I’m Going Home: Paris

November 30, 2008 at 11:06 pm (2008)

The miles are getting longer, it seems,
The closer I get to you…
I’m going home.

Chris Daughtry, “Home”

Susan Pogorzelski, France, November 2008

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

This adventure in travel has certainly lived up to its description, and yet somehow, still, I’ve been able to view it as an adventure rather than the nightmare I had been dreading. Perhaps it’s the people I’ve met along the way; perhaps it’s the change I have discovered in myself. Either way, these are what memorable stories are made of…

Yesterday, I spent eight hours in the Toulouse airport. Today, I’m in Paris, Charles de Gaulle, for another 12, at least two of them, I hope, will be spent sleeping.

First, let me recount the events of my stay in Toulouse:

Arrive in Toulouse: Late

11:30: Change tickets

11:31: Realize how much waiting I’m going to be doing in the airport

11:35: Find phone, call Mom, let the tears flow

11:42: Apologize to Mom for tears, tell her I really am ok, explain that the stress of the situation is tough, feel proud that I’ve made it this far, tell myself that, like it or not, I’m going home

11:42:10: Try really hard to believe all of it

11:45: Tell Mom I love her and say goodbye

11:50: Seek out bathrooms, food, and plush bench

11:55: Meet Nice Sandwich Lady and find all of the above

12:00: Find power source behind me, rejoice!, wonder if there is Wi-Fi access

12:03: Discover you have to pay for Wi-Fi access. Curse, open word document, begin entry

1:00: Wait

2:00: Wait

3:00: Walk around, call Mom again, complain that I’m bored, tell her I love her, go back to sitting

4:00: Meet Brad Pitt. No, just kidding…Wait some more

5:00: Walk over to the departure screen and wonder when I can get a change of scenery

6:40: Say screw “embarquement/check in not open” message and walk my ass and luggage back over to check in

6:45: Check in, go through security (no frisking, thank you), wander over to correct gate

6:46: Wait

Can you stand the excitement? I did a lot of sitting, a lot of waiting, a lot of just observing. Perhaps it was the stress of the day, perhaps it was the fatigue taking over my mind and body, but I simply didn’t feel like making conversation, so I spent most of my time thinking, planning, and observing. In some cases, people were interesting — a woman and her daughter were walking around the airport, their elderly dog trailing slowly behind them, off the leash. I couldn’t help but think that if Riley had the chance, he might run away and hop on a plane himself. Then there was a boisterous Italian family sitting near me for a good half an hour. I had no idea what they were saying, but their exuberance certainly made me feel at home.

My time in that airport was uneventful, and despite reading some David Sedaris (fitting, I thought, considering his stories about France) as a useful distraction, I couldn’t help but think how nice it would be once I was on the plane and sleeping. Once I was finally in the air, I thought, all my nerves could settle. And they did.

After I boarded (the correct plane, let’s hear it for small successes on journeys such as these!), claimed my window seat (no one beside me for this ride, another pleasant surprise), bunched my jacket up as a pillow, wrapped my scarf around my shoulders, and shut my eyes, the adrenaline finally began to fade. I didn’t even realize I had been asleep, but suddenly the pilot was saying that we would be making our descent into Paris, and I realized it was an hour and a half later.

Susan Pogorzelski, France, November, 2008

Truth be told, landing in Paris at nighttime is pretty incredible. As I eagerly peered out my window to catch a glimpse of the Champs Elysees or the Arc de Triomphe (no luck, but I did spot The Louvre), I realized that despite this adventure (and I’m really trying to refrain from calling it “hell”), I love this city. Le Sacre Coeur, Notre Dam, Versailles, Les Tuileries…These are the monuments with which I’m familiar, rooted in the history and culture that I love so much. And as I watched the lights from moving traffic and imagined the city below me, the city that has always felt so much like home, I breathed deeply. I had spent three weeks in the French countryside, and every single moment of that experience was an amazing, undeniable learning opportunity that provided me with a lifetime of memories and strong connections. But flying over this city…To me, this was France. For me, this was my home away from home.

After we landed, I gathered my luggage and tried to navigate the labyrinth that is the Charles de Gaulle airport. As soon as I reached my terminal, nearly empty, as it was 10:30 at night, I found a telephone and called mom. I could feel the familiar sting of tears in my eyes, but once again, it was more of a release than a panic. I was fine…Just look at how far I had made it, I told myself. And I knew that I could handle this, knew that I could handle almost anything.

I debated on whether or not to get a hotel. My flight wouldn’t be leaving until 1:30 the following afternoon and I thought that a good night’s rest would probably make for a clearer head. But the thought of tackling a taxi and trying to find a hotel that may or may not have vacancy was pushing the limits, even for me. I was right where I was supposed to be, and I wasn’t about to chance fate. I decided that my airport would have to serve me for the night, but the metal chairs just wouldn’t do. So I went in search of the plush, comfy benches that had served me so well in Toulouse.

I found a large café with said plush, comfy bench that wrapped around the parameter of the café. Apparently, my idea wasn’t so strange, as these benches were serving as beds for other late-night airport patrons:

France, November 2008

A place to sleep is a place to sleep, and I wasn’t about to pass up on the corner space I claimed for myself, not even fazed that one of the guys across the room woke up just long enough to put his pants on over his boxers. I didn’t blame him. It was cold.

I created a protective cubby for myself with tables and chairs, placed my jacket over my tote as a pillow, wrapped my scarf around me as a blanket, and threaded my hand through the garish ribbon on my suitcase as I lay down.

For about five minutes.

A French man pointed to an empty space further down on the bench, asking if it was taken. It didn’t occur to me that he was speaking in English until after I told him that I couldn’t understand him and wondered if he spoke French. Is this what it means for the mind to blend languages? I told him that the space was free and we began conversing. I’ve since learned that Columbo is very popular in French, as is Obama, if the grand celebrations he was describing were any indication of his political success. I also learned that there is a tiny church near Les Invalides where students go to find jobs such as babysitting and tutoring.

I have no idea. The man seemed nice and friendly and harmless, but I was tired and, quite frankly, I’d had enough. As he settled in to sleep, I unpacked some shirts and started adding layers for warmth beneath my sweater before finally getting comfortable enough to settle in myself.

There were six or seven other people sprawled out on the wraparound bench. Whenever someone else came by, I tended to eye them up, daring them to disrupt our little sleep bubble. We had claimed our places and now they were outsiders, wandering in. I didn’t know these other people (and, in some cases, I rather preferred it that way), but for a few hours that night, we shared a place in the world. Or at least, in that small part of Paris.

I managed to get a few hours of sleep, waking up perhaps every half an hour. Maybe it was due to the exhaustion or the release of stress, but when I woke up at three in the morning, I was practically giddy. Looking around me, the strange absurdity of it all finally hit me. I was sleeping in an airport in Paris.

No, no. I was sleeping in a Paris airport. After spending three weeks in France. By myself.

This is what crazy stories are made of.

In that moment, I was almost overwhelmed with a strength I’d never before known. For the first time, I felt powerful, independent. They weren’t just words anymore; for the first time, I believed it. Here, I didn’t care what anyone else thought…We were all people, in the same place, going in a similar direction (theoretically). If I needed help, I needed only ask. If I felt weak, I knew who to call for support. This was my epiphany. This was my turning point. This was life-changing.

I called Mom after I got up, a smile in my voice. She put Riley on the phone and I cooed his name and told him I loved him. I think he may have snorted and gone back to bed.

The morning brought hot chocolate and a pain au chocolat at the same café that had mere hours before served as my sleeping quarters.

As I sat and tried to patiently play the waiting game again, I noticed a woman with a dog sitting behind me.

“Your dog est plus jolie.” I said to her with a smile.

“Et gentile, aussi. Very sweet.”

“Boy or girl?”

“He’s a boy.”

A smile, a nod, a caring look the dog’s way, and I respectfully turned back around. I wonder if dogs in the airport have been God’s way of telling me that I was doing just fine…

There was a lull in the registration line, so I decided to take advantage, hoping to change up the scenery and maybe find someplace more comfortable. I struck up a conversation with the woman in line behind me, who was returning to Boston after visiting Paris for a week with her sister-in-law. The lines for registration were short, as was security. Luckily, nothing went off, though they did frisk me again (what is with the frisking, seriously?) and I was motioned over to one of the desks, lucky enough to be selected at random for a search. Would I kindly acquiesce? Because I thought they would arrest me if I refused, I said sure, showed them the inside of my carry-on, and let them swipe the contents as well as the palms of my hands. To test for explosives, the nice guy behind the counter explained. Of course. At least this was a step up from the frisking. In no time I was cleared, and I immediately set off to do some shopping.

Sadly, the Paris, CDG airport consists of one souvenir shop and tons of high end boutiques. I didn’t have time to shop during my stay, so I satiated myself with postcards for my collection, Le Petit Prince (in English and French, thank you very much), a keychain, and one or two gifts for members of my family. I browsed the chocolate shop, sifted through the tacky souvenirs, and walked right by Hermes and Cartier.

Susan Pogorzelski, France, November 2008

An hour later, I bought a water and a sandwich at a café. There was a young Asian man ahead of me in line who didn’t have enough money for his sandwich. When I went to my gate, I noticed him sitting behind me. I got his attention, holding out a 2 Euro coin. Chalk it up to feeling good on this last part of my journey or wanting good karma. Or maybe it was my way of repaying the Generous Janitor Lady in Toulouse, but I didn’t even think twice.

“Go get a sandwich,” I said with a smile, and he accepted the coin with thanks and took off towards the café.

More walking around, more wondering what I could spend money on, more resisting that particular temptation. When I got back to my gate, I saw that they had transferred us, and when I went down to the new gate, I found a couple from Toronto on their way to Cairo. Apparently, my gate had been switched with theirs. The woman, I found out through conversation, is turning 86 next month, and they were going to Egypt for a cruise tour down the Nile. She said that she had been traveling since she was young and that they had most recently visited Russia. I explained that I was on my own, and her eyes lit up in what seemed like delighted surprise. I laughed as I explained that I was done with traveling by myself for awhile, and she agreed that it’s always better with someone else who loves the history and culture as much as you. Still, I said, it had been a great experience, the very definition of a journey.

Toronto Couple, I wish you a very happy stay in Egypt.

As we tried to figure out our gates, I met another nice couple on their way home to PA after going on a cruise around the Mediterranean. About 20% of the passengers on my flight were on their cruise, and they expressed a similar love of travel for the culture and history of the places they had visited.

Not part of the cruise-trip was a cute Italian guy who was on his way to Philadelphia to see his girlfriend. We joked and shared stories of travel and dreams, and after learning that I’m ¾ Italian, he tried to encourage me to visit Italy as part of following my heritage. It would be lovely, I agreed, but not anytime soon, and certainly not by myself again (at least for awhile, never say never). It had been a pleasure talking to all of them for the distractions that they provided and the small source of comfort that connecting with another person allows for.

My flight home was long and tiresome, but seeing my parents waiting for me, broad grins spreading over their faces, made it all worthwhile. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I ran to hug them, not wanting to let go. And when I finally did and we made it home, my reunion with my dog was equally joyous — his hound’s howl matching my own exclamations of love and happiness.

I’m glad to be home, but I’m even more grateful for this opportunity and experience, and for the strength and independence it has proven to me.

I firmly believe that I’ve met some angels on this journey — both at home and in my travel abroad. At least, they are humans who deserve that title. It’s the generous nature of the people I’ve encountered, the answers to my silent prayers of some form of help or comfort that have made this journey bearable…They were my guideposts on an uncertain, hesitant adventure. They are the small miracles that have led me back home.


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I’m Going Home: Toulouse

November 26, 2008 at 1:06 pm (2008)

I’m going home,
Back to the place where I belong…

Chris Daughtry, “Home”

Susan Pogorzelski, France, November 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

If you’ve ever read “The Game of Life (And How To Play It)” by Florence Scovel Shinn, you would be familiar with the author’s belief that positive thinking breeds positive action, that we manifest the good in our lives, and that anything is possible. This book has been the source of laughter at the retreat as the other writers and I have tried to (sometimes unsuccessfully) change our manner of thought. No more “I’m going to miss my flight,” no more “the trip getting here sucked and I’m dreading the journey back home.”

Our motto has been “What Would Florence Say?” and, indeed, the author would encourage that these negatively sarcastic comments be turned into positive manifestations. Things may not happen as you expect them to — that’s the thing about letting go, loosening up on the controls — but by having a lot of faith, by speaking the words out loud, by believing in something, good things are possible. For instance, according to this logic, by believing that you will make all of your flights and thus have a good trip home means that it can and will happen.

I wrote most of this sitting in the airport because I missed my first flight.

Which means that I also missed my second flight.

I would have made my first flight, except that my train was late.

Seems I missed that part of the equation. I guess I should have been more specific.

So here recounts my travel journey, bit by bit, so that I remember it all, including this until now foreign feeling of empowerment and independence. The greatest adventure of my life thus far, the hardest test, passed with flying colors:

Part One: Carcassonne to Toulouse

Introductions to the retreat and my fellow writers will be made later this week, but since I’m name and place-dropping, I’ve provided a very brief introduction: John, one of the owners of the retreat, drove Shahnaz, another writer, and I to Carcassonne at 7:30 this Monday morning so that we could make the scheduled 8:19 train to the Toulouse airport. Shahnaz and I would be traveling together until we parted ways at the airport, where we would commence the next leg of our respective journeys solo. With a delayed train and impromptu taxi ride to the airport in Toulouse, I’ll always remain grateful that she was with me for the start of this new adventure as I make my way home.

The train station was much more crowded than I expected when we arrived, but after dealing with long lines and out of service ticketing machines, we looked up at the board schedule and realized why: the train was late. Thirty minutes late, to be exact. A delayed train was not something I had counted on, and while I remained surprisingly calm on the exterior, inside I could feel the butterflies starting to wake up.

John hauled our luggage to an adjacent café and bought us coffee and tea, engaging us with great conversation that was useful as a distraction as my mind started to work out a solution to this potential setback. John, seeing that I was becoming nervous, soon went to check on the status of our train. Another ten minutes had been added to the delay. Rounding the figure to an hour, I tried to figure it out in my head: my flight left at 11am. By the time we would board the train, it would be 8:45. It took about an hour and 15 minutes to get to the station in Toulouse. I nodded inwardly. Not figuring the 15 minute shuttle to the airport, I would have an hour before my flight departed, maybe a half an hour to spare.

Positive thinking, I thought as Shahnaz reminded me of Florence, and I couldn’t help but grin. It could work; I could do this. Surely Florence wouldn’t let me down.

The original plan was this: Take the 8:19 train from Carcassonne to Toulouse and arrive in Toulouse at around 9:30. Then, take the 11am plane from Toulouse to Paris, arriving in Paris at 12:30. Then, take the 1:30 plane from Paris to Philly, arriving in Philly at 4:30, USA time.

Now, in hindsight, I think I was asking for it, as I obviously didn’t take into account these setbacks. Still, it’s a great lesson in how things don’t ever go as planned. It’s a great testament to how I learned to let go of the things I can’t control.

After expressing our gratitude and saying our goodbyes to John, Shahnaz and I settled in for the ride. There were two scheduled train stops, but due to traffic, we stopped unexpectedly two more times for 5 and 15 minutes, respectively. The clock was ticking. Again, I tried to figure out solutions as the French countryside whirled by.

Was there a plane to New York? Maye I could take a taxi to New Jersey, where my friend lives, and crash with him for the night before traveling home to PA. Or maybe I could take the train from NY into Lancaster. Or maybe there was an early morning flight to Baltimore.

All the while, as logic took over as I tried to find a solution to a potential problem, I remained amazingly calm, to the point where Shahnaz even commented on my “oh well, I’ll figure it out” attitude. I just kept reminding myself that I was going home, that I would be ok, and that it would all work out.

We finally arrived at the Toulouse train station at 10:15. Shahnaz and I booked it over to the bus station to catch the shuttle to the airport. Without Shahnaz, I would have been at a loss, I’ve realized. I had taken the shuttle from the airport to the train station on my journey there, but I had no idea where to actually get picked up to go back to the airport. Luckily, Shahnaz had taken this trip before, as this had been her second month at the retreat after a brief break for some traveling. So I followed her lead, both of us rolling our suitcases behind us as we crossed the street to the bus port. Looking at the schedule, we could see that we had just missed the shuttle; the next one would be leaving at 10:40.


Shahnaz and I hurried back to the taxi-port, deciding that 30 Euro was nothing compared to making up the lost time and (hopefully) catching our flights. As we said our goodbyes and made promises to keep in touch — promises that I am absolutely certain I will keep with each of them — we parted ways.

I was on my own from here on out.

I rushed to get on line for check in, knowing well enough that while Shahnaz still had time to catch her 12:00 flight, I had undoubtedly missed mine.

As my glance passed from my watch to the few people in front of me, frantic thoughts passed through my mind, kind of akin to this:

Crap, crap, crap. I’m really missing my flight. I can’t believe I’m missing my flight. Can I still make my flight? Ten minutes until take off. Can’t these people in front of me hurry up? How much baggage do they really need? Can I ask them if I can go in front of them? Eight minutes…What if I don’t make it. Can I still make it? Shit, I won’t make it.

I tried to justify, tried to reason, tried to figure it all out. While I remained outwardly calm, my mind raced with options, going over in French what to say when I reached the counter.

When it was my turn in line, I handed my passport to a beautiful French woman and told her that I think I missed my flight. She looked at my information, looked at her watch, then smiled sympathetically at me. In English she explained that I could possibly get another flight, but that I would have to go to the information desk behind me.

So I did. After waiting patiently in another line, I explained my situation again. I missed my flight from Toulouse to Paris and therefore wouldn’t make my flight from Paris to Philadelphia. Was there any other flight to the States? Maybe to New York or Baltimore? Beautiful French Lady came up to the desk and started speaking to the woman. The only thing she could do, Second French Lady said, was have me follow the same schedule tomorrow as I would have today: take the 11 am plane from Toulouse to Paris and then the 1:30 plane from Paris to Philly. There’s a chance I’ll miss the Philly plane, right? I asked, foreseeing what suddenly seemed inevitable to me. She nodded, and I could feel my face go pale. But then she said that I could take a plane from Toulouse to Paris at 8 pm that evening, then take the flight to Philly at 1:30 the next day. It would cost 170 Euro to make the change.

I handed her my credit card.

She changed my ticket and apologized for her English, to which I responded that her English was better than my French, to which she replied that I was speaking beautifully. I’m now convinced that speaking the language has made this trip so much easier. I thanked her a thousand times, then went in search of a phone.

I had told my mom and dad that if I missed my flight, I would call them. If I didn’t miss it, there would be no phone call and they would be able to pick me up in Philadelphia as planned. Luckily, I still had a ton of minutes left on my phone card.

I had a phone call to make.

As I’ve expressed before, up until this point, I had been surprisingly calm — I had managed to deal with a delayed train, a missed flight, change my ticket, and still hold it together. As soon as mom said a sleepy hello, though, the tears came. I was ok, but the relief at hearing her voice proved to be the final straw that led to this release of emotion. A man walking by looked at me sympathetically. I felt like giving him the finger, but I offered a small smile and a shrug instead.

I told Mom to wait while I composed myself, then I explained that I missed my flight. Not the flight that I thought I would miss, in Paris…Oh, no. I was still in Toulouse, stuck there for eight hours.

They could pick me up the next day instead, she assured me. It was going to be alright. And I knew it would be. It would take a lot of waiting, a lot of patience, but I really was doing just fine. After all, I can do anything now. The part that made it so difficult was wanting to be home, yet being so far away and feeling so alone. The stress of the traveling needed to be let go, and I did just that through my tears.

Mom said that she was proud of me, that I had worked it out and gotten this far. She told me that if I needed to get a hotel, I could do that and get a good night’s rest. I thought about it, but then expressed that since I would already be at the airport, I might just remain there — there was no way I would be chancing fate now. Still, I knew that I would take each step as it came. For me, on this journey, I had taken a giant leap, learning to follow that up with baby steps: letting go and moving forward one step at a time, moment by moment, setback by setback.

After I hung up with my mom, I assessed myself. I needed a bathroom and I needed food. Desperately. Hoisting my tote bag onto my shoulder and rolling my suitcase behind me, I found a nice, quiet alcove with comfortable, plush benches near some vending machines, the bathroom, and the registration counter where I could settle in. Another problem solved. Next: shutting up my grumbling stomach.

I studied the sandwiches, snacks, and drinks and dug into my bag for some coins. A member of the janitorial staff was sweeping the floor nearby. I excused myself and apologized for being in her way, to which she responded by asking if I was getting a drink or a sandwich. “Les deux,” I replied with a smile, and told her that it had been a long morning. She said that she had a sandwich that she wasn’t going to eat. Did I want it?

Really? I asked, surprised by this unexpected kindness. She nodded and smiled and took it off of her cart, offering it to me, still in its vending machine packaging. I accepted gratefully and expressed my appreciation as she smiled and walked away, sweeping the floor as she wandered off.

After purchasing a bottle of water, I went to settle in on my bench, found a power source right behind me (no free Wi-Fi, unfortunately…I tried), and plugged in my laptop to type away at this blog post, recounting the barriers and detours I’ve faced and the miracles and everyday angels that have helped me through them.

Could it have been worse? Absolutely. Did I feel like I was handling myself well? Surprisingly, yes. I feel as if my journey to France was an obstacle to be overcome, and this journey home has been a test for those lessons learned.

This is the greatest adventure of my life thus far, of that I’ve never been more certain. It has opened doors, provided profound inspiration, and paved the way for some incredible experiences. But it has also been the most difficult. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy, and the lessons I’ve learned and the strength I’ve found in myself, the belief in strangers and their generosity, and the support from loved ones back home as I travel this road seemingly alone have been something remarkable, something worthwhile.

So this is where I’ve remained, sitting in an airport for eight hours, luggage surrounding me, typing on my laptop, plugged into a power source, a comfortable bench to crash on to ease my exhaustion and vending machines to keep me satiated.

Susan Pogorzelski, France, November 2008

A pause, a reprieve, before the final leg of this incredible journey.



Coming soon: I’m Going Home: Paris

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Notes from the Universe

November 26, 2008 at 9:09 am (2008)

I’m safe, sound, and smiling back in PA after an adventurous two days of travel home from France. My journey there was wrought with nerves and anxiety and many, many tears. My journey back home, although filled with obstacles to overcome and taking a day longer than expected due to train delays and missed flights, was filled with an “I can do this” attitude and a self-acknowledgement of my own strength, my own independence.

I really do believe now that I can do anything.

But, Universe, if you can let me get over this jetlag before you throw me the Next Great Test, I would appreciate it.

Speaking of the Universe, a fellow writer at the retreat introduced me to Notes from the Universe, daily inspirational (and often funny) reminders tailored specifically to goals you set for yourself. Yesterday’s reminder couldn’t have spoken more clearly:

You do realize, Susan, don’t you, that there have been others – in lifetimes, millenniums, and civilizations past – who have been to some of the same “places” you’ve been to? Yet, they got so scared they lost control, turned away, or flat out quit.
Yep, and they surround you now in the unseen. Your greatest admirers.
The Universe

Indeed, I’m so proud of myself for all that I have done, for not backing out, for not turning away when things got rough, as I so desperately wanted to do. This trip has been a mix of tears and homesickness, of laughter and inspiration, and I feel like a better, stronger person because of it all. The friends I’ve made, the moments we’ve shared, the lessons I’ve learned will always be a part of me, memories to draw upon when I feel I need the strength. I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.

Still, though, with my dog hogging the bed beside me, it feels pretty good to be home.

Wishing everyone in the states a very Happy Thanksgiving.

What are you grateful for this year?



Coming Soon:
I’m Going Home: Parts 1 and 2
Inspiration & La Muse
Flash Fiction Contest: Win An Autographed Copy of The White Road, by Tania Hershman
Life’s Recipe: A Dash of Journey Juju

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