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Je suis Legend

What a nightmare (quel cauchemar).

Because of the hordes of disease-ridden insect-scroungers swarming at Calais like fruit-flies for a mass attack on the sacred White Cliffs of Douvres, I decided at the last minute to change my travel plans.

The thing was, I had only 40 minutes to get across Paris to make my connecting train. It seemed not impossible in the heat of the moment – and let’s remember, 1st August sees the regular outbreak of mass holidaying in France known as la fermeture annuelle – that there might be some delay getting through the Chunnel. Even a half-hour holdup would mean becoming stranded in Paris for a week, wandering around an empty and closed city on the lookout for zombies: Je suis Legend

So, with an eye on the newscasts, I nervously cancelled my train tickets, writing-off the two hundred pounds, and (after some internet nonsense in which it appears I had also booked a second ticket for use in December, when I was not intending to fly to France) just managed to secure the last seat on the 06.25 Ryanair flight out of Bristol, to where I uncertainly drove, arriving shortly before one a.m on the Friday night – I always believe in allowing plenty of time to check-in; while the Park and Ride turned out to be about ten miles away through the backstreets.

Hordes of tourists swarmed all night through the Departure lounge, with its many acres of shopping, each loudly trundling a suitcase with rumbling, squeaky wheels. Sleep was impossible. I could see no-one else with any luggage resembling my own, unfashionably strappy and behandled, expensive overnight bag in Burgundy-coloured Italian leather, that I had purchased for the occasion via Bagsonlinedotcom.

I don’t know, it’s like you go to an airport nowadays only to shop, and out the back where the changing rooms used to be you’re goaded onto a seemingly endless walkway and down a ramp into a cigar-tube with wings, where exhausted but still-smiling salesladies plastered in layers of makeup ply you with more opp0rtunities to shop, only to land two hours later at another department store somewhere warmer and muggier, but essentially identical.

A process not unakin to an abattoir, as I remarked to a fellow traveller, a total stranger, who didn’t seem to find it funny. He’s probably never kept a pig.

A week of similarly sleep-deprived nights followed, as we partied until dawn. Which explains why, on the last morning, I woke up on the bed fully clothed, and disbelievingly checked my watch, and gradually realised that, having merely gone to my room to collect my stuff, I had keeled over and missed the transport that must have left an hour earlier to take some of us to the airport, forty kilometres away.

There was still, however, an hour-and-a-half to spare to get to the airport before the boarding gate closed.

I could still make it!

The only human being I could find to explain my plight to was one of the hotel waiters, whose grasp of English was tenuous at the best of times. He too was crapulous with wine and lack of sleep after our last-night party. The French have an annoying habit, one no doubt among many, of considerately striving to muster their few words of English while you are conversing as fluently as you know how in your best French, thus ensuring there is no possible meeting of minds on the matter at hand. If only we could agree to stick to one language or the other, communication might be restored and a thousand years of history reversed.

Anyway, my urgent request that he telephone for a taxi met with the explanation that it would be very expensive, I would need to be a millionaire; and so, no, he or another would be honoured to drive me. Excusing himself, he disappeared off upstairs. Twenty minutes later he returned, to explain sheepishly that he could not find any car keys, or anyone at all, and anyway, he was still well over the legal limit to drive. Again, I pleaded with him to just call a taxi. ‘Per’aps feefty Euro!’ he expostulated, with a Gallic lift of both eyebrows. Increasingly agitated, I explained carefully that I did not give a fig how much it cost, I just needed to be there before nine o’clock.

He disappeared again. Another twenty minutes passed, before he returned with the news that the nearest taxi was in Marmande, 15 km away, and the lady owner did not think there was now time to drive to where I was to collect me and bear me thence to the airport by nine o’clock. My mind was racing: what possible alternatives could be plucked from the increasingly humid atmosphere?

By now, helpful English people were trickling in to breakfast, thus starting a fresh train of time-consuming red herrings and wild goose-chases. Ancient Mariner-like, I pathetically described my plight to all and sundry. Clever phones were produced and prodded, to no avail. We traipsed hither and yon, searching vainly for a reliable signal bearing possible news of timetables and suchlike; while in my brain, irreparably clogged with proteinaceous gunge, Time itself seemed both to contract and expand simultaneously. Internet connection at the place was, the proprietor shrugged, a trifle patchy, owing to it’s being ‘la campagne‘ – the countryside, a place of profound tedium and despair in the French mind, especially for those condemned to live there.

At last, the time for the aircraft’s scheduled departure came and went; all hope evaporated. With no means of contacting the airline, since their absurd website is designed specifically to prevent such a thing, I pictured the flight crew anxiously hovering by the aircraft door, checking their watches and the manifest for any sign of the missing passenger; my name being broadcast with increasing urgency over the airport tannoy; frustration and impatience written on the faces of my fellow low-cost passengers as the minutes tick by, anxious to depart; the eventual abandonment of expectation as the pilot finally makes an executive decision and revs-up the motor for takeoff.

French computers are not as English ones are. They are not called computers, but ordinateurs. The Qwerty keyboard layout is not just subtly different. The ubiquitous @ character required for the at-least four compulsory entries of your email address on all travel documents is one of three on its key, leaving you to work out that you need to press Ctrl. Alt. first, in order to separate it from the others. The full-stop, or point symbol, is hidden among the numeric keys, as far as possible from the other punctuation. The navigation is all in French, which by and large I comprehend but obviously not all the technical stuff.

Then, of course, although it is a situation by no means unique to my hosts (it happens every day to me at home), the printer has run out of paper, toner; and, since you printed out the wrong page first and then left it to time-out for five minutes, the driver has defaulted to a different (non-existent) printer, and you have left your passport in your suitcase in the other building, just when you come to the bit about printing-out your own boarding pass or face having to pay an extra 45 Euro to have one issued at the check-in desk; while EasyJet has already forgotten you said you were a ‘Mr’, necessitating a re-entry of all your other data.

But with the help of a kind Dutch guest and some interventions from the proprietor, whose ordinateur it was, I did eventually manage to make the booking, securing once again the last seat on the plane; and set off for Bordeaux, driven in a cute menthol-green hire car by a bluff and sailorly Englishman; a horn-player who, luckily for me, happened also to be booked on the 16.30 to Bristol, and happened to require a lift at the other end as, by chance, his own Byzantine travel arrangements had meant having to leave his own car at home; and who happened to live only an hour away from where I am sitting now, recounting my adventures.

Of such happenstances is life made, fortunately. I finally got in around midnight, to find my young dog-sitter packed and waiting anxiously, surrounded by mess and muddle after a week of holidaying in my little house, and my lovely Hunzi alive and well; which is all, frankly, that really matters.

It was certainly worth writing-off a third tranche of two hundred pounds just to see his little sweet furry face again, his reproachful eyes and his sweeping great plume of a tail threatening to send everything flying in his excitement. Hopefully we shan’t have to go through this torture again for another year, if then. I may just move permanently to France, it would be easier and cheaper.

Oh, sure, it was a great week, as always, but the travelling takes its toll every time on my sanity and my fragile bank balance. I am, I freely admit, administratively challenged. No, I will say: incompetent. A total booby, in dire need of a good PA – or a third wife, whichever comes first. I have read a review of a book by the estimable Alain de Botton, a public philosopher, in which he argues the case for accepting travel as an integral part of life. (I think at the time he was on a year-long grant from the British Airports Authority as the official sage of Heathrow.) I am not of his mind: travel is Purgatory, pure and simple – an uncertain and menacing space between worlds.

This is the fourth time I have made this pilgrimage to one of the great Continental temples of jazz, and the fourth time my journeying there and back, a distance totalling only 1800 miles, has turned to farcical disaster, bungled experiments, needless delay and expense (see Posts passim); all as a result of my inchoate attempts to find the quickest, the safest, the most reliable, the most direct – and the cheapest – way to travel, without losing my tickets on the way.

As for the possible ‘delay’ causing me to miss my train in Paris, there is an epilogue to my story.

It seems a fellow guest had chosen to travel by the same original route I had abandoned at the last minute, involving many trains. He told me, they experienced no delay in the tunnel and he safely made the transition to catch his onward connection in Paris – the one I had most feared missing. Luckily, he had decided to travel with his bicycle, to do a bit of sightseeing; because, when they arrived at the town where he was to make the final connection with the cross-country local service towards our destination, from where it was still a forty-minute car journey to the place, he found that the French railway workers were staging one of their perennial wildcat strikes and there was no train.

He was thus faced with a 65-kilometre bike ride through the night, and arrived at dawn the next day. Happily, his instrument was small enough to carry in his pocket: he is a harmonica-player, who, since the legendary Toots Thielemans retired last year at the age of 93, may be one of the few jazz harmonica-players currently practising, which is a shame but there you are. They say it is better to travel in hope, than to arrive.

I say, bollocks to that.

And now, blessed sleep…

Postscriptum

04.00 hours: Oh, hello Cat, pleased to see me back, are we?

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