Friday 13th Part 1: ‘Twas The Strike Before Christmas…

Almost a month had passed since I finished celebrating my birthday and the bright lights of Christmas were fast approaching on the festive motorway.  At that time a transport strike in France against pension reforms was the last thing on my mind.  In nearly 20 years of back and forth across the channel it’s probably harder to find an occasion when either planes, trains or boats weren’t linked to some sort of strike or engineering works than everything working 100%. In the UK we had something slightly bigger than a strike going on, we had yet another general election.  Whilst the left continually turned on one another, the right put on quite a night taking large swathes of seats across the country in what was billed as a resounding victory.  But then again less than half the country who voted,  voted for the winner and parties supporting their policies.  It reminded me once again that the world is a little bit broken, rarely makes sense but somehow, somewhere we keep on muddling through.   Thankfully this is not a politics blog, it’s a travel one and me writing about hoping on a plane, taking the train or relaxing in an airport lounge is my way of muddling through.

Anyway, let’s get started with this festive adventure. Step back to some god forsaken hour on Friday the 13th and with every interrupted hour of sleep it was clear that like that awful New Labour theme tune, things could only get better, it just might be a while. I was glad that I’d already made my peace with 2019, I knew it was going to be a year of frustration, disappointment and loss before it even started. A year where everything and everyone that mattered would be put to the test and with the accuracy of the world’s finest auto-correct, I was mostly right. Whilst this meant I spent the early part of the year worrying about who and what would fail my tests I found my inner lion, gathering strength from everyone and everything that passed, that no matter my feelings I could take five more years of Conservative rule in my stride. As long as I kept building those bridges, kept being there for everyone and everything that really mattered.

When I finally woke up on that fateful Friday morning I felt hungover like I’d accidentally crashed the wrong party and curled up alone in the corner with just a bottle of low grade vodka for company.  Unfortunately I’d not had a drop to drink the night before, though in hindsight maybe I should have done.  I pulled myself out of bed and got ready for work. I kissed Anne-So good bye and dragged my case out the door.  My train to work was largely filled with a quiet resignation, though there were a token few that appeared to hold an air of quiet self satisfaction, that same smugness that drips horribly from the kind of folk who laugh behind the backs at those who don’t know if their locks conform to British ‘safety-standard’ BS3621.  Perhaps it just felt doubly strange because my insignificant little part of the country bucked the national trend.

Other than my growing sense of gloom that the country was going to implode, it was an uneventful trip to work.  My day at the office got off to a decent start with some dish water masquerading as coffee thanks to it being poured into Starbucks cup and a plate of hash browns with a side of eggs.  The hash browns definitely worked! It was Christmas jumper day in the office and I was not taking part, though elf hats off to the chap behind me who had gone full reindeer, it was most impressive.  He lived in his bubble and I lived in mine.  Perhaps if I’d stepped out of mine a little more I’d have seen this coming rather than having it cruelly burst by a messy haired man who was last seen cowering in an industrial sized freezer.

There was just time for a mid-morning argument with Anne-So about the finances, as obviously with the Tories remaining in power the bills would go up overnight, we’d all be unemployed, our rights stripped away, every last penny of our savings would be gone and of course it would be the relatively minor expense of my Flickr account and the renewal of my website that would tip us over the edge to financial ruin!  Oh well, could be worse, right?

Lunch was some vile mishmash of Christmas dinner left overs stuffed into a dried out hot dog bun and smothered with spicy salsa in a weak attempt to mask the staleness. Coupled with another coffee run it powered me through to just before 4 o’clock when I had something more fun in mind.

Train: TFL Rail
Depart: Ealing Broadway 16:12
Arrive: Heathrow Terminals 2 & 3 16:32
Seat: Unassigned
Locomotive:
Class 360/2 (Siemens Desiro) Top Speed 100mph

Leaving it a little late I made an unhurried dash for the tube and although the wider world may have been plotting my downfall, the Central Line was showing me a brief moment of love with an Ealing Broadway train immediately pulling into the platform.  It looked like I’d just connect with the TFL Rail to Heathrow as planned.

There was no need to rush and I made the brief trek over to the opposite platform where I awaited the train to Heathrow. My day got even better when I stepped in to the carriage and found it was half empty.

Train: Heathrow Express
Depart: Heathrow Central 16:41
Arrive: Heathrow Terminals 2 & 3 16:49
Seat: Unassigned
Locomotive: Class 332 (Siemens) Top Speed 100mph

Being on the cheap train meant a quick change on to the Express for the five minute hop to Terminal 5. 

For me catching the Heathrow Express always improves my mood, the rolling news screens tell me that I’m about to embark on a new adventure, the purple mood lighting brings a quiet calm and that little splash of yellow a sense of thrill.

With the gap between my last visit to Terminal 5 being just three months rather than the three years it had been when we got our flight to Ljubljana it meant there would be no wrong turns on the way up to departures.

My smile was beginning to return, if only on the inside and I even managed a few moments to take in the Christmas atmosphere before it was time to check in.

Unfortunately I made my regular mistake of using the business class check in desks. From families determined to squeeze every last pound from their luggage allowance, shoving the seasonal equivalent of everything but the kitchen sink on to the baggage belts, to some poor chap with his laptop open at the desk pleading with the staff like a character who, if it weren’t for the absence of red-faced expletives would not have been out of place on an airport reality show. He gave the impression he’d been there since morning and it seemed like he’d probably still be there tomorrow too. By the time his agent had vacated the desk and showed no sign of returning he should have know that it was Friday 13th and there was nothing he could do.

By the time I was finally called over to check in it almost felt like it was time to vote in the next election, such was the tumbleweed beginning to gather at my toes.  Luckily my check in agent was friendly, my bag was soon tagged and away I went through a relatively speedy Fast Track security scan. It was now time to hit the lounge.  First a sharp left turn away from the hallowed millionaire’s doors of Concorde Room. Then a trip down the escalator, turning a full 180 degrees at the bottom, followed with a brisk walk past the numerous shops selling high priced goods, before heading back up to the level I had just departed via the escalators with the broken Troika installation suspended above them.

Finally a quick walk past Galleries First and up that final set of escalators with just enough time to offer a quick wave to the horse before joining the queue to enter the lounge.

After a short wait outside I was finally admitted. Phew!

British Airways Galleries Club South
Access For Oneworld First Class, Business Class and Emerald or Sapphire Status

I do like the BA lounge at Terminal 5 but from the crowding it’s clear I’m not the only one.

Doing a full circuit of the room but without the benefit of a co-driver’s pace notes I eventually found a spot to sit and from overhearing numerous conversations from check in desk to my quiet corner of the lounge it seemed everyone was off to South Africa that evening, lucky everyone! A few people were still speaking about the election, but honestly I was quite happy going around with my head in the sand, clouds or whatever other way you could say denial.

Despite the early hour I decided to hit the buffet as at least it would save my Dad having to cook for me after a long day at work. Whilst the cuisine on offer was definitely not fine dining it was enough for a culinary adventure of sorts.

A big dollop of beef risotto, a heaped spoon of vegetable curry and the remaining part of my plate was taken with a little bit of chicken cassoulet.

Maybe my palate was sullied from lunch but my early dinner was full of flavour and warmth, just right for an icy winters day. It also paired up quite nicely with the large glass of red wine I had poured myself.

For some reason I still don’t understand I followed my food with a G&T which really is best taken before dinner.  After my refreshing drink it was time for dessert. 

Earlier on I’d spied some fellow lounge guests swooping away with portions of chocolate cake and I immediately knew anything other than hunting down a slice would make me an unworthy visitor to the Galleries Club.

On closer inspection the cake closely resembled the same sorry excuse of a pudding I’d had at work for our Christmas dinner during the week. However unlike that dried out mess of a dessert this one was moist and fresh out of the kitchen. 

By the way, what on earth do the machines at Heathrow do to the Union coffee beans?

After having the same coffee again whilst sat in the BA lounge at London Gatwick writing up my notes barely a week later the difference was immense.  I caught up with Anne-So via WhatsApp she was feeling more positive than earlier in the day, other than about the ongoing train strike in France and what it might do to our Christmas plans.

After a quick coffee and a couple of biscuits to finish my meal it was time to go to gate. 

My lounge visit was bookend by a small baby that the South African lady sat next to me really wanted to hug. The little one obliged despite his mothers mild concern, though his gurgle of happiness shortly gave way to a faint cry. 

Flight: BA1402 London to Manchester
Depart: LHR 18:45
Arrive: MAN 19:50
Seat: 3A (Club Europe – Business Class)
Aircraft:
Airbus A320-200 G-EUYD – First Flight Dec 2008 – Refurbished Nov 2019

So, after all that fun I needed to leave my privileged bubble and mix with the masses in the airport.  There was just time for a quick look in duty free for a whisky for my Brother-in-law before arriving at the gate.

Sailing straight through it felt too good to be true and it was. I soon realised we had been given a bus gate!
As per usual we waited till the bus was packed like the cheapest can of sardines before it was driven to the aircraft. Again, as it was Friday 13th it was just meant to be that way.
Another fresh can of sardines being opened for boarding.
Thankfully the bus ride was short and I was soon happily cocooned into my Club Europe shaped fantasy world, seat 3A.
At least there was plenty of room for my little legs.
Staring out the window watching the dance of bright airport lights, I was close to airport nirvana.

The election was out of my head and I was just a short flight away from having a long overdue weekend with my family.

It was immediately obvious this was going to be a good flight. The crew were warm, bubbly and in the mood to have fun with us passengers. Particularly the one member of the cabin crew who decided to offer a cup of tea to all those sat up front whilst we had a short hold on the ground. She called it a proper Northern brew, though I’m sure all those north of Manchester would call it weak! The fellow a couple of rows back was less keen on a proppa cuppa and was insistent his was to be served like one would find on the Cornish coast where apparently the tea bag and water share just a brief handshake. Cups were handed out starting with Mr. Weak Tea and heading forwards till the brew reached a level resembling that found only within the Arctic Circle.

After a good 20 minutes on the ground waiting for a take off slot we departed, leaving the London lights far behind.
No sooner had those lights gone out of range than service started.
First up was a tasty tray of dinner.

Served at a sharp angle, it was miraculous that only one tray ended up on the floor, obviously it was the one right before I was about to be served. Thankfully it was someone else’s turn for a dose of Friday 13th! 

I also enjoyed a glass of champagne poured at 45 degrees and I don’t mean the temperature.

We increased our ascent out of Heathrow hitting a few bumps of turbulence on the way out. However, our wonderful cabin crew took it all in their stride and despite me hanging on to my dinner tray and drinks glasses for dear life not a drop was spilled.

Such was the short distance of the flight our descent followed almost immediately after our ascent.

It seemed we had been called 10 minutes for landing having just taken off. 

I downed the last of my champagne and cleared my dinner plate not a moment too soon.

There was barely time to buckle up before we hit the runway. 

After disembarking the aircraft it was a short walk to a congested baggage claim that marked the end of what must have been the shortest flight I’ve ever taken, as long as you exclude the one time I enjoyed a helicopter ride from Nice to Monte Carlo, but that’s another story.

My Dad and Step-Mum were waiting for me at Arrivals and despite forgetting the location of their car we soon found our way and drove off into the northern night having a good catch up about work, life and that damned election result as we went.

I had lucked out this visit and had access to my youngest brothers room as he was away at Uni.  His room was significantly cheaper (at free) and most probably cleaner than the Travelodge that was asking some ungodly sum of money for a room. Anne-So and I once stayed in a suite in Vegas for less than what they were charging!  After unwinding in front of the TV I called it a night for the following day we’d be having an early family Christmas.

Saturday began with Friday’s hangover.  My sister was coming over but as usual there was an excuse. Amazon had messed up the delivery of the presents she’d ordered for us and typically there was something up with the trains.  We spent the morning in town pausing for an average coffee and a terrible slice of cake at a local café, how they managed to serve up something worse than at an airport lounge I’ll never know.  On the upside I did find a cute little Christmas card and gift for Anne-So at the art shop a few doors down.  The rest of the day was spent relaxing in front of the TV watching football, catching up with family and debating the on again, off again arrival of my sister.  I thought she would be the main source of the days drama but for once there were crazier goings on across the channel with the in-laws.  It was going to be an interesting Christmas as long as we made it!

When my sister and her partner did finally arrive, we ate, we drank, we played the very fun Place the Past, she complained and we drank some more.

Shortly before leaving and determined to outdo us all, my wonderful sister did her best impression of one tequila, two tequila, three tequila floor!  This prompted my Step Mum to bundle her and her partner in to her car and take them to the station for their journey home.  Despite the complaints and the one too many it was great to see my sister, she’s one of the smartest and most intellectually stimulating people I know, though I don’t think that evening was her finest five minutes. That said, the presents did turn up and she had nailed them! We also enjoyed the Yorkshire themed bread, cheese and chutney she brought over. Before I knew it bedtime had come around and I have to say for the first time in a while I slept rather well. It was a proper family Christmas day, drama, comedy, tasty food and good company.

Sunday came all too soon and I enjoyed a nice morning walk to Tegg’s Nose with the family before returning home to watch yet more football.

Perhaps I was overdoing the Sky Sports, but as the classic Joni Mitchell song says,

‘Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s Gone’

Anne-So was having fun in London with friends, trying out the new Market Hall West End and we were due to meet up later that evening.  Time flew as I was having fun and before I it sunk in, it was my turn to be driven to the station to take the train back to London. 

Train: Avanti West Coast
Depart: Macclesfield 15:55
Arrive: London Euston 17:45
Seat: Coach H, Seat 39 (First Class)
Locomotive: Class 390 Pendolino (Alstom) Top Speed 140mph

Unlike the Friday night bargain, a Sunday night flight was more like extortion and not only that, I had additional motivation to take the train.

On what I believed was their first day of service I wanted to see if the new TrenItalia owned company, Avanti had made any changes to the old Virgin Trains West Coast service.

In the least exciting news of the year service had not changed at all with a grim tasting sandwich, crisps and cake all served up in a little box.
The carriages still looked unloved inside, the only difference being that the Virgin logos had been scraped away.

It was a sad day for these Pendolinos which used to be the nicest trains in the UK.  Hopefully they will either be replaced or get some much needed love like those that run the rails in Italy.

My train arrived on time and I made the short tube trip to our friend S’s place where we’d spend the night. 

The next day was much of a blur and involved my work’s team Christmas lunch.

Service was friendly, as were the prices but the food was definitely quantity over quality. Despite the food it was an enjoyable lunch. My work team are definitely folks I’ve learned to hold dear during my inner turmoil of 2019.  We finished up the afternoon with some good old fashioned day drinking in a nearby Soho bar where fun and games were had, luck was tried and advances rebuffed!  Thankfully the most worse for wear member of the team reported unscathed for duty the next day.  Before leaving London I went to pick up the keys from S in the hope we’d still be able to stay at hers Tuesday night for our early morning Eurostar to France the following day.

Tuesday morning began with bad omens. I spotted a woman who I swore was my old French teacher sat two rows in front of me on my train to London. I should really have got the message something was up. I stopped off at the Eurostar ticket office on the way into work and after waiting an age listening to sob stories of people who were genuinely stuck by the strike and having a little inside chuckle at those who had clearly just made up an excuse to get a free re-booking due to their own lateness or ineptitude it was my turn to be given the news that much like that on Friday 13th we’d been expecting but somehow believed wouldn’t happen…  

‘Twas the strike before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was working, not even a mouse;
The placards were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that pension demands soon would be theirs;
The strikers were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of better conditions danced in their heads;
And Anne-So in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just battled our brains for a long winter of crap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a reward flight saver to GNB, our ticket out of here!

Whilst our Eurostar was running as normal our TGV had been cancelled due to the SNCF strike in France. Despite numerous checks from an absolutely wonderful service agent there were no sane or available routes we could be booked on to.  I was given the sound advice not to cancel and ask for a refund till after our trip was over should in case we made it to France by other means so as to preserve our inbound ticket.  I messaged Anne-So the bad news and headed off to work, hoping I’d not be too late and we could find a solution to save our Christmas plans. My friend T suggested we could swim the channel but that would have left us stranded in Calais rather than Lille!

Luckily old St Nick was on our side as two hours later I’d found us a flight from Gatwick to Grenoble for the Saturday morning and a night at the Hilton Gatwick for significantly less cash than we had laid out for the outbound Eurostar tickets!  Job done, thank you Avios, thank you left over Hilton points, this was going to be a Christmas to remember after all and my first one spent in France for a decade where funnily enough French public transport also played games by trying to strand me at CDG on Christmas Eve!

The next few days passed quickly enough and once again I was getting that Friday feeling! 

Not the good one mind you, the echoes of the previous week thought it would be a great day for a flash flood that would cause widespread disruption on the London to Brighton line, which of course was how we planned to get to the airport.

Thankfully by the time we arrived at a rush hour filled St Pancras the delays had been isolated to just a small portion of the line and our Thameslink train was running as planned which I found most confusing as during my previous job I spent many a morning, afternoon or night cursing an unreliable, re-timetabled and otherwise unexplained inconvenience to my journey when using Thameslink. 

In the last few years Thameslink has gone from one the worst to one of the nicest ways to reach London Gatwick.
A new fleet of comfortable trains, a decent journey time unless you’re right next to Victoria station, a wonderful view as you cross the Thames at Blackfriars and loads of luggage space.

The journey was thankfully uneventful.  We arrived at Gatwick near enough on time and made our way towards the Hilton. 

Hotel: Hilton London Gatwick
Room:
Double Hilton Guest Room 3283
Status: Hilton Honors Silver

We trekked through the airport terminal and other than a brief blast of arctic chill as we posed in front of one of the Christmas trees it was pretty pleasant walk.
We then crossed the road between the terminal building and car park before traipsing down yet another bland white corridor in the hope that we’d spot the Hilton at the end of it. 
We finally found the lobby and saw Christmas in full swing, with crowds of excited holiday makers filling the bar area alongside food filled tables and enough drink to knock out an elephant. 

The check in queue was long but moved with an assembly line like efficiency overseen by who I presume was the duty manager. I liked the way he took time to make conversation with every guest at the head of the queue like a jolly uncle who’d drunk just the right amount of sherry!  We were soon seen to and in the end it turned out we could have skipped the queue entirely due to a combination of my Hilton Silver status and checking in online. 

We were given a small bag with complementary water bottles as per the Silver benefits and we pinched a couple of aircraft shaped ginger cookies before heading up to our room.

I have to say my photos don’t really do our room justice. 

They fail to show the chipped and tired furniture, the stale carpet and curtains, the lack of power points, the wobbly lamp or the bathroom mould.

However, as it meant we were just a short walk away from the airport terminal for our morning flight and that it had reduced our cash outgoings for this festive getaway fairly significantly I was happy.  We settled in and decided to skip the pricey onsite eateries and instead head into the terminal for some dinner, not that there was a lot of choice at the airport either.

We ended up at our first, last and only choice, Giraffe, a place I’d sworn never to return to.  If you are not familiar with the brand it’s a catch all casual dining spot with a menu aimed to please all but the remotely discerning palate and will likely end up the same way as other luminaries like Jamie’s Italian, Strada and Carluccios

That said service was friendly and our waiter was on his A game, though his attempts to guess our food and drink order was at best a  B- it certainly gave us some much needed light relief at the end of a long day.
We both went with burgers and whilst they were not going to change our lives (like the infamous heart-stopping Bacon Butter Burger from Burger and Beyond) we were both full, happy and excited about having a family Christmas in France.
We made the slightly less mysterious walk back to our room, including the not hugely shorter short cut from FlyerTalk.

There was just time for cup of late night coffee before we were out like a light.

We slept well and despite its age the Hilton did at least have a comfortable bed.  We got up around 05:00 the next morning and made like the walking dead into the shower with the hope we’d quickly return to the world of the living.  We got our stuff together and made a hasty dash for check out with the lifts trying their best to slow our progress.  Despite its shortcomings I’d happily stay at this Hilton again if the price was right.

Walking through the corridors towards the terminal building now felt like second nature and I was looking forward to enjoying the premium experience BA had laid on for their best customers at London’s second busiest airport.  I have to say, colour me impressed! 

There was a premium entry way reminiscent of the first class sections at Heathow, but unlike Heathrow there were loads of free desks filled with smiling faces.
It was all going rather well till we were made aware of a baggage belt failure but we were assured that as long as our bags were tagged they’d be fine.

A smiling luggage porter reassured Anne-So we could leave our bags with him and he’d ensure they’d make the plane. 

We then headed to premium security and sped through that as well.

Despite the early hour I was quite enjoying myself.  It was then we made a beeline for the lounge and honestly the route couldn’t have been less premium, all that was missing was someone begging for change by the lift entrance. Down one dead end corridor to some lifts and then up again into what felt like another wrong turn.  It was almost as bad as trying to find the secret showers in the Al Mourjan Lounge in Doha.

British Airways Business Lounge
Access For Oneworld First Class, Business Class and Emerald or Sapphire Status

We finally found the BA lounge and despite the interesting routing we’d made really good time.
We joined the queue and were soon admitted by the friendly agent thanks to my BA Silver card. 

My first impressions were excellent. 

The lounge looked really fresh, it had atmosphere without being overcrowded and best of all we managed to snag a seat overlooking the jet way!
OK, it wasn’t the excellent Cathay Lounge at LHR nor was it as exclusive as the Concorde Room but there were hash browns, bacon rolls, a rather tasty Spanish omelette and loads of pastries.

The bathrooms were a world away from their hospitalesque counterparts at London’s main airport hub, these were modern, clean and pleasant.

I had to say at this point we were enjoying our time at Gatwick a great deal, even the lounge’s magazine selection was magnificent as I managed to pick up copies of the Economist and Wallpaper to tide me over during our trip.

Flight: BA2750 London to Grenoble
Depart: LGW 08:35
Arrive: GNB 11:15
Seats: 11A and 11B (Euro Traveller – Economy)
Aircraft: Airbus A320-200 G-MEDK – First Flight April 2005 – Refurbished May 2019

In fact we were having a little too much fun and ended up running dangerously close to missing the final call for boarding. 

Not one to believe in coincidences but we ended up leaving from Gate 13, which was, a bus gate…
Actually it was not a bus gate, we’d have loved a bus gate, as just as we walked across the apron towards the aircraft steps the heavens opened into a momentary downpour lasting from the time it took us to exit the terminal building only ceasing the second we slumped down into our seats. 

It was at this point the Gatwick experience, along with our travel class got just a little less premium.

Whilst at first glance the aircraft interiors across BA short haul look pretty similar the seat finishes on our ex BMI-aircraft looked even worse than the cheap seats found down the back of BA’s newest Neo aircraft.

There was none of the mood lighting and the whole experience felt poor by comparison.

At least we had a roomy exit row, though being in an exit row as well as not having Club seats we had now gotten used to meant I had to think carefully what I could leave out of my bag as we couldn’t hide stuff under the middle table.

Things improved once we were up in the air.

I read the news between taking shots of the wide world outside.

It wasn’t long before we touched down in Grenoble.

Baggage claim was modern enough and turn around was pretty decent for being in France.  The only damage being to my BA Silver tags that had taken a bit of a beating.

It was a beautiful day in Southern France and N, my sister-in-law was out to meet us for the drive back to Valence.  Despite the to be expected wrong turn out of the airport we were soon on track and headed along the autoroute towards my Father-in-law’s place.  Apparently we would not be meeting his new partner this time round, so one of our reasons for making this trip was rendered null and void just minutes after arrival.  We met F for lunch at La Campanile across the road from his house and as per usual the majority of the food was barely one step up from my work canteen but at least it left us feeling full. 

A bony piece of meat from a duck who tasted like he’d had a hard life, a sad serving of frozen chips and a handful of reheated legumes that may or may not have been straight from an industrial sized can.
Dessert on the other hand was harder to resist.  A buffet full of goodies that rapidly coaxed out my inner greed. 

We finished with full stomachs and coffees before heading back to my Father-in-laws place to drop our stuff.

We spent the afternoon in town Christmas shopping, picking up most of our gifts on the 21st which to my in-laws would be the equivalent of purchasing in the summer sales!  I do love Valence, it is a pretty town with some amazing restaurants. 

Although I always complain about how late they leave the Christmas shopping it was a pretty fun afternoon and I can’t remember the last time I saw the town lit up like that.

I was also left alone in FNAC far too long and got awfully tempted by some Star Wars Lego as well as the Columbo and Gilmour Girls box sets on offer. The only thing that didn’t go to plan was getting a decent bottle of whisky for my brother-in-law, G. I found the one that I wanted but the price was shockingly high compared to what a popular middle class supermarket was flogging it for back home, just annoyingly not at our local branch! 

We survived the early evening rally drive into deepest darkest Ardèche and bedded in with N, G and our niece Little N, so as to give ourselves some breathing space from my wonderful Father-in-law and his many quirks.  Screw you strikes, screw you Friday 13th we were going to have our Christmas and there was nothing you could do about it!

After all the excitement of travel, Sunday was a perfectly unremarkable day.

We visited N’s shop, Epiceyrieux which back at Christmas time resembled a building site.
We did a couple of rounds but both G and I were disappointed that we did not manage to hit the top speed of 40km/h.

N and Little N were over the moon at around 24km/h whilst much to everyone’s disappointment Anne-So refused to ride at all.  On the way home we picked up a giant bird from a local farm, for eating that is, not racing, riding and certainly not as a pet. There was a hint of snow in the air, all that was missing were some reindeer bells and a jolly bearded chap in a big red suit.

I spent the final days before Christmas working.  The ‘shared’ WiFi from the flat below lasted all of an hour and I was shipped off to G’s parents who actually turned out to be amazing hosts. I had plenty of room, a lightning fast connection as well as repeated offers of food and drink.  I probably did offend them a little by not joining them for lunch but Anne-So had made me a packed lunch and they took two hours from apero time to after dinner coffee to complete their meal.  My lunch break on the other hand was a rapid half hour!  Additionally my basic French and their near non-existent English would not have made for much of a conversation.  And then there was the alcohol… I strongly believe that wine should be the reward for a hard day of analysis, not the inspiration for it, I can’t imagine plugging away at SPSS whilst under the influence!  Anyway, it was a nice spot for work and I had a new found respect for G’s parents, so in all it was a good result. After learning all about the random nature of Aredechois time I was eventually driven back by G and found that whilst I had been analysing data all day, Anne-So and her sister had been prepping a raclette for dinner. Perfect!

Or at least it was until I received the rather strange e-mail above from my Dad regarding the Christmas presents…

Christmas Eve rolled around and after being given permission to clock off early from work. I was returned to the in-laws place, it was finally time…

Strikes, broken WIFI and five more years of that horrible lot were forgotten over a few glasses of champagne, some canapes and a tiny little bit of cooking rage.

It was not my fault I had been lumbered with possibly the most appalling instructions for cooking duck breast I’ve ever seen. Thankfully the acrid smoke gave way to a decent medium, but the fat had rendered poorly.  The celeriac and butternut purees that N had cooked up were rich and tasty with butter and cream, if not the most refined.  

I think if we were doing MasterChef we’d not be getting our aprons, no matter how tasty the meal was.

Having lugged all my gifts hundreds of miles from Macclesfield, home to Canterbury, back through London and finally to France I was happy that my family had got me exactly what I wanted and I spent the morning in my pyjamas skimming my new Honey & Co cook book and wanting to whip up many of the Middle Eastern delights contained within its pages.  Despite my Dad’s concern all the presents I opened appeared to be mine.

We ate our Christmas lunch at G’s parents and I have to confess I remember very little other than the following: 

For some reason there was a huge display of gourds of varying shapes and sizes on the dining table.

It has taken me the following four months to look a butternut squash in the eye without feeling a little nauseous.

Stunningly good though Christmas dinner was, the lack of roast potatoes made me miss home.

Almost any would have done, be it the slightly greasy ones that I do that are never ready on time, the perfectly crisp ones my Granddad used to cook, that will remain etched in memory forever, my Dad’s homage that just aren’t quite the same and even the ones from my mum that cook for 30 mins at 200C in the oven and are then reheated countless times for no obvious reason. I recall messaging my friends and family back in the UK at this seasonal oversight and they were as shocked as I was at their omission.

One uninvited guest who I do recall despite my tipsy haze was Father Christmas ,I’m not sure he was supposed to visit in person and to add insult to injury I’m not sure Little N was the one who enjoyed it the most! 

I missed my potatoes and I decided to call my family and see how their days had gone. It finally sunk in that whilst it’s nice to have a family Christmas, it’s not quite the same when it’s someone else’s family!

On Boxing Day (for me at least, not for the French who simply just beheaded the masters and therefore had no need to offer a gift box to their servants) we made the drive to Annecy.  Anne-So had mentioned taking me to Annecy for as many years as I could remember, promising a beautiful lake and a cute little old town. 

We powered along the motorway stopping at an awfully overcrowded service station for lunch, don’t judge, I already did and yes in an ideal world we’d have left a tiny bit earlier and enjoyed a nice meal in town rather than a rushed Paul meal deal on a dirty service station table where we had to take it in turns to sit down.

I was debating the sanity of travelling all this way for such a short stay, but my doubts quickly evaporated half an hour later when we arrived in town.  The in-laws dropped Anne-So and I off so we could do some sightseeing and they could spend some time with their friends making cheese or some such other artisan activity. 

We immediately sped up and luckily found our little bus stop.  With the sun now a long lost memory the cold began to bite, light rain fell and I fired up my phone stupidly believing Chelsea would put up a warming Boxing Day fight whilst we waited, but instead it all just fell apart. 

Finally after half an hour of Anne-So complaining that it wouldn’t come, that we’d missed it or it would drive right past us because I was watching football the bus turned up.  If you thought a nice warm bus journey around the lake was just what the doctor ordered you’d be right.  Sadly this was not what we got.  From everyone hogging empty seats with their bags in a way that would put even the most hardened of London commuters to shame to the shrieking little **** of a child and their parents sat just a little behind us.  He had mummy issues, mummy had little shrieking **** issues  and mummy won the cruel game of chicken, sleeping blissfully whilst everyone else on the bus wanted to wring their necks.  I know you shouldn’t judge and there was clearly no way of knowing what that family had been through that day but you do feel there might have been a better way of handling the situation other than forcing everyone else captive on that coach to feel their pain as their dearly beloved screeched his tiny little guts out.  The calm of the lake and the magic of sunset had quite literally been shattered in to many temper tantrum shaped pieces.  Between that and the football things could only get better…  Well, maybe not just yet as our in-laws were late and we had to wait 20 freezing minutes at the blistering cold bus stop where they’d agreed to meet us before they showed up in their steamy car. 

Thankfully the evening picked up quite considerably from here.  The in-laws had found a glorious Airbnb for us to stay in, the kind that if it wasn’t in the middle of a seasonal tourist resort you’d feel guilty about renting.  We didn’t have long to unpack as we were headed to a large gathering with some of their friends.  Personally I was dreading it as being in a room full of strangers without the common bond of work or study is something I often find pretty unpleasant, not only that but I expected that I would be required to perform the art of conversation in my second language and calling French my second language is already quite a stretch. 

Things did not get off to the best of starts as we were met by a chorus of dog barks from a sad old hound that was just missing her master.

Thankfully the night quickly picked up as most everyone gathered spoke fluent English, were incredibly good company and there was enough wine and beer flowing to fill a shark tank twice over.  As Boxing Day came to a close, dinner was served. Several steaming hot dishes of molten tartiflette were summoned from the oven and our glasses were topped up with enough wine to knock us sideways.  What more could you want?  It was at that point I was a little annoyed with both myself and my in-laws as I remembered that unlike almost everybody else in attendance I had work the next day.  OK, it wasn’t like I’d need to leave the apartment we were staying in but I could have done with a proper night’s sleep.  Anyway, despite my irritations it had been a fun day and I was incredibly glad we’d made the trip to Annecy. 

Some people call it karma, others yin and yang, the religious might say heaven and hell or for the sake of this tale you could say it was just Friday 13th coming off one final seasonal bender and sharing its horrible hangover with us.  Screw strikes, elections, family Christmas, nature, friendship, we were sick!  It started in the middle of the night, N was a walking vomit comet and like any good sister Anne-So quickly took up her siblings vocation of sleep and sick.  Me, I was fine, I  just worked.  G was healthy too, as was Little N. I tried my best to work between the endless heaves, snores and flushes, cooking up some lunch and later dinner for G and I from the Christmas left overs we’d taken with us.  I’m not going to lie, as tasty as it was I didn’t want to see another puree or slab of turkey till next Christmas.  I spent the evening reading more Paul Theroux and watching football which I believe was a absolute thriller involving Manchester City and Wolves where both both sides must have broken the changing room mirrors ahead of kick off.

We once again awoke to the beautiful misty morning mountain view and prepared to check out of our Airbnb apartment.

With everything packed into the boot we made a quick stop at the fragrant next door coffee roasters for some fresh beans (which turned out to be pretty decent for the price).  We then drove into town and enjoyed an icy walk through the winding backstreets and the food market of Thones.  For lunch we stopped off at La Chaumine for pizza, intentionally ignoring their cheese and cream filled alpine speciality dishes. 

Well, two and a half of us were eating, Anne-So and N were still feeling a little worse for wear. 

We walked some more and fate having one last laugh forced us into the nearest bar for a coffee and use of the facilities. At least I managed to order and pay by myself whilst Anne-So was locked away.  The fun continued when Anne-So then swore she’d lost her phone in the loo.  Tracing back her steps it was still missing only to finally turn up stuck in the lining of her bag.  It was turning into one of those days, thankfully we were heading back.

The drive back to Valence was suitably scenic, though squeezed into my back seat corner I was once again attempting to watch yet more football with varying degrees of success.  At least the signal cutting out gave me an excuse to look out the window at the rolling hills and snow capped peaks.  It was a long drive to Valence but it was good to be back somewhere stable as we had other concerns on our mind like getting home to the UK as the French were going all out for the Guinness World Record strike and daily train cancellations were very much a reality.  Perhaps T’s idea of swimming home wasn’t so bad after all. Thankfully as a back up there were multiple airports to chose from as long as someone was willing to drive us.

By the time Anne-So and N had almost recovered it was my turn to suffer.  I spent Saturday night in bed with just the football and the toilet for company, the football like my stomach got better with time, what started out as unbearable pain at 1-0 down was certainly a lot better 97 minutes later.  Our friend N sent me a message asking if I’d seen the game as over the last year or so she has started developing her love of football and we have promised to go to a match together at some point.  Despite the sport providing some relief I slept badly and in addition to the regular toilet trips I had also developed a fever and was now slightly delirious.  Fun times! 

On Sunday we’d agreed to go to one of the couscous restaurants in town for a farewell lunch.  Thankfully my stomach had somewhat stabilised overnight and as long as I didn’t eat or drink I could hold out for an hour or two.  But honestly, if a delicious curry is my go to happy meal at home, a trip to France never feels complete without a big helping of couscous, a ladle full of stew and a smattering of spicy merguez sausages.  Life was cruel but even in my delicate state I was not turning this one down. 

Seeing as our old favourite Le Marrakech had closed down we went to La Mamounia, a grand gold ceilinged North African inspired room in the middle of town.

Food poisoning be damned,  I was going to finish the lot and somehow I even found the room to steal a couple of spare baklava hanging around the table with the post lunch coffees.

After lunch we paid a quick visit to my Mother-in-law’s grave before I asked if I could head home as my stomach was rumbling again and I wasn’t the least bit hungry!  Again I was lucky to one, make it back just in time and two have some alone time to listen to music, read and watch yet another football match, I love the festive fixture list.  The weekend was almost over and I was going to make the most of it before heading back to work on Tuesday.  In other good news it seemed our TGV to Lille was still running as long as we could get to Lyon first which meant an hours drive rather than a ten minute one.  As we moved slowly towards the end of the year there was light at the end of Santa’s tunnel.

Sunday night proved a significant upgrade on Saturday night, no delirium, less trips to the little boys room and a half decent night’s sleep.  We set out for Lyon Monday lunch time and after the usual dramas, near misses and arguments that occur when my Father-in-law drives us anywhere we arrived.  By some Festivus miracle we found a free of charge parking spot opposite Part-Dieu station and we had only one place on our minds for lunch, Japontori where I was looking forward to enjoying some sweet grilled yakitori goodness.  Whilst certainly not the most glamorous of spots it was cheap, tasty and held good memories for Anne-So and I, the most poignant was the Valentines Day where Anne-So and I decided to get married, where we raised a little champagne toast to ourselves on the flight home.  Love at 40,000 feet!

I always order the same yakitori set and a slightly dodgy belly was not going to hold me back even if it probably should have done.

I had an ice cold beer to start, followed by the usual Asian slaw & soup and then the hot and sexy action begins, straight from the charcoal grill with barely a nod from server to chef: little skewers of chicken, beef, duck, mushrooms and even cheese wrapped in ham (one we didn’t spy in Japan) are delivered to my plate.  As always the char-grilled experience was over far too soon but that meal was just what I needed to lift the spirits with a long train journey home ahead of us. 

After lunch we went for a slow walk to find a park for Little N to play in. It was then time for a long and protracted walk back to the station as Little N wasn’t so keen for us to return home to the UK.  Back at the car we parted ways before walking across the road, past the gleaming white trams and the usual hustle and bustle of crowds arriving at the station. We entered the station concourse through the automatic doors, hoping for the best…

Train: TGV 9864
Depart: Valence TGV 16:15/Lyon Part Dieu 17:00
Arrive: Lille Europe 19:45
Seats: Coach 18, Seats 81 & 82 (Standard Class)
Locomotive: TGV Réseau Top Speed 320kmh

Luckily our train was showing as on time, so all we had now was a long wait.  The station felt surprisingly quiet but it turned out we were one of the few that turned up extra early for our train.  We watched the boards as a few local services came and went, we observed the small military squads that patrolled the station, people carrying cups of coffee and sandwiches, all busy, all on their way somewhere. All those comings and goings, except us, we weren’t going anywhere just yet.  Unlike our luxurious departure of champagne flutes and a hot breakfast buffet served in the calm of an exclusive airport lounge our departure was one long stressful countdown till our train showed up.  Finally our platform was announced with the traditional fanfare of the SNCF chime and we as well as about half the station made a dash for the escalators.  Yes, I know we had seats and yes I also know we weren’t going to miss the train but the rush was more about the desire to experience that overwhelming sense of relief that would only be found once we were aboard that train. 

We arrived on the platform expecting to see the train having assumed this was where the service originated.  The adjacent track was deserted but for a few pigeons, obliviously pecking away.  We checked the composition de trains, it returned a blank and helpless stare.  This was looking less promising.  We were now just a few minutes away from our scheduled departure time when an empty TGV pulled in and came to a halt.  Yes, this one must be ours…  The composition de trains remained silent, stoic in its non-compliance and refused to offer any confirmation that this was our train, let alone which carriage was ours.  The doors to the TGV remained sealed, the information displays at each carriage door showed nothing, the platform staff were quiet.  The crowd was becoming agitated as nobody knew where they were supposed to be going.  As departure time grew ever closer the doors stayed shut and confusion increased when a second TGV joined the party and connected up to its mate.  Information blackout continued and as Anne-So always says, in France you are expected to know, there are no instructions, no apologies it is what it is.  I took an executive guess that our train would be the rear of the two and we headed that way.  Better late (and by this time we were most definitely late) than never and we hoped we’d got our carriage right.  That the carriages are normally numbered 1-9 or 10-18 and that we were in 18 and the other end of the train was comprised of the first class section, the guess wasn’t that much of a leap of faith more of a fingers crossed moment.

We took our seats, the train pulled out and sometime later it was confirmed we were on the right train, in the right carriage and sat in the correct seats.  Yes, victory was ours if not the photographic evidence to go with it.  As a small child I wanted more than anything to ride the TGV, Bullet Train and Monorails of this world.  Having ridden the former more times than I’d care to remember in both single deck and duplex, standard class and first class from Lille to Brussels, Paris to Lyon, Lyon to Barcelona and Turin the novelty of the TGV had fully worn off.  Most of the TGVs today feel old and look old, like the ageing queen of the skies this queen of the rails has seen better days.  As any one familiar with train travel in the UK knows, there’s only so many times you can repaint, redecorate, renew and refresh before the time comes to replace.  The original TGVs are as old as I am, perhaps that’s why I was always fascinated by them. Its been nearly a decade since any new TGV models were produced and thankfully at least today’s TGV Réseau was in passable shape.  I can wait for the new Avelia Horizon train in 2023 and I know I’ll find any excuse to ride one when the time comes.  The rest of our journey was typically uneventful as we hurtled through the countryside towards Disneyland Paris, past Aeroport CDG before eventually arriving in to Lille about 20 minutes late. 

Train: Eurostar 9163
Depart: Lille Europe 21:00
Arrive: London St Pancras International 21:33
Seats: Coach 13, Seats 31 & 32
Locomotive: Class 374 Eurostar e320 (Siemens Velaro) Top Speed 200mph

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of Lille Europe on a freezing winter’s night you know you want to spend as little time there as possible. We lugged our bags off the TGV, up the icy escalator and trudged like world weary explorers to the back of the slow moving Eurostar check in line, hats on, gloves on scarfs tied tight, an Everest expedition would have moved faster than this, but I don’t think you’ll spy a Sherpa to guide you through Lille Europe.  After what seemed a lifetime we were finally through the baggage scan and passport control allowing just enough time to pick up some snacks for dinner. Yes, they were as horrifically overpriced as you’d expect for a bottle of coke, chocolate bar and bag crisps purchased at the station.  Honestly, after two days of food poisoning and some big restaurant lunches we weren’t hungry for more. 

Eventually boarding was called and we quickly made our way down to the platform and from the composition board saw we’d be walking the entire length of it to find our carriage!  At least it got the circulation going.  As you may have noticed there was time for one more lucky 13 moment this trip. Due to a change of train we had been moved from carriage 16 to 13, honestly you couldn’t make it up if you tried. We stood and waited, trying not freeze to death in the 10 minutes it took for our train to pull in. 

When it did finally turn up at least the suffering was worth it, at last I’d get to ride an e320.

I know, I know by the time I’d done this trip these trains had been in the wild for a good few years but it was my first time riding one and as I’d never been on any of the German ICE trains that these are based on either, I was slowly warming with excitement. 

The first thing that I noticed is how much bigger these Siemens trains are than the regular e300 TGV based Eurostar trains that I had become familiar with.  From the steps, to the seats to the doors and the tray tables it was one giant leap for a train. 

Featuring LCD screens throughout the carriages looping video ads, interspersed with the speed of the train and details of the next stop to come kept us entertained.  We settled in to our seats and broke open the snacks shortly after departing Lille and sped towards the Channel Tunnel.  My mood had improved and the stress was speeding out of my body as fast as this German powerhouse of a train could carry me. The sugar, salt and coke fuelled us through the rest of the journey with some light reading and amusement at the extended family group occupying the seats in front of us taking up the rest of our time.  It can’t be easy doing long journeys with small children but despite us making fun of the stereotypes this group fell into they did a pretty good job wrangling their kids.  Unsurprisingly they got off at Ebbsfleet and although we momentarily debated doing the same, the train we wanted to connect to was cancelled so it made more sense to travel the full distance into St Pancras. 

We arrived promptly into London, though our tickets had a completely different arrival time on them which was a touch confusing.  We then made the long walk down the platform, admiring the brightly lit blue girders that support the clear glass ceiling.  In the distance that large clock and the shining light of Tracey Emin’s neon message of hope.  We had enjoyed a fine Christmas in 2019 even if we got sick, even if working was a pain, even though the strikes disrupted our plans.  Somehow sat on the train home to Canterbury preparing to see out the year and the decade it had all worked out, not just this trip but the last 10 years.  I really felt like I’d got my life back in gear, with new friendships, a new house and new jobs, it was the happiest I’d been in 20 years and it was going to take something truly epic to derail the year ahead.  Friday 13th give it your best shot!

Friday 13th Part 1 and 2

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