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The French connection


 Thursday, January 17, 2013


THE flight arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport on a dark morning at around 7am.

While I have landed several times in Paris and stayed overnight, this trip triggered old memories.

It was almost 35 years to the day since I landed in Paris as a teenager in December, 1977 with a friend as we made our way to Houston, Texas.

While it was my companion's first trip away from home, I had spent the autumn of 1976 and the first half of 1977 at a high school in Baghdad.

Relatively speaking, I was the "veteran" traveller.

The thing that struck me about Paris at that time was the absence of sunlight at 7.30am the following morning. I had never been to a place before where the sun was not already out by that time.

Needless to say, the previous evening I had my first ever dinner in a hotel restaurant. Knowing very little about French cuisine, I confused the main course with the rich appetiser and salad.

Dinner and lodgings were paid for as part of the plane ticket and I suspect that if we had to pay extra, we would have most likely spent the night on cold, uncomfortable airport chairs with a brown bag containing our dinner.

We did not consider leaving the hotel to discover Paris that evening.

Expense aside, we barely spoke any English and could only count to 10 in French.

Interestingly, I never left the hotel when I got a connecting flight in the city many years later. That's because the universal lure of Paris never enticed me.

Someone once told me: "You don't know what you're missing."

"True," I responded, "but how can you desire what you have never experienced?"

When as a teenager I reached the airport - which had only opened three years before - to board my connecting flight to the US there was ample time to kill.

My companion and I window shopped and were amazed by all the "original" French perfume, gift shops and expensive clothing adorning the small stores.

Terminal one was a beehive of travellers and people dashed with their trolleys in every direction.

Then, unexpectedly, we ran into a familiar face.

Jamal (we share the same name) was one year ahead of us at our old school.

He was returning from Oklahoma where he must have experienced an acute case of homesickness.

Unable to adjust he decided to return home. It was a costly decision for his family.

We talked for less than five minutes because he was in a hurry to catch his connecting flight, but he said enough to raise our anxiety levels.

He compared attending college in the US with being in exile.

Going home, even for a visit, was not much of an option because the round-trip ticket was so expensive.

My travel companion was noticeably distraught and the blood seemed to drain from his olive-skinned face.

"Can't you see him going back? Life in America must not be as rosy as they describe it," he said.

I tried to comfort him, but to no avail.

Regardless, we departed Paris and flew to what became my new home - where I settled in San Diego.

It was almost five years before I made my first visit home.