Although I haven't learned to time travel, over time I have traveled.
In 1973, I flew to the south of France for my first teaching job and my first adventure overseas. The French government assigned me to a lycée, a public school, in Marseille. France was a country in flux after political and economic crises, the death of de Gaulle, and the independence of many former colonies. In Marseille, I saw the impact that thousands of immigrants pouring in from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia were having on the French society, culture, and economy. It was fascinating to be in the middle of that.
Since that first trip, I've returned to France many times. I've also had the chance to travel to other European countries, as well as Egypt, China, Turkey, and Venezuela. For me, every trip is an adventure! It's an opportunity to discover how someone from a different culture lives, to learn about history, to see the great marvels of engineering, art, and architecture.
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Tea in the Khan el Khalili Bazaar
I’ve forever been fascinated by ancient Egypt. Exploring Cairo, Luxor, and the Valley of the Kings, drinking in the architecture and art, walking up the ramp at Deir el-Bahri were the stuff my dreams were made of. My father shares this interest. Some years ago, we decided we’d waited long enough!
Whenever I travel, one of my pleasures is learning about the place I’m going to visit. I research the history, geography, and culture of the region and read everything I can get my hands on. As it happened, I had read Sphinx by Robin Cook a number of years before. There is a scene in the book where the protagonist is offered tea by a merchant in the Khan el Khalili Bazaar in Cairo. I thought how cool it would be to look for treasures in a shop in the souk and be invited to tea by the owner!
During the first few days of our adventure, I rode a camel into the Sahara Desert to behold the wonders of the Pyramids at Giza. We explored the Sphinx and the funerary barque of Cheops. We marveled at the treasures recovered from King Tutankhamun’s tomb. We gazed in awe at the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Sakkara. Day after day we were overwhelmed by the brilliant engineering, art, and architectural wonders of the ancient Egyptians.
On Wednesday, I had the afternoon to myself. Now was my moment to experience something quintessential Egyptian. Excited, I headed out armored with my half-dozen expressions in Arabic – Hello. Please. Thank you. No. It’s hot out today. Goodbye.
The Khan el Khalili Bazaar is a labyrinth of tiny, twisting streets occupying several city blocks. Constructed in the 1300s, this seemingly endless emporium sits nestled inside the Old City Walls. I wandered past shops selling gleaming copper pots, finely wrought silver and gold jewelry, and hanging brass lamps. I examined soft leather poofs and alabaster statues of ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses. I considered beautifully crafted marquetry trays and boxes.
Everywhere I looked, there were marvels for sale. But nowhere did I see what I had come for. I wanted to purchase 2 galabiyahs (Egyptian kaftans) – one for myself and one for my mother. Oh yes, there were robes galore but the one for my mother had to be of the softest Egyptian cotton in pale blue – her favorite color.
I wound my way through crowded narrow alleyways, up stone steps, under pointed Gothic arches. Vaulted ceilings caught the aroma of spices, tobacco, and coffee and I breathed in deeply. I strolled by tiny cafés where men in galabiyahs stayed cool in the heat while they played backgammon or smoked water pipes filled with homemade mixtures of tobacco, straw, and sugar cane. At last, I came to a tiny shop on the edge of the market. The proprietor, garbed in a striped kaftan, waved at me from the open doorway. Why not?
Marhaba. Hello. Goods for sale were crammed on wooden shelves that rose to the 20-foot high ceiling. Cheap tourist stuff. La. Shukraan. No. Thank you. The man raised his hand and pointed toward a dark recess at the rear of the narrow shop. He hurried to the opening and flipped a light switch, revealing another packed room. Better quality, but still no galabiyahs. I explained what I was searching for. Ah ha! His index finger popped up again, indicating a third dark room. He squeezed past me and hit another switch. Now, we’re talking!
The sanctum sanctorum was smaller and more cramped than the previous 2 rooms but it was chock full of colorful kaftans. I tried on several and picked out a black one trimmed in gold and scarlet for myself. He took robe after robe off the shelves. How about this color? What about that design? I told him it had to be pale blue. After much darting about and rummaging through shelves and boxes, the pile of untried galabiyahs grew wobbly tall.
At last, he cried out and spun around to face me, a delicate blue robe in the softest of cottons in his hand. I smiled and nodded.
The shopkeeper wrapped them up, handed me the package, then left the room. A moment later, he returned grinning and carrying a small tray. On it was a steaming pot of tea, a bowl of sugar, and two tiny glasses set in silver-like holders with handles. I was so involved in picking out the kaftan I had completely forgotten about the tea.
My host set the tray on a small round table. With a flourish, he gestured me to sit on a rickety wooden chair as he invited me to tea.
13 October 2016
PART II Stranded in Paris: The Butcher's Wife
Across the street from our ersatz hotel was a charcuterie, a butcher shop. The travel agent had given me 2 emergency phone numbers. (This was several years before cellphones were a part of daily life.) I told the kids to wait in front of the hotel and I ran across the street.
I entered the tiny shop and explained my predicament to the butcher's wife. She immediately understood and expressed her dismay at our misfortune. She told me the same thing had happened to several other groups during the past 2 weeks. She heard that the hotel had been sold and described the former owners - familiar faces in the quartier. She kindly let me use the phone.
I dialed the first emergency number and got a recording that said the number did not exist. A flutter of panic. I dialed the second number and got the same recording. Oh no!
I asked Madame if she had any idea where I could find the owners. I don't really know what I thought they would do for me since they were obviously creeps. They took my kids' money and sold the place out from under us. She told me their first names and said they liked to hang out at the café around the corner.
I went back to my group and explained what had happened so far. I said I was going to look for the former owners. I did find them around the corner, enjoying a drink, lounging in the café. I confronted them. Of course, I got nowhere. I returned to the shop and the butcher's wife generously let me use the phone again to call the police. (I honestly don't know what I would have done without her. There were no public phone boxes anywhere in sight.)
Moments later, all hell broke loose and I was plunged into a Pink Panther movie - Inspecteur Clouseau, où êtes-vous?
I heard the signature sound of the French police siren. A white, panel van - blue light flashing - screeched to a halt at the curb. The kids were agog, mouths hung open. This was our first French adventure! Mon Dieu! The door slid open and 7 or 8 flics tumbled out. I explained our predicament to the cops.
If you know the French people, you know that family is of the utmost importance to them. The thought of all these poor children - hot, tired, and abandoned - was too much to bear. What could they do? How could they help us? Anything to . . . Save. These. Kids.
I asked the police to take me to the American Embassy. I thought someone might be able to track down the French office of the travel agency. I left the kids with the 2 adults and brought the other chaperone with me - just in case. In case of what, I had no idea. But you never know when you might need someone to back you up.
We piled into the windowless back of the police van - me, the other teacher, and a half-dozen French policemen.
You would have thought that somebody had stolen the crown jewels. The van propelled its way through the busy, crowded streets of Paris - careening around corners, sideswiping vehicles parked too far from the curb, speeding like a bat out of hell. Every time we flew around a corner, the side door slid open and I got an interesting, new view of the city, sitting on my bench in the back of the police van.
Did I say sideswipe? Mais oui. Evidently it was imperative that we not stop. We actually smacked a side mirror on a car and sent it crashing to the ground. No one even blinked. Tant pis! Tough luck for that guy. We were on a mission!
At one point, we came to a halt behind a man who was backing up in order to parallel park alongside the curb. This was just un peu de trop! Too much for our urgent errand! One of the cops jumped out and yelled at the man to keep going. He shouted that Monsieur was obstructing important police business. We could not wait while he parked his car. (The poor guy probably wasted an hour looking for another precious parking spot.)
Finally we arrived at the American Embassy. One of the cops told me they would wait. I was to tell the guards that the police were waiting for me - that should speed things up.
I got through 4 heavily guarded checkpoints in record speed. A lovely, calm embassy worker listened to my tale and asked to see the phone numbers.
Nothing could be easier, Mademoiselle. Your travel agent simply forgot to provide you with the area codes.
The French office of the travel agency was not in Paris. It was in a town called Tours, several hours away in the Loire Valley. In a few short moments, I was speaking with a local representative who managed to get me no fewer than 9 hotel rooms at the height of the high season. Within the hour, I was back with the kids, in taxis, happily on our way to our new digs.
That was the first 4 hours of our trip. I still had 10 days to go.
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13 September 2016
Part I: Stranded in Paris
Every other summer when I was teaching, I took some of my French students to France for 1-2 weeks. I loved being the guide - Voilà la Tour Eiffel!! - but I hired a travel agency to book the flights and hotel. After 20 years, I finally announced the last trip to Paris. About 15 kids signed up, as well as 2 adults. I also took my niece and another teacher to help with chaperone duties.
The hotel where we had stayed on the previous trip was in a great location and suited our needs perfectly, so I asked the travel agent to book it again. The participants paid ahead of time and we were off.
After our overnight flight, a bus was waiting to take us from de Gaulle Airport into the city. Paris was sweltering, loud, and crowded. All the taxis are Mercedes, and the 96-degree heat that mixed with the fumes from those diesel engines was enough to give you a pounding headache. When we arrived at the corner of the street where the hotel was located, we saw a construction project blocking off part of the street. There wasn't enough room for the bus to get through.
I knew the hotel was next door to the construction site - even though I couldn't see past the scaffolding - so I told the driver to let us off at the corner. Everyone had a suitcase with wheels and it would save us a lot of time from negotiating 1-way streets trying to find an alternate route to get closer to the front door.
Twenty people - hot, tired, and pulling a carry-on bag and a large suitcase - paraded down the sidewalk. I led the way. When I got around to the other side of the scaffolding - which extended all the way out to the curb - and reached the entrance to the hotel, my heart skipped a beat then thudded to the pavement.
The building was completely dark. The front doors were chained and padlocked. A large sign posted on the glass pane announced that the hotel had been sold. An auction of all the contents would take place the following weekend.
Merde! Now what?
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I hope you'll come back again to share in my travel adventures.