When it came time to return home from my lengthy, satisfying visit to the States, my only goal was to find the cheapest flight possible. The search included arrivals into Barcelona, Paris, Nice, Milan and even London. Even my mother got into it, calling out Travel Zoo deals that arrived in her inbox. After fiddling with all the factors one fiddles with in search of a deal, I finally found a super cheap direct flight from JFK to Barcelona, strangely via Air France. Hey, it’s not for me to ask why – I snapped it up and let Cal know when I’d be back.
Our quiet, quirky town of Montpellier is roughly four hours by train from Barcelona, a trip I’ve taken many times – most recently, and memorably, in order to have lunch with my aunt and uncle before their cruise left for other Mediterranean shores. Piece of cake, I thought. I knew just what to do.
My first surprise came when I arrived at JFK. The flight was not being operated by Air France, but from their partner Delta. For those of you who have not had the misfortune to know both of these terminals at JFK, let me explain why this was a letdown.
The Air France terminal at JFK is a crisp, white, soaring ode to the traveler. I love it. Because their baguette is buttered by a constant stream of flights to Paris, you’re more likely than not among a well-traveled crowd who have the whole routine down pat. People-watching always yields an amusing array of fliers whose only conundrum is whether to take the earlier flight in Business class, or to wait for the last flight of the evening and sleep like royalty in First class.
The Delta terminal, in comparison, reminds me of period films about Ellis Island. Filled with tourists rather than travelers, it’s a maze of confused people wearing variations of pajamas schlepping what must be all of their possessions and yelling for a straggling teen or wandering grandmother. Fanny packs abound. Everyone is very excited and very anxious. They’re going on an airplane!
When you first enter the terminal, you’re immediately confronted by a wall of people waiting in a line. By immediately, I mean within three feet or so of the revolving door. They’re moving to your left, so you go to the right to find the end of the line you assume you need to join.
You’d assume wrong. These people have checked in already, and are waiting to strip down for the ONE – yes, ONE – metal detector in operation. So you need to find the check-in area. You’re guided by overworked Delta employees to check-in kiosks who put you through your paces, hand you a boarding pass and pull you into either the TSA line or the baggage check-in line. I happily let them tell me where to go, as the system in place seemed to be obvious only to these employees.
Oh, did I mention that I missed a flight to Paris three years ago thanks to the chaos that is this terminal? So you can imagine how thrilled I was to be back there.
The ceiling, reminiscent of a circus tent, has what at first glance appear to be abstract canvas sculptures of parachutes or maybe kites, but on further inspection are some sort of rigged rain catchers with tubes that snake out of sight, probably into a bucket behind the luggage conveyor. You see, the roof leaks. Everywhere.
This theme, if you can call it that, continues through to the most depressing and chaotic waiting area known to man. There were so many things I observed while waiting to board my flight, I’m now going to list them all.
1. International and domestic flights boarding from the same area – sometimes, from the same gate. I can’t imagine this would be good for security purposes, and also it meant there was no duty-free shop. (Normally I wouldn’t mind, but a friend in Montpel had asked me for a specific perfume that is not sold in France, which I had left for the duty-free.)
2. The only wifi available was from a 10-minute manicure station, presumably for the cost of a manicure. I did not want my nails done, so no wifi for me and my new iPod Touch, which my father had so amazingly and generously and fabulously given to me on my last day with them.
3. Food choices: A Burger King up a flight of steps in a kind of cramped, concrete hay loft behind a wall, and a kiosk down below featuring ice-cold, days-old wraps for $8 each. Plus tax.
4. Boarding announcements in two languages, pre-recorded security announcements, and CNN overlapping in a cacophony of shouting and theme music with a bit of Charlie Brown’s teacher thrown in for fun. You had to board your plane based on visual cues alone, which meant everyone crowded around the gate as soon as a Delta employee approached the desk.
5. The leaky rain-catching kites, filthy, balding carpet, and poor or no signage. If you have to ask where the bathroom is in an airport, they’re doing it wrong.
Oh, and they boarded the plane by zones, but from the front of the plane to the back. Why have zones at all, then?
The plane was old and creaky, but the flight attendants were absolute stars: capable, friendly, stern when necessary, and utterly unflappable. They made up for the tiny video screens tucked behind luggage compartments and cramped seating.
But we got to watch the Delta babe do the safety presentation. You know – the one who looks like an extra from Mad Men. Everyone was riveted; when she wags her finger and says “Smoking is not allowed on any Delta flight,” grown men sigh with pleasure. (See the video here.)
I was relaxed and happy to be heading home, so I didn’t give a second thought about the fact that I was landing in a foreign country that speaks two languages I don’t. Normally this doesn’t bother me – surely I could find my way to the main train station from the city’s major airport.
And, I did.
And then the rest of the trip happened.
Tune in tomorrow to find out why I needed a sherpa to cross the border.