JFK—Paris with the Devil in Tow
I thought I pulled it off quite well, considering I gave myself only seven days from deciding to move to Paris to date of departure. I managed to sublet my Tribeca triplex, gracefully exit the three fashion consulting jobs, and pack ten pieces of luggage vital to my sanity—books, paints, clothes, favorite objects (which may or may not have included sex toys).
I knew that the one remaining detail was figuring out how to bring my semipsychotic cat, Puccini, with me on the plane. I was fully prepared. For once, I would follow the official rules and prepare all the necessary documents. I bought a cat airline ticket and splurged on the top-of-the-line “airline approved” cat transport carrier. I knew I’d have to knock him out (the cat, not the vet) for the flight, as even the two-block trip to the vet had made Puccini into a nervous wreck. The vet gave me cat tranquilizers, assuring me that “one pill an hour before you leave will have him sleeping soundly before you even get to the airport.” Great. Done.
The day of departure arrived. Passport? Check! Obscene amount of luggage? Check! Okay, time to sedate Puccini; I thought the tough part was going to be getting that bloody pill down his tiny throat as he gagged and shrieked, surely one paw reaching for the phone to call the Cruelty to Animals hotline. After catching him pull the “fake swallow” followed by expelling the pill in a corner, I lassoed him and we had an out-and-out brawl. Twenty minutes, three Band-Aids, and one very pissed cat later, I had won “in a draw.” I even succeeded in jamming him into the cat carrier bag as he performed a rather impressive violent moonwalk of resistance.
The minibus I’d hired to take me and all my stuff to JFK astonishingly arrived on time. Of course the driver was so thrilled to see so much luggage that he sat paralyzed in the driver’s seat as I struggled to load everything inside. I was giddy to be on my way to a new life in Gay Paree. Then I noticed, the vet was slightly off in his estimate that Puccini would be … “sleeping soundly” was it? More like wild-eyed and meowing loudly in auto-repeat mode. Très annoying.
I arrived at JFK and dragged ten pieces of baggage relay-style to check-in, while Puccini provided a soundtrack of howling at thirty-five decibels to the delight of no one. With my new budget-minded economy ticket, I knew there was zero chance of trying to sneak eight extra pieces of luggage (Louis Vuitton, natch) onto the plane. Still, I approached the the female ticket agent with optimism.
“Hello, I’m on the flight for Paris. Would it be at all possible to get a bulkhead seat? I’m rather tall and I have my cat with me so I might need a little extra room,” I asked above the incessant howling of Puccini.
“No, I’m sorry, bulkhead seats on international flights are reserved for mothers traveling with enfants,” she said with an entirely unnecessary scowl.
“He is kind of like a wailing child at the moment, wouldn’t you agree?” I said, trying to amuse her into compliance. No dice. She wasn’t the slightest bit charmed by me, Puccini’s aria, or by my proud proclamation of “I’m moving to Paris.”
“And is all of that your luggage? Do you mean to check it on this flight?” As though I were trying to sneak a pickup truck through as carry-on.
“Yes, I suppose I may be a bit over on the weight limit.”
“Definitely,” the crab apple in the Air France polyester uniform announced with annoyance, realizing she was now going to have to do some actual work. “Bring them all over here and put them on the scale.”
I put the box-o-yelling cat on the ground and lugged all ten bags onto the scale piece by piece. She snorted and huffed at the weight and appearance of each one and stamped the statistics into the computer.
“Well, Miss Klein, looks like you owe another seven hundred forty-five dollars. Would you like to put that on a credit card?” She almost squealed with glee at my misfortune. I threw down my credit card as though paying another seven hundred forty-five dollars was the equivalent of a nickel to me. She handed over my ticket and credit card receipt with a brusque, “Gate 2a.”
Not even so much as a “have a nice flight.” Short on charm, that woman. Whatever, I was moving to PARIS! You couldn’t rain on my parade, chick. Nothing could.
Unfortunately, Puccini had chosen the role Tasmanian Devil for his Air France debut. As I waited at the gate in economy class check-in, I clutched the cat carrier bag handles closed as he desperately tried to break the speed of sound doing frantic revolutions in a confined space.
Oh sure, people pointed and exchanged theories of whether I was carrying several rabid ferrets involved in a violent family dispute, or if it was in fact a Komodo dragon who’d ingested LSD. As we all filed into our economy seats, cattle-style, I was enduring, thinking only of afternoons spent drinking at cafés with beautiful Frenchmen. This was supposed to be the easy part: getting from Point A to Point B.
As they closed the doors to the plane, I noticed those little paws I could never bring myself to cruelly declaw were slicing and shredding the rip-stop window of the carrier. I tried desperately to hold it closed with my hand. I can’t be certain, because my hand was below the seat, but I’m pretty sure a vicious hyena jumped in to assist Puccini by biting me with such force that blood began to pour from four very distinct puncture wounds. Fuckity fuck fuck! At this point, I would have gladly declawed and deteethed (unteethed, distoothed, what is the word?) Puccini with pleasure. Okay, fine, cat bastard. Go nuts. I desperately needed about a bazillion napkins for my gaping wounds. I pushed the stewardess button. She arrived a casual ten minutes later.
“Miss, is that your cat sitting on that gentleman’s shoulder?” the second “Air France sweetheart” to cross my path asked me with cocked eyebrow.
Sure enough, Puccini had clawed a hole in the cat carrier and perched himself on the Indian man next to me. The notion of “denial of ownership” was momentarily considered but, damn it, I’d already been seen with the cat, so I was obliged to grab him and request the absurd (which, at the time seemed perfectly reasonable to me): “Might you have some container (even one of those goddamn beverage trolleys) I could put my cat in, because I see we’re about to take off and he’s already destroyed his airline-approved (that part I enunciate loudly, like it’s her fault) carrier bag?”
She cheerfully replied, “Oh no, miss, I’m sure we have nothing like that. Good luck.” Already on her way back to that riveting presentation of how to work a seat belt.
“Excuse me!! Miss!!? Could you possibly bring me several napkins? My hand’s bleeding quite badly,” I yell over the heads of all the seated passengers, who of course all turn around immediately to see what the hoo-ha is. Zip response until she returns ten long minutes later and without a word throws the napkins into my lap. Lovely. I considered explaining to her that her laissez-faire attitude toward having a savage cat loose in the cabin, might be a mistake. But I decided to take the high road.
After apologizing profusely to the Indian Gentleman, who I must say took the whole cat epaulet moment quite well, I realized my options were très limited. There was no escape and an eight-hour flight ahead. So for the safety of the other innocent passengers (selfless, yes?) I sacrificed myself to the cat gods. Off I headed to the toilet, my only feasible refuge: a contained space protecting others from feline fury. Being in a tiny, confined space with Puccini wasn’t my favorite fantasy but I ruled out ensconcing myself in the cockpit—too many dials and activity.
I can unhappily confirm that the powerful potpourri of urine disinfectant in an airplane toilet never does quite become tolerable. And while we all have been told it’s illegal to be in a plane bathroom for takeoff, I discovered no one really cared. My fears of being jostled in heavy turbulence paled next to the reality that at some point I was going to have to actually leave the toilet with the cat.
We reached our cruising altitude (from what I could guess) and Puccini turned into a belligerent old drunk, staggering, hissing, and spitting. I tried to find a neutral corner as he began an eight-hour circuit-training routine of hostility blended with confusion.
As to be expected, fellow passengers began to knock on the toilet door, impatient to pee and curious as to whether someone had taken up residence in the bathroom. (Yes, thank you. Please have my mail forwarded to me here. Finally I feel at home somewhere.) As I squatted on the smelly floor, exhausted, blood oozing from my aching hand, the idea of letting in the guy pounding on the door seemed amusing: “Sure, buddy, I dare you to expose your most vulnerable body part to this drugged-out claw machine I like to call my traveling companion. Bring it on!”
The hours passed slowly (that’s an understatement: Itook to counting how many sheets comprised a roll of toilet paper). I imagined that out there movies were being shown, people were putting on their sleep masks, relaxing after a glass of red wine. The aroma of beef bourguignon seeped under the bathroom door, and I can tell you that, mixed with l’odeur de la toilette, it had absolutely no appeal, regardless of my hunger pangs.
God, I would’ve killed for just a tiny bag of peanuts, those ten delicious, precious nuts I’d taken for granted so often. At hour five, crazy thirst kicked in. You must remember all the times you’ve seen the sign in plane toilets stating NOT DRINKABLE WATER. You’ve laughed to yourself, What fool would want to? Suddenly I was that fool, parched, going bananas with dehydration. Water: yes, but access denied.
This was truly not the flight to Paris I’d envisioned. That was more along the lines of me toasting myself with Champagne, kicking back, eating frontage (yes, two points for you, that’s right: cheese) and naming my future Frenchborn children. (Chloe: yes; that’s a lovely name: No, wait, it’s also a perfume … nice bottle, but smells like old ladies … okay then, Clotilde … perfect.)
Hours passed like years as I nodded off for a second only to discover Puccini jumping from the sink onto my head. My black cashmere sweater was now several layers deep in beige cat hair, creating a 1970s angora look I’d normally be horrified to be seen in. My contact lenses had dried to corneal eye carapaces when finally I heard the landing gear descend. My thought of Yipee … France! quickly dissolved into, Oh shit, customs.
I stuck my head out of the toilet door and hailed a stewardess to beg to be moved to first class, cat in my arms, in order to get off this goddamn plane first. She told me it was possible. I thought, There is a God—cruel with a twisted sense of humor but a god, nevertheless. Any normal thrill of making a move of such comfort and magnitude from a toilet to first class was lost as I took my seat in 2B. I was on the receiving end of the terribly disapproving expressions of the elite first-class passengers (where, dammit, I normally would be with the Big-Shot Ex, for crying out loud). They were none too amused to have paid six thousand dollars for their seats only to be joined by the bedraggled bleeding girl in the tacky angora sweater, bleeding profusely, and her wild cat in tow.
So I wasn’t a big hit in first class; I was okay with that as I had bigger issues ahead of me. After landing, the pilot waited ten minutes to tell us we’d have to stay out on the tarmac and be shuttled by bus to the terminal. Oh, genius.
As everyone filed into the shuttle bus I saw the Indian man I sat next to (briefly) and Puccini sat on (actually). I wondered if he’d eaten my dinner, gobbled down the peanuts designated for me. I was so starving by then, I would’ve eaten Puccini and used his claws for toothpicks.
At the customs booth, the inspector was unimpressed with the dishevelled girl and seething cat. After a visible mental debate on whether to give us a hard time, French laziness worked to my advantage as he decided it was way too much of an effort to interrogate me than, say, just grunting and stamping my passport.
Oh, the pleasure of hauling endless pieces of luggage, each the size of a Volkswagen, to two different chariots—that’s French for “luggage cart.” It’s so chichi, don’t you think? I believe I even asked Puccini if he concurred. C’mon, I was delirious with thirst.
Of course, as is always the case, one piece of luggage was being annoyingly elusive. Three quarters of my fellow passengers had already probably made it home by the time my last bag popped out. Finally, with all ten bags and one cat, I trudged to the counter where I was asked if I had anything to declare. “Oh yes, I declare I am fucking going to kill this cat, and the vet. One pill!? And the cat-carrier company is definitely getting a letter. They … I’m just getting started!” I was encouraged to, “Move along, mademoiselle.”
It’s a mean feat pushing two chariots of luggage and a cat through a revolving door, to the … Hey, wait a minute. That long line of people couldn’t all be waiting for taxis? God damn it, can I get a break?
I began negotiating my way into the umpteenth line in less than ten hours and was beginning to imagine this nightmare was almost over when a taxi finally pulled up in front of me. The French taxi driver spotted the cat and announced, “Pas de chat!” as he waived the businessman behind me ahead. As businessman and taxi drove off I felt a pitiful sense of loss. The next taxi driver appeared, only to proclaim, “Trop de baggages!” (too much luggage) and tell me I would only be accepted by the taxi minibus.
As far as my eye could see (through the cat-hair veil) there were no such taxi minibuses in the airport. Approximately one hour and forty-three minutes after landing, the much coveted and rare taxi minibus made an appearance. The driver was a charming older man, quick to help me with the bags, and even friendly. Once we were under way, he ever so kindly informed me that, “Cats don’t like to travel, mademoiselle.” Oh, really? What a helpful bit of information at this juncture, monsieur.
I looked down at Puccini on my lap; he had quietly fallen asleep. Charming. Perfect. The vet was right on the money, those pills work like clockwork. I highly recommend them both. Oh, and the “airline approved” cat carrier, now there’s a real piece of craftsmanship and durability. I want to officially thank you all for making it such a smooth, problem-free trip.
I knew right then and there we were not going to make another transatlantic trip together, Puccini and I. I was going to have to make this “Paris dream” work, because returning to New York City was clearly out of the question. Whoever coined the adage “Getting there is half the fun,” I’m guessing, never went transatlantic with a drugged-out cat.
PARIS HANGOVER. Copyright © 2006 by Kirsten Lobe. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.