We'll Always Have Paris
Story published March 17, 2020, in the Daybreak section of The Day.
We started planning a dream trip to London and Paris way before the word "coronavirus" leapt into the popular lexicon.
And yet, by the time Libby Friedman and I left on Feb. 29 ("the day that doesn't exist," we joked), fear had started ramping up in America to the point that we had to make a decision: to go or not?
At that point, it was unclear if we would be able to reclaim the money we had spent on plane tickets and lodging. And the White House was hardly cautioning tourists against travel.
So we decided to wing our way to London for three days of fun visiting family, then take the Chunnel to Paris for another 10-day stay through Saturday, March 14. We saw all the sites: Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Monmartre, the Paris Opera and much more, notching more than 20,000 steps on some days, according to our fitness app.
Through day eight in Paris, everything seemed perfectly normal. We took the Metro every day and saw no signs of panic among the French people, very few of whom wore masks. The only major hindrance for tourists was a surprising shutdown of the Louvre museum, which nevertheless quickly reopened. The bookselling area near the Eiffel Tower also had been closed down indefinitely.
Still, the open-air markets were just as delightful and crowded as ever, and the little patisseries and boulangeries seemed to be little affected as people bustled in and out with not a mask in sight, though local pharmacies admitted they had run out of antibacterial hand sanitizers.
For tourists, coronavirus seemed to be a blessing, since all the major attractions that usually saw long lines even in March were eerily easy to navigate in only a minute or two, including security checks.
French TV was all over the coronavirus story, constantly reminding people of how to avoid exposure and the importance of hand washing, rather than focusing on the political repercussions as in the United States. Cases were growing, but seemingly much less quickly than in Italy.
On Wednesday, we enjoyed a leisurely dinner at an Italian restaurant down the corner from our lovely Airbnb apartment in the Marais section of the city in the Fourth Arrondissement. We were totally relaxed, reveling in the amazing wine as we closed down the place about 11 p.m. (as usual, totally unhassled with constant questions about whether we wanted anything more to eat or drink, or even whether we wanted the check).
We retired late, probably about 12:30 a.m. Paris time, but I was not able to quickly get to sleep and had only just closed my eyes when our cellphones suddenly started lighting up about 2 a.m.
After a half-dozen unanswered calls, I figured something was up and checked messages on my phone alerting us that President Donald Trump had just closed the U.S. to European air traffic as of midnight Friday (a story that was to change a few hours later without my knowledge when the White House had to walk back the statement to explain that people with U.S. passports could always return, though they would be under increased scrutiny).
I ran through the possibilities in my mind, and there seemed to be only two: Take the Chunnel back to England, which was excluded from what initially had been called the European flight ban, or make a run to the Charles de Gaulle Airport and hope to get there early enough to rearrange our flight to leave two days early.
Meanwhile, Libby tried to reach American Express to try to get some help but was put on hold for more than two hours; I called a Delta Airlines number and was told by a recording that someone would get back to me in about four hours. Clearly, despite the early hour, many people were panicked about how they would get home.
Finally, at 4 a.m., we decided to pack up and haul ourselves, nearly sleepless, to the Paris airport, hoping to beat the crowds. It took an hour to pack up, clean up and leave a note for our Airbnb hosts, then it was off to the races in an Uber about 5:15 a.m.
The airport was insane. Hundreds of people lined up in queues before 6 a.m. hoping to figure out how to get back home. A couple of students on spring break we talked to said they had just arrived in Paris only to be told they needed to return to New York; another woman we chatted with said she was responsible for getting nine family members home to California, and she wasn't sure they'd all be able to get onto the same plane.
At the airport, I felt a bit like the hero Laszlo in my favorite movie "Casablanca" trying to acquire letters of transit to avoid the Nazi authorities, only this time we were simply trying to trade in our old tickets to Boston for new tickets to the same destination with an earlier return date.
At first, we thought it might be relatively easy. The Delta line was long, but we thought we'd get through in an hour or two. Then someone advised us that they had been able to get tickets from Air France, which partnered with our initial carrier, Virgin Atlantic.
We waited in a relatively short line only to be told that Air France couldn't help us because Virgin issued the tickets — even though our Saturday flight was with Air France.
"So where is the Virgin ticket counter?" I asked.
"They don't have one in this airport," came the reply.
"So how can I get them to change the ticket if they have no presence here?" I said.
"No idea. Maybe you could give them a call."
Given the long wait times on the phone at 3 a.m., we were not encouraged about calling any airline at 7 a.m. and getting a timely response.
Desperate, we then asked how much it would cost to buy a one-way ticket home. The first price we heard: $2,900 a person. Uh, no way. Our original tickets for two people, round trip, had been a little over $1,200.
The ticket agent finally suggested trying Delta Airlines again, so we got back in line. Not long after, I miraculously got a call back from the airline from the message left five hours before. After a few minutes, the Delta representative had all my information and said she would be reissuing an Air France ticket on Flight 8604 from Paris, leaving at 3:40 p.m. and arriving in Boston at 6:35 p.m.
"We're just trying to get everyone home safe," said the sweet-voiced agent.
We were home free. Only one issue: "I have to put you on hold for a just a few moments while I transfer you to the person who will reissue the ticket," she said.
I implored her not to drop the call, as I might then have to wait another five hours to get the ticket. The "few moments" on hold turned out to be an hour and a half.
While we waited, Libby noticed that the emailed airline ticket flight information had been updated to indicate we were going to be leaving on Air France Flight 8604, as the agent had told us. Thinking we were home free yet again, we made it all the way to flight check-in when we were told that the ticket numbers had not yet been confirmed and were advised yet again to return to the Air France desk.
In the ultimate corporate Catch-22, we were then told we couldn't talk to an Air France ticket agent because our initial ticket had been issued through Virgin Atlantic, and we couldn't talk to a Virgin customer representative because there was none in the airport.
"But this is an Air France flight," I protested. "You're a partner with Virgin Air."
"Doesn't matter; it's a Virgin Air ticket, so they are the only ones able to reissue," came the icy reply.
Meanwhile, Libby was trying another avenue. Impatient at waiting in the endless lines, she ran off to corner someone from Delta, another partner of Virgin Atlantic, to see what the story was.
The person she found turned out to be the same one she had spoken to a couple of hours before. Libby showed him the emailed ticket update, and he said he'd see what he could do.
At the same time, Delta finally got on the line to talk to me about reissuing the ticket. The representative immediately told me she couldn't do anything because it was a Virgin ticket. I thought I'd entered the gates of hell, and all roads led to a nonexistent Virgin representative.
I asked her to give me a Virgin Atlantic phone number, and she couldn't find one in France. She finally gave me a London number, but didn't know the country code to complete the call. She suggested maybe getting to England to find a flight.
"I've been waiting an hour and a half for someone to issue me a ticket, and you're telling me you can't issue the ticket?" I asked, incredulously. "We actually saw the flight information in an email, and all we need you to do is to give me a ticket number."
"I can't do that, sir. You haven't bought a ticket."
"That's right, because I already have a ticket, and I just wanted to trade it in for an earlier flight, which the previous agent told me she had arranged."
Exasperated, I finally asked how much a one-way return home would cost, and she told me $2,500 a ticket was the lowest price. We later heard of several people who were forced to pay the outrageous fare.
I finally hung up, not sure whether we'd ever make it home. Soon after, Libby arrived with a huge smile of trumph, waving two tickets in the air with delight.
"I have the tickets," she said. "But we have to hurry. The flight takes off soon."
She later explained that she showed the Delta representative the ticket information we had received and told him of our being pingponged back and forth between two airline counters. He felt bad, and he had her bypass the line and took her directly to the Delta supervisor, even as the ticket information on her phone mysteriously disappeared a few moments later.
A Delta supervisor eventually took it on as his personal mission to manually book the flight back to the United States, saying Air France never should have treated us so badly.
"They have to stop saying this (about rebooking through Virgin)," he said. "They have to reissue these tickets."
We wound up on a nine-hour flight to Atlanta, where amazingly there were about 20 empty seats, and then a two-and-a-half-hour connection to Boston, where we were greeted and happily whisked home by Libby's daughter, Margot, who had been bombarding us with phone calls. We had several adventures along the way involving duty-free shopping but were asked no questions upon arrival about being sick or having contact with the coronavirus.
But that's not to say we left the coronavirus behind us in France. Both Libby, an assistant dean at Connecticut College, and I are now self-quarantined in our home for two weeks as our workplaces have us take the safe route of ensuring that we were not infected while vacationing in what has become a Level 3 country due to the risk from the virus.
Still, as disappointing and exhausting as it was to leave France early, we believe our choice was a good one. Getting out of England appears now to be a bottleneck, made worse by the fact that the travel ban for foreigners will be extended there soon.
And leaving from France any later than Friday might have been problematic as well. I woke up Saturday to check on our original Air France flight out of Paris and found it had been canceled. An online search told passengers to call a special number to get more information.
Personally, I'd take my chances on acquiring letters of transport from Casablanca before I'd call another airline to rebook a flight in the middle of the coronavirus scare.
The only consolation? As Humphrey Bogart said to Ingrid Bergman, "We'll always have Paris."
Submitted by Lee Howard on September 30, 2020.