It had been in the planning stage more than three months: the careful selection of travel plans, the weaving of a web of agents on two sides of the Atlantic, the subtle campaign of disinformation. And then, on Christmas Day, it was finally time to launch …
Operation “Ninja Claus”
Now, if you’re not already familiar with my story, you’re going to need a little background first. Since I’m married to a Frenchman, we alternate the location of our Christmas celebrations each year: one year in France, the next in South Carolina. Last year, we spent a beautiful Christmas with my parents — you can read about it here — so this year, it was my turn to celebrate with Michel’s family in France. Now, as much as I love and cherish my French family, it’s always hard to be 4,000 miles from my parents, especially on a day like Christmas and especially since I don’t get to see them that often. Just after our last visit in September (when it was so very hard to say goodbye), I remembered that Michel’s family tradition is actually to celebrate on Christmas Eve, and that put a bee in my bonnet: “Why not celebrate Christmas Eve in France … and fly home to surprise my folks on Christmas Day?”
And so was born the great plan.
Right after we got back to Paris in September, I went online to search for the best Christmas fares, and that’s when I discovered that US Airways didn’t have any direct flights from Paris to Charlotte. “But … but … I just flew that route a few days ago,” I thought. So I called US Airways to find out what had happened:
“Excuse me, but I’m looking for the flight from Paris to Charlotte. Has that route been canceled or something?”
“No, not canceled. There’s limited service on that route between October 1 and October 28, but no service between October 29 and March 31.”
“No service at all?”
“No, but you could fly through Philadelphia …”
No offense, US Airways, but … nah …
“Ha ha ha,” I literally laughed out loud. “If I have to have a connection, I could just as well fly on Air France. Thanks anyway. Have a good one!”
So, I went back online and booked my trans-Atlantic crossing on Air France — CDG to ATL — with a Delta connection to Columbia, South Carolina. “I might have to deal with Atlanta’s sprawling airport on Christmas Day but, by God, if I’m gonna have to change planes somewhere, I’m gonna cross the ocean in style,” I said to myself, envisioning beautiful flight attendants in foulards offering me champagne in a charming French accent.
Over the next few days, all the details started to fall into place. The initial plan was that I’d call my folks from Atlanta to announce my arrival on American soil and ask them to meet me at the airport in Columbia. That evolved into something even more surreptitious, thanks to the superior stealth of my cousin. “Uh uh,” she wrote to me on Facebook. “I’ll come pick you up in Columbia and drive you to their house. That’ll be even more of a surprise. Plus, I want to be there to see my aunt‘s face when she sees you!”
You are so wise, sensei.
So, the next 15 weeks passed, and I must have spoken with my parents on Skype at least 30 times during that period. Can you imagine how hard it was to see my mom’s face every time and say absolutely nothing about my Christmas surprise? I was a sneaky one, I was. Almost every time we spoke, I’d say something like “I miss you, Mama, but I promise I’ll see you as soon as I possibly can.” Little did she know …
(by the way, you should read that in a forceful whisper)
On Christmas Eve, the final preparations were made:
Online check-in ✔
The last Christmas gifts for the American family purchased ✔
Bags packed ✔
Then we headed off to my mother-in-law’s house to celebrate Christmas Eve. We had scheduled a Skype call with my parents during the evening so that we could all wish each other a Merry Christmas and a Joyeux Noël, with Michel and me serving as ad hoc interpreters. It was a great moment, and I loved seeing my mom’s smiling face, so content to spend time with us online … and completely unaware of the Christmas surprise that would soon be on the way.
After just three hours of sleep, I was up and at ’em at 5:30 am, caffeinating myself, making my melancholic goodbyes to Michel, and setting out for the airport. As usual, I arrived at CDG far in advance of my flight, so I spent the next few hours wandering around the M gate of Terminal 2E and, can I just say, I fell in love with what is now my new favorite airport terminal. It’s sleek and modern and chock full of high-class shops that I can no longer afford, but still like to look at. After window-shopping at Prada, Burberry, Gucci, and Hermès, I stopped by Starbucks and bought some orange juice for 5€30 (that’s $7). Then I happened across the coolest thing of all: a museum — yes, a museum in the airport! (Okay, so it’s a little one, but still …)
We finally started boarding the plane around 10:20 am, and when I reached the gate agent, I got my second pleasant surprise of the day: an upgrade to premium economy!
Why, merci beaucoup Air France! Joyeux Noël to you, too!
At 11:20 am CET (5:20 am EST), Flight 682 cleared the runway
and Phase One of Operation Ninja Claus (CDG ✈ ATL) was underway …
The flight was comfortable, especially in that upgraded seat, but that’s where my usual praise for Air France ends. When the flight attendant came around with our meal service, he asked if I wanted chicken or fish. I told him that I’d ordered a vegetarian meal, but that completely threw him for a loop. He apparently didn’t have one ready for me, and he went to investigate. As it turns out, someone dropped the ball because there was no vegetarian meal for me anywhere on the plane. That’s when the flight attendant asked to see my boarding pass. “Okay,” I said, searching for it, and wondering why he needed that in order to find me some food. When I handed it over, he proceeded to inform me that “when you order a vegetarian meal, it’s marked on the boarding pass.”
Oh no, he di’n’t …
“Excuse me, sir, but I ordered a vegetarian meal when I booked this flight and it was confirmed yesterday when I checked in online. If you made a mistake, then you made a mistake, but it’s not mine.”
I’m not sure what reaction he expected from me, but “assertively grumpy” is what you get when I’m hungry. He offered a lukewarm apology and went off to find a “solution.” He came back later to tell me that there simply wasn’t a vegetarian meal on the plane, so I told him that — at that point — some bread and a dessert would be nice. He brought me back four cold dinner rolls and two tiny wedges of Camembert (which I don’t even really like).
Thankfully, he included two desserts. In the end, I guess, there’s not much that chocolate and two mini-bottles of chardonnay can’t smooth over.
Meanwhile in South Carolina … the sun was rising. While I was soaring somewhere near Iceland, my mom was already awake and waiting for a Christmas morning Skype call. So what on Earth could I do about that from 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean? Well, the ninja that I am, I had already drafted an email for Michel to send from my Gmail account. In it, I wove a tale of miscellaneous Internet problems: the wifi was spotty … Skype in France was apparently overloaded by users and I couldn’t connect … Michel and I were heading into Paris to stroll around a bit, maybe have dinner … I’d try to reconnect when we got back that evening. It would certainly buy me enough time to get to Atlanta … at least, I hoped so …
Stay tuned for the conclusion to find out what happened next!
(How’s that for a cliffhanger?)
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December 27 update:
Here’s the conclusion!
© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved