The first phase of the summer holidays sees us on Singapore Airlines A380 to Paris. What a difference it is to fly in this jet albatross, even if we were in cattle class. A little advice, if you’re in economy try to get seats in the upperdeck, a small section at the rear of the cabin that is economy yet, somehow feels more intimate and well, less economy.
Mind you speaking of rear, the seats are still the same old faithful Alcatraz Easy Chair that has remained largely unchanged for as long as I can remember. Actually the mind boggles how anyone can physically design an airline seat so arse numbing hard and uncomfortable in every aspect. It’s like some macabre part of the airline industry is determined to make sure the masses sit on flying concrete benches and suffer maximum rear end torture.
To add insult to rear end injury, you have to walk the full length of the upperdeck cabin past the newly configured business class seats which are completely the reverse level of horizontal lavishness, indeed a totally over the top daybed. There is no other airline seat wider than this (except SIA first class of course – suites!) and if only they would allow you to book one fare and have my 7 year-old daughter share the seat as there’s plenty of room for two. And that’s saying something with the size of my chassis.
The main attribute of the A380 is how amazingly quiet it is. Incredible actually when you compare it to any other long-haul aircraft, like the comparatively archaic Boeing 747 with its GE engines that have a penetrating hum and roar that stays with you for days after the flight, and making it impossible to get any sort of reasonable sleep.
I’m not saying the A380 economy is anything near comfortable, you’ll still arrive jet fagged as well as lagged. But between the relative quietness and a very impressive audiovisual on-demand system (watch 6 movies concurrently and you’re there) and an unfaultable service standard, both on the ground and airborne, SIA economy outclasses most other European and US airlines business class.
Another product of Singapore that is in a league of its own is Changi Airport. Every time you travel out of the country, and that’s generally often when you live on a 20 by 40 km island, you realise how spoilt you are having Changi Airport.
There is no other airport in the world as organised, efficient, clean, and decked out with every imaginable shop and quality eatery than Changi. First impressions are everything and airports and customs officials are a good barometer of how a country ticks.
Alas, France’s Charles de Gaul International airport is a decaying, completely inadequate piece of infrastructure that is not only decrepit; a complete embarrassment in a nationalistic country. It is nothing short of chaos and labyrinth of confusing, illogical corridors and re-routes that ineffectively bandaid a haemorrhaging building.
No surprise that one is greeted by surly customs officers, or Police Nationale, and a grim persona is mandatory. However, our man managed to crack a warm smile when my daughter said with a perfect French accent, “Merci Beaucoup”, and even a cheerful “Au Revoir”.
Thanks to an hour engineering delay on departure from Singapore, we were now cutting things a tad fine on our connection with the Eurostar Paris-London train, which departs from the Gard du Nord, taking over an hour and a half battling the onerous morning traffic. We had purchased a Business Premier fare that includes chauffeur collection and transport to and from the station to your hotel, at a price – an extortionate price.
As it turns out, the so-called chauffeur service is nothing more than a pre-arranged taxi, and you end up spending more time walking to the car park and frigging around than you would just jumping a cab. Although on a positive ‘green’ note, the cars are eco-taxis – Toyota Hybrids.
The procedure of checking in for the train is typical French chaos, although definitely an advantage being on Business Premier in terms of avoiding long queues. However you are reunited with the hordes at customs, and the farcical procedure of leaving France and taking ten steps to join another queue to go through British immigration. So much for EU unity and ease of travel moreover, the inane questioning from our vigilant officer erased in sense of being on holiday.
The Business Premier hype invites you to enjoy the comfort of their exclusive lounge with full bar and snack buffet which is an embellishment on the rudimentary junk food and the worst (automated machine) coffee I have ever had. I ended up going back out in to the station to get a baguette and takeaway cafe au lait from Paul’s, the reliably excellent Boulangerie and Pâtissière.
My first time on the Eurostar Chunnel crossing, I had the envisaged a luxurious rail journey, like the James Bond movie where Bond is travelling to Montenegro in supreme comfort, washing down his fillet steak with a bottle of Chateau Ausone.
Well, I can tell you this train trip is far from it and in reality just a commute, although no question far more convenient than flying between Paris and London.
Disappointingly, our premier business coach was completely filthy with soiled seats and carpets to the point of being disgusting, indeed so appalling you practically did not want to use the seats and it stank like a back lane.
Maybe it’s the Singapore syndrome and not wanting to sound like a petal, but this sort of negligence of basic standards of cleanliness is inexcusable. Or am I being naive and this is the reality of commuting in Europe. Let face it, the TGV is not much better. One thing is clear; the rolling stock for the Eurostar is old and tired.
The food served onboard is somewhat archaic too, or dysfunctional, like airlines missing the plot in economy, serving up reconstituted, heat-timed hospital meals. An insider told me that when the Eurostar was launched, they based their food beverage operations on the airlines but at the time of implementation missed the exponential advances in food preparation technology and it’s now too hard or prohibitively expensive to change.
The menu is designed with the usual allure of a celebrated Chef, namely, Alain Roux, but predictably reheated stodgy food that is completely unappetising. Our menu had a choice of vegetable quiche or pan friend pork fillet, to which our service attendant waived the sad looking dishes in front of our nose, the smell of pork permeating across the car to our neighbouring very well-healed, New York and clearly Jewish couple who turned away with nauseating looks holding their noses.
Why anyone would attempt to serve complicated French cuisine on a two hour rail journey is beyond me. All of us would have been happy with a decent sandwich with good bread or salad, maybe even soup. Speaking of which, the menu on our return journey, London-Paris, looked a lot more appropriate with salmon sandwiches or an English breakfast, although we had already decided to buy pastries and baguettes from Paul’s. Also, our coach was considerably cleaner, although the same vintage.
Of particular note is how impressive the newly renovated St Pancras station is by comparison to the rundown Gard du Nord. With its multitude of excellent eateries and bars, St Pancras substantiates the generalisation that England is now more gastronomically sophisticated than France. This impression was corroborated by the excellent food we had dining out and an absolutely brilliant morning at the Borough Market, but more on this later.