Monday - The Flight & Arrival in Paris
No matter how excited I am, the hum of a taxiing jet always promotes an urge to nap that is only cured by the acceleration of take-off. Pressed back into the seat, the dull hum now a roar, we turned to the right to see the hotel where we spent our first night as a married couple. Then the plane banked to the left to take us over the city and northwest to our first stopover, Bangkok.
Beatrice soon fell asleep on my arm, for she is an expert sleeper. I am the opposite and if previous flights are anything to go by will be lucky to grab short, disturbed naps as we cruise along. The skies outside the window are cloudy, so I took out my French books and attempted cram some more of the language into my skull by writing a letter to a French friend describing our wedding. I was not very successful, still too dazed by the past days' events to focus my attention.
The inflight entertainment system offered a welcome distraction. The plane had not been upgraded with the individual chair mounted LCD screens, so the only option was to watch the shared movie projected on to the center aisle walls. "Legally Blonde" was suitably fluffy, "One Night at McCools" wierd, watched through half-awake eyes. Dinner came and went, then cabin lights dimmed.
The lights weren't switched on again until we approached Bangkok. Looking down, the city still appeared very much alive at 11pm. Neon lights mingled with headlamps as pedestrians scampered between the stalls of night markets. It was a bit like flying into Kuala Lumpur again.
We stumbled, bleary eyed, into the heat and humidity of Bangkok's International Airport, our body clocks believing that it was 3am. The airport was quite clean, though the brown, cream and yellow did not help the impression. The souvenier, food and duty-free stalls and shops were still very active. Shiny metal statues and jewellry, colourful silks and carved wood. Interesting to browse through, but not tempting enough to bother exchanging dollars for baht.
Our heads wanted to keep sleeping, but our legs enjoyed a little exercising. Still, it was a bit of a relief to be called for boarding. Nine hours and no sign of airsickness! Only 12 hours 20 minutes to our next stop in London.
I was wrong about the 12 hours. Soon after we had taxied away from the embarkation gate a warning light was displayed in the cockpit. As we sat there waiting for the system to be checked I drifted off to sleep. A couple of hours later they still had not found the problem, so the entertainment system was activated and we were shown a movie unfit for a honeymoon. No, it wasn't "War of the Roses", but instead starred Hugh Grant and Colin Firth. "Bridget Jones' Diary" started Beatrice's obsession with the latter actor. Not fair!
I would have sworn that we only spent a couple of hours on the ground instead of the four hours shown by my watch. It all disappeared so smoothly that I did not even mind the delay. Again, thanks Qantas!
Soon after we took off the staff enforced a lights off, window blinds closed policy. With no more movies to watch and unable even to look out the window I settled into a restless sleep, unlike Beatrice who snoozed besides me, waking only to shake legs suffering pins and needles. The cabin crew made regular trips through the aisles dispensing water to ward off dehydration and Deep Vein Thrombosis, an issue recently made popular in the press.
The movie screen showed our position in the world with a regularly updated map. I could see the barest outline of sunlight through the portal, but the attendents insisted on keeping it shut, I guess to help passengers ease through the time zones. Finally, while over Armenia we were allowed the lights were switched back on and the shutters opened. Below was a mountainous landscape almost bare of vegetation, very different to anything we had seen before. The were the odd signs of human habitation, but life in the snowtopped mountain ranges looked very harsh.
As we ate a breakfast prepared in Thailand, omelette, fruits and the first yoghurt I have tasted that was actually somewhat pleasant, the plane moved across the Black Sea and Turkey. Austria's Alps were coated with green meadows, while Germany and the Benelux showed more signs of industrialisation.
In a short time we were crossing the English Channel and flying over the mouth of the Thames and onwards across London. There was a fleeting similarity to the computer generated landscapes of Microsoft Jet of so many years ago, but this scene was fully textured with the age of the city below us. So many recognisable landmarks, Big Ben, the Tower Bridge, the London Eye and many more. Rows of terrace houses forming spiral walls enclosing narrow streets. It was both new, so different to an Australian city, yet familiar from a heritage of British TV and books.
Our twelve and a half hour long distance journey must have given our flight some sort of priority as, despite our late arrival, we were not placed in a holding pattern above busy Heathrow. It was a long taxi to the arrivals gate, past aircraft in liveries unseen in Australia. I laughed at the not so subtle anti-British Airways messages on the Virgin Atlantic aircraft, while listening to "Summer Rain" playing over the entertainment system, a song which seems to pop up at seminal points in my life. The strange thing was, the skies over London were actually quite clear and certainly free of rain!
We said goodbye to the third passenger in our row of seats, an ex-Welsh Guards soldier, now a management consultant who was divorcing his wife for an Australian girlfriend. Despite his planned move to Australia, he seemed happy to be back in his home country. Legs weak and uncoordinated through lack of use, we walked out of the aircraft that had been our home for 26 hours and into Heathrow terminal.
Due to the delay in Bangkok and our consequent very late arrival in London we had missed our connecting flight to Paris. The British Airways staff rebooked us on a later flight, but in the meantime we had an hour and bit to waste in the airport terminal. The Harrods store was decked out in Christmas decorations (it was November!), but the British Museum shop good were more interesting. Again, the time spent in the airport did not warrant us changing any of our Dollars to Pounds. We could always get a snack in Paris, or so we thought.
The British Airways jet to Paris was rather spartan compared with the 747 we had arrived on. The plane was full, the passengers all French so far as I could tell, and Beatrice and I were placed in nonadjacent seats. One male passenger was trying to get me to do something and seemed quite unhappy that I couldn't understand his French. Well sorry, but after 26 hours in a plane and very little sleep my knowledge of the French language was impossible to retrieve. Besides which, we were in a British plane on British soil, so I didn't feel morally wrong.
It turned out that all he wanted to do was swap seat, so I was able to sit with my wife (and he with his wife I think)! That was nice of them.
The airline meal was our first taste of things to come for short distance flights - turkey sandwiches and fruit juice served in a paper bag. Qantas dropped hot food from the short distance menu shortly afterwards. At least it was food, because by this time we were hungry.
The flight was short enough that we barely had time to get to cruising altitude. As we descended to Charles de Gaulle airport we skimmed over perfect fields and tiny villages. What struck me most was the short distances between the villages and the number of them that punctuated the landscape. In Australia there would be a single, larger, country town, but a much greater distance between it and the next town.
Finally, finally, we touched down on French soil. We had made it, and with NO airsickness. We looked forward to a hot shower and soft bed and whatever French stuff we could see in between.
We raced through the terminal corridors to retrieve our luggage. We waited at the rotunda, and waited. A camouflaged member of the paramilitary waited nearby, a concession to the recent terrorist actions. Still no bag after half and hour. We wandered over to the BA counter, only to be told that, in the rush caused by the delay of the Qantas flight, our bags had been placed on a later flight. They gave us a voucher for refreshments, a note to show security, and told us to return in an hour or so.
Unfortunately, Charles de Gaulle International Airport was a huge disappointment. All stark grey brown rough concrete and dark. It was the ugliest terminal that we had yet been inside. The shopping and food was just as bad. Our voucher was only for a drink, and the drink we selected was not very nice. It's easy to get lost in the circles, security gates and confusing lifts. Bored, and very weary we wandered back and waited again for the luggage to appear on the rotunda.
Eventually the big brown backpack appear, followed by the smaller olive green bag. We picked them up, cleared customs and found our way out of the terminal and to the tranfser bus that would take us to the station. There we took the easy way out and just used our prepaid Visite Transit passes to pass through the gates - once the attendant showed us how. Maybe it was a waste of money, but we were too tired to work out buying all the tickets.
The yellow electric passenger train soon arrived and somehow we managed to squeeze our bags onboard what was essentially a work commuter system. At first we ran through rural areas, golden late afternoon light through autumn yellow and green trees, before we arrived in the brown of the city, the age apparent through the structures that raced past. The locomotives and rollingstock visible on the lines besides us triggered memories of the Lima and Marklin model railway catalogues that I had loved to leaf through as a kid. These were working lines, more diverse and interesting then Sydney's commuter trains, container and coal wagons that are all you ever see.
At Gare du Nord we had to change to one of the metro lines. This involved running up and down stairs and through long tunnels (the Paris Metro system is great for its coverage, but awful for changing lines) while lugging bags that seemed to increase with weight at each step. Our first metro journey was one station long; Gare du Nord to Barbes-Rochechouart. From the elevated platform, we rushed down to the underground line to the Pigalle. Tried to rush, but with two big bags hanging off me I got caught in one of the narrow gates and it wouldn't let me try again. I eventually got out through an alternative gate and rejoined Beatrice.
Two stops later we arrived in the Pigalle. The light was fading, the streets narrow and joined at odd angles and we were exhausted and confused. After wandering around and retracing steps we found the Hotel Victor Masse. Thankfully, the owners spoke some English because I couldn't manage much more then a "bonjour".
Our room was on the top floor, a slow ride in a rickety elevator and then up a tight flight of stairs to the next level. When we opened the door, our first thought was "how small"! The double bed (at least it wasn't two singles, as is apparently common) took up most of the room, a tiny TV mounted just below the ceiling, connected to the sole power outlet. The shower and toilet cubicle was impossibly cramped. The heating never seemed sufficient. However, the bright yellow decore and sloping attic room gave the room a lovely quaintness that was appropriate for honeymoon accommodation andthere were no complaints about cleanliness. Worth A$150 per night for two? Not by Australian standards, but we weren't in Australia now.
After setting our bags down and calling home, we decided to rest a little before heading out for dinner.
The next thing we knew it was 10pm. A hot shower later, we realised that, despite a little hunger, we didn't have the energy to find a place to eat at this late hour. So, back to bed and a long sleep for our first night in Paris.