Not a Stranger - Part Two

On Sunday morning, we got up quite early. H. was cheerful. She knew she was on her way back to India. We only hoped that everything would be all right and that she’d be able to fly home.

It was very hard to get to the airport. Roissy was and remained under lockdown for a long time, or what seemed to be a very long time. Nothing very serious actually - a couple of “forgotten” suitcases that the army had to blow up. Such a routine operation. Except that we still had to buy a ticket for H. and get her through all those unpleasant check-ins we all have to go through nowadays.

We bought her ticket without any problem. The flight was not full.
The next thing was to get her through check-in. She was getting very tired and bewildered and a little bit frightened by the crowd around her. She had to go to the check-in desk on her own. Could we leave H. on her own? She was not very keen to go to the check-in desk by herself. She was grabbing my arm from time to time. Roissy had definitely been a terrible experience for her.
Security was very tight at Roissy. Our president had declared a state of emergency after November 13. The airport was under close police surveillance and we had arrived there right after a bomb scare.  

This was where and when Popeye’s Air France status card came very handy. And the “mathematician-from-India-who-has-spent-two-days-totally-lost-and-forgotten-in-Roissy-and-who-is-extremely-under-stress-and-now-wants-to-go-home-very-badly”. Wonders did not cease. The “card” and the “mathematician stuff” got H. AND Popeye priority access to the closest check-in counter. No luggage. Great. I was standing back, waiting for them. No need to push our luck. Popeye made it through to a place where no one is ever allowed to be without a ticket. He made it. I waited.

By then time was running short because of the bomb scare. We still had to get H. through the passport check.

Popeye used his card again to get her through the priority line. There were hundreds of (angry) people around trying to use this priority line because the airport had remained under lockdown for a long time and there was only one hostess to check the cards and the tickets before allowing their holders to go through priority or not. She was very patient and extremely firm. “The other line, please. Thank you.”

Once more I stayed behind and let Popeye do the talking. With his card but no plane ticket, dragging H. along with her plane ticket but no card, he managed to get her on her way to the police and passport checkpoint. He did not go far though. A woman from security stopped them before they arrived to the booth. No ticket. No entry. And the card was of no use. The “mathematician” stuff did not seem to work. H. had to go on her own. She did not look very happy but she walked away. Then the woman from security shrugged, turned back and walked with her to the checkpoint. We were waiting very anxiously. What would happen there?

The woman talked a couple of minutes with the policeman, then she turned around and motioned to Popeye to catch up with them. And she came back to her post. From where I was, I could see Popeye and H. She had already handed her passport to the policeman and Popeye looked like he arguing. Long minutes went by. He was still there talking and talking and then he was holding her passport. He gave it back to her and patted her shoulder, talked to her again and then she went through, through to the unknown, to a place where Popeye could not go, not anymore. She was on her way to her departure lounge.

Popeye walked back towards me, looking very tired and depressed. “Well, this could have been a real disaster. Expired visa. The guy wanted to send her to a detention center until her embassy got in touch with them and sorted the visa problem. And then deportation after a few days in detention. I argued with him and I won. I finally got him to understand that after all she was very different from an illegal immigrant. She did not want to stay in France. She wanted to go home. Expired visa or not. I had quite a hard time to get this message through but the guy finally agreed with me and… oh well, he waved her through.”

And it hit us hard. What if she did not find her departure lounge and got lost again?

We almost ran back to the Air France desk where we had bought her ticket. A stewardess was there. Once more, the card and the mathematician stuff in a hurry this time because passengers to Mumbai were already boarding and the flight was scheduled on time. We begged her to go to the departure lounge and make sure that H. was really getting on board of the plane bound to Mumbai. And then maybe she could let us know that everything was all-right.

The stewardess said no. “No, no and no. There are strict rules and the desk cannot interfere with the people in charge of boarding passengers. And it is totally forbidden to let strangers know if someone is on board of a plane. And… and… and.”

We probably looked so miserable that she said: “Wait for me here. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”  And she left.

We waited and waited. Boarding was over and we were still waiting, still very worried and getting depressed. The stewardess would never come back and we’d hear from Niruj that H. was not on the plane in Mumbai and… and…

And there she was, the stewardess with a big smile on her face: “Your friend will be in Mumbai on time. That is all I can tell you.”

I could have kissed her but I didn’t. We thanked her profusely and shook hands instead. And we left.

We sent a new message to Niruj whom we had been constantly in touch with, all morning long. “Flight AF… Mumbai 00h05 local time tonight. We got confirmation she’s on it.” He then called M. to let him know.

A few long hours later, M. was at the airport and drove his sister home. A few days later she was admitted to an hospital where she stayed for a few months. Now she’s out. On medication. She should be getting back to her life as a mathematician. Hopefully for good.

A few days after all this happened, Niruj said: “This would be an incredible story for you to write, wouldn’t it?” And I said: “I don’t think I’ll ever write anything about H. Too personal and harrowing.”

And then it all came back when M. told me what his friend had written about us. This was very, very kind indeed but a little bit extreme as far as I was concerned.

Because now it is the right time to thank all the people at Roissy who helped us so much - several stewardesses, quite a few people in charge of security and one policeman, all of them perfect strangers who offered us a helping hand, most of the time going the extra mile so that H. would go back home safely. Strangers helping strangers... 

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


Not a Stranger - Part One

Today, this message from a very faraway country: “A close friend… asked me to convey… [his] most sincere regards… I would like to share what he wrote: ‘What they did for a person who was a perfect stranger, restores my faith in humanity.’”

The story is strange and moving indeed. What happened was very sad and stressful, especially for "the perfect stranger" but I never felt like we had done something quite so special as to restore someone's faith in humanity. I still don't feel this way and this is the reason why I have to tell the story the way it happened.

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a long time already know Niruj, our Indian friend. He has been back to India for quite a long time now but our friendship endures and we keep in touch. A lot.

On the 9th of January, late in the evening, I received a message from him: “Need to chat urgently… help needed for friend and can’t get hold of ‘sp’”. We got on Skype instantly.

“My friend M. received a mail from his sister two days ago from Roissy. She has missed her flight back to Mumbai and he hasn’t heard from her again. She’s somewhere at the airport without any money and no ticket. And oh, she is sick. He’s been in touch with the embassy but there isn’t much they can do. Can you call the airport and try to check on her?”

Luckily we were spending the week-end in Paris.

Call the airport? Popeye and I know that no one ever calls Roissy to check on a lost passenger, especially on one who has been lost for the past two days. If you want to help, you have to go there and start looking for a needle in a haystack, several haystacks actually besides the fact that we had never met H.

We left at once. While we were on our way to Roissy, Niruj phoned his friend asking for pictures of his sister which he sent us immediately through WhatsApp. Plus more information about the airline she was supposed to fly with, which was great because we knew at least which terminal we’d go to first.

Actually this story is also all about modern technology… linking people from faraway places in a split-second. Mobile phones, Skype, WhatsApp. Sending pictures and documents using mobile data. From India to France.

We learnt that H. was a brilliant mathematician, about fifty years old, that she had been invited to Paris to attend a conference and that she was suffering from a mental illness with a possible worsened condition since she had most certainly stopped taking her medication while in France. A "beautiful mind" lost in Roissy.

Very stressful. We had thought that it might be a good idea to involve the police at the airport to help us find H. and now we knew that this would be utterly impossible. If they found her before we did, she would end up in a hospital in France and we had already made up our mind. She had to go back home and be with her family. We had to find her on our own. We had no idea how but we were very willing to give it a try.

We finally got to the Roissy air terminal where we thought she was most likely to be and we started looking for her, phone in hand with her picture. We walked up and down the terminal, once, twice, three times. Lots of women asleep but no H. in sight.

Why not ask an airport hostess to issue a call for H. asking her to meet us at the information counter? We were a little bit worried about the way the woman would react to our very unusual request. We explained that we were looking for our friend from India who was lost in Roissy ever since she had missed her flight. Because we know that people usually think that astronomers are awesome, we decided to mention that H. was a mathematician. The woman smiled and said: “Mathematicians are not like us, I imagine and so now she’s lost. Poor thing. I am going to make that call and we’ll find her.”

(This mathematician thing was so useful that we used it shamelessly until H. was safe and sound on her way to Mumbai.)

Except that when we showed her H.’s name, she just simply couldn’t pronounce it. We had to call Niruj again to teach her how to pronounce it correctly. Totally surreal. She did make the call. She even did it twice after fighting with her boss. “Only once. Only once.” We kept waiting for H. for quite a long time and she never showed up.

We still were at the information booth when we called Niruj. “We are so sorry but we have to go to the police now.” I turned around towards Popeye, feeling very helpless and sad. Behind Popeye, there was a row of seats. On one of those seats, a woman had curled herself up. We were not having visions. We had found H. Unbelievable but true. There she was at last!

As soon as I got close to her, she opened her eyes. She was frightened, so frightened, ready to bolt actually. I smiled and said: “Hello, H. Do you remember Niruj? He is your brother’s friend and we are Niruj’s friends.” She had such a terrified look in her eyes that I sat down not very far from her, put my hand on her arm and called Niruj, once more. “Please talk to her, ok. Tell her that she has to come with us, that she is safe now.”

He worked wonders. She gave me my phone back, looked at me and smiled: “Are you going to take me to your home?”

I have to admit that our initial plan before we got to Roissy was to find H., take her to a hotel for the night and then drive her back to the airport the following morning to get a ticket to fly back home.

But H. looked so exhausted, helpless and so lost that we answered with one voice: “Yes, we are going home.”

It took us less than one hour to get home. The ride was strange. She told us a lot of very odd stories about her stay in France. Then from time to time she was making sense for a few minutes and then she’d get lost again. She asked me a lot of questions too. Most of them about the meaning of life.

Popeye and I knew how to react. One of our friends’ son is very bright and bipolar. As soon he stops being on medication which happens a lot, he goes through a new crisis and he uses the same dialectics. It is impressively logical in a way which is not our way at all and you simply have to adapt to a different world.

Once at the apartment, I did not have much food to offer since our plan had been to go to the restaurant, before Niruj’s call, that is. Thanks to Swee’Pea being in Paris at the time but not that night, it was vegetarian food. She was famished. I don’t know how long she had been without food but she told us that she had managed to sleep in the toilet area while she was lost in Roissy. She took a much needed shower, and borrowed a nightgown from me. You see, no luggage. How she had managed not to loose her passport is still a mystery.

Popeye started looking for a flight to get her home as soon as possible. We found a direct flight with Air France, the following morning, quite early. Getting her on an Air France flight was a great idea anyway because of Popeye’s Air France flying status (after travelling all over the world for so long). This was to be a great help at Roissy, the following day. We could not buy the ticket on line (too close to departure, I imagine). This would have to wait until morning at Roissy but we knew that there were still seats available on the flight.

H. went to bed at once. She was exhausted but very happy. We called Niruj and sent a mail to her brother who had gotten in touch with us right after Niruj had talked to her. A human chain from Paris to India and back around H.

And we went to bed. The night would be short and we were a little bit worried about what might happen in the morning at Roissy.

“The perfect stranger” no longer was a stranger!

(To be continued)

*Good Luck, and Good Night*