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An afternoon at Philadelphia

I'm kicking back in a comfy wooden rocking chair.  Around me, the air is vibrating with Vivaldian allegro.  My thoughts wander freely, my body relaxes, as if I was sitting at a beach.  Reclining leisurely I can see nothing but sky and the occasional seagull.  But I can smell no ocean.  If I look straight ahead, any resemblance with littoral bliss is wiped out by functional grey buildings in the distance, a dirty gangway just outside the floor-to-ceiling glass wall in front of me, and one of those stolid monsters of a truck that are used for pushing aircraft from the gate.  I'm at Philadelphia International Airport and have just survived chaos and pandemonium that broke out when my upcoming flight to Frankfurt turned out to be slightly overbooked.  Not only did I escape the unexpected pre-flight turbulence without major damage, I actually won more than I had bargained for this late into my trip.

All started a little more than three weeks earlier when I had spent a day on the train going to Germany to celebrate Christmas with my family.  The end of this short journey marked the beginning of another – spending New Year's in the American Midwest.  At the end of it all, I wanted to return directly to France.  By virtue of being just about halfway between Dresden and Grenoble, Frankfurt became my logistic hub and gateway to the US.  But I really did not want to return there.  Both Paris and Lyon have fast train connections to my newly adopted home town in the French Alps and would therefore make much more convenient arrival cities.  Changing my ticket became imperative.

I had two good opportunities to do exactly that but squandered them both.  Setting out in Frankfurt, I simply forgot to ask the representative.  I had been on the train for five hours after getting up way before the sun.  My brain was apparently still asleep.  It had thankfully helped me navigate the maze of stations on the way and avoid the wrong train, but for everything else I would have to do without it.  When it finally awoke to remind me of my mission, I was already flying high above the Atlantic, numbly consuming in-flight entertainment and mediocre food.

The start of my return trip presented another chance for changing my ticket, but I spaced again.  In Indianapolis, a kiosk allowed me to quick-check in, preventing any interaction with a human.  This was a first in my years of international travel, and my surprise and amazement at this unprecedented progress had me hit all the YES buttons without ever questioning the details.  It seemed I was bound to go to Frankfurt after all.

After passing security, I immediately entered the state of mental haze that characterizes my traveling.  The New Yorker is my companion and the world around me the last thing on my mind.  That afternoon, after learning about on the history of tofu and its cultural significance for Japan and reading another fine story by John Updike, I found myself in Philly.  My eastbound progress had come to a temporary halt after only two hours.  I sauntered over to my departure gate and settled into a remote corner only to get lost quickly and completely in the fascinating account of a hiking adventure in the dark and unexplored jungle of Papua New Guinea.  The chatter, noise and colors of the airport faded to near transparency.  Boarding was not to begin for another hour.

All of a sudden, the explosion of a loud voice over my head yanked me from the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean just when the first encounter between hikers and tribesmen was unfolding.  It took me a few moments to connect to reality and to understand that the overbooking of my flight had just been announced.  Still hollering, the voice was now promising munificent rewards to those willing to renounce their seat and settle with a detour through the Eternal City, eventually getting to Frankfurt only six hours after scheduled arrival.  This proposal struck me as rather generous and reminded me of my desire not to go to Frankfurt in the first place.  It occurred to me that there might be a deal possible for me after all, but by the time I had ambled over from my retreat, four lines of shoving passengers had already formed, intersecting several times on the way to the counter.  Some wanted to trade their flexibility for financial gain, others were desperate to retain their original itinerary.  Ironically, those who had not fully understood the proclamation, fretful tourists for the most part, formed the largest group.  Fearful of missing anything, they readily joined the frenzy.  The boarding desk had instantly become the focal point of everyone's attention and was besieged with a sense of fervent urgency.  The possibility of all-out fighting hung in the air like doom over Gomorrha.

Considering the numerical strength of the enemy I surrendered without a fight and lumbered back in defeat.  Returned to my chair, I was trying to find the point in the story where I had been so rudely interrupted, when the disembodied voice called again.  This time it was for me – a personal invitation to the counter.  The New Yorker, just rescued from the confines of my bag, had to go again.  The poor thing already looked as ruffled as I would by the end of the journey.  Not knowing what to expect I moseyed over to the counter, which looked like a gigantic octopus with its tentacles of passengers pressing and jostling ferociously for the big prize.

What's the matter, I asked.  It just so happened that there was this family who would like to sit together, and I was in their way.  Would I mind swapping seats?  Sure, no question, but even more so I'd like to swap cities.  How about you send me to Paris instead of Frankfurt?  It was due to the madness and prevailing mood of let's-see-what-we-can-do that the guy said, not hesitating for one second, sure, no problem.  And of course he was happy to let me go because he just saved the airline a good chunk of money.  Some poor lad, already excited for being accepted as a volunteer, would not get a $600 flight coupon but my seat instead.

I did not receive any money, but I will have a pleasant three-hour direct train ride to Grenoble waiting for me tomorrow instead of a nine-hour four-stop torment from Frankfurt.  And I will land on the other side of the Atlantic at half past nine instead of 6 in the morning, thanks to an extra four hours here in Philly.  I hope the dude who was sent off to retrieve and relabel my luggage is successful, kick back and stare at the darkening evening sky.  Above the horizon, splotches of bright orange highlight the fading sun while a purple cover pulls over the blue of the day.  An Airbus docks to the gangway, little vehicles move back and forth busily, and Vivaldi is still playing.


Over the next hour, imperceptible at first like a snake approaching an oblivious rabbit, but soon stronger and obviously unstoppable, the crowd discovers my little oasis.  French, Italian, German and English can all be heard in a big busy jumble.  When the noise overpowers the prose of even the New Yorker's hallowed pages, I reluctantly surrender my white rocking chair and venture into the deep innards of the terminal building in search of food and quiet.  I still have another three hours to bridge.

8 January/24 February 2006