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winning the French lottery

As if our peregrinations around the United States were not enough, we tacked on a trip to France to the end of our home leave.

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One of D’s closest friends was getting married in southern France and he wanted D to be in the wedding party. The idea was to take a red-eye to Paris, where we would separate, D going on to Toulouse for the bachelor party while S stayed in Paris visiting friends. S would then fly to Toulouse the following day so that we could travel together to the tiny village where the ceremony would take place.

The French air traffic controllers had other ideas, however. The day before we were supposed to fly they announced a full-force strike. Miraculously, although our airline immediately cancelled half of its twice-daily flights to France, our itinerary to Paris remained unaffected. D’s flight from Paris to Toulouse was cancelled, however, so he rebooked it at JFK before we left New York.

Arriving in Dublin in the wee hours of the morning we were uncertain what to expect and were heartened to see that the Dublin-Paris leg was still slated to depart as scheduled. Unfortunately, the posted departure time proved to be misleading. As we boarded, the airline personnel told us that the plane had not actually received clearance to take off for France. They expected to wait at least two hours on the ground but wanted to board everyone on the off-chance that the green light to depart would come earlier.

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We boarded, taxied away from the gate, and drove slowly to a random part of the runway. After the pilot was satisfied with his parking job, the flight crew opened the door, and we waited. People were allowed to deplane — some passengers gave up on the flight altogether and went off for business meetings after turning in their boarding passes in disgust. Others stood outside watching their kids play around the wheels of the parked plane. The scene was so bizarre that it defied questioning.

D thought he had left plenty of time to make the onward flight to Toulouse but his four-and-a-half-hour layover began to feel more and more insubstantial the longer we waited. All in all we spent three and a half hours on the tarmac in Dublin before receiving authorization to depart, arriving in Paris at 12:30pm. D’s flight to Toulouse was scheduled for 1:30pm; the only problem was that the rebooked flight left from Orly and we had flown into CDG, on the other side of the city. The Air France staff at the airport were less than helpful, straddling the line between indifference and faint hostility. It would have taken 6-7 hours to go from Paris to Toulouse by train so D took a shuttle to Orly, hoping for the best.

The next two hours were a sleep-deprived roller-coaster ride of alternating hope and despair. D caught a bus as soon as he stepped outside the terminal, raising the faint prospect that he could actually make it to Orly in under an hour. The bus ride between the two airports only took 45 minutes; unfortunately, the driver also spent an equal amount of time circling the various terminals at CDG to pick up additional passengers, so it was 2pm by the time D arrived at his destination. Fortunately, as all flights were either delayed or cancelled, D’s flight had been pushed back to 3pm. Perfect!

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Inside the terminal complete pandemonium reigned. Stranded commuters jostled each other as they tried to corner the harried and unsympathetic Air France staff into rerouting them to their destinations. D found the one airline representative who was not trapped behind a counter and explained that his flight still had not left and that all he needed was a boarding pass, which the machine would not print because the original time of departure had passed.

Boarding pass in hand, D headed to the empty security checkpoint, which was closed off by a set of sliding doors. He scanned the boarding pass in order to gain entry and made his way through the empty maze of rope stanchions. A bored security officer accepted the ticket and was about to run D’s bags through the x-ray machine when he suddenly grew animated. As D does not speak a word of French it took another security officer to translate the bad news: in the 20 seconds that had elapsed since D scanned his boarding pass to enter the security line, the flight had been cancelled.

D made his way back out into the fray and got in the line marked “Toulouse.” There were only a handful of passengers in front of him and all but one had been assisted when the airline representative that had been handling Marseille flights at the adjacent counter all of a sudden got up and left, leading the several dozen Marseille-bound passengers who had been patiently waiting in line to rush the Toulouse counter. At this moment D spotted the representative who had printed his boarding pass. She was working the Nice flights. D waited for a suitable opening and jumped the queue, explaining that his flight had been cancelled right after she had printed his ticket.

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After receiving a new boarding pass for a different flight, D finally made it through security and sat down to wait. His new flight had originally been scheduled for 2pm. It was delayed until 5pm, then pushed back to 6:30pm and again to 7pm. Two other Toulouse-bound flights that were supposed to depart first were canceled. D’s flight was pushed back to 8pm and then disappeared from the departure board altogether, but only briefly, before being reinstated again with a 7:30pm departure. The board listed three more flights that were canceled one by one.

When the announcement was made that the flight would begin boarding, the remaining passengers clapped and hugged each other. The plane finally took off around 8:30pm, more than 24 hours after we had left home to begin this journey. Even so, D considered himself fortunate — it was the only flight from Paris that reached Toulouse that day.

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