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… 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.