A friend commented last week on the drop in standards she experienced during her recent flight with BA and how rudely she was treated at French customs. The last time I flew British Airways, the nation’s flagship was still called BOAC — British Overseas Airways Corporation for those of you who cannot place the acronym — and I did not find the on-board gastronomic delights particularly memorable. Mind you, this epic journey, which took me from Lagos (Nigeria, not the Algarve) to London, took place during the last century, in 1963 in fact, and I was just barely four months old.
I was at war with the world at the time, or permanently hungry, I can’t remember which, and my personal contribution to the level of noise pollution in the economy class cabin threatened to overtake that of the plane’s engines. My mother discreetly pushed her violently screaming carrycot under the insulating drawn curtains that separated the elite from lesser mortals. Buffeted by my unintelligible high-pitched orations, I am quite sure that those first-class passengers did not enjoy their in-flight meal either.
Could British Airways, or BOAC, have been in a position to satisfy the delicate taste buds of the international traveller anyway? I can see a deftly prepared curry giving cause for at least a degree of satisfaction, but English food? Is there such a thing?
A recent poll that asked people to sum up ‘Britishness’ – those things that put the ‘Great’ into Britain – saw roast beef and Yorkshire pudding tie with fish and chips in joint first place, with English breakfast at No.5, tea at No.10, and Cheddar and Marmite further down the list. Prince Charles, talking about the weather, queuing, ineptitude at foreign languages and apologising were also traits which featured prominently!
Marmite I would not touch with a barge pole and I am convinced that a soggy bag of fish and chips topped with lashings of vinegar and brown sauce (mushy peas as an extra?) would not merit an outbreak of unbridled euphoria amongst the flying culinary experts. Perhaps my friend’s fond memories of BA’s delights are the result of a sound transatlantic snooze?
As for her problems at immigration, provincial France is the perfect example of the actual reality of our ever-expanding European Union, which has only recently been swelled by a further 10 member states.
The term ‘Union’ is largely a joke. The closest we have ever come to unity since the Treaty of Rome is the common currency – which Britain does not share.
France has always insisted on its own particular ‘Frenchness’. Portugal’s eagerness to accept European funds by the truckload has only been exceeded by its propensity to flout EU regulations, preferring to pay annual fines instead of dropping import barriers on items such as motor vehicles.One of the latest additions, Cyprus, is presenting Brussels with a major unwanted administrative headache by virtue of its de facto geographic and political division.
Elsewhere, old wounds continue to fester, as Germany, now ‘united’, tries to retain its self-proclaimed European pre-eminence, built on the back of a once strong post-war economy that was financed by the Americans to create a bulwark against communism. Sporadic angst-ridden outbreaks of verbal hostilities are gleefully taken up and amplified by the tabloid press in both Britain and Germany, creating a type of Cold War atmosphere touched by hilarity.
A newly published travel guide depicts Britain as a country populated by stamp collecting, Morris dancing eccentrics, who only pause in their oddball activities to have a cup of tea – every day at 4pm sharp. The brew is usually from India and accompanied by ‘small, delicately-cut’ sandwiches, scones or crumpets.
Whereas this gem of a read continues with detailed descriptions of fish paste and sliced cucumber, one of Germany’s most widely read weekly magazines, Der Spiegel, puts the boot into these genteel notions. A recent edition contained six pages on modern Britain, describing it as “a country sick in the soul”, devoid of moral fibre and beset by brawling, drunken delinquents littering the pavements with condoms. The Queen is referred to as a “nondescript little housewife”, whose subjects are ruled by a bizarre fear of all things European. Football-playing alcoholics are said to be the idols of a population made up of pit-bull owners and junk food addicts.
The British press hit back, jeering at Germany’s 4.5 million unemployed, 33,000 households filing for bankruptcy and 41,000 failed businesses. To finish off, the country’s declining train service, increasingly unreliable, was also lampooned.
On the rare occasions when these two are not at loggerheads, the ‘old enemy’ France and all things French are ridiculed especially on the other side of the ‘English’ Channel (La Manche) – European Union, indeed!
In the face of such shared animosity, it is therefore not overly surprising that my friend was inconvenienced at Montpelier airport. After all, I would imagine she behaved impeccably – polite, not pushy, and, on occasion, apologised for her predicament – in other words she behaved in a typically British fashion.
PS. Over in the UK a faulty cash machine was found to be spewing out £20 notes instead of tenners, doubling everyone’s money. Locals had no scruples about accepting the unexpected windfall, but far from creating chaos, the robbery was conducted in a very civilised, almost British manner.
An orderly queue was formed and a £100 limit set so there would be enough to go around – behaviour that would surely be met with incredulity by the German tourist ‘invading’ his poolside sun bed at six in the morning!
I should point out that Skip is German by birth, but was schooled in England, before moving to the Algarve.