As a frequent flyer on a discount airline, I’m no stranger to loud airports. I know where to find each and every outlet in Terminal C of New York Laguardia. Me and Midway Chicago have had our differences, but it might as well be a library compared to Nashville’s aural assault of live country music guitarists. Like any traveler, my saving grace in these soul-sucking liminalities has always been a good pair of headphones and an extensive library of pop bangers and podcasts. When I finally cleared security at Newark en route to Charles de Gaulle and found my headphones totalement manquant, my first instinct was to run onto the tarmac and fling myself in front of a Boeing 787.
I did the math. It was a seven hour red-eye flight. There was a ninety-nine percent chance I had left them in my checked suitcase. Airport headphones would clean me out of twenty or thirty dollars– no way was I springing for that. (Discount airlines, remember?) Thirty dollars could buy a lot of croissants.
Sonic hell, here I come.
In losing my headphones I had lost both a social buffer and a key tool for entertainment. I resorted to what anyone would do in a room of strangers: eavesdropping. Seated at the gate were the most Francophones I’ve ever encountered in one location, most of them dressed better than the average airport-goer and answering calls in rapidfire French. The gate was under construction, which meant we were all congregated on chairs in the center of the hallway, buffeted on either side by waves of clattering suitcases and crackling snack wrappers. By the time we boarded, my exhaustion was hitting critical levels. Up to that point, I was unaware how heavily I relied on a personalized bubble of sound to carry me through life, or how much it colored the flat landscape of my childhood in rural Iowa and mitigated the overwhelming color and noise of New York.
Airplanes, ironically, are incredibly loud. I dozed through the safety announcements, novelly presented in both French and English. I’d come to find that this was the norm for most transit-related announcements in France: the ever-present march of linguistic globalization rearing its head before I even touched French soil. Extra-strength ZzzQuil kept me groggy as flight attendants wheeled their rattling carts up and down the aisles, and not even my aisle-mate’s triple feature of Dunkirk/Bridget Jones’ Baby/Zootopia could be heard over the plane’s droning engines. While I enjoyed my nap on the world’s most expensive white noise machine, I was glad to be on solid ground, even if it meant standing in line for immigration at seven a.m. surrounded by groups of Chinese tourists and bleary-eyed parents. When Marshall McLuhan came up with the concept of a “global village” I doubt he had the winding line of customs in mind. Regardless, I’d need two extra hands to count the number of languages I heard as tired “bonjours” were exchanged and my passport was stamped with a thunk.
Baggage claim was a blur, as was the struggle of towing two suitcases toward any and every door marked “Sortie” until I found one that opened onto the street. Rest assured, the taxi stand at Charles de Gaulle is just as chaotically bureaucratic as the one at Laguardia Airport. I won a brief victory when the cab driver mistook me for a native Frenchwoman, and a brief embarrassment when my language skills fell short. We Franglished through an hour and a half of conversation about the rain, Monday morning traffic, and road construction, three subjects I never included in the romantic mental picture I held of Paris. Truly, not much about the past day had been like the movies: I didn’t fall asleep on the shoulder of Gaspard Ulliel midflight, or smoke a pack of cigarettes on the curb of the airport, or drive past the Eiffel Tower, proud and tall in the delicate sunlight of a Parisian afternoon. But when I checked into the dorm and collapsed onto the mattress, I dug my headphones out my bag, plugged them into my phone, and played La Vie En Rose four times through, and that euphoria and catharsis felt as close as I’ll ever get.