I left south west France behind earlier this week in the best of circumstances: the dark grey cloud and freezing rain that can so often typify December and January was beginning to take shape. I had vowed last Spring never to spend another winter in the entre-deux-mers region – a place where it can be very continentally cold, and there ain’t a whole helluva lot of things to do beyond burning trees in order to keep warm while feeding the omnivorous greed of Electricité de France via back-up radiators.
So, having ticked off the obsessive list of things to do or take with me, the decision to spend much of the winter high in warmth and low in austerity felt sort of on track.
However, I’m not a relaxed traveller when doing something new: familiarity breeds calm in such matters, but everything I was about to do seemed alien. There were visas to sort out, immunisations to arrange, navigationally absurd travel sites with which to wrestle, passwords to remember, and multivariate transport connections to make. This has never been my forte.
The only way I can deal with it is to have endless itinerary lists of a more pedantic nature than General Eisenhower’s plans for D-Day: nothing must be left to chance.
But the trouble with nothing left to chance is that it never takes into account left field.
Left field is a rum sort of place: they do things differently there. Chiefly, they do things without warning.
So I turn up at the station to catch the train for Paris, and discover that the car park (never before more than 20% full) is jam-packed with vehicles. And my watch decides to exact a Go-Slow at Charles de Gaulle airport.
I thus very nearly missed both train and plane, and it could be that the French State will have impounded my car by the time I get back.
Paris CDG these days is like every other airport in the world: on the one hand, there are builders everywhere, and the temporary signage is hopelessly misleading; but on the other, the permanent signs and warnings suggest the authorities think everyone using their airport is either a baby or a heavily drugged ape. I suspect that the authorities know you’re unlikely to sue if you miss your plane…….but if anything else happens while you’re on airport property, Messrs Tryle & Errah will slap a class action on them before you can say ambulance.
“Doors closing now,” says the android lady in the lift. ‘No shit?’ thinks everyone present. “Walkway ends in 20 metres” warns robot man on the travelator. “Walkway ends in 15 metres” he continues. At this point, you desperately want him to lose it and shout “ARE YOU FUCKING DEAF?…LOOK, TEN METRES NOW, WILL YOU WATCH THE FUCK WHERE YOU’RE GOING FOR….” but of course he doesn’t.
Meanwhile, at the patisserie shop, nobody knows how to drink beverages any more.
Listen, this stuff is hot, right? Warning: may contain nuts, or more than your daily requirement of sugar. Please drink with knife and fork.
Instead of all this insane dictatorship of the Lawtariat, wouldn’t it be great to have huge 20-foot notices throughout the airport promising, “OUR COMPANY POLICY IS TO SHOOT ATTORNEYS”. It would save so much money, and generate a much-needed cull.
Meanwhile, the campaign to confuse everyone using lavatories on trains and planes or in airports is moving up a gear. The problem here is designers, and their belief in minimalism on the grounds that everyone using the facilities has at least an hour to waste….which is probably true, actually.
The flush on the new TGV trains is next to the base of the U-bend to the back of the WC. On the floor. In a place were you need winkle-pickers to work it.
The disabled signs in the new CDG extension loos show a man with one arm and no legs looking at his bum while wiping it. The sink taps work if you look at them balefully for a few seconds.
On Qatar airways, the no smoking sign in the loo shows a man being attacked by the ceiling.
In the virtual space, of course, things are much clearer – everything’s a lie. Here are two signs familiar to those booking online:
‘Hurry – only four tickets left! Confirm and pay now to be sure!’
‘Tired of economy crowds? Take a look at the great Upgrade bargains!”
So I get onto the first leg of the Qatar journey, and the plane is 20% full.
Apart from online mendacity, the only other thing you can rely on when travelling is There Will Be Japanese, and They will Be in Crowds. This time, the group I saw heading for what would have to have been the biggest airliner in the world were being led by a guide holding a Japanese flag. Just in case, you know, there was a mass attack of travellers forgeting what nationality they are. He looked for all the world like those Victorian guardians who used to walk in front of horseless carriages.
But whatever: I was in my seat, strapped in and ready for the tricky bit: how to survive fourteen hours of doll’s house food, inflight dehydration, and airport lounges in the desert.
In truth, it was nothing like as ghastly as I’d imagined. For their help in this regard I’d like to thank the following for their kindness and stimulation in the face of a confused old bloke:
The cabin staff of Qatar Airways. Italian sweetie Sara who helped to make Doha airport seem something more than architecture designed by Citizen Kane during an attack of severe megalomanic claustrophobia. And Spanish senoritas Christina and Mariana who made the second leg bearable despite the presence of 220 people sharing just two toilets with the aisles blocked by drinks trolleys.
The only good thing about contemporary longhaul flight is that it gives you time to think – when you get tired of thinking about the Montgolfier balloon where your bladder used to be.
You get to think about what airline senior management are like. About, for instance, why they think that force-feeding everyone beer and curry is a good idea in the light of the 220 people/2 rest rooms thing.
You notice, when you remove your inflight entertainment earphones, that everyone else is either screaming, warbling out of tune or laughing ike mad. Because they’re variously watching horror films, pop videos or stand up comedy.
And you wonder about creative ways to fail in business. This was a hangover from three mind-numbing hours in Doha airport: if you’re ever looking for a sure-fire way to starve, then you could do a lot worse than opening a business selling cutting-edge fashion to rich Arab Islamic males. The dress code for the better endowed sons of Allah is white, long and wide. That’s it, and there hadn’t been a single deviation from this for 1300 years until Jihadists decided that black was the new white. As Islam stones gays to death, pink is out of the running. The Spanish Inquisition owns red. A trend towards shorts and top hats is unlikely.
At long, long last, sleep comes. Just as the pa wakes you up to enjoy the descent into the destination airport.