Considering that I went the entire week thinking that the return flight departed at 7:00 a.m., the actual departure time of 9:30 didn't seem so bad. But in any event, L. and I got up Friday morning early enough to finish packing, eat breakfast, check out of the Inter-Continental and take a cab to the airport.
The first leg of the trip (Budapest to Paris) went well enough. We flew Air Malev, the Hungarian national carrier, which offered three seats port and two seats starboard and a surprising amount of leg room. What bothered me though, was that at check-in, we were given boarding passes all the way through to Atlanta, but were told that on the second leg (Paris to Atlanta) L. and I would not be able to sit together. We both had aisle seats, but not across the aisle from one another. The ticket agent said we could try requesting a change at the gate in Paris.
This seemed to bother L. a lot less than it bothered me. The second leg was a long flight (over eight hours) and I knew that Air France (our second carrier) packed people together like sardines, and if I was going to be pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with someone, I'd rather it be her than a stranger. L.'s position, however, was that it was better to have an aisle seat next to a stranger than to be stuck in a middle seat for eight hours, even in my esteemed company. "Well," I said, "let's at least see if we can get the aisle seats changed so we're across from each other, but I'd still like to be next to you."
"Whatever," was written all over her face.
We arrived at Paris around noon, and were told that since the flight was booked, no seats changes could be made for our 3:30 p.m. flight until 2:55, when any cancellations would be confirmed. We passed the time in a miserable self-service "restaurant" at Charles de Gaulle that smelled like jet fuel and spoiled chicken, and at the appointed time, I went to the gate to see about changing our seats.
"I'm sorry, monsieur," the agent said. "The flight is overbooked. The only cancellation we have is for a center seat" which wasn't anywhere near either or our aisle seats and useless to us. I hadn't quite accepted this situation, which was going to have me squished up against some random passenger for the equivalent of a work day, but as we were boarding, the situation suddenly got even worse. L. and I were on parallel lines to board, and when she got to the boarding agent, she was told that her ticket had been "upgraded" to First Class. She had no idea why, although I suspected it was because her travel agent, not mine, arranged the flight. I tried to convince the boarding agent on my line that my seat should be upgraded as well, since we were traveling together, but to no avail. L. was going to be in the relative luxury of First Class, while I was confined to the Spartan accommodations of Coach.
"I'll come visit you," L. offered cheerfully. "Great," I replied in a voice as sarcastic as I could muster, but even I could hear the self-pity in the undertone.
Just as I feared, the seating arrangement was every bit as claustrophobic as on the flight from Atlanta. I was forced to "share" an armrest about one-inch wide with the gentleman next to me, and by "share" I mean try to dominate the armrest anytime the other took his elbow off of it, if even for a second. The seat in front of me reclined so far back it pressed against my legs, which I couldn't have crossed even if there were enough leg room otherwise, which there wasn't.
But that wasn't the worst of it. First, for some reason, Coach was fairly over-run, infested if you will, with teen-age girls. Now, this usually wouldn't have bothered the voyeur in me, which admittedly enjoyed watching them gather in the aisles and galley to gossip, chat and flirt, and a nearly continuous process of picture taking, but after a while, the sheer volume of their high-pitched squeals, their relentless energy and just their god-damn cheeriness started to wear me down until I felt like the grumpy old man sitting in the middle of a pajama party, arms crossed (my neighbor had won the armrest tournament) and scowling.
But worse than that, my neighbor's "better half" sitting in the window seat had started a feud with the persons behind and before her. When she had reclined her seat to its full orthodontic position, the woman behind her protested by banging on her seat back until she raised her seat halfway back. Thinking that was acceptable behavior, when the man in front of her dropped his seat back, she tried doing the same, bitch slapping the back of his headrest and verbally protesting in what sounded like Aramaic. This accomplished her goal in the short term, as he also raised his seat half way back, but only for a few minutes, after which he dropped it back down again. She responded with more bitch slapping and more Aramaic, and this cycle - drop, slap, Aramaic and retreat - went on for several hours.
Finally, the man in the window seat in front of us appealed to the flight attendants to sort the matter out. The first attendant attempted to referee a solution in French, but the only person on the Air France flight capable of understanding French appeared to be the guy in the front seat. The flight attendant then tried pantomiming that it was all right to drop your seats all the way back to the near-horizontal posture, but that only resulted in more abuse of the seatbacks from both Miss Aramaic and the woman behind her. Exasperated, the attendant went off in search of someone with other language skills to settle the feud.
That's when L. came back from the serene luxury of first class for her first visit. Wading through a sea of teen-age girls sitting on the floor relentlessly photographing themselves hugging one other (I wondered if any of them had even a single picture of themselves not hugging someone else), she came across me sitting arms folded and sullen, while down the row was the disturbing sight of other passengers perversely pushing each others seats forward and back. It must have been quite a sight.
She couldn't have been more - what is the opposite of nonplussed? plussed? - in her reaction, however. She simply just sat down on my armrest (the one on the aisle side, not the interior one being commandeered by my neighbor) and gently kissed my forehead. But I was inconsolable. She even offered to switch seats with me for a while, but I knew, having tasted the exquisite pleasures of First Class, she wouldn't have been happy back here in Coach, what with the aisle-squatting, the giggling, the flashbulbs popping, the bitch slapping and the Aramaic, so I declined her offer.
Actually, what I was really afraid of was that if I got a chance to sit down in First, there was no way in hell I would have given her back the seat.
L. came back and visited a few more times, even once pointing out the jagged mountains of the southern tip of Greenland as we passed it by. She tried to find an analogy to the movie "Titanic" with her as the glamorous, privileged Kate Winslet traveling in the lap of luxury, and me as Leonardo DiCaprio down in the rough-and-tumble Steerage Class. There were even icebergs visible out in the North Atlantic, but no king of the world, I. I wasn't buying into any of that. She gave up on me after Greenland and slept the rest of the trip.
But there was no sleep to be had down in Steerage. When an English-speaking flight attendant finally materialized to sort out the seating feud, the man in the front seat indignantly told her that he "was a doctor," and needed to "get some sleep" for his busy day ahead. The flight attendant assured him that he had every right to recline his seat a far back as it would allow, and tried to convince the women to his rear the same, and it was only with great reluctance that everyone finally dropped their seats all the way back, and for a brief, sweet, quiet while ("quiet" of course being a relative term that ignores the laughing, giggling, squealing teenagers infesting all non-seated points on the plane) a relative calm descended.
But only briefly. No sooner had I started to adjust to the now non-violent conditions in our row, than the seat belt light turned on and the Captain announced that we were to return our seats to their full upright position for our initial descent to Atlanta.
After de-planeing and dropping my former-ex-but-now-somewhat-current girlfriend L. at her Midtown apartment with the two cats and one bottle of cranberry juice still unopened, I drove back to my unsellable condo in Vinings and finally got some sleep.