Hell on the road to Prague

The segments of my trip on Monday and Tuesday of this week set a new low in my corporate travel experience. This is the second time I've written up this little history: the first got eaten in a curious email disaster. It's just as well since I wrote up the first after several very stiff drinks at Charles du Gaulle airport. I'm writing this up partly so I don't forget, and partly to explain why I never made it to Prague to speak at the TechDays conference and visit the NetBeans engineering team. I'd like to apologize to all of the folks in Prague who were expecting me to show up. I tried. But some cosmic force had other ideas...

It started off well enough. I landed in Paris on time. Eric Mahe picked me up and we headed off to the Bouyges Telecom event where I did the required schmoozing and took part in a press panel session. Lots of very cool java cell phone demos: they've deployed DoCoMo's i-mode system. I ended up getting a ride to the airport with Takeshi Natsuno, the fellow who's in charge of DoCoMo's i-mode strategy, who also was the founder of i-mode within DoCoMo. We had a great conversation on the way.

I finally get to the checkin counter where I'm told that I need a Visa. I found this hard to believe since I had been to Prague previously, without the need for a visa. The agent is quite insistent, as only a Parisian can be :-( So I leave the checkin counter moderately annoyed, but sure that this is just a bit of confusion. I phoned Rosenbluth, the travel agents, and they confirmed the need for a visa. My stress level ticks up a couple of notches: if they could figure this out now, why the hell didn't they catch it when they put together the itinerary? It's a part of their job! I tried checking in again, lining up for a different agent, to see if I could slide past. No dice. This one tracked down the documentation for me to read and weep: yes, Canadians do need Visas. The fine to the airline for letting a person without a visa onto the plane was 9000 euros. I'd have to pay a similar fine, plus pay for the flight back. To make it worse, it contained the phrase "visa's must be obtained in the country of residence". The Rosenbluth folks were pretty unhelpful. They advised me to call the Visa Network folks. They couldn't say much either. They had essentially no information on Czech visa requirements.

All through this I was calling the folks in Prague (mostly Shelly Haggarty) to let them know what was going on. It was now 6:30pm. Too late to do anything. I was not going to make it for the keynote speech I was supposed to give the next morning. I checked in to the nearest hotel, the airport Sheraton, which was right there. I decided to try going to the Czech visa office the next morning to plead for a visa. I asked our folks in Prague to write up a letter for me to take with me to explain that I was needed in Prague in short order. I called up Rosenbluth. I got them to book me on the 12:55 flight the next day. This would get me there in time to give my keynote at the end of the day. Reggie Hutcherson rescheduled his talk to fill the gap that I would be missing from.

I had a plan. I could sleep.

Up at the crack of dawn. Check out. Head in to Paris on the express train. Easy: the hotel was on top of the train station. The address I was given was on Boulevard Haussmann. I couldn't tell which end of the boulevard the address was on, so I left extra early to spend some time searching. This was a good thing, since I guessed wrong. I ended up doing a 10 block mad dash from one end of blvd Haussmann to the other. But no worries: I got to the office just before it opened. Argh!! I discovered that the address I was given was for the Czech Embassy, and the visa office was in the Consulate. On the other side of down. Fuck. Mad dash on the Metro (what a wonderful system!) to rue Bonaparte. Mad dash a few blocks to where the person at the Embassy had marked the position of the Consulate. Fuck. Looking at the numbers on the buildings, it was clear that the X was totally in the wrong place. Mad dash another 6 blocks and victory: there was the consulate. And it contained the Visa office! It was now 9:45, my plane was to leave at 12:55.

Shit. The visa office is packed, mostly with Turkish laborers doing the migrant labor thing. No one spoke English, and I spoke little French, but the folks in the office had no problem telling me that I had to fill out this very detailed 3 page form before I could even talk to an agent. I did ask "how long does this process take?" to which I got the answer "5 working days". For some reason, I didn't just give up and walk out. I plodded on. While I was filling out this form-from-the-depths-of-hell, a lady from the office came out and asked "Vous etes Canadians?" (are you Canadian) followed by some stuff that I had a hard time following, but I roughly translated as "I've just been yelled at by three levels up the bureaucratic chain-of-command to get you through here as fast as possible". Instant rocket ride. They took the letter from our folks in Prague that had been faxed to me in the hotel. I don't know what was done by whoever in the Prague office: but it worked. They were falling over themselves to get me my visa instantaneously. Everyone else waiting in line was miffed.

Ooops. A snag. They needed to have a photograph of me so that they could make the papers required for me to get past the border guards. Another mad dash through the streets of Paris to a place that took ID photos. There was a line! Groan. I get my photo. Mad dash back.

A frenzy of typing, stamping, sticking and laminating ensues (who'd have thought that a Visa would be so physically complicated to put together?). I pay the 96 euro fee and dash out of there with my brand new visa. It's 10:50. 65 minutes to get the Visa! It's amazing what a motivated bureaucracy can do!

Mad dash to the St Germain du Pres station, Metro to les Halles, onto the express train to Charles du Gaulle. I've made it! The express train is much faster than yesterday's taxi ride. I get to the airport with time to spare. Up to the checkin counter. I pass the "do you have a visa?" test. Success! Many bonus points for the folks in Prague! I was so happy!

Then the checkin agent frowns. Brows wrinkle. My reservation is in order, but the ticket is not. I'm told to go to the ticket sales office to straighten thing out. It's about 11:45. Fuck! Piss! Shit! Mad dash to the sales office. Long line. One agent. Trying to skip the line gets me a stiff "Guardez la Queue!". I call Rosenbluth to see if they can straighten out the ticket. They confirm that the ticket is indeed messed up. If I understood right, yesterday's Rosenbluth agent had correctly changed my reservation, and had changed my ticket to the new flight and time, but had gotten the date wrong on the ticket. For some reason, fixing this was complex. (It's also insane that the airline systems have such a weak link between tickets and reservations that they have to change the two independently! These problems shouldn't be possible! But I won't go there...). The Rosenbluth agent is madly typing to fix the ticket. I madly dash back to the checkin agent (I love cell phones! My international roaming charges are going to be enormous!). The Rosenbluth agent says the change is complex. Wants to talk to the checkin agent. Checkin agent refuses to talk to Rosenbluth agent. She's very insistent on this point. She does some typing and utters the fateful phrase "I'm sorry monsieur, but your flight has closed".

My stress level jumped way way over the top. It's a wonder my head didn't explode and leave a bloody mess all over the building. I'm devastated. So damn close to success. Such a struggle to get the visa. And then this. I stumble away and stand shaking. I still have the cellphone in my hand. The Rosenbluth agent asks "shall I book you on the next flight to Prague?". I can't answer. I hang up the phone. Life is just too damned short for this shit. All I can think of is that I'm supposed to be joining my wife for Thanksgiving vacation in two days. I completely give up. After all that, it's not in me to face another round with Air France and Rosenbluth. And a lot of my time in Prague has been eaten up in this bullshit. I decide that the only path to regaining my sanity is to start my vacation early.

Being a complete glutton for punishment, I call up Rosenbluth to get me the new reservation and cancel the intermediate reservations. But, in truth, I'm really calling to give them another opportunity to fuck me over again, which they are only to happy to do! (but I don't know this yet). They get me an economy class reservation on an Alitalia flight leaving in a few hours. Still shaking, but starting to breath again, I head over to the Alitalia desk. It's in a different building so I get a nice long walk to cool myself off :-(

Once more at a checkin desk. Once more the checkin agent frowns. Once more, the checkin agent sends me off to the sales desk. There they explain that the ticket is all wrong. Because of the way the original itinerary was done, this flight can't just be added to it: it has to be a new itinerary (somehow incomprehensibly linked to the way an attempt was made to apply the payment for the Air France ticket to the Alitalia ticket). The Rosenbluth agent had apparently set it up as a separate itinerary, but had done it wrong. The ticked needed to be "one-way". As a one-way, it couldn't be economy class. For some reason "one-way economy" is a non-existent concept. It had to be business class. Other things were messed up, so rather than calling Rosenbluth to have them fix it, I just paid for the flight with my credit card. It actually wasn't as expensive as I had guessed. It will be on my expense report. I just couldn't face another call to Rosenbluth.

Rosenbluth-free ticket in hand, I finally checked in, got through security, headed for the Alitalia lounge (which I got a pass to since I had just bought a full-fare business class ticket!). I took serious advantage of the free drinks. Got on the plane. And had an uneventful flight and got safely to my hotel.

I feel much better now.

November 20, 2003