Friday, July 30, 2010

The South of France

Owning a house in the South of France conjures up images of whitewashed walls punctuating endless fields of lavender; the distant glimmer of the sea with, perhaps, two or three yachts lying at anchor, their owners frolicking in the waves. And, of course, endless al fresco lunches of good wholesome country foods washed down with copious vats of a local wine or two.

Well, the part about country foods and copious wines is quite true; the rest a touch poetic. Not that it doesn’t exist, of course, just that not all of France’s southern departments are scenically thus. And a good thing too, I think, as we have come to love the Languedoc, its quirky ways, stunning scenery and hospitable people.

The village that we have ended up in is Esperaza, in the Aude Valley. We are here for no particular reason, and really didn’t mean to buy a house at all. Let alone the old butcher’s shop that we now inhabit. It was one of those things; a drizzly Sunday morning a couple of Octobers ago, the magic of the local market, a couple of glasses of the local rosé and this intoxicating mix led us directly to the estate agents and lawyer’s offices.

So here we are. Here for three weeks or so, and although we arrived only yesterday already immersed in the minutiae of village life.

We are in the middle of the most interesting Festival de Folklore International en Pyrénées Audoise. The festival is, according to the brochure an “open window on the world”, and really they are not exaggerating. There are folklore groups from, and I kid you not, Colombia, Moldova, Uganda, Slovenia, Chutkotka, Uruguay and Venezuela playing this cultural world cup among a group eight or nine towns, some with populations of barely 300, over a one week span.
This got me thinking. I had never really contemplated the fourth and fifth divisions off global culture, and wondered just who was the promoter putting together this band of global folklorists, packaging their road show, selling it to a band of disparate local communities, getting their visas and organising the whole thing. And it is really well organised; Moldovans and Uruguayans showing up at their appointed gigs, playing to a pretty mystified crowd and heading off to the next. And let’s face it, local cultural understanding of Chukotkan folks dance is probably pretty Spartan.

If this cultural extravaganza is not enough, a calendar in our mail box tells us of the Manefestations et Découveries planned by the local tourist office for the month of August. Movies in the town square, local festivals, discussions about Catharism, moto-cross and orchestral concerts (from Bratislava, no less) are all part of the fare.

It’s all go, really.

And so, we are here for three weeks before heading off to Azerbaijan and Georgia for a couple of weeks of exploration. We thought that we were here for a bit of a rest, but the unflinching social life has started, invitations to parties, drinks and dinners abound; friends from Vancouver arriving tomorrow and little rest in sight.

Moderation in moderation, we say.

Friday, July 9, 2010

In Search of British Airway's Logic

Now I know that rule number 1 in the travel business states that "there is no correlation between airfares and logic", but BA in their inimitable fashion have managed to confuse even this truism.

Let me explain.

In their enthusiasm to fool passengers into believing that they might actually fly somewhere for $99, airlines have taken to extracting costs from the fare and adding "surcharges" to make up the difference; these, we are told, are necessary as they are "temporary" and directly linked to the additional costs in transporting a passenger in these difficult times. Fine.

However, when one cancels a non-refundable ticket, something odd happens. The "fare" which is not returned to one is also now linked to the "fuel surcharge" part of the tax cost, which is also withheld from refund. Very odd.

The surcharge for hauling one's body into the air is most assuredly not part of the fare when advertised, but a surcharge; yet when refunds are made, it migrates into the fare.

Let us look quickly at the concept of a "surcharge". These are (or should be) levies made due to unexpected and unabsorbable rises in costs. The current enthusiasm for fuel surcharges were implemented a couple of years ago when the price of oil reached $140/ barrel, and the airlines faced extreme uncertainty. They could not have forecasted this degree of volatility in their fare structure and believed the necessity for the "surcharge" would be temporary.

No regulatory body, however, asked them what benchmark they used; or at what point they would be removed. Now, a few years later, one would think that the carriers' fuel purchasers would have this figured out, removed the volatility from the market and adjusted their "fares" to accommodate a contracted and known price for fuel.

There is no reason to have a fuel surcharge in a market that is both balanced and manageable through the use of future-pricing contracts.

British Airways, by the way, are the only major carrier to hold onto this ill-appropriated cash. Air Canada, Lufthansa to name only a couple do not. They simply keep the "fare", fair enough in the case of deeply discounted seat sales, but return the rest of the unused incidentals.

Why, British Airways, do you not refund this levy? Obviously you don't need the fuel surcharge if you don't actually have to lift me off the ground, so why keep it? Or is the answer self-evident to the grasping and unapproachable airline that you have sadly become?