Travel Journal: Florence & Milan

One of the benefits of long-distance and international travel that I’ve enjoyed most is the way it helps me access a reflective, thoughtful part of my mind. When I travel, I find myself thinking different thoughts than I do at home, noticing details I otherwise miss and considering problems and experiences from back home from new angles.

Also, I get tired. Something about the time change, walking around 3-5x more in a given day than I normally do — and I am not exactly sedentary at home — and the general shock to the system of suddenly being six thousand miles away from home in less than 12 hours when a healthy human being is equipped with mobility technology meant to allow him to travel at most about 25 miles in a day.

Recently, the Wolf, the Little Lion and I took another trip. This time to Florence for a week and Milan for a couple days.

Getting there

We departed the West Coast on an Air France A380, stopping at Paris’s CDG before continuing on to Florence. I specifically chose the A380 route and itinerary because I had flown the A380 on Emirates coming back from Dubai a few years ago and found the plane to have a stable feel even in turbulence. I also had had a negative experience on an Air France B-777 that seemed quite old and out of date and I hoped that the “flagship” appeal of a European-made aircraft would lead to a slightly better level of comfort and service.

We flew economy and it was pedestrian. This is not a travel guru website and I am not The Points Guy, though, so what I really want to talk about is the food. My god, it was atrocious. I think one of the problems was that our flight originated in the US and so that means the catering originated there as well. But the even bigger problem seems to be that Air France just offers uninspired eats in general.

It was bad enough that it left me wondering about how airline catering works. There’s an answer to this that I can find if I do some digging and research but for now I am just pondering about it. I am not a gourmand of French cuisine. I own a copy of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” that I bought almost ten years ago after someone made me the most incredible braised chicken in a wine and pepper sauce for lunch and told me it’s a standard French recipe. I never opened the cookbook. Also, I used to eat frequently at a cafeteria-style French lunch spot named, what else, Moulin, owned by a man who is undoubtedly French and I very much liked what they served there but if any of it wasn’t French or wasn’t authentic you would certainly be able to put it past me.

However, I know terrible food and I also know that it’s inexplicable when terrible food is dressed up as try-hard elegance. The Air France food had the most complicated-sounding descriptions and I assume the ambition was to recreate for passengers some staples of excellent French cooking but it came out each and every time as a pile of unidentifiable, flavorless and unfilling slop. Worse, it was accompanied by bad rolls (just… bad. You know what makes a bad roll bad, I don’t need to garnish this description), food coloringed-cheese and preservative-laden DOLE fruit cups. It was almost like a Piss Christ of nourishment, a wildly inappropriate centerpiece surrounded by offensive accompaniments.

What I was thinking about was this: why not just give every passenger a really good croissant or baguette-based sandwich? Some slices of jambon, little fromage, some beurre and a dab of mustard (whole grain, please) and deck it out with some cornichons. Doesn’t have to be huge, just has to be good. Sandwiches, even high quality sandwiches, have to be cheaper than microwaveable “entree” portions. And yes, they’re very casual, but wouldn’t it be better to serve something casual and satisfying than something stuffy and regrettable?

There must be a reason why they’d avoid doing something so practical and obvious and instead go to great effort to provide a botch job like the abortion on my plate but my logical intuition and basic knowledge of catering economics hasn’t figured it out yet.

The second thought I had was: why aren’t more airlines offering truly outstanding food for purchase for a premium (ie, high margin) price? Like, serve the slop to the unassuming but for anyone with a wallet or an impressive impulse-buy capability you can get something you’d actually talk about positively to others after you got off your flight and make the airlines’ shareholders a bit richer in the process, too. The obvious answer to this one seems to be, “Well, that won’t work because people will play around it by going to McDonald’s before they board or packing a bag lunch.” That seems imminently reasonable because that’s exactly what my family and I did before we boarded (packed a delicious bagged lunch, that is) but I think it’s safe to say we’re in the 1%, maybe even the 1% of the 1%, when it comes to air travel preparedness.

Most human beings I come across in airports and airplanes seem mostly bewildered by the experience. There is a squid pack of people who have figured out the greasy neck pillow trick but they typically get stuck here and don’t realize there’s a whole set of levels of travel preparation ahead of that one. Most never make it this far and come across as First Time-Fliers, which based upon their age, the destination and the general economic and technological trends of the past fifty or so odd years in the West is about as likely as finding an aboriginal tribesman in the jungle who has never heard of an iPad. Everyone’s been on a plane before, for some reason or another, but that doesn’t stop people from predictable acts of stupidity like the woman on my Southwest flight a few months back who spent the first ten minutes of the 90 minute flight flipping through the seatback pocket magazine and then, either realizing she was illiterate or it wasn’t that interesting, proceeded to stare at the back of the seat in front of her for the remaining duration of the flight. (Note: Southwest has not and will not adopt the TV screens on their airplanes, so she was just staring at smelly blue vinyl pleather for a good 75 minutes.)

The point of that digression is to say, I don’t think many people can think around this high margin tactic and come prepared to avoid the temptation of making a high margin impulse purchase like the one I am imagining. But I am not a major airline marketing executive, I’m just a guy who flies on their planes and is surprised to find airline food still sucks. So maybe I am stupid.

Speaking of food

The cost of travel

Budget mindedness
the most expensive beer in the world

But how do you set a budget?

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