Aloft, En Route To Paris Again: Thoughts on Flying, Gentrifying and the New Currency
By Grant Rosenberg

Three or four days before boarding a plane back to Paris from the United States, I called the airline to reconfirm my flight and review what is acceptable in a carry-on these days. I knew I couldn’t bring sharp objects like a Swiss Army Knife, though I seemed to have lost that anyway. I was curious about the objects that weren’t obvious, like staplers, shavers, etc. After waiting only a couple of minutes, a woman came on the line and simply said "hello." For a moment I thought I had the wrong number, forgetting that I was already in the airline’s phone system. I was simply not prepared for what is the most common and appropriate way to answer a phone, because it is not part of the script on a customer service line. After reconfirming the flight, I asked her if I should bring my pair of electric clippers onto the plane in the carry-on, or stow it away in my luggage—my thinking was that it could look like a bomb in the x-ray machine, and it might be better to have them with me to show that it is operational as a haircutter and nothing more. She advised me to put it in my luggage, and I mentioned to her that this was the first time I was flying out of the United States since September 11th. She then began to confide in me about how she learned of the events of that day, and how the information was passed along from the airline authorities to her and other employees who had to inform worried passengers and customers. She told me she wanted out of her job, that too much tragedy was making it difficult for her. Surely that is just a temporary panic, I told her, not knowing what else to say. Then she said that several weeks ago a man called needing to get to some city in South America the next day, and she had to tell him that her airline didn’t fly that route, and she advised him of another airline that did. That flight the next day on that particular airline crashed, with no survivors. She said she doesn’t know if he took that flight, and didn’t have his name to be able to verify it, but on top of the sadness she felt from Sept. 11th, plus the accidental crash days later in Queens, she was feeling overwhelmed by a sense of sadness, fear and responsibility. While on the phone, I had a vague recollection of a flight that had gone down, and now I see that it was a TAME airlines flight that crashed into the Andes mountains with 92 people aboard on January 29th. It seems strange that someone flying from Equador to Columbia would be calling a U.S. based airline—but I didn’t question this customer service rep during the call as she continued her outpouring of grief and guilt. It was both sad and oddly fascinating to hear this protocol-breaking confessional which included information about her family and details of her own anger and frustrations. After about 20 minutes, we said goodbye and good luck to one another. Until this call, I hadn’t really thought about the effect of plane crashes (to say nothing of Sept 11th specifically) on airline employees not directly involved. And here is this woman, who has finally found it impossible to keep up her façade of PR cheerfulness for the customers, so much so that she is unconcerned that this call is possibly being recorded for quality assurance.


Passing through security just before my flight, I put my carry-on on the conveyor belt and walked through the metal detector. It started to beep, so a security official checked me thoroughly with the metal detector wand. Though I didn’t have to remove my shoes or other clothing, I was instructed to lower my pants at the hip and turn it inside out for a moment. When I went to retrieve my backpack, I was told that I would have to put my laptop back through. So I took the backpack and walked it the ten feet distance back over to the front of the scanning machine. Immediately I was told by another security official that I shouldn’t have walked back into the unsecure area, and I was told to go back. I turned back to the original security official, to explain to her what I was told, but she became a little miffed that I didn’t listen to her and told me again in a louder voice to send the laptop back through, but this time to take out the laptop allowing it to be scanned separately from the backpack. So as I walked back yet again, I passed through the metal detector and set off the alarm. A head of security came over and reprimanded the first official for not knowing that once a person has passed through into the secure area, they are not to pass back into the unsecure area. That first official snidely responded to nobody in particular, "Well nobody told me that." Eventually I was given a plastic tub for the laptop and it was taken from me by an official while I waited, then was passed through the scanner again. A moment later I was free to go.

The plane was only half full, which meant that I had nobody else in my two-seat row, nor anyone in front of me or across the aisle. The plane was a Boeing 777, a "triple seven," in the parlance of the flight crew. This meant a personal video screen and a higher quality of color coordination of the seat material and carpeting. A dark, noble blue. Having my own video monitor, one would think, allows for such sought-after freedom of choice, and yet what was I left with? The Penny Marshall film Riding in Cars With Boys starring Drew Barrymore, and Glitter, the Mariah Carey debacle—which I was drawn to inexplicably. This film, the few minutes of it I watched, was not like Purple Rain or some such thing. It was rather like Showgirls in how tone deaf it is to present levels of hipness. It would be like making Beat Street today, for the first time, exactly as it was done in 1984. Lest I climb on too high a horse, I remind myself and other Bob Dylan fans that even he made Hearts of Fire. Still, as I watched Mariah on my personal entertainment system in the most advanced of commercial airplanes—I kept thinking of that line in the first Superman movie, when young Clark sits with Ma Kent just after Pa dies of a heart attack. "All these powers, and I couldn’t even save him."

Driving back from the airport through the streets of Paris, I was amazed at how different everything felt. When I returned to Chicago after four months abroad, there was new construction everywhere, entire buildings spawned from the ground, enough to need a re-acclimation to certain familiar intersections. But in Paris, nothing is supposed to change. My apartment building, despite its remodeled interior is from the late 17th century. And yet a new bakery down the block is thriving and a nearby cozy café with an antique automobile/train memorabilia theme has been taken over by a slick club-like restaurant and bar with glowing pastel fluorescents—which will probably be much more successful. And all this change doesn’t stop with the restaurants; the Euro has finally arrived. Having left France using Francs and returned using Euros, I find that as an American, I seem to have a leg up on understanding value in a way I didn’t before; this is because the Euro is equal to about 91 cents, so while French people are trying to convert it in their heads by 6.55957 francs, I see that the steak tartare is 11,50€ and I know that means it’s something like $10. Though I was happy to use francs, it is even easier now, given my lack of quick math skills. But I still can’t figure out which coins are which, making me just as much a novice as everyone else. The Euro feels like a Bizarro Dollar, a similar value where there are two-dollar coins and bills that are almost as boring as ours. One of the delights of other nations has been the multi-colored and -sized currencies with pictures of artists, painters and writers—both male and female, something that always seemed so much more cultured than our symmetrically and chromatically conservative dead presidents (and Hamilton and Franklin of course—but still G-men). In any case, the Euro bills, despite some color and variations in size, have been neutered in the spirit of compromise—as evidenced in its generic name as well. Gone are the celebrated faces of Europe like Eiffel himself on franc bills or Montessori on the Italian lire bills, replaced with innocuous images of aqueducts and patterned windows and bridges for the 12 participating European Union nations. People aren’t happy about this, but there is nothing they can do. On February 18th, in France, the franc became officially invalid as currency (the Banque de France will still exchange it for free, but it can’t be used to buy anything). Aside from a clip on the news this morning, I’m betting it is an afterthought for most of the population, even if they will continue to gripe about the Euro for years to come.



While cleaning out the bag that was my carry-on, five days after my flight, I reached into a small pocket. And there, in the small zippered pocket on the back, was my double-bladed Swiss Army Knife.