No. 31 ~ Paris ~ May 23, 2021

The dream of a smooth sail

Not all of you were aware that we had plans to return to France, but we made it, arriving on Friday, the 14th. Most of the trip went well, but first we had to brave the gauntlet at Logan Airport in Boston.

At the end of April, President Emmanuel Macron announced France’s four-stage plan for reopening from this, the country’s third lockdown. June 9 was set as the target date to open borders to non-European Union tourists. We considered that we could instead leave in mid-May, because Macron had also made clear that French citizens would always be allowed to return to the homeland, and Isabelle was armed with her fresh and shiny French passport. We received our second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on April 8. We would get tested, and I would surely be allowed to accompany Isabelle as her trusty sidekick and spouse, even though I’m equipped with just a U.S. passport.

What could go wrong?

The main red flag here for those of you dreaming of a trip abroad is the timing of the PCR test. We usually fly Air France. Finding their price for our return flight a bit rich, we booked with Aer Lingus, through Dublin. When it came time to schedule our tests (free, at a Walgreens in Cambridge), I referred to the email Aer Lingus had sent about required documents. On their “Country-by-Country” web page, I looked up the requirements for France, our country of destination. It says — no surprise here — that passengers need to be tested “less than 72 hours before the flight.” The French government’s website specifies 72 hours before the first flight, in case of a connecting flight. We had heard a story of how a family had been turned away from its flight because their lab results didn’t show up until shortly after the boarding gate closed. We decided to use the full 72 hours, to make sure we had our results in hand when we got to the airport. 

At Logan, the check-in agent took one look at our lab results and declared them “expired.” 

Struggling to communicate through our masks, with my heart starting to race, I finally understood that as far as Aer Lingus was concerned, our country of destination was Ireland, because we were changing planes in Dublin. Of course, this is the only way you can fly Aer Lingus to Paris, and we wouldn’t be leaving the Dublin airport. 

Ireland, even though it's an EU country like France, has a different rule for testing. They want the test performed within 72 hours before arrival in Ireland. The flight time to Dublin is about six hours, but the time difference was putting us into the next day. The time of the test is meant to be adjusted based on how many ethereal hours are lost by flying east. 

I pulled out my phone, found the web page I had read, and showed it to the agent. Undeterred, she pointed to an area at the back of the entrance hall. We could get a rapid test there.

How much?

“$200 per person.”

How much to change our flight to Saturday, so we could get another free test performed?

“$230 per person.” (I looked this up shortly afterward and found that we should have been eligible for a no-fee flight change.)

We shared with her our feelings that this was looking very much like a scam, but agreed to the rapid test. We checked in at the impromptu lab area and were told that the price was $250 per person. After our walk across the hall, the price had gone up a cool fifty bucks.

Handing over my credit card to the grumpy attendant, a line came to mind, something a mafioso might say, modified for the moment.

“That’s a nice trip you have there. Pity if it didn’t work out…”

After a little over half an hour in the waiting area, which was full of passengers dropping $250 a pop, we had our second set of negative results, and returned to the check-in counter. 

Isabelle presented her red French passport and I handed over my blue one. The agent gave me the evil eye. 

“You’re not a French citizen?”

“No.” I breathed the word through my mask. “I’m her spouse.”

She was not to be influenced by the identical family name and U.S. address on our passports. 

“Do you have a wedding certificate?” She peered at me over her mask. I could tell she wanted nothing less than to send me packing — and not in the direction I had intended. 

Isabelle came right back at her. 

“I do have one,” she insisted, though with the small pile of paperwork we had accumulated, it took her a long minute to put her hands on it.

We were married in the U.S. The document she thrust at the gatekeeper was her birth certificate, handwritten in French, and updated for our marriage. But for someone who does not read French, seeing our names together sealed the deal. She handed the sheet back to Isabelle and set to work — finally — preparing our boarding passes. 

We got to the boarding gate just in time to walk right on the plane. 

Settled in my seat, staring blankly and frazzled to the bone, I remembered that for me, a jet plane cabin is like a library reading room. Isabelle’s seat was across the aisle — too far for a chat. I unlocked my phone and eased into reading a book.  

In Dublin, the dawn was gloomy and the airport chilly and deserted. The border guard checked our passports and lab results, and asked with a smile if we had been vaccinated. It was purely conversational. We are of a certain age, and coming from the States. That was the only mention of vaccination during the trip. At Charles de Gaulle Airport, social distancing flew out the window as hundreds of passengers crammed together in the zig-zaggy lines heading toward passport control. The guard glanced at our lab results and stamped our passports, without mention of a marriage certificate. I avoided eye contact, as if to say, “Just another day at the office.”

Here is Paris, we did not observe the seven-day self-imposed quarantine, as the French would have liked us to do after arriving from the U.S. A quasi-quarantine has been easy to do. This is the second holiday weekend in a row. Paris is quite empty.

So what’s the take-away from all this? First, the news is changing fast, so any advice could be outdated in a matter of weeks. The EU is working on a Europe-wide health passport that may be in use by the end of June. If they manage an agreement to include vaccine and test information for Americans, that could take some of the stress off travelers. The Europeans are basing their health passport on the QR code, which is not on the American vaccine card. Unfortunately, the American card is also eminently easy to counterfeit. On the other hand, the French are talking about setting up free PCR testing for tourists departing France; details have not been released. 

I guess I have to leave it at this: if you plan to travel, make sure you check all the possible testing requirements, and go by the one that is most demanding. Then you will have to decide how much risk you want to take as you allow time for test results to come in. It may even be a good idea to check if there is rapid testing available at your airport, and then (I hate to say it) budgeting the time and money in case you have to go to the back of the room and see Uncle Vinny. 

Other than your test results you’ll probably need two other documents: a sworn statement that you are symptom-free, and a tracking sheet. It’s handy to have extra copies of the sworn statement, as the agents take those to be filed. On our trip, nobody paid any attention to the tracking sheet. Your test results will be handed back to you.

That’s it for now. I’ll catch up with you from Brittany. Wednesday is train day. 
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[Photos by JK unless otherwise noted.]