Thursday, May 20, 2010

Travel: 7/5/10: Stanstead 4:25pm

Faces on BuildingsI'm sitting eating a "Moor-ish" (their name) sandwich in an airport departure lounge whilst my three travelling companions easyjet their way back to the Netherlands. It's been a little while since I've been stuck at an airport for a so long on my own. I wish I had my laptop, but of course I have nature's laptop – a pen and paper.

I was supposed to be on the same flight as the others but I missed it by a gnat's cock. In fact, I sat and watched the plane sit at the gate for five minutes, door open, but not being allowed to board. There was ample time to squeeze me onto that flight, but international regulations dictate that easyjet need their £43 ticket change fee.

Back of Cambridge University buildingsThe friendly staff at the gate explained that my friends had tried to help, but planes aren't buses, no matter how much the cheap ones feel like it. You can't run after them attracting the attention of the driver or hang off the back.

One way that easyjet is trying to make itself more like a bus service is by not allocating seats. This means you adopt the same tactics you do on busses to keep the seat next to you – you lay stuff there, you puff yourself up so that you spill over the arm rests and you try to look like the sort of person who doesn't bathe very often. Another great trick is to look really, really keen for the next person to sit there, smiling and nodding at anyone who so much as glances in your direction. However, this can backfire terribly as it does attract the sort of people for whom this is normal behaviour.

Bridge over the CanalHow I came to miss my flight was a simple tale of a lost phone, a rental car, a kindly guy called Phil and his two helpful companions who brought the phone back from the rental car lot, a pimply twat who was too limp in the life department to help me get through security quicker, and whoever it was who came up with the concept that airports should be so sprawling that they need metro systems to connect the parts.

It was a disappointing turn in a day that had seen us wake up in a top hotel, feast for breakfast, wander the hallowed streets of Cambridge and go punting. It was a great chance to see how the other half is educated. (The other half being the smarter and/or better off portion of society.) It had all gone very well until the "phone left in the rental car" incident. It meant I had to travel alone and miss a show I was supposed to be in. In fact I only got to the venue just as I was supposed to go on stage and co-host my student class' show. Real last minute stuff.

Swan and DucksAs I said, I had to wait at the gate until my plane had pushed off. It was an inordinately long time to sit and stare at a vehicle you were supposed to be on. Once it had gone, the girl at the gate was able to take me back to the check-in desks. Getting back there for staff isn't quite the ordeal it is for passengers because they know secret back routes only available to those with passes and a magic code. The corridors are narrow and even less glamorous than the rest of the airport, but they feel like intrigue. You feel like you've been taken into a kind of drab yet secret world.

The girl at the easyjet abnormal events desk was affable, pretty yet somehow ruthless. In fact she had no ruths whatsoever. She came right out and demanded her £43 to get on the next flight. And she had no trouble repeating it when I happened to change the subject. "The subject," incidentally, is probably what she calls her boyfriend.

Despite being sat at a check-in desk, all this girl could do was change my ticket, demand money, demand money again and print receipts. I had to go a few desks down, to an inordinately chirpy girl, to get issued with a boarding pass.

me PuntingIt's rare that you get the chance to go through the same security control area twice in one day, so it was interesting to have confirmed what was always reasonably obvious: Implementation of the security rules and calibration of security equipment are very inconsistent.

First time I went through I did not have to remove my shoes; however the second time, the Spaniard who puts things in trays told everyone to remove their shoes. With my shoes on, I hadn't set the scanner off. With them, however, it did go off. It could, perhaps be sensitive to smell as I'd done a lot of rushing since the last time I'd been through security.

The security guy patted me down exactly the way he was supposed to, but something told me I was not the first person the machine had erroneously fingered. This guy probably had to pat down nearly everyone who went through, whereas, the guy at the scanner three doors down, where I'd gone through earlier, merely waved everyone past except the odd terrorist who'd left his keys in his pocket.

Even easyjet ground crew lament the way the company does certain things, especially the speedy boarding con (my words, not theirs) and the fact the company is becoming more and more like Aer Fungus (Ryan Air) in terms of shovelling customers into a bucket of a plane and charging for any form of abnormality.

I'm also amused that easyjet offer "memorabilia" in their in flight catalogue, and even go as far as announcing it during the flight. How many people want a souvenir of an easyjet flight? Something to help you forget it, yes. But a reminder?
"What's this plane on your mantelpiece?"
"Oh, that was the time we flew from London to Birmingham for £25. Such happy times; just the four of us... and two hundred others, squashed into tiny seats; and such beautiful delays."
"Why doesn't it have any wings?"
"Ah, wings cost extra."

Friday, May 14, 2010

Travel: France 11-15/7/09: To See You... Nice

Boule by MariaHaving lived the French rural life for a good week or so, it was now time to sample the French millionaire lifestyle. This was several days of swimming in the pool, playing jou de boule, and being driven around in sports cars by rarely less than two women.

At night we played Werewolf as a pleaser of both children and adults. For those who don’t know Werewolf, it's a game where one or two people (unknown to the others) are werewolves and slowly pick off villagers one by one whilst villagers desperately burn each other at the stake trying to flush out the werewolves. It's a metaphor for politics, I believe. After this, I slept in a room that Sophie Marceau once lay naked in. Apparently.

We ate at restaurants right on the Mediterranean seafront. I mean literally right on the Mediterranean seafront. We jumped into the sea straight from the deck our table was on. It's a part of the world all girls wear bikinis and things like being in a wheelchair or merely shopping doesn't exempt you in any way.

The fourth day was Bastille Day; when the French celebrate the storming of the Bastille, an event which was a vital element in getting the French Revolution going. The Bastille, a notorious prison in Paris, very much represented state tyranny and so its storming has come to encapsulate and symbolise the liberation of the French people from oppression. Unfortunately the liberatees who represent the French people, in this case, were four forgers, two lunatics and an aristocratic pervert. The French are perfectly happy that these people are used to represent them; and not having seen any statistics, I couldn't say if this is or is not representational of French Society.

watching pizzas by MariaTo celebrate this historic event, we went to the beach at Cannes. We went early to get a spot and swim. It was supercrazybusy. The whole of the south of France drove into Cannes that afternoon and were all picking out spots on the beach. Cannes is quite a long beach but soon you were lucky if you saw a patch of sand. There were thousands and thousands of people there. Possibly hundreds of thousands. And I was the whitest person there. I kid you not. I trudged up and down that beach trying to find people as or more ashen than I, but to no avail. This was a place for tanned bodies. There may well be pale people such as myself in Cannes, but they probably live in the sewer.

Bastille Day is traditionally celebrated with fireworks. Very much like the American 4th of July, a date that celebrates a similar event: when American citizens stormed Boston and rescued four barrels of Darjeeling, two of Oolong and a vat of Earl Grey. It seems freedom from oppression is frequently celebrated by a show of shock and awe.

At Cannes, where they have a few bob (i.e. they're rich), the magnificent firework display is accompanied by a lot of music broadcast from off shore. There were some real moments of awe with huge, well-choreographed explosions of gunpowder and glitter over the sea. The shock came mostly from fireworks that individuals and small groups were letting off on the beach. The French let off fireworks the way they drive. Like they want to die and take as many of les bâtards with them as possible.

Leaving Cannes was even slower than getting in because half of France was leaving it at exactly the same time. It took an hour and a half instead of about 20 minutes.

Synchronised SwimmingThere are those who say U2 are a force for good. (Members of the band mainly.) But if proof was needed to the contrary, which is isn't, when it came time to leave, Bonio, The Side, Larry and Moe caused nothing but havoc. Two people missed flights thanks to their concert antics. I was dropped off super early to avoid the traffic from people leaving the scene of the crime. I believe this was actually called the Carbon Footprint Tour by the press. It certainly caused unnecessary trips and noise pollution. Many called it an egological disaster.

Again my flight was full of kids, but this time it affected me much less. Am I becoming immune? Maybe more tolerant? Or maybe a long holiday had relaxed me so much that even the combined horror of children and U2, could do nothing to destroy it. Peace out!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Travel: France 10/7/09: Nice To See You

"Revenge is sweet, chocolaty and frequently unnoticed by the recipient."

The morning of the last day of this leg of the trip was bright and early. After an encounter with the space centipede and 2 strong coffees, it was time to drive to Bordeaux again. This time to drop the car off with the rental company and for me to catch a flight to the next stage of the adventure.

Space Insect in JarThe French don't seam to deal with money the same way the rest of Europe does. Apart from everyone still thinking in Francs and converting to Euros, it seems, they handle bank and credit cards very differently to how I'm used to. Several times I tried to pay with my credit card only to find I not only needed to sign, but also enter my PIN number. In fact sometimes I didn't even have to sign, but I always had to PIN. I do have a PIN number for my credit card, but I never use it and so don't remember it. So I had to see whether they would allow me to use my debit card, which I do know the PIN for because I absolutely need to use the PIN for it to work. Firstly I was surprised that I could use my debit card, because only a few years ago, only credit cards seemed to work outside of where you lived, and supraflabbergasted that I had to (a) sign the chit and (b) not use my PIN number. Several time this happened, and I was sure when I came home my bank was going to call me up and demand why I signed for the card I need to PIN for and PINned for the card I need to sign for, but no. The bank accepted it.

Because the French roads, particularly those around cities, are unpredictable trafficly, I had allowed plenty of time. I had two hours to kill before my plane left, which I did, in part, with the sandwiches my mum had made and a coffee some unknown barista made me. I had the coffee at the more reasonable looking of the coffee places at the smallish airport. The guy seemed so amenable despite being surrounded by screaming kids, I ended up being relatively generous with the tip.

Because I was there early and had time to relax and observe airport life. It was Jack Dee, I think who speculated that parents only take their kids to supermarkets so that they could spank them. I've noticed that parents bring their kids to airports so that they can shout at them over the longest possible distance.

The airport was lousy with Brits who were all heading back to the UK. I, however, was on my way to Nice, adventure playground of the rich.

Once it became time for my plane to start doing things, with no indication of such on the board, I became concerned. If it didn't start doing things soon, it would be late. Then, after a time, the signs changed to say that the flight was "Terminé" which the board translated as "Finished." I had a few score minutes to wonder what that really meant, before they found the actual word they meant: "Retardé." Indeed. (It means delayed.)

To stop rioting, they gave out free drink coupons. So, as I waited for l'avion retardé, I went back to the coffee place and gave the waiter my coupon. He took it and plonked a paper cup of coffee down gruffly in front of me. I felt dreadful that I'd over tipped him the earlier time. And to get my own back I decided to buy a pain-au-chocolate from elsewhere. (Revenge is sweet, chocolaty and frequently unnoticed by the recipient.)

It was during this drink I realised that my passport was missing. I panicked about all the places I could have left it, all the people who could have taken it, and what they were now doing with my identity. I was probably executing exiled Palestinians as we spoke. Then realised I must have left it when I got the voucher from the pretty, grumpy lady at the far end of the terminal. I was correct.

I got my pain-au-chocolate from Paul Pain-Au-Chocolate who make all the regular French pâtisserie things but with whole wheat flour so they can charge you 50% more. (This is on top of the 75% more for merely being situated at an airport.) I'm not sure why leaving the wheat "whole" costs more than removing part of it, but apparently it does.

Eventually, the boards started saying positive things. In fact, they said in the far left column...


...which cheered me up. Breasts are to men what shoes are to many women: Any mention of them, reference to them, or humorous suggestion as to their importance in life is very cheering indeed.

Apparently the delay was due to part or all of the plane being missing. The plane we got to replace it was a tatty, old thing with an engine that made a clunky sound as we boarded. What's more, it was full of kids. (The plane that is, not the engine.) Although, that wasn't a fault of the plane itself. To keep me from crying and shouting, I was given an International Herald Tribute. Nothing was given to the kid behind me who was not only a screamer but a kicker.

baby trailerThe good thing about the new plane was that it was bigger than the one we were originally supposed to have. It had six seats across instead of four. It meant lots of room (sideways, at least). In fact on my row, there was me by one window and on the other side by the other window was a lone child. Lone children are the best children on planes because they are always quiet and well behaved. Something about the presence of parents makes children jump up and down and scream the whole flight. Or it could be that children travelling alone are terrified into silence, in which case perhaps the solution is to send kids on different flights to their parents. Maybe a separate glider is towed behind the real plane with the kids on board like those baby boxes that get towed behind bikes.

As with the whole trip so far, I was photographing like I was a paparazzo and nature some knickerless starlet. Once in the air, I told myself to stop drooling and put the camera away. Just as I did a great set of mountains came thrusting over the horizon. Oh, yeah, nature, give me tectonic movement.

Riviera from planeNice airport is, like many airports in affluent seaside areas, created on reclaimed land so that it doesn't take up valuable real estate but can still be close to the town. As I believe is the norm in Nice, I was picked up and driven to where I was staying by two girls in a sports car. As they say, "Qui est le père?"

Monday, May 03, 2010

Travel: France 8-9/7/09: When Cows Fly

four wine glassesI'm always on the look out for ways to improve my schoolboy French. On a trip to L'Eclerc, I found a translation of a book I had recently finished; namely, "Le Chien Des Baskervilles." It was however aimed at persons "a partir de 10 ans" so was a little advanced, but at least the story was fresh in my head. I never finished it, so it puts it in the same category as all those other books I bought to help me with my French that proved too old for me: Cyrano de Bergerac, En attendant Godot, Les Men in Black.

flowersChildren are such adorable, inquisitive, little darlings, as I believe I have said before. A couple of specimens are kept down at the nearby farm and frequently escape and come over our way to be their adorable, inquisitive, little selves. The boy likes to be useful and is happy to help out with any manual labour you need doing especially if it involves throwing bricks about and getting muddy. The girl is a constant stream of questions:
"What are you doing here?"
"Why do you have that hat?"
"Why do you have girl's hair?"
These were three she asked me in rapid succession. They are innocuous now, if a little cutting on occasion, but how long before they become,
"What time do you call this?"
"Is that lipstick on your shirt?"
"What do you mean you invited your boss to tea on the same Sunday my parents are coming?"
...and suddenly your daughter is a 1970s sitcom wife.

ruins detailFor dinner one night we had mouclade, which is a huge pile of mussels cooked in a tasty sauce. It helped me to invent the latest food sensation – mussels individually wrapped in a little red seaweed ribbon. It's called "Moules en Rouge." I think it's a great idea, and if I were ever to open a restaurant, which is a bad idea, it would, so far, be the only thing on the menu.

The whole time we had been at my parents' place, we had been hearing about a missing cow. Country folk are often seem blasé about their animals. Especially when they go missing. I believe they figure that they're wondering around nearby. It's not like they're hitching their way to the big city. They usually get found by other passing country folk (who can look at a cow and know exactly whose it is) or return of their own volition because they are hungry or they miss the herd or their udders need emptying.

ruins detailWhat surprised me most about it all was the revelation that cows can jump. I had heard tell of this before, but I'm starting to believe it. Apparently, those big docile things in that there field, ruminating and waiting for clouds so they have a good excuse to lie down, can, if they get the mood, take a big long run-up and jump over that hedge. And you don't want to be on the other side of that hedge when 800 kilos of flying bovine starts descending.

moon over sunflowers