Par Avion

Did I tell you I was going to California for 2 weeks? No? Well, I’m here – in San Francisco to be precise. (Or, to be precise-r, San Rafael – a town across the Golden Gate bridge.)  There will be more than enough opportunities to share the joys of this trip later, this is simply an introduction as to why I’m writing a post about the French national air carrier…

One of the things I love about flying is the ways in which the personalities of countries or regions are expressed on board planes. Last year’s trip to Texas saw my first experience of Delta’s southern charm; Aer Lingus is my airline of choice to Belfast (it has excellent music choices and inoffensive uniforms); and flying BA to Uganda was surreal and hilarious – our return flight included the poshest stewardess in the world.

Somehow, en route to San Francisco, I found myself on board Air France. [I booked through Delta – MH’s airline of choice – and they’re a partner.] Overall this was a good thing. It’s the first flight I’ve been on where I’ve been handed a menu of the flight’s food programme, complete with wine list and vintages (including champagne); it’s certainly the first time I’ve had my choice of French films to watch on board; and the flight attendants are certainly very well dressed.

However, there were disadvantages…

A major one was the fact that, 7 hours after I’d arrived at Heathrow, I found myself flying back over it – having spent the previous hours flying to Paris and then boarding a flight to SF. Slightly frustrating, especially at the point when I realised it would have been quicker to take the train from St Pancras to Paris, and then the Metro to Charles de Gaulle. Ho hum. [There was method to this madness. If you’re doing a long-haul flight that requires a change, do the shortest leg first. I’d have hated to do the 11hr flight to LA and then board another plane to SF.]

On the plus side, this did mean that I found myself with just over an hour to kill in Charles de Gaulle airport. If ever you should find yourself there, note that there are more places at which to buy macarons than there are to buy a nutritious lunch. (Although, who says macarons aren’t a nutritious lunch?) My gate was adjacent to a Laudurée wagon, which says it all really.

7 days of NutellaCDG – where you can also buy ‘weekly’ packs of Nutella. You know, for when a single jar isn’t handy enough…

This adventure also provided me with an excellent opportunity to practice my French. Aboard the flight to Paris, there was a drinks service (the flight was under an hour!) and I asked – in English – for a Diet Coke. The steward did not understand me, so I tried again with “Je voudrais un coke light s’il vous plait” – he obliged and apologised for not speaking good English. I began to wonder how a flight attendant on a route operating out of London could get a job without good English, but then I remembered the French attitude towards their own language and their general belief that it is wonderful – and I vowed to try not to speak English for the rest of the journey.

Initially, this went very well. An “au revoir” to the cabin crew upon landing and a tour-de-force of conversation skills with security while having my hand luggage checked again.
Security: “iPhone?”
Me: “ici” [Pointing to handbag]
Security: [Beckons me through security gate]
Me: “D’accord”
I was impressed with myself…

Things started well aboard the long flight. I understood most of the French announcements – enough to know that the French speakers were getting more information than the English. I ordered my meal in French, chose vin rouge to accompany it and made polite small talk with my French neighbours. Things only began to unravel when I wanted a gin tonic. No one had taught us this at school. Tricolore did not have a spirits section! So I gave up and asked in English. (The bonus was that because the tonic came in 330ml cans, I got two gins…) As my tiredness progressed, the ability to speak even basic French evaded me. The final straw was my US customs form – which proved to be a French translation. If there’s ever a form in which you don’t want to misunderstand the questions, it’s a document issued by US immigration. With zero help from another flight attendant who claimed not to know much English, my neighbour successfully helped me deduce the correct responses.

All in all, I’m pretty relieved that my flight home is via Virgin Atlantic. They may not have menus and champagne, but at least there will be a plentiful supply of films in English and my poor, jet-lagged brain will not be over worked.

Phew! Cringe! And other emotions…

Christmas can officially begin. I have battled temperatures at both ends of the scale and tonight successfully arrived at my parents’ in Belfast.

Since snowcalypse descended last week, holiday travel plans have delicately been in the balance. Actually, at the very moment I booked my flights (back in October) I was already formulating potential back-up plans – one reason why I ultimately flew out of Birmingham instead of London. Then on Saturday night, with impeccable timing, I got sick. The illest I’ve been since Christmas two years ago and making it the third of the last four Christmases that I’ve been under the weather. Four nights of awful sleep and virtually no appetite followed, making panic over meteorological conditions and airline vagaries even worse.

Thus I effectively wasted my first two days of holiday languishing in bed till the early afternoon and then attempting to make myself feel more human by seeing actual people. This was possibly a mistake as it led to an inadvertent evening in a draughty exhibition hall and made me incredibly determined to keep my date with the BBC Radio Theatre on Tuesday [much, much more on this at a later date]. The latter also required half an hour queueing in sleet, which might account for how categorically awful I felt yesterday morning as I began my mission to reach the shire for Christmas.

But enough moaning about my woes. By today, with no further heavy snow showers in the West Midlands and a receding feeling of general malaise, things were better – which is lucky, given the fate that befell me today at Birmingham International Airport…

I’m a fairly patient and moderately experienced traveller. I’ve dealt with the ferocity of US immigration and the terror of Israeli Border Control and don’t generally get flustered if unexpected things happen. However, what I do like is order and effective queuing – something usually typical of airport security. No such luck at Birmingham, someone even pushed ahead of me while I was decanting my laptop into a tray – at Gatwick you’d be forcibly removed for such behaviour.

My belongings were spread across two trays and my rucksack. First my laptop was picked out for a swipe (I quite like this, it means my screen’s now clean for the first time in ages) then my rucksack was lifted out. This did not make me happy, anyone who’s familiar with my handbag habits would guess at what level of junk might be contained within such a tote. Here are some examples:
What’s in a Name? [A book on the origin of tube station names which has been in there since my nerd’s day out.]
– A box of Christmas wrapping paraphernalia – ribbons, bows and what have you.
– Two-thirds of a cinnamon & raisin bagel bought for lunch on yesterday’s train (indication of illness that I only managed to consume one-third of it over a 2hr journey). [I’d intended to throw it away.]
– Rather important letters/documentation relating to my holiday task.

Any item whose contents were unclear was lifted out and opened – swift intervention on my part ensured that my purse wasn’t opened upside down, spilling coins across the conveyor belt. My camera case was easily explained, but less so a velvety Ollie & Nic purse that appeared from the depths of the bag. My conversation with the guard proceeded as follows:
Guard: “Madam, what’s in this small bag?”
Me [cringing inwardly and probably outwardly]: “Er, those would be tampons.” 
Guard [also cringing and hurriedly zipping it back up]: “Ah, ok then.” 

Bless him. I think he was actually more embarrassed than I was – though I wasn’t particularly happy about my belongings being displayed for all and sundry to observe. Had I been feeling more fragile, I might have burst into tears at this point, but instead I accepted his apologies and said that he’d been much nicer about it than the guards responsible the last time my baggage was searched – when leaving Israel.

Weirdly (or not), I was much happier sharing this event on Facebook and Twitter than with my fellow passengers – I guess in these cases I know my audience, or at least my audience knows me. Plus, it gave me something to chuckle over during my hour’s delay. [FYI not a lot to do in Birmingham’s Terminal 2.]