Thursday, January 7, 2010

Bombs, Underpants, and Charles De Gaulle

It was snowing when our cab pulled into Charles De Gaulle Airport outside of Paris on January 7th. It was not the weather that had caused us to arrive three hours early for out flight back home to the United States. A week earlier, the attempt to blow up a Northwest Airplane arriving into Detroit failed. Thanks to the bravery of passengers and crew, the bomber’s explosive underwear had not detonated. The concept of a Taliban plan of terror that centered on exploding underpants would have added humor to my view of the newly heightened security procedures, if in fact anything had been funny. This morning reminded me of a Pink Panther Film in which I was one of thousands of travelers at Charles de Gaulle trying to comply with Inspector Clouseau-style security bumbling. I could hear the dual horn cry of the French police sirens in my head.
Five planes leave from Paris daily for Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta and Pittsburgh within fifteen minutes of each other; poor planning on the part of Air France. Most travelers this morning were Americans. The airport was bedlam with crowds trying to form unorganized lines that fed into the two Air France counters. There was no English speaking staff available to assist in the confusion. After thirty minutes of waiting, I found my place in what appeared to be a queue funneling toward counter number six. Suddenly, camouflaged soldiers began barking orders in French at the travelers. I do not speak French. The crowd began to push in a large mass forward. It was a bomb threat. An unattended suitcase had just been found near the entrance to the terminal. Bilingual fliers explained that our area of the airport needed to be cleared incase the bag was to be blown up for our security. We pushed forward like cattle in a feed lot. I herded my black suitcases and my carry-on, as I was swept past the check-in counter. It had now been an hour since my arrival at Charles De Gaulle.
No one seemed frightened of a bomb or concerned about their personal safety. The ordeal was endured as an inconvenience, an irritant that caused flights to be delayed or connections missed. Barricades of black straps held the massive crowd back from the immense empty space of the terminal check in area. An exasperated airline employee told me in broken English that I could not join my traveling companion who had been pulled by the crowd to the other side of the concourse. I had to remain in place for my own safety, which I dutifully did for thirty more minutes. There were no sounds of exploding suitcases. Without explanation, the straps were opened for the queue to form again for check in. I watched my friend feed into the line from the opposite side of the airport. I was trapped with my bags to push my way forward. It took thirty minutes to reach the line opening. I explained to the attendant that my plane for Seattle was leaving in an hour. He pointed to the snake-like queue on the right, and I took my place.
I inched my way forward with the other people. We were told that the cut off for passengers to check in would be delayed for the bomb scare. No more passengers would be allowed to fly after 10:20 am. At 10:15, I arrived at the counter. It had been nearly three hours. The agent took my two suitcases. I ran from Air France check in to immigration. Through the clear passageway, I could see the vast line winding through a new holding area. I explained to a security officer that I was late for my flight and pleaded for an escort through the crowd.
I am 58 years old, five feet tall with blond hair and wore a fur coat and black felt hat. I did not look like a threat. The security officers pulled me aside and said my bag needed to be scrutinized closer. I had packed three souvenir music boxes for my niece and my friends. Every item from my carry on was pulled out and fondled. I explained that I was late for my flight. The officer stared at me. She proceeded to look slower and closer at my items strewn on the metal table. I wound the music boxes which played the French National Anthem and La Vie en Rose. Another officer was called over to examine the musical souvenirs. They rolled their eyes at me, and I crammed my carefully packed items back into my case. I ran for gate thirty-seven.
I was stunned to see another long, curving security line at the gate. Series of metal tables obstructed the exit to the jet way; blocking the ultimate prize, our flight out of France. I took my place at the end of the line. However long this took, I was guaranteed a place on board now. I relaxed and began to talk with the people around me. We watched as every passenger was patted down by the hands of an officer or wanded. Every bag was emptied on the metal tables. We were tired and waited patiently for our turn to be inspected.
I asked the young officer who examined my passport, how long he anticipated the heightened security to remain in effect. He responded that it would be this way as long as the US insisted. When I took my place at the examining table, I explained that my bag had been pulled apart only minutes before. It did not matter. The music boxes were unwrapped and played yet again. The tinny sound of the French National Anthem filled the air.
I could hear the young man at the table beside me complaining. He was flying through Paris from Spain and on to Seattle. His back pack was filled with his dirty laundry. The officer rummaged through is clothing until he reached his underwear. The US was concerned about exploding underpants. Finally, a procedure seemed relevant. This thin bearded man was not happy as his dirty underwear was tossed around for everyone to see. He snapped a photo with his camera to record the absurdity of the moment. An argument ensued with the officer about the photographs of his laundry. His stick antiperspirant was held up in the air. The young man insulted the officer. Tensions were elevated.
I repacked my carry on again, placing my music boxes back in their wrapping. I was as directed to a female officer for a pat down of my entire body. I laughed, thanking her, and said that it was the most action I had experienced during my three week stay in France. She did not smile. I watched as a woman my age with shoulder length grey hair, a fleece vest, reading glasses and leather sandals was enduring the hands of another officer on her body. She quietly turned to have her back and legs felt up. She did not look like she had ever attended a Taliban training facility. Children cried when placed on the floor, so that mothers could be felt for explosives. I shook my head and boarded the plane.
I discovered that the young man with a beard was seated beside me. I learned that he designed sneakers. He lamented that he had to fly frequently for his work. We taxied from the gate, three hours late. We watched as maintenance men sprayed deicer on the wings of our Air France plane. Finally another procedure seemed to make sense. When the steward arrived with the drink cart, the sneaker designer ordered wine, and I ordered champagne. We were in the air, and it seemed appropriate to celebrate. I pulled out my tiny music box and played Le Vie en Rose as we flew away.

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