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Continuez - mais avec attention!
One of the reasons I don’t visit France as often as I may perhaps like is that the journey is normally of rococo complexity - or at least, it seems as though it is.
Firstly, I have to walk to the bus stop at the top of the street. Normally, this would not be a problem; it’s only 150 yards or so. However, the Fates have joined forces with my natural thrift and provided me with a cheap suitcase-on-wheels that seems to be noisier, when trundled, than a dozen thunderstorms. Other people’s suitcases whisper up the street with all the commotion of a flapping butterfly, whereas mine sounds like a marshalling yard as I drag it behind me at some unearthly hour of the morning. As I pass by, lights go on and curtains are opened.
The bus takes me to Newcastle city centre where part two of my journey awaits me; the Metro. This can present palm-sweating complications of its own. I always seem to arrive at the station just in time to have missed a train - and with the following train missing for staff shortage reasons. This can produce a gap between trains of almost half an hour and, if you’re as congenitally late as I am, can engender those helpless feelings of mute panic we’ve all had at one time or another.
Eventually, though, I am deposited at the airport so that part three of my trip can begin: running the gauntlet of ‘security’.
Naturally, it always seems to be me who has to pass through the Arch of Doom almost naked because the damned thing keeps beeping and flashing its red light at me. It’s always my suitcase that has to be opened and emptied so that all the charvas jetting off to Sharm-el-Sheikh and Bodrum get a full, unrestricted view of my outsize, middle-age M&S kecks, nightshirt and candle-sconce while Big Bertha, the security ‘woman’, shouts to her colleagues in her loudest, Ethel Merman, voice that ‘it’s OK - it was his cold-sore cream that caused the alarm to go off’.
Then there’s part four: the flight to Paris.
And that can only mean one thing: Doris Karloff - a name we used to use at Radio Newcastle for a particularly formidable female member of staff, but which, at Newcastle Airport, refers to an even more intimidating character: the unbelievably officious harpy who makes it her business to ensure that your cabin luggage does not exceed the permitted size by even a hair’s breadth.
She does this by asking - er, instructing - you to place your suitcase into a cage designed for the purpose. If it is even a millimeter too large, she smiles smugly and tells you to check it in as hold luggage. This applies to everyone except good-looking men between the ages of about 18 and 30, at whom she smiles sweetly and rather hopelessly as they board the plane with several outsize suitcases, backpacks, hold-alls, kitchen sinks and wardrobes.
Unlike most airlines, easyJet does not allocate seats to its passengers, so it’s ‘first come, first in the seats with good legroom’ - important for a hulking six-footer like me. There aren’t many of these seats, though; three on each side right at the front, so that people can queue to go to the toilet right next to you, or six on each side in the middle by the emergency exits, so that if the plane has the misfortune to make a forced landing, it’s up to you to rip off the doors and help your panic-stricken fellow-passengers out and onto that helter-skelter blow-up thing featured at the end of Airplane!
So, as far as the legroom seats are concerned, it’s every man for himself. Which is why the first person in the queue to board the plane is chosen especially by easyJet as a kind of practical joke. She (and I’m afraid it’s ALWAYS a woman) will choose a seat quite near the front - about 2 or 3 rows back - so that everyone else is standing in the rain on the boarding steps or the tarmac.
Having chosen her seat, she will open her suitcase and take out her Jackie Collins, her Charles-Dickens-windows reading glasses and her Nuttall’s Mintoes. She will then ask the man waiting patiently behind her to lift her suitcase into the overhead luggage locker for her. She could easily reach it herself but she wants to start a conversation about how unreasonably high up they are and how she is going to visit her daughter in Johannesburg (‘would you like to see a picture?’) and this was the cheapest flight she could get but it means she will have to change at Paris and it’s a shame she won’t have time to visit the city because she’s always wanted to go ever since her sister went there on her honeymoon in 1971 (‘would like to see a picture?’) and fell in love with it...
And while she blathers on and fidgets with her scarf and cardigan, 142 people are shivering in the cold and rain outside, agitated and anxious about whether they’ll get the seats they want and wondering what on earth the hold-up is before realising that it must be easyJet’s patience-trying joke passenger.
Eventually, though, everyone settles down, 5 or 6 babies start to cry very loudly indeed and the aircraft starts to taxi to the runway. (The etymologist in me once asked on-air why aeroplanes ‘taxi’ but no-one appeared to know.) It’s time for the obligatory safety demonstration from Tracey, Wayne and the crew.
As soon as the voice-over says ‘please pay attention to the safety demonstration’, everyone stops paying attention. They read their newspapers and magazines, the on-board ‘bistro’ menu (cheese toasties, muffins and the most taste-free Starbucks coffee yet developed), the in-flight magazine (’50 Things You Didn’t Know About Murcia Airport’) or - in the case of our friend - a Jackie Collins potboiler.
In my opinion - for what it’s worth - they should make the safety demonstration more attention-grabbing if they want to grab our attention. I’ve seen a YouTube video of a Japanese airline crew who did it to a disco track, complete with all those authentic, Saturday Night Fever, postures.
Perhaps easyJet crew could do it naked - I for one would certainly have enjoyed watching Wayne show me what to blow into in case of urgent need.
Or maybe they could perform the demonstration in the style of the flight’s destination. All sultry, sexy and smug for Paris; dressed as matadors or flamenco dancers for Barcelona; or leaning 20 degrees to the right for Pisa.
Aeroplane flights are, of course, extremely tedious; there’s nothing to look at outside and nothing much happens inside, either. Marie and Jeremy will pass down the aisle flogging you a muffin for £73 and ‘David Beckham’s latest fragrance Jockstrap Nights for only £147 per millilitre’. The person in front of you will suddenly push their seat back, thus dislocating your kneecaps. And the cabin crew will continue to make their promotional announcements in that grotesque, sing-song style so beloved of airline employees and which bespeaks total insincerity and well-rehearsed thoughtlessness.
(Paul and I once pre-recorded an item at the ‘Leisure and Tourism Training Department’ in Newcastle College. They have a mock-up of an aircraft interior there and I was amazed to find that cabin crew are actually trained to talk like that, as well as to walk down the aisle noisily closing all the overhead locker doors.)
All other things being equal, though, you will arrive at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in one piece.
If you haven’t been there before, don’t go.
For a start, you have a far greater chance of being killed by falling masonry at Charles de Gaulle Airport than you have of being killed on the flight that got you there. It has to be the worst-designed and most jerrybuilt airport in the western world. It’s practically brand-new but the bulbous, ‘flay away’, design was apparently a little too revolutionary to actually be built safely. Bits of the concrete ceilings keep falling on unsuspecting passengers below, who end up checking in for the very last time in their lives.
Remember, if you will, that at this point I am still only halfway to my destination. I have yet to negotiate the journey into and through Paris and then board a train to Macon, in south-central France. I like to think that I’ve done the trip so often now that I know not to panic or get agitated or cross - to take each element as it arrives and to smile benignly when each new suitcase-on-wheels dunches my shins or runs over my feet.
But I’m honest enough not to believe my own propaganda. I panic and get agitated and cross all the time - specially during the next part of the journey.
For some reason, easyJet flights from Newcastle land in exactly the wrong part of the airport for ease of disembarkation; once on the ground, they have to taxi - sometimes for 25 minutes - to their allotted stand. They could easily add a couple of miles and call it a Guided Tour of the Ile-de-France.
Having disembarked and taken my first lungful of the thickly exhaust-fumed Parisian air, I then have to walk a mile - a whole mile - from the terminal to the airport’s station, which also seems to be in the wrong place. In truth, everything at Charles de Gaulle Airport is like that. The whole place ought to be used as a test-piece on ‘how not to design an airport’. It’s dreadful.
The urban railways of metropolitan Paris are collectively known as the RER and one of them runs to the airport. When they were first put into service - in about 1870 - they must have been the latest in transport chic. Using them for the 40-minute journey into the city nowadays, though, is like being inside a cattle truck with seats - with a matching smell. Expat English Parisians call them ‘moving microwaves’ in summer and ‘wheeled freezers’ in winter.
Because they service the airport, they have been designed with no luggage space at all. Suitcases and backpacks have to compete for very limited space with bad-tempered Parisian commuters, every one of whom looks as if they wish they were concealing a razor-sharp Sabatier knife about their person.
Assuming you arrive in Paris mostly unmurdered, you’re then confronted with the Metro.
I’ve said elsewhere that the only effective way of negotiating the Metro without losing your wallet, your suitcase, your sense of humour or your mind generally is to behave as if you’re the only one on it.
Do not be polite or courteous. Do not offer your seat to anyone old and decrepit. Above all, do not smile at anyone. If you do any of these things, you will almost certainly be regarded as an imbecile.
Try to avoid situations where you actually have to say something. If you use French, they will guffaw at you because of your lousy accent - they call it ‘parler francais comme une vache espagnole’ (‘speaking French like a Spanish cow’) - and if you use English, they will look at you blankly, even though they read Shakespeare in the original from cover to cover only last week.
If you are particularly unlucky, you will be busked on the Metro.
Normally, I think buskers are an adornment to city life. But the Paris Metro is plagued with utterly untalented ‘entertainers’ who are keen to serenade you and even keener to accept your loose change. The last time I travelled by Metro, an immaculately coiffured older lady got on, complete with microphone and portable speaker system, and broke into Edith Piaf’s Greatest Hits. As the old joke has it, she had to break in because she couldn’t find the right key. It was truly and embarrassingly awful; she sounded like a cat being throttled by a herd of angry goats. It was positively purgatorial. It was worse than being mugged.
La vie en rose it wasn’t.
But eventually, despite the smells and the commuters and the buskers - and, by now, the sheer fatigue - I reach Gare de Lyon, the Paris terminal for trains to the south.
And that’s where I want to go - to the south. I have a seat by the window on the upper deck of the TGV, the superfast train that carries me away in style from the tribulations of the journey. Paris disappears in minutes and the lush green fields of France spread themselves out around me.
That’s what it’s all for. I want to see the lonely hills of Beaujolais again. The farms and the villages and the smiles. I want to hear the language - the mellifluous, nasal tones of rural ‘street French’ welcoming me back to what has become my second home.
It’s really only on this final leg of the trip, when I’m sitting back on my train watching northern France turn quietly and seductively into southern France, that I begin to relax. I start to wish I’d travelled all the way from Newcastle by train.
Sometimes, that’s exactly what I do. But that’s a different story.
...will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 27 April at Birkheads Nursery, the road to which is just a few hundred yards south of the Tanfield Railway on the Sunniside to Stanley road.
By now, it should go without saying that a splendid time is guaranteed for all.
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