Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Potty and the Pussycat

I was there—I was finally in Paris!  It was the morning of my first full day in France, and after the horrific travel adventures I'd had on the trip over, I was happy that we were venturing out on foot.

I was also chomping at the bit to put my high school and college French classes to good use.

We decided to visit the Eiffel Tower first.  It was a chilly day, and the walk over was invigorating.  As we got close, my husband was practically sprinting to the monument, but I stopped him to remind him that we were supposed to take pictures of me wearing my friend Bob Butterbottom's yoga pants at the Eiffel Tower.  (See the cute little cow on the pants?  They're comfy too!  You can buy them here!)

I'm an awful model, and picture after picture came out looking dreadful.  I have no idea how to "pose," so after twenty minutes of painfully cheesy photos, I decided the following one was somewhat usable and stopped torturing us both with the project.

  Can you imagine me on America's Next Top Model?  
They'd laugh me off the show. 

With the embarrassing photo shoot out of the way, we excitedly proceeded to the Tower!  Surprisingly, it looked just like all the pictures I'd ever seen of it, except for one thing—none of the pictures ever showed the mobs of people waiting for hours to go in for a tour.

We spent quite a bit of time viewing it like this and feeling like cattle while we waited for the line to move.

 At least it made for a neat photo. 

By the time we were finally through the doors I was just dying to try out my French.  Coincidentally I was also dying to pee, so I thought it would be a good time to test out my skills.  I walked up to someone who looked official and politely said in smooth French, "Où est les toilettes, s'il vous plait?"

He answered, "Go up one level and they're on your right."  I smiled.  "Merci!" I said, a little too cheerfully.  When I got to the bathroom it occurred to me that he had answered me in English.  Oh well...apparently I had "tourist" written all over me, but I didn't care—I had successfully navigated my first real interaction with the natives. 

After pottying, we took pictures of the view and milled about on the various levels, reading the informational plaques and occasionally wondering what some weird looking building in the distance was.  The view was lovely.

I just wish I knew what I was looking at!  There were so many buildings!

Lunchtime came, and I was excited to try out my language skills again.  I easily ordered in French, and when my husband sat down next to me at the table I was feeling downright smug about my ability to communicate.  

Of course, it's usually when I'm feeling confident that I make a gigantic ass out of myself and am reminded that I'm a blundering idiot.  Therefore, I probably should have expected what was coming.

That evening we went out to a nice restaurant.  I was translating the menu for my husband when I felt an odd—yet somewhat familiar—tickle on my neck.  I turned around to discover a cat curled up in a little bed right behind my head.

 Le chat.

My husband asked me if it was real.  Judging by the amount of fuzz and dander lining the little basket and considering it had just brushed me with its tail, I was pretty sure it was a real living cat.  It was also breathing, which would be a heck of a neat trick if it was stuffed.

I leaned in close to the snoozing animal, swelling with affection as I remembered my years of having cats as pets.  My husband looked at me with annoyance.  We were at a nice French restaurant, and instead of gazing lovingly into his eyes and cozying up, I was cooing over a ratty-looking fuzz ball. 

"Hey honey, what are 'haricots verts'?" he asked.

"Do you think we're allowed to pet it?" I answered.

He rolled his eyes.

"I'm going to ask the waiter if I can pet the cat," I said decisively.

My hubby sighed.  "Whatever," he said and went back to frowning over the menu.

I thought about the best way to ask.  I wanted to say, "Is the cat friendly," but I couldn't remember the word for 'friendly.'  The closest I could come was "amorous."  I couldn't remember how to say "pet the cat," but I thought I knew how to say "stroke the cat."

I shouted "Excusez-moi!" as our waiter passed by.  I smiled and stammered something that roughly translated to:

"The cat—it is amorous and wants the stroking?"

The waiter gave me a rather perplexed look, frowned, and said, "Euh, no, no, please no touch.  Thank you."  He shuffled off.

My husband looked at me like I had two heads.

"You asked if the cat was amorous?

"I couldn't remember the word for 'friendly.'" I said defensively.  "Besides, the guy knew what I meant."

"Yeah, and they're probably having a big laugh about you right now in the back," my husband countered.  "What are 'haricots verts'?"

I'm sure I was beet red at this point.  I felt like a complete ass, but there was no way I was going to let my husband think I didn't know what I was doing.  I explained that haricots verts were green beans, and then I turned back to the kitty, who apparently sensed he was being talked about and wanted to be privy to the conversation.  He had lifted his head and was squinting at me with disdain.

Of course, all cats sort of look at people with disdain, so I didn't take it personally.

It wasn't until my husband smacked my leg and said, "I'm over here!" that I stopped fussing over the cat and turned my attention back to dinner.

 But seriously...a cat at the table?  Who wouldn't be preoccupied? 

I made it a point to be sure to interact with my husband more than the kitty.  And to minimize my embarrassment, for the rest of the evening I limited my French to phrases I was sure I knew. 

We actually had a lovely dinner, despite our furry distraction.

The next morning, I made my mind up to redeem myself from the previous evening's embarrassment.  We were headed to the Louvre, and when we arrived, I made a show of picking up the French brochure instead of the English one.  I made it a point to speak to employees in French (people were still answering me in English though), and I ordered in French in the cafeteria.

 We posed for pictures in the courtyard of the Louvre.  

Afterward, we went shopping, and I successfully talked to a couple of salespeople.  Things were going remarkably smoothly.  Walking through the streets of Paris, hand in hand with my sweetheart, I was just starting to feel confident in my French skills again.

It was right about then that we encountered a rather odd looking restroom out on the street.

It was a futuristic silver dome, and my husband quickly identified as an automatic toilet.  Apparently it did everything from flushing for you to washing and sanitizing the entire inside before the next person used it.

I didn't need to go to the bathroom terribly badly, but we'd discovered that half the bathrooms in France are clogged, broken or filthy, and you can't be guaranteed toilet paper, a door, or even a seat in some cases.  And you usually have to pay to use these sad facilities.  Therefore, I decided I should take the opportunity to go while I had a sanitary—and free!—bathroom to use.

 I was pretty psyched about a clean potty, even if it did have bizarre symbols on it.
I stepped inside and the door closed in front of me, encasing me in a windowless metal pod.  I'm not usually claustrophobic, but this did feel surprisingly confining.  I was just telling myself to relax, silly, when a female voice came through a hidden speaker, jabbering in rapid-fire, incomprehensible French.

I had no idea what she was saying, but I assumed it was something along the lines of, "Welcome to the crazy-ass high-tech Star Trek toilet.  You see the potty; notice how clean it is.  We French are awesome.  Thank you."

I took that as my cue to sit and pee. 

When I was done, I stood up and looked for the 'flush' button.  I couldn't find one.  I searched around the toilet and in the general vicinity, but there was no obvious 'flush' mechanism.

I remembered my husband saying that the whole thing was automated, so I thought perhaps it was waiting until I washed my hands to flush.  So I walked over to the sink and pressed the button for water.

No water came out, but the French voice returned, urging me to do something I didn't understand.  I cocked my head and tried to catch a word or two, but I was getting nothing.  This toilet was clearly not meant for anyone not highly proficient in conversational French. 

I pressed the 'water' button a few more times, and every time I did, the French voice cut off in the middle of its spiel and started the urgent message from the beginning.  I could feel my heart racing as I began to panic.  I couldn't get the water to turn on, I had no idea what was going wrong, and I was being verbally admonished by a scarily pleasant-sounding femme-bot.

As I whacked the 'water' button with increasing force, I vaguely wondered if the pod would go into "lock-down" mode if I continued.  I pictured being stuck inside until the authorities came to arrest me for tampering with public facilities, and I decided to quit while I was ahead.

I turned around and punched the "open" button on the door.  I was a little worried that it wouldn't open—since the toilet hadn't been flushed—but it immediately released me back into the street, where I grabbed my husband by the arm and hauled him quickly away.

"What happened?" he asked.

"I don't know.  I couldn't figure out what to do.  The water wouldn't turn on.  I guess I panicked and just left."

"You just ran out?"

"Yep.  Oh well..."

He laughed and gave me a squeeze. "Only you would find a way to mess up using an automatic bathroom!"  He kissed the top of my head and took my hand.

What can I say?  They didn't prepare us for the "potty pod" in high school French.  Despite all my best efforts, I really was turning out to be a typical ignorant American.

I guess that's why, when it's something really important—like safety—the French don't mess around.  They just post a really obvious sign, like this one I spotted in a shopping center. 


Fortunately, the rest of the trip was mercifully disaster-free, and I considered it nothing less than a personal triumph when, on our last night there, we went to a super-fancy restaurant and the waiter actually responded to me in French when I asked where the bathrooms were!

(Of course, I didn't understand a word of what he said.  I nodded and said "Merci," and then I ducked around the corner, went up to the greeting station and asked the person at the desk, "Um, where are your bathrooms?"  But no matter; I consider it a victory that I was even spoken to in French in the first place.)

So all in all, I deem the trip a success.  I may have had a terrible flight over and made an idiot out of myself in Paris, but at least I've got some great stories to tell.

Oh, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to name my next cat "Amorous."

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Friday, April 6, 2012

Fight or Flight ... to Paris!!

I sat at the airport, fighting to gulp down the firmest (and most expensive) "pretzel bites" I had ever encountered.  I had spent the whole week vacillating between frantic worrying and manic excitement, and I was aware that I was eating way too fast.  I couldn't help myself...I was a bundle of nerves!  I was taking my first international flight, by myself, to meet my husband in Paris!

My carry-on suitcase kept falling over at my feet and crashing into the legs of passersby.  "I'm sowwy..." I said again and again, as I fought to swallow the concrete in my mouth and simultaneously haul my suitcase upright.

It's not surprising the damn thing couldn't stand up straight—my carry-on was most certainly packed over capacity.

See, I'd had a small...situation...with packing.  

My husband had insisted that I not check any bags.  After all, I had a layover in Zurich, and all manner of mishaps could happen to my luggage between here and Paris if I didn't keep it with me at all times.  So I had bought myself a rolling backpack to hold the stuff I'd need for the plane, and the rest I attempted to cram into a small carry-on suitcase.

This would have worked out fine if I hadn't broken my tailbone recently.

See, the first leg of the flight was seven and a half hours, and there was no way my sore bum was going to tolerate that much abuse without the specially-designed butt pillow I had purchased at a medical supply store. 

The only problem was that it was huge.

No, they did not have any smaller ones, and no, my butt is NOT that big.

The ass cushion presented a serious packing dilemma.  It definitely would not fit in my backpack, and even when I squished it up and stuffed it into the suitcase, it was nearly as large as the bag itself.

 Hmmm...maybe some undies could go in the hole...

Even with the bare minimum packed (I was in danger of having to wear the same pair of pants the entire trip by the time everything was stuffed in the bag), it barely fit.  I had to unzip the expandable section and sit on the suitcase to get it closed.

But none of that mattered now.  I was going to Paris!  In a matter of minutes they would be calling my section...oh, wait...they were calling my section.  I chucked the remaining pretzel bites—which by this point could have served as substitutes for Lincoln Logs—threw my backpack on, and dragged my painfully overstuffed suitcase onto the plane. 

Now, as a vertically-challenged person (I'm 5'1" on a good day), I always need help lifting my carry-on bag into the overhead compartment.  Picture a blond, pale-skinned Snooki—sans heels—trying to heave an overstuffed carry-on that's half her size into the overhead baggage bin, and you've got me...except without the horrible hair and the bad makeup and the slutty clothing and the obnoxious attitude...

Actually, never mind, don't picture Snooki.

Anyway, I always end up holding up the boarding process while some poor shmuck behind me is stuck helping me stow my bag.  Thankfully the embarrassment usually only lasts a couple of seconds, and most people are pretty nice about it.

Unfortunately, this time the kind gentleman who offered to help me was stymied by the fact that my bag seemed to be too tall for the overhead bin.  It just wouldn't fit.  People murmured and grumbled as the guy next to me sweated and grunted and shoved.  I could see stewardesses gesturing in my direction, and I knew what was coming,  They were going to ask me to check the bag.

My voice goes all high-pitched and screechy when I'm stressed or embarrassed, so I'm pretty sure everyone in coach heard me when I shouted, "Wait!  I know what the problem is! It's my giant ass-pillow!"

I stood on my tip-toes, unzipped my bag and noisily wrestled the humongous piece of medical equipment from my carry-on, which was still precariously balanced over my head on the edge of the storage compartment.  

I'm pretty certain there was an audible sucking sound when my suitcase finally released the pillow, but I can't be entirely sure because I was too distracted by everyone staring at me as if I were a performing circus elephant that might, at any minute, fall off its ball and land in a pile of its own poo.  (I guess now I know how Snooki feels, at least.)
I heard a few murmurs of "What did she say?" so I held up the pillow to clearly display it to all the curious passengers.

"I broke my tailbone, and it's a long flight, so..."

I saw sympathetic looks and nodding heads.  One passenger even blurted out, "Oh, you poor thing!"  I signaled to my gentleman helper that he could probably easily stuff the suitcase in the overhead compartment now...and sure enough, it slid right in.

Crisis over.  *sigh*

I tucked my backpack under the seat in front of me, settled into my seat—ass pillow in place, of course—and opened the hermetically-sealed package of blue dryer lint that the stewardesses mistakenly referred to as a "blanket." 

(On a side note...I'm not sure exactly what airplane "blankets" are made of.  Like pork rinds, they seem to be made of embellished nothingness, and are therefore a complete mystery to me.  But my sister bought me a Snuggie one Christmas, and the first time I washed it, I swear I peeled enough airline blankets from my dryer's lint screen to service at least three people.)

I threw the mystery-fabric over my lap, settled in, and dug out my cellphone to snap the following picture:

I was going to Paris!  (You can see how excited I am—I've gone all blurry from anticipation.)

The seats next to me were blessedly vacant, so after a moment's hesitation and a brief internal debate about the importance of being environmentally responsible, I stole the little plastic bags of Snuggie lint from those seats too, piled up all the pillows, and built myself a little sleep nest.

The plane was to arrive in Zurich early the next morning, at which point I'd have a brief layover, and then I was to finally arrive in Paris at around 10:00 in the morning.  I was significantly exhausted from the stress of the week, and I was looking forward to getting some good rest on the flight over.

I smiled as the pilot cheerfully introduced himself over the loudspeaker, dutifully listened to the safety precautions—nodding as the stewardesses assured us that "even though your mask may not inflate, air is flowing,"—and watched a few obnoxiously loud movie previews.  Then the lights went out, the pilot wished us a pleasant flight, and I swallowed a sleep-aid pill and snuggled into my nest, looking forward to waking up to the sun rising in Zurich.

I was therefore completely surprised when I was awakened in the middle of my personal snore-and-drool fest by the pilot's voice booming loudly through the cabin.

"Ahhh...excuse me, ladies and gentlemen...I'm so sorry to disturb you, but..."

I looked around—it was still pitch dark outside.  What the heck?

"You may not be aware of this, but two of the bathrooms on the plane have stopped working.  We are about four and a half hours into the flight, and at this point, we feel it is a better choice to turn around and head back to base, then change planes.  We're truly sorry about this inconvenience, and we assure you we will do everything possible to get you to your final destination as quickly and smoothly as possible."


My sleepy brain attempted to process this information through its drug-induced haze.  We were more than halfway there.  Most people on the plane were asleep, and there were certainly still enough bathrooms left—since the plane wasn't even close to full—so why were we turning around and flying four and a half hours back?  Wouldn't it just make more sense to continue?

Now, I have no idea of what goes on in the inner workings of airlines, but I've watched plenty of episodes of Lost, and I know that some strange shit sometimes happens on flights.  Perhaps the pilot suddenly realized that if we continued on that same aircraft we would all crash onto a mystical island with smoke monsters and talking dead people.  In that all means...get us the hell off that plane!

Not digging this idea.

But anything short of that seemed just ridiculous.

The passenger across the aisle and I exchanged meaningful looks.  "Why would they turn the plane around just because two bathrooms are broken?" she asked me in a conspiratorial whisper.  I didn't know, but the adrenaline had kicked in again as I realized that I would now miss my connecting flight.  My phone wouldn't work internationally, and since we were going to arrive back at our starting point in the middle of the night, I knew my husband's cell would just go to voice mail (which he may or may not remember to check).

I spent the flight back alternately sulking and worrying.  I didn't bother stuffing my giant ass pillow back in my carry-on when we arrived back at the home airport.  Screw it...if they were going to yell at me for having an extra gigantic pillow on my person, they were going to get one hysterical cry-fest. 

I called my husband's cell, left a crazed message on his voice mail, and then texted him about ten times to tell him I would not be arriving in Paris at 10:00, and that I had no idea how I would get in touch with him when I finally did arrive.

We hadn't planned for this possibility—I didn't even know what hotel he was staying at (which, upon reflection, seems like a rather important detail that we definitely should have gotten ironed out before I left).

A very, very nice woman next to me told me that her phone did work internationally, and that when we arrived in Zurich I could call my husband from her phone.  Thank God.  I made a mental note not to let her out of my sight.

The airline had to round up a new pilot, crew, and plane (per regulation), so we all sat despondently and waited anxiously, trying to ease our nerves with meaningless conversation.  It was the middle of the night, so everything in the airport was closed.  All we could do was to sit, sit, sit, sit...and we did not like it, not one little bit.  (Thanks, Dr. Seuss)

After an eternity of waiting, we finally boarded the new plane.  The seating arrangement was the same, and this time I didn't even hesitate before angrily tearing into every airplane blanket within arm's reach.  I reconstructed my sleep nest, paid no attention to the new pilot's "We're very sorry...blah, blah, blah" speech, completely ignored the safety warnings, flipped the little television the bird when the movie previews came on, lay down and angrily folded my butt pillow over the top of my head to block out any extra sounds.

The pillow, mercifully, did not smell like butt.

Thank God for small favors.

I was awakened by a service cart smashing into my foot.  I opened my eyes and squinted into the sunlight as a flight attendant asked me for my trash.  We were preparing to land.

Once we were off the plane, I stalked the international-phone-woman down the ramp and glanced at the clock as we entered the terminal.  It was 2:00 in the afternoon.  I was halfway through my first day in Paris, and I wasn't even there yet.

The kind lady let me use her phone and I called my husband.  He had—fortunately—checked his messages, and he was fully aware of what was happening.

"Don't worry!" he said cheerfully.  "The airline has already made arrangements for you to transfer to another flight.  I have all the information right here online.  You'll be coming in on flight " blarg...and I'll meet you there."  My brain was so addled from sleep and stress that I didn't remember any of the information; all I knew was that he would be there to meet me, and I that was all I really cared about.

I proceeded to the service desk, where they promptly issued me a new ticket and pointed me in the right direction.

The flight to Paris was a blur.  Somehow the sleep I had gotten on the other two plane rides seemed to have done absolutely nothing for me, and I passed out almost immediately upon takeoff.  I woke up in darkness to the captain's voice thanking us for flying with Unmemorable Airlines.  He announced that we were landing and that the local time was 6:15 p.m.  It felt like three in the morning.  I couldn't wait to see my hubby at the gate.

There was only one problem:  he wasn't there.

I wandered about for a good twenty minutes, and when he still hadn't arrived, I approached the "help" desk, explained the situation to the employee and asked if my hubby could be paged.  I was answered with a curt, "No.  We do not page.  He eez probably in zee cafe.  Get a coffee and calm down.  Can I assist zee next person?"

Well, that was helpful.

I wandered off aimlessly and tried to figure out my next move.  I had no idea how to find my husband, and the new arrivals were clearing out quickly—there was no one around who looked sympathetic enough to help me. 

Then I spotted an internet station.  Hallelujah!  

I inserted my credit card and logged into my email.  There was a message from my hubby!  It was my flight change information—when I was landing and where he would meet me.  Uh-oh...the information was all wrong.  He was expecting me at Terminal 2, and I was at Terminal 1.

(Now, in the retelling of this, my husband asked me why I didn't just go to Terminal 2 and find him.  The answer was simple: I didn't think I could.  I was so sleep deprived and stressed out that I didn't realize I could access Terminal 2 from where I was.  I thought I had to go back through the airport to get to another terminal, and when I had tried to do that I had been stopped by security.  I was so tired I didn't realize I could just walk around the outside.)

So I composed a frantic email to my hubby, letting him know that I was waiting for him at Terminal 1.  I figured he'd be checking his phone for any communication from me when he couldn't find me.

I pressed send, then stared wide-eyed at the screen, tapping my foot restlessly and bouncing up and down like an overanxious chihuahua.  I kept hitting the "refresh" button, waiting for a response. 

Finally: a reply!!

I frantically opened the email to read this:
This is an automated message.  Sugar Pie is out of the office on business and will be back in the office on blah, blah, blah...  He will contact you as soon as possible when he returns.  Thank you. 

I started to cry.

I logged out and sat down on a bench, trying to figure a way out of my mess.  When I looked back at the blatantly unhelpful "help" desk, I noticed a different employee was standing there, so I decided to inquire again.  This time the lady was nice.  Perhaps she took pity on me because I really was beginning to resemble a sleep-deprived, confused, sweaty cast extra from Lost.

"Um, my husband's waiting for me at the wrong terminal.  Is there any way you can call over to Terminal 2 and let him know I'm over here?"

She nodded and dialed, then babbled something in French and waited.  A couple of seconds later she smiled at me and gave me a "thumbs-up."  I just about jumped across the counter and kissed her.

"He knows you are here and is on his way," she said kindly.  "It is a twenty minute trip from that terminal.  Is a very big airport.  Sit down.  He will be here."  

I sat gladly and breathed a sigh of relief.

In about twenty-five minutes, my husband came rapidly striding into view.  Had he always been this handsome?  He was looking around frantically, and I stood up and waved.  He ran over to me, wrapped his arms around me and smothered me with kisses.

"Oh my God, I was so worried," he mumbled into my hair.  He looked me over, and it occurred to me that I had never seen him look more relieved—not even when our children were born and turned out to be perfectly normal-looking humans beings and not the hideous creatures from Alien that I'd had nightmares about birthing.

"I am so, so sorry," he said.  "I can't believe you had to go through all that.  It's just terrible.  You must be a wreck.   Come on...we'll get a cab and go back to the hotel."

I snuggled up to him in the cab and tried to clear my head.  I was finally Paris...and all I wanted to do was cuddle up to him and go to sleep.

Still, he insisted that we get some decent food, so I changed my clothes, put on some makeup so I didn't look ill, and wearily dragged myself out to a restaurant.

I don't even remember what I ate, just that it was French.  I remember the dessert, though...mostly because I have a picture of myself with it.  It was some berry sorbet that had liquor in it, and I'd never had it before.

Its sweet creaminess was unbelievably comforting, like an ice cream cone on a hot day or a bowl of chicken soup when you're really sick.  I perked up enough to smile for a photo before pretty much falling asleep at the table.

 A little makeup works wonders.

After getting some real food and having that sweet treat, I was finally able to relax and look forward to the next day's activities...although I was still too tired to be excited, per se.

But I was in Paris, where I'd always dreamed of going...and I was there with my wonderful husband.

At least the drama was finally over.   

...For the moment.

(To be continued....)

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