Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Mysterious Allure of Travel

Travel by plane used to look so glamorous. Grace Kelly in head scarf waving from the top of a staircase as she boards a Pan Am flight to Monaco. Nowadays, I feel more like steerage class immigrants trapped in the lower decks of the Titanic. I’ll bet Jackie O never had her toiletries examined or her bags weighed, and I find it hard to imagine Audrey Hepburn having to shed those elegant little ballerina flats and Givenchy coat and shuffle barefoot across a cold floor while pushing her Vuitton train case along a plastic card table.

The check-in lines at Air France are endless, and as we patiently wait our turn I can’t shake the foreboding that there will be a whole heckuva a lot more ahead of us.

Still, there’s a strange kind of confraternity among all of us, we who will be trapped together in an oversized tin can for the next ten—possibly twelve, e
ven fifteen, but Lord I hope not—hours together. We had better start the nodding acquaintance now with the old gentleman behind us with the long beard, the backpacker carrying a boogie board, the well-dressed young woman with the pricey luggage and the numerous conventioneers with bright red bags proclaiming a pharmaceutical product in large friendly letters. At least we’ll all be together in this if they lock the gates to the lower decks as the ship capsizes.

We arrive at check in planning to carry on one roll-aboard filled with essentials (extra underwear, a one quart Ziploc of non-lethal 3 oz portions of fluids, computer, some reading material and a few clean t-shirts) and one beloved musical instrument, which my Omnivore is not about to let out of his hands, even to buy a cup of coffee. We will check another small suitcase of things we plan never to see again, i.e. all the rest of our clothes and, secreted inside, a fold-away bag for later, when we come back with whatever fancy food-stuffs and wines we’ve discovered.

The counter agent, a bald young man with a forbidding frown to go with his “Non,” asks me to weigh the roll-aboard.

“Non, madame,” he says, “You will have to check this one too. It is too heavy.” And he starts to haul it away.

I stop him with a sputtering “What? Why?” I’m not about to lose my essentials.

“It must be 12 kilos or less,” he says impatiently, obviously in no mood.

“Well, how much does it weigh?” I say, obviously in no mood.


“Give it to me.”

“What are you going to do, madame?” he asks, an annoying Gallic sarcasm dripping from his voice.

“I’m going to take something out and put it in the other bag,” I say with an annoying American sarcasm. I mean honestly, haven’t you heard of “America’s Biggest Loser”? Watch me lose two kilos in twenty seconds, pal.

I extract a guidebook, four maps and the bazillion torn out New Yorker articles I was going to read on the plane – who reads that stuff on the plane anyhow? I shove the 1-quart Ziploc of non-lethal 3 oz portions of fluids in my shoulder bag--zip, zip, zip, e voila. 11.4 kilos.

Makes you think about carrying around those guidebooks.

He doesn’t look at me as he labels the roll-aboard “cabine.” Nor does he look at me as I start pressing the buttons on an automatic survey machine that sits on the counter at every Air France station. “Please take a moment to rate the service you received today…”

The mysterious repulsiveness of airline food

What can they be thinking?

The flight attendant, a pleasant and pretty young woman with a securely wound ballerina bun wrapped tidily in a hair net, offers me a choice of wine. I’m semi-flattered to be spoken to in French, as it must mean that I do not look immediately identifiable as an American tourist—although as I think about it more, I figure she’s covering her bases, just in case I’m a French tourist who was stranded in the US, lost her luggage and was forced to buy unfashionable American clothes. I dispel any illusions by asking for “The Chardonnay, s’il vous plait.”

They serve the wine on Air France with an enticing packet of bar mix that includes nine pretzels, eight sesame sticks and a pound-sign. I had remembered Air France as having not-too-bad food as airline offerings go, but things are not looking promising.

We’re put in mind of the recent “Top Chef” episode in which contestants vied to create in-flight meals for Continental Airlines. They must fit in a flat dish with ingredients that are re-heatable in ten minutes in an oven of questionable temperature. Apparently they don’t get “Top Chef” over in France, although they could benefit from watching an episode or two.

My Omnivore and I pick over a tray of “Peppered What the Heck is That avec Curried Granules of Huh,” served froid. Under the ubiquitous tin cover is the hot item, “Leatherback Salmon tossed with Pasta Slimee Tricolore.”

And to go along with it, are quaintly spelled packages of Kozy Shack Something Or Other, and Darigold “First Quality” butter. The declarative nature of that “First Quality” reminds me of the Sincere Bank in San Francisco’s Chinatown—lost in translation to hilariously suspicious effect.

Breakfast, served five hours later, is no better, featuring Mystery Cheese and Mystery Meat overwhelming a single lettuce leaf and a single parsley leaf--each of which is doing about as well as I am at 30,000 feet.

I imagine the lettuce gasping out the last aria from “La Traviata” with a hopeful “Rinasce….rinasce…..” ending with a final desperate high note, as it sinks dramatically to the ground.

So much for airline food.

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