Stories from the field represent a series of remembrances from over a million miles on the road.
There I was, there I was, there I was. The Global Fund called to have some photos done of their celebrity spokesperson, the first lady of France, model, actor, singer, Carla Bruni. She was traveling to Cotonou, Benin to raise awareness of HIV. I was to go on Monday of the next week shoot Tuesday, Wednesday and bug out on Wednesday night. No problem. So I called Sunny the magical travel agent and told him the scoop. He called back and said ‘John we have a problem’. The airfare is $8200. I said no Sunny we want to go coach. He said that is coach. Turns out Air France has a lock on travel to Benin from Europe. They were acting accordingly and charging outrageous amounts because they know you are not going to walk. Sunny said that he would do some research and get back to me. When Sunny called back he said that the only thing we could do is fly to Frankfurt, fly back to Paris, then fly to Benin. That would get the airfare down to $5000. I called the GF (part of my ongoing commitment to service and excellence) and they said (through gritted teeth) go ahead.
I flew to the usual redeye to Frankfurt and landed after 3 hours of sleep in the middle of a snow storm. My connection was tight. The gate was in another terminal and I was off like a shot. As I rounded the corner to the Air France desk I saw the departures board flicker ‘cancelled’ for my flight. In line. Up to the counter to see the slight sneer of the French counter agent as I said I gotta get to Paris, like now. Non – not possible. All our flights that would make your connection cancelled. Can I get on another airline to get to Paris? Non you have a discount ticket. But I paid $5000 for this ticket. Non. I gave him the pouty face. Non. I dropped Carla’s name. Non. He said that he could get me on a flight on Wednesday- the next time they fly to Benin- but he looks at my ticket and sees that is my return date. Non good. So off I go to try to call the GF to tell them I am stuck. My phone does not work- incompatible systems. I am on Skype. The Fund says OK- get yourself on a flight to Togo and we will send a car over to get you- they fly to Togo tomorrow morning. Back to the counter. But you need a visa to go to Togo. Back to Skype. No problem GF will call the Minister of Health in Togo to waive the visa requirement and we will send a car for you. Back to the counter. Non you cannot get on the plane without a visa. Back to Skype- Skype money out- recharge Skype. GF says sorry that’s all we can do. And I have missed all the flights home.
So I’m off to the stupidly expensive airport hotel and to check in and go upstairs. I call the GF to apologize for the trouble and they say ‘John we have a seat for you on Carla’s plane tomorrow morning if you can get your sorry ass to Paris tonight.’ Back to hotel check in to check out. Nein you do not get a discounted rate for staying at the hotel for 2 hours. Back to airline counter. Back to the sneer. Now I can say that I really am with Carla and I gotta get there tonight. The counter guy brightens up and punches in the flight and says that will be $8000. Why you may ask? It is day of travel- one way to Paris. Then (because I am riding to Benin with Carla) it is one way back from Benin, one way back to Frankfurt and one way to back NYC. I counter the counter guy with the crinkled chin. He counters with OK- it is illegal but I will put you on two round trips- for Carla. Now it’s back to $5000. Can I refund the ticket I have and use that for the new flight? Non. You will pay for this one and, do not worry, we will reimburse you for the other one. Most excellante- $10,000 worth of airfares on card. And, he says, this is the last plane to Paris tonight and you have 40 minutes to get to the gate. No problem here is my card. He swipes the card. Declined. Huh? Here is my other card. Declined. Huh? Try to Skype NY Credit Card Security but Skype account is out of money. And I cannot recharge Skype because my cards have been shut down. I must have looked a bit distressed because the counter guy, with a sigh, hands over the Air France land line for me to call NYC. I get CC Security on the line and they say that for my own good they shut down my cards because some one was charging Skype and an overly expensive airport hotel in Frankfurt. I say that’s me and after answering some stupid security questions- something about my first girlfriend’s pet snauzer name- he says your card is OK. Card to counter guy. Card to swiper. Declined. Back to land line. Back to security. Passed up to uber security. Card OK. Card to counter guy. Card to swiper. Fare for first leg paid. Fare for second leg- declined. Back to land line. Back to uber security. Seems Mr. Rae that someone tried to charge an overly expensive airfare on your card in Frankfurt so we shut down your cards. Back to dumb questions- this time I think it was second girlfriend’s pet boa’s name. (Yes she had a boa.) Second airfare paid and oh, Monsieur Rae, you have 20 minutes to get through security and to the gate- go go. Yes I will say hi to Carla. So I run for the gate- and you cannot make this stuff up- as I turn the corner there is a security alert. Check point is closing down- guys on golf carts with flashing lights- metal gates coming down. But luckily they are German and the trouble gets cleared up quickly. I am through security- running for plane- Skype back up- there is a message from Caroline at The Elisee Palace- ‘Monsieur Rae we are worried about you. You must call me to let me know if you made the plane to Pari so we can hold the seat on Carla’s plane for you’. I get to gate. The woman is closing the door- I have to make a call- non you have to go maintenant. Now I’m in the plane beyond wifi and Skype is dead. Nothing to do but sit on plane with 11:30pm arrival in France. Where did the day go?
At Paris I try to get back to message with Caroline’s number. Skype money is running out. I try to recharge and cards are declined. I am assuming that now that I am in Paris (not Frankfurt) the computers in NYC have shut me down again. I go to get a phone card but it no work. Try new sim card. It no work in iPhone. The Lebanese guy at the 7-11 takes pity on me and lets me use his phone to call the Elise Palace. Caroline answers and says ‘we are so glad to hear from you. We thought we lost you. You will go to this hotel- they are waiting for you- you will get up at 7- you will go to this patisserie and eat- you will walk two blocks south take a left, and at the Elise Palace ring the top bell- we will be waiting for you. By the time I get to the Hotel I have been up for around 38 hours with really nothing to eat. I have to be up in 6 hours but at least I am in Paris and I have a Cliff Bar. The next morning is cold and misty (much like the inside of my head feels) as I make my way to the Palace. Turns out that the palace has a 4 meter wall around it. For security reasons you cannot walk on the same side of the street as the Palace. There is a mundane looking door in the wall about half way down the block, so I figure that is where I have to go. I walk down the opposite side of the street until I am across from the door, take a right and head directly towards it looking like a lost tourist with my backpack and little wheelie bag. The guards do not like this. And yes they have automatic weapons and yes they are moving to intercept. Turns out there are many ways to say ‘non’. The guards tried soft, loud, sharp, long et all. Just as I reach the door they reach me and I reach up quickly and ring the buzzer. The door opens… There appears an older, handsome officer completely buttoned up in his French Foreign Legion uniform (with a chest full of metals). He says ‘Monsieur Rae we are expecting you’. I nod to the guards and walk in. Caroline walks in- a young, French- Cambodian woman dressed in a simply tight black dress- and says come with me. I protest. We walk on a gravel driveway across a courtyard in the mist and there is the 18th century Palace with three story tall windows all lit from within. She escorts me to a waiting room with coffee and croissants. Soon we are off to the motor pool where there are 3 identical vans waiting with 9 motorcycle escorts in front. Caroline motions to the last van. I get in and the man sitting in the van says ‘ hi John I am Patrice the speaker of the French Parliament but you can call me Patrice’. I say hi Patrice and take a seat. Patrice said have you ever done this before? I said non. He said you are in for a treat. We start out of the carport through the 4 meter high wall and immediately the first van and three motorcycles breaks right, the second van with motorcycles breaks left and our van goes straight. Decoys! So there we go through Paris in the middle of rush hour driving down the wrong side of the street with a motorcycle escort- sirens blaring. The first motorcycle powers ahead and blocks the next cross street so we can zoom through. Then one in back races by us to block the next intersection and so on past the Eiffel Tower, past the Arc de Triumph. If an oncoming car does not move over to the curb quickly enough the lead motorcycle cop kicks it. Non kidding. This day is looking a bit better than the last. We arrive at the private side of the Charles DE Gaulle Airport and are escorted onto France’s Air Force 3 compete with decals. Carla shows up, Professor Kazatchkine, the head of the GF, shows up and off we go over the Pyrenees, across the Sahara and into Benin. Amazing but I would have preferred raspberry sorbet to cleanse my palate between courses instead of the lemon.