I realise that I normally write humorous articles. But, for once, I’m going to go against the grain and write a personal story - an account of my long journey home for Christmas. Unless you’ve had your head stuck up Rudolph’s bottom, you’ll know all about the severe cold weather that has hit Europe over the last week.
On Tuesday morning, I arrived back from a week-long trip to Sofia, Bulgaria. I had originally booked to fly back last Saturday. However, on Saturday morning the skies over the UK airports opened and dropped what can only be described as a “shit load of the white stuff”. The whole of the South East of England looked like a scene from the movie ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. Airport chaos followed, with runways closed and flights cancelled on a mass scale. I spent the next two days wondering whether I’d be home in time for Christmas. Thankfully, I found and booked a flight back to a different London airport, and so began 15 hours of travelling in an experience that contained both frustration and exhilaration.
So, why exhilaration? Well, the trip truly made me realise that when people face a common goal or a common enemy, they really can come together to face it as one. My 15 hour trip took in 1 taxi, 1 plane, 2 trains, 2 coaches and an automobile. But, more importantly than those statistics, it allowed me to meet and talk to other people, all of whom had the same goal - to get back to their families in time for Christmas.
First was Frank, who I met on the Bulgarian Airways flight to London Heathrow and who was, coincidentally, scheduled to fly home to London Gatwick on the same two flights as me that were previously cancelled. Throughout the four hour flight, we chatted non-stop, almost in relief at being with someone in a similar predicament. It turned a frustrating, slow flight into an interesting one as we chatted about our time spent in Bulgaria and our funny experiences of Bulgarian people (more on that in my next blog post). Our mini-friendship continued once we arrived at the airport, as we collected our luggage together and found our way onto the train network. It was at that point that I bid him goodbye and we set off separately on the next stage of our journeys.
After leaving the train, I made my way to the coach terminal. It was there that I began chatting to a young lady who was waiting for a coach to Reading. She was very calm about all the delays and the horrendous weather outside, choosing to sit quietly on the freezing cold seats and read her book. A pair of pink and white socks adorned the handle of her suitcase. I sat there with my coffee and sandwich and stared up at the departures board. The words “Delayed - wait in lounge” were splashed all over the television screens. At one point, there were 7 coaches due to arrive to take people to my next destination, Gatwick Airport, all of which were delayed.
Eventually, 3 coaches arrived (typical of the phrase about waiting for buses and three coming along at once). After a session of ‘musical buses’ in which we were moved between several different coaches, we finally left. During the journey, I got talking to a Scottish man named Simon. He had flown back from Kazakhstan and was 17 hours into his trip - that easily beat my 12 hours. His final destination was Aberdeen and he was hoping to stay overnight at Gatwick Airport before flying up to Scotland the next day. He was perfectly calm about it all - refreshingly different from a few other people who had lost their temper during the boarding process.
As we set off down the motorway, it began to snow very heavily. Quite how the young coach driver stayed on the road was beyond me, but all the passengers on the coach were hushed and you could cut the tension with a knife. In all honesty, our coach driver deserved a medal for getting us to our destination, and I duly thanked him afterwards and gave him some money to buy himself a pint when he got home. He certainly was a hero in a crisis.
Once at Gatwick Airport, it was time to run for the train, as I said goodbye to Simon. Well, I say that. I said goodbye to him, ran off the coach, grabbed my luggage and then sprinted for the lift. I then ran through several corridors, following the signs for the trains. After about 3 minutes, I was running along another corridor and the door from the stairs opened… it was Simon. He had calmly made his way from the coach and yet had managed to get ahead of me, despite my desperate running. Bloody typical. I ran past him, half tempted to call out the words “you bastard…”
Out of breath from running and dragging my suitcase, I made it to the platform in time for the train and I began to feel more confident about getting home. I sat down on the train, opposite a Spanish girl. During the next 15 minutes, I noticed her repeatedly look at her phone to read her text messages, before letting off a sigh or giggle. I felt obliged to converse with her. It turned out that she was on the other end of the travelling experience to me. Where-as I was on the last leg of my journey, she was making her way back from the airport after her flight was cancelled. Clearly disappointed, it was dawning on her that she was now destined to spend Christmas with friends in Eastbourne rather than back home with her family in Madrid. Despite that, she seemed cheerful enough in talking to me.
The train continued on its merry way and I began to feel so confident of getting home that I started tweeting that my journey was coming to an end. Big mistake. After 14 hours of travelling, the train ground to a halt 10 minutes from home. And so began the frantic running from one end of the train to the other by the driver, as he sought to fix the issue. The conductor, Derek, kept us entertained, throughout, by chatting to us - he was in a cheerful mood.
An hour later, and we were moving again… however, the driver decided that if he stopped for any more stations, he would most likely end up getting stuck again. So, he drove straight through the remaining stops to the end of the line, with the conductor promising us that a bus would take us back to our required stations. Now, if you felt sorry for me, spare a thought for the male cabin crew attendant who hadn’t slept for 57 hours. He looked absolutely dead on his feet, and yet remained chirpy about it. “I’m used to long hours,” he said, before giving me the itinerary of his work, involving 4 long haul flights; one after the other. I was amazed that he was still standing, let alone cheerful.
After alighting at the station, there was no bus waiting for us. Instead, only a bitterly cold wind was there to greet us outside the station. I wondered how I was going to get home - taxi, perhaps. Just at that moment, a man shouted out that he was going to my destination and generously offered a lift. I jumped at the opportunity and crammed into the back of the car, with his teenage daughter on my right and a railway employee with halitosis on my left. We chatted all the way home and it made for the perfect end to my journey.
I had made it home. But, more importantly to me, I’d experienced human kindness again and found faith that people really can be friendly and help each other through when the chips are down.
So, that is my journey of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. One I’ll never forget.