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Aug 2005 Journal

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The joys of travel

Time was when you planned your trip, loaded up your car with luggage and the kids, and set off on a journey that might take days to complete. I remember having a yen to see the South of France, an almost unimaginable distance away as it seemed then. So we plotted our route on the map. Not along the Rhone-Saone valley in the east - that was bound to be congested with traffic and we always had to take our holidays at the height of the tourist season to fit in with my teaching commitments. No, we would go down the west side.

On that first day we drove to the port, stowed our car in the bowels of the ship, and faced a rough crossing, which resulted in my being sick in a lady's handbag. Then, driving on the wrong side of the road from the Pas de Calais, already weary, we stopped for the night at Pontoise, north of Paris.

Next day, as we unsteadily pushed southwards, we realised our mistake. We hadn't studied a relief map so what seemed a straightforward road turned out to include the Massif Central, a mountainous area stretching for miles.

There was relief when we reached the small towns and villages of the South. Here were shuttered houses with rusty drainpipes innocent of repair and everywhere men in blue berets solemnly playing pétanques in the dusty squares in the cool of the evening, delicious French bread, and an absence of plumbing. We had arrived. Now you can reach Agde, our final destination, in a few hours by plane and I hear that the once-stately resort has gone nudist.

We're all air travellers now. I had a taste of it recently. After much showing of passports, security checks, luggage check-ins and boarding card checks, you arrive in the departure lounge, making sure you hump your luggage with you when going to the loo in case it gets seized as a suspicious object. That bottle of whisky, which seemed such a good idea for a present, is dragging you down. It can't be long before take-off now. Or can it?

No, it's alright. You're propelled into a tube loud with the sound of roaring engines, at the end of which a smiling face welcomes you. You've asked for an aisle seat, but the distance between the fixed arm on the outside of your seat and the seat in front is just a few inches. It takes a skilful sideways contortion to get you out. This creates problems when your fellow passengers decide they must visit the restroom, as the American crew charmingly call it, or have a rendezvous with a friend in another part of the plane.

A spate of turbulence puts a stop to these activities. The demonstration of blow-up equipment for landing on the ocean isn't entirely reassuring - there's an awful lot of water down there. As a consolation, on the seat in front of you is a tiny glass panel - a TV screen in disguise. On offer is a feature film, a kiddie programme or Discovery. I opt for the last. It's a programme about apes - their pecking order and mating patterns. Interesting.

Now, plastic food is dispensed on plastic plates to be eaten with plastic cutlery. A half-thawed roll, tired lettuce, an undercooked chicken. Still, we arrive safely only an hour late. The next leg of my journey is to Tampa, Florida, where thankfully I am met. As my cousin's large car sweeps along the freeway, there are no dusty villages but monster high-rise apartments dotted about at random. We swing into a gatehouse manned by a security guard, drive into an underground car park, a key is inserted into a panel at the side of a lift. And, in no time at all, we're on the 15th floor. Ah, the joys of travel.
Martha Blend

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