I drove north through France heading to Paris, with an overnight in Le Mans, chosen as a halfway point, and for its racetrack gift shop, where I hoped to buy a gift for my car crazy grandson Mack. The city itself was a surprise, with a wonderful old town, a vibrancy that surprised me, and many restaurants to choose from.
I was still having issues with the tolls, and thought I had plenty of cash, but at one booth, standing next to Blacky, counting out every piece of change I had to get to the correct amount, over 19 Euro’s, I was ten “cents” short, which wasn’t close enough to get the gate to rise.
I ran to the car behind me which was full of young girls, and said, “Do you have ten Euros?”
“Ten Euro’s?!?!”, which is about fifteen dollars, not something lightly given to a complete stranger.
I motioned with my fingers, pinching them together and saying, “mas petite,” mixing Spanish and French, as I tend to do when I’m panicked.
“Oooh, ten centimes, oui, ‘ere,” and they put a small ten cent coin in my hand.
“Grazie, grazie,” I said in Italian, as I ran toward the booth and threw the coin in. At this point there was a long line behind me, but no one honked and the girls were laughing and waving at me as I waved and drove off.
I didn’t know if there were any more tolls but I had absolutely no more cash, so I pulled over at the next big rest stop. I tried to ask the cashiers if there were any more tolls between my current location and Paris, but no one spoke English well enough to understand what I was asking. I was reluctant to get more Euros at the ATM, I was flying to England that night and it seemed a waste, but I had to do it in the end, I didn’t want to get trapped at a toll booth again.
I was on my way to a suburb of Paris to return Blacky to his real parents. I was actually very emotional about this, I don’t remember ever being as attached to a car as I was to Blacky, he had been an integral part of my journey, my growing up process and l loved every one of his quirks. But as I got closer to his home, I realized that his owner and I had not discussed where to park Blacky. Cyril, his “Dad” was out of town, as were Jean Marc and coincidentally his daughter Julie, so I had no one I could call for help, I had to figure this one out all by myself. I had given myself an extra hour and a half to drop Blacky off and get to the airport, my goal was to be on the Metro to the airport by 5pm, with my absolute drop-everything-and-go time being 5:30. I ate up about thirty minutes of my extra time trying to find the apartment building Cyril lived in, of course Leona was not acknowledging the address and I was basically wandering around hoping to see a familiar street name, hoping that the satellite would kick in and Leona would cooperate. I made a turn and was suddenly on Cyril’s street, it was a flipping accidental miracle. I went to the building number and didn’t recognize it at all. I had been to the apartment before, when I picked Blacky up, and I knew this wasn’t the place. I asked someone walking by to help me, showed him the address on my phone, and he motioned that I was on the East rather than West branch of the street.
I finally found the building, but there was no street parking anywhere near it. Blacky had been parked on the street in front of the apartment when Jean Marc and I came to get him, but these spots were all filled. I went around the block three times looking for spaces, eating up my time and getting more United States by the minute. Finally I went onto a nearby main street that had some spaces and asked a passerby if he could read the parking signs for me and tell me if I could leave the car overnight. He said yes, but it really made me nervous to leave my precious baby on this busy street. I walked back to the apartment, I had about twenty minutes left on my go time goal, and knocked on doors in the building, hoping to ask a resident if I could park the car in the gated, grassy courtyard area in front. No one was home yet, and one of the apartments had water pouring out from under the door. That seemed pretty ominous, but I filed it under “Not my problem, I have my own issues” and moved on. Finally, I made the executive decision to put Blacky in the courtyard, leave a note on the dash “I belong to” with Cyril’s name and number. I said a tearful goodbye to Blacky and took a selfie of us together, then ran for the Metro.
Once I arrived at Heathrow, I took the shuttle to the scuzziest cheap hostel yet, but knowing this was my last night in a hostel for the foreseeable future made it easier to bear. I walked down to the local pub, bellied up to the bar and had Bangers and Mash with a delicious Guinness. I was entertained for a while watching three guys hitting on the adorable bartender harder than I’ve ever seen anyone work for anything. Ugh, I won’t be going to bars to find dates, if that’s what’s available. Then I made friends with an older gentleman standing near me, Nigel. He told me he was retired after putting in forty years at Stansted Airport as an airplane mechanic, never married, had lived in the same apartment in this neighborhood for the last forty years and came to this pub every night for the last thirty, unless he was on vacation in southern France, where he’s stayed in his favorite hotel on the Cote d’Azur for the last twenty years. I’m not sure if you’re getting the picture, but this was a guy with definite likes and habits and I wondered if it was just him or if this was an English thing. When he started talking politics, I bade him a goodnight and tottered back to my tiny room.
The next morning, I arrived at the airport early. Emily was arriving at 9:30am, from Brussels, and Mary was arriving at 10:30am, from Dulles. I talked to Mary the day before she was due to leave, and told her that no matter what, she was to wait for me at the Arrivals Hall of her Terminal, so that if Em’s plane was late or something happened, she was to stay put and we would get to her. I picked Emily up no problems, thrilled to have one sister safely with me, excited about getting the next one safely tucked under my wing. Mary’s husband had emailed me new flight information just before Em arrived, and I checked Mary’s flight times against the Arrivals Board. Nothing seemed different in the email, the arrival time was the same, but what I didn’t notice was the departure airport and flight number had changed. So Em and I followed the original flight information and went to wait for Mary at Terminal 4, a fifteen minute seemingly twenty mile journey through this vast city called Heathrow Airport.
When we got to Terminal 4, I checked the arrivals and her flight was delayed another hour, so we sat at Starbucks, had coffee and caught up, killing time. We saw on the board that the luggage from Mary’s flight was now in Baggage Claim, a wonderful feature that I wish every airport had, an update board hanging over the Arrivals door that tells those waiting for passengers exactly what’s going on. “Plane ETA 10:16. Plane landed 10:18. Plane at Gate 10:24. Baggage in Baggage Claim”
We waited and waited for Mary to pass through the doors, but as the people exiting her flight slowed to a trickle, then to nothing, we knew something was wrong. I had told Emily about the email from Richard, but I hadn’t showed it to her. When I did, she said, “Brooke, her plane isn’t from Newark, it’s from Dulles. This isn’t her flight, we’ve been waiting for the wrong flight.” I don’t know where my brain was, it completely vacated when I saw Emily arrive, and I just didn’t register the information. I had received so many emails in the last year where the airline said “Urgent, new flight info” and the “Urgent new info” was that the flight was leaving at 11:18 instead of 11:16. I never compared Mary’s old flight info to the email Richard had sent that morning. We looked at the Arrivals board again and saw that her flight had arrived on time, over an hour ago, back in Terminal 1.
I was so upset as we went as quickly as we could on the 100 mile trek through the airport. I was racing ahead, turning around every two minutes, yelling at Emily, my beloved sister the Sister, to “Hurry up, for God’s sake, I thought you walked every day for exercise, do you always walk this slowly?” as thoroughly United States and uncool as I’ve ever been, ignoring the fact that she was rolling a Volkswagon sized suitcase in addition to her carry-ons. When she finally made it to the shuttle train which would carry us back to Terminal 1, I burst into tears when the thing closed its doors but sat unmoving at the station for the next three minutes. I felt horrible and so stupid, a low moment, made lower by the fact that only ten minutes ago, I’d been on Cloud 9 that my sisters would be here with me.
We finally made it back to Terminal 1 and raced to the Arrivals Door. This was the busiest section of the Airport, with a packed coffee shop, benches of people waiting in the Meeting Area, streams of people coming through the Arrivals Doors with all the limo drivers, friends and family standing around waiting to pick them up. I rushed through the crowds, leaving Em in the dust behind me, and saw Mary sitting on a front bench, patiently waiting.
“Mary,” I yelled loudly, which caused most people to turn to look at me as I ran toward her. But then suddenly and without warning, I was no longer vertical. My feet locked together like I’d been lassoed, and I could feel myself pitching forward, landing hard on my knees, sliding across the floor, finally coming to a stop at Mary’s feet. Mary later told my feet were up in the air behind me, like I was sliding into first base. She also told me that the look on my face as I went down will be etched in her memory forever.
I laid on the floor as a crowd gathered, but I was laughing so hard, I couldn’t even sit up. I just rolled over onto my back and looked at Mary, who was doubled over, both of us with tears from laughing so hard. Emily was at my feet, ever the nurse, asking if I was OK, but I could only nod my head.
“It was the best, most spectacular present ever; it was totally worth the wait, you’ll never be able to top it, no one will,” laughed my beloved, non-violent, otherwise normal sister Mary.
“Not without serious damage.”
A bit of sister history might be in order at this point. Both Mary and I have a really horrible habit of laughing uncontrollably when our spouses or one of us, gets hurt. Not seriously hurt, or you know, dying, but if Mary’s husband trips or hits his head on a ceiling fan, she can’t stop giggling. Once Michael had a bike wreck where he just skinned his elbow a bit but I had to ride home about 10 feet behind him because I couldn’t stop laughing. It’s sick and we know it, but we can’t help it. We hate the Three Stooges, our laughter happens only for the people we love the most. Now, my giggle fits are reserved for her and for Emily, who does not appear to have the same disorder, maybe because she’s married to Jesus and he’s not clumsy.
“How did this happen?” Emily asked, struggling to ignore the two of us and our completely inappropriate behavior.
I looked at my feet and saw that the lace of one of my stupid ass hiking boots was caught in the hook of the other stupid ass hiking boot, bringing me down as quickly and surely as a calf at the rodeo. Finally, Em gave in and giggled along with us as she unhooked my shoes. An older gentleman in the large crowd still staring down at me helped me up and asked if I was sure I was OK.
“Yes sir, my body’s fine, but I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life.”
The crowd parted and I gathered my luggage and my sisters, holding my head high as I limped boldly through them, some of them finally allowing small smiles to creep onto their faces.
We caught the shuttle bus to the rental car agency, the three of us still laughing so hard we could hardly make ourselves understood. I told Mary and Em that if we didn’t stop giggling, they would never rent the car to me, they must surely think I was drunk.
And this was the fabulous beginning of our grand sister adventure and my last ten days in Europe.