In Orly airport…three flights down, one seven-hour-plus flight and one three-and-a-half-hour bus ride to go. Unable to find a wifi connection that doesn’t require paying or setting foot in a McDonald’s, much to my annoyance because I have a piece to finish. It really makes you think about the extent to which today’s writers are dependent on the Internet. But 25 years ago, the same work would have involved placing a dozen phone calls (from a landline) and spending half a day in the library with reference works and newspaper back issues….so could I have even started it on the road? Would I even be working on a special Burundi tourism supplement for a magazine in India in the first place? I don’t think so.
It’s my birthday. I don’t really know what to make of it; there’s no one really to celebrate with and no one will give me a discount. I can call myself 24 instead of 23. Big deal. For a month or so now this date has been fixed in my head, less as my birthday than as Travel Day.
The night before last was one of the best nights of my life, I must say. Athanase and I threw a terrace party for my going away. Of course Pierre and Antoine came, and Honorine, and Fabia, dressed in a loud chartreuse-and-red boubou with the logo of the 50th anniversary independence celebrations on it. She brought her son and daughter, in their late teens, who are as quiet as she is loud. Ten of my ex-students came, including Emilie (of course) and Quiet Michel and Elisabeth, who I had not seen at all since I got here. Elisabeth brought pictures of her new baby.
And there was a whole delegation of people from work, led by Damien and Bosco. With the guys from work we laughed until we cried, doing imitations of people who weren’t there– Jean-Charles lecturing the staff, a married chauffeur who is always falling in like with one or another of the female staff and recently declared his love for Félicie and me–during the same lunch break– etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
As usual, no one had much money, but we pulled together. Dieudonné, God love him, brought a case of drinks, Athanase a bunch of CDs, Honorine a big bag of peanuts, Bosco some mixing syrup, a few others some money for the drinks pot. Fabia and her son disappeared for a while and came back with an enormous bag of beignets (donut holes). With the money I had saved, it felt good to pay Quiet Michel’s cab fare and to buy a round of drinks for the three guys on the house staff who had cooked me breakfast, changed my sheets, taught me Kirundi, opened the gate for me at three in the morning and just generally put up with me for the past six weeks.
My “Bujumbura is a village” theory was reinforced by the fact that Elisabeth turned out to be Damien’s niece, and the head of the Investigations desk at the paper had gone to high school with Athanase’s best friend.
The next morning was bittersweet. Goodbyes are never easy. Each one for me is less traumatic, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
I practically pushed Pierre out the door at around 9:30– we’d lost track of time before a press conference– and considering that those things always drag on and on, he wasn’t back before I had to leave. We said goodbye by text message. I feel really bad that the last words I said to him face to face were “Ciao, ciao, OK, get going.” But you have to see the funny side of the whole thing.
Bosco wrote “This is my gift” on a piece of paper, put his headphones against my ears and, without a sound, slipped out of the room. The song was Francis Cabrel, “Je t’aimais, je t’aime et je t’aimerai.” That was the only moment when I really did cry.
Despite our differences of opinion on many matters– I’m anti-religion and he’s a fervent believer, for one–Bosco has been like a father to me all this time, and no less so to Pierre and Félicie.
Jean-Charles and Damien both interrupted their meetings to say goodbye.
“It’s been a pleasure working with you,” I said to Jean-Charles, who was holding his face two inches from mine, shaking my hand with one hand and grabbing my left shoulder with the other.
“The pleasure’s all mine,” he said.
“Now, I know you wouldn’t say that if it wasn’t true,” I said. He and I have locked horns on a couple of occasions, although I have great respect for his experience and he’s also said quite a few encouraging things.
“Look, you talk too much,” he said. “But keep writing. And let me know how it goes at school.”
Emilie arrived, she and I and Félicie got in the car, and we were away.
Once I had said goodbye to the girls, I was plunged into the weird universe of airports and international travel that I have lived in for the last 24 hours or so. In Bujumbura, there was some kind of screwup with the electronic check-in system.
Woe betide the poor airport employees! The departure hall was full of Americans and French people. Now, it’s no secret that the only people that rival the Americans and the French in the “sense of entitlement” department are each other. As soon as the delay became apparent, the employees had to face a horde of huffing, puffing, gesticulating, do-you-know-who-I-amming foreigners.
The American in front of me had too much luggage. He gave no indication of being able to speak a word of French, just started jawing away at the poor counter girl in rapid, American-accented English. She was admirably sporting about it. He had to pay a fee.
“You take credit cards, right?”
“No, only cash.”
“You don’t take credit cards?”
“No, sorry, cash,” said the counter girl, not letting go of her sporting smile.
He gaped at her indignantly. “You don’t take credit cards. Only cash.”
Credit cards?! What Burundi has he been living in?
He eventually handed his extra bag to a friend who was under the limit. We finally got through security, after more bitching and moaning, and I was famished. I paid nearly four dollars for a Velveeta sandwich and half a dozen greasy fries. Already gone, the Burundi where that amount was good for a pile of fries with sautéed onions and mayo, five or six cubes of grilled beef liver on a stick, perhaps even a side salad, and two cold, enormous beers.
I slept most of the first flight, because I had nothing left to read. We were in Nairobi in the time it took my brain to formulate thoughts, Then we got to Addis Ababa, a three-hour layover.
I wish I could have taken a walk around Addis Ababa; Ethiopia intrigues me with its desert language and the dancing figures of Amharic script, with its ancient cities. If I have the privilege of going back to East Africa again and I have a little more time, I’ll try to arrange myself to go there and spend a night.
Ethiopia is a country still in mourning for its prime minister, Meles Zenawi, deceased about three weeks ago, of unknown causes, at the age of 57. Depending on who you listen to, the man was either an innovative revolutionary or a malevolent “enemy of freedom”. The arrival and departure screens were periodically covered with photo montages of Meles as a little boy, Meles as a teenager, Meles as a young revolutionary, Meles as prime minister, and then the main square of Addis Ababa glimmering with a hundred thousand candles of mourning Ethiopians. I had nothing to read except my one remaining Kapuscinski book, which I had already read at least three times, so I sat back and watched the Meles montage a few times. I wandered the two rows of shops in the airport, watching Africa go by–dignified West African men in floor-length white djellabas, exhausted-looking Chinese, young English-speaking tourists thumbing through the CDs and Rastafarian-motif purses. The French, who you can often distinguish by their faces–I’ll give you a hint: Charles de Gaulle or Franck Ribery. A tall, skinny young man, black as night, who might have been Burundian or then again South Sudanese. I did a double take when I saw him because he was the image of a younger Bosco. The Congolese; men in ridiculous double-breasted suits that might have been worn in Europe 30 years ago–who were they trying to impress? I chuckle at the comments Bosco would have made, which only another African could say out loud. The women, wearing loud boubous of orange and blue or red and green, talking loudly among themselves, chugging the mini-bottles of wine that they had pocketed on the Kinshasa flight as soon as they realized there were no liquids on the flight. A group of brothers and sisters my age or younger who had dark caramel skin and head scarves (in the case of the women) but spoke French. By process of elimination I guessed they were from Djibouti, the only French-speaking country in the Horn of Africa. A glance at their passports told me I was right. They didn’t say much but were nice enough; when we got in the interminable queue to go through security again, I stuck with the Djiboutians to avoid getting cut in line by (too many) Congolese. An hour or so in that queue and then another queue for check-in. I was behind a French-speaking Italian who kept wringing his hands and saying “C’est de la merde! C’est fou!” and a middle-aged Belgian woman who repeated ruefully, in English, “I’ve never seen an airport so badly organized.”
Then the queue for boarding, which wasn’t a queue at all but more a mess of people, standing at the entrance to the jetway. I was behind yet more Congolese and in front of a group of Albanians, all of whom must have felt right at home.
There was no loudspeaker, and finding your gate was like finding your bus at Bujumbura Central Market. An airport employee walks around repeatedly yelling a certain destination (“Paris! Milan! Brussels Tel Aviv!”) You, the traveller, hear this person, follow his or her voice, and once the voice’s owner has been found, follow him or her like the pied piper.
Preboarding, business class and then…the mad rush. The usual spectacle of English- and Amharic-speaking flight attendants trying to make themselves understood to French-speaking, logic-impaired Congolese…I mean, come on, French is the second most taught language in the world after English, is it really that difficult to ensure one or two French-speaking flight attendants on a Paris-bound flight? Just to make life easier? But I digress.
I slept for awhile on the flight, and when I woke up we were over Marseille. The string of golden clusters of lights did not stop until Paris. Golden clusters floating in dark blue…one would think we were over water. Sleeping city after sleeping city…6:30 is practically night in the Northern Hemisphere, even though on the equator the sun is already fully up, the roosters are crowing and work has begun.
Sunrise– a long, brilliant orange ribbon across the dark blue sky.
Paris…I don’t know why the sensory overload on re-entry hit me a little less this time than the first time. Maybe I’m used to it? But I was still like a kid in a candy store going from bookshop to bookshop, looking at all the books. How is it that a country has only one bookshop,while an airport has half a dozen?
I was hoping to have one last look at Paris, walk along the Seine one last time, maybe even go to Shakespeare and Company. But I had a 20-kilo suitcase to drag (the technical screwup in Bujumbura meant I could not check it through to Montreal) and the trip to Orly from de Gaulle alone took two hours, so i just went straight there. I bought myself a novel AND The Guardian (it is my birthday, after all) and an Orangina, from a bad-tempered young woman who threw a hissy fit when I asked her if I could take the soda even though I was ten cents short (I mean, what is the problem with saying ‘No, sorry’?!) but didn’t give me back the money, and let me take the soda after a brief staredown. Weird moment.
WARNING to anyone who, in the future, has to change airports in Paris: allow lots of time. The bus from de Gaulle to Orly takes an hour and a half, costs between 17 and 20 euros for adults, and only comes every 35 minutes; once at Orly you have to check in and go through security and customs all over again, the same old two-hour process. The bus ride stays on the highway, although at one point you do get a nice look at the Seine.
Was served dinner on the Montreal flight by a middle-aged male flight attendant who addressed me with a hearty “Jeune homme!” (“Young man!”) I turned around and grinned at him. “Oui?”
He looked at my face, looked for a split second at my chest, then looked at my face again– and nearly died of embarrassment. I burst out laughing while trying to reassure him that it was no big deal. When he saw I was smiling he too started giggling, all the while tripping over himself apologizing. We faced each other like that for a good five minutes. His colleague came over to see what was going on, and she too had a good laugh. When the time came for coffee, he made a point of asking me, “Mademoiselle, voulez-vous du café?”
But with a completely straight face. I was impressed.
Flying over the Atlantic, completely covered by a layer of pearl-white clouds. When I was little, flying with my father to visit my grandmother in Texas, I remember asking my father what the clouds felt like–were they like cotton? were they like whipped cream? Could we roll down the window and reach out and touch the clouds? He told me no, but that the clouds were like cold air.
My first transatlantic flight was with my mother; I was 16 and we were going to Paris. It was a night flight; Mom was planning to sleep through it, and offered me a Tylenol PM and some red wine.
“Are you crazy?” I said. “I want to see the ocean!”
And I stared out at the black water for hours and hours.
Now, my window is down along with all the others around me; the sun off the clouds makes a blinding white light. It’s 8:15 PM in Paris, nighttime already. But in Montreal, it’s just past two in the afternoon. And we’re flying with the sun…