“Voulez vous un aperitif, Madame?” the air stewardess looked at me expectantly
“Oui, bien sur, champagne, s’il vous plait,” I replied. Sue nodded too as the stewardess looked at her.
Fizz at 35000 ft felt appropriate considering how this particular trip began in a Preston kitchen just before Easter. We were part of a gathering of friends who, over drinks and nibbles, were sending Liz off for her 6 month secondment to Shanghai. An opportunity she had grabbed with both hands, it was also feeling a wee bit momentous and the idea of a summer trip, fuelled by pink champagne toasts, was softening the parting blow.
Summer came and went, our diaries at odds with plan A. We watched Liz flourish via her social media posts. It was clear that any trip had lost supportive status; we were being asked instead to come join the party. Our own Shanghai trip advisor, Liz’s bubble and fizz messages gave us a taste of all that her piece of China could offer. Sue and I watched and talked and waited for diary alignment. It finally came a month ago and I found flights.
Our next challenge was the Chinese visa process. Visa virgins, we took a week to complete the online forms, that wanted everything from parent’s dates of birth, charity donations and any links with Government and unions. It felt a substantial and unnecessary invasion of privacy; a gross inflation of the personal impact of one individual who sought only to visit a friend, in a country of billions, who was falling in love with another way of life. I was angered and unsettled by the time it took and a seemingly distinct lack of trust in fellow humanity.
The application had to be ratified by a visit to the China visa centre in Manchester. Our application coincided with a national holiday; we could be interviewed a week before we flew and no earlier. With Sue’s previous employment in MoD service that had necessitated the signing of the Official Secrets Act, we wondered if she would be allowed in. I took financial comfort from travel insurance covering any last minute cancellation fees if we were to be rejected.
Our appointment, at 9.30 last Friday morning, necessitated a criminally early start into a rainy city. Arriving a few minutes early we sat pale faced and stressed in a nearby café with breakfast, wondering how the interview process would go. A Chinese gentleman expertly flicked through our pile of papers and sent me off to print more documents and a passport photo. For an online process, it is bizarre that everything has to be submitted as hard copy too. We sat with others in a stark reception area watching for our appointment number and associated interview desk to appear on the display above our heads. It was the only bright thing in the room.
The young lady who interviewed us was very pleasant and the process, which included taking our finger prints, lasted all of 5 minutes. We were sent to pay £150 each for doing all the work for them and watched our passports disappearing into the final stage of approval. I felt vulnerable. Even at this stage, we had been told, nothing was final. We would only know on Wednesday, when the visas would be ready, if we were to fly on Friday.
We walked into the Manchester Art Gallery to regroup over coffee and and wondered why there was so much police activity going on. We discovered later that our decision to eat cake rather than indulge in some retail therapy had kept us out of the way of a man with a knife.
For the next five days we got on with life. I tentatively added items to a hopefully opened suitcase and dug around in my memory for what summer weather felt like while immersed in swiftly dropping autumn temperatures. Shanghai was also moving into pre-winter phase, the thirties of June and July replaced by 20s. A week or so of an English summer abroad beckoned.
Sue picked up our passports on Wednesday. She said it was a strangely straightforward and peaceful process after our Friday tension. And we both realised one thing – we had been approved. We were off to Shanghai.
I packed on Thursday, downloaded VPN and translator apps and got some last minute “just in case” jabs at the health centre. My arms ached as a result.
My credit card company rang on the way to the airport. They had put a temporary halt on my card due to suspicious activity. This transpired to be my attempt to purchase American VPN software.
“We’ll be sending you a new card in 5 days,” said the girl’s voice cheerfully on the phone.
“Can I still use my old card?” I queried.
“No,” came the reply.
“Ah,” I said, “ I’m flying to Shanghai in two hours. It is my main method of payment. What do you suggest?”
It transpired there was nothing she or I could do. I laughed at the irony of my own Visa throwing me an unexpected curve ball. I was down to MasterCard or cash. I would manage.
We had two flights to Shanghai. The first took us with Air France to Paris Charles de Gaulle. As a regular long haul traveller, Liz had recommended we move to Shanghai time as soon as we boarded the plane, to help with the jet lag transition. I’d already decided that lunch at home had been as supper and therefore my last meal until I made it to breakfast on Chinese time. It was exactly 12 hours later that I ate again – a three course dinner/breakfast of creamy chicken and polenta, camembert and a salted caramel cake. All washed down with a healthy dose of champagne.
There had been a food opportunity earlier on the short flight to Paris but in the chef’s aim for total food inclusion, the vegetarian wrap offering was off limits to me; it was filled to the brim with carrot houmous salad. There was no alternative or sympathy provided by a disapproving stewardess for a carrot intolerant gut. I went for red wine as an alternative.
Our changeover at Charles de Gaulle involved rapid walking, long queues and a slick security shake down. Taxi-ing to the runway felt as long as a drive on la peripherique around Paris. Eventually our A380 found her take off spot and, throttle gradually engaged, she slowly ran her feet across the tarmac before leaping once into the sky. Pigs may not be able to fly but these elephantine swans can. Paris’ lights were exchanged for stars and we headed east.
We found ourselves on the top floor of the plane, our section seemingly been given over to a Chinese mums and toddler group who, between then provided a sequence of sneezing, coughing, crying and thumping seats throughout the 12 hour flight.
Champagne, wine, head sets, eye masks and good films all helped with the development of selective hearing and we settled to being looked after by an attentive cabin crew. There were 22 on board to look after 510 passengers. This is a tiny proportion of the 14000 global Air France airline crew, none of whom had worked with each other before, nor would they again. Their seamless service said much about their training and dedication.
Shanghai adds a new level of security at immigration. All arrivals, save those on a diplomatic passport, have their finger prints taken.
Once at a self-service kiosk and then again when you’re faced with a police officer at immigration who also checks your face against your visa and passport images. I had a plaster on one finger tip due to a minor injury this week, so the self-service system spat me out and I was directed straight to immigration and a long queue. Thankfully my particular policeman didn’t bat an eyelid at my missing print and we were waved through to baggage claim and Liz.
It was good to see her. She had arranged for a driver to whizz us into Shanghai and all of us were surprised by an ad hoc champagne reception at her apartment delivered by neighbours Craig and Miguel.
This visit idea started with a bottle of pink champagne.
And I’ve still drunk more champagne today than I’ve had all year. I could get used to this.