the uncertainty of the voyage


When I wrote to my son that I was stuck in Paris, he replied, “Sounds traaaaagic.” Okay, so it’s certainly not a tragedy, but when you feel trapped, it’s hard to enjoy even your favorite city.  I wanted to be in Jerusalem, but of course, no planes were leaving from Paris. In the meantime, I was learning some new French vocabulary: la pagaille — the huge mess– and en rade–in the lurch. That was how my friends described me (Carol est en rade a Paris).

But Morocco seemed manageable. South, south, away from the invisible cloud over the beautiful blue sky over my head!

So on Monday I headed south to Montpellier (no tickets–la greve, bien sur, VENTE  DES BILLETS SUSPENDU) but the woman at the SNCF ticket window told me to COUREZ and MONTEZ LE TRAIN so I RAN and JUMPED on the train just before the doors closed and it pulled away and there I was in that wonderful quiet French train space, the early morning landscape speeding along beside me. Gare de Montpellier. Wifi at McDonald’s. Aeroport de Montpellier. All was going smoothly. The Air Arabia staff  at the Montpellier Airport were starting the check-in for the flight to Casablanca when the phone rang. Their instructions were to wait ten minutes for another call. Ten minutes passed. The line of us, mostly Moroccan, looked at each other worriedly. The phone rang again.

The women shook their heads. VOL ANNULÉ.

The staff, who didn’t work for Air Arabia, nicely offered us attestations that the flight had been cancelled. Take the boat, urged someone. No, wait, they will fly on Thursday, you can go then. Take the train to Spain, it’s the only sure way! No, the airports are opening. These possiblilities went round and round my exhausted head.  I had gone  to Gare du Lyon at 5:30 that morning. Some people were resigned, some angry, many of us simply taken aback. Why couldn’t we fly, just a little jump over the Mediterranean? The local television station was there and one woman gave them a piece of her mind. Some people said Air France had priority and had taken over the flight path…. who knows? There is never any explanation.

I was offered a ride back to Montpellier and sat in a cafe on the esplanade reading a novel called The Last Patriarch by a Moroccan writer named  Najat El Hachmi. Interestingly, it was written in Catalan and translated into English. My friend Karine, Moroccan herself, found me there,  and I had the great pleasure of meeting for the first time ever the adorable Josephine, seven months old. (Denis, husband of Karine and proud papa of Josephine,  is stuck in the States!) If you have travel anxieties and uncertainties, spending the evening with a seven-month-old petite princesse of vieux Montpellier is definitely the best way to relax and forget them. Their street in the old city was on the ancient pilgrimage route to Compostele (marked by beautiful round copper medallions) and I definitely felt like a weary pilgrim that night, and a lucky one to have found such a warm welcome and a place to lay my weary head ( this cliche seemed exactly right and true).

I bought a ticket on the same flight Mabrouck was planning to take and the next morning I took the train to Marseille. Again, the staff of SNCF, the French railways, were helpful…extra staff people were stationed at the station to answer questions–is this because of the strike, the ash cloud, or vacations in France? Maybe all of the above. Again, they explained the delays (two hours de retard at least for trains to Marseille) and urged me to forget tickets and just MONTEZ LE TRAIN! You can always buy your ticket on the train, they said. It worked.

From the terrace of the train station of Marseille–where  stranded travelers trying to take trains back to Germany chatted over sandwiches on the terrace overlooking the city and SNCF officials were interviewed by the press.

I went to the airport, found a piece of grass under an olive tree and sat down (after cleaning up the trash). Peacework. Olive branches. Olivier. I will put myself here, I thought, in solidarity with this olive tree, a good omen. (The more uncertain the travel became, the more superstitious I became.) Other good signs: the navette was #91 like the literary journal and there were medallions here, too, orange adhesive ones!

Each time an airplane flew over (there were five in all that afternoon) I looked up in amazement. An airplane! The sound of jet engines! In the SKY! How remarkable. In parking lots, huge tour buses lined up to take people to Paris.

Once we had checked in and moved to the departure lounge, the mood of the travelers to Casablanca lightened. A banker and a student described Fes and their eyes gleamed as they talked about their city. Fes floated in front of me like a fantastical, magical, fabled walled paradise of a destination that I must continue to try to reach. Late late last night, Mabrouk and I arrived here in Casablanca! Enough writing…we are off to discover the city!


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