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The Red Cross Hotel (Part One)

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When you stand in the yard of the Immigration Holding Center at Charles de Gaulle Airport, you can see the Hilton hotel and a life-size model of the Concord. Barbed wire runs along tops of the fences and four cameras watch us from the building. A man sits on a broken teeter-totter and smokes. The ground is matted with cigarette butts and a patch of termites flutter in the grass by my feet. Shirts and jeans are spread out on the low bushes along the fence, drying in the sun. A little boy pushes another little boy up the slide. A Delta airplane glides past on the other side of the fence.

This is our second day here. We were meant to be an hour outside of Rome in "a country house with spacious rooms, up-to-date ensuite bathrooms, soft linens and great service." We were supposed to be relaxing by the pool after a day of visiting the Vatican, getting acquainted with our little group of six and gearing up for a week of exploring the Umbrian countryside.

# # #

"Where are your Schengen visas?" the customs officer behind the counter at Paris' Charles De Gaulle airport asks.

I don't know what he's talking about. The word Schengen sounds like a curse.

I explain that I'd called the Italian embassy when I was getting ready for our trip to Italy and asked whether we needed visas to travel. I'd told the person on the phone that we were Permanent Residents of the United States traveling with South African passports. I was told we did not need visas.

The man frowns, shakes his head and walks away. A minute later he returns with another man. I notice the word Police on their light blue shirts.

"Where are your Schengen visas?" he repeats.

I explain again. I add that we'd shown our passports and travel documents to the attendant at the Air France counter in Atlanta and she'd waved us through. If there was something amiss why didn't she see it?

"Come with me," he says.

My husband and I look at each other and follow him into the offices of the French National Police.

Two men sit on a bench against the wall. One looks like he's African and seems to be barely out of his teens. He sits with slumped shoulders, staring at the floor. The other, also young and possibly Middle Eastern, stares at us sullenly.

About half a dozen male and female police come and go. Three sit behind a desk. They are all fully armed and wear shiny black boots. In an obvious attempt to intimidate us, one burly young officer stares at us, pulls on a pair of black leather gloves, flexes his fingers, pulls the gloves off again and walks away.

It works.

They ask us again about our visas. We explain again that we were told we don't need them, that we are tourists on our way to Italy who seem to have been given the wrong information. They keep our passports and all our travel documents.

We stand beside our luggage. We don't belong on the bench with the two guys. We don't belong with the police. We belong with the people who have left behind the cares of home, who are already thinking of the postcards they'll send to their friends and family. We are nicely dressed, freshly pedicured, newly trimmed.

I hear myself begging. Please just call the lady we are meeting in Rome. This can be cleared up so quickly. We are part of a small group. I'm a freelance writer and plan to write about this trip for a travel magazine when I get back. And it's my 50th birthday treat.

A policeman tells us to go sit on the bench.

We sit down between the African guy and the Middle Eastern guy.

We wait.

I take out my yellow file with our Italian itinerary and read:

Day One: Airport pick-up. Arrive at the country house, settle into rooms (each with bathroom), food/wine/relax, pool, nap, walk. Journal making time; dinner, retire for the night.

A policeman walks over to us and tells us we have two choices: we can either get on the next plane back to Atlanta or we can try to get our visas and go to Rome as planned.

We'd like to get the visas and go to Italy, we say.

I ask the policewoman behind the desk if I can go to the bathroom.

"Non," she says.

I ask again, thinking she didn't understand.

"Non," she repeats, louder than before.

They make us wait about 20 minutes - until we're desperate -- then escort us one by one to the toilet. There's dry vomit on the floor. They wait outside the door until we come out, then walk us back to our bench.

It's not hot in here, but my back is drenched with sweat.

Police come and go. At the desk there's a lot of loud official sounding stamping on documents. We notice that in addition to their guns and batons they have stamps hanging from their duty belts.

They take our luggage to a room around the corner.

"We've missed our flight," my husband tells me. There are tiny dots of perspiration on his nose, just like our son used to get when he was small and scared.

I try to call Cheryl, who is supposed to pick us up from the airport in Rome. I need to tell her not to worry, that we'll call her when we get there later. My cell phone isn't able to get through.

I stand up and walk over to a policeman and ask if I can make a phone call.

"Speak French!" he snaps contemptuously.

I reel back as if I've been slapped. I try to summon the little French I know but my mind has emptied out. The only words that come to mind are por favor. Please, in Spanish. I turn around and go sit back on the bench.

We wait.

A policeman tells the young African guy to follow him to a room around the corner. When he comes out about ten minutes later his white shirt tail is untucked.

The do the same with the other guy. As he walks out, he tucks in his T-shirt.

They tell Norman to follow them into the room.

Every cell in my body is humming on high alert, like it was during the San Diego fires when I looked up and saw a ridge of flames heading towards us.

After what seems like an eternity my husband comes back and sits down quietly beside me. I hold his hand.

"What did they do?" I whisper.

His palm is damp. His green eyes have a look I don't remember seeing in the 30 years we've been together. Fear.

"They strip-searched me," he says.

The hurt I feel for him is a physical pain in my chest.

I think we knew, but didn't want to admit, that our trip was over when they wouldn't let us go to the bathroom. And then again when I was commanded to speak French. Now we say it out loud to each other. It's over. Even if they let us go to Italy, we wouldn't want to. There is only one thing we want: home.

I walk over to the desk and wait until I'm given permission to speak. I tell the older policeman who seems to be in charge that we've changed our minds, that we don't want to go to Italy, that we want to go home on the next plane.

Si vous plait, Monsieur,
I add, in a shaky voice.

He tells me it is too late. He says they've already done our paperwork and we will have to wait two nights until we can leave to go back home.

A high wail flies out my mouth but I swallow it quickly.

I ask him where we will stay while we're waiting.

"A hotel," he replies.

"A hotel in Paris?" A vision of spending two days in a little pension in Paris, sipping café au laits instead of cappuccinos, flits through my head.

"A Red Cross Hotel," he replies. Then he tells me to go sit down. (To Be Continued)

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