Barely an African-looking face amongst them, cheeks bump in constant cheery bisous. Every couple of minutes another healthily glowing French family emerges at the top of the stairs, smiling in anticipation, and so begins the procession of politesse as they saluer each family they know. They fan out in formation to greet colleagues and fellow school-gate mums, to sit beside classmates and share ipad entertainment or earbuds. Some teenagers are amongst us, but most are younger ones, since the start of the school holiday is still two days away. We’ll all have had the official vie scolaire email, a light rap on the knuckles for the young children missing a couple of days of schooling – quite worth it for the thousands of euros saved in flight tickets.
Bisous are interrupted by occasional sharp claps as mosquitos are attacked. We’re not out of Africa yet.
These are solid, traditional family units. Dad’s French oil job is relatively secure. Mum has time, thanks to the ménagère who comes every day, to avoid the frazzled look of mums arriving in airports back home. Children are tanned and confident. They move around the departure lounge as easily as they do the playground or the sports ground, greeting each other unselfconsciously. They wear their privilege lightly. These are children for whom the the airport is as familiar as the supermarket. More familiar – no need to drag reluctant children round the aisles here.
But easy as life can be for us here we’re eager to leave Africa behind for a little while during this popular holiday, to leave the cloying, clamouring heat and chaos, to chill, literally, in what’s left of the European winter.
Our upstairs neighbours emerge from the stairs and it’s our turn for bisous. We’re all part of this club, getting ready to go on a trip together, wondering if we’re a bit institutionalised…
Closer to boarding time, and another sort of traveller starts to emerge from the business class lounge. Solo men are at the beginning or end of a work trip, or even at the end of a job. They line up one by one at the gate, but it’s not the Full Monty. The line is broken by one solo female.
It’s families first for boarding though, and as we move from the the baked tunnel into the air-conditioned plane, we’re greeted by chic, smiling Air France crew, and we feel like we’ve already left, stepped off the chaotic continent into a little piece of France.
Once we’re seated, we realise we’re in the crèche section – it’s really beginning to feel like a school trip as kids shout and wave to each other over tops of seats and across the aisles. Some of us are greedily absorbing the movie menu. It’s been 6 months without access to a cinema – all that downloaded reading material can wait. Parents stand ever-attentive at the ends of rows, keeping an eye on the children, prompting them for toilet visits or taking pajamas out of cabin bags, one eye and ear ready for the signal from crew that we are to sit, settle, and hope that the cry won’t instantly ring out as the plane hits the runway: “Maman, je fais pipi!”
But the flurry of activity is efficient and everyone is seated at the right time. Eyelids are drooping, the lights are dimmed, and we unstick, décolle, take off.