Come Fly with Me, the Frank Sinatra classic from the Capitol Records years, both the album and the song, seems to express so much of the era, and so much of the infatuation my father had with – well, with infatuation, with the romance of travel and the sangfroid of handsome charming men who alternately wooed or wept over beautiful and charming women, as at home on the front porch of Middle America as in the cafes and on the starlit embankments of gay Paree.
Gay is not quite the same thing, nowadays, I guess – nor, for that matter, is travel – air travel, anyway. In fact, flying these days is f*ing awful, especially when transgressing borders: the searches, the queues, the thinly disguised hostility of immigration officials. Mind you, I don’t complain, I’d rather the guy with the bomb in his Nikes was stopped before boarding, thank you. So up we all more or less put with the thankless tedium, the prodding and poking by relentless officialdom, the winged cattle trucks trundling down crowded runways, that international air travel has transmogrified into.
Keep it safe, I say – but I’ll be the first to volunteer, when finally the boys (and girls) in the white pants-suits figure out how to beam me up, Scotty.
Flying is hell, these days. But hell, like so much else, is raised to another power, a higher altitude, when travelling with the French. Ask my suitcase.
One of the many as-yet unreported tales of my recent travels abroad is the tale of my travels with my suitcase, or rather, my suitcase’s travels without me. I flew out to Toronto, you may recall, via Paris; the Paris layover was four hours or more, and the plane finally left Charles de Gaulle more than an hour late, and arrived an hour or more late – yet all, it appeared, was well, when on landing in Canada I flew through immigration and hastened gladly over to the luggage conveyor belt to collect my suitcase…round the belt went, and round, and round again, and still I waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, giving up all hope, I found the lost luggage counter, only to be told, immediately, ‘Oh yes sir, your bag is still in Paris.’
Thanks, folks, for letting me stand, morale and energy draining away like an airline enema, by that endless roundabout, waiting for a bag that you knew (but I didn’t) wasn’t on that flight at all. Thanks for leaving Rob waiting and wondering, had she somehow missed me wandering helpless and alone out of the arrivals hall, and hailing a taxi, hoping I had her address written down somewhere….
I protested; I complained. I was vocal. The bag, I was assured, would be delivered the next day, to Rob’s house in downtown Toronto. Meanwhile (as I said, I complained) I could go buy myself some clothes (socks and underpants the immediate priority, after thirty-something hours in transit) and I could claim the money back, from Air France, on my return to South Africa. And so it transpired that the first stop that Rob and I made, after I finally cleared Customs – nothing to declare, officer! – was to a shopping mall.
The bag, I was assured, would be on the same flight, next day. Which meant it would land, all by itself, around four on Friday afternoon. Allow some time for unloading, sorting, Customs, time for someone to figure out which bag it was that needed to be picked up and delivered to Marchmount Road – maybe the bag would arrive around 7pm, we thought; by nine o’ clock, surely; definitely by ten. We sat on the front porch, talking and waiting, until eleven, and then we went to bed. No bag; no clothes; no toiletries.
Needless to say, my luggage did not arrive next morning, either. The folks at the airport, however, had given me a number to call, for just such an eventuality, so I called it. Well, wouldn’t you know, the number was for weekdays only. On Saturdays, nobody cares. Nobody answers. So I called the airport. No sir, no Air France staff are on duty before noon. No sir, there is no-one else you can talk to. Cleverly, I called the lost luggage number – only to be referred back to Air France. Who are not available. Who do not answer their telephones. Whose toll free number is as useful on a Saturday as a camel in Marchmount Road.
In the end, to cut short a long story, there is no option but to drive out to the airport again, in search of my wayward bag. Saturday evening is the much-anticipated party that Rob and fifty of her friends are throwing for us, and I would like some clean clothes. From the airline counter we are directed to the basement, a lost luggage room Dickensian in its air of gloom and futility, where Attila the Nun sits defeated and indifferent, as I and other travellers plead and implore for the return of our luggage. No, the bag is not there. We can see for ourselves. The attendant makes no effort to inquire; there is a phone on her desk but she gives no indication of using it, nor does she offer any advice or suggestions. She shrugs, sits. Eventually Rob insists that she calls the agency that was supposed to have dropped off the bag. In slow motion she does so, and then, with a weary gesture, she holds out the receiver. Yes, Rob hears, my bag is there. Why was it not dropped off as promised, she asks, reasonably enough. Some cock and bull story ensues; eventually Rob hurls the phone down on Attila’s desk and storms out of the storeroom. I try to pick up the pieces. When will my bag be delivered? Negotiations ensue. Eventually it is agreed that the bag will be returned from storage to the airport; it will be delivered to Dante’s Circles of Hell – no, Kafka’s Castle – in thirty minutes. Thirty-five minutes later a van roars up to the kerb, where we are waiting, and finally, forty eight hours after my own arrival, my luggage and I are reunited.
Air France, people, sucks. They don’t deliver, they don’t care – if pigs could fly, they’d long be out of business. And they’re only in business because – because – hell, I have no idea why Air France is in business. Because KLM rescued them?
I seem to recall letting off steam, the other day, about sleaze and incompetence, back home in SA. A case, you might say, of Left Luggage. But here, in the first world, in shiny and clean modern Canada, was a display of bureaucracy, inefficiency and indifference that would have seemed entirely familiar to a Home Affairs customer in Pretoria or a pensioner lining up to collect his social grant, in some dingy office in Umtata.
Air travel these days is nothing like dad and Ol’ Blue Eyes knew it, I can tell you. And I have accumulated more baggage, I guess, than Air France can ever hope to deal with.