Thursday, March 12, 2009

Paris. Sort of.

“Charles de Gaulle is a disgrace … it’s like a third-world airport.”
—Michel-Yves Labbé, president of French travel company Directours, Aug. 14, 2007

Flying from Dakar to Europe inevitably involves consuming some sort of heated filth from a tray. If you're paying for your own ticket then you're flying with either TAP or Iberia. TAP offer a breakfast best emptied directly into the sick bag, while Iberia present the hungry traveller with a foil container filled with warm elastic bands underneath a red gash of generic 'pasta sauce' that smells slightly of bins.

If someone else is paying, you might get to fly with Airfrance, who charge about 50% more for a marginally less miserable experience. With Airfrance you get a slightly better standard of barely edible sludge, with a glass of cheap champagne to ensure you wake up with stinking breath. A little wedge of President brand camembert might normally cheer you up, but this just brings back memories of once falling asleep on a cross-channel ferry while holding a wedge of said cheese, only to wake up with sticky melted camembert all over my hands. What a disgrace (me, not the cheese).

At Paris I have a few hours to spare. Enough, I've calculated, to escape the grubby tunnels and overpriced fast food of Charles de Gaulle and make a quick trip on the train into town. Grab a quick salade nicoise and steak frites in a cosy bistro and make it back to the airport in time for my onward connection.

But I didn't bank on Charles de Gaulle airport being such an absolute pit of misery and misdirection. For a start the airport map that came with my tickets is wildly inaccurate and inadequate. I make maps for a living, so if I can't understand what the hell is going on, what hope has the average jettlagged traveller got? There are no proper signposts, and the staff are scruffy, incompetent and rude.

Just when I think I've made it in time, with only one last hurdle to jump, a bored looking customs official cocks his finger at me. Bobbins.

Me: Moi..? D'accord. Bonjour Monsieur (attempted smile)

Customs official (in English, after clocking my British accent): Please stand behind the table and present your passport.

So I stand there, with my passport in my hand and my bag on the table. For 15 minutes. I stare at the roof, wondering if it might collapse.

The official returns, takes my passport,and stares at me. I notice a resemblence to Pepe the King Prawn from the muppets and have to bite my lip to stifle a grin.

"Do you have anything to declare?" he asks.

"No" I almost draw blood on my lip, showing admirable restraint by not going down the Oscar Wilde route.

"Please open your bag"

So I do, slowly spreading out the contents of my handluggage on the table.

"What is the purpose of your visit to France?" asks Pepe.

"I'm just here for lunch" I reply.

"For lunch?" Pepe, looks incredulous.

"Yes. I hear there are some nice restaurants in Paris."

"Are you telling me a joke?"


He looks pissed off now. I was only being honest.

By this point my bags are empty, and passerby crane their necks in a combination of sympathy, relief, and curiosity. There isn't much to see: some camera stuff, a laptop, a pencil case, a gps, a cellphone, wallet, my spare t-shirt, socks and underpants, some work documents, a dog-earred copy of 'Scoop'. I switch on the camera and computer as requested, my pencil case is rifled through, socks unbundled in case they contain who knows what.

Pepe tosses back my passport, nods and says "Bon", before sauntering off to chat with his colleagues. I've missed my bistro window.

I meander over to another terminal and buy a dismal cheese and ham sandwich, a so-so tarte au chocolat, and a bottle of Orangina for too much money at Paul. Lunch in Paris.

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