Friday, 20 April 2018

Luxembourg - as winter turns to spring


It feels like it’s been a long winter here in Luxembourg. Not a particularly cold one, it has to be said, but it seems to have dragged on forever.

I started working here in mid-September. At home in Warsaw the weather was still pretty good. Mostly sunny, not particularly warm but not really cold either. Lots of autumnal cloud and showers, I recall. Like it usually is in that month. Luxembourg, of course is a bit further south than Warsaw, and a bit further to the east, bordering France and Germany and Belgium, so I expected similar conditions here from the outset.

And in that I was right. It has been much of a muchness. Both places endured long dark nights, plenty of rain, and relatively little snow – even when The Beast From The East numbers 1, 2 and 3 swept through continental Europe in March, leaving destruction and floods behind. While Britain shivered and ground to a halt (as it always does when temperatures dip below zero for a day or two), while unusually deep snowfalls stunned everyone in the most southerly parts of Italy and Greece, the good people of the Grand Duchy and the Rzeczpospolita shrugged their collective shoulders and carried on as before.

Poland is, of course, historically used to long, freezing winters, even if they are lately somewhat of a rarity. There are plenty of snow ploughs in operation, little impact on the country’s railways and other public transport (notwithstanding the older trams being very cold and uncomfortable) and everyone has to change to winter tyres sometime in October. There is little impact on we fliers either: all the airports have plenty of ploughs and de-icing trucks to keep runways and aprons clear of all but the very worst snowfalls, and delays are rare and mainly due to aircraft de-icing procedures that add maybe 5 or 10 minutes to departure. Even that was rare to non-existent this year – if there were de-icing delays at Warsaw airport they happened on days when I didn’t travel: I can’t remember a single early Monday morning flight where we had to pause for a clean up.

Now I’m not sure what constitutes “normal” winter weather in Luxembourg. I don’t know whether it suffers a lot from prolonged rainfall and chilly winds, or whether deep and crisp and even snowfalls are a regular occurrence: I believe not. From talking to people at work, it does seem to be a rather cold and wet winter climate, so not unlike Britain. Which makes this winter pretty normal. I didn’t notice any snowploughs in evidence on the roads around the city, or for that matter at the airport, and the amount of snow that fell seemed less than back home, with no more effect. No road closures, even during the worst of March weather, that I was aware of, trains and buses seemed to be running without problem and the road traffic no better or worse.

There was one morning where my flight (running nicely on time) was diverted to Dusseldorf leading to a pleasant day riding on German trains to complete the trip (see Delays, diversions and cancellations – when things go wrong posted in mid February for a full report), and one Friday evening in March when a blizzard started as I was leaving for the airport that I expected would cause me problems (in the event my flight landed, we boarded and took off – without de-icing – bang on time: friends of mine travelling to Bucharest via Munich were less lucky and spent an additional night in a Luxembourgisch hotel paid for by Lufthansa), but apart from that the snow, such as it was, passed me by completely.



So in weather terms, this long winter was not so bad. But Luxembourg is not my home. Warsaw is. Living in a hotel, a very average hotel, is something that although I’m used to it is still not right. OK, the beds are comfortable enough (although the pillows way too soft) and I can watch BBC News, BBC1 and BBC2 on the tv in my room, and the place is only a 10 minute walk from the office (which I can see from most rooms I’ve slept in so far), so it is nothing if not convenient. There is a bar and restaurant in another block in the complex and the food edible although lacking variety. The fact that you have to walk 100metres or so from hotel reception to bar complex makes things less attractive, especially if the weather is cold and wet or snowy.

The old town, the city centre, is a 10 or 15 minutes walk away, and although there is a good selection of restaurants and bars there, its distance makes it just as unappealing in winter months. So I’ve ended up pretty much ensconced in my hotel room most nights. For the past 6 months. I KNOW I could have broken the monotony and gone elsewhere, and indeed did so, at least on the better (dryer, less cold) evenings, but frankly after a day of either sheer boredom or fraught argument and high stress by the time I get back to the hotel the last thing I’ve wanted to do after dropping my bag back in the room is to go back out again. Feet up and relax, try to get my blood pressure down and my stress levels back to normal has been the name of the game. It’s a very pretty and small city, with some lovely parks to walk through in better weather, a good variety of eateries and (expensive) shops, even a selection of English bookshops – no question. But its smallness can work against it. Once you’ve spent a couple of evenings, or even a couple of lunch breaks, exploring the city centre, that’s it – done. No surprises any more.

I was in town on a bank holiday early in my assignment. I enjoyed a lie in, then showered, had a late breakfast just before the restaurant closed, and set off to do a bit of sightseeing. I had planned to do a bit of window shopping, find an English pub a friend had recommended and settle there with beer, food, my music and my book for a few hours. The town was dead as a doornail. Hardly anyone was out and about, and I would guess most were people like me, visitors at a loose end in a strange town. All the shops were closed and shuttered. So were the restaurants, even McDonald’s. I wandered around for a couple of hours, took in the better views across the valley of the Grund and up to Kirchberg plateau with its EU Court of Justice dominating the skyline, and headed back towards the station, which was close to the English pub. I found the White Rose alright – but like everywhere else it was barred and shuttered, lunch time or not. Sadly I headed back to the hotel and stumbled upon an open branch of Subway – so that was dinner taken care of.

I’m told this is absolutely typical. Not only on public holidays but weekends too the place is like a ghost town. Never been in a city like it.



So I’m glad that this week spring has sprung.

The sun came out over the weekend, as it has across all Europe, and temperatures soared to a pleasant mid 20s. And in a few short days the trees in the park behind my hotel have gone from cold grey skeletons to bursting with green leaves and buds. The flower beds are suddenly a riot of colour surrounded by lush green grass, and I’ve been woken in the mornings by bright sunlight rather than rain or traffic noise.

I’ve spent most evenings wandering over to the old town, and sampled three very nice little cafes, sitting outside in the evening sunlight enjoying cold beer and good food (and of course my book), watching the world go by. There are more people about now: instead of hurrying home or to the hotel at the end of the working day people are doing like me and enjoying the usual European cafe society.

I expect Warsaw will be the same, when I get there in a few hours’ time (I’m finishing this in the airport Starbucks en route) and look forward to getting the bike out and going for a ride with mon famille. Great stuff.

I have no idea how long this spell, this fresh spring is going to last – with my luck, probably about 4 days max – but I certainly intend to make the most of it. While I’m doing so I will be looking forward to the summer heat, and visits to Croatia and England, maybe the Polish coast too. And bike rides in my shorts with my shirt off. Relaxing at my bolthole, beer in hand, watching the kids play with their friends while the sausages and chicken wings and pork burns on the barbie. Maybe even mowing the grass.

I can’t wait.



Wednesday, 18 April 2018

A Trip to Paris - Part 3: Some Gentle Exercise


Charles de Gaulle airport lies out of town, to the north, close to the old (but still used) Le Bourget airport and in the suburb of Roissy-en-France. It’s a massive airport, with multiple terminals and runways, but relatively well designed. The terminals are grouped quite close together, and the largest, Terminal 2, split into a half a dozen sections, all with easy access to the metro and train stations – if you’re prepared to walk a bit through a labyrinth of wide corridors and up and down several escalators. We arrived at the main Air France Schengen Terminal 2F, which of course turned out to be farthest from the station. The walk took a good 20 minutes (we were not hurrying), and almost as long to sort out tickets. For some reason, none of our bank cards worked on the machines, so we had to queue at the ticket office to get them - the same cards worked perfectly there: most odd.

But the ride into Paris Nord station on the RER system was painless – one intermediate stop at the other airport terminal, then fast from there through the dark suburbs into the city centre. The station is another big, sprawling multi-layered affair, serving the RER lines, the Paris Metro and suburban train services, as well as intercity TGV express trains and the Eurostar service to London. In a previous life I used to do the Eurostar trip from Waterloo (or sometimes Ashford) a couple of times a week, but that was 20 odd years ago since when there has been (and continues to be) a lot of major refurbishment, so that I managed to take the wrong exit. Instead of Rue la Fayette we were in a little side road and spent a good half hour walking around in circles trying to find the main road we needed. Asking directions was not practical as most of the people around were either tourists like ourselves, or local young people drunk, stoned or just not interested in much except having a good time – there are a lot of bars, restaurants and clubs in the area, not all the kind you would want to frequent at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night unless you’re under 30 and with friends.

But eventually we found Rue la Fayette, and headed off into the city, guided by the searchlight that pierces the sky from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Our hotel was just over a kilometre away, on the same road, so easy to find. Except we missed it – we went into a small supermarket to buy some snacks and a bottle of wine for a night cap, but the shop was on the corner of a little junction and we again took the wrong direction when we came out. Another 25 minutes wandering around and asking directions ensued before we finally got to the hotel entrance – not more than 100m from the supermarket.



We checked in to the Best Western Opera Fauberg hotel, and went to our room, on the top floor overlooking La Fayette. The place is an old building, oddly shaped with little corridors between the rooms, but has been modernised well. There is a decent sized lounge and bar area by the entrance, and the whole place has a British theme – there are big china British Bulldogs everywhere, some comfortable seats decorated with Union Jack material and a replica red British telephone box. The restaurant was one floor down, and turned out to do a good buffet breakfast. All the corridor walls were covered with black and white framed photos of old British stars from Charlie Chaplin to some more recent ones – Benny Hill seemed a popular choice: there were a number of him groping the Hill’s Angels dancers that used to feature in his shows, often dressed provocatively as French maids….

Our room was quite small, but the bed comfortable. The shower was fine, and there was a kettle and cups for coffee (that in the event we never used) and best of all a fridge in which we were able to chill the wine and champagne we had bought. The view from the window – one that could be opened rather than the normal uPVC sealed units found in most hotels these days – was nice, stretching the length of la Fayette as far as Gare du Nord to the left and into the City to the right. In that direction, the top half of the Eiffel Tower in the distance rose above the surrounding buildings, its searchlight sweeping the sky. At street level there were a number of bars and bistros opposite, all open and busy at this late hour. I took a couple of pics, we dropped our stuff and headed off for a late dinner and an early taste of the Parisian nightlife.


After a fraught night before and a long day’s travelling, we didn’t venture far, but down a side-street opposite the hotel we found a decent looking Italian restaurant, the Pizza Capri. It was small and snug, with no more than a dozen tables and a real, huge brick pizza oven, run by Italians, and the food was not only tasty but excellent value. We ordered two pizzas and a bottle of dry white, and settled down to relax and enjoy the weekend. The pizzas were massive, and neither of us finished them but they were delicious and the restaurant was happy to pack the leftovers for us to take away – lunch the next day on our roamings was thus sorted.

The wine was good too, and fortified by the meal we wandered around the streets for half an hour before going back to the hotel, where we slept very well indeed, partly from tiredness but without a doubt the wine helped.



After sampling what the buffet breakfast had to offer (answer: a lot, and all of it tasty) we headed off for our single day’s exploration of the city, carrying a bag with left over pizza, a bottle of water and a half-bottle of champagne (to drink on our Eiffel Tower tour as a celebration for my reaching pensionable age). I also had a folder with a city map (including Metro links) and the details of the tour, meeting points and so on.

First stop was Montmartre, on the basis it was quite close. We wandered round the first corner, about 50 metres from the hotel, and up a narrow shopping street that had been closed to traffic. There was a nice feel about the area, plenty of wine shops, cheese merchants, patisseries, fruit markets and pavement cafes serving coffee and breakfast pastries. The weather was fine and warm, and many families and tourists were wandering around in both directions enjoying the ambience. We stopped at one bakery and bought a kind of French baguette that was filled with chocolate chips and the store owner was kind enough to take some pictures of us together, admiring the thing. We brought it home with us, and I have no idea how it tasted – I assume the kids enjoyed it.




A little further up we found a gift store and paid the first of a few visits to it. We ended up buying a couple of tee-shirts, a selection of fridge magnets and key rings, and I treated myself to a cap to replace the football one that I was wearing (and my beloved hates ;-)) ). I wore it happily the rest of the day, much to her delight.

From there, we climbed another steep hill to the beautiful church of Sacré Couer, and then three or four flights of ridiculously steep stone steps to get to the church’s forecourt, past a funicular railway that would have saved us a lot of energy at the exorbitant cost of about 15. We didn’t go into the church this time, but enjoyed the stunning views out across the city and took many pictures on both the camera and the mobile phones – the selfie stick we borrowed from our Ally proved its worth, once we figured out how to use it. Below the main forecourt is a little terraced park that was full of people wandering around trying to avoid the hawkers (most of whom seemed to be refugees from the Calais Jungle) peddling their wares – cheap and tacky models of the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and Arc de Triomphe, plastic key rings and of course selfie sticks in a range of colours. Half way down a fitness group was practising synchronised agony to the blare of a beatbox and encouraging like minded masochists to join in. We studiously ignored it.

We then headed back past our gift shop for the centre of the Montmartre neighbourhood, because the Moulin Rouge nightclub is another must-see destination (according to the guide books anyway). The area is bigger and more brash than the old Soho neighbourhood in London was before the Mary Whitehouse brigade cleaned it up back in the 70s, and to this viewer is more open about its wares than Soho ever was. Down both sides of the main street there are strip clubs (some open even on this Sunday morning), porn shops, adult movie theatres and the nowadays inevitable kebab shops. The were plenty of cafes and bistros open for business but the three Irish pubs I spotted were at least still closed – which was a shame: hot from the walking and steps at Sacré Couer a cold Harp lager would have gone down very well. There was also a number of clothes shops with names like Sexodrome that sold various entertaining looking night attire and other faux-leather costumes…...

So we took out photos, paused on a bench in the middle of the road (there is like a pedestrianised strip between traffic carriageways with seats and the odd newsagent’s kiosk) for some crisps and a drink, then headed off to the Metro to make our way to Invalides and our Eiffel Tower tour.

At which point, things began to go - well, a bit wrong.



The Paris Metro, like the London Underground and the systems in most other major countries, is big. There are about a dozen lines, shown on the map in different colours like in London, but listed by numbers (1, 2, 3, etc) rather than names (Central, Piccadilly, etc) so in theory should be easy enough to understand. The maps outside the stations and in the entrances where the ticket machines and offices are located, are pretty clear too. OK, the station names are all in French, but at least that means Latin characters rather than unintelligible Cyrillic script, or Hebrew or Arabic or Chinese characters, and we can manage that. Trouble is the directions between lines and platforms are a bit confusing, and all the platform entrances have electric barriers you have to go through rather than just tunnel entrances and single barriers at the station entrance (as you get on every other metro system I’ve ever used), and if you use the wrong barrier it still registers your fare and means you have to buy ANOTHER ticket to get on the right platform and right line …… One wrong move can take 10 minutes or more to sort out when the line is busy or you are a tourist with no French to ask for help. Like us…..

Inevitably, we couldn’t find the correct platform – the station was an intersection between about three or four lines, and we wandered round in circles asking unresponsive Parisians for help (God, they are so rude and arrogant sometimes!) before asking a guy with a fruit counter who put us right. We got to the platform and found 5 minutes to wait for our train. This meant that nearly half of the 30 minutes we had allowed ourselves to get across to Invalides (as far as we could see the nearest station to the Tower, and only about 4 stops away) had already been used up. Invalides also looked to be quite distance from the Tower and our meeting place too…...

So it turned out. We bolted out of the station entrance at Invalides exactly at 12:15 – which was the time we were due to meet up with the tour group - not knowing which way to go. While Ania booted up Google Maps on her mobile I tried calling the Emergency Phone Number thoughtfully supplied. I got a recorded message (in French only) that meant nothing to me, then cut off. I tried again. Same result. Ania, meanwhile, was dashing down the street, phone in hand. I gave chase, and tried the number a third time. Nothing. We spotted a cab pulled up at the side of the road and asked if he would take us to the Tower. He pointed in the direction we were headed and gabbled something….we asked again: can you take us? A typical Gallic shrug as he turned away – that’ll be a no, then. Off we went as I tried to call a fourth unsuccessful time. Another cab. He agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to take us for a fare of 7. We piled in at 12:23 – eight minutes late. A red light stopped us – two more minutes gone as my fifth call failed. Then we arrived at a blockage right next to the Tower, a roadworks diversion – we paid the man (no haggling, even though the meter only read 3-50) and galloped off again.

We were on the wrong side of road and there was nowhere to safely cross – the nearest lights and crossing another 100metres or so along the pavement. We got to them, breathless, and crossed quickly as the lights turned green. The Tower was close, but the customer line stretched endlessly away from us to the entrance furthest away. We got there, waving our priority pass confirmation and were waved into the (empty) Priority lane. A security check like at the airport. Empty your bags for x-ray and pass through the gate. Our half-bottle of champers was not well received – you can’t take that, said the bitch on the gate. We pleaded with her – well, Ania did, I just swore fluently in as many languages as I could remember words – 4, I think. The bitch shrugged her shoulders. Non. In despair, Ania hurled the bottle into a metal waste bin and there was a satisfying pop as the cork came out…...at least the bitch wouldn’t be drinking our booze! We piled through the security gate, grabbed coats and bags and barged through, ignoring the French babble behind us.

Now there are four legs to the Eiffel Tower, each of which has stairs or escalators to the first level, where you pick up the elevators to the top. Which one our tour group was using we had no idea, but there was an Information office close by, so we went there. It was by now way past the Tour start time, so we did not expect to meet up with the group and guide – no matter, we’ll make our own way up and have a wander around– bugger the history lesson and the guide pointing out the obvious sights: we could figure them out from the map I had.

But no. Information advised us that we had no tickets – our now crumpled sheet of paper was merely the booking confirmation, the tickets had to be collected from the Tour operator’s office. We explained again, for the umpteenth time, what our problem was and pleaded, for the umpteenth time to some cold-hearted French tart, to be let through, it was my birthday etc etc etc. The cold-hearted French tart shrugged her shoulders. Close to tears now, Ania asked where the office was. The woman gestured behind us at a block of grand-looking buildings way over there…..not on the site of the Tower at all. Tired, now, sweaty, frustrated, close to tears, we trudged off. There was no point in rushing any more.

The office was half way back the way we had come, and was full with another group patiently waiting for their guide. Behind the counter, sitting at a computer, a receptionist was writing an e-mail (or surfing the internet, I’m not sure which). We waited impatiently for a couple of minutes, recovering our breath.

Excuse me…..”

She held up an imperious hand.

Moment.” And continued doing things on her computer for another couple of minutes. Then: “Yes?”

We launched into our by now familiar speech. She shrugged her shoulders without looking at us.

You are too, late, I cannot ‘elp you.” And turned back to her screen.

I lost it then. In between a wide range of cusses, I pointed out that I had tried to call half a dozen times on the emergency number that no-one had answered, that we had been given insufficient directions to the meeting place, that the Paris Metro system was complete crap and the taxi drivers thieves, and why could she not give us our tickets to make our own way around the Tower who needs tour guides anyway, why can’t you add us to the next tour group……

Your receipt.” A demand, no please.

I gave it to her. She swung around in her chair and took a photocopy, then gave it back without a word, and turned back to her screen. I waited a few second.

And?” I said. “Our tickets?”

She shrugged.

Non. You were too late. I cannot ‘elp you.” Still no sorry.

I took a deep breath, ready to launch into another tirade, but Ania took my hand and pulled me towards the door without saying anything. We left.

On the pavement outside the door the tears came properly, Ania blaming herself for everything, me trying to console her. I dug out the rumpled confirmation and found another number, listed as that of the internet booking agency we had used to buy the tour. I dialled a UK mobile number, not expecting any answer – it was a Sunday afternoon, remember. All down the pub…..

A girl answered. I told her the whole sorry story. For once, there was a genuinely sympathetic tone. She apologised profusely and had the decency to wish me a happy birthday. But she could do nothing to help us. Her company was merely an online booking agency, not the tour operator. She asked for an e-mail with all the details and promised she would do her best for us and re-book to tomorrow. I told her this was no good as we were flying home then and asked for a refund. She wasn’t sure but promised to try when she got the mail. OK…...so no Eiffel Tower then.

We wandered away, not really sure where to go or what to do next, the shadow of the Tower falling over us as we turned a corner.



After a while, we found ourselves passing an open space, a small park, on which the Tower stood. There was a coach full of Indian tourists lined up like a football team while someone took lots of pictures on a selection of mobile phones – the coach driver, probably. I paused for a moment and made rabbit’s ears behind someone in the back row that hopefully drew a smile (or howl of anguish) when the owner of that particular phone saw the pics…...cruel, perhaps, but that is the way I felt at that moment.

We paused for a couple of minutes and half-heartedly took our photos, then walked on towards the Seine. We came to the corner where we had dashed across the road when we had arrived there, crossed again and climbed a flight of steps to a kind of elevated promenade that ran along the top of the riverbank. There we sat for half and hour and ate the remains of last night’s pizza and cooled down. The morning’s clouds had cleared and it was a warm, sunny early spring day. Delightful.

We debated what to do next. We were tired and decidedly pissed off, but it was still early and to head back to the hotel seemed to me admitting defeat and wasting what was turning into a lovely afternoon. Ania was more pissed off than I was, and preferred to head back to the hotel. We compromised: we would head back towards the centre of the city, across the river, and see how we felt then. I still wanted a look at the Arc de Triomphe and fancied a beer in a street bar somewhere. I felt there was nothing to be gained by stressing about the failed Tower trip – it was in the past and we could nothing now except claim our money back when we got home. I was not prepared to let a bunch of snotty Frog tarts ruin my birthday! Ania eventually agreed, and we set off.

We sauntered back along the promenade, through a small children’s fair complete with small carousel and burger bar, and crossed the river. Below us the river was running fast and strong, and a stream of long bateaux mouches passed under the bridge in both directions. For a minute I thought about taking a trip along to Notre Dame cathedral on one, but the queues were long and I’d had enough of that and unhelpful French civil servants for one day, so I didn’t mention the possibility. Instead, on the other bank, we paused to take a couple of pictures of the now distant Tower, then joined the throng above us at the Jardins du Trocadéro. Here we took another string of pictures, with the Jardins below us, leading to the Pont d’Iéna that we had used to cross the Seine, and beyond that the Tower. On some of them we were able to do weak trick photos: by standing on the wall, one hand held high, you can make it look as though you are holding the top of the Tower between thumb and forefinger. We did something similar years ago, kissing the Sphinx at Giza.

We headed off then to find the Arc de Triomphe. I had seen it many times, and never quite been able to figure out the traffic flow around it, nor who had right of way. I read somewhere that all motor insurance is considered invalid there, as the traffic was totally uncontrollable and no-one could ever prove who was in the wrong in the event of an accident. A believable story but probably apocryphal…...though I wouldn’t bet on it.

Once again my navigation was way off. At the bottom of the steps exiting the Jardins is a roundabout with 6 exits. One of the roads leading off, Avenue Kleber, leads directly to Souterrain Étoile and the Arc. We strolled straight across Kleber, as we did two other roads after it, and struck off along Avenue Georges Mandel. I thought I had caught sight of the Arc a few minutes earlier, as we waited for the lights at Avenue du President Wilson to change, and Mandel was the road to take.
In fact, Mandel runs away at angle of 120° or so from Kleber – basically in the opposite direction. But we didn’t realise this for a kilometre or more, when we reached the junction and Metro station at Avenue Henri Martin, where we finally spotted a sign for the Arc, leading away along Avenue Victor Hugo. The detour probably added a good 3km to our walk – and in my case at least 4 foot blisters.

But eventually, legs aching and feet sore, we reached our goal and sat for a while watching the traffic cutting across and cars weaving around each other as they passed Napoleon’s Monument to himself (this was before Waterloo, of course). It seemed likely that the rule was give way to anything coming from the left, but not everyone went along with that – many drivers seemed to give way to traffic from the right instead. I was left none the wiser, and nursing a conviction that no matter how much money I was offered I would never attempt to drive across here. Then we crossed carefully back over Victor Hugo, Rue Lauriston, Kleber, Avenue d’Iéna and finally Avenue Marceau to reach the junction between the Champs Élysée and Avenue de Friedland. Here we were immediately opposite the Arc, looking back through it in the direction of La Defense at the far end of the Avenue de la Grande Armée (for a near midget, Bonaparte certainly had an ego the size of the planet Mars).

More photos, of traffic shrouding the Arc in petrol fumes. Camera and selfies on the phones (along with the massed ranks of Chinese tourists doing likewise). We couldn’t get the best view, clean through the centre of the Arc and down Grande Armée because there were barriers up on the far side masking repair and renovation work.

We had thought about heading along the Champs Elysée and taking a beer and a sandwich somewhere, but because of my detour we were both flagging – my legs ached and my feet were very sore, and Ania was, if anything, worse, so we decided to head back to the hotel for a brief rest before heading back to the Moulin Rouge for some after dark shots and a meal.

More Metro madness! This time, the map pointed to taking an RER train two stops, then changing lines for another three to get to our hotel’s closest station. But the lady on the ticket desk insisted we were wrong and sold us tickets for the Metro line instead – it added a couple of additional stops but what the hell – we were too tired to argue. The train was packed, standing room only, but Ania managed to grab a seat at the first stop. We got to our change, at the station for the Louvre Art Gallery, which is when the problems started. On the platform we needed to find the route to Line 7 – and saw two signs saying 7, one at each end of the platform. We took pot luck and headed for the closest. It was, inevitably, the wrong one, and took us back to street level – Exit 7, not Line 7. Further, at this station we had to run our tickets through a barrier to get out – which of course used up our transfer option and effectively killed the ticket. We milled around the ticket hall and grumpily joined a queue to buy yet more tickets. The queue was next to the barrier leading to Line 7, and we were, for a change, a bit fortunate – a couple with a baby in a pushchair needed to go through the big gate to get to Line 7 and were allowed through. With the staff distracted (or more likely disinterested) we followed them through. Back on track.

After that – no issues. At our station there were no exit barriers to worry about, and we were able to stroll back onto la Fayette not more than 100m from the hotel. We paid one more visit to the supermarket and picked up another half-bottle of champagne to replace the one sacrificed at the Eiffel Tower: it would be our night cap later. In our room, we dumped the bags and put the champagne in the fridge, and I took a couple more views out of the window. I was reluctant to sit down because I was not sure I would be able to get up again, so we headed off once more.



It was getting towards dark, and the shops were closing, the streets emptying. We re-traced our steps through Montmartre and got to the Moulin Rouge as darkness fell, There were comparatively few people around at this early hour, but plenty of barkers outside the various strip joints and porn shops vying for custom, but we ignored them, took our pictures then strolled back the way we had come, looking for somewhere to eat. We decided on a decent looking place called Le Chat Noir, about a hundred metres down Boulevard de Clichy from the nightclub and next door to a seedy looking Museum de l’Erotisme. The restaurant was quite full, and had a covered seating area looking out onto Clichy, and there was live music from inside – a guy with an acoustic guitar singing and playing – he was quite good. The menu looked ok, so in we went. We found a table by the entrance to the interior seating, where we could listen to the music better, but still close enough to see the street and all its passing strangers.

We ordered a couple of big Stella Artois lagers and fish ‘n’ chips. Our waiter was a young guy: “I am Brazilian!” he announced. “Neymar! Good player!”

“Harry Kane,” I said. “Better player!”

My wife announced it was my birthday, and the lad shook my hand and congratulated me, then dashed off for the beers. We relaxed, then, tired and sore, but happy. The Eiffel Tower was a distant and fading annoyance. The beer was good, strong and cold as Stella should always be, and the food very good indeed. One of the better fish ‘n’ chips I’ve eaten, and a pleasant surprise in this place. We took more pictures while we ate and drank a second beer, then called for the bill. Neymar’s mate brought it, and we found he had not charged for the beers – we pointed it out to him.

“On the house,” he said with a smile. “’Appy Birsday!”

It quite made my day! After battling disinterested French jobsworths all day, this act of kindness by a happy young Brazilian waiter restored me completely – I only hope he didn’t get into trouble with his boss!

So we left Le Chat Noir and strolled slowly back to the hotel. Another souvenir shop benefited from the sale of a couple more tee-shirts, and as a light drizzle started we paused at Place Pigalle to take some pics of the famous theatre there (with Sexodrome in the background).

Back at the hotel – pictures of the interior – those china British Bulldogs! – then back to the room. Showers to wash away the blood from burst blisters and ease aching muscles, then break out the champagne and cheese and biscuits to finish the day. Then a deep and refreshing sleep…….



Monday dawned sunny and warm. We had a very good and filling breakfast, then finished packing and headed off to Gare du Nord for our flight home. It was easier this way, knowing where we were going, and buying the RER tickets equally painless – this time my card worked in the machine.

At the airport, security was surprisingly quick and efficient, and we were through to the Air France Business Lounge by our gate nearly two hours before our flight was due. It was a bit of a disappointment: it’s quite small and was full of people, standing room only. But we managed to find two seats, not together, and settled in, and shortly after some people left and we were able to join up again. But the food was quite good, and there was a decent selection of drinks and a great view out the window to the apron. We found magazines and papers in English and chilled out until flight time.

No delays. Decent seats. Cabin service was basic – beef or veggie sandwiches, coffee and soft drinks, but it was free and the crew brisk, efficient and friendly. Straight through Arrivals with cabin baggage only, and into the taxi. Home ten minutes later to hugs and kisses from the kids.

A delightful weekend, and a lovely – and memorable! - birthday.

To my wife and kids, who organised it all and managed to keep it secret from me for nearly three months – thank you so much!

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

A Trip to Paris - Part 2 : The Journey.


The good thing about travelling on a Saturday lunchtime – at least out of the main holiday season – is that the airport is relatively empty, so check in and security much less painful. This is particularly true when you have the benefit, as we did, of an airline loyalty program Gold Card – in our case Flying Blue Gold. I gained it in my days working in Amsterdam and commuting there weekly for a couple of years. I’ve used none of the Skyteam Alliance member airlines since I finished there nearly two years ago, and the membership will be downgraded to Silver at the end of this month. So we got in just in time…….

Alitalia is a member of the alliance, so we went straight to the front of the Priority queue at check in, and were dealt with swiftly and efficiently. A minor problem: for the Rome – Paris leg we were seated at opposite ends of the plane and as the flight was full and operated by another airline (where have I heard that before?) we couldn’t make a change. Try at the gate.

So off we went, to Priority lane security. It was deserted….not a soul in line. The staff were playing cards or something – not working, anyway. We cleared it in two minutes – it would have been quicker but this Traveller and security check veteran forgot to take his belt off or empty all the loose change from his jeans pockets. Oops…..

On to the Lounge – in this case, Skyteam use the Fantazja lounge by Gate 36. And very nice it was too. I’ve been using the LOT Business Lounge every week for the past 5 months or so, and it’s too small – on Monday mornings it’s jampacked by about 6:20, and the seats and tables are all packed in too close for comfort. The coffee machines have a habit of breaking down, the food is no better than average and there is no view from the windows except of people dashing off late for their Non-Schengen flights.

By contrast, the Fantazja is a good bit bigger, and has some decent views of the outside front forecourts and exit roads so at least there is ample natural light. The food and drink selection is better both in variety and quality, and there is better seating space – both more of it and more comfortable. The toilets are better and there is a separate quiet area if you want a bit of peace and a doze. All in all it’s a much better bet. We had a very pleasant hour and a half sampling the menu, and headed for the gate.

We got there late – our normal practice when travelling together. In mitigation, the Departure Boards in the Lounge had not been kept up to date (I had been watching them) and there had not been any Got To Gate status displayed. I asked about this at the reception desk and was told boarding would start “in a few minutes.” By the time we got there, after a quick washroom visit, boarding was nearly finished. We were among the last half a dozen passengers to join the human traffic jam on the jetwalk. I expected a lack of space for our case in the luggage bins and was pleasantly surprised to find plenty of room.

The flight was ok. Alitalia belied its acronym by departing and subsequently landing not late but on time. The plane was old and shabby, but the seats comfortable enough with reasonable leg room. The cabin crew, all male, average age around 40 I should think, and with ill-fitting uniform waistcoats, were efficient but the fare poor. Our meal for a 2 hours plus flight was a small bag of chocolate chip cookies, each about the size of my thumb-nail and perhaps 20 to the packet, coffee and/or a soft drink. I will be generous and suggest that the cost-cutting exercise the airline went through to secure its survival a couple of years ago affected the catering particularly badly. In any case, we were pleased we had eaten well in the Lounge before boarding, and looked forward to sampling Italian cuisine in the Fumicino airport Air France lounge.

The sun was shining in Rome and it was delightfully warm – a pleasant surprise given that early last week there was a fair amount of snow in southern Italy. We had a bus ride into the terminal and set off in search of the Air France lounge. It was nowhere near our scheduled departure gate, and people I asked for directions looked at me blankly, whether through a language issue or out of ignorance. At the third attempt, an off-duty waiter in a Mercedes Benz lounge area directed us – 10 minutes walk to a different set of gates, back the way we had come.

We found it and were given a friendly welcome. It was a small affair, certainly smaller than Warsaw’s Fantazja, and there was not a lot of spare seating. But we found somewhere overlooking the tarmac and settled in for a two hour transit. Now then – where is that Italian food?

Truth to say, it was very disappointing. There was a small selection of bite sized salami rolls, some fresh fruit, a dish of grated Italian cheese and dishes of cold pasta and salads. Plenty of wines but no beer that I could find, plus a coffee machine. We loaded up with pasta and rolls, sat down and ate. We were not impressed. But the wine we chose, an Italian semi-dry white, was palatable at least. Considering the lounge is operating in Rome, on behalf of a French airline and its partners, no slouches when it comes to fine and healthy dining, I would have expected much much better.

We headed off to the gate, to try and re-arrange our seats to be together for the two hour flight back up to Paris. Our plane arrived from there at the same time as me, but before the gate staff. I waited patiently for a good 10 minutes before they arrived, a man and woman wearing the dull and unglamorous Alitalia uniform. (That was another surprise: both Italy and France have good reputations for their fashion industries, but their airline uniforms are lacking both style and colour.)

I explained the seating issue. The lady was apologetic but couldn’t help. I asked about an upgrade. She confirmed Business Class, too, was fully booked. I pointed out that we were catching this flight only because Air France had messed about with our booking and felt that, so far, the airline had been less than sympathetic or helpful. At least she had the good grace to look embarrassed as she apologised again. We sighed, and joined the end of the (short) Priority queue. A few minutes later, her male colleague came over and offered us a seat change – apparently a couple were “not likely” to be able to make the flight, so we were offered their seats – close to the back, aisle and centre (so not the best) but together. We accepted the offer, and he produced new boarding cards.

The plane was full of Chinese tourists who absolutely reeked of sweat and stale tobacco, and we were surrounded by them. There was also a party of noisy teenagers returning to Paris from what I presumed to be a school trip, so we gave up all thought of having a sleep on the plane. We settled in, turned the air blowers on full, and pointed them over our shoulders to dispel the worst of the stench. And off we went – a little late.

Air France provided us with a newer plane than their Italian partners, a younger and more smartly turned out cabin crew and a bit more in the way of in-flight catering. A choice of beef and cream cheese or vegetarian rolls. Wine, beer, soft drinks and coffee. It was fine, but left me hankering after the good old pre-global recession and RyanAir days when even short-haul routes like this provided a choice of hot meals and didn’t charge for them (as so many carriers, including flag carriers like LOT, do nowadays).

The flight was good, and the pilot pointed out landmarks as we passed over them – Corsica was one, Mont Blanc, its snow covered peak jutting out of cloud cover, another, but we didn’t see them well because of our seats. But the sunset out of the window was lovely. We made up the time and arrived on schedule. I felt better about the airline – but not much. It was 8:00 p.m. and dark, and we should have been there for about 5 hours, and wandering the streets of Montmartre by now.

And we still had to get a train to Gare du Nord and find the hotel…...


Tuesday, 27 March 2018

A Trip to Paris - Part 1: Union Troubles


The text message from Air France, when it arrived, was brief and to the point.  The flight we were booked on at lunchtime tomorrow was cancelled and we were moved to another flight departing in the evening of the next day “for operational reasons”.  Given the message was received at half past 10 on the Friday evening and the proposed new flight was leaving Warsaw less than 12 hours before we were due to return from Paris on the Monday, my wife and I were a little annoyed.

Actually, that is an understatement.  We were absolutely bloody furious.  For “operational reasons” read strike action – as part of the general opposition to President Macron’s proposed labour reforms, the staff of the airline, cabin crew and ground staff alike, were joining in the industrial action that had been on-going in France for most of the preceding week.  There was also not a trace of regret or apology for the inconvenience caused, nor was any alternative proposed – it wasn’t a case of “we are offering you this alternative….” just a simple peremptory command - “You have been booked on….”.  Never mind that issues around hotel bookings and other possible commitments that may be affected (at nearly midnight for goodness’ sake!) would also be affected.  Who cares about the potential financial hit you’re going to suffer because of this – we ze staff of Air France are pissed off that our elected government is planning to change ze way we work, and you, monsieur, will ‘ave to accept zis.

Well, no actually. 

So we hit the internet and the phones.  Even at this late hour, there were options the airline could have offered us, using different carriers and alternative routes, that would have departed at around the same time Saturday and got us to Paris only an hour or so later.  Ok, they were more expensive at this late time, but that was not our problem, right?  The airline has made the change so it can pick up the tab – it says so in the Warsaw Convention.  Only speaking to someone at Air France, anywhere, was proving difficult.  All the Customer Service and Sales offices had closed at 10:00p.m. - I assume the last person out the door pressed the button to send out these re-scheduling messages since we received ours way after that time.  I eventually managed to track down an office that was in theory still open – in Amsterdam, run by the sister airline KLM, but I was assured by a travel agent I spoke to that they would be able to help.  I was placed in a queue listening to some really crap distorted music, just a few bars at a time, then “All our operators are busy, thank you for your patience.  We will assist you as soon as possible.”

I suffered that for nearly an hour.  I was reluctant to break the connection on the basis that I might not be able to get through again, and if I did would have to wait still longer.  In the meantime, the Air France website put up a message announcing the Good News – the strike was over!  And offering tickets on the flight that we had originally booked…….for sale at considerably more than we had paid.  Now, when I had gone to the online check in that morning, the seat map showed me a full flight, so I could not have changed seats even if I had wanted to.  I had also spoken to the airline the evening before, trying to buy an upgrade using my Flying Blue Miles only to be told there were no Business Class seats available either.  “It’s a full flight,” I was told. 

So how come the airline was now selling tickets for a full flight?  It seems obvious that, having bumped people off the “cancelled” flight onto later and in my case less convenient alternatives, there was now a good revenue opportunity – “a nice little earner, Terence,” as good old Arthur Daley would have put it back in 1970’s tv favourite Minder – a nice empty plane to fill up, and late bookings at higher cost to boot.  But of course, without being able to contact anyone at the company I had no way of knowing. 

So we were faced with a choice – stick or twist.  The proposed re-booking was out of the question.  We had a hotel reservation, already paid for.  We had tickets for a tour of the Eiffel Tower, including a trip to the very top, from where Grace Jones (or her stunt double) did a base-jump in the Bond movie A View to a Kill way back in 1985  - terrible film but a good stunt.  Besides, Sunday, our one full day in the City of Light, happened to be my 65th birthday, and the whole trip was a present from my wife and children so I was damned if I was going to let it go without a fight!  We went to bed, close to 2 a.m., less than 12 hours before our flight was due to take off, hoping that come the morning there would be an sms from Air France putting us back on the original flight, and everything would be just fine and dandy.  But just in case, I set my alarm for 7……..the Air France office opened at 8 so I would have time for a coffee before the row.

The sms never came.  So after my coffee, my wife drove me over to the airport, on the basis that some things are better sorted out face to face.  While I did that, she went home to finish packing…...just in case.

There was no queue at the airline ticket office, which surprised me given the situation, and one bored looking young lady reading a women’s magazine sat behind the counter.  She smiled brightly as I approached.

“Tomorrow is my birthday,” I announced, with not so much as a good morning.  “I will be 65.  Your airline has just completely ruined the day for me.”

Her face fell.

I explained to her, at length, what had happened and why the offer was not in the least bit acceptable to me.  I managed to do it without using a single swear word or anti-French insult, which I was quite proud about.  The poor girl was Polish, so it was not her fault.  I gave her both the flight confirmation and our boarding passes to prove I was not making it up, and suggested she looked at her computer where she would see tickets for sale for the  flight (I had looked on the website before leaving home) and that there were still alternatives to it.

She did so. 

“I can offer you a flight through Munich at 9:30,” she said. 

An hour, realistically, for my wife to pack, shower, dress and get back to the airport.  Impossible.  In any case, that would have meant leaving the kids alone until granny arrived about 12 lunchtime.

More keyboard tapping.  The problem seemed to be that she could get us to Munich or Frankfurt or Vienna or Zurich, but the connections to Paris were all booked.  Then she found something.

“Here is one at 1 o’clock, through Rome with Alitalia.  You will have a 2 hour wait then Air France to Paris, arriving about 7:45.”

Not ideal – in the first place, it would mean not arriving at the hotel until maybe 10.  A bit late to eat, and I wasn’t banking on much on the flight – maybe a ham roll if we were lucky.  And Alitalia has not the best reputation in the travel industry – which is why it went bust and was taken over a few years back.  Its very name was an acronym for its performance, according to insiders – Always Late In Takeoff Always Late In Arrival.  But what the hell – beggars can’t be choosers.

I took it.  She printed off my e-ticket.  I called my wife. 



Not the best start…...but read the second instalment to see how things develop…...coming soon at a blog near you!


Thursday, 22 March 2018

Inclement Weather: The Beast From The East and Britain's Odd Obsession


A good old friend of mine insists there is no such thing as global warming or climate change. “It’s only a change in the world’s weather patterns,” he says. “Happens all the time.” Which seems to me a pretty good if very simplified definition of climate change…… But then as a dyed in the wool Brexiteer for whom the EU is the root of all evil, he must of course be right, because aren’t they all?

As he lives in Kent, the Garden of England, my own home county and still gripped by the effects of The Beast From The East – the first one, never mind last weekend’s little returning flurry or the Part 3 widely predicted for this coming weekend, I do wonder how he is coping with it all, bless him.

For we Brits are not blessed with much common sense or many coping mechanisms when things turn a bit chilly.



This winter has been quite mild. In my adopted homeland, Poland, there has again not been a lot of snow. For our annual January skiing break in Szczyrk, in the lovely Beskid mountains on the Czech border, the snow, while better than the last couple of years (when snow machines were widely used to keep the slopes open) was still quite shallow and not ideal for skiing. By the end of the week, even that was going as a thaw set in.

In Warsaw there was even less: hardly more than a heavy frost before The Beast hit all of Europe at the beginning of March. Then we had a reasonable covering – as was the case everywhere – but it lasted little more than a week or 10 days. We had another dump last weekend that has remained, as the temperatures are still below freezing (just), and will probably get more this weekend. But it pales in comparison to the bitter winters and heavy snowfalls that were still the norm when I moved there back in 2000. I remember that first winter (2000-1) there was a huge snowfall in mid October and temperatures were frequently down to -20C throughout a winter that lasted until nearly the end of March. Since then, it has changed completely and it must be 6 years now since we had a White Christmas, perhaps longer. So what we have experienced this winter – more correctly, this month – is really nothing much.

In Luxembourg, where I am currently working, it has been very similar. The climate here is pretty much on a par with the UK – that is, temperate – and indeed in my six months here the weather has been typically English. Which is to say a lot of cloudy and wet days, not particularly warm (but not really cold either) with bright sunny days every so often. This month, The Beast left us alone: while Britain ground to a halt we had a single afternoon of heavy snow that caused a little flight disruption (it was a Friday, and made getting home a bit of a challenge for many of us) but it was all gone within a week. As I write, Beast 3 appears to be making its presence felt: it’s snowing and the grass outside the office is pleasantly white, but I don’t think it will amount to much more.

Across the borders in France and Germany The Beast hit just as hard as in the UK. But rather than grinding to a halt amid road closures, and people stranded overnight in traffic jams on impassable roads, and then a host of burst water mains as the thaw set in, life went on as normal. As it seems to have done in neighbouring Belgium and The Netherlands. Work colleagues from Romania and Bulgaria report similar normality, and remain mystified at the problems in Britain shown virtually round the clock on the BBC News channel.



It mystifies me too.

Winters are cold. They always have been and always will be – at least, until global warming really bites and the greenhouse gases caused by mankind’s reckless carbon fuel addiction turn the planet into a mini Venus – so I would expect people should be used to it and make the appropriate preparations.

As indeed they do across Europe (and indeed other places prone to cold winters like Canada, the US, Japan….). Come October, tyres are changed from summer to deeper tread winter ones. A different anti-freeze and screen wash capable of operating at -20C becomes the norm and often a legal requirement - in Poland and elsewhere, the police can operate spot checks and levy on the spot fines if the wrong tyres are on a vehicle. Snow ploughs and road gritters are made ready. At airports, de-icing equipment appears. People live their lives as normal, perhaps with a couple of extra layers of clothing and thicker top-coats and gloves. Bikes and scooters (very popular here, even with adults for some reason) remain in use. Trains continue to run to timetable, as do buses and trams. Roads remain passable, with care, and I saw no reports of people spending nights stranded anywhere else except in the UK (which is not to say it didn’t happen – but if it did, it was not widely reported here). There were fatalities because of the cold weather, notably in Poland where something like 50 rough sleepers died in various places over a weekend, but that merely proves that the problem of homelessness is not unique to Britain.

And when the snow went and temperatures rose, the water mains did not burst. There were no floods. Houses at the coasts have not been washed away by coastal erosion. To this writer, in fact, there has been precisely NO observable change. Nothing. Dinada. Diddly squat. Life continues with its unchanging patterns.



So – WHY has this not been the case back in my homeland? Why does Britain grind to a halt at the first sign of inclement weather?

Are our global neighbours all so much better prepared for it? On the surface, that appears to be an unequivocal YES. Are French and Germans, Luxembourgers and Belgians, Poles and Romanians and Bulgars all so much more smart than the British? I would have said no, not really…...in which case, why do they all cope so much better than we Brits? I thought we were the people with the Stiff Upper Lip, superior endurance in difficult times, a dogged it’ll be alright on the night optimism that is the envy of all……

Are we really? From the evidence I’ve seen this last couple of years – no longer. For reasons I can’t pretend to understand, let alone explain, we appear to have become a nation of sufferers and moaners, a people lacking common sense and an inability to think for ourselves. Do we really need 24 hours a day coverage and police warnings only to go out if absolutely necessary when the temperature drops a few degrees (and it’s not only in cold weather: the same refrain seems to be parroted in the summer, when the sunstroke warnings tale over….)? Are we so lacking common sense that at the first sign of a cold snap we have to empty the shops and supermarkets of “essentials”, as if it will be weeks before we are able to go back to Asda or the local corner shop?

In summer, do we really need to be told to use suncream when we go out to the beach or somewhere? Is it really newsworthy that record temperatures have been set in the Outer Hebrides or the Isle of Wight or somewhere? Is it really necessary for some government nonentity like Gove or Hunt to appear on the news, earnestly telling us to conserve water to stave off a possible drought, or stay indoors to avoid sunstroke putting serious strain on the NHS…… For God’s sake! A little common sense is surely all that is needed, not reams of “official advice”!

Is our national infrastructure so bad nowadays that we can’t even rely on our water supplies to be maintained, our public transport system to operate normally, except within what appears to be a narrow temperature band (somewhere between 10 and 15C)? If that is indeed the case, then it is a savage indictment of successive governments and their short-sighted policies (not only the current lot).



I’ve been to many countries over the last 20 years, working. Sometimes it’s been for a couple of days, often for weeks or months at a time. I’ve criss-crossed Europe, spent a lot of time in the Middle East. Been to North and South America, to Africa and the Caribbean. And nowhere in all my travels have I encountered a people so obsessed with the weather (as opposed to climate) than we British.

Generally, people just go about their daily lives and the weather is simply a part of that. If it’s hot, leave the jacket at home or wear lighter clothing. Wet – put on a waterproof jacket or take an umbrella. Cold – a thicker coat, maybe gloves and a scarf. It is what it is today, and there is no comment or discussion needed. Let’s talk about sport, or politics or something instead….

In the UAE or Qatar or Israel, people don’t complain about the sometimes intolerable summer heat. They dress to suit the climate, and get on with their lives. Air conditioned cars and offices are the norm, and every house or apartment has a fan or air conditioning unit or a shady balcony or terrace to sit on and enjoy the warm evenings. In more liberal places – Tel Aviv springs immediately to mind – there is a year round beach culture shared and enjoyed by all, no matter their religious beliefs.

Indians do not complain about the monsoon season, or the high humidity of summer where your shirt is wringing wet within minutes of setting out. The rains are a necessity for life and welcomed accordingly.

Places like France and Spain and Italy have long-established traditions of siesta time each day, and of July and August being the time when everything tends to shut down for the summer holidays – staff levels drop as everyone heads to the coast, armed with beach umbrellas and (of course….) suncream without any television or government prompting, and business carries on quite happily with a skeleton staff.

The thing is, the human race is adaptable, the most adaptable species in existence, that can live quite happily in the most extreme conditions.

Which is why Britain’s weather obsession and climate incompetence baffles and saddens me.



Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Farewell, Stephen Hawking


Such a shame Stephen Hawking has passed away. He was a brilliant and inspirational man.

When A Brief History of Time came out, I went to the Barbican Library in London, close to where I was then working, and borrowed it. I was already aware on him through a long standing interest in space flight, science fiction and cosmology – I had previously enjoyed Carl Sagan’s book (and tv series) Cosmos amongst many others, and had spent many hours in various bars debating what the future may hold in those areas with friends and colleagues – so felt it would be a good book to read. I got maybe a third of the way through it and gave it up, with a splitting headache. Thirty years on, older and perhaps a little wiser and certainly even more open minded, perhaps I should give it another go…..

But Hawking’s appeal spanned far more than the brilliance of his thinking and his science – as inspirational as that undoubtedly was. Here was a man, struck down at a young age by a dreadfully debilitating and incurable disease, given just months to live, still battling on years later in defiance of all medical reason. Confined to a wheelchair, communicating only by that voice box device (and the twinkle in his eyes….) he was still pushing the boundaries of human thought in his chosen field 50 years later.

And finding time to appear in The Simpsons, for goodness sake – I haven’t seen the episode in question and only became aware of it in his BBC obituary today, but I must YouTube it. The idea of him arguing with Homer about the shape of the universe (donut or not?) strikes me as being quite brilliant. Ditto appearances in The Big Bang Theory and Red Dwarf, two more classic psuedo-science comedy shows. They bear out the many tributes that have referenced his sense of humour, armed with some very funny quotations.

As if that wasn’t enough, he guested as vocalist on Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell album on the track Keep Talking – more self-deprecating humour methinks? And a fine piece of music – I don’t have the album but it’s in my Library courtesy of the Echoes – Greatest Hits compilation and I listen to it a lot – a favourite track from an all-time favourite band.

I watched the movie biography that came out a few years ago – The Theory of Everything, for which Eddie Redmayne received a well deserved Oscar in 2014 – and enjoyed it immensely. As a portrait of an ordinary (if brilliant) man coping with the most extraordinary circumstances in life, it is to this writer a moving tribute to Hawking, and should serve as an inspiration to everyone.

I’m lucky in that I remain quite fit and healthy in my mid 60s, and thank God I have never suffered or had to face anything remotely as serious as Hawking faced at the age of 22 and coped with in good humour and brilliant achievement for another 50 plus years, but I am truly humbled by the man. We all have ambitions, and often fail to achieve them out of pure laziness and lack of will-power – I know that I am very guilty of that. Few men are blessed with Hawking’s brilliant intellect or spirit and sheer love of life, and the world is a poorer place for his loss.

And a lot dumber too.

RIP Mr. Hawking, and thank you for your life and inspiration.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Flights are fine - but what about the airport?





It really has never been easier to get around.

Air travel is no longer restricted to the rich and famous. Anyone can now book tickets to destinations all over the world quickly and easily using the internet, often at costs cheaper than a train ticket from London to Birmingham. For this we should remember and thank Sir Freddie Laker, who back in the 1970s started his own airline and offered flights to New York and Toronto for less than a hundred pounds each way. I used his Skytrain service to Toronto a couple of times, on wide-bodied, three-engined DC10 airliners, and they were great. Comfortable seating with plenty of leg room, a decent on-board food and drinks service, all included in the ticket cost. The in-flight entertainment was rudimentary, of course, as was the norm in those days. One movie was shown, projected on a couple of unstable screens that unrolled from the cabin ceiling at strategic places along the cabin, and the headphones were cheap and flimsy and often only worked in one ear. Contrast that with today’s offerings: Qatar Airways, for instance, offers all passengers, whatever their travel class, a choice of over 4000 films, tv shows, and music CDs in a variety of languages, all piped to seat back screens the size of a decent laptop and with sound through high-quality over-ear headsets (in First and Business they are top of the range Bose noise-cancelling sets).

But the thing about Skytrain was that it brought long distance air travel to the masses. Before Laker, it was the domain of huge national carriers like BOAC (as BA were then), the now defunct TWA and Pan-Am from the US, Air France, Lufthansa and so on. These airlines shared routes not on a competitive basis but by cosy agreements that ensured they all had more or less equal market shares. They were able to charge high prices for an admittedly often high quality product, and made decent money from every flight on every route. Sir Fred changed all that. These days he would be termed a disrupter, and a fine one he was too. Because of the cheap flights, people began to flock to his little airline for their trans-Atlantic flights, most of which tended to be for family visits and leisure rather than business. BA and its American “rivals” - more correctly, cartel partners – were forced to match Fred’s prices, and even exceed them, and having deeper pockets (they were national carriers, after all, and benefited from a much wider network of international flights to subsidise the price war) were able to lose money on every flight. Laker complained they were out to bankrupt him, but the Governments of the time, and the airlines themselves, insisted this was not the case: they were only offering competition. The inevitable happened. In any price war, Laker was bound to lose, and this he duly did. His airline went bankrupt within months of the price war starting, and the days of cheap trans-Atlantic travel were over – for a few years at least.

But eventually, more disrupters came along, including Richard Branson, who decided making money from selling records was all very well but there was more fun to be had (and much more money to be made) from travel, and started Virgin Atlantic airlines. Despite a sticky start (BA et al tried their price cartel tactics against Virgin as well) his deeper pockets and probably better business acumen enabled him to succeed where Laker had failed. Admittedly his prices were not as cheap as Skytrain, but to offset the higher charge Branson offered a more entertaining trip. Food and drink was better quality, the IFE was much more varied and more modern than rivals offered, and he frequently hopped on scheduled flights to meet and greet the passengers, chat to them about their experience and what could improve it – something the executives of his flag-carrying rivals would never have dreamt of doing. Sure, a lot of it was not much more than a publicity seeking gimmick – but Branson did listen, and his product evolved in line with the customers’ preferences. The result? Virgin flourished, as it continues to do to this day. Along the way, he introduced features that were revolutionary but are now considered mainstream. For instance, when he introduced his Upper Class (business) services, he not only sited the premium cabin on the top deck of the 747s he was by now using on his trans-Atlantic routes, completely separate from the economy travellers, he also introduced separate priority check-in desks, better quality in-cabin service and a limousine pick up from the traveller’s home or hotel direct to the airport. It worked: on the Heathrow – JFK route (and later Gatwick to Newark and elsewhere) Virgin Upper Class became the carrier of choice for many businessmen.

It forced the flag carriers to follow suit with their variations on the theme, and this in turn has led to the hugely profitable (but hugely expensive and highly competitive) business class market that now provides fully enclosed suites in Etihad and Emirates First Class, flat-bed and half-enclosed Business Class seating in just about every other airline, and little perks like pyjamas and slippers, and amenity kits for Business Class passengers on long-haul routes. Tickets may well cost several thousand pounds per trip, but there is no shortage of takers and on most routes for many airlines, the Business and First Class passengers effectively subsidise the economy class fares.



But to get back to the first couple of sentences of this piece….

Over the last ten to fifteen years, while the business class offering has improved, so too has the choice for the economy class market. This has come about through the rise of the no-frills airline – the successors to Freddie Laker’s Skytrain services. All over the world, airlines have sprung up that provide low price tickets on single class aircraft, where food and drink and even baggage are classed as extra price options. Some of the products are good, in other cases the quality is appalling. There have been good products that failed - in Eastern Europe, for instance, an airline called Sky Europe offered a decent range of routes, including to the UK, at sensible prices that included food and drink, but they went bust after a couple of years of struggle. A Polish airline, OLT Express, offered flights between Gdansk and Warsaw for PLN20 (against a train fare of at least PLN120) and a flight time of 30 minutes (by train 4 ½ hours minimum), and was introducing flights to the UK for a range of fares including 25% of seats on each flight guaranteed at PLN50, when their owner became embroiled in a commodity trading and insurance scandal that resulted in the airline closing its doors after 6 months or so (the scandal is still rumbling through the courts today, five years later).

Other, similar carriers have flourished. Wizz Air, based in Hungary, were widely tipped to collapse two or three years ago, but are still very much in business, offering a huge range of flights around Europe and beyond (as far as Tel Aviv and Dubai and Tbilisi) at very reasonable prices, and with a fleet of airplanes that is expanding almost weekly with new aircraft being delivered. As with all low-fare airlines, food and drink and baggage are optional extras or purchased on board, but the costs are not excessive. Their product clearly works. British carriers like EasyJet and Ryan Air similarly dominate, with extensive networks and high volumes of passengers, but tend to be more expensive that Wizz. Ryan Air in particular sell seats at very low prices, but then bump them up with a huge list of extra costs – a £15 charge for payment on a credit card that is not Ryan Air branded, for instance, an additional fee for non-internet booking, £50 for a checked bag booked on line (a fee that trebles if you leave it until you get to the airport), £15 for taking a laptop on as cabin baggage….. They also fly to airports that are nowhere near the published destination: a flight to Brussels, for instance, actually lands at Lille in northern France (not even the same country!) from where you have to get a bus to the Belgian capital (at additional cost, of course).



The same pattern has emerged in the US domestic market, and across the Far East and India, and Australasia, South America…… Clearly, low cost airlines are here to stay. But at present, they are mostly short haul – that is, a flying time of under about 4 hours. Intercontinental routes – between Europe and US, for instance – are still served pretty much exclusively by the big airlines like BA, Air France, American Airlines and so on. This is primarily down to sheer economics. On prime routes such as these, the fuel burn is of course, much higher, and the landing costs (charged by airports for each landing on a given route, and limited in number) are also higher. Because of the route distances, either bigger aircraft are needed or more modern and fuel efficient (and hence more expensive) planes. So far, no-one has been able to make the economics work.

But that seems to be changing. More disruptors have entered the market over the last year or so that are trying to take the no frills concept intercontinental – and seem to be meeting with some success. They are doing this by using newer, larger, leased aircraft, and flying from smaller airports. Again, the focus is on the trans-Atlantic routes, but if they meet with a similar level of success that Wizz and Ryan Air and EasyJet have reached in the short-haul market, no doubt they will expand their intercontinental networks.

Based in Europe, the main players are Norwegian Airways and Wow! Norwegian is the larger of the two carriers, and has established a hub at Gatwick in the UK as well as its home base in Oslo, and offers an expanding route network around Europe and to the US. Right now, its offering includes a meal service where orders can be placed and pre-paid when buying and checking into flights on-line, as well as through the plane’s IFE system – which is also offering a decent selection of films, tv shows and music. Wi-fi connectivity is also offered to passengers in flight, all at reasonable prices. Ticket prices are also highly competitive, and the airline is picking up some decent business.

Wow!, meanwhile, offers a similar level of in-flight service and costs, but is based in Iceland and thus routes many flights through there. Reykjavik airport is acting as a hub connecting Wow!’s European network with some of its trans-Atlantic ones. But not all of them: there are other direct trans-Atlantic services, for instance Barcelona to Los Angeles: this is a 10 hour flight, but carries an identical service pattern to the airline’s European services. It, too, is picking up some decent business and is looking to expand its offerings.

Nothing is certain, but if Norwegian and Wow! succeed – as seems quite possible at the moment – then a potentially huge low-cost market will be opened up, and as travellers our options will be limitless. No doubt new competitors will take to the skies, and the big flag-carriers will be forced to compete too. Prices seem set to fall, which will of course attract yet more customers.



This is all good news for us, as travellers.

What concerns me a little in all this is what happens before you get on your flight, because in my humble opinion an awful lot of airports are simply not keeping pace with developments in the air. I guess this is not surprising, given how long it takes to get any kind of expansion plan approved, at least in the UK. Heathrow has been at pretty much full capacity for a few years now, and trying to agree an expansion project for the same amount of time, but is bogged down in round after round of public enquiries, planning applications and consultations – and of course appeals. There seemed to be a final decision made last year, but it was overturned (on appeal, of course) and a new round of consultation is underway. Earliest completion date now seems to be 2025 – and that is just for a new runway (no buildings….).

Luton, meanwhile, now gets my vote for the World’s Worst Airport – and when you think about some Third World monstrosities and New York’s JFK, that is really saying something. It’s always been a small, regional airport, home to a handful of small charter airlines catering for the package tour market. But the explosion of low-price carriers led to Wizz Air, Ryan Air and EasyJet establishing bases there and hence an incremental increase in flight numbers. There are no jetways at all – boarding and exit from planes is done by strolling across the tarmac from the terminal to removable steps. At the gates you wait in line (nowhere to sit) until your inbound aircraft arrives, at which point you are processed through and stand on four flights of stairs, until such time as the plane has emptied, re-fuelled and re-supplied. Do I hear safety hazard? Oh, yes! Then and only then is the exit door unlocked to allow you to board. There is an expanding choice of overpriced shops, restaurants and bars in the waiting area, but insufficient seating, so waiting there for your gate announcement – by screen, no PA – is never pleasant and always overcrowded. Passport control and security is understaffed and equally overcrowded, with staff that is uniformly rude and unhelpful. Did I mention traffic? No…….well, it’s worse if that’s possible than anything inside the terminal building. There is a one way system that is poorly designed and badly signed (especially on the way out) and used by cars, taxis and buses alike, with only one passenger drop off point. Buses meanwhile come into a semi-circle of bays from which they have to reverse to leave (so there is constant waiting to both get in and out). They are also irregular – only 2 per hour to the various car parks and the car hire centre – and the bus stops themselves offer no shelter at all from wind and rain. It has been like this, due to an “airport expansion” program for a couple of years now, and shows no sign of improving any time soon. On a scale of 1 to 10, I have no hesitation in awarding it a generous -50.

Stansted in Essex, also home to EasyJet and Ryan Air and a host of other carriers both low-cost and flag carriers, is not much better, although its road system is much better organised (despite security barriers in surprising places). The check in area is ok, but the security and passport control are always overcrowded and housed in a single football pitch-sized hall with a single line snaking through it. It’s never taken me less than 40 minutes to get from the entrance to the x-ray machines. Once through to the waiting area, there are clear similarities to Luton – overpriced shops, bars and restaurants and insufficient seating. There is the novelty, for some gates, of having to catch a shuttle train from the waiting area to a satellite building, but at least the gates do have jetways, even if they are not all in use.

Elsewhere, outside of Britain I’m afraid, the situation is better. My local airport in Warsaw used to be very much like Luton, but in the last 5 or 6 years has been completely re-developed. The entry and exit road network is efficient and well planned, there is a new rail service to a station under the terminal, and a constant stream of buses and taxis that make getting into town and back very simple and very cheap. The terminal itself has grown from perhaps 8 or 9 gates (when I first moved there in 2000) to nearly 50, housed in a single big building (that contains the original terminal as a central part of its design) so that getting around is very easy. There are several banks of departure screens, gates and changes are also announced in both Polish and English, and an excellent selection of shops, bars and restaurants to keep you amused. They are a little expensive, but at least there is also plenty of seating at the gates themselves, and all of these are served with jetways. Security checks can be a little slow and disorganised, especially if you’re departing during the morning rush hour (from about 6 to 9 on weekdays with Monday being the worst – naturally enough) but by and large the airport is a pleasure to use.

Schiphol in Amsterdam is a huge airport, in acreage about the size of the Isle of Wight (perhaps an exaggeration but still – it goes on forever, with a network of about 5 runways and connecting taxi ways for the planes, and at least three public motorways and a main railway line running underneath them) but it’s surprisingly easy to use. There are dozens of self-service kiosks to print your boarding card and deposit your checked bags (all very simple to do – who needs gate agents?), and security is very quick and efficient. Plenty of reasonably priced shopping, a good selection of bars and restaurants, and lots of seating areas, including outside with runway views and deckchairs for those rare Dutch hot and sunny days. It’s probably my favourite airport.

I quite like Frankfurt too, similar in many ways (including size) to Schiphol, but my favourite German airport is undoubtedly Munich. Great lay out, great selection of shops and food places, and all managed with Teutonic efficiency. On reflection, I think it might just be better than Schiphol (though a good bit smaller). Zurich is good too, as is Vienna, but I’m not so keen on Charles de Gaulle in Paris, where getting around is less easy and the staff less friendly (at least in my experience). It also seems to lack the shopping and eating variety offered by the Germans and Dutch.



So it seems to me the future is rosy for those of us who travel by air, whether for business or increasingly for pleasure. There is plenty of choice and good value to be had now, and this will continue to improve still further over the next couple of years, it seems to me. It’s the airports themselves that now need some attention, especially, I’m afraid to say, in my homeland. Flying into a dump like Luton or Stansted is nothing less than an embarrassment for this Englishman.

Whether the British government has the interest in making the badly needed investment any time soon, with everything else that is going on in my country (in particular the B-word, and crises in both the NHS and education services) is open to question. The state of British airports is but one element in an essentially broken transport infrastructure that will need a significant pile of money to fix, and it will not all come from the private sector (as our politicians desperately hope). If the economy does tank after 2020 – as many experts believe – then difficult funding decisions will need to be made by courageous, forward thinking politicians. And they, I’m sorry to say, are pretty thin on the ground.