Saturday, February 12, 2011

First Class Flights; the best use of frequent flyer points

First of all, I have to admit to being completely spoiled. Spoilt too, I suspect, but that is another story. I have been fortunate to be able to travel in First Class for several long-haul flights and despite the acerbic emails that I may get for these comments, I feel it a public service to offer a glimpse behind the curtain.

Firstly, no pun intended, it has to be accepted that there are people to whom money carries fewer responsibilities than the rest of us; there are also folks who travel from continent to continent on multimillion dollar business for whom peace and quiet trump the huge price of the ticket. It is, it has to be said, a step down from the private jets that whizz the truly rich and famous around the world, but it is a pretty nice way to fly.

First Class travel starts well; no congress with the mass of folks checking in for the myriad of long-haul flights; a discreet desk in the corner of the terminal, or in the case of Lufthansa in Frankfurt, a terminal of one’s own to complete the mundane formalities in a minute or two. Oddly, it is at that point that airlines seem to divide into two categories; those that are playing lip service to their most valuable clients, and those who actually value them.

United has possibly the best seats in First Class, but the worst customer interaction. Their staff are usually acceptable, but their menu, security by-pass systems and lounges all rank poorly. Lufthansa now (2015) have wonderful seats, and their ground facilities are extraordinary; Swiss seem to manage both. In a few weeks I will be able to add Thai to my comparison, and am looking forward to experiencing their renowned lounge in Bangkok.

For most, waiting a the airport is uncomfortable and dull; First Class passengers, on the other hand, are happy to check in a few hours early. In Frankfurt the Lufthansa lounge has a magnificent bar and a first-class restaurant within the facility, naturally with no bill in sight. On-site spa treatments, and when it is finally time to go, a private passport control and a late-model Porsche to whisk you to the waiting aircraft. In Bangkok, I gather, Thai First Class passengers are entitled to a complimentary one-hour massage in their spa, in addition to one of the finest restaurants in Bangkok available for their pleasure.

In Paris, it is said that that the operators of the Air France First Class lounge, a Michelin-starred place if ever there was one, are paid a flat €500 per passenger; one can only imagine the service that is on offer.

All this before one even boards the plane. Once on board, seats are huge and discreet. My personal favourite is actually Turkish Airlines who offer each passenger their own cabin that can be open to the masses or closed into a private cabin. Sadly they don’t fly to Winnipeg or Toulouse.

Once on board, service ranges from extraordinary, Johnnie Walker Blue is the Lufthansa house scotch, to the mundane; United’s catering does not match the promise of their wonderful seats, and in fact would be comparable to most airline's business class offerings. Swiss offer a splendid seven course meal with a selection of marvellous wines to compliment every course. And when consumption is complete and one’s eyes start to wane, the seats turn into beds.

Some, United’s are the best example, are simply magnificent, self-contained suites that offer comfort and privacy. Others, and Swiss is the best for this attention, place a mattress over one’s absolutely flat seat and a duvet above to complete a fine bed. And, of course they include pajamas.
So, refreshed, but not overly so, one arrives and can then head to a special arrivals lounge, complete with a shower and breakfast. At this point, one usually has to mix with business class passengers, but sated with the flight’s pampering, food and wine, compromises can be made.

All in all, it is a pretty nice way to travel.

Friday, February 11, 2011

London Again!

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I am, I really do recognise, extremely fortunate to live a life that can keep me in touch with folks in Europe as well as North America. I am well aware that but for a few very fortunate bounces of the ball my life could be significantly different. I am also aware that a couple of bad bounces will have my life spinning off on a completely different tangent.
For now, however, I live a rather pleasant life; made possible, I have to add, by my colleagues at home in Winnipeg who vacillate between wanting me there for “input” and wanting me gone for “peace”. We find a balance, and I am grateful for their forbearance; for their part, I think, they are grateful for my absence, but nevertheless, they are terrific, and allow me to take advantage of considerable freedom.
One of the benefits of regular travel is the ability to get to know restaurants; another in my case is to get to know a restaurant reviewer with whom I go exploring each time I get to London. This time we went to a small restaurant in Swiss Cottage, a well known area of inner North London. Well known, I think, because zillions of cars pass by every day; it is close to really nice places; close to some grubby but alive and fun places, but Swiss Cottage itself is pretty dire. 1970s communal apartments, land blocks raised for traffic extensions, dull little “villas” in a place that feels as if it is on a road to somewhere else.
However, The Chateaubriand was our target that night, and more disappointed we could not have been; it was, tired, disenfranchised, sad and really on its last legs. Not only was there no Chateaubriand, apparently too expensive for his crowd, there wasn’t even a steak.
Now I can understand not stocking a cut that costs £45 for two (although Joseph and I thought this reasonable) when you only sell four or five a year, which is what they apparently do. However, with such a name, it is not unreasonable to expect some meat; other than a Vienna Schnitzel. Never mind; the good news was that having finished dinner in a record seventy minutes, we headed to my New Favourite Pub Of All Time, the Holly Bush in Hampstead; it is truly special, convivial in a singular sort of way and old.
The Holly Bush is the sort of place that two or three times in its existence resisted modernisation. Firstly in the 1890s and then again, and with some fortitude, I think, in the 1970s. It remains a Victorian drinking place, with contemporary Aussie bar staff it has to be said. But then again, my Canadian daughter is in Australia serving alcohol to Australians at the moment, so the world is truly upside down.
Why do Australians head north to pour beer and Canadians head south? It is not exactly an exchange of skills; but then I digress. Beer is being poured equally enthusiastically everywhere.
But Tuesday night in the Holly Bush was marvellous. Why I have never been there before I can’t explain, but I hadn’t, and I will again. It is a marvellous place, full of the past conjured together perfectly with the refreshment requirements of the present. And no, we did not get over refreshed, simply content. And a gentle contentedness aligned with the company of a good friend, the evening passed. We only wondered why we didn’t meet there at seven instead of the barren wastes of Swiss Cottage.

Tbilisi; An Interesting Week

Tbilisi is always interesting, and my all-too-brief stay there last week once more conjured up some surprises and ideas. It always does, and suffice it to say that were I to decamp and move to Georgia, a thought that has crossed my mind more than once, I would collapse under the deluge of potential.

Georgia is, you see, a remarkable country. In many ways similar to many post-Soviet lands, it has a vibrancy and excitement that I have not seen in others. The exceptions, of course, are the Baltics, Poland and possibly the Czech Republic, but they have had the EU to assist and boost. No, Georgia has had less structural support; it has, of course, had significant financial support from both the US and from the EU, but nevertheless there is a fascinating evolution going on. Young Georgians, and by that I mean those under about thirty-five in mind or body are so competent and alive; they leave the young whippersnappers that Deloitte and other “Global Consultancies” send to Georgia to help them mend their ways and reach the future.

So the Big Idea now was to run charter flights to Tbilisi for three and four-day escapes. A great idea, and one that warmed the cockles of a tour operator’s heart; there is good accommodation in Tbilisi, sufficient rooms for this kind of operation and a local nightlife that would sell. The idea was mooted in December during my previous visit, and I and a couple of others have been doing a little sleuthing since then.

The key, of course, to a successful tour operation is to be able to buy each component for a significant discount; the hotel rooms must be reasonable and the cost of the aircraft acceptable. It is, whichever way you slice it, a significant risk to charter twenty flights on spec. An operation to Georgia must logically be operated by an airline with the rights to fly on the route, and also an aircraft available with the minimum of deadheading; operating an empty flight to come an pick up the passengers.

The first quote, from a Georgian carrier was for €32,000 per rotation, which seemed pricey to us. Following a series of meetings in London our second quote came from a rather obscure South African airline, of whom I had never heard before Monday. Their offer was US$19,500 per rotation, a significant discount to the original benchmark.

The third meeting was the best; I am yet to get a price, but am assured that it will arrive by Friday (tomorrow at this point).

And so it will come to pass; we will offer holidays in Tbilisi to the denizens of Baghdad; oddly, we now think that 50% of our market will be Iraqis, rather than a complete market of ex-patriots. The market remains to be seen, as do a number of other issues. Georgian visas for Iraqis for example, and the roughly $500,000 financial commitment, but the project seems very sound.

Interesting too, which is important; I have a fairly short attention span. Concentrated and sharp it may be, but it is short.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Creature of Habit

It is very easy to become a creature of habit; travelling as I do, I find myself almost searching for patterns, looking for flakes of continuity in an otherwise fairly random life. I am staying currently in the Courtyard Marriott in Tbilisi, my third visit, and other than the murder, I like the security and comfort of knowing and being known.

The murder was odd, though. A few days before I arrived, a young(ish) French IT specialist, only three days in the country, was brutally stabbed in room 412. I pass this room each time I head from my room to the elevator; they have tacked two elderly bed covers over the door, covering the police tape (I peeked behind them), which jar against the otherwise perfect symmetry of a hotel corridor. It makes one wonder about that night in January, hints of spurned lovers, on-line attractions and perhaps expectations that went beyond those spoken. I also wonder when they will clean the room, and who will, presumably unwittingly, be its next paying guest.

So full of these wonders, and my penchant for habit taking me to one of two local restaurants for lunch or dinner when alone, I have been in Tbilisi for three days now; successful ones I think, as the couple of major business ideas I am pursuing seem to be edging forward nicely. Nicely to the point that today I had nothing else to do and decided to head to Batumi, the rapidly-growing resort on Georgia’s Black Sea coast.

Twice weekly Airzena (the Georgian national airline) operate a schedule that allows one to head to the coast for seven hours, and still be back in Tbilisi in time for dinner. The fare, at $75 return, is terrific, so I headed to the airport armed with camera and notepad ready for a day at the seaside.

We boarded the plane on time and the 50 seat aircraft had about 30 passengers on board with two flight crew; used to United Airlines' spartan offering on the same aircraft, this seemed almost excessive. However, after about 30 minutes, they came around and announced that because of snow, rain and fog at the seaside, the flight would be delayed.

So I abandoned ship; as the aircraft was to continue from Batumi to Kiev and stop on its way back, the return to Tbilisi would be significantly late, and I have a dinner engagement; add to that, while beaches in snow and howling winds do have rather macabre attractions, being late for dinner trumped them. So back through security, a complicated refund process and fortunately one lone taxi around to take me back to town.

And now, I think to my favourite little haunt for a bowl of their marvellous mushroom soup while I ponder the afternoon.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tbilisi Airport

There really are few places whose daily peak is at about 0400; in fact, I can’t think of another off hand. However, Tbilisi airport is one of those, and it was my pleasure to have landed there this morning at that God Awful time.

Worth it, though, I have to say, as the drive into town was speedy, and really rather beautiful; slightly misty, and the wonderfully illuminated castles, old buildings and streets were a picture.

The airport, however, wasn’t. One of the perils of being a, shall we delicately say, second division destination is that airlines tend to determine when they get served. Major European airports, and even their minor strips, have landing restrictions that theoretically allow those who chose to purchase dwellings near an airport to sleep. This leaves aircraft sitting on the ground all night, unless they are able to squeeze in a round trip journey of nine hours or so to allow a plane to make some money at night.

As this timing requirement needs a landing strip about four hours away that is open in the middle of the night, the choices are fewer than one might imagine. Tbilisi is one; as are such attractive destinations as Yerevan, Yekaterinburg, Perm and so on.

I have left Tbilisi on the return journey, and although an 0430 departure fails to warm the cockles of this jaded traveller’s heart, it is a vast improvement on arriving at that time; getting to the hotel by 0530, asleep at 0600 and sort of awake by noon, clinging to the hope that one’s body will eventually synchronise with the day’s cycle of food smells.

It was a long journey; actually, I almost spent longer in airport lounges (13 hours) than actually flying (14 hours) due to the peculiar schedules, and a well-placed respect for the idiocy of a tight connection in Chicago.

In Munich at one point, I did find myself staring at the departure board wondering where I was actually going. All of the destinations looked pretty appealing, but it was only by reference to my boarding pass that I got myself back on track.

And here I am, back in the Georgian capital for a series of meetings that will hopefully nudge another couple of projects forward. On Wednesday I hope to fly up to Mestia on “my plane”; the aircraft that I worked on leasing to the Georgians is operating a service up to the mountains, and it would be fun to be able to go for a ride. We will see.

In the meantime it is time to again enjoy Tbilisi for a few days, and not think about airlines, airports, schedules or moving again for a few days.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Dinner in Tbilisi

What a fun place this can be.

Issues with the airport notwithstanding, my last day in Tbilisi was brilliant. Once again, it was punctuated with insight and conversation, ideas and debate; it is a really interesting place.

Of all places, I found myself at the Christmas party of AmCham, the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia. Far from being the stuffy event that one might have imagined, it once again epitomised the go-ahead attitude of many of their ranks, and I loved it.

I stayed until almost the end, intoxicated (not with the admirable Georgian wine on offer,) but with one of the best ideas that I have come across in a long, long time. Needless to say, I won’t say anything now, but watch this space.

Dinner followed, and a discussion of Georgia, from, it has to be admitted, an expat perspective that was particularly voluble. It was agreed that it is a country of huge opportunity; this is a bit of a conversation deadener in a way because to agree inclines one to emigration (to Georgia) or excuses of why one would not, and disagreement is a touch impolite, and not actually true.

One participant, a fascinating woman involved with the financing of ecological advancements in commercial environments, yes, really, people do this for a living, put it succinctly. "We come to The East because of the intellectual challenge, and the opportunity to “do something”".

I completely understand. Given the appropriate opportunity and circumstance, I would head east myself. There are opportunities, pitfalls, difficulties and rewards in eventually equal or balanced measure. These are folks who are interested in more that eventual pension entitlements, driven by need perhaps, but nevertheless driven. Opportunities for small businesses, for large enterprises abound, and all the time a riding on the frisson of the underlying and motivating risk.

Like the wine industry.

Not my best segway, I will admit, but dinner conversation was lubricated by some interesting, but not overwhelming, wine; Georgian, of course.

The Georgian wine industry has a parallel in Canada. In the 1980s, the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the United States left the Canadian wine industry in a terrible state. Producing, as Canada used to, pretty toxic stuff by the tankerful, it was realised that in the Dreadful Wine Market (one not to be sneezed at apparently, by volume at least), one could not out-underperform the Americans. Competing with the oceans of Thunderbird, or wine of a similar appellation, was out of the reach of Canadian producers, so they ripped up the vines.

The new plants, now some twenty years on, produce some rather wonderful wines, and so to Georgia. Having lost their market for bulk, weapons-grade red when the Russians closed the border and thus the market of their plentiful and indiscriminate boozers, the Georgian wine industry had a stark choice.

Improve, or die on the vine.

And, I have to say, they improved. Interestingly, the wine that I can drink today, in fact the wine that is within seven inches of my left hand (a Mukuzani from Marani) is eminently drinkable. A child’s portion of the essence of Georgia would not go amiss in any company. Distribution is an issue, but one that will be sorted in due course, I hope. Truly, good Georgian wines are superb, and deserve their place among the wine lists of the world.

Their very fine wines, one of which I have one in my suitcase, are actually truly remarkable; hence my remarks. And once I drink it, I shall remark upon it further.

And so we go on; it is now midnight, the clock is set for 0300 the flight for 0455 and a long day of travel via Munich, Zurich and Montreal before I finally get home to Winnipeg.

Cheers!

Friday, December 3, 2010

A week in Tbilisi

This is Day 5 of a rather fascinating week in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

I am here principally for business, although sneaking in a few minutes of dinner and a child’s portion of the remarkably good Georgian wine has been quite possible. It is, of course, quite different from the summer both climatically and in the sense of the city.

Cities live and breathe, have seasons and moods just as their individual inhabitants. They have characters and idiosyncrasies and change with the relentless passage of the year.

Late autumn in Tbilisi is very pleasant. The weather has been good, the last leaves fluttering around, the traffic as disobedient and manic as ever and the local populous hurrying around in that special way of the underemployed. The metro, deep and mostly Soviet, is full all of the time; full of folks dressed in the apparent national colour of black. Now and again someone dressed in brilliant beige or olive green illuminates like a Christmas decoration. Otherwise there is a sombre tone of dress, possibly reflective of the mood or possibly because they like black.

I decided to go for a ride; having figured out how to buy my ticket (one buys a card at any station and then, in the nstyle of most city transit systems, loads it up with money), and head off. A single ride costs 40t (25 cents) for the first of the day, the second is 30t and the third and subsequent ones 20t.

I headed out to the end, remembering to note where I got on. It was at თავისუფლების მოედანი, and I made careful note so I would be able to find my way home. The end of a metro line is often odd; built originally at the distant end of a city, they now lie in suburbs of little consequence, the city having grown up and beyond them many years since. In this case, the line was built in 1967, and Tbilisi has expanded considerably. It is a 'hood of scruffy shops, sidewalks, apartments and many people wandering around; it is a place of bingo parlours, money changers (US$1 = 1.1752 or thereabouts), flower sellers and shops peddling a motley assortment of things. Worth an hour of anyone's time, but having exhusted avery opportunity for interest or humour, I headed back into the station at ახმეტელის თეატრი and headed back to თავისუფლების მოედანი for a restorative.

Georgia is an astonishing country. For all of its difficulties, it remains a nation with heart, drive and an infectiously positive outlook; barriers rarely exist, development is on track and those willing to join in are welcome. Everything is being reviewed and renewed; the road and transportation infrastructure, agriculture, energy, manufacturing and every sector of business that one can imagine.

I am here for a couple of reasons; we are looking at significantly developing our promotion of the region in the US and Canada, and secondly because we worked over the past couple of months to broker a six-month lease of a Canadian aircraft to come to Georgia.

The plane will be used principally on a route between Tbilisi and Mestia, the major centre of Svaneti. The project began in August, really, when I was visiting Svaneti with my family; having met the folks who had built a new ski resort and spent time discussing access, we were approached in October to help advise on a suitable aircraft.

The result was the delivery on Thursday of a Twin Otter from the Calgary-based Kenn Borek. It is a fine aircraft, and perfectly suited to the difficult mountain terrain; the pilots are resting today after the long ferry-flight, and tomorrow will start exploring the routes across the mountains into Mestia.

I am pretty excited by this whole development; a modest domestic aviation industry, and although a single Twin Otter won’t get the Star Alliance excited, it is a start. Routes between the capital Tbilisi and Batumi on the Black Sea, neighbouring Yerevan and some other regional towns will assist both tourism and local development.

And that, according to many folks here, is the sort of catalyst that they need.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

What a fine airline!

Now even I would be the first to admit a certain lack of impartiality. Riding, as I am, well restored by a couple of beakers of the concentrated soul of the Italian sun, in the business class cabin of a bmi plane heading back to Tbilisi, I am extremely comfortable, and prone to offering compliments.

However, bmi, now a part of the Lufthansa Group following the remarkable fiscal foresight of its founder, Sir Maurice Bishop, is a wonderful airline.

I have been flying long enough to remember the days when aviation was not only fun, but glamorous. One dressed up to fly; why I am not quite sure in retrospect, but we did. Aeroplanes made extraordinary things possible; they were pretty odd, too. I remember flying from Southend to somewhere on the Belgian coast in a Carvair; the plane looked disarmingly like a tiny or prototype Boeing 747 and carried cars, allowing my Dad to take us to “The Continent” for a holiday or two.

Bmi might have existed then too, I am not sure; I do remember British Island Airways, Air Anglia, Air Ecosse and all sorts of regional derivatives operating some remarkable flying machines.

I did fly with bmi in the recent past; thirty years ago or so, when they were called British Midland, they flew elderly aircraft on dull routes. A Fokker to Amsterdam, an ageing BAC to Palma, that sort of thing; now it is all about A320s and 321s to Khartoum, Beirut and Tbilisi no less. Bishkek and Freetown show up on their route map as well; no end of oddness that bmi flight crews endure. And good for them; folks need to get to these places, and as established carriers pull out for a variety of reasons, smaller folks dive in.

And it is the crew that is actually remarkable. From an old Aviation Salt like me, prising praise loose from my inherent cynicism is not an easy task; these folks deserve it all. I fly a great deal, and it is an odd way to live. Hurtling from place to place at 500 miles per hour in a metal tube seeking a new idea or contract to keep the family and troops in new shoes takes its toll. Particularly on the liver, but that’s another story.

But, bmi wins out. Yes, they have the most fabulous business class lounge I have been in, and yes, they fly to interesting places, and yes, their food is terrific and the wine list entertaining, but get this, their crew’s eyes are open and thinking!

Just minutes ago a flight attendant, noticing that on the passenger print-out they have, no frequent flyer program was marked, he came to me to solicit membership in the bmi program. Above and beyond, I would say, and indicative of this carrier.

In fairness, I have to admit that the night I spent with United, two nights ago to be precise, flying from Chicago to London was fabulous. First Class should be, of course, but this was a terrific trip. A great crew, absolute comfort, five hours sleep and a jug or two of a rather memorable Chablis made for a terrific trip.

As it should, of course, for those paying for First Class passage from Winnipeg to Tbilisi would be parting with the best part of eighteen grand. I understand why folks would pay this; heading away to conclude billion dollar deals, money to burn through an extremely fortunate genetic quirk or even hard work. However, for most, the practical way to enjoy this level of comfort and pampering is the accumulation of frequent flyer points.

Aeroplan; one has to love it.

And that’s why I had no active frequent flyer designation on display for the ever-vigilant bmi flight attendants; I am travelling on points.

Why they fly to Tbilisi is another question. The final leg from Baku will carry only twenty-seven of us there. It is a pity really, because Georgia is a wonderful place.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Queen Mary: On board in the future

One of the more surreal parts of an endlessly surreal week is officially being somewhere that I am not, and in the future, to boot.

Let me explain.

Cunard think of everything, and to this end have provided a UK immigration officer on board the ship in order to facilitate our arrival in Southampton. During the crossing, at allotted times we present ourselves and passports to her, and are duly admitted into the United Kingdom. I did wonder what would happen to an undesirable alien who she did not wish to admit to the UK, but can only suppose that this eventuality failed to present itself.

However, the odd thing is that she stamped our passports with “October 8, 2010”; I have never had a stamp in my passport six days beyond the present. What if I died before we reached England? Having already been admitted, would this cause a problem? Should, in a James Bond moment, I be whisked away by helicopter to an Alien Foreign Power, could this stamp be considered proof of my admittance to Britain on November 8th, even though I was making mischief elsewhere? You see the point. Were the ship to be taken hostage by Somali pirates, although I will concede that the North Atlantic is somewhat out of their probable range of attack, on November, would we have issues with insurance companies, reluctant to cough up compensation, because of our proof of arrival at Southampton two days later?

Time passes both slowly and quickly on board the ship. There seems to be the luxury of time for thoughts to percolate into ideas, yet the map shows our relentless progress toward Europe. We lie aghast at the knowledge that in an ever decreasing number of hours, we will be ashore and back into the common world.

It is the great strength and attraction of the Queen Mary 2 that we live in a continuously gracious world. It is not simply the flake of grace that we enjoy from an evening at the opera or a fine and distinguished club; not the lingering memory of even a fine weekend at a country hotel. No, this is continuous; it is beautifully mannered and endearingly comfortable. It is days of afternoon tea, paneled libraries, exquisite dining and a sense of engaged formality. It is a glimpse, perhaps, to the rose tinted past, and an opportunity to enjoy a truly relaxing time.

The ship is massive and my walks continue; two laps of the promenade deck (deck 7, if you are that interested) are equivalent to 1.9 kilometres, and three laps equal 1.1 mile. Calculating how far six laps are (in something nautical, like fathom or chains perhaps) illustrates the peak of intellectual activity. And physical activity for that matter; after the bulging buffets, and endless feeding, one needs a walk or two.

Even divine intervention for that matter; and there is evidence of this possibility here on the ship that seems to supply everything. On a routine trip to the washroom, I couldn’t help noticing a cane hanging on a hook on the wall. One doesn’t often see canes lying apart from their owners, and I immediately speculated on this separation. Did the toilet have some Lourdes-like properties, or was the cane some kind of theatrical prop? Was I now to be revealed as being on Candid Camera, or was the cane’s owner beaming enormously and striding confidently down halls proclaiming the miracle?

It is an interesting ship. There are, apparently, some twenty-five “Gentlemen Dancers” employed to engage the over 500 single women (most, of more than a certain age it should be noted) in a quick twirl about the ballroom floor. It has to be said that it is not difficult to distinguish between a member of this gallant fraternity and Fred Astaire, but then again it is the thought that counts.

And so it rolls around to dinner once more; formal tonight, so I am looking forward to Murray sporting the Hero of the Revolution medal once more, and trying to explain to our dining-neighbour, curious at Murray’s role in the war, about its provenance.

What a fine place to be

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Sedate Atlantic

Rarely am I reduced to silence; in particular as I travel. This journey, however, is rather different, and as I find myself hurtling across the Atlantic Ocean at a sedate 25 miles per hour, safely cocooned by the overwhelming comfort of the Queen Mary 2, one’s mind drifts. Not, I have to say to writing, but to observing one’s fellow passengers and thinking.

Thinking firstly about why on earth I am here, and then to why everybody else is. I booked passage during the peak of the Icelandic volcanic crisis earlier in the year; in a fit of pique, and temporarily blinded with an overwhelming distaste of flying, I booked passage to London and the annual World Travel Market on the ship.

I have, of course, calmed down since and flown back and forth a few times, but this booking remained, and here I am; floating at this moment roughly mod way between New York and Southampton. And, I have to say, that I am loving every moment.

The Queen Mary is an Ocean Liner; not, simply a cruise ship. The distinction is quite clear in my mind, and those of many fellow travellers. Cruising, we feel, is a protective activity; sailing from place to place protected from foreign influences, and having aggressive young things making up games and generally disturbing the peace. This liner is a direct descendant of the ships that plied the routes between Europe and the New World in the early decades of the last century.

Simply, we are not on a cruise, we are on a crossing. We have chosen to book passage between two countries in a sedate, unhurried and genteel manner. Pampered, it must be said, with more food than one should really eat, superb wines and tempting cocktails. Superb big-bands, excellent concerts and chats about everything from dead bodies to the crustaceans of the deep sea floor.

And so time passes. Simultaneously slowly and fast; relentlessly watching the sea and gazing periodically at the sky full, in the afternoon, of westbound jets carrying their passengers at six-hundred miles an hour toward America. And believe me, speeds like that simply make no sense from where we look.

The treat of the ocean liner became apparent even at check-in in Brooklyn. The process of dropping off bags, obtaining our boarding passes and ship-card, passing through a cursory security inspection and walking up to the ship took no more than fifteen minutes. Our bags were delivered soon after, and there we were, seeking inspiration at the champagne bar. Well, one has to really.

And so it started; a daily grind of exercise (yes, six brisk rounds of the deck equalled two miles, and passed about thirty minutes), eating, snacking, dozing, being lectured to, dressing for dinner and eating again became normal behaviour all too quickly. Actually, I didn’t dress too much for dinner, taking the easy option of sombre business attire; my friend Murray, however, did bring a dinner jacket, and to show my approval and support of his dress code, gave him a Heroic Worker of the Revolution medal that I had picked up in Moldova a year or so ago, and it looked well on his jacket. He got some odd stares, of course, from military types with failing eyesight, but in my view, really topped off the occasion.

The last ocean voyage that I took was about a year ago, crossing the Black Sea on a rather interesting East German boat, the Greifswald. Needless to say, there are striking differences between the two vessels and their passengers, but I have enjoyed them both. The sea, after all, is the sea, and passage at a relentless but sedate 25 miles per hour beats incarceration in a metal tube, and hurtling across the oceans at speeds approaching that of a sound wave.