This is the beginning of a long journey, because it will last seven weeks – provided I don’t expire from over-eating spaghetti in a tiny restaurant run by a rotund, aproned wife and failed tenor husband. This trip is to Yerp – Greece and Italy to be more exact – wherein Michelle, my guide and carer, has mapped out visits to legendary cities and other bucket-list places. There’s also a cruise on a floating apartment block where I will be able to establish intimate friendships with about two thousand people. I’m a bit apprehensive about that, but we’ll see how many I can get through.
Along the way I intend to continue my insightful study into hotel toasters and those brave souls who have been placed on this earth to design and run them. I will be sending the findings to my very good friend, hotel toaster critic for the New York Times, Derek Breadchamber, and will delight in his responses – which I will pass on.
Being at the pointy end of my life Michelle has convinced me to fly at the pointy end of aircraft, hotel rooms, trains and restaurants so that my bank account will also head towards a pointy end.
This resolve began with our flight from Sydney to Singapore. For years we’ve been squirreling away enough points (e.g. we bought two cars on Amex) to go not just first class but in a Singapore first class ‘suite’. If Bill Gates went on a commercial aircraft (doubtful, I know) this is where he’d sit. A new A380 with the latest suite configuration sat loading up on the tarmac at Sydney International as we were ushered into the suite lounge where suite-trained whispering people administered extreme pamper.
The aircraft is similarly staffed. They are devoted, and deeply in love with the six occupants of these just-built studio apartments. The chair and bed are separate. The television screen is enormous. The tray table is like a partners’ desk. The grog is the kind you see locked in glass cases at Dan Murphy’s. I warmed up on vintage Dom and downed a rare Vodka with my Beluga caviar. The bathroom may have been modelled on Lucille Ball’s dressing room: all bright lights and space. However, this is an aeroplane and for design reasons it can’t help placing the toilet bowl on the sloping wall of the fuselage, meaning that urinating men must retain balance by jamming their heads against the ceiling. Very short men would have to sit down.
Taking off is a new sensation compared to other aircraft seats I’ve flown in. The studio apartment has two portholes through which one may observe the distant airport slithering past as the A380 gathers speed. But that doesn’t seem to deliver enough oomph to take off. There is no lung-emptying acceleration. It just rolls along in relative silence and then rises for no particular reason.
The suite also bestows upon the passenger a pair of Lalique pyjamas (after several flights you have enough to stock a pyjama department) and a gift box of other Lalique treasures. To my recollection, Lalique made designer, collectible glassware, but Singapore Airlines has obviously signed up the brand for other handy gift items such as body lotion, a cake of soap, a tube of lip balm and a scented candle – which I was not allowed to light on the aircraft. Maybe if we get a smelly hotel room I’ll fire it up. As a nod to glassware, my goodies included a very small, strikingly blue fish that lives in a black bag. I don’t know what I am supposed to do with it.
The studio apartment chair is worth a special mention. It seems like a cross between a dentist’s chair and the kind they used in old movie electrocutions. One arm rest opens to reveal a mini controller and a touch-sensitive screen to operate the chair and the television. I must admit I’m not good at coordinating these high-tech devices but the crew, gathered around and almost in tears because a suite occupant was not experiencing joy, didn’t do much better. There were prodding fingers coming from everywhere. One arrow swung the television out from the wall but then turned the chair in the opposite direction, so I couldn’t see the screen without kneeling and looking over the top of the chair. The reclining button didn’t like me paying attention to the television either. And sometimes the television got in a huff and turned itself off altogether – especially if I got the chair right. With practice, I’ll get better at this stuff but, in the meantime, I’ll treat it like a board game.
In order to stay with A380 suites, we spent many hours in the Singapore suite lounge, where you are compelled to whisper. No singing under the shower, either. You sit and dine to pass the time while waiters stride about with bottles of 2009 Vintage Dom which they pour as though it was water. This is like being in intensive care without being sick.
At about one in the morning it was time to quit the whispering gallery and board our next A380 suite to Zurich. Ah, old style, unfortunately. These 14 suites look like a line of half-finished children’s fun train carriages being built by an unsuccessful carpenter. They do not have the space of the new suites, but give the impression that the incoming passenger is an intrusion. When bedtime comes, an attendant asks you to go for a walk around the block while he re-configures the furniture. I our case there were only three out of 14 suites occupied. Hence, we were a little over-serviced. Plates, cutlery and dishes came and went after every move I made. At one stage they took away everything except two knives and then served me yoghurt. I called the beautiful female attendant and gestured at the imbalance of cutlery, trying to indicate by pointing that I couldn’t eat yoghurt using a knife without cutting my tongue off. She hurried away and returned with a third knife.
Today we come down a step towards reality with an Al Italia business class (points again) flight from Zurich to Rome. Going through security in Zurich taught us something about what you can’t take on board in Yerp. Forget our rule about liquids of less than 100 ml being allowed. The security office hoiked out every container in our carry-ons, made a pile of it, and then informed us that, in addition to the 100 ml rule, we were only permitted to take what would fit into a small plastic bag which she produced for the purpose. To her credit she helped us squeeze in as much as possible, but we still had to leave behind various preparations of goop essential to the preservation of our skins.