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Nightmare at Charles de Gaulle Airport

Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris, Paris - Sunday, January 31st, 2016

I’m in hell at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Here’s why and how.

It’s been two weeks since we got back from Croatia and already I’m antsy. November in Nova Scotia is usually grey, rainy and depressing – this year is no exception. I’d like to squeeze one more trip in before Christmas, but where. For some reason Spain pops into my head and I think of one area there we have not been, Andalusia, the land of the Moors and home to some of the most romantic sounding places in the world – Granada, Sevilla, Cordoba. The names just roll off the tongue and soon I’m looking up apartments in Granada on TripAdvisor – the hell with that bloody brief that’s due this week. This is low season in Spain and there are lots of choices at very good prices, but procrastination sets in and I don’t take any active steps to book one.

Two days later some clients come in and after concluding business we get to talking about plans for the winter and I mention that I was thinking of going to Spain. They immediately reply that they have a place in the Albayzin neighborhood of Granada that we can have. Are you kidding me? Talk about providential! Of all the places in the world they might have a place, it happens to be the very one I’ve been thinking about. I couldn’t have been more surprised if I’d said I wanted to go to Antarctica and they said they had a nice little research hut available there.

Ten days later Alison and I are on our way to Granada. But first this little prequel at Charles de Gaulle airport.

Effect of the Paris Terrorist Attacks

We were flying to Granada via Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and then Barcelona. I’d booked the flight through Paris only two days before the terrorist’s attacks on November 13 and was a bit apprehensive, but we had flown to Turkey within a week of 911 and that had turned out fine. The fact that some of the terrorists were from the St. Denis area of Paris was no surprise. We had visited there in the spring and I wrote about in a post called St. Denis and the Other Paris, noting that going to St. Denis was almost the equivalent of going to North Africa.

Instead of heightened security at Charles de Gaulle airport, the customs official barely glanced at our passports and didn’t even stamp them. I’m presuming he could tell at a glance that we were not likely looking terrorists. Then the problems began. We had to transfer from Terminal 2 where the international flights land to Terminal 3. I had transferred from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1 before and it was not a problem, so I presumed we should just follow the signs to connecting flights and we’d eventually find directions for Terminal 3. If only it were that simple and logical. Here’s a map of CDG.

Map of CDG Terminals
Charles De Gaulle Airport Terminals

See that tiny building between Terminal 1 and 2? That’s Terminal 3 – real logical that 3 would be between 1 and 2 and not after 2. I didn’t know this at the time, but it’s impossible to get to Terminal 3 without completely exiting the airport. Being the experienced traveler I am, I assumed that following the connecting flight signs would mean I would we would not have to clear security again, even if we had to change terminals. But NO!!! The only connecting flights you can get to from Terminal 2 are other Terminal 2 flights and here’s the rub. Once you follow the connecting flights sign and don’t go to the baggage and exit area, you can’t get out again. I’m serious. We walked the length and breadth of Terminal 2 three times looking for any indication of a connection to anywhere and then just looking for a f**** exit to get the hell out of there. Finally I did the unmanly thing and decided to ask for directions. We went into the Air Canada lounge and I explained our situation. Believe it or not there was not a single person working there who knew where it was, let alone how to get there.  They got on the phone and over and over again I heard “Terminal trois? Ou? Non!” Nobody knew.

However, someone did figure out how to get to Terminal 1, which on the map is closer to Terminal 3 than Terminal 2 – again that impeccable French logic. So let’s try that. After asking several more people we did locate a stairway to a place where there was a secure connection to Terminal 1 by way of a bus, just like there is in dozens of airports around the world. I explained that we wanted to go to Terminal 3 and was waved onto the bus. After a bumpy ten minute ride we were let out at a secure entrance where a security guard wanted to see our boarding passes. When I explained that we weren’t departing from Terminal 1 he waved his arms and said “Non, non,non” and ordered us back on the bus. So we were literally waved on and off the bus and back on again. Back to Terminal 2.

By now I was getting worried and starting thinking about Tom Hanks  in the Steven Spielberg movie The Terminal where he plays an immigrant from a foreign country who gets stranded for years at JFK airport. The reason I was worried was because I knew the movie was based on the true story of Merhan Nasseri, an Iranian, who was trapped, not at JFK, but at the very airport I’m now in, for eight years! I now realize that it wasn’t because he wasn’t allowed to leave, he just couldn’t find his way out.

Moview poster for The Terminal
The Terminal

Even though Terminal 2 is one of the largest and most modern in the world there is not a single information desk in the entire place, at least not in the departures area. If your in the departure area of Terminal 2 you are departing from there or not at all.

Worried now about missing our flight to Barcelona we both stop anyone who looks like they might have some authority even if it is only to clean the toilets. At last someone escorts us to what is an unmarked door that is the only one in the entire terminal that will let you get out of the departures area without leaving on a plane. The sense of relief at getting out into the cold, fresh air is palpable. Now I know where we are and catch the train that connects Terminal 1 and 2 and allegedly, Terminal 3. It doesn’t of course, stopping a good half a kilometre away, but at least there are signs and we make the trek to Terminal 3, which is basically just a large warehouse. It looks so old and decrepit that Louis Blériot might have used it. Gone are the haute couture shops and their très chic clientele of Terminal 2, replaced by down at the heels travellers with screaming babies and surly husbands, going on the cheapest airlines possible. Here the security is very apparent with pairs of very young looking soldiers carrying machine guns and openly staring at anyone that doesn’t look like them. One has a very nervous young Belgian shepherd that snaps and barks at any black man who comes close.

Do I ever need a drink and guess what, you can’t get one in Terminal 3.

We are travelling on Vueling, Iberia Airlines version of Tango and I have seldom been as happy to board a plane as this one. Usually I can’t get enough of Paris, but today I can’t get out soon enough and it has nothing to do with the events of recent days. If your travel agent books you though Terminal 3 at Charles De Gaulle, be afraid, be very afraid.

Stay tuned for happier times coming up in Andalusia.


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