I must immediately assuage any thoughts you may be having that this online absence has been due to a lack of things which annoy me, outrage me, or generally piss me off. Fear not: the Curmudgeon is alive and well and harbouring many grudges. The truth is that I've been really rather busy with other things: getting the first book ready for unleashing upon an unsuspecting public (which is mentally exhausting), setting up another website at www.liamsamolis.com as well as planning, preparing and executing a family vacation in the land of my birth.
The holiday was planned with a number of different goals. There was the primary one of wanting to mark my fiftieth birthday with an 'experience' for my small family. There were also some others involving giving our children their first independent travel experiences, visiting aged relatives while the opportunity still exists (a little morbid, perhaps, but realistic), seeing old friends again and maintaining important links with them, and of course eating large amounts of stodgy, unhealthy but SO tasty food. If anyone tells you that British food is boring, they are flat wrong. Britain produces the best comfort food on the planet in order to counteract the depressive effects of:
a) shitty weather,
b) shitty politicians,
c) more shitty weather,
d) the rising tide of the moaning/whining/chav state.
Our time in Britain was very enjoyable. The actual process of getting there was less so. This year we chose to fly with the Dutch airline KLM, instead of Air Transat, with whom we had a miserable experience last year. Reasoning that we couldn't do worse than being crushed into tiny, hideously uncomfortable seats and being expected to wait ridiculous amounts of time for our luggage to materialise upon arrival, we therefore smiled confidently as we booked our flight on KLM's partner airline (Air France). It all went very well (i.e. the taking of our money part) until we actually tried to check in online, when we discovered that the seats that we had chosen were in fact not available, and that we would be sitting at the very rear of the 'plane, about five rows ahead of the black box and surrounded by engine noise. It was an omen.
The flight itself was fine, if a little uncomfortable, although the food (which on a French airline one might be forgiven for expecting to be a little better than standard airline fare) was depressingly awful. In particular, I have issues with the twenty seven pieces of cutlery and dishes and packets of creamer, milk, salt and pepper that we are expected to juggle on a tiny tray perched on the even more tiny tray table. For many people this may not seem to be a major issue, but for anyone wider than twelve inches, this claustrophobic environment is almost impossible to navigate without at least one mildly catastrophic spill of liquid or fine, white powdery substance. There is simply no room for everything, and being periodically walloped on the shoulder by the arse end of a flight attendant or wandering old biddy doesn't help at all with the containment/management of hazardous materials such as coffee creamer.
Another thing: what's the point of giving us a packet of butter if that butter has clearly just been frozen in nitrogen, and can therefore only be consumed in the same way as a boiled candy?
I'm also deeply suspicious of the ability of the earth's atmosphere to sense that food/drink is being served, and immediately arranging for some in-flight turbulence at exactly that moment. It seems more likely to me that there's a switch in the cockpit that the pilot punches just for a giggle on those long, otherwise boring flights.
The chief delight of our trip (in both directions) however, was Charles De Gaulle airport, Paris. Perhaps fortunately, with a slim window of time for our onward connection to Manchester, we were totally unprepared for the chaos that greeted us. Our plane landed on a runway that was adjacent to the terminal building (or at least; a building that resembled an airport terminal), and then commenced taxi-ing (slowly; very slowly) to a place in another part of France. We came to a halt in a large parking lot next to a fleet of buses, and then after eleven hours on board, spent more than twenty minutes just waiting to get off the plane. All this had eaten into the time available for us to meet our next flight.
Having finally disembarked from the big white bird and boarded the big white bus, we sat on the concrete for a while longer as our driver regaled us with an outlandish mix of English/French/Italian/Muppet as an unsuccessful means of explaining why we weren't moving. A quick canvassing of our fellow passengers revealed that nobody had a clue what was happening. We need not have worried, however, as a mere thirty minutes after touching down, we started a fifteen minute bus tour of the sprawling airport, the main purpose of which appeared to be to throw us around the inside of the bus like clothes in a washing machine.
Eventually we were belched out into what seemed like the tradesman's entrance to the mighty terminal building, and dutifully we followed the arrows to make our connection. At the top of a flight of stairs we were abruptly faced with a vast hall filled with queuing passengers waiting to be processed through a security area. Initially, as we approached the security personnel marshalling us into an orderly line, it appeared that a fight had broken out between several opposing rugby teams, however closer inspection revealed that this was simply stage one of the French version of forming an orderly line. The desperate scrum succeeded in splitting up our close group and scattering us throughout the line-up. We were at this stage mere minutes from missing our connecting flight, and tensions were running high. I can't be sure, but I may have trampled people - French people (so it doesn't really count).
Ten minutes later, I walked through the security scanner and heard it beep. Since the only metal within three feet of me was the amalgam fillings in my teeth, I shrugged. Not so the French security team, who with a mix of Gallic shrugs, French and heavily-accented English, instructed me to take my shoes off, put them into the X-Ray machine and sit down on a chair. I did so. For five minutes I sat there while my shoes were irradiated and I was firmly ignored. In the end, with the boarding time for our flight now at hand, I could take no more and I began to remonstrate with the nearest security wallah. Having been two feet away for five minutes, he looked at me as if for the first time. "Why you sitting there?" he asked. I explained, with perhaps just a hint of testiness. He turned away, disinterested.
I then verbally tackled the next nearest security person. "Why you sitting there?" she said. "Walk through 'ere!" she said. So I did. "NO! Non, non, non!" said a little swarthy man who would have looked perfect with a string of onions around his neck. He excitedly waved me back to the chair, whereupon I plonked my over-sized backside expressively, and with what I thought was an Anglo-Saxon sigh. Instantly I was beckoned through again by the woman, at which point I felt it was only appropriate for me to share with her my opinion of the entire airport facility. With that perfect tool for disarming an irritable Englishman, she gave a Gallic shrug and turned away, leaving me holding up my trousers with one hand and rummaging for my belongings (including my missing shoes) with the other.
By now we were seriously late, and so with half our party still battling their way through the mysteries of French security screening logic, the other half of us raced for the gate in the hope of forestalling the flight being closed without any of us. Thank goodness; due to the general chaos and inefficiency, that flight was late boarding, and we were able to momentarily relax and catch our breath after dashing through the gleaming halls. Another hell-for-leather bus ride later, we arrived at our plane to the UK. I've never before been at an airport where the authorities try to hide the aircraft from the passengers, and while the concept is intriguing, I find it less than edifying as one of the aforementioned passengers...Needless to say, upon our arrival we were not allowed to get off the bus for ten minutes while the French ground staff tried to work out how to manage us walking fifty meters to the aircraft without being sucked into the engines of the passing aircraft that actually didn't exist. In the end they seemed to get tired of waiting and just opened the doors, and then like the good little English people that we were, we all formed an orderly single file line, and boarded the flight without any incident.
The hour and a half that we spent at that airport took a year off my life; of that I'm certain. For our return journey we took the precaution of changing our flights (at considerable expense, I might add) in the hope of avoiding a stroke or heart attack. Thank goodness we did; the return trip was only less chaotic but it was even busier in the airport, with a huge queue at security. There's no way that we would have been able to make our connecting flight home. Why do airlines sell flights that are simply not practical?
In revenge, I have sworn never to return - a blow from which the French economy may never recover. Serves 'em right. My recommendation: never fly through Paris unless you can't avoid doing so.