The last strike that had a particularly direct influence on me was New Year 1980-something. Obviously, I was just a child. [WHISTLES]. I'd gone to Paris on the ferry (penniless, comme d'habitude) to mourn the end of a duff love affair, and found a cheap, but cosy, hotel near the Gare du Nord. And it was a good job it was cosy, since the temperature was down to -15 degrees every day. But the room was toasty, I frequented the art galleries, bought plastic bottles of wine for the equivalent of 30p a litre (nothing changes), and dripped tears into the gallons of chocolat chaud I put away.
After a few days enjoying my misery on my own, my friend, Isolde, flew over to join me. At the time she worked for a Very Posh Indeed chain of hotels, and managed to wheedle us a free stay in one of the most expensive establishments in Paris. So I checked out of my room-with-a-womb - which, oddly, had a wash basin in the middle of one wall, surrounded by what can only be described as a small, indoor shed built from unfinished chipboard - and wandered over to the palatial quarters of the Residence Sacha Distel (not its real name) to find an ENORMOUS bedroom - with a bathroom the length of a runway at Charles de Gaulle, containing a couple of basins, sans shed! - a bowl of exotic fruit - including strawberries, for god's sake (it was January 2nd) - and original artwork on the walls.
(Just occurred to me - perhaps my geography had led me astray, and I checked into the Louvre?)
Anyway, we did the touristy things, we froze, we ate strawberries, we froze, we went up the Eiffel Tower - where, in one of the lifts, a small child stepped onto my frozen toes, which immediately felt like they'd become detached from my feet - I swear I heard the crack (small child ultimately found a quicker way down) - we froze, we drank a lot of hot chocolate. On one occasion it was so, so cold (Snowdrops Keep Falling On My Head) that we could only get back to the Residence Sacha Distel by scuttling along the street for no more than ten seconds before succumbing to the charms of another warm bar for (yet) another mug of steaming brown beverage.
Excuse me, officer, can you tell me the way to the Residence Sacha Distel?
Certainly, Madam, it's ten hot chocolates due north from here.
The day came to travel back home, Isolde with her return flight, me on the boat. Only, what boat would that be? The ports were closed thanks to a strike, and nothing was coming in to France or leaving it by water.
Isolde had a grand idea. She called down to the Concierge and explained the situation. Since she was a VIP guest, the Concierge would take care of the problem. (He could have had her skipping out onto the Moon's surface hand in hand with Neil Armstrong had she requested to do so). Half an hour later he called the room - even though every plane was full thanks to the New Year break being over, I was miraculously on the same flight as my friend back to the UK!
We packed up, we checked out...and then realised we had about 10 centimes left between us. Hmm. We'd better change some more money for unforeseen circumstances, just to be on the safe side. So we trotted over to the hotel's bureau de change and joined the queue.
The woman in front of us was an American wearing a very thick fur coat, and she changed up 10,000 dollars.
'Bonjour, mademoiselles', the teller greeted us, with a fixed, plastic grin. 'Ow much would you like to change?'
'5 pounds, please', we said in a jolly, British, 'what's wrong with that? Chop, chop,' kind of a way.
He shot us a glance as if to say 'didn't I see you on the last Jeremy Beadle series?' But his 5 star professionalism kicked in at the last minute.
'If I can 'ave your room key, please'...
'Oh, we've just handed it into reception. But we were staying in Room 325.
'I'm afraid I cannot 'elp you then,' he told us. 'It is against the rules of the 'otel to change money for people who are not guests'.
'But we were guests until five minutes ago!' we protested. To no avail.
So Isolde walked calmly over to the Concierge's desk (she was getting the hang of this VIP lark by now) and explained what had happened. The Concierge went very red in the face and puffed out his chest.
'BUT YOU ARE GUESTS OF THE 'OTEL!' he exclaimed, loudly and indignantly, and proceeded to march his perfect pin-stripe trousers over to the Bureau de Change, us following behind in a line of dinky steps, like baby ducks following their mother. Once at the Bureau he let out a stream of what must have been not awfully polite invective, judging from the colour the teller's face turned.
We got our 5 pounds worth of Francs, dear Reader.
But the night was only just beginning. For the Concierge promptly summoned over the bellboy to carry our bags to the taxi he had ordered for us.
'Thank you, but we won't be needing a taxi,' said Isolde, airily. 'We've got plenty of time, we'll walk to the Gare du Nord'.
The Concierge looked perplexed.
'You don't want a taxi?!', he spluttered. (Nobody in the history of the Residence Sacha Distel had ever left its portals without summoning a taxi. Other than those whose chauffeurs had picked them up). 'But look outside, Mademoiselles!'
We looked outside. There was 8 feet of snow on the ground.
[NOTE: This blog is entirely devoid of clever lighting, airbrushing, botox, laser skin resurfacing or chemical peels. (Oops, sorry! Wrong article!) Anyway, no statistics were harmed in the writing of this post - there really was 8 feet of snow on the ground.]
Isolde and I looked at each other. Like John Wayne, we realised there was no way out of there barring a shoot-out if we didn't get in the cab. So we got in the cab.
The bellboy picked up Isolde's suitcase. Isolde, mindful of the size of tip she would be expected to give the bellboy, grabbed the suitcase back. The bellboy, startled but insistent, reached again for the luggage, and an unseemly tussle ensued in the middle of the large, marbled, be-chandeliered foyer. Isolde won. (My close friends are carefully chosen for their many various attributes, and what a blessing brute force can be at times). We staggered to the taxi with cases stuffed full of thick sweaters, thick socks, and thick white velvet bathrobes with some sort of insignia embroidered on them. (No, we didn't. That was a joke. Really, really. Honest.
No, really! Why won't you believe me???)
There had been an implicit understanding in agreeing to take the taxi that, once in it, we would instruct the driver to stop around the corner from the hotel and let us out with our luggage to enjoy the night air. However the preceding half an hour had tired us somewhat, and, dear Reader, we both thought Bugger It; thus we let him take us to the Gare du Nord to catch our train to the airport.
On arrival at the Gare du Nord we handed over our treasured, hard-won 5 pounds worth of francs, and waved goodbye to any chance of a beverage - of any variety - before stepping onto the plane.
Never mind, we'd be back home soon.
The train arrived on the platform. We got on it. The train sat there. We sat on the train. After half an hour we were told to get of it. Another train came onto another platform. We got on that. It sat there. We sat on it. Eventually, it pulled out of the Gare du Nord.
It was now a pitch black night, apart from the 8 feet of crispy snow that covered everything. After twenty minutes or so we drew up at a platform serving a station en plein air. We were told to get off the train. We got off the train. The train pulled away into the night without anyone on it, bar the driver. We stood on the platform, in the dark, -20 degrees, no train, no information, no nothing. Well, there was something, there was snow. And 100 sets of chattering teeth.
After a while a train came into view. It stopped at our platform. We were not allowed to get on it, the doors did not open. The people inside - warm people, people whose toes were in their shoes attached to their feet and not melting in a plastic bag in the their hand luggage, looked pittingly down at us wretched SNCF refugees. They almost didn't smile as their transport dragged them off into the distance. Almost.
Probably about three weeks later a train came along that we were allowed to get on. And so we arrived at the Charles de Gaulle airport.
Don't know what it's like now, haven't been there for a few decades (wonder why), but back then we had to wait for a shuttle bus to take us to the famous circular terminal that I thought nobody ever found their way out of. Devoting a life to comedy, however, naturally it falls to me not to be able to find my way into the SWEARWORD thing.
A bus appeared. 100 frostbitten travellers, too cold by now even to summon the energy to shiver, almost cheered. The bus pulled up 100 feet away and the driver got out his sandwiches and newspaper, and - with the engine running so that he could keep himself nice and warm - he took his evening break. For half an hour.