Sunday, January 23, 2011

Plan B and the Hijackers . . . Saturday, January 22

Up for 19 hours, jet-lagged, I waited on the curb outside the car rental agency at Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport for my car, hoping the wind-tunnel effect of the breeze through the passageway would wake me up enough to drive. Rental agreement in hand, I idly memorized the plate number for my "Fiat Punto or similar Economy 4 Door Car Manual."

It might be a long wait. An impatient customer had called over my head to the counter agent helping me that he'd been waiting a long time at the curb for his car. "It'll be right up," insisted the agent. Other newly-arrived airline passengers cruised the car rental counters, searching in vain for an available car.


It had been a quick decision last fall to fly off to "Writing from the Heart" in Essoyes, France. France was awash at the time with grèves and manifestations, garnering lots of press here, which, if anyone actually noticed, had escalated it in their minds to pitched battles in the streets of France. The grèves, strikes against government action to raise the retirement age, targeted mostly transportation services.

As most French strikes seem to do, the trains -- just as an example -- may close down but not all lines at once; different lines may be affected on different days, but usually no longer than a day, possibly only hours, on a particular line, and with or without specific prior notice. In other words, who really knows? A hint to take the car to work.

Manifestations seem to be miscellaneous assortments of people who gather together to protest at various locations around the city.

Under the best of circumstances, getting from CDG to Essoyes is not easy. It's perhaps 150 miles away and off the beaten track of trains and autoroutes. Arriving at CDG late in the morning, with the first gathering of the class scheduled for late afternoon, I wanted the cheapest transportation possible! For previous classes, Janet Hulstrand, our instructor, had been able to arrange for a cab pickup for everyone from CDG or Paris and passengers split the costs. But her cab guy retired and, furthermore, arrival days, times and places for each of us was different.

So I reserved a seat on the train from Paris (the City, not the airport) to Vendeuvre, about 45 minutes from Essoyes. To get from airport to Paris, I'd take the RER B train and transfer by cab, foot or metro to the station for the Vendeuvre train. There'd be a meet up with the other workshop participants in Vendeuvre when my train arrived, to share a cab to Essoyes. A little bit complicated, but certainly doable.

Just days before the trip, threats to rail and air traffic and the fuel supply were becoming more focused, with dates for strikes being announced. Time for Plan B. Word out there even suggested that airports would be closed down, a rather major hurdle to even Plan B, but I told Air France I wanted to be rerouted through another country if it came to that. Although domestic flights were affected, they assured me long hauls would not be, but that didn't stop me from checking their website every few hours to make sure they hadn't changed their message. When Oct. 12 -- my arrival day -- began to be bruited about as a strike day, I emailed a shuttle service for a price estimate for one way to Essoyes. Yikes! 500 euros, almost half my airfare.

I'd rejected the car rental option earlier in the planning. I'd never driven in France but I've been a front seat passenger often enough to know right-of-way rules are crazy. Furthermore, could I stay awake driving after the long flight? I tend to nod off between here and ... well, anywhere.

I reserved a car.

In a stroke of good fortune, a Paris blogger promised to publish on Oct. 11 a compilation of what exactly would be affected by strikers and manifestations on Oct. 12. When I got up to go to the airport the morning of the 11th, railway outages promised to be widespread. The French railway site showed all stops for the Paris-Vendeuvre route as canceled on the 12th, so I quickly canceled my train ticket. The decision was made for me. The car it would be. I stuck my GPS with the French maps in my suitcase.

That's how I came to be standing at the curb with my little suitcase train and piece of paper in my hand and why people were wandering the airport looking for a way into Paris. 

Perfectly balanced luggage train, able to follow
old lady running full-bore
There is a lane along the curb for delivery of rental cars and for buses discharging and picking up passengers. There is a second lane running the same direction beyond that, divided from the rental car parking area by a chain link fence. We seemed to be at ground level, with more levels of airport rising above us. At the left end of the street, a ramp swoops down from the end-to-end loops of arrival and departure access roads, cars in constant motion up there. Off to the right, after a stop sign, another ramp heads left up to rejoin the terminal racetracks.

I watched for the plate number on every car as it approached in the far lane, making myself as prominent as possible there at the curb, so I would not be missed, what with buses and other vehicles stopping there too.

Then I spotted it, way down at the left. MY plate number. The car came barreling down the far lane, not even slowing until it reached the stop sign at the other end of the road, just before the left up ramp. As I began to run toward it, full-bore down the sidewalk towing my luggage train, four men emerged from somewhere on the right and began piling bags and boxes into MY car. (Mind you, I had not run in 20 years and I'd had an unfortunate incident many years before that.)

"Merde!" I thought. "C'est à moi, c'est à moi (it's mine)," I shouted, blasting through a curb cut out into the roadway, waving my paper in hand.

The four men and the driver paused, staring at what must have been quite a vision. I held my paper out to the driver, demanding in French, "Is this not mine? These are the plate numbers. This must be my car. Is that correct?" (Although it was much grander than the expected Fiat Punto.)

Citroën Picasso, upgrade from Fiat Punto,
but still four-door manual

The driver handed me the key, the men unloaded their things, one of them put my suitcase in the trunk, and they all decamped to the curb to watch me.

For starters (heh), I couldn't start the car, so I waved for someone to come back. A guy, not the original driver, came over and showed me how the steering wheel was locked. He returned to the curb. I started the engine and tried to let off the parking brake. NO CLUE about how that would be done.

I stepped out of the car and waved again. He came back, leaning in through the passenger door, and showed me a complicated little sequence of events involving a button on the center of the dash and pressing on the brake pedal simultaneously with a double punch sequence on the button. (Not a good system if you're in a traffic slowdown and forget you're back in a clutch car and stall the engine and the parking brake goes on automatically.)

The answer to the only other question I was able to ask was that, no, I couldn't use my GPS. (Uh oh.) And I was not going to wave them back again, no matter what. So directing all my concentration toward feeling out the proper clutch-gas interplay, I eased around the corner and gunned it up toward the racetrack.

Charles de Gaulle Racetrack. Car rental agency conceivably near the car icon.
So what was that all about?

They seemed a pretty amiable bunch, not wild desperados; French speakers, although they would have looked right at home playing jazz at Preservation Hall in New Orleans. (Ah, French Quarter. Maybe they were jazz musicians.) Still, there must have been someone in this little scenario not totally innocent of guile. Hijack, not by force, but by sleight of hand?

See you tomorrow.


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