Sunday, 24 January 2010

Epic journeying: episode 2

There are moments when I realise that I’m living through an event that takes me beyond the mere everyday and belongs more the great current of the traditions of our culture. Knowing that somehow ennobles the experience and takes my mind off the actual tedium or frustration of the moment itself.

One of those traditions, much used by novelists of the past, is the travel misadventure. A coach breaks an axle or gets stuck in the mud and the passengers have to wait in the nearby inn, passing the time by telling each other stories or swapping their experiences.  

It was that tradition I felt I joined during the second stage of our trip home from holiday, between Madrid and Liverpool.

Having spent a night longer in Marrakesh than planned, it was a relief to catch our flight to Madrid the next day without incident. As we boarded, we were greeted by an air hostess who had only to open her mouth to leave no doubt of her origins in Liverpool

‘I’ve been working out of Madrid for a few days,’ she told us, ‘but I’m heading back to Liverpool this afternoon, I’m glad to say.’

To Liverpool? Not on the 4:30? How amazing. So were we. 

As we left the plane in Madrid, we cheerily called out ‘See you this afternoon then.’

We were speaking too soon. Far too soon.

When we got to the airport to check in, we were greeted by the dismal sight of long snaking queues of passengers trying to rebook on other flights, their own having been cancelled due to snow, at Gatwick, Luton, Amsterdam, even Rome. Rome for God’s sake. 

We’d heard there were difficulties at Liverpool so we asked at the check-in desk. 

‘Any problem with the flight?’     
‘Problem?’ The young man at the desk seemed surprised that anyone should question the reliability of Liverpool airport. He glanced at his screen. 

‘No cancellations, no delays,’ he announced. He gave us a look which said ‘Ye of little faith’ though he didn’t actually pronounce the words. 

The confidence of the check-in agent seemed to be justified at the departure gate, clearly and boldly marked ‘Liverpool’. We settled down to read and wait, reassured that the flight would go. So it was a bit of a shock when I glanced up and noticed that destination marker had surreptitiously changed to ‘Dakar. Equatorial West Africa had replaced North West England. Possibly a more desirable destination in January, but not one that suited our needs.

Nothing told us what had happened or what we should do next, except that our fellow passengers were heading in a body for the exit. 

‘It’s been cancelled,’ said Danielle, ‘and they’ve been through the experience before. That’s why they know what to do.’

She was obviously right. And if others were going through a repeat of a cancellation, why should we be spared the experience? 

‘Time to follow the crowd,’ I replied, my heart sinking. 

Twenty minutes later we were in the same queue of people looking for new flights that had attracted our pity so little time before. How the mighty fall. Any sense of superiority we might have felt before had been replaced by despondency at sharing the same fate. 

The Easyjet staff were as pleasant as ever.

‘Ah, yes, the Liverpool flight. It has been cancelled,’ they told us airily, with a cheerful smile, as though they had never previously assured us with such confidence that the plane would take off. There were many thoughts I would gladly have shared with them on the subject, but, hey, we were dependent on them to re-arrange our flights and generally look after us. I bit my tongue.
‘Unfortunately,’ they told us, ‘there are no seats for tomorrow. You will fly on the following day. In the meantime, we will put you in a hotel near the airport.’

Our room was warm, comfortable, equipped with free broadband access. But the sheer scale of the hotel – with nearly 900 rooms it claims to be the biggest in Europe – was a little daunting. It made me feel as though we weren’t so much in a hotel as in a people warehouse. And, since practically all the guests (if the word isn’t inmates) were off cancelled flights, and most from our own airline, it felt like an Easyjet passenger warehouse.

Still it wasn’t a bad place to stay, as Easyjet’s guests, for a couple of days. The meals were copious and well-prepared. There was even free wine on the tables.

The best aspect, though, was the people. We met a Spanish woman living in Leeds where her English husband taught at the University. We met another Spanish woman travelling back to her English husband in Bradford. Now, I like Bradford. It has to be a strong contender with Leicester for the title of best city in Britain to get a curry. But when I first went there, a friend of mine, admittedly from another and therefore rival Yorkshire town, told me that Bradford was the only city where the birds flew backwards, so that they didn’t have to swallow the smog. 

‘Err…’ I asked the lady in question, ‘where are you from?’

‘I’m originally from Andalucía,’ she told me.

‘Ah.’ I nodded. ‘And the Alhambra in Granada, the Alcatraz in Seville, the Mezquita in Cordóba, really fade into insignificance don’t they, set against the Wool Exchange or Town Hall in Bradford?’

‘My husband works there,’ she replied, a little briefly I felt.

Is the charm of an English husband enough to overcome the allure of Andalucía? I must check with my French wife Danielle some time.

At any rate, these chance encounters ensured we had company at meal times, and entertainment to overcome the monotony of the wait. 

With the bonus of an additional evening with our sons in Madrid itself, we made it relatively easily through the two days and headed again for the airport. Once more we came together with the other passengers at the departure gate. Once more the airport staff said the flight would definitely take off. Once more the sign at the departure gate said ‘Liverpool’ in lights cheerful enough to brighten up the dullest spirits.

Then the hours started to tick by. Madrid doesn’t like to break bad news all at once, so they announced a two-hour delay and then, when that was nearly over, another three hours. But we weren’t fooled. We had met the Liverpudlian air hostess from the Marrakesh flight again and she was in touch with Easyjet directly. She let us know that the company was confident the plane would fly, but not till 10:30 – five hours late. On balance that was good news: it meant frustration but eventual success. So our little group, consisting of the air hostess, the Anglo-Spaniards adn us, chatted and kept each other entertained to pass the time. 

At a certain point, Easyjet announced we could collect a free snack from the café. We went and were disappointed by the mouldy sandwiches and unappetising drinks. But here the Spanish woman from Leeds proved herself a star – appropriately enough, since her name was Estrella. She berated the café manager for not at least offering us sandwiches with the famous Spanish Serrano ham. To her surprise the manager agreed; to our amazement, only a few minutes after her return, he joined us clutching a handful of baguettes stuffed with Serrano ham and several bottles of beer. We all toasted Estrella’s seductive charms.

In the end, even the huge delay until 10:30 proved an optimistic estimate. The plane eventually left at half past midnight, seven hours late, but at least it left. We travelled together with our friends in adversity and only parted company in the small hours at Liverpool airport, almost certainly never to meet again. On all sides, however, we’ll remember that we had made our mutual frustrations more bearable by sharing them with each other. We had had taken part in a classic travellers’ tale, so in a sense what we underwent wasn’t a misfortune, but a privilege, the opportunity to join one of the great, time-honoured traditions of our culture.

So I feel under a debt of gratitude towards Easyjet. They extended our holiday by a couple of days, ensuring we were well looked after and entertaining us with good food, fine wine, and excellent company.

So no complaints. In fact, let me raise my glass to the continued prosperity of a great company. Long may Easyjet continue to enrich our lives.


Awoogamuffin said...

I wonder if easy jet made any money in December/January!

By the way, you might want to edit the second paragraph...

David Beeson said...

Thanks for the tip - I've made the change - I suppose I thought it was so well expressed that I decided to say it twice