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Monday, April 4, 2011

The Day I Flew Air France

After the harrowing experience of flying Air India, I'm fairly sure the only way I convinced myself to ever step foot on a plane again was the simple fact that I needed to, eventually, go home. Countless very drunken nights in Berlin over the course of nearly a year of living and "studying" there probably didn't hurt to numb my memories of how awful cramped plane cabins can be when full of the scent of Indian airplane food, disgruntled Chinese stewardesses in saris, and gigantic Nigerian princes. But regardless, the time had come for me to once again brave air travel to return to my homeland.

Because this was the second half of our round-trip flight for the study abroad year, it was also booked through Air France. After saying many tearful good-byes to my absolutely wonderful German family (the ones who lived in the communist block housing), and the German guy I was dating at the time, I sadly made my way to the boarding area, only to discover that one of my classmates from the study abroad program would be flying home with me. Not just with me, but in the seat next to me. We hadn't exactly gotten along; he was part of the group of students who thought studying and learning German was for nerds, and I was most certainly the teacher's adoring pet (it's not like it was my fault I spent most nights out getting drunk with Germans and practicing my language so I could speak it significantly better than other people in our group). We gave each other courteous nods, and I sat down on the other side of the waiting area, trying to pretend like I wasn't crying.

After what seemed like an agonizingly long time, we finally got to board the plane. My classmate (whose name I've honestly forgotten - let's call him Nick, because I'm fairly sure it was some variant of a generic male nickname) boarded a few minutes after me and slowly made his way to his seat, immediately next to mine. Courteous nods again as I stifled back more tears. We both put on our headphones and continued to ignore each other while the cabin slowly filled with other passengers and the plane took to the air.

About an hour and a half into the flight, after they had started whatever in-flight movie we were effectively forced to watch in the small screens in the back of every seat, the flight dramatically left the realm of "standard, boring over-seas flight" and decided to try a different angle for our in-flight experience: terror.

The seat-belt signs had been turned off, and flight attendants and various passengers were "free to walk around the cabin," but, like the obedient passengers we'd all be trained to be, the majority of us were still in our seats with our belts fastened.

Out of no where, we hear an incredibly loud boom, then deafening quiet, and the plane seemed to fall. It didn't start to nose-dive, like one would expect if it were going to crash, but instead, it felt as if it suddenly dropped about 100 ft straight down. And then it just simply kept flying.

Then the "fasten seat-belt" light dinged back on.

To this day, I'm still fairly impressed at how well the passengers reacted. Most of us stayed frozen, clutching our arm rests and gazing around wide-eyed at each other. A few people let out startled screams when the plane dropped, but, overall, no one, at least no one near me, panicked.

Except the flight attendants.

They were all prim and extremely proper, perfectly skinny, meticulously manicured French women and gay French men. And suddenly, after the plane stabilized, they seemed to turn into bolts of white shirt, navy pants, and styled hair, zipping up and down the aisles, rapidly shooting out bursts of urgent sounding French to each other. They looked like a panicked flock of odd, yet proper birds - like doves with a crocodile thrown into their nest.

The sight of the clearly distressed stewardesses began to unnerve the majority of the passengers (over half of whom were American, and, based on future events, didn't speak a word of French, like me), but the fear didn't really set in until the pilot spoke to us over the loud speaker:

"Uhhhh.... jemapanesajumouisxtjeaux. Uhhhh.... letimejioux. Uhhh... siseauis."

Those of us who didn't speak French held our breath, waiting for the translation.

The seconds ticked by. Then, the audible 'click' of the speaker turning off.

Nothing else.

I turned to Nick, who had also turned off his ipod and taken off his headphones, and I simply said, "what the hell was that?"

He shrugged, looking about as terrified as I felt, and daringly stuck his hand into the aisle to stop one of the stewardess-doves in might squawk. He asked her what the pilot just said, and what that loud explosion was. She fluttered his hand away with her wing, trilled something in French, and flew away, down the aisle.

Looking around, I noticed other passengers trying to catch the stewardess-doves, also to no avail. Evidently, in a crisis situation, Air France had trained its employees to revert to only speaking French, to sprout wings, and to flitter about, so as to ensure any non-French speaking passengers will be the first to die, from lack of instruction or situational understanding.

After what seemed like an agonizing eternity of confusion, trapped in a small, possibly unstable plane cabin with a bunch of worthless, panicking birds, someone finally managed to gain control of the loud-speaker and explain what had happened in English. It was not, however, the pilot (who had previously used the loud-speaker to greet the passengers in English at the beginning of the flight).

The voice told us simply that, "one of the engines has exploded," and we would be returning to Paris.

Our in-flight movie had been stopped, and instead, the flight map, with the little airplane and red line showing the completed route, had taken its place. Based on the map, we were somewhere over the UK - we could have easily landed in Glasgow or London and been safely on the ground and out of this potential death-trap in a matter of no more than 30 minutes.

But instead, we watched in confusion as the plane flew past all of these possible savior airports, and made its way back toward the English Channel. Where it continued to fly in circles for approximately an hour and a half. If we hadn't been so terrified, the red line showing the path of our plane on the flight map would have been rather comical - it tracked all the circles we were making in a big squiggle, right over the water.

The stewardess-birds continued to ignore our pleas to speak English, and they refused people's pleas for beverages - even water. If someone tried to get up to go to the bathroom, they would swarm the poor passenger, squawking wildly and flapping their wings until the passenger gave up and retreated back to his seat.

Finally, we heard through other passengers that the plane had to waste fuel before it could land. Being a large airplane on the beginning of an over-seas flight, the tanks were still very full of fuel, and, evidently, it was risky to try and land the plane with that much flammable gas and only three engines. So we remained trapped in plane, making slow squiggles over the English Channel, for nearly two hours before we could safely land back in Paris.

Once we landed (with no further incident), we were ushered into a waiting area of the Charles De Gaulle and told a new plane was being prepared for us, and we would be able to re-board soon. Nearly four hours later, the plane was finally ready. This one managed to fly us all the way to Cincinnati without incident.

Along the way, through this whole ordeal, Nick and I actually began to talk and discovered that we didn't actually hate each other. At least not enough to not be able to put our differences aside and both entertain and joke with each other through the terror of getting on another plane.

By the time we landed in Cincinnati, it was well after 1am. The second leg of our flight, from Cincinnati to Omaha, had left around 8pm. Together, Nick and I made our way through Customs and to the desk the airport had set up specifically for our flight - because the delay was mechanical, Air France was footing the bill to put every single passenger up in a hotel overnight. Nick and I took a shuttle to the hotel we were assigned and planned to meet each other in the lobby to get some food together, after checking in to our rooms. However, the hotel restaurant had long since closed, and the only thing open was the hotel bar and dance club (don't all hotels have a bar and dance club? In northern Kentucky, they do).

Since we had both turned 21 in Germany, this was our first time to legally buy alcohol in the States. We decided to make a celebration of it, and used all our meal vouchers on alcohol. We had to ask the bartender to ID us. Other patrons of the bar (surprisingly, not people staying in the hotel - this bar was so "popular," the locals actually frequented it) soon caught on to our "delayed 21st birthday party," and several of them bought us drinks. Nick and I even tore up the classy dance floor a little.

Early the next morning (after having retired to our separate quarters - no "hanky panky" was involved, despite what Husband may think), we met in the lobby again, took the shuttle to the airport, and caught our flight to Omaha, laughing and joking with each other the entire time. We landed in Omaha and walked off the plane together. Nothing like a near-death experience to bond two people together.

That is, until we walked past the security check point and saw our friends and family again. We both turned our own ways and never spoke another word to each other.

But no matter what happens in this life, we'll always have Air France, Nick. Or John. Or Tom. Or whatever your name was...

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