Commusings: Travel Hell & Lavender Oil by Jeff KrasnoJul 31, 2022
Hello Commune Community,
You may have recently seen news headlines highlighting torturous summer travel. Well, I didn’t have to read about these nightmarish ordeals in the papers – because I experienced my own madcap misadventures first-hand. Today’s essay recounts the dreadful, if occasionally humorous, twists and turns of my recent return from the City of Lights.
In love, include me,
• • •
Travel Hell & Lavender Oil
I absolutely adore lavender oil. I own bounteous amounts of it and slather it generously and regularly on the nape of my neck and up the palm side of my arms. My general whereabouts are easily detected by wafts of the sweet floral scent emanating in all directions from my absorbent olive skin. My obsession earns me the ceaseless mockery of my children. I don’t care. My beloved lavender is like a baby blanket, providing me with both a serene sort of comfort and an acute ability to focus.
I have forsaken virtually all other forms of health and beauty aids. This abandonment of hygiene goods is a product of my aforementioned infatuation combined with eco-mindedness (and topped with a small dollop of laziness). I assiduously avoid phthalates and parabens. I don’t use shaving cream, shampoo, soap or deodorant. This personal data might violate a TMI clause, but I haven’t washed my hair in years. I just run it under the water and it remains luminous enough. Believe me, I make up for the dearth of plastic bottles in my medicine cabinet with the accumulation of myriad amber glass vials of lavender oil.
My recent trip to France was a veritable lavender orgy. The drought-resistant flowering plant is native to the Mediterranean and abundant across the fields of Provence. As I bumped around ancient villages, I accumulated all sorts of bespoke tinctures and roll-ons from wrinkled boutique proprietors who invariably claimed to have la meilleure lavande du monde!
If my trip to France was itself heavenly, the return home was unadulterated hell. I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport, brood in tow, three and a half hours before take-off, which I considered ample time to catch our flight. We got off on a bad foot. The digital check-in kiosk wouldn’t read my passport so we were shunted into a ticketing queue.
After an hour of snail-like progress, we received our boarding passes and were obliged to check our carry-on bags. Schuyler had insisted that we efficiently pack our tech, clothes and toiletries into small roller-bags no bigger than 22 inches long, 14 inches wide and 9 inches high (the maximum dimensions for a carry-on). However, my better three-quarters was unaware that, in Europe, carry-on limits are determined by weight not size. The pen is mightier than the sword in the old country. Hence, we longingly bid adieu to our affairs and we’re directed toward the security line.
Except it wasn’t a line … it was a security mosh pit. Four hours long, flesh to flesh, 100 degrees. Babies wailing, tempers flaring, old ladies fainting, everyone increasingly maleficent and malodorous.
I leveraged every meditation praxis I had ever learned. I’ve written here previously about my claustrophobia (I was trapped in a small locker as a kid). There was no way out of this swarm. Breathe, Jeff. You are where you are supposed to be. You are simply the blackboard upon which the phenomenal world is etched. Witness the nausea. Wave at it. It’s just a cloud. You are the sky. Return to the breath.
In the stultifying heat, we trudged through Dante’s inferno. Every time we crossed some seemingly final threshold, our expectations we’re dashed as we pierced yet another circle of hell … from limbo to heresy to the Central Well of Malebolge.
Every quarter hour, I refreshed my Air France app. In small increments the departure time kept getting pushed back. The delay was good news at this juncture.
As the throng approached the final check point, there was a closing surge – as if all the grains of sand on a beach were being pushed through a pin hole. At last, we navigated the last X-ray scanner and were thrust out of purgatory and into a duty-free commercial paradise. Air-conditioned and sparsely populated, the gargantuan antechamber boasted every luxury French brand you could conjure – Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent. There was little time for window shopping though. Time was ticking and we scampered to our gate.
There was immediately a desolate feeling radiating from Gate 13A. The boarding doors were closed and a self-possessed gate attendant with a ski-jump nose was all too content to tell us that we had missed the flight. My protestations were of little utility though because she then informed us that the flight had been “annulé” (cancelled!) and all the passengers would soon be disembarking.
“Good god,” is about all I could muster. Well, I suppose we’d be first in line to rebook. But, because we were tardy, we weren’t allowed to speak to the gate representative. Our penance included scrambling to some far-flung customer service counter on the other side of the terminal. Run … to wait … in yet another line.
This queue was mercifully short and the Air France representative proportionally more jocund. She was extremely excited to practice her English and informed me with great verve that there was not another available flight to Los Angeles for another week!
“C’est pas possible!” I had a similar desire to practice my French. I couldn’t spend another week in Paris. And I was certainly not going to leave Duty-Free-istan and return to Shitlandia. Just then, as I teetered on the cliff’s edge peering down into the gorge of eternal peril, something clicked in my mind.
I remembered the portly businessman against whom I was long-pressed in the security melee. Adroitly anticipating the impending baggage worker’s strike, he had modified his flight to San Francisco to leave a day earlier. The French are seasoned veterans when it comes to walk-outs. They time their strikes strategically to insure maximum leverage and the culture largely tolerates it. The travel infrastructure was already overwhelmed due to pent-up post-COVID wanderlust. A baggage strike would essentially cripple the entire industry. A big fat raise was simmering on the stove top and the baggage workers were running the kitchen. If this homme d’affaires had gotten a seat on the flight to SFO, there might just be a few more.
“Madame, can you get us on the flight to San Francisco?” It was a shot in the dark – but I would have accepted any North American destination at that juncture.
She obfuscated and prevaricated, jabbing aggressively at buttons on her keyboard. I told her how exquisitely she spoke English.
“Well, it could be posseebull,” she reluctantly admitted and printed out a fistful of boarding passes.
We dashed back to the other side of the terminal and boarded our 12-hour flight to San Francisco. On the plane, I got a trickle of Internet – sufficient to book a middle of the night transfer from SFO to LAX on United. We landed in the Golden City, executed a razor-thin transfer and somehow arrived back in the City of Angels.
Of course, I didn’t possess even a remote expectation that our bags were going to tumble down the LAX luggage shoot. And, of course, they didn’t. At that stage, we barely cared.
However, the next morning the sequel to The Travel Nightmare was released: the highly unanticipated Hunt for the Lost Bags. The dark comedy had a score provided by smooth jazz icon Kenny G. I spent 3 hours per day listening to his saccharine soprano sax stylings as I waited on hold for anyone with a pulse. There was little clue to whether our bags were in Paris, San Francisco or Los Angeles or, for that matter, were in the custody of United Airlines or Air France. The former did provide a South Indian-based customer service representative after hours of bluesy sax licks. Air France provided no such luxury.
That said, I chipped away at it like Rodin with a block of marble. And, after 3 days, our bags began to dribble in. After 10 days, they had all arrived – all, of course, except mine. This is the kind of burden a father must bear. I was privy to the squeals of delight as the girls recouped their cheap make-up and crop tops. Meanwhile, all of my podcast gear and computers remained in some liminal space on an unconfirmed continent. I poked and prodded every website. I joined every skymiles club possible in attempt to get an upper hand. Nothing paid dividends.
I suppose I could have just written it off and practiced non-attachment, but it was gnawing at me. Last Sunday, I got up, likely drank too much espresso and decided to boldly take matters into my own hands. I was going to drive to LAX and find my bag! I borrowed my daughter’s razor (mine was in my bag). I showered (no soap), shaved and donned a proper collared-shirt – a rarity for me.
Schuyler was a saint to accompany me back into the travel mines. As I approached the congestion surrounding the airport, what had appeared to be a valiant idea in the wake of morning coffee, now seemed patently absurd. There are 200,000 people traveling through LAX per day. And they all have at least one bag. I was literally looking for a needle in a haystack.
I jumped out of the car at Tom Bradley International Terminal. Schuyler would circle. I had done a cursory review of airport topography so I knew where to find the information booth on the departures level.
I gave the hapless woman stationed at the booth a hangdog look as I explained my plight.
“You’ll have to wait in that line.” She pointed toward the Air France ticketing area. I eyed the serpentine queue. I was getting quite adept at estimating wait times. I intuited three hours. I haphazardly scanned to the right and noticed that, behind a number of stanchions and velvet ropes, was the unoccupied “premier class” check-in. I gave my chemise an extra tuck and confidently strode over to first class check-in as if I had backstage passes to a Rolling Stones concert. I was spiffy enough to look the part.
Almost immediately, a grave and officious looking woman brandishing a fleur-de-lys ascot motioned me toward her station. “How can I help you?” never sounded so mellifluous.
“Well, I’m not traveling today. But I am a loyal Flying Blue member and I am in search of my luggage.”
“Do you have your claim ticket?” she rejoined.
In response, I pulled out a portfolio of documentation – including the original boarding passes, bag claim checks, photocopies of my passport, the recipe for bouillabaisse and assorted Victor Hugo poetry.
“Come with me then,” she said firmly.
I looked at her, somewhat perplexed. She was in a distinctly restricted area.
“Come with me,” she reiterated, her patience diminishing.
So, I vaulted over the ticket counter and across a conveyor belt that very much resembled the one that pilfered my roller bag a continent away. Madame then removed her lanyard and pressed her credentials against a magnetic reader. There was a satisfying click from the lock and a magical door swung open. I felt vaguely like Lucy stepping through the wardrobe. However, the back of house administrative offices of Air France were hardly the fantasy landscape of Narnia. There were thirty or so florescent-lit, windowless cubicles with desks and computers and printers. No people. Only luggage. Thousands of bags stacked like dusty old books in an abandoned library.
She gave me a look that said, “Have at it!” and then disappeared to face her next misadventure.
Where to start? I collected my wits and took a deep nostril breath – as I have been instructed so many times. And another deep inhale. At the summit of my breath, a distinctive, familiar odor tickled my olfactory. Could it be? No. Another giant inhale that flattened my diaphragm. Lavender!
Upon mishandling my bag, the striking baggage workers must have broken one of my canisters of lavender. And, now, the mesmerizing scent was permeating the administrative cubbyholes of LAX. I literally followed my nose through the labyrinth of identical black Samsonsite roller-bags until I arrived in the most wonderful non-descript office. It was redolent with the enchanting aroma of Mediterranean lavender. I looked toward the desk and there she was … waiting patiently for me … my old roller-bag. I ran to her and literally hugged her as if she were my grandmother.
I called Schuyler. “How long will you be?” she queried immediately.
“I got her! Come and pick me up!”
Triumphantly, I darted to the B7 curbside tightly clutching my beloved bag and my most essential oil.
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