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.
2009 will be remembered for a lot of events. The inauguration of the first black American President, the death of a pop icon; Michael Jackson, and the worldwide spread of an infectious contagion that originated from a porker… no, not swine flu. SuBo (Susan Boyle).
Not only is it the end of the year, it’s the end of the decade - a period in which the phrase “I’m going to play with my wee (Wii)” became a normal thing to say, rather than something to be immediately sectioned for.
It’s now time to look forward to the new decade and that means the usual new year rituals. So, are you going out with friends, staying in with family, hosting a party, joining a party or burgling the houses of those people who are out celebrating? Here are the options, laid out:
1) Going out with friends
One of the most fun and eventful ways of seeing in the New Year is to go out with friends to a local pub / club / strip bar and have a drink / dance / young, naked woman / man / could be either (depends on how much you pay) dance and sit on your lap. You drink lots, party hard and see the new year in in style. Whoohoo!
For extra fun, have a bet with your friends, at the start of the evening, on which one of you will be the first to pass out with your head over the toilet bowl, with the smell of alcoholic wee wafting up your nose.
2) Staying in with family
As you get older, this becomes the preferred method of seeing in the New Year. Sitting in your lounge with a drink whilst people on the television do the wild partying and celebrating for you. It’s always such a long build-up to midnight, as you sit there sucking on a Werther’s Original or chomping on some of the sweets, mince pies and rotting fruit that are still left over from Christmas Day. Finally, midnight arrives. You hum a rendition of ‘Auld Langsyne’ to yourself, wish your family a happy new year and then, as the fireworks go off around the neighbourhood, you go to bed. New Year celebrations over for another year.
Unfortunately, you forget to switch off your mobile phone and are woken up at 3am by a message from your drunk brother… “Heppy Nu Yar”
3) Hosting a party
So, you’re hosting a party. That means a lot of preparation - you need to ensure there are enough snacks, that you have entertainment and that you move everything that is precious to you… from the house and the surrounding neighbourhood. In fact, it’s probably best to be completely safe and move it all into storage… in the Netherlands.
You purchase a LOT of alcohol and the usual selection of party snacks - crisps, biscuits, sweets, chocolates and those horrid cheesy footballs that no-one ever eats (leaving you to feed them to the foxes the next day… who also reject them). Once the guests have arrived, you spend the entire evening running around making sure everyone is ok. This means that by midnight, you lie exhausted in the corner of the room, asleep, and miss the celebrations. Next morning, you wake up to find your lounge is a mess. The carpet is covered with cheesy footballs and red wine and, as you survey the devastation, you spot Wayne lying slumped over the arm of the sofa with a cocktail straw sticking out of his ear.
4) Joining a party
The New Year house party, without all the cleaning up. Fantastic. You make your way around to your friend’s house to join the party, only to discover that all of the fun people have changed their minds and absconded to the local pub. This leaves you to have a party with all the boring, unsociable people who sit there staring at the carpet all night, unable to decide whether the colour is light brown or beige. Still, at least Alan is there to chat to - the guy who spends every weekend adding to his impressive collection of jam jar labels.
Hey, it’s a party, you need to look at the positives - there’s food and wine. You pick up a wine bottle to fill up a glass and discover that it’s Tesco Value red wine, which tastes of squirrel piss (you should know, you accidentally drank some whilst out camping last year). You reach for a handful of snacks and… it’s those bloody cheesy footballs. Pissed off, you sling them onto the floor, spilling your wine in the process.
Luckily for you, your cheeky idea to post details of the party onto Facebook pays off, and the house quickly fills up with strange people that you don’t know. Things quickly liven up and before you know it, it’s midnight. So, you take another sip of squirrel’s piss, give a snog to the two woman hanging off either arm and then pass out across the arm of the sofa, with a cocktail straw sticking out of your ear.
Getting The Message Out
Whichever choice you make for your New Year celebrations, one thing is for certain. At midnight, you’ll try to wish all your friends and family a “Happy New Year”. You decide that you’re not one of those spoil sports who sends a text message BEFORE midnight, to try and beat the mad midnight rush (is there anything quite so pointless and disappointing as being wished a happy new year before it’s even happened?).
You’re also not someone who actually likes to talk to your friends and family. So, that leaves you with two options:
1) Wish all your friends and family a Happy New Year on Facebook… you miserable sod. Where’s the effort in that?
2) Join the fight for mobile phone network space and attempt to send a standard ‘Happy New Year’ text message to the 443 people in your contact list (no time for personalised text messages). Based on past experience, you have come up with an ingenious plan. You prepare the text message a couple of minutes before midnight, put your finger on the ‘send’ button and hold the phone by your side. Then, at the very second of midnight, you hit send and… “message sending failed.” You then spend the next hour hitting the ‘retry’ button until, at 1.13am, the message goes through. Ok, so that plan didn’t work very well.
Maybe next year you could try sending carrier pigeons instead? That’ll work… as long as everyone else in the world doesn’t send carrier pigeons too. It could get very messy!
However you celebrate the New Year, I wish you a happy one…
“Heppy Nu Yar”
Some people do it in January. Others leave it until much later in the year. No, I’m not talking about the shameful breaking of New Year’s Resolutions. It’s Christmas shopping. You can certainly tell it’s Christmas. The women featured on the covers of men’s magazines are all wearing red thongs… ;)
What is it with Christmas shopping that makes it become such excruciating torture? Never mind about jail sentences for convicts, send them out with a difficult Christmas shopping list on December 24 instead. That’ll sort them out.
Perhaps those traumatic feelings are caused by the way in which the festive season has been taken over by retailers; continually pushing their Christmas offers in our faces from as early in the year as possible. “There are only 242 days of our Christmas sale remaining…”
Your Christmas shopping story…
After beginning your Christmas shopping ordeal expedition, you invariably end up in a shopping centre full of chain stores. You enter a shop and walk around, hoping that something will pop out and hit you in the face, saying “I think I’ll be an ideal present for Auntie Mabel. Buy me!” Whilst browsing the tat on offer, the shop offends your ears with a horrendous selection of cheesy Christmas music to get you in the ‘spirit of things’. However, all it seems to do is irritate you to the point where you want to grab a piece of tinsel and hang the shop manager from the end of it…. “Chipmunks roasting on an open fire…” Bah humbug! You walk out and into another shop, where you encounter a refreshing change: this store is playing non-festive music… “why do birds suddenly appear, every time you are near?” (that probably has something to do with the box of Trill that I emptied into your back pocket this morning)
1 hour later
Having left it to the last minute (a month before Christmas) to shop for Christmas presents, you find yourself buying items at twice the price that they were three months ago. Sure, the shops have “SALE” plastered all over their windows, but it’s certain that the stuff that you’re interested in isn’t reduced.
We’re in a recession, so you’re looking for a bargain (defined as something no-one really needs at a price you can’t possibly resist) and the shops are quite happy to push all sorts of stuff at you. Being under pressure, you’re considering everything, including the sort of crap that ends up down the charity shops two days after Christmas, or the female pampering packs that are left to rot in the receiver’s bathroom cupboard before being passed back to you three Christmasses later. You can bet your bottom dollar that eBay will be full of that stuff on Boxing Day (so, a great opportunity to shop early for shit presents for next Christmas!).
3 hours later
You’re beginning to lose the will to live - you’ve bought presents for so many people. But you still have to find something for that difficult person who seems to be impossible to buy for. Auntie Mabel - a woman who doesn’t eat chocolate, has a hayfever allergy, changes waist size like a puffer fish watching a horror film and doesn’t have any hobbies, favourite foods… or a bath! To frustrate you further, whilst scouring the shops for a gift for Auntie Mabel, you spot brilliant ideas for those people that you have already bought for!
5 hours later
You enter Poundland for the fifteenth time. Whilst walking around with a bewildered look on your face, a member of staff, wearing a silly Christmas hat, approaches you to try to assist you. “Are you ok, sir? Can I help you at all?”. The guy acts so jolly that you instantly hate him. So, you turn to him and say, “Yes, I’m looking for a present for a 3 foot tall midget with webbed feet and eyes that look in different directions. Can you suggest anything?….. hello?”
6 hours later
After another hour of looking, you’re now dribbling profusely and leaning to one side with only one eye left open. Then - miracle - you spot that there’s £10 off a George Foreman grill. Perfect. Afterall, it’s been a while since Auntie Mabel had a Lean Mean Machine in her house…
You snatch the box off the shelf with both hands, causing a stack of other grill boxes to avalanche down onto the elderly couple standing to your left. Your focus remains intact as you turn around to search for the checkout. You spot the checkout far away in the distance and, inevitably, there is a queue. It’s not a small queue either - the line of people snakes around every aisle, from one end of the store to the other. So much so that whilst your eyes follow the line, your head rotates 360 degrees around your neck.
After three months of walking, you locate the end of the queue and join it. Infront of you is a little old lady and, after joining the line, a group of teenagers join the queue behind you. Standing there, promising yourself that you won’t leave it so late to do your shopping next year, you get battered from all sides by wafts of pungent smells. First, the little old lady’s perfume, ‘Musty Barn’, enters your nostrils, hammering on your sinuses like a woodpecker on a tree. Then, as your headache builds, you get hit from the back by the stench of teenage deodorant. The so-called ‘Lynx effect’, presumably because it sinks its teeth into your neck area and suffocates the life out of you. Why is it that teenagers feel that spraying an entire can of deodorant on to themselves makes them extra attractive to young ladies? Yes, they probably do seem attractive; if the girl in question is wearing a gas mask or has a heavy cold.
Thankfully for you, standing in the line, all that practice in your bath at home has paid dividends. Not only are you the world record holder for holding your breath underwater, but it means that you are able to survive the nasal bombardment.
7 hours later
Having bought your item, you stagger out of the store, navigating your way through the Christmas clowns, stilt walkers, jugglers, thieves, murderers and men in tight shorts (yes, there’s always one, even in winter). Then you spot one of those ‘wrap for charity’ stalls, where, for a small donation to charity, a little kid will wrap your present for you. You decide that it’s worth a pound of your money to get them to wrap the present that you bought for your Great Grandmother earlier. So over you trundle. “Hello, can you wrap a present for me, please?” you ask. “Yes, sure, where is it?” he replies, with a polite smile. He isn’t smiling for long, as you open your shopping bag and reveal a giant cactus…
8 hours later
Exhausted, you head off home and find yourself summing things up with a Churchillian line: “Never, in the world of shopping, has so much effort been given by someone, for so little!”
Christmas shopping can be horrendous. It should come with a public health warning and a free shot of valium. Perhaps the answer is to get pissed on mulled wine beforehand? Just don’t throw up in Poundland… (would it cost you a pound if you did?)