Saturday, 20 October 2007

The Upgrade

As South Africa and England slug it out at the Stade de France, I speed to Waterloo in the Eurostar.

There was no space on the trains from Paris on Sunday morning. But of course there was room aplenty on the Saturday night.

It wasn’t the ideal way to end 10 days in the States — taking a train to London.

But since I have commitments in England, I must be flexible.

And that approach seemed apt given what Air Food at the Boston check-in had done on Friday afternoon for our 5.30pm flight.

I explained to the assistant that when I forked out the cash at the Air France outlet at La Maison de la Radio, I’d been led to believe that I would be getting seats with individual TV screens on the flight over to Boston from Paris.

When these didn’t materialise it was something of a disappointment. I told her that as I’d been holding a child who had just fallen asleep in my arms, I wasn’t in a position to pursue the point with the staff on boarding the aircraft

She said that in the Jumbos we were travelling in, these sorts of seats were only available upstairs. I asked if it was possible to have what I thought I had paid for.

She said she’d look at the plan on the computer for me. She lowered her eyes and after about 30 seconds furrowed her brows.

That seemed to be a bad omen. So not to appear too aggressive I said that it wasn’t a problem if we couldn’t get the seats, I’d take it up with customer services when I got back to Paris.

She kept consulting the hidden screen. She could have been watching the sports channel or re-runs of Hill Street Blues for all I knew but she looked up and said authoritatively: “There’s some space opening up ... I’ll go and ask the flight manager.”

I watched her go over to a man. In the distance I saw their mouths open, some nodding and gesturing.

She returned and said the flight manager had agreed to let me and the three children go upstairs to where the TVs lived — or to put it in competitive service industry speak — to the seats that I thought I had paid for.

I was grateful for her help and a little ambivalent about being too emollient for wasn’t it me who had suffered most monstrously?

Well, away from the exaggeration.

I thought if I was trying to blag an upgrade, mine wasn’t an implausible yarn. Why wouldn’t I want an eight and five-year-old to be distracted as much as possible during a seven-hour trans Atlantic flight?

I said by way of eulogy that we’d flown American Airlines during the summer and that we weren't at all happy with the experience. I even got the girls to comment on the flight 10 days earlier from Charles de Gaulle.

There was a spontaneous paean encompassing the friendly staff, the culinary excellence of the Children’s Meal as well as the Goodies Bag of crayons, puzzles and toys.

This was not a bellicose family unit.

For all the honied words, the check-in operative probably knew she was doing her in-flight colleagues a favour.

The flight back for the girls from Boston to Paris was thus much better than the return journey back in July. It was an improvement for me too.

In the summer the boy screamed solidly but then there were two adults to share the duties of calming the bairn who was teething. This time he slept for the first couple of hours as the meals were served and then woke up as everyone was settling down for their post-prandial nap.

I gave him a set of complimentary headphones to mangle and dreamed of post-prandial naps.

The daughters were having none of that. They were transfixed by Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which they watched at least 4,000 times.

In the moments while the boy quietly drank some water, I reclaimed the headphones and dipped into the latest instalment of Potter. But, for me, the magic was lost in French.

The man in front of me was busily tapping away on his laptop and had the screen on the channel, which showed the flight status. What a waste.

We seemed to be over open water for a very long time. This, I thought, might be a metaphor about my parenting skills.

Worse still it resuscitated my query about whether — in the event of engine failure — we could watch our own descent into oblivion on the screen.

I felt I'd been doing a fairly good job of not believing that I was at 400,000 feet. Trying to keep the boy relatively quiet helps me remain distracted.

A stewardess came through and scythed through this symbiotic self-congratulation by asking me if there was any way I could get him not to cry out.

I said I was trying but if people wanted to sleep at 9pm in the evening…then I was out of ideas.

Actually later I realised that there was something I could do. I took him off to the nearby bathroom for a nappy change and we stayed in there. He was altogether jauntier on the fold down flap.

I was perkier too. There were bright lights and a wall of mirrors into which we, actually forget him, I could look.

I wondered if I appeared haggard enough. Here I was in charge of three children and I have to admit I was looking far too good. The eyes were neither sunken nor hollow. There was even a soupcon of sparkle.

I felt the bright red and orange floral shirt suggested an unwillingness to convey the air of a colourless, hapless dad. And the bottle green cotton trousers oozed confidence with smear absorbing tones — so crucial while travelling with offspring.

The boy was quiet. He was just looking at me in the mirror, looking at myself. He smiled when I looked at him in the mirror.

My eldest daughter halted all this muted masculine mirth. She wanted to use the facility for its central purpose.

When I tried to go again — so to speak — I felt constipated. We left because I thought about the incongruity of being in an upgrade and spending time in the toilet.

I might as well be looking in the mirror in bog standard economy.

But at the same time I didn’t want to inflict shrieks of the boy's frustration on the other passengers. But in the end it's a 20-month-old baby in a noisy aircraft. The eight and five-year-old who could have been banshees were serene.

Gaby, who was drafted in to sit next to me by the stewardess at take-off and landing, commented as we neared Charles de Gaulle that they were impressively quiet.

She complimented me for coping admirably with them all. As she’s a lecturer in international law at Harvard Law School, I felt bound to tell her the truth and nothing but the truth.

The girls were under a sword of Damocles. They knew we’d been upgraded and they understood that our seats downstairs were empty.

They saw that I wasn’t really watching that much on the screen and most importantly they knew (for such are my parenting skills) that I’d be quite happy to go downstairs with them at the first sign of consistent naughtiness.

I got Gaby’s card and promised to buy her a drink the next time we — the adults — were passing through Boston. I figure that any stranger who’s willing to lend a hand is worth buying at least one drink.

Gaby had five hours to wait in Paris before going on to Tel Aviv.

“Five hours,” exclaimed the eldest. “That’s almost as long as the flight from Boston.”

So grateful was I for Gaby’s small act of kindness that I said it was a shame that we couldn’t invite her home for breakfast.

After landing at 6am, the children and I got to the Charles de Gaulle RER B station at 7am to discover that the rail unions were staging a day of action — thereby drastically reducing services.

The next train into Paris was at 7.28am.

Gaby had, it seemed to me, got the better deal.

As we trundled our way into Paris on the RER I told the girls that their behaviour on the flight had been impeccable and gave them huge hugs and kisses.

I'd taken them to see their grandmother and greatgrandfather. Four generations had been together for 10 days.

Whichever way you travel, that's a first class experience.

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