By the time I got on the flight to Shanghai, it felt I had done a days work already. It was eight hours after I had left the house in darkness, including four in the underground bunker of CDG’s crisp emporium. Getting on a plane, knowing that it is your flying cell for the next 11 hours, being looked after by the unsympathetic, inevitably-soon-to-be-on-strike stewardesses of Air France, crumbs of comfort are sought more readily than remnants of ready salted.
My particular morsels for this endurance test were the inflight movies and a book that my wife had given to me as a Valentine’s Day present, which was going to require the two key skills for reading: being able to keep your eyes open, and remembering the wisdom of the words on the page. Being brutally frank, neither was in my reach. This I tried, but it was futile. It did, however, make it crystal clear how I thought it used to take my father six months to read a 300-page novel – night after night, I assumed he would read the same page, falling asleep at the same point, and having to remind himself of the previous pages so as to make sense of it. Progress was slow. This is probably/definitely grossly unfair, but I could think of little other explanation. And so it was with me – at the bottom of each page, I had forgotten what it was describing, so had to revert to the top. At the third attempt I shut the book, and my eyes.
Sleeping on planes is not your author’s strong point – most of the obvious ways have failed. Extreme tiredness and sleep deprivation, such as the case here: when you simply can’t bear to have your eyes open anymore, as it feels like Satan is pissing hot acid on them.
Booze is a good second option. A few before boarding, a few hosed down rapidly during the ‘meal’ – hoping that the taste of the salted almonds that you must devour here but not even register in your day to day life – could work. This plan is flawed when you need to urinate the second the seat-belt light pings off, and you have to detangle yourself from the blanket that you have wrapped around your feet, as if you’re in a bath-chair. You might as well go the whole hog on the elderly impersonation and just piss yourself on the spot. At least you wouldn’t have to stop the film.
Lastly, the dreaded sleeping pill: I have tried this once, when flying from Kuwait to the US. Due to the potential risk of being stopped with contraband pharmaceuticals in a Muslim nation, my fellow passenger and I administered them before going through the final round of security. “Don’t worry, in an hour you’ll be sparko…” I was reliably informed. He was wrong. Within twenty minutes my legs were wobbling and fizzing, my jaw had slipped off to one side like a stroke victim, and my pupils were the size of Minstrels. OK, so it kind of sounds like fun right? “We regret to inform you that this flight has been delayed by 40 minutes, at least…” I looked at both versions of my swaying colleague, and just started giggling. He was trying to fall asleep standing up, rocking forward and back like he had ski boots on.
I slept for two hours, and little did I know that this would set the tone for the rest of the week. So, unable to read as holding a book would have meant removing myself from the cocoon I had made for myself, it was movie time. The choices were not good, overall, so I plumped for the following:
– Moneyball – Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill (the fat one from Superbad), Thingy Seymour-Hoffman, baseball, and an ok film. Rocky with added maths 7/10 (because I like sports films)
– The Hangover 2 – exactly the same as the first one, except nowhere near as funny, but excellent use of the “c” word early on, and the photo montage at the end. In fact, watch the first scene in the diner, then put on The Hangover, then switch it back to 2 for the credits, and you’d have a better night. 5/10 (because I like swearing)
– Lost In Translation – partly because I hadn’t seen it for ages, and also because I was going to a part of Asia I had never been too. I know its set in Tokyo, pedants, but it was as close as the selection got to accuracy of my situation. More on this later. 9/10 (because it starts with Johaaaannnnnssssen’s bottom, and finishes with the Jesus and Mary Chain, with Bill Murray singing Roxy Music)
– Drive – Ryan Gosling, some actress that is cute at times but annoying at others. A very slow-paced love story, fast-paced car chases and ridiculous violence. Now, I like an anonymous driver movie, like most men. It was pootling along ok, couple of chases, a heist, etc. until one moment, and then there is a specific ‘scene’. I won’t spoil it, but I was not expecting the level of violence to kick in as it does, and as it crescendos, I thought “FUCK ME! Christ, that’s vicious!” Either my thoughts are very loud, or in my sleepless state, I had actually shouted it across the darkened cabin, as a stewardess shortly appeared, asking if I was ok. Instead of removing the headphones, I pointed at the blood-splattered screen and described what had happened, whilst sounding to myself as if I was under water. I am sure she knew what I meant. 8/10 (because I like Ryan Gosling, cars, and low-level mafiosa)
Fortunately sleep took me for another couple of hours after that, and I awoke to the cabin lights being turned on. The only other such illumination of ugliness to compare it to is after the last track at a decent club – on go the lights, and everyone is a different unhuman colour, soaking wet, and not making any sense. This was the same, with less sweat.
With the seat in the upright position, blankets and headphones returned to the false-smiling stewardess, it was time to get ready for Shanghai and my first visit to mainland China.