent French, so she just cussed. Her knowledge of the language was a great help, because without it, when the bomb threat occurred, we might not have known that the soldiers were refusing to tell us about it.

You see, these nice Customs agents encouraged us to go get something to eat in the concourse. They assured us they'd hold our luggage for us when it arrived. We were gone maybe 30 minutes. Not only was getting back into Customs practically impossible (a new shift of attendants had arrived who clearly believed Saddam Hussein was lurking in the airport, cleverly disguised as an American couple); not only did we discover our luggage—OURS, dammit!—dumped among a huge pile of "unclaimed luggage" (leading to a titanic confrontation between Luna and the unflinching French bureaucracy: the attendant insisted various forms be filled out and the bags held overnight; Luna won the argument by grabbing the bags and running); not only these indignities, but then we had to get out of Customs again.

With other travelers flocking behind us, we led the surge toward an exit. A stout, matronly attendant leapt to bar the way. She made one incomprehensible noise, "——!" (possibly "Arles!"), picked up a table, and thumped it at us. Our charge thwarted, we milled about indecisively.

"Arles!" Thump! The matron lurched closer. Sensing peril, we backed away. She began chasing us with gusto: "Arles!" Thump! "Arles!" Thump! We fled, herded by more tables and attendants. And suddenly, we were out of Customs! But not out of danger: A security force armed with automatic weapons was shutting down the airport, section by section.

Luna decided we needed money. I thought this extremely wise. I figured we would soon have to bribe our way out of imprisonment and possible execution, because the cash exchange machine was inside the latest section being shut down.

Ever brave, Luna approached the armed sentry to plead for a postponement of the process so she could use the machine. I declined to accompany her. Having reached a ripe, reflective middle age, I find truly alarming the idea of entrusting an armed 18-year-old child with the responsibility of not using his machine gun on annoying tourists like me.

Luna asked the soldier what was happening. He answered in generalities. Luna inquired whether she could use the machine. "Non!" the boy said. She asked again what was going on. Again he replied with generalities. She persisted. He gaped at her for a moment, then brought his hands together and yanked them apart in an explosive gesture. "Boom!" he said. We headed south.

Despite the bombs and the baggage, we had some good times. How could we not? It was France in springtime, when the bees make honey and the birds regurgitate worms. We laughed. We cried. We said "Arles!" We didn't see the Eiffel Tower, but as we were leaving, we caught a glimpse of Notre Dame. Of course, it was at night and from a plane, so it could have been Jerry Lewis. Or possibly a pile of unclaimed luggage. But not OURS. Secure in our seats, heading for home, we knew where OUR luggage was: on another flight. Arles!

May 10, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 19
© 2001 Metro Pulse