Unintended Baggage

by B.A. Van Sise

After being stopped by several soldiers upon entering Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris, photojournalist B.A. Van Sise soon realizes that there may very well be a bomb close by.

MORNING

There is, perhaps, a bomb at Charles De Gaulle Airport.

It is morning. Very early.  The airport, located somehow simultaneously near the city and also far from it, snaps into life at the dreariest of hours: that small time when the mammal part of us knows the sun has gone and, in spite of a lifetime of evidence, is worried it might not return.

It is winter. January. So it is a cold morning, but still a regular one for Paris only a few weeks after the solstice in the season for clouds. I’ve been here for a week, for work, and now it is time to go home, if such a place exists, and so I get in a taxi driven by a man who arrived in this country (one suspects) mere hours before I did. He does not speak French very well. He does not drive very well. Still, he is — as the best of people ever are — a convenience, pulling up at just the moment you need them, leaving your lives just when you don’t.

He veers to the curb when hailed in front of the café where I’ve just had a large coffee — no sugar, lots of cream, thanks — where I took a table under a red lamp next to a beige square, huddled myself in one heavy coat enveloped in another. It’s the heavy coats that ruin the French winter, that mar the image of sexual Paris — the freighted frocks that turn the entire north of the nation into formless blobs. Yet there, in two coats, I sit in a wicker chair under a hot lamp, surrounded by the little personal cloud of fog it makes, and watch with relief as the day, once again, returns. It offers only the sort of weeping winter sunrise where the sky grows brighter but never alive, whose thick damp air climbs into your marrow to cloak itself in your bones.

The driver who rescues me from the café does not say much, only stares out gloomily into the undimming world, hums his way through a thin veil of traffic.  He is listening to African music, very very quietly. It’s imperceptible, at a volume that one feels more than hears, as if you might be able to just make it out if you were able to read the sound as Braille in the air.

When he drops me at the curb, I step away and realize that he and I have now met twice, but his face is unknown to me.  How many faces we meet, in the end, are unknown to us.

I step into the terminal, thinking about faces and their absence, not particularly watching where I am going, to clap into a wall: in this case, it’s a flat hand smack against my chest. I teeter backwards but do not fall down. In front of me — and a small band of others, newspapers under their arms, luggage handles clenched between their fingers — are several soldiers holding long automatic rifles in front of a vast desert of emptied terminal: the passengers are all gone, but the arcade of shops on either side remain open, their confused employees looking every which way trying to figure out what the hell is going on. 

The soldiers look terribly official: big men, big guns. They’re young — barely past puberty — but never have you seen such polished boots, such crisp uniforms. They wear magenta berets, as if part of France’s elite ranger training also involves, at some point, victory in a fashion competition. They do not have emotions of any kind.

Some of the travelers begin to wonder: what could this be? Several argue that, surely, they’ve cordoned off the terminal because the President of France must be coming through and they need the space clear of the riff raff. An American woman corrects them: France has a king. Everyone begins to argue whether France has a president or a king. Nobody can name who that person would be.

An official-looking woman in a smart blue suit walks up, whispers in the first soldier’s ear, and then walks towards the crowd, now numbering several dozen. “What’s going on?” asks a businessman who is clearly French, but who asks it in English nonetheless. The bureaucrat — perceiving this man’s Frenchness and clearly trying to develop x-ray vision to see inside him and learn where his boulevards have taken a wrong turn — decides to strain herself with a reply in English.

“Eh,” she shrugs, “it may be a while. Ze have to clear ze terminal, because zere is some unintended baggage.”

UNINTENDED BAGGAGE

We all know what she means. And, once shown, we all see: there is, in fact, a suitcase sitting atop a square white table next to one of the businesses. The suitcase is black, with two out-facing external pockets zipped tight up and over, and the brand name reads Lipault, but it might as well be made by the Schrodinger Luggage Corporation. It may be full of somebody’s dirty underwear. It may be full of dynamite. Nobody knows.

Now, it is against the law to explode an airport, but if we’re honest the airport is already a fairly lawless place; in an airport, laws as we know them do not exist. In an airport, society as we know it does not exist. In an airport you do not have the right, for example, to refuse a stranger eager to touch your most sensitive areas, but you do have the right to down a beer in public at 7am, immediately after.

Across from the unintended baggage there are two shops: the first is a souvenir business, the sort in airports everywhere where you can buy cheap junk on your way out of a place. Like all airport souvenir shops, it is well stocked with anything you need for the people you thought about only in afterthought. Next to it is a newsstand that offers periodicals to cover both important issues in the world: finance news and celebrity breakups. Immediately behind the suitcase is a brioche stand that offers a wide variety of pastries, served by two young women who, previously so ebullient to see France’s president or king, have now grown nervous. They look at one another, again and again, and make the only appropriate decision: one gets on her knees, crawls forward to cower underneath the counter, while the other pulls down the metal grate that would normally close the shop for the night. As it reaches the front of the pastry display, she forcefully throws it downward to the ground from the inside, and presumably bounces down with it to companion her colleague — a wide shelf of croissants, pains au chocolat, oranaises, and little cakes potentially being their only companions into the hereafter as the brioche store has now turned into a brioche bunker.

THE PRESIDENT OR KING

One minute stretches to two, and ten, and twenty. The travelers begin to get restless, pleading with the tired bureaucrat to let them get to their flight. She reminds them that the flights aren’t leaving until this gets cleared up; after all, the planes aren’t going to all take off for every corner of the globe with nobody inside of them. Some passengers, not understanding, offer her unsubtle bribes to let them through. A small group of Italians, looking at their phones, walk through the crowd, past the bureaucrat, and directly into the waiting soldiers who, unamused, point their firearms directly at the Mediterranean navel gazers who are surprised, and slightly insulted, to have been held at gunpoint by the seeming victors of a French fashion show. In the brioche bunker, the two young women still remain curled into the shape of snails, under the counter, with a metal grate pulled down to lock them in.

All the French officials’ radios begin to come alive with chatter; the bureaucrat walks over to talk to another, more anonymous, more official-looking bureaucrat off to the side. The soldiers, hearing the voice in their earpieces, talk into little radios mounted on their shoulders and snap firmly to attention. The crowd does, too: something has occurred. Perhaps this is it; perhaps we were all bamboozled. Hoodwinked. Flimflammed. This could have been a red herring. A ruse. Maybe, in fact, it was the president or king of France. He is here, he is here, he is here, and the soldiers are ready. 

We watch as a heavy man in blue lumbers up the sidewalk next to the terminal, walking along the other side of the thick industrial glass that walls us in. In mid-January, it’s dewy as a dream, warm to the eye but cold to the touch, and the man does not look so much like a man as an impressionist painting, the sort of person who is more concept than flesh, the sort found in so many museums in town. In another time, he’d have a top hat and tails, a woman at his side with an outrageous coiffure and pink parasol. Right now, though, he’s just a smear, though through the soggy window he appears to move like the clouds of Paris, leaving a long trail behind as he slowly moves towards the door, turns the corner, and walks in behind the rigid soldiers.

He is not the president. He is not even the king.  He is, in this moment, right here, right now, something more important, more useful: he is Monsieur Le Bomb.

MONSIEUR LE BOMB

Monsieur Le Bomb is the airport’s official explosive investigator. And diffuser. Or, more likely, detonator. When he rounds the corner into the terminal we all realize, instantly, the gravity of the situation: he is a portly man with a janitor’s continence, and is presumably wearing some sort of protective vest but — if so — it is very well hidden under a stack of successively larger coats, a matryoshka doll that after several decreasing unlayerings reveals only a mediocre, tired man who sleeps alone with his wife every night.  Over the several coats he has draped a bright orange frock that says, simply, Explosif.

I’d not been interested by the arrival of the president or king, but things are now more interesting. I pull out my press pass — an oversized plastic card issued by the city of New York on a metal lanyard, the same used for dog tags — and drape it around my neck. The soldiers see it, and dismay washes over their faces: not because they realize they’ll be the story, but because if they’re to die, they’re to become mist mixed with riffraff.

Monsieur Le Bomb waddles behind them. He was not awakened for the occasion, but he was obviously startled: he has the ambling, unsteady gait of a man who’s put away more bourbons than the peasants at Versailles; his polyester trousers are stained with whatever was on his table the night before. His mustache, which is full, and white, and stretches to the corners of his lips, is stained yellow at the center by his daily cigarettes.

He stumbles and saves himself over some sort of imaginary item on the ground and stares back at the offending pavement, as if he has been wronged by flooring, his eyes accusing the pavement itself. He stumbles back into his walk again, and the crowd begins to murmur: it is obvious to one and all that whoever found Monsieur Le Bomb found him drunk and now, arrived to examine the unintended baggage, drunk he remains.

The bureaucrat greets him and informs him of the situation; “informs him” means simply pointing to the suitcase. Alone, he strolls without a care of the world past the closed newsstand, past the financial news, past the celebrity breakups, and past the brioche bunker, towards Schrodinger’s Luggage.

The bureaucrat — seeing our horror — comes back to the crowd, which now numbers in the hundreds and is aghast. “There is nothing to worry about,” she says. She is what Alfred Hitchcock and the FBI call an unreliable narrator.

Some folks step outside to smoke; if this sunrise was their last, they might as well go out slightly buzzed. I make pictures.  Most idle nervously, as we all watch our doughy savior amble up and analyze the suitcase through the most technologically advanced method known to France: crouching down and looking at it. It’s really marvelous technology, to be sure: by lowering himself to the same level as the suitcase, Monsieur Le Bomb can, through a mysterious paranormal phenomenon called Altitude Sympathy, understand the murderous valise. What are its desires? What are its motivations?

THE BATHROOM OF LE BOMB

Monsieur Le Bomb gets on his hands and knees in an attempt to gain so much Altitude Sympathy that the bomb itself might very well give up the ghost and extinguish itself due to the alcohol content of his breath. He sighs deeply, as if this, right now, is the third week he’s spending in the airport today.  He walks over to the bureaucrat and asks ou est le toilette? — “Where is the bathroom?” She furrows her brow and points to an otherwise unmarked door not far from him, presumably an employee’s lavatory off-bounds to the gentry. 

He lumbers towards it. “Does he need to change into a vest?” she asks to nobody in particular, and the soldiers continue to have no emotion of any kind. One of the Italians makes a video of Monsieur Le Bomb meandering toward the bathroom, looking for all the world like he’s been riding a horse all night, that she might post on TikTok.

It turns out that the Nation of France has for Monsieur Le Bomb merely a request: he must first do what God and his large intestine demand daily of him. After a lifetime of spending his every day waiting for crisis at the airport, lounging in cafés, it seems that an endless string of pastries and coffee have left Monsieur Le Bomb rather affianced. And as smokers smoke and lovers love, Monsieur Le Bomb must first address the bomb.

We — the bureaucrats, the tourists, the business people, the security agents, the check-in agents, the burly Africans who check in luggage outside — wait twenty full minutes while Monsieur Le Bomb, president and king of the airport, sits on his throne.

There is nothing we can do. This is the airport. There are no rules. We are, or were, in France, and you can use the present or past tense alike because the airport is a no-man’s land between nations, no more bound by time than borders: it is not the ephemeral legal island of a nation in an embassy, where a diplomat carries his entire homeland on his back around eight rooms bound by treaty; no, in an airport you’re in a covenant of convention that declares that there’s a time between a faceless stranger stamping your passport and the moment your body lurches upward into the sky that you are, even if only in theory, stateless. We are all, for the moment, not in a city or a state or a nation; we are just in the backwaters of Monsieur Le Bomb’s bowels.

After twenty minutes, things are going badly in the Brioche Bunker. The terminal has grown becalmed in our early morning march to the scaffold, but the two young women cuddling under the croissants have no idea what is going on outside their den of carbohydrates. We hear, periodically, plaintive and soft banging against the metal door. Are they having a struggle? Are they trying to signal us in Morse Code? Are they letting us know the doughnuts are ready? These, these are the mysteries of our lives.

Perhaps they are just pounding for the return of Monsieur Le Bomb, whose footsteps had just fallen outside their cell only to disappear, making him the Bete Noire of the Brioche Duree, a potential hero who in less than a half hour had lived long enough to become the villain.

After twenty minutes, Monsieur Le Bomb emerges from his palace, a spring in his step and looking toplofty. He has not changed his clothing — the same blue janitorial garb, the same orange vest, the same ominous EXPLOSIF in block letters upon it — but there is now a spring in his step, a song in his heart, a giant weight that has been lifted. This, we release, has been the high point of Monsieur Le Bomb’s life; he’s escaped the wife and befouled Terminal 2. Anything else is just the cherry on top.

He walks over to the briefcase, and we all revel at the chance to finally see just how one defuses a potential bomb. He stares at it a moment, ogles the unintended baggage, reaches down and… opens it. Just opens it.

The bomb, which failed to exist, did not erupt: saving the life of Monsieur Le Bomb, continuing his supposed existence and tragically prolonging his already tedious life. He has come to shit, he has succeeded, and all of us are still alive. Surely, sonnets are made of lesser stuff.

TERMINAL

As one enters the shopping mall that is the departures terminal of Charles De Gaulle Airport, it’s hard not to forget that escaping by air has always been a Parisian art. In the city’s own pantheon, the nation’s greatest heroes molder in tombs designed by the state’s great sculptors, themselves turning to empty in yet other tombs adjacent. One of these graves of the patriarchs is for a man named Leon Gambetta who, his beloved Paris under siege by the Prussian Army, did the only thing a sensible person might do when the place they love most is beset by men wearing spiked helmets: skedaddle. And so Mr. Gambetta decided to away as quickly as Monsieur Le Bomb’s dinner, wrapping himself in a fur and taking to the skies. In a balloon and looking fabulous, he sailed over the German lines and off into history: dead 12 years later, that was enough to earn him a subway station, an avenue, a park, and a berth among the great heroes in whose presence he need never feel ashamed, driven by hot air that his cologne might perfume the clouds forever.

They named the airport after Charles De Gaulle, instead. Flew commercial. Poor choice.

A poorer choice still considering that De Gaulle was a frumpy, grumpy man who wore wool, not stoats, when he fled France — and the airport named for him is an over-the-top, marble and granite affair with plush upholstery, old-fashioned bars, and one macaron shop after another selling you two dollar cookies you down with one bite. If Versailles had an air depot, it might have looked like this. 

We arrive as a flood, a few confused passengers already at all gates, having been delayed an hour in a largely empty terminal whose only sound was rumors. Former strangers were strange no more as the early birds asked the new arrivals, again and again: did you know about the bomb in the airport? and were told larger stories, made larger still by survival. We’d all made it by the skin of our teeth, and the flat leavers who’d gotten through before hand needed to know about it.

One man, at gate 17, searched anxiously for his suitcase.

Soon, we all settled in at our gates, slumping into the corduroy lounges like we’d always owned them, forgetting the drama we’d all endured: the ceremony of your everyday life, after all, need not be every morning a marriage.

I eat a twelve dollar box of macarons in six bites, read the newspaper, and wait twenty minutes to be called to board the jet.  Without any pomp, we all get on the plane. 

LEON GAMBETTA

As we sit in the plush interior of the jet, we hear an alarm sound inside the terminal. A flight attendant steps over to the phone, talks in French in subdued but official tones, and hangs up.

 “What’s going on?” a woman asks the stewardess. 

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she sighs. “A problem in the terminal.”

“A problem? What kind of problem?”

“Well, it seems there is some unintended baggage.”

All photos (c) B.A. Van Sise

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