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My First International Flight Since Lockdown: SFO to Paris via DFW

What follows is a very detailed trip report of a 20-hour travel day. If you’re not into trip reports, don’t despair. Next time I’ll write about actual Paris.

Is my passport valid? Do I remember how immigration works? Will there be free alcohol on the plane?

It had been so long since I’d flown internationally, I had really kind of forgotten how the whole thing works.

For one thing, until the day before my flight, I was thinking I needed to arrive at SFO three hours early, because the flight was international. Then I started thinking: I’m not leaving the country from SFO. I’m leaving from DFW. The other people on my flight won’t be flying internationally, and they’re not gonna get there three hours early, why should I?

I couldn’t remember if there was anything special you have to go through at US airports when you’re starting an international itinerary, but I felt like there wasn’t. So I Googled it, and sure enough, showing up 2 hours early for the domestic leg of my itinerary would be fine.

I was scheduled to fly out of SF at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, so I did have to keep traffic in mind. I could have taken BART, but my husband offered to drive me. We meant to leave the house at 6 a.m., to give us an hour to drive 27 miles, including a bridge. We actually probably made it out by 6:30, but that was fine. I was at SFO by around 7:10, not quite 2 hours early but close enough.

I had a very long day ahead of me: A couple hours hanging around SFO, then 3.5 hours to DFW, then a 3.5 hour layover, then a 9-hour flight to Paris, and then a mere hour on public transit to my HomeExchange apartment in the Place d’Italie neighborhood. So around a 20-hour journey. To stay comfortable, I showed up to the airport wearing a pair of sweatpants I hoped could pass for real pants once I arrived, a long fuzzy shirt, a tank top instead of a bra, and a fleece pullover with handy pockets and a hood. On my feet I wore Croc slides, kind of an experiment. I figured I would change into my athletic shoes upon landing.

Since we fly Southwest and live about 5 mile from the Oakland airport, I hadn’t been to SFO for years. I arrived to find absolutely no line at security — I actually had to stop to finish drinking my water bottle before I could walk right up. I didn’t need to show my passport to anyone, although since I had it handy, I used it as my ID when entering security.

SFO is so nice now! I checked out the little opera museum. And I loved how the bathrooms had a changing room — which could also be used as a breastfeeding room of course. I was really tired, after a short night of sleep, so I lay down for about 15 minutes on a little couch. I really appreciate when airports let you lie down! Then I bought some chicken tortilla soup, which sounded really good for breakfast, but while I was eating it, my flight started boarding, so I had to bring my soup on board with me.

Because I have American’s Aviator Mastercard, I got to board each of my flights in Group 5, which is basically right after all the people with status and stuff. You get this benefit even if you don’t use the Aviator card to pay for the flight. It was nice to get on the plane and have a few minutes to situate myself before most of the people started coming down the aisles, but it wasn’t that big a deal. I’m planning to cancel this card before the annual fee hits this fall.

For shorter flights, I usually select a window seat, so that’s what I had for the 3.5-hour flight from SFO to Dallas-Fort Worth. Not having flown anything but Southwest in years, I liked that American planes — even domestic ones — have a cell phone charger and a phone holder on the back of the seat in front of you.

The snack they handed out with my soft drink was just a Biscoff cookie. No problem! I pulled out the Southwest Airlines snack mix I had packed.

I have a ton of these because if you tell a Southwest FA that your mom loves their snack mix while you’re flying home from college for Christmas, that FA will fill a barf bag with Southwest snack mix for you to put under the tree for Mom. I was hoping the flight attendant would do a double take, but they did not care.

I was excited to see so much snow in the Sierra as we flew west toward Texas!

For entertainment, they didn’t have any movies I wanted to see, but I was glad to see that American carried my go-to in-flight show, Below Deck. The Australia version. I toggled between that, my audiobook, and reading The Bonjour Effect, a fun book about how to talk to French people without pissing them off (something at which I consistently fail). I could have gotten free in-flight internet, but I was too tired to really do anything so I didn’t bother.

Texas looks very boring from the air. Then we landed at DFW, and I had three and a half hours to kill. This was easier than it sounded, because first of all, that airport is huge and I had to take a train just to get to the terminal where my international flight was. I had been hoping I could walk there, given that I was about to get on a nine hour flight, but apparently you can’t walk from terminal to terminal at DFW. They’re separate buildings.

Instead, I got my steps in walking all around the terminal, admiring stuff like the floor art (above) and checking out the many food options. They even had two different salons in this one terminal! I got sick of shuffling around in my Crocs, so I changed to my real shoes.

The terminal I was departing from had both international and domestic flights, mixed. Again, no passport control — you just walk up to your gate. There were duty free stores, for those who were flying internationally. I considered buying some whiskey at duty free to enjoy in the evening in Paris (I really only like wine with food). But I didn’t really have room for anything else in my suitcase so no whiskey.

I often check my roll-aboard bag, but this time I didn’t, to avoid the chance of losing it during the connection, I guess. I slid my backpack onto the roller bag handle, and before long as I walked around, I noticed that my backpack and suitcase were particularly heavy, crammed as they were. Mainly I had brought a bunch of books about Paris that were making it heavy. It hurt my elbow to roll it behind me in the traditional two wheels down fashion. This suitcase is supposed to be capable of rolling upright, but I learned on this trip that it doesn’t do that very well. It kind of swerves all over. So I went back to trailing it behind me.

I decided to eat dinner and then get a manicure. I had a bit of a headache, and I thought sitting in a massage chair at the salon would help. After studying all the choices, I landed at Hickory Smokehouse, where I had three delicious brisket tacos with a side of mac n cheese, and a Jameson with soda. Ahhh.

Then it was manicure time. The massage chair did in fact help my headache and provided a wonderful, comfy place to rest. The manicurist was not very good at doing manicures. From reading online reviews, I gather that the staff at these airport salons never are. I don’t know why. Are trained manicurists that hard to find? She was very nice, though, and we had a nice chat about our kids. Her two sons are grown up, one in the Air Force and the other in college. One of them is an asshole, she confided in me. She also confided that she was not very good at gel in particular, so, since the manager had stepped out, she charged me for one level of service lower than what I’d asked for. It was still a ton of money though, like $50, plus I tipped $20.

The manicure took at least an hour, so when I was done, it was almost 6 p.m. and boarding was about to start. Once again I got to board early, or as early as I could get up to the front with all the people in later groups standing around blocking the way. The ground crew asked us to show our passports, closed, as we boarded. This made me laugh as I had worried a tiny bit that I might be denied entry, based on having less than six months remaining before my passport expired (even though France is fine as long as you have three months left). They didn’t even look at my passport. Of course, I had already uploaded an image of it to check in online.

On the plane, I changed back into my Crocs and tied my shoes to my suitcase in the overhead bin. I also took a Benadryl, to help me become sleepy within the next couple hours, and an Ibuprofen to prevent my headache from coming back. Each seat had a plastic package with a pillow and blanket on it. These bundles were apparently our responsibility whether we wanted them or not; I didn’t see any FA offer to take them away. I settled in my aisle seat next to a very quiet dude with whom I would exchange between 0 and 2 words for the next 9 hours. He was fine, unlike the dude in front of me, who immediately reclined his seat all the way.

The crew on this flight to Paris were all pretty clearly Texas based, with accents — even the guy whose job it was to reread the announcements in French. He did his best. They were a lot less cheerful than Southwest crews. I had a TV screen mounted in the seat in front of me, but it was set to Arabic (or something similar). The crew did not give me the impression that they would be overjoyed to help me change it, so after pushing every possible button and heading on the touchscreen, I let it be.

Of course, the main event on an international flight is the meal, which, predictably, they got out of the way ASAP. My plan was to taste it to see what it was like but to not eat much, which would be easy since I had just had tacos a couple hours earlier. I’m glad this was my plan, since the meal was terrible. The salad looked OK, but what with the seat in front of me being fully reclined, I could barely move my hands to access my tray, and I accidentally knocked it onto the floor, where the plastic lid flew off sending salad everywhere. There was a roll in a plastic bag, which I put butter on and managed only one bite. The main dish was pasta, I think, and not memorable. Then there was a wedge of Laughing Cow processed cheese. The dessert was a packaged brownie, which I pocketed, and I think I still have in my backpack almost a month later. With dinner they poured wine out of big bottles, and I had red, which was drinkable.

The reason I’d planned to eat lightly on the flight anyway was because at the time the meal was served, it was about 1 a.m. in Paris. I’d read that fasting during a trans-Atlantic flight can help you get instantly onto the new time zone without jet leg. The idea is that your body likes to be awake when food is available and asleep when it’s not. With this same theory in mind, I had also been trying to fast in the afternoon and evening at home, the hours when it would be nighttime in Paris. Unfortunately, I don’t have the kind of self control to not even taste a plate that’s being served on a long, boring flight, and besides, I’m too curious. But I barely ate any and I think that’s close enough.

After dinner, they asked if we wanted another drink. I asked for scotch and soda. They did have some kind of scotch, for which I was grateful. After that, as expected, the crew dimmed the cabin lights and made themselves scarce until morning. It was of course pitch black outside the windows by then, as we had flown right into the sunset. It was probably around 2 a.m. in Paris at this point, 5 hours before our 7 a.m. arrival. I am not good at sleeping on planes, but I decided to give it my all. I dissolved 3 mg of chewable melatonin under my tongue. I put on my noise canceling headphones and my hood up over them. I wrapped my Turtle pillow around my neck, which did a good job of keeping my hood as closed as possible. I put my light ski jacket on front to pack, the blanket on my legs with the pillow sitting on my legs — it gives you a good place to set your hands that way. I have a neck pillow that looks like two balls with a flat part in the middle, which I also used. I couldn’t really recline because the person behind me had their head down on their tray table, but I did prop my feet up on my carryon. I couldn’t find my eye mask, so I put a bandana over my whole face, including my eyes. And since my nose and mouth were covered, I decided to give myself a break from my regular mask.

It worked! Before I knew it, I was hearing an unfamiliar scene on my audiobook. That mean I had fallen asleep! According to my watch, for one hour. I got up and used the bathroom, saw that the guy behind me was no longer using his tray table for a pillow, reclined my seat, and took another, even better one-hour nap. I ended up taking four consecutive naps, getting up between each one, listening to the same audiobook chapter or two over and over again. I still have only a faint idea of what happened in those two chapters.

After my fourth nap, the flight attendents were starting to bustle in the aisles and the sun was coming up outside the window, so I didn’t try to sleep again. Of the breakfast, I ate a greek yogurt and drank a couple sips of some crappy coffee before dropping the cup and its contents into the trash.

Then we were landing, and we had to stand around for awhile waiting to be let off the plane. I learned by eavesdropping that 20 high school kids had been on the flight. Those teenagers had been silent! Or maybe it was just my noise-cancelling headphones.

When they opened the door, I easily pulled down my little rolling bag, left the plane and took an escalator up to the easiest immigration ever. Basically I waited in a short line to scan my passport. In line with me was the dude who reclined his seat all the way in front of me. I was tempted to tell him how shitty that was, but he was awfully big and tall so I figured he’d done what he had to do. Then I tried to chat with the man whose job it was to point to the passport scanner, but he was having none of it. Ah yes, France!

Then I stepped into a booth and had my face photographed or scanned or whatnot, then my passport was stamped and I was free. Customs was also easy — I walked through the nothing to declare line, no questions asked. Should have brought those lemons I had wanted to bring for my hostess, but which I found out you’re not allowed to bring into the EU. I would definitely have gotten away with it.

Paris-Charles de Gaulle, like SFO, was eerily quiet for a weekday (now Tuesday) morning. I found a bathroom to use, took advantage of some free wi-fi, and even found a drinking fountain to replenish my water bottle. This would be the only drinking fountain I saw for the next week. France just doesn’t do those.

I had arrived in France! Next time, I’ll write about my first day, wherein I worked very hard to not take a nap.