At 3am on Thursday 4 January, my brother called from Toulouse to say our 94-year-old father had just died. Burial would take place as soon as I arrived. I immediately went on the net to try to book a seat on the Air France flight in the evening of the same day. No such thing. The first flight was on the next evening, which meant arriving in Toulouse Saturday morning.
(By the way, a single fare with an open return for Bangkok–Paris–Toulouse isn’t an option either; a single fare comes to over 1600 euros, whereas a two-week return fare is as low as a little over 1000 euros – go figure.)
By 10am, my resourceful daughter had booked me on an Air Asia round trip leaving Bangkok at 4pm for Kuala Lumpur and arriving at Paris Orly on Friday morning (local time) – for less than a thousand euros, including one dinner on the return trip (on ‘cheap’ Air Asia, one pays extra for meals, baggage, onboard entertainment, blanket and what-have-you, even water).
It turned out to be the most expensive, longest and lousiest return trip to France I’ve ever experienced.
One piece of advice: do not take Air Asia on long flights. (Actually, Air Asia flights to Europe and even to India from here are due to be phased out next month.)
All my life, a third of it as a reporter, I’ve prided myself on travelling the world with only one piece of hand luggage, which had me shun at some cost those functions where a three-piece suit was de rigueur. So, I packed a bag in a hurry, turned down the fellow who was arriving to install a toilet forthwith, locked the house and ran to the airport, to soon find out that, in this insane time and age, cabin luggage only is no longer an option: panicky post-7/11 regulations applied stupidly, whimsically and/or dishonestly make sure of that.
In the course of a 24-hour trip, I was treated to no fewer than four luggage checks and two body searches. (Only three luggage checks and no body search on the 48-hour return trip.) My bag was full of potentially murderous weapons, I discovered as I went along.
The fun started at the Bangkok checkpoint, by far the most stupidly thorough of them all (it’s the only one that had us take off our shoes, slippers included, for x-ray inspection – Malaysians didn’t bother; the French, reasonably enough given the weather, checked only high-heeled shoes).
Right away, three used items were ‘confiscated’, in the name of ‘international rules’: a bottle of doctor-prescribed shampoo, expensive and hard to replace; a flask of (cheap) after-shave lotion; and, believe it or not, a tube of Parodontax® toothpaste. No teeth-brushing for the next 24 hours.
(On the return trip, I made a point of introducing a new tube of toothpaste in my bag: it went totally unnoticed and surprisingly no plane exploded in mid-air.)
Somehow, there and elsewhere, I was allowed to keep a razor and its blades, my toothbrush and my faithful biro, with any of which I could definitely kill if I had a mind to.
If the next terrorist attack uses loaded underwear, will we be asked to strip or have ours ‘confiscated’?
In KL, entering the transit area straight after disembarking astonishingly required a new hand luggage search on top of the passport examination – and of course the same rigmarole before making it into the plane to Paris.
At Orly, I coughed up an extra 136 euros for ‘la navette’ to Toulouse – and was informed that there was no seat available in the early morning of the day I was due to return: I’d have to catch a flight the night before and book a room for the night in a hotel or spend the night in the TGV (actually, no such option). I can’t remember what it is they ‘confiscated’ for that flight – ah, yes, not quite: a bottle of water I was asked to drink up.
When I arrived in Toulouse, it was to learn that the burial would take place … on Monday.
And realise that, in my haste to leave, I’d forgotten the list of phone numbers of my friends in the EU. I definitely felt clandestine and castoff.
To top it all, warning me that some imposter was trying to use my messagerie from France, gmail locked me out! It took five days to convince them that the imposter was me.
For two weeks, hard labour offset the freezing cold: the burial in the village of my birth amid desiccated ghosts (‘Don’t you remember me? The last time I saw you you were nine, reading a book under the marronnier.’); the emptying of the dead man’s house, throwing away, giving away, stocking away; the scrubbing and reshaping of my brother’s much neglected house; and the kneading of my brother’s morale: he’d been on the receiving end of his insufferably ailing hence bellicose, incontinent father day and night for months and months and was suddenly back into his own skin and finding it empty.