Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Glorious Paris Despite Travel Travails

I've been back from Paris for 36 hours and have caught up on some much needed sleep.

This trip consisted of a lot of "adventures."

First, for the bad ones:

It began with a great flight from Boston Logan (after a shuttle ride from Amherst, MA) on Delta / Air France on which I had an exit row seat (36a) with noone next to me and a gentleman who was living in Gothenburg, Sweden, who works in marketing software in 36C. I suspect that, after 2 hours of that empty middle seat, it was jut too beckoning, and a tall Egyptian from Cairo sat down next to me. I still managed to catch some shut-eye but also had very interesting conversations with both of my "seat-mates."

We landed at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, got off the plane, and proceeded to immigration only to encounter all of the glass doors closed. We waited en masse (and the mass was growing) amd nothing else was happening. I had a feeling of being Tom Hanks in the movie, "The Terminal" in which he spends months at JFK airport because he lacks a visa since the government in his country has fallen. Eventually, someone waved us in another direction and we moved in a swarm and waited only to hear someone say "you may not be able to enter the country today."

When doors to the outside opened up, a group of us was ready to make a sprint out but we did not. After more minutes than I care to recount, we were directed back. The glass doors opened and we got processed.

My taxi driver from the airport looked tired and kept on telling me about his client from California that he drives every other week (his English was decent but I was not completely comfortable with him). There was a transport "slowdown" in Paris that day so many had taken their cars and the traffic was horrendous -- it took about 2 hours to make it to central Paris. As we were making a turn in central Paris with the ultimate goal, I was hoping, to get me to my hotel, a big truck slammed into our taxi from the left with the window glass shattering and me wondering whether I was in a bad movie. In all of my numerous global travels, amazingly, I had never been in an accident until then.

The taxi was destroyed but we were not physically hurt, miraculously. I just wanted out of there so I grabbed my luggage, paid the driver in euros, and stood forlorn at a corner. Luckily, I managed to flag down a female taxi driver who brought me to my hotel on Rue Bertholet.

I had emailed the hotel 4 days before flying out (the arrangements had been made for me by the conference organizers) but never got a response (this was a warning I should have paid attention to). I had asked for a quiet room in the email message and inquired of their business center. Well, the business center computer (only 1) had contracted a virus so was not usable and I was placed in a room right next to the registration desk in the lobby and across to an office. The doors banged and banged. I kept on coming out of my room and asking the staff to close the doors quietly to no avail and even asked to be moved to another room (no luck).

I did get another room the next day after a fire alarm in the middle of the night which some American tourists referred to as "our pajama party." The noise from the tourists prior to the alarm was so bad that the neighbors had called the police. Thank you, neighbors! The hotel manager (the lady who refused to move me to another room) was called at 3AM and the next day she got me Room 308, which was quieter but, beware! When exiting the hall outside of the group of rooms (306-308) one has to open a door which overlooks a spiral staircase. If you do not bear left your foot and the rest of you will end up falling down the staircase, which I almost did. Where are the American lawyers when you need one? or a good French one?

The above is just a small overview of some of the travails -- I will spare you my experiences on the flight back to Boston during which we endured 3 hours of turbulence broken up into three one or so hour blocks and we were served pizza for dinner! Not to mention that it took 2 hours for us to get processed at Charles De Gaulle as we were trying to get to our gates to catch the flight back (think of the loss to the French economy since we could not purchase souvenirs since there was no time). In the queues (lines) I was chatting with a journalist from Japan who was in Paris to cover the G20 finance ministers meeting and we griped about the inefficiencies.

My last night in Paris since the doors were still banging loudly at the hotel I spent most of the night watching CNN (thank goodness that channel was available) and there was a segment on the Air France crash from Brazil to Paris of two years ago in which more than 200 people perished. I had been reading that Air France pilots are trained to push buttons and not trained as the Delta pilots are trained. We really need pilots who know how to handle stalls in the air and wind shear. Several times I thought our plane would tip over. The flight crew was Delta so I figured we stood a chance of making it and we did. I later saw a colleague of mine from UMass Amherst, who is an economist, also on the flight. When we diembarked, he was still fuming about the lines at the De Gaulle airport.

To travel today one needs to have the aerobic capacity and stamina of a marathoner.

When the plane landed in Logan there were no lines to get through customs and I promised Captain Salecki who processed me at Logan to put in a good word for him and the staff there, so, THANKS! Plus. my Valley Transporter driver was at Logan to pick me up in minutes and the drive back was wonderful.

Now, for the great adventures:

The reason that I was in Paris, was that I was invited to give a keynote speech at a conference on networks, which I could not refuse. The conference was terrific and I saw both friends and colleagues that I had always wanted to meet. I also came back with new research ideas, always a sign of a successful conference.

The weather in Paris was magical -- cool, sunny, and with the air very crisp.

I walked for miles (from the hotel to the university and back) and had some time to explore the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens (see photos above).

A highlight was that I was "free" on Saturday, and I got to meet a collaborator with whom I have been working and who I had never met face to face. He and his lovely wife gave me a grand tour of Paris and spent the entire day with me. We visited the Victor Hugo museum, saw the Notre Dame, talked and walked and walked (they even showed me where DSK lives but I read that he was at his villa in Morocco). I had the most delicious lunch in one of the most elegant restaurants in Paris.

My last day in Paris was pure heaven on earth.

I tried to capture some of the breath-taking elegance and beauty of Paris in the photos above.