If you ever want to fly to America from Charles de Gaulle Airport, be sure that you are not landing in terminal 2F, as you might miss your flight, or even get arrested before reaching your point of departure, the Terminal 1. But if you are starting your journey towards the U.S. from Charles de Gaulle, then you should be safe. However, my humble advice is to avoid the French capital airport whenever possible.
I needed a break from the insanity of Trumpland, and I knew that no other place but my own country would be better to have it. I needed to see my siblings, my old and new friends, measure myself against the world in which “Trump” is not uttered every other second. I needed to unplug and, planning my flights, I was lucky to find a convenient United flight from D.C. to Munich, and a connecting Adria flight to Ljubljana. I did not care what airline I flew on the last leg of my trip to Ljubljana, but I do, when I can, choose by aircraft for the long-haul flights. So, instead of boarding another 20-year-old Boeing, which fly from Munich, Frankfurt or Zurich to Washington, I picked Charles de Gaulle precisely because it is the only European airport from where United flies its Dreamliner, Boeing’s most current widebody jet. I wanted more leg room and a quiet flight, to read and think; I had enough of flying on the old, rusty jets.
On December 13, after a good week of relaxation and Trumpian decontamination, my good friend offered me an early ride to the Ljubljana airport, 30 kilometers distant. It’s a tiny airport, and with my friend behind the wheel, we recalled the adventure of having the short runway receive G. W. Bush’s Air Force One and then, just a few minutes later, an even bigger flying beast: a remodeled Il96 with Vladimir Putin on board.
I remember my editor at the time mentioning that he was in his car when he saw a huge, unknown plane overwhelming the horizon. He nearly freaked out, only to learn later that it was Putin’s plane. Two jumbo jets parked on the tarmac of the Slovenian national airport, with its single runway. It was in June 2001, and the US-Russian summit on the grounds of the beautiful government estate nearby lasted only a few hours. By dusk, everything was over. It was a lovely afternoon for Slovenia, a moment full of good intentions, Putin delighted with the prospect of being accepted to the table of Western Democratic regimes, and when Bush, after an hour of tête à tête, gave him a nod by saying: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy – I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
However, the moments of that lovely afternoon, filled with the intense colors of blossoming summer, were soon forgotten. They darkened into a grey cloud of power-talk, and the hostilities that came with the expansion of NATO to the East. Only many years later was Putin able to take full swing revenge over America by helping Trump become his President. He did not use words, but instead much more powerful cyber warfare, feeding the American real estate gangster with illegal offshore finances.
That morning, though, I learned that the short Ljubljana’s airport runway was not a problem during the landing but later on, when the jets needed to take off. Two giant presidential airplanes in the middle of peaceful and pastoral countryside near Ljubljana was an event one could compare to the first train that arrived from Vienna to Ljubljana, in 1848. I imagine there must be plenty of exciting details on how two giant presidential airplanes disturbed the quiet land on the sunny side of the Alps, as Slovenia used to be called before entering NATO. However, the little airport passed the test. As the working and efficient Slovenian folks always do.
So it was this time when I checked in for a flight with one of the dozen Bombardiers, Canadian manufactured small jets lined up on the tarmac, the airport still in the darkness. If you want to catch an early long-haul flight in one of the European hubs, you have to wake up in Ljubljana at the time coal miners used to. That is, before everyone else. But the hostess at the airport looked like fresh roses as she apologized for not being able to give me the boarding pass for the second leg of my flight, from Paris to Washington. I understood; I thought the Americans needed to see my face before letting me go on the plane as if for some reason they do not trust their documents. Some people say that the American Green Card could not be processed with European computers controlled by Interpol. I was trustful and did not insist. I thought that the luggage tag for my bag, checked all the way to D.C., was enough. Considering the early hour–six in the morning–I was looking forward to having a three-hour layover at Charles de Gaulle for breakfast so that I would be able to avoid the awful food they serve on flights. I even desired to leaf through the French papers, though in Ljubljana I deliberately stayed away from the news. I was looking forward to feeling the Liberation and Le Monde under my fingers. With a bit nostalgia, I hoped to read the world news in the French key.
The Adria flight was not comfortable, but it was pleasant enough. The half-empty plane also boarded some Adria training personnel, with instructors and stewards-in-training. I looked at one man with admiration when as he absorbed with extreme seriousness the banality of steward knowledge. He was not tense or nervous, but simply paying attention and being extremely polite–such a model of Slovenity. The hostess who was assigned to my compartment spoke to me in English. I was wondering why but then at her second approach, I realized that her accent was Russian. I remembered then that Germans have bought the Slovenian national airport and that Adria, the Slovenian flagship company, has quite a lot of Russian assets. What a perfect simulation model for the black funds and money laundering created by Deutsche Bank for Russian credits linked to Donald Trump and now being investigated by the special counsel. The world is global, but at least on the surface, nobody has managed to change the Slovenians yet.
We landed, and I jumped to my feet, got on the bus, and looked for the first time at who joined me on the plane. I noticed only one couple chirping in Slovenian.
They stuffed us in a small transport bus and passed the nearby Air Buses 380 line. As we moved to the intertwined terminals, Charles de Gaulle appeared as a city of its own, complete with very intense rush hour. There were endless traffic lights and roundabouts. The CDG airport of a few years ago seemed unknown to me now.
When a thirty person busload finally stopped at the small gate, all the passengers, including us in transit, had to go through passport control. There was only one policeman on duty and the line was long, but the formalities for EU citizens were non-existent. I sensed the trouble in the air. It was those great 150 meters of transit territory that France always claimed to be under exclusive French control. That little corridor of French supremacy, a spit in the face of European integration.
As I was standing there with my EU Slovenian passport, the boarding pass of my flight from Ljubljana to Paris, and the luggage tag to Dulles, in Washington D.C., I got a flashback from 15 years ago, when the Italian ambassador to China told me a story of a young Chinese student traveling from Beijing to Rome with an Italian visa. She was going to the funeral of her Italian classmate who’d died in a scooter accident in Rome, and the Italian Embassy helped with the permission, in what was a very tense and emotional moment for a large foreign community of kids who lost their leader and idol. Since there was no direct flight from Beijing to Rome available, the girl needed to transfer planes in Paris. When the chauvinism of the French border authorities checked her travel documents, who did not have the French visa, they wanted to put her on the plane and send her back to Beijing.
Without permission of the French authorities, the girl could not walk across the small transit territory, which the French guards consider their absolute dominion. As a consequence, the girl was not allowed to cross a few hundred yards to board the plane for Rome. It was insane, but the girl was smart and was able to inform Paolo Bruni, the Italian ambassador in Beijing, who helped with the visa. He called the airport in Paris immediately, but the border police first refused to talk to him. It took a few calls around Beijing; I don’t recall if the French ambassador got involved, but in the end, Bruni managed to talk to some official in a position to understand that refusing the visa issued by the Italian embassy might have some unpleasant repercussions between the Italian and French ministries. Bruni said that he was ready to raise the issue to his minister and threatened to wake up the French ambassador whose residence was around the corner. Dropping the names did it, and the girl managed to get to the funeral of her dear friend in time.
Holding my documents in hand, I looked around but no longer saw any indication for the T1 checking-in area. I walked to the officer at the box again and asked him what I am supposed to do to get to the Terminal 1 for my check-in. “Go downstairs, and the shuttle bus will take you there,” he said, annoyed. There were some other people in a small room downstairs, a kind of reception center I thought. When the bus finally came, it was full of people who seemed to me like a group of refugees coming from Bangladesh. I had a minimal backpack with me, so I managed to get onto the crowded bus, which started to travel through the airport city. The bus took off from Terminal 2D and had to make five stops to reach terminal 2A, where there was a link to T1, my final destination in Charles de Gaulle. At every stop there was the exchange of the passengers as if traveling the different continents. It was interesting to watch, but when I got out of the bus, I realized that I was traveling around the airport for an hour and a half.
At the bus waiting room of 2A, I enquired about the connections to Terminal 1 but was told to be patient and wait for the green bus. Ten minutes later, the bus arrived; it was an off-white color, but the man at the gate convinced me that this was my green bus. Used to situations in which cultures are lost in translation, I obeyed and hopped on the bus. I was alone; the bus was all for me. I did not know why, but I kept calm, watching those same huge airplanes that were passing by. Then the bus stopped, and I was told to get off. I did. There was a man at the gate. I walked passed him, only greeting in passing, because that was not the checkpoint. Ten meters later, the man starts calling me to turn back and show him my boarding pass. I did not have one; I had to check in first, I explained. He said that I could not enter the terminal without a boarding pass. I asked him how I should get there, but he did not care. He did not want my passport (that told me that he was a gatekeeper), but then I remembered my luggage tag and told him that I intended to travel with my luggage to D.C. after I get my boarding pass, which Ljubljana airport could not issue. He looked at the tag and said “aha.” I went with my hand to take it back, but he would not give it to me, which was when I had enough.
I argued that I needed to get to the check-in to get my boarding pass and get on the plane. He would not budge. I said he needed to give me the tag back. He said he would call the police. I agreed that this was a good idea because I thought that he was abusing his power. He went to the phone on the wall, pretending to call the police, while I sat down and wondered how this story would end. The man did not seem to be interesting enough to become a possible hero of a story, so I gave up, hoping that the police would come. I never in my life desired more to see some authority in uniform. What worried me a bit was that I had no ambassador’s number. I was thinking of that story when the furious gatekeeper came to me, gave me my tag and told me to go in, where the police are waiting for me. Bull shit. I walked to the gate where there was no police, but some steward, who told me that yes, this was my gate but that the check-in is in the other side of the airport. I was becoming weary following the differing directions of various airport personnel.
I walked for miles. No, there was no language problem–all this was happening in French–but no one I met had a clue where the check-in for United was. Then I realized that time was getting short. I got hold of two security guards and started to inquire about the location of the check-in. It was obvious that I was beyond the checking-in area but could not go through security without the boarding pass. “This is exactly what you have to do. Go back to the security check of the gate 40- 48, tell the security guard what happened, they will walk you to the United desk where they can issue you the boarding pass. If not, you would need to go to the passport control to get out to France, do the check-in and then wait in line to get back into the terminal. You will miss your flight if you do that,” the lady said.
”Where were you so long my lady savior,” I thanked her, and I ran to security, where I was for half an hour before approaching the man at the metal detector. I explained to him my situation, waved my tag, Green Card and passport. He looked at me weirdly, he did not dare to look at my documents, but he too called a woman to help. I explained again, and this time she took my documents and disappeared. Not long after, I was admitted to the security check, with my iPad, computer and phone, a couple of books and a bottle sunflower seed oil that only Slovenians know about. Three people immediately surrounded me.
When I bent down to take my boots off, one of them stuck some bandage on my naked skin– he needed to go under my shirt. He then took it off and stuck it into some machine, read the results and said: ça va! Was it my DNA, I asked. No, it’s for explosives, he answered with a grin on his face. As I was putting the belt on, two other agents went through my books, notebook, house keys, unopened bottle of water and all the chargers for my devices. They couldn’t care less about the devices, but the chargers yes, they seem to be important. Then one of them took out the bottle of oil that was sealed by duty-free personal in Ljubljana, with the receipt within the transparent plastic bag–all according to the international norms. But the joyful man in front of me took his little knife and cut open the plastic bag, looked at the receipt and then put the little bottle in some scanner. I asked why; the bag with the bottle is only to be opened at the final destination, as it is written on the receipt. “This is no longer the case because the bottle was traveling more than three hours and we need to check it out,” he answered with the ready-made phrase.
For a moment, I thought that I heard a French version of Trump. But he quickly put the bottle in a new bag identical to the one I got in Ljubljana and sealed it again. I could now go to the United counter, at the miserable departing lounge. Gone was my fancy breakfast, gone were my papers, gone was the peace with France. At the sandwich counter, I thought against my will, I went to buy a salad. The man behind the counter asked me to show him my boarding pass. “Noooo,” I said, “never, keep your salad, your miserable looking sandwiches, I will not trade my boarding pass for them.”