So yeah, speaking of French, I got back from my Great France Adventure 2007 last Monday. Now rather than jamming everything into one massive 40 page post as I am oft wont to do, I decided to just split it up into random little “storylets” and drop them on the blog in no particular order. So umm… enjoy!
Since I was rocking the el cheapo seats (and “cheap” is such a relative term when it comes to international flights) I had to fly via Copenhagen, rather than Paris – Tokyo direct. Now let me just be up front about something – I have no idea where exactly Copenhagen is – and I’ve flown through there twice…! I mean, I used to think that it was in Denmark, but then as I was looking things up, somewhere I read “Copenhagen is the main air gate serving Sweden, Denmark and Norway.” and I was all like “wha-…?!” because, you see, last time I checked Sweden and Denmark are separated by a significant body of water and Norway and Sweden have like fiords or some other incredibly rare impassable geographic structure betwixt them I vaguely recall my junior high school geography teacher mumbling on back in the day. So the truth is, I have no idea where Copenhagen (Tha’ Cope’, as I now refer to it) is, only that it is somewhere up near the bitter frozen tundra of Northern Europe – a.k.a. “Scandinavia” – a.k.a. “The Place Where it is Dark 6 Months out of the Year and the People are all Giant and Blonde”.
So why am I going on about Tha Cope? Well because as previously mentioned, its (ambiguous) location in the frozen windswept darkness of the North (okay so it’s not that far North, but whatever) means that bad weather is not an uncommon occurrence, and consequently, neither are plane delays. As I headed back last weekend, my plane made it from Paris to Copenhagen without problems, but moments after my arrival, we weary travelers (with a 13 hour international segment back to Tokyo ahead of us) were informed that our next flight was going to be delayed – 7 (SEVEN!) hours it turned out – due to what the cheerful and disturbingly Nordic looking blonde desk clerk described as “vind”, which I presume was supposed to be “wind”. (oh I’m not being kind with these racial caricatures am I? But I swear she pronounced it like that!)
Now, again, in the interest of full disclosure, I am not an aeronautical engineer, but I was always under the impression that “wind” was a good thing if you happen to be flying an airplane, since it provides “lift”. But what do I know? So instead, I hunkered down in the airport and got ready to do a whole lotta waiting. After a few hours of this, however, I started to get hungry. Real hungry. And therein arose a significant problem. You see, in my pocket I had British Pounds, French (European?) Euros, Japanese Yen and even a few dollars worth of American coins (they hang out in my travel wallet just in case). Guess which one of those they use in the dark winterlands of Tha Cope? If you guessed “none of the above”, then you win a prize (which is hopefully a one way ticket out of Scandinavia to a place where the sun shines every day).
So there I am, at the counter of some random airport restaurant, nose pressed up piteously against the glass, leaving little drool trails as I stare longingly at this tantalizing sandwich sitting just out of reach, and the guy (also disturbingly Nordic looking) was like “Yes… so we don’t take any of those monies”. That’s right people. I literally had in my pocket THE FOUR STRONGEST AND MOST IMPORTANT CURRENCIES ON THE PLANET and this dude is all like “uhh, yeah, we don’t take any of those”. I stared at him in disbelief for a second.
“b..b…but you’re an airport restaurant. Are you sure you can’t take any of these?”
“Not even the Euro? I mean I know you’re not part of the Euro Zone” (I have no idea why not since Denmark’s only exports are – as far as I can tell – windmills, eternal frozen darkness 6 months out of the year, and possibly lutefisk, depending if I’ve got my racial stereotypes right or not. Anyway, you’d think they’d jump at the chance to be part of a larger monetary union) – ” but you know, Europe is like right next door. Can’t you just like, trade it later or something?”
“No. Sorry sir. We only take [insert unintelligible name of local currency, which I suspect may have been "Krona" since that's what they use in Denmark]”
“Oh… I see.” *checks wallet one more time in case a “krona” may have appeared from somewhere*
Failing to find any Krona in my wallet (which actually I don’t even know what one looks like so I might very well have had some and just not known it), I slowly slunk away and sat in a chair, tummy growling, and brain desperately casting about for a solution.
After a while of wandering around furtively rifling through waste basket containers like a homeless person, hoping someone bought one too many big macs and decided to throw one away still wrapped, I happened to pass a currency exchange place. Being smart and clever as we pandas are well known for, I get the bright idea to exchange some of my money into this so-called “krona” so I could get something to eat.
I roll up to the window.
“Hello! I would like to exchange some money for Krona please.”
The gentleman behind the counter peers at me.
“And what currency will you be exchanging from sir?”
I flip through my wallet.
“Euros?” I venture hopefully.
I reach into my wallet and pull out about 15 euros worth of coins and silently place them in the tray, hoping the man won’t notice.
“I’m sorry sir, we don’t take any foreign coins”
Damn. He noticed. He continues on.
“Do you have any euro notes?”
Unfortunately I did not. Neither did I have any Japanese yen notes, only coins, which left only my British pounds. I pull out a 50 pound note – the only denomination I have – and place it on the tray.
“Okay, then I’ll change from pounds to Krona please. But I only want to change 10 pounds worth. Can I get the rest back in pounds?” I asked, intending to convert the pounds into yen in Narita and avoid getting charged for a double conversion.
Heaving a slight sigh, the man peers down at me from behind his glasses.
“I’m sorry sir. I can only change the entire 50 pound note. If you like, I can change the entire note into Krona, then you can exchange the Krona back for pounds, but you will lose a significant amount in transaction/exchange rate fees.”
For those of you following along, 50 British pounds is about equal to $100 US dollars. ONE HUNDRED. What the hell am I going to do with one hundred dollars worth of “krona”…!? Dude, I just want A SANDWICH!!!
Deciding that I would sooner starve than end up losing 30-50% of my money value in the back and forth conversions, I politely refuse (whilst simultaneously cursing the man and his god forsaken non-euro-accepting country) and wander back to terminal where I curl up in a ball on a cheap pleather bench and wait to starve to death.
Denouement: In the end, I found a place that would accept the one American credit card I happened to have on me and I managed to purchase some sort of “sandwich” which can best be described as resembling “a tube of bread filled with ketchup and ground meat of an indeterminate origin”, some fizzy orange drink that tasted like Orangina mixed with antacid, and a copy of the Economist to pass away the remaining hours in purgatory, the sum total of which came to something like 78 kronas or so, which since I have absolutely no scale of reference to judge by, means I am anxiously awaiting my next credit card statement to find out whether I just inadvertently charged $500 USD to my visa for what was really a kinda crappy lunch.
Oh Copenhagen (and Denmark at large). When are you going to get yourselves some real money? I NEED ME SOME SANDWICHES YO!
So I consider myself a fairly season traveler, especially by plane. I’ve got my little travel kit, my noise reducing earphones, travel bag, Playstation Portable, movies, lotion for dry skin, the whole kit and kaboodle. And being thusly seasoned, I also like to think that I have an idea how airports are supposed to work.
The general idea – when you disembark the plane at your destination – is that you:
- get off the plane
- use the bathroom
- follow the big swarm of people down the only available path to …
- passport control, where they check if you’re allowed to be in the country…
- at which point you go grab your luggage…
- and go through customs, where they check if you’re packing any bombs, bazookas, chickens infected with bird flu…
- and finally you go through a set of double one-way doors and are unceremoniously deposited into the arrivals lobby where your loved ones are (hopefully) waiting to greet you.
Sounds familiar, right?
Well here’s how it went down at Charles De Gaul:
(And before we get into this, let me just say – it’s not like I was flying into some shitty backwater countryside one-gravel-strip-runway airfield. Charles De Gaul is not only the pre-eminent airport in France, it’s also one of the major airports in the world…!)
- get off the plane
- wander around lost in a set of depressing plexiglass escalator “tubes” (for lack of a better word) suspended in mid-air (looking much like a gigantic ant-farm) which bizarrely span several floors at a time with no apparent rhyme or reason
- stare sadly as your destinations whizzes by in the distance as the escalator tube you’ve unfortunately chosen takes you to some obscure concrete ring area about 4 floors below where you actually wanted to go, with no discernable way to return
- finally arrive at luggage area after much trial and tribulation. Pick up luggage
- Follow only hallway in front of you. Arrive at set of one-way double doors.
- Exit doors, find yourself unceremoniously plopped in arrivals lobby.
Gentle readers, I know you may have gotten lost in the rambling bits about escalator tube ant farms, but did you notice anything missing from the Charles De Gaul list?
If you said “Passport Control” and “Customs”, then you win a stickar!! Ding ding ding!!!
Yes that’s right people, this is how it went down. I got off the plane, and followed the crowd to the luggage pickup. I grabbed my luggage, then followed the only hallway leading away from the area with a sign that said “Sortie/EXIT”. I pushed open the doors at the end of the hall and found myself in the arrivals lobby.
At no point did anyone:
- Look at my passport
- Ask for my passport
- Stamp my passport
- Ask if I was even supposed to be in the country
- Care if I was even in the country
- Look at my luggage
- Ask if I was carrying anything illegal
- Care if I was smuggling AK-47s/black tar heroin/babies into France
That’s right – nobody in the French government even KNEW I was in France…! Moreover, I could have brought whatever the hell I wanted into the country and nobody would have been any the wiser. Anthrax? Sure!! Automatic Weapons? Bring ‘em on! Weapons of mass destruction? The more the merrier! In fact, I bet that if the British police look hard enough, they’ll find that the polonium-210 used to assassinate that Russian spy Litvineko last month at probably entered the EU through Charles De Gaul (although since it seems passports are strictly optional there, it’s not like it’s going to do them any good).
The ironic conclusion to this story is that while the French government apparently didn’t seem interested in who was entering their country or what they had in their luggage, their failure to stamp my passport actually caused me all sorts of problems when I tried to re-enter Japan…!
Here’s the scene. I’m exhausted and bedraggled after the above-mentioned 7 hour delay in Tha’ Cope and 13 hour international flight back to Narita. I smell, my hair is looking like a raccoon got in a fight with a power mixer on my scalp and I just want to get the hell home and forget about the last 24 hours. I clear passport control no problem, grab my luggage and head over to customs – the final barrier before the sweet promise of the one-way double exit doors.
“Passport please?” the immaculately coifed and uniformed official asks me. I hand him my passport.
“Where are you coming from today sir?”
“Paris” I reply.
“Do you have anything to declare?”
Now as this is going on, homeboy is flipping through my passport with an increasingly concerted look on his face.
“Did you go anywhere else besides Paris?”
There is a long and increasingly awkward pause as he flips through my passport, the furrows in his brow growing deeper.
“You went to Paris France…?” he questions, almost disbelieving.
“Yes.” My panda-senses start going off. I know dramas are about to pop off. But why?
He sucks in his breath through his teeth. This is how I know I am about to get screwed.
“….I don’t see a stamp for France in your passport.”
I laugh nervously. “uhhh… well sir… you’re ahh… not going to believe this, but ummm… the French officials.. uhh.. didn’t stamp my passport….“
Gentle readers. If you ever want to know what the face of absolute disbelief and abject shock looks like, try telling a JAPANESE official that some official somewhere else FORGOT to STAMP something he was SUPPOSED TO STAMP. It is a rawness of emotion you will not soon forget, I promise you.
After his initial shock wore off, his features drew into a much harsher mask than before. His voice stern, and controlled, he commanded, in measured tones:
“Put your luggage up here sir, and give me the key to the lock.”
So all because France didn’t stamp my passport, I go from being a bedraggled, but vaguely innocent looking traveling panda to a potentially lying vagabond who claims to have gone to France but failing to have the requisite stamp, is now a prime suspect for smuggling drugs or something into Japan. Awesome. Thanks France.
In the end, the thing that saved my ass, besides the destination sticker tag taped to my bag showing a clear departure from Charles De Gaul and arrival in Narita, was the fact that when I went to London via train – British Immigrations happened to stamp my departure and arrival in France with “Lille Europe”, thus proving that yes, I did in fact go to France. And after much harried debate amongst customs officers, I was finally permitted to exit the airport and flee home to the welcoming embrace of my waiting bed.
And no doubt, at this very moment, some poor French official is getting a very angry phone call from some Japanese customs officers regarding their lax approach to passport control.
Okay, that’s it for now! More stories from France/England to come later. But for now, I’ve got work to attend to.
I feel must interject here you’re getting carried away feeling sorry for yourself
With these revisions and gaps in history
So let me help you remember.
I’ve made charts and graphs that should finally make it clear.
I’ve prepared a lecture on why i have to leave
So please back away and let me go
I can’t my darling i love you so…
Tell me am i right to think that there could be nothing better
Than making you my bride and slowly growing old together
Don’t you feed me lines about some idealistic future
Your heart won’t heal right if you keep tearing out the sutures
I admit that i have made mistakes and i swear
I’ll never wrong you again
You’ve got a lure i can’t deny,
But you’ve had your chance so say goodbye…