With a ‘thunk’, the wheels retract, and we climb from a damp, grey landscape into nothingness. Outside the window, blank grey-white. Inside, a narrow aisle lies between the leather-look padded seats, one to the left, two to the right. We swallow hard, equalising the pressure in our ears as the plane climbs, lifting above the thick rolls of stratus into a gap between the layers, the sky brightening as we ascend. Suddenly we pop out into sunlit blueness, over a fuzzy white blanket that covers the whole of Britain.
‘The weather’s better up here’ I try a half-hearted joke to cover my apprehension. The ironic secret is, I’m not that keen on flying. I gaze out of the window to take my mind off what I know of flaps and ailerons, lift and control procedures. I’m not reassured to see another aircraft away to port, leaving a clear contrail in the thin air. Sunlight paints it white, glinting off metal.
We’re heading for France. Strasbourg, by way of Paris (Charles de Gaulle), to be exact. It’s part of the European Science Festival, and we are Britain’s contribution to the year-long series of events, where each participating nation sends a team to another country to demonstrate ‘science activities’ for schools and the general public. ‘We’ are Liz, Lucy and myself, from Scotland, representing the British Association for the Advancement of Science (the BA), and we’ll be delivering some of the activities that have been used during North-East Scotland’s National Science Week over the last three years. Which is why Lucy’s cabin baggage is full of mini-marshmallows. And mine contains a laptop computer which makes it weight half a ton. And I think Liz has more marshmallows in her luggage, too. I’ll explain why later!
I continue to look out of the window, contemplating catching a few minutes sleep; it’s been a long day already, helping to run a training session for teachers on how school grounds can be used throughout the curriculum, and I could use the downtime. Outside, the sun is going down, a glory of coral and gold to starboard, catching the tops of the few clouds that rise above the flat layer below our wings. Away to port, where sky meets cloud, a thick dark-blue line runs straight as a ruler from north to south, moving inexorably towards us.
Not Big Arnie, but the edge of night, hastening across the face of the Earth as it turns away from the sunlight. Cumulonimbus rise below, edged in pink and gold, sending long blue shadows out towards the onset of darkness. I guess we’re somewhere over the Channel by now, and beginning our long descent towards Paris. No stars yet, but a deepening blueness, the last few glancing rays of light catch the tops of the cloud as we slide back down into the featureless nothing. The hard bump of clear-air turbulence rocks the plane, marking the gap between cloud layers. The flash of strobe lighting and navigation lights is the only illumination as we find more cloud and sink ever downwards.
No stars? Below lie constellations, glittering rivers of light and nebular clusters against the blackness of the land. I glance to starboard and am struck by the shimmering lights of the Eiffel Tower – good grief – it’s just there - just like its picture…
I’m still feeling faintly amused by my ridiculous reaction when we are instructed to fasten seatbelts for landing.
Wheels down, flaps down, bump. We slow down gradually, lights racing too fast for comfort past the wingtips. Taxiways lead inexorably towards hardstanding.
‘Passengers for Strasbourg and Pau will be met at the foot of the aircraft steps.’ We exchange baffled glances.
Right enough, we are met by a man in a yellow jacket, who hastens us and our cabin baggage aboard a minibus, and takes off across the airfield as if in the Paris-Dakar rally. We have very little time to make our connecting flight, and we have been battling a headwind all the way south from Aberdeen. This is how Air France solves the problem – personal escort by a charming chap called Pascal, who guides us all the way, reassuring us that it isn’t far, we will catch our flight, all is well… Charles de Gaulle is a vast airport – we’re at terminal 2F, we need to be at terminal 2D, but we need to go via 2B to go through immigration – and we must hike from 2B to 2D, which is no small distance. Red-faced and sweaty, I follow the ever-calm Pascal, who, true to his word, delivers us to the check-in for our onward connection to Strasbourg. We join the queue, which seems to be going nowhere.
This is perhaps the point to relate that Liz has a long history of being separated from her luggage on overseas trips.
The flight to Strasbourg goes without a hitch, an Airbus conveys us to our destination in wide-bodied comfort and around 45 minutes. We reach the baggage hall, and wait.
One lone suitcase is left to make the endless circuit of the conveyor belt. It’s not one of ours. A lady from the airport comes to meet us. Our luggage has not arrived, it is still in Paris, it will be put on the first flight in the morning; if we could just accompany her and give some details? Dutifully, we do as asked. She gives us overnight survival packs, and tells us to call her if there has been no result within 24 hours.
We slump into a taxi to our hotel, and the lights of Strasbourg pass pretty much unheeded. It’s after 11.00 pm, local time, when we arrive, and meet up with Annette, who is the representative of the BA’s Head Office, and who has done the recce for tomorrow’s school visits. Breakfast at 7.00 am. I stagger into the shower in my room, and turn it on full blast, thanking whatever small household god drove me to pack a spare t-shirt, travel towel and clean set of underwear around the laptop in my cabin baggage.
Sleep, to the rumble of the city trams.