Getting to Montpellier, France

Yesterday was quite a “day”. We got up on Friday, 22-Sep-2006, at 0400 PDT (1300 in France). Then we were up until we got to France (Charles de Gaulle airport) at about 0630 local time. In fact, we did “sleep” for maybe 45 minutes on the flight from CDG to Montpellier (MPL), but we managed to not sleep until “normal” bed time, at 2100. By then, we had been up for 32 hours with essentially no sleep. Today I woke up very early, but even so had had well over 8 hours of sleep. I don’t think jet lag will be a big deal, but I’ll write more about that tomorrow. But back to yesterday….We had had our friends Sheila and Gerardo from Qualicum Beach, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada visiting us for the previous week, from 15-Sep until 22-Sep. Their return flight departed SFO at 0810, and ours at 0800, so we shared a limo to the airport. The limo was smaller than we would have liked, but it got us there at about 0630.

We checked in and they did too (Sheila hates that international flights to Canada leave from the domestic terminal at SFO, so she can’t see all the cool duty-free shops that are in the SFO international terminal), then we went into Terminal 1 and looked for breakfast. Not much to choose from. Got a ham and egg breakfast sandwich and ate it quickly. I hate that you can’t get food on planes anymore. Although even if we could have, it would have been at least another hour before we ate, and we were already hungry since we had been up since 0400.

The flight to PHL left 5 minutes early, and we must have had a huge tail wind since we got to the PHL area nearly 45 minutes ahead of schedule. They put us in a holding pattern for a while, and even after we landed it was still too early since there was no gate available for our plane. We waited a long time on the tarmac until we could park at the gate, and let’s just say that Deb’s blue eyes were turning green by the time we got to the gate. She ran to the bathroom as soon as the seat belt sign was turned off. It had been over an hour since the last opportunity to use the bathroom in the air.

We had a couple hours to kill in the Philadelphia airport, which is actually pretty nice. We arrived on gate B13 and flew out of A23 (which is actually a very long walk…so it was nice that we didn’t have to hurry). It seems like every time I have a connection, the destination gate is always at the very farthest part of whatever terminal it’s in, and so the walk is very far. In this case, I am sure that is because we flew into a domestic terminal and had to fly out of the international terminal, but still, why couldn’t we have been flying out of gate A1? That never happens.

I had time to join a conference call and Deb took the opportunity to call her parents, who didn’t know we were going to France. Surprise! I also gave my parents a call for a few minutes. We grabbed a small/cheap meal but there were not many food choices in the international terminal. I had a chicken caesar wrap and Deb had a panini that was pressed but not hot. They were kind of unclear on the concept of how you use the toaster press. (In other “unclear on the concept” notes…people in food service wear gloves to handle the food, which is good, but then they keep the gloves on when they take your money and give you change, which is bad. Don’t you think they should take off the gloves before they handle the money? But, I digress….)

Once we left the gate from PHL, we had a long delay before we got into position for takeoff. There are 4 taxiways that feed that runway, and apparently there is a lot of traffic leaving PHL (or arriving) around 1800 on a Friday night, which is using the same runway as incoming flights. I guess that’s not surprising, since it’s likely that most of those are commuter and domestic flights taking business travelers home, either into or out of PHL. Still, it was frustrating since our gate departure had already been delayed a half-hour since we waited for connecting passengers from a delayed flight.

Even though the flight was delayed in getting airborn by about an hour, we still got to Paris CDG on time at around 0630. The flying time was about 6:30 (shorter than I expected, based on memories of flights to London from years past). I didn’t sleep on the plane, even though I wanted to. I watched “Failure to Launch” which was a romantic comedy, the funniest bits of which involved the leading man getting bitten by various cute and/or normally harmless animals.

After we landed we had about 4 hours (thankfully!) to get to our next flight. As we were taxiing, I could tell that the CDG airport was huge. We found out just how huge in a little bit. First, we had to go through immigration. We could tell we were in Europe when we landed. There was a plane at the terminal from Ethiopian airlines. There were lots of unfamiliar airlines at CDG’s international terminal, which is in dire need of a facelift. This airport feels like an overgrown bus terminal.

Inside the airport, before we cleared immigration, there was a strange moving walkway that went down a rather steep incline (too steep to walk safely) then went over a flat surface and up a less steep section into the main terminal building. Then there was a bathroom, and immigration. The line moved very quickly at immigration, since all they were doing was checking the picture on the passport and taking the disembarkation cards that I had filled out on the plane. They didn’t stamp my new passport. -(

Then we proceeded walk a long way to baggage claim carousel 6, where we had been told to expect our luggage to be delivered. The Ethiopian airlines flight from Addis Ababa was offloading baggage onto carousel 6 when we got there. It was really cool to see the cross section of people coming in from Ethiopia. But after a long wait, we never did see any indication that US Airways 1426 from Philadelphia was offloading its bags onto that carousel. Deb suggested that I should check carousel 5, and sure enough, the baggage from our flight was being offloaded onto carousel 5. The wait wasn’t in vain, since our bags still hadn’t appeared yet.

The wait for luggage is always very stressful since you don’t want to find your luggage didn’t make it. This would have been especially bad since as far as that ticket was concerned, Paris CDG was the final destination for the luggage. We saved over $1000 by buying two separate tickets, one SFO > CDG (via PHL) and the other CDG > MPL. So if our luggage had been lost, we would have had a hard time explaining to non-native English speakers that it had to be forwarded to MPL. As luck would have it, our 3 bags eventually did appear. Whew!

Now that we had our 5 bags on our free luggage trolley, we tried to find how to connect to our outbound Air France flight 7680 to Montpellier, leaving at 1125. There were no departure monitors in the part of the terminal we were in since that was an arrivals area (duh) so we had to ask at the information desk. We were told to take the elevator at door 20 down to the shuttle line 1 to the stop at terminal 2D. The first difficulty was that once we found that ascensure (elevator) there was a long queue of people ahead of us.

After a little while it became clear that it was not possible to take the trolley on the elevator (either because of the fact that it would be rude to take up extra space on the lift or simply because it was not allowed…couldn’t tell; nonetheless, people were offloading their luggage so we did, too). So we had to schlep our very heavy 5 bags to the elevator and down to the bus to get to terminal 2D. Did I mention it was warm and humid? After being on the plane for all that time, and then projectile sweating getting the luggage onto the eventual shuttle bus, and waiting until the (of course) last possible stop, we finally were in the neighborhood of our next stop — the Air France domestic check-in counters.

It’s not like in the US…here you can’t check in to a flight until 1:30 before the flight, even if you want to. So we actually had time to kill (more specifically, we had to kill time!). We had already walked the entire length of Terminal 2D, gone down to the basement to use the bathroom, and back up to the check-in area by this point, but it was still not time to check in. When the time finally came, there was only one person checking in people to our flight. It took a while but we eventually got through and were ready to go through security.

Compared to US domestic security, French domestic security is a joke. I went through the metal detector with my bracelet (silver) and MedicAlert emblem (also silver) on. Not a problem — but that would definitely have set off the detectors in the US (I learned this by experience; here, I wasn’t trying to get away with anything, I had simply forgotten to take them off, presumably due to being so tired). And on top of that, we sent our laptops through the xray machine inside our carry-ons (we were not asked to remove them). Also, we wore our shoes. (Horrors!)

After we had gotten through the wafer-thin security checkpoint, we got to our departure gate, and they were already in the process of boarding the plane. The plane was boarding process was conducted in disorganized “cattle-car” mode. Just a mob of people crowding around two lines. You didn’t have to show your passport to get through security, but you did have to show it here. We got on, and after they closed the doors we saw that thankfully the plane was not full, so Deb and I both got to have an aisle seat (7C and 7D). The flying time to MPL was 1:20 and I think I slept about 45 minutes of that (I just could not keep my eyes open by this point).

After we got to the MPL airport, we had to claim our bags, and due to the proximity to the coast, plus the fact that it was raining slightly, made it quite humid. By this point, I felt so gross that it really couldn’t have gotten any worse. Our bags made it, so we set off to find Alamo car rental (apparently the smallest rental company at this airport). We got to the car rental counter to find a sign, in French of course, indicating that the staff was gone for 30 minutes, which would have been helpful information if we knew when they had left.

After waiting for a few minutes, a woman came by and despite being clearly annoyed to have customers interrupting her lunch break, she completed the rental contract and away we went to the car, a Citroën C3 Pluriel that could transform itself into several different types of cars (Saloon to Cabriolet; Cabriolet to Spider; and back again to a Saloon, whatever they are). Because it’s not enough to just be a convertible. In France, a convertible has to be the moral equivalent of a child’s “transformer” toy. Forgoing the many conversion capabilities, we stuffed the bags into the very small rear seat and got on our way.

In the airport I had called the hotel (thank heavens for international roaming!) and got very confusing directions. Beyond the fact that I had to drive toward the center (centre) of Montpellier, I didn’t get much else other than that the hotel was near the “Polygone” section of downtown. (We found out later that this is the part of town where they store all the ugly buildings.) It was clear that I was going to have to figure it out on my own. At least the part I understood was to drive toward the city center (centre) so that was easy enough once I figured out how to exit the parking lot.

I drove a few minutes to downtown and saw a Mercure hotel (the wrong one, as it turns out) so after looking in vain for parking, I called the hotel again and got more precise directions. Getting across to the person where we were was the hard part. (I miss my GPS!) We drove to the “Polygone” shopping mall (perhaps a shopping mall slash business district…it was hard to tell what the term “Polygone” encompassed) and parked. I thought we should reconnoiter at street level, since based on his verbal directions we should be close now. We luckily picked the exit from the shopping mall (near the Galeries Lafayette store) that put us right around the corner from the hotel entrance. We checked in and got completely useless directions on how to get from the mall’s parking garage into the hotel’s parking garage. It cost us 1.5 euros to get out of the mall’s garage.

In retrospect the directions we had been given were perfect, but they lost something in translation. We ended up driving around (and around (and around)) for an hour looking for either the hotel’s parking lot or even a surface street that would take us to the front of the hotel. I should mention that the town in this area is riddled with streets on at least 3 levels and there are many cross streets that are not in fact streets but driveways. Keep in mind that we had been awake for well over 26 hours by this point and I was in NO MOOD for this ridiculous “can’t get there from here” situation. I backed out of more driveways than I care to mention. Once I drove into a parking garage and could not find where to pay. I got out of that garage for free after explaining to a non-English speaking attendant that I drove in there by mistake. This was very stressful.

Eventually, after a series of illegal turns, I found the front of the hotel completely by accident. We took the bags up to the room, then I asked one of the hotel reception workers to drive with me to their parking garage. After I saw where the entrance was, I saw my mistake from earlier. I thought that the person had meant to leave the garage on P3 and then turn left into the hotel’s garage *after* leaving the garage bulding. He should have said “immediately after paying, about 2 meters, turn left into our garage…do not leave the building!”. Then I would not have left the building and would have avoided the fun (ha!) drive around the Montpellier commercial center (centre). The guide book that we have refers to this section of town as “hideous sprawl” but it is near the quaint “old city” here in Montpellier (that I didn’t happen upon during my circulations).

So we got to the hotel. After unpacking (and getting showers!) we felt a little better. But the room was disappointing. It has no desk; no dresser; no clock; no radio; no peephole on the door; is shabby and not especially clean; etc. We had to wait until 7:30 to order dinner (that’s when the kitchen opened). We did enjoy the chicken salad with pine nuts. Then off to bed at 2100 with a wake-up call of 0800. Nice.

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