A Touch of Humanity in a Sea of Chaos

CHÂTEAU Each June for the past 15 years I have made my annual trip from Paris to Aspen, Colorado for the Food & Wine Classic, a long weekend where I and other food writers and chefs conduct cooking classes, give talks and do book signings and consumers have their fill of wine tastings, seminars, special dinners, as well as mountain hikes and the unbeatable summer skies of Aspen.

Each year I gear up for that endless trip in the sky, the series of planes that usually take me from Paris to Chicago, Chicago to Denver, Denver to Aspen in a single day, with usually a travel time of 24 hours if all goes well. It usually does not. Most often I arrive in Denver late or really late and barely make the last flight to Aspen. By that time, tough as I am, my lower lip trembles with exhaustion and -- I will be honest -- I could break at any moment if the ticket agent suggests I may not reach my destination that evening. There are almost always snags, delays, lost luggage, but if all goes well I arrive in sunny Aspen around 8 pm wishing they would take those bright lights away and hand me a firm pillow.

This year, for the first time ever, all signals were go. I even had a felicitous check-in in Paris , when the United Airlines agent and I began to chat, and before I knew it Bruno and I were exchanging recipes (he promised to send his famous terrine de lapin), business cards, and well wishes. He also complimented me on my tiny red bag and applauded me for traveling light. So this time every plane was on time, there was no lost luggage, and there were cheery faces greeting me in Aspen to whisk me to my usual room at the Hotel Jerome.

The return – with a three-day stop in New York for business -- was less successful. On Sunday, the short flight from Aspen to Denver almost landed in Colorado Springs. The Denver flight to NY took off a bit late, and was so crowded it seemed as though it took centuries to board. Once we were close to LaGuardia airport, we circled until we almost ran out of fuel. The pilot announced that the airport was closed due to storms and we would divert to Dulles airport outside of Washington, D.C. There, we would hopefully refuel and return to the New York City metropolitan area at first chance.

We landed late, very late, at Dulles and from the second we landed it seemed as though Untied Airlines dumped us. As we deplaned they announced that the crew had worked their maximum hours, there was no replacement crew, and we should deplane and wait for instructions.

I, among many others on the plane, had a crucial need to be in Manhattan on Monday morning. I had a cooking class to give at Macy’s DeGustibus and needed essential prep time. Once we gathered in a long, long line with two United agents to handle us, we were informed that we had two choices: Maybe a 10:30 am flight to LaGuardia the next morning or a 3:30 am Amtrack train to Manhattan.

In situations like this, I feel it is important to move toward your final destination with each decision. So at 12:35 A.M. I climbed into a taxi with three other like-minded travelers heading for the train station in downtown D.C. a good 40 minutes away. As we began to explain our tale of woe to the taxi driver, he offered to drive us to Manhattan. We took a quick startled glance at one another, negotiated with the driver, and we were off! By 6 am I was comfortably ensconced in my friends’ New York City apartment. I felt smug and happy and exhausted.

Three quick days in Manhattan and I was off on my trip back to Paris. United Airlines does not fly direct from New York to Paris, so I was ticketed New York-Dulles-Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris .

This is where it gets rugged. To keep it short and sweet, the flight from LaGuardia to Dulles was late, extremely late, and I missed my connection to Paris . Once again, I found myself in the Dulles airport taxi line past midnight, again a one-hour wait for a cab, sharing this time with three other men for the trip to D.C. United Airlines had given me a voucher for dinner, a hotel room, and breakfast. Too late for dinner but a firm pillow seemed like a good idea at the time.

When I arrived at the Hilton Hotel at 3:30 am the desk clerk looked at me and said: “I don’t’ know why they keep sending people here when they know we have no rooms.”

My lower lip trembled. My eyes welled up. The clerk took pity and found me a room.

I forgot to mention that an hour was spent at Dulles trying to trace the famous tiny red bag that did not come off the belt. The United agent assured me this was no problem. The bag would be transferred to my Paris flight the next day without incident.

I was too tired not to believe her. But when arrived in Paris a day late there was no trace of that bag. I filled out the usual forms and went home, assuming the bag would show up the next day. Each day for four days United Airlines called. Since I don’t stay home waiting for the phone to ring, they only left messages. Each day, many times a day, I called the Paris number they had given to me, only to listen to the same voice say day after day that the message line was saturated.

I even tried the U.S. lost baggage number, hoping to find a friendly voice. Same frustrations. What answered was (to my ears) a sophisticated voice recognition system that identified itself as Simon and talked me through a series of steps to track down the lost bag.It began badly because among the choices Simon listed was, in essence, "none of the above." "Say 'help,' " Simon instructed. But when I did, Simon just repeated himself, seemingly with a tone of rising vexation.

Finally, I yielded to one of the other options. "Lost bag," I said. "Where was the bag lost," Simon in effect said. "Paris." "Did you say 'Paris France,'" said Simon. "Yes," said I. "We're checking" came the reply. Convincing "Star trek" gurgles were audible in the background. "This is impressive," I said, though not to Simon.

"We need to connect you with an agent," said Simon, after more gurgles. "If you'd like to speak with a representative, say 'Agent.'" "Agent" said I. "Did you say 'Agent?'" asked Simon. "Yes," I responded, wondering if Simon was one of those Frenchmen who always screw up their face when they hear an American accent. . "One moment while I connect you with an agent."

That was the end of my high tech Simon Says adventure. The call rang over to a line that was busy, then shut off. Back at square one.

Four days later, as I was in a Paris taxi about to arrive at the Gare de Lyon for a trip south, my portable phone rang. It was Bruno of terrine de lapin fame. He had been walking through the lost baggage section and spied the famous tiny red bag. He took out my business card, called me, and arranged delivery just a few hours later.

After four days of being treated like a non-person, what a delight to have that fabulous injection of the human element. Moral of the story: Always talk about food. Always travel with a red bag.