Ooh you are Eiffel Insert crepe pun here

Warning: lots of very excruiciating detail in this one, and precious few photos. Don't say you haven't been warned.

It's Groundhog Day in the world of darrenf. On 12th March last year I was whisked off by Eurostar on a day trip to Paris, a destination kept secret right up until the morning of the day, and an accidentally fabulous day was had. As with my New York experience in August 2014, I only went and bloody enjoyed myself in a city I claim to hate, didn't I? So being March 12th the following year, here we are heading to Paris. What could possibly go wrong?

I arranged the transport this time. There were no (deliberate) surprises in store; this date was chosen specifically because my brother's missus is up in this hemisphere with family and friends on a midlife crisis jaunt around Europe. As they're not hopping across the channel, it fell to us to do that and pop into Paris while they're about. I, of course, made us fly.

In my defence, by the time we came to arrange everything, having known the date, prices on Eurostar were very high while seats on a plane were cheap, since I paid with miles. What's more, we would have much more time on the ground than last year because I'd got us on the second flight out and last flight back: 1115 landing, 2030 take off.

OK, that's obviously not 9 proper hours, because there's transit from Paris Charles De Gaulle (henceforth CDG) into the city and back plus, um, well, y'see, there's this lounge at the airport I really have heard great things about and have needed an excuse to visit for quite some time...

But even so. We should have a decent chunk of time in the city to do fun stuff. And before I finish all this intro nonsense and start detailing things properly let me just say: we did have a great time in Paris today. But not all of today was fun.

It's an early start. Last weekend I'd flown up to Manchester and when I ordered the cab, my excellent favourite local cab firm Mogule Cars gave me some backchat on the blower. "Heathrow again? One day you'll go somewhere else!" But this time round, no such humour. Nonetheless, as usual they sent us a driver who arrived 10 minutes before the scheduled pick-up time, 0645.

We'd been up a while. Helen hopefully won't mind me revealing that she normally a) wakes up later than me b) needs a good 15 minutes or so to start functioning properly. So it was to my great surprise this morning that at 0515 she was able to enunciate "morning darling!" so clearly. I mean, what? Meanwhile I was stuck in a short-lived hangover and desire to play some Microsoft Solitaire before the 0530 alarm went off. The cat got grumpy that the humans had woken up without the aid of his paws and fucked off to eat a plant and instantly throw it up. This is how everyone's Sundays start, I presume.

With a fresh French brand notepad in one pocket and some leftover RER tickets from 12/03/2016 in another, we zoomed a little concerningly to terminal 5, a destination our chauffeur deemed necessary to confirm a good 4 or 5 times en route. Perhaps this was a portent to come, because after a quick vape Helen and I went to the fast track security lanes; I had all our boarding passes loaded on my phone, so after I went through I flicked sideways and handed her the handset. She held it over the scanner and up came the error: wrong airport.

Oops. Apparently I'd handed her a phone showing the evening's return boarding pass. Ha. But even with that fail, we were through security very quickly indeed. None of my stuff nor person was considered suspicious but Helen had to go through the seconday metal detector thing plus get a frisk down. Even my often-troublesome phone holster thing escaped their attention though.

Unfortunately the fast track bit is at the opposite end of the terminal to the first class lounge, but thankfully I'd got us the cab early enough so we could make good use of it, even if we would be departing from a satelliite. I'm keen to make good use of the investment I made in earning a BA gold card, an experience which was in no way tons and tons of ace fun requiring not much reward.

The first class lounge is great. This was Helen's debut visit so I took her on what amounts to a small tour. First, we went to the food area and eschewed the table service menu in lieu of the self-serve full English buffet, complete with black pudding. We were both bloody starving and scoffed our plates down in no time.

Pre-8am champagne? Check. Indie WWE merch? Check. Enjoying myself? Just a bit.

Then, via some soft drinks, we grabbed some chairs in the main lounge with power sockets, and I went to fetch champagne. Helen wrapped a present we had with us - it's Sally's birthday and we had a gift, but I'd suggested perhaps not trying to get something through security that's already wrapped up because security folk probably don't take kindly to "no, I can't show you what's in that because it's a present for someone". Hmm.

Then pastry goods and a bucks fizz for Helen, which she unfortunately couldn't finish because boarding was announced. We weren't at the satellite, but we were leaving from the completely opposite end of the terminal. Bloody hell. I seem to regularly have good luck with gates on arrival but not on departure. Meh.

Our seats had been reassigned, strangely, a few days before departure. I'd shunted us forwards to the first row of economy, row 6, only for the app to say nope, you're in row 7. This is known in some circles as playing "curtain roulette" - because short haul business class is a variable size cabin with adjustable seating, sometimes they make it bigger and if you were previouly in the front row you could be placed anywhere. Thankfully, for us this just meant we remained in the first row of economy, so still in prime place to suffer a bit of curtain envy.

Actually we weren't that envious. After an early "I want a hot towel!" faux tantrum (and not from me) we really didn't care. There was a spare seat next to me so we could spready out a bit, legroom was OK, and anyway it's only 35 minutes flying time. There's not a huge amount of point, or perhaps any at all, in being up front with all the extra cost for such a short journey.

Helen did buy something from the M&S onboard menu though, much to my disgust. Turns out that since those excellent and only moderately terrifying Sansa flights internally in Costa Rica she's been a bit anxious about planes, and needed a gin and hipster bitter lemon mixer to calm her down. It worked a bloody treat mind.

After really not very long, Paris appeared. It looked misty. That wasn't too surprising; the BA app had said it'd be raining all day, while the Met Office and Yahoo! Weather apps both said it'd just be cloudy. Even so, we hadn't expected the cityscape and Eiffel Tower to be poking their heads up in quite so striking a fashion.

A couple of minutes later we fly directly over another Paris airport, one I've never heard of called Le Bourget. We could tell the name because it was written in giant letters on the runway. And then, not long after - in fact, at 1057, almost 20 minutes early - here we are at CDG. Let's see how bad this airport experience can be, shall we?

OK being on a remote stand requiring a fairly long bus ride to a terminal building isn't the most auspicious beginning. Then the first set of mobile stairs they're driving to the plane break down so we need another set. But hey, the bus was very, erm, wide, and deposited us at 2A through which we sped pretty fast. So, we're landside: how do we get to the train station?

We nip outside so Helen can restock on nicotine. There's a shuttle bus sign and a bunch of other 2x terminals flanking tons of roads, and thouands of cabs. I don't entirely remember how, but we figured out that the station is at 2D and we're at 2A, next to 2C (there is no 2B). So, well, maybe we can just walk?

We stay outside - it's a nice sunny day, as it happens, forecasts be damned - and after 5 minutes or so we can see 2D. It's inaccessible by foot across the aforementioned chaotic roads. But the nearest shuttle stop says the shuttle will be here in 4 minutes and goes from 2C to 2F then some parking lots then 2D then the station. Well fine, we'll do that then.

Top tip #1: if you get the shuttle bus N1 at CDG from 2A or 2C because you want the train station, get off at 2F and walk 5 minutes to the station because there's a way through there. Don't stay on the bus and share nervous glances as you trundle to some long term parking lots that are a loooong way away. Don't stay on the bus where, once you get to the furthest lot, the driver gets off to spend 5 minutes smoking. Don't stay on the bus because it takes about half a fucking hour when you really don't need to spend that long getting to the station. Grr.

Anyway. Whatever. Eventually we're at the gare, and really all we've lost is the time the flight had made up. Maybe a bit more, but chalk it up to experience. Sal has texted to say they have reservations at a particular restaurant near the Centre Pompidou for 1230 and by my estimation we'll get there about 1245. No autopsy, no foul.

Buying an RER ticket is harder on the machine that it needs to be, and €10 a piece, single. Holy crap. Are we really that far out of the city that it should cost so much? Yes, yes we are. But there's a train leaving in 3 minutes and we make it and get a seat and it's only 3 stops to Chatelet-les-Halles.

It's 3 stops because it's the express, missing out about another 8 or 10 stops in the suburbs. There's a busker playing covers of Sinatra tunes on his squeezebox so it's a musical ride, but it's not a pretty ride, nor is it as fast as it might be. Think it's meant to be 35 minutes and it took us about 50, but then we're there. It's only a 10 minute walk to Salento: come out of the station and walk either left or right, then hang another left or right as appropriate, go past the Pompidou Centre and complete the rectangle.

At least, that's what it looks like on the map. What it looks like in reality is you're dumped into a big shopping centre and there's signs to about 15 different exits from the station all to road names we don't recognise, and after just a few minutes we're like, fuck it, let's just actually get outside. Through the nearest door and we hear music and, oh shit, there's a big public dance-aerobics class taking place and we're almost part of it. Retreat! Retreat!

I did not take this photo. It's some Creative Commons thing. Hopefully there's a credits link somewhere.

A couple of minutes later we're skirting around the edge of the aerobercisers and at street level, and actually on track. There's boulangeries and patisseries and the Pompidou Centre and it's sunny and we're not stopping to take photos because all the lighting is wrong and anyway we are pretty damn late now. At almost exactly 1pm we reach the restaurant. Hello, everyone!

There's Sal and there's Ann and there's James and Luke and Jo and Mara and now us. Everyone has wine, a couple of people have food. We're in a small Italian restaurant, for which Sal apologises. We hand her her birthday present, which is very very well received, and then order food and a beer for me.

Lots of conversation. Helen has never met any of these people before and I know most people except Luke, who I don't get to know because he has to leave about 20 minutes after we arrive. Then we discover that Helen has met Ann before, just a few weeks ago at work. Small world!

Food is eaten and lovely. I have a plate of lovely rich creamy ravioli plus half of Sal's spicy gnocchi. Then we throw some money at Jo and leave before the bill comes because Sal and Mara want to show off their accommodation: they're staying literally about 30 yards away in a spectacular AirBnB rental. There are amazing beams and interesting electronics and the location is spectacular. Now we kinda have to maybe do something like this ourselves.

Anyway. Those we left behind in the restaurant arrive and we all have tactical loo visits, then set off to the next group outing. My job is to walk us all back to Chatelet les Halles metro station, or at least the general area, then Helen takes over to get us to the station entrance proper. Our journey is delayed somewhat by a group pointing session at some "what the fuck are those" goods in the patisserie window, which results in us getting 7 free samples. It was some fruity brioche-y stuff and delicious.

Anyway, back at the metro station and we put our tickets through the barrier and follow the sign to (M)(4). So next, erm, we have to go through another barrier... and then a third barrier. What? It's a stupid walk but then there's a metro and we go about 6 stops to Vavin, reach street level and have no clue where we're going. James rescues us and we walk towards Montparnasse and, hey, here's the big street art market: Marche de la Creation!

At the very first stall Helen spots some bowls she adores. At the rest of the stalls, well, they're quite interesting nothing really purchase worthy. Some of the stalls are manned by the most stereotypical French artists imaginable, all moody and tortured and smoking and sipping red wine. We've arrived at the centre, so head all the way up one end, then back and all the way to the other, then back to the centre where the bowls are bought.

The seller tells us she handmade all the stoneware and ceramics we can see, and takes Helen away because the whole market shares a single card terminal. On that journey she explains she's there every week, except not last week because "too much wine".

The metro signs are fantastic.

Then, crepes. Ann and James have to leave for Eurostar in about half hour so just time for a last hurrah, on a street which has - Jo went and counted - 11 creperies. I mean, come on. Our one is a cash only joint with an extensive menu of both savoury and sweet crepes and suddenly the fact we were all stuffed after the food at Salento is forgotten. So we're told, the European odyssey is mostly consisting of "eat loads, walk around for a couple of hours, repeat".

The crepes are great, and only come in double size. I get "crepe compote" but forget what it is by the time it arrives 90 seconds later (it's stewed apple). Helen drinks a Kir Breton, which is raspberry liqueuer(?) mixed with Breton cider. Blimey. Everyone, and I mean everyone (except Helen), repeatedly tells me I look and sound and act exactly like Kevin so much that it's almost like he's turned up. And put a bunch of weight on.

Ann and James say their goodbyes and we're down to 5: only Helen and I are visiting guests to the proper tourists. They have tickets for the Eiffel Tower at 5.30pm, which is about the right time for us to leave the city anyway so we set off and walk with them.

For the first little while, we keep checking maps on our phones and - get this - they make them on paper these days too - and scoot around big stores and go down big boulevards and then, whoa! There it is! It's just a straight line walk down a huge road, easy peasy.

About 2 minutes later, down said road, we've lost sight of it. I've no idea how this happens. We're definitely going the right way, and don't seem to have turned any corners or anything, but the tower keeps disappearing and then reappearing in different places - straight ahead, to the left, to the right, then finally we're at the edge of the park leading up to it. There's a statue of a man on a horse seemingly in a "fuck, look at the size of that tower!" pose.

It still doesn't really seem to be getting any closer though. I think perhaps I'm struggling to detect the difference between big and near until suddenly it's both big AND near.

We get there, loudly discussing how terrifying the girls' forthcoming ascent to the very top will be, and then walk away from it. What? No-one understand why except Sal, who is leading us and oh, right, there's a meeting point for the company she's booked with. They're on some pre-arranged queue-jumping special deal and I guess that's our cue to leave, right? Right.

So, I admit that the well-received present idea wasn't exactly my own before hugs and goodbyes and nice-to-meet-yous are exchanged and away we go. We know there's an RER station nearby, next to the Seine. Take a quick look at the water and then into the public transport system. It's a way too long walk to get to the platform of RER C, which we need to get 4 or 5 stops to St Michel. One train has just left and the next is in 7 minutes, and only half length so we have to go aaaaaaaallllll the way along the platform.

It comes, we change onto an RER B heading to the airport but realise after it leaves that this is not an express - it's going to stop bloody everywhere. What's more, we're standing up, which sucks. So next up we find ourselves back at Chatelet les Halles and wait 10 or so minutes for the next express, which is pretty empty already and almost completely once we leave Gare du Nord.

It's a slightly faster ride to the airport. We're confident we know much better than, say, the shuttle bus this morning, so it can't be troublesome. First though, the lift up to the cab area so Helen can have a vape. There are 3 sketchy lads already in the lift, no floor number has been pressed, we go up to 5 - the top floor - and get out. The sketchy lads stay in. No idea what was going on there, but we got the stairs back down.

There are signs from the RER to terminals A and C, which is good. It's a bit of a walk but nothing too bad, and certainly would've saved us some time in the morning. Top tip #2: don't get the shuttle bus at all, don't go outside, but stay inside and follow the actually fairly noticeable signs for ground transportation. If only we'd gone back inside in the morning, rather than stayed walking on the pavement at my stupid insistence.

Aaaanyway. OK, we're following the signs to the A and C gates and then there's the departure area. Cool. A man scans our boarding passes and we're good to walk through. There's no fast track, at least not for us, and next up is immigration aka Border Police. There's 3 bits.

  • some self-service lanes for a system called "Parafe", which we're not eligible for (though that doesn't stop us from trying)
  • the "All passports" line on the right, which is pretty long
  • the EU/CH/EEA passports line on the left, which we join

There's only one booth open for each queue. The guy doing the EU/CH/EEA passports is taking about a minute for each person rather than the more usual 10 seconds or so. It's torturous. The queue is getting bigger and bigger and some more staff arrive, but at first those at the front of the queue don't really notice they could get served. A woman who is pissed off as hell about the automatic machines not accepting her and then the size of the queue gets to the front, and decides that's the right time to have a big argument with the guy - who reacts. So in order to express how pissed off she is by a long wait, she causes a delay for the 100 or so people behind her. Well done, for fucks sake.

Once through that, there's x-ray security. It's moving slowly, the monitors say it'll take 5 minutes. We got into a queue, and a member of staff at the front is checking people's individual items in their trays before it's even gone through the bloody machine. Some people have to take shoes off and put carrier bags over their feet. Everything's slow. They're also checking everyone's boarding passes again, which seems pointless and is hassle when we have two on the same phone.

I walk through the metal detector and it makes a weird noise. Not a full on "you're made of metal" thing, but some strange noise and a woman tells me to go stand in a certain place. Then no-one takes any notice of me again, so whatever. But then my phone, in its holster and a tray by itself, raises the alarm. The guy swabs it. Then puts it back through. Then asks me to "open it". I demonstrate what it is and god damn it I'm getting really pissed off at how this stupid thing freaks out airport staff so much.

Spitting blood by now. It's about, I forget, 1925 or so? Over 2 hours since we left the Aussies in town. That's ridiculous and I'm so angry. Honestly it's unreasonable how angry I am, but the airport was a total pile of shit. It's badly organised, confusing, overly officious and bureaucratic, with unfriendly staff and argh fuck off.

But we're airside. I'm still interested in this Cathay Pacific lounge about which I've read plenty. The problem is we've only got about an hour before the flight, not the 2 relaxing hours I'd planned. My grump is probably not helped by dehydration, having walked so far and drunk no liquid since the crepe stop that was by now a full 4 hours ago.

In that far corner is a made-to-order noodle bar. I don't have time to try it. It was my number one aim for this lounge.

I go straight to the food and drink, therefore. Plate of salmon and potatoes and a can of Heineken. Helen gets similar but with a gin and tonic instead. I go back up, for a plate of cheese and nuts and a glass of champagne and another Heineken which I cunningly leave unopened. This is both deliberate and sensible, because before either of us can finish our food boarding is announced, just before 8pm. Of course it fucking is. We had about 40 minutes in the lounge I think. Bloody hell.

We're boarding from 2 gates at once, and the priority queue is shorter than the one at Heathrow this morning so we're at the front quite soon, where our boarding passes are rejected and it takes a few minutes to sort us out. I'd seen it on the app earlier: we've been moved seats again, from row 4 to 5. I presume again they've bumped up the size of business class, except once we finish queuing on the airbridge to get onboard we see that no, they haven't. We've just been moved because we've been moved, and in row 4 is a family of 3. The kid seems to be about 6 months old and very bloody loud, a volume matched almost by the adults.

Helen is sat immediately in front of a man who can't stop coughing, loudly and horrible. Meanwhile I can't fit in the middle seat with the arm rests down. I know I've eaten a bit, but not that much. Oh, look, they've not adjusted it since these seats really were business class on the way out so the A and C seats are wide, and B should have a table on it. I can't scrunch in so I point this out to a member of cabin crew, who gives me a nonsensical answer and goes back to shouting at people about where to put their bags.

Helen and I look at each other repeatedly, as we had in the lounge after the airport fail, and say: Eurostar. Eurostar. Eurostar.

A couple of minutes later I bring my seat fail up with a different member of staff, who understands what I'm on about and says she'll find someone to sort it. A third member of staff comes over, looks at it, asks if I want an engineer. I'm like, what? I don't know. Isn't this easy to fix and we just don't know how it's done? They're adjustable seats! I've explained exactly the problem: you've left these in Club Europe configuration, can't you just flip it back?

The original member of staff comes back and says, actually, despite their announcements to the contrary there are loads of free seats so I should get up and move to one of them. I'm like, we're travelling together, are you say just I move or both of us? She says "just you, I mean unless you want us to get an engineer and delay the plane. It'll be an hour delay. It's up to you" all delivered in a really shirty way and I'm kinda shocked. But whatever, I go to move but then 5C says well hey, if you two are together then I'll go to a spare seat and we're sorted. Thanks, that's very kind.

She goes to, I think, 8 or 9 E - another middle seat - and forgets her purse. As I'm standing up to hand it to her she's coming back out, because those seats have the same problem and she can't fit in it. Jesus. But, just as I'm getting back to row 5 a FIFTH member of staff comes, takes a look, and goes "oh right, just that?" and with a flick of something so deft and quick I can't even catch what he does, he's fixed the arm rests. Hallelujah! Maybe do it to every row that's no longer business?

Of course, the man with child in 4B has a broken seat back. He keeps going fully reclined - on the ground - so badly that the fixer-upper guy even has to check that the seat isn't totally broken. Thankfully in the air it's not so bad, but he squashes me totally when we land back at Heathrow.

Ah, the family in 4. As is widely known BA now charge for food, so service is very different and variable speed and on a short trip like CDG to London can be a real challenge. So what everyone needs is for the folk in the front row to order SIX different items, one after the other, and to have a problem with the payment for their wasabi peas as well.

By now I'm laughing. All the fail and grump of the airport has gone, this is clearly a fucking disastrous journey home and I've gone full circle and it's funny again. Helen, who had largely kept calm at CDG despite recognising how bad everything was, is now losing her shit. She just wants another damn gin and bitter lemon but are they even going to reach row 5?

Thankfully, they do. The gin helps, a bit. I take that as my cue to open the Heineken I nicked from the lounge and then we start our descent. It's dark and we're not sure where we are and wonder why we can't see London, and then suddenly it's Hounslow and we're landing. This flight could not finish fast enough.

At Heathrow the queue for immigration, even on the oyster gates - more of which are open than usual - is huge, but in fairness it moves very fast. The woman in front of me has to try her passport twice and I expect it'll refuse mine completely or some shit, but actually I'm through and then we're out and Helen's having a smoke. I summon an uber, who is apparently just 10 minutes away.

The driver phones me to confirm I'm legit, and then stays 10 minutes away for the next 20 minutes. Uber pickup at T5 is chaos in the short stay parking by the parent and child parking areas and there's tons of people waiting and it's ridiculous. Drivers and punters alike are getting shunted around by some marshalls. Eventually our ride arrives, and we're on our way to Surbiton via Thames Ditton.

I think next time we'll use Eurostar.

Created By
Darren Foreman
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