Sunday, December 20, 2009


I really shouldn't tell you this, because you might get awfully jealous, but our family belongs to a top secret society of intrepid travelers. The name of the society is of course top secret as well, and if I wrote it here for the cyberworld to see, I would have to kill everyone who has ever gone online. In that case, the only humans left on the earth would be a few aboriginal peoples living in forests and deserts, and somebody's Great Aunt Mabel. So I'll keep the name of our secret society firmly under wraps.

And I shouldn't really tell you this, either, but the way you enter this top secret society is by holding yourself together while traveling, no matter what. Ever been carsick while riding in a cab and had to throw up in to your backpack? That would be a good start. Run through an airport, shouting to your companions "No, keep going! We've got to get to Gate One Eighteen! This one is only Gate Eighty-One!?" That's pretty good, too. Survived six hours of paralyzing boredom in the cruelly plastic seating of any of the world's many woebegone waiting "lounges?" Well then, we'll be happy to take your application.

But don't expect things will be easy once you join us. For nobody travels with quite our mix of pluck, and luck.

Saturday morning began just about as inauspiciously as our travel-day mornings usually do.

Granted, we had been up way too late the night before at a truly beautiful Christmas party held at Jessica and Gerard's house. (Staying up too late and getting up too early are hallmarks of our wild and crazy travel style.) The party included twelve adults and their kids, just about equally divided between English and French speakers (although Jessica, who can translate faster than the people with the funny headphones at the U.N., should by all rights count on both sides of the divide.)

There had been a dusting of snow earlier in the day, Bing Crosby was on the stereo, and a big rangy tree was in the corner; so all of a sudden, it really felt like Christmas. The French don't overplay Christmas quite as aggressively as Americans do, so we hadn't been in the spirit before then. But after a day of feeling anxious about our upcoming travel, we loved the feeling of roasting ourselves by a roaring fire, drinking from a vat of mulled red wine, munching on delicious little red-and-green colored treats, and of course luxuriating in thin shavings of Gerard's amazing truffles on toast with olive oil.

We all took turns good-naturedly massacring one another's languages, toasting the holiday, and remarking on our shared great good fortune to have met one another. The kids (five French speakers, four English, and our two Americans, ages 2 to 10) dressed up in crazily colored wigs and got all the toys out and whooped and hollered and wrestled and made a big old mess.

All in all, it was a completely ideal way for us to wrap up Part I of the grand adventure.

But the next day, we woke up feeling just a little less than fully rested for the long schlep back home.

Because I knew that snow had been predicted for the Eastern Seaboard, I went online first thing to check out the forecast. With its usual balanced, calming approach, informed me of "crippling snow from the Mid-Atlantic to the Northeast." Never one to be happy traveling in blessed ignorance, I went on to read that this "dangerous weekend storm is powering a historic snowstorm that is snarling traffic and air travel in the East."

Well, so we had that to look forward to.

We of course left one too many things to do just at the last minute, and it took longer than usual to rouse Grace out of her cocoon of sleep. It's still cold in that big stone house, even when we crank the heat up to "Unaffordable," so we all love staying cuddled under our various comforters for as long as we can. Grace can just do it longer than any of the rest of us, and this can really test my pretty inadequate patience.

Bill got us some croissants, but I was too nervous and jerky to eat anything at all. I never eat when we travel, aside from a few twix bars here and there. This might in some way or another contribute to my exceptionally short fuse on said travel days, but my stomach really can't handle a single bite while it's moving at any pace faster than a walk.

We piled our few bags into the Renault, and drove south to Nice, where, after having rushed the girls out of the house, we arrived spectacularly, ridiculously, foolishly early. The only consolation was that we were rewarded with being assigned seats together on the airplane. British Air is one of several airlines, eager to find yet another way to eke out a profit, that have now started charging you for a seat assignment before the day you actually fly. I was loath to pay another fifteen Euros times four people times four legs of the trip -- just for the assurance that my eight-and-ten year olds would be seated with me! -- so we took our chances.

Despite my usual travel-day crankiness and anxiety, the first seven hours or so were only challenging in that way that surviving crushing boredom can be. The television in the waiting area was on, alternating between a typically ridiculous (and Christmas-themed!) French gameshow, and a tiny, elf-like little meteorologist informing us about just how awful the weather was in France, and just how many airplanes had been cancelled the night before.

Thus we were lucky that our flight was not canceled, although the first flight of the day out of Nice had been. We were lucky, too, that our seats were not only together, but all on the right side of the plane, so that we could see Nice and the crusty, crunchy, icy white Alps out of our window.

I will take advantage of this single quiet moment of the story to pause for a potentially sanctimonious digression on the nature of luck. I have come to believe that luck, like good parking karma, comes to those who earn it through gratitude, rather than good behavior. With parking karma (or carma, if you like puns) you earn good parking spaces in the future by being grateful for every single one you find in the present. Believe every space is a miracle, even if it's twelve blocks away.

It is the same with luck. We humans are usually given the precise amount that we are able to notice and appreciate. So if you get some, lap it up like warm milk, my friends, and thank the Universe or whatever else sent it your way. Don't get too greedy expecting more luck, and suddenly more unexpected luck will come spilling your way.

End of lecture, and now onto the parts of the story where our traveling pluck is most required, and our good luck keeps us alive. If only barely so.

When we landed in Heathrow, the nice man kindly added some stamps (even better than Girl Scout Badges) to our passports, then sent us on to the American Airlines counter. The ticketing agents were already in a holiday/weather delay frenzy, so when I mentioned to the sweet, beautiful girl at the counter that I was concerned our flight might be canceled because of expected bad weather in New York, she looked at me as though I might be jinxing her already cursed day. She was halfway through her little airline routine ("Did I pack my own bag, or did I let a terrorist do it for me?") when she stopped mid-sentence, and said, somewhat ominously,

"Why, that's odd."

Because, as you might have guessed if you lived on the eastern seaboard during yesterday's actually crippling -- though perhaps not "historic" -- snowstorm, our flight, AA 107, scheduled to arrive several hours into the predicted blizzard, was in fact canceled right at that very moment.

"How did you know?" She asked me, as though I were psychic. The truth is that if you're anxious enough about a whole lot of things, once in awhile you're actually right.

She was, however, challenged rather than daunted by this fact. As the other agents slowly started to grumble about the pain they were soon to feel (250 more displaced and angry passengers) she rallied, super-speedily typing us in as standby passengers on the flight leaving in 25 minutes. We jumped on the bandwagon right with her, treating her like the travel goddess she was, and trusted in her rapid-fire keystrokes and sense of purpose.

She looked us straight in the eye and promised that if we left now, she'd also try to book us on the next flight she could find, as a backup. There would be no guarantee the Standby status would work, of course, but maybe, perhaps, we just might get on. But it would be best if we run. Now.

The gate was (as gates always are, when you are running) the very last one in the terminal. I'm embarrassed to say that the other three members of our party arrived there first, but I wasn't all that far behind. The gate was jammed with actual ticketed passengers, and also a very disconcerting mass of people milling far too close to the ticket counter in the way that Standby passengers tend to do.

They/we clustered around the one middle-aged blond airline agent who seemed to be running the place. She was one of those charismatic Brits who are all about calling people "Love," and "Dearie" while having her way with them. She typed like the wind while simultaneously shouting to the other desk, directing the flight attendants and baggage handlers through a walkie-talkie, and answering a variety of desperate travel questions from the Standers-by.

Amid the chaos at the gate, all the angry and desperate souls grasping at her for a shred of her attention, she held herself above the fray, speaking aloud to herself and everyone else as a way of keeping the situation as calm as possible. She was one of those people that others gravitate to in a crisis: cool-headed, a few beats ahead of everyone else, and even a little funny in the middle of all of her frantic multi-tasking.

I deeply respected her skills. Despite the fact that she was being sorely tested by the weather and the situation, she was working as fast as she could to scour the passenger list, looking for as many spare seats as she could find.

But it was a very, very full flight. And we clearly weren't the only ones on standby.

It was beginning to look a lot like hopeless. Snow was blanketing the entire East Coast, and this was the last plane out of Heathrow to New York for the afternoon. The plane was full. Bill thought we should leave right then, and start scurrying around with all the other poor sops on our canceled plane to try to find a hotel, then reschedule a flight, maybe for Monday at the earliest.

But to me, it felt like one of those situations where we four shouldn't just do something, but rather stand there. The kind smart angel at the first airline desk had done all that fast typing on our behalf, and had had enough hope herself that she urged us to run to the gate. And now, this miraculous Gate 118 virago was whipping up another batch of good luck for somebody in the crowd.

And for a second time right in a row, would you believe it, Launa's travel intuition was right.

Because somehow, magically, our names were suddenly at the very top of the standby list. Imagine walking into Santa's workshop on Christmas Eve, and seeing there, at the very top of his records, your own name as the first delivery, with a little star and a reminder to leave extra candy canes. Not because you had earned it, but because he knew you would remember to feel lucky.

(And because we are imagining here, I have a question: does anybody ask Santa, before he flies, if he packed all his own bags?)

I won't ever know the name of that awesome ticketing agent who hooked us up so spectacularly, but she's totally in our travel society, if she's ever interested. For I'm quite sure that that beautiful, smart, and capable young woman got us the very last four seats on that day's last NYC-bound airplane.

Three of these seats were, of course, perfectly awful ones in the cramped and bumpy back of the plane, scattered around far away from one another. But as she handed us the boarding passes, the super-efficient gate agent took one look at our frightened children and said, "This boarding pass is your ticket to get a seat with at least one of your daughters: it's in the exit row. Treat it like a bar of gold."

This proved good luck both for Grace (who got to sit next to Bill) and for the woman who switched and earned herself a few additional inches of leg room. Abigail's seat happened to be next to a sweet 20-something babysitter type who instantly agreed to switch seats with me so that I could sit by my kid. (And without paying the thirty euros in advance! Now that's the cheap kind of luck.)

Or perhaps she switched with me to avoid an unpaid 8-hour babysitting shift with a potentially bad-tempered second grader. But I prefer the more generous interpretation, which was all about her heart of gold.

The pilots maintained that nice faux-calm that they tend to affect while pretending not to be flying into a blizzard. I generally appreciate faux-calm with a lot of confidence behind it, as I run my own anxiety-generator on extra high. The nice stewards brought me a dinner I couldn't eat, then sold me a few overpriced Hienekens. Abigail watched the television in the back of the seat in front of her for six hours, requiring precisely no babysitting, until she finally got too exhausted (it was by then 1 AM back in Provence) and fell sound asleep.

We won't speak of any of the turbulence in the air, as that might simply be unlucky to mention. But Bill later told me that the flight attendants clustered way in the back near his seat were pretty much united in their estimation that this was not exactly a smooth flight leading towards an obviously easy landing.

It wasn't, in fact easy, but rather the kind of landing after which every single person on the airplane applauds in appreciation and relief. I liked the attitude of the pilot, who did admit in advance that there would be "a few pretty strong wind gusts here and there," but promised to get us to the gate on time. I don't have any idea how he landed the plane in all that ice and whirling snow, but perhaps our plane had good snow tires. So, I guess it was not just a good, but a great landing, in that the plane didn't spin out of control or veer off into the ocean.

We touched down pretty much on time. But then the poor pilot to spend the next forty minutes inching the plane towards the gate, to keep it from slipping and sliding on the tarmac. It took him longer to get us from the runway to the gate than it had taken us to fly from Labrador to Long Island.

Savvier (read, less stupid) travelers would have realized that the roads would be significantly snowier than the jetway had been. We should have just gotten right on the train to the subway, but instead we believed the word of the super-agreeable taxi driver, who told us that the roads actually weren't that bad, and that he knew a good safe way to drive us to Brooklyn. I tried a few times to insist that we stick to the streets and stay off the highways, but he had that ebullient confidence I have a difficult time to gainsay.

This "good way" he had picked for some reason involved the Van Wyck expressway, which by now had become Wollman Skating Rink. The taxi would slowly fishtail one way or another, then sometimes slide to a total stop while other cars, trucks, snowplows and SUV's barreled past, beeping their displeasure. Things got steadily worse and worse, and the time dragged on and on. We were in a random part of Queens in a blizzard, with a driver whose driving experiences were more Bangalore than Bangor.

He was so darn cheerful and confident that it took us awhile to convince him to give up and let us out at the subway. Once that accord had been reached, it was still somehow another half hour before he could let us out, shivering and a little panicked, at an elevated 7 train station in Forest Hills, Queens.

We were shivering because -- as you might have imagined -- our bags were still in London. We had packed away our heavy coats back in Nice, certain we would be reunited, even briefly, with our luggage in Heathrow. As we stood under the overhang with the wind swirling around us, I pulled a thin little travel blanket over Abigail's head and Bill gave up his extra sweater to Grace.

As Grace pointed out later, we looked like an exhausted and displaced family of hobos. Which, in a way, we were, as we stood, at 10:15 at night, (4:15 AM back in Aups) in an elevated subway station in Forest Hills, with snow whipping around us in every direction. If only we had had a can of beans to cook over a nice warm trash fire, the picture would have been complete.

We were some of the most miserably lucky travelers in the world.

But nobody cried, not even me. Not when the express trains ran local, and not when we set our backpacks in a big pile of slush by mistake, and not when we had to stumble the last five blocks from the Union Street station through snowdrifts, wearing sneakers.

Both girls -- by now veteran members of our secret traveling society -- were total troopers. They ran when we said run. They didn't ask for dinner when they realized we couldn't get them any. They carried their own backpacks until they were too tired even to carry themselves.

And when I started to really freak out in the taxicab, Grace rested her head on my shoulder and rubbed my arm reassuringly, ever so gently. As she stroked and soothed me, I realized that I had done precisely nothing nice all day to deserve such a thing from her. But that's the way it is with luck. You can't deserve it, only appreciate it when it comes your way, in its most unexpected forms.

And then.

And then.

Twenty hours after locking the door in Aups, we opened the door to the tiny downstairs Brooklyn apartment, our home for the next two weeks. I had assumed it would be dark, and cold, and full not only of the detritus of our lives, left there in early August, but also full of the dust and grit of have been abandoned by us for four months.

But there was a light on behind the shutters, and the sturdy strong American furnace had filled the room with warmth. The apartment was spotless. Someone had tied little red ribbons everywhere, and hung swags of shiny paper chains from the ceiling. There were Christmas lights strung over the windowsills, and a big basket of fruit and bagels and Veggie Booty sitting on the table. There was bacon -- real sliced bacon -- in the refrigerator, and maple syrup, and orange juice and two (regular sized) bottles of Stella Artois.

And, there was an Amarylus, nearly in bloom. And fresh-baked Christmas cookies.

And a little tiny Christmas tree, decorated with lights and red bows and little ornaments. All to welcome us home after four months so far away.

What a journey between those two warm rooms with Christmas trees -- one in the dark starry night of Provence, and one in the dark snowy morning of Brooklyn.

Talk about lucky. We had somehow gotten on the last plane. We had landed safely in a blizzard, fishtailed it around Queens with the world's most misguided taxicab driver, and dragged our exhausted but uncomplaining children on three separate late-night subway trains and up five snowy blocks at what felt like five in the morning.

But what finally made me cry?

Not luck, but love, in the form of a three-foot Christmas tree with a string of white lights.

The fact that we can travel so far and so long, and still come home to our love -- for and from -- the very best friends in the world.


  1. Oh, Launa, I just did my own slippery, speedy fishtail: from laughing out loud to crying.
    Your travel story makes me shake my head with identification.

    Welcome home!

  2. Okay, so you are the best storyteller I have read in ages and ages and ages. I was right there with you every running, sliding, cold, snowy, slippery, weather-delayed step of the way. Great story! Fantastic ending. And how wonderful it is to know that it's a true story. It is true, isn't it?????

    Welcome back, dear Launa, welcome back.

  3. Hey you. Hope you guys are having a great time, ho-ho-ho and all that. Can I get your email address? I need to ask you a favour. Email me at dermotoflynn [at]

    Blog excellent as always, btw. Will finish mine one day - promise

    A bientot