Thursday, 14 January 2010

Making an epic of a journey: episode 1

There’s little that is duller these days than travelling by air. Any glamour there may ever have been has long since evaporated. The low-cost airlines, in particular, provide services more appropriate to a bus than to a ‘clipper’, the term the former aviation giant Pan Am liked to use for its aircraft.

So at the end of our recent holiday in Marrakesh, what on the face of it seemed to be a a major inconvenience was perhaps a blessing in disguise: it broke the monotony of the services usually provided by Easyjet.

As we arrived at Marrakesh airport, I complacently announced, ‘We’ve done well, we’ve finished our holiday and haven’t missed any of our cars, coaches or planes, and none of has been mugged or had a wallet stolen.’

I spoke far too soon. Morocco hadn’t finished with us yet.

Arrangements started to unravel with the announcement of a three-hour delay to our flight to Madrid.

The hours came and went, and planes came and went, but not ours. There was a moment when ‘Madrid’ with our flight details appeared over one of the gates, to raise our hopes, only to be replaced with ‘Lyon’ a few minutes later to dash them again.

After we had been waiting four and a half hours, a ragged cheer rang out among the passengers. An Easyjet plane was landing. It ran along the runway and out of sight. We chewed our nails and gazed anxiously, longingly out, willing it back to the gate. Casually, gently, it taxied up and stopped. Passengers left the plane. We were summoned to the gate. This was it. We were going.

But as we approached the gate, the plane slipped away into the gathering dusk. We were met by airport representatives, telling us that the pilots had reached the maximum hours they could work. They couldn’t take off that evening. We would have to wait until the morning.

The French Revolution took place in Paris. There never was a Spanish Revolution. But the grisly scenes I witnessed in the terminal at Marrakesh told me that there could have been. The Spanish passengers mobbed the three airport representatives. They stood shoulder to shoulder, the diminutive young woman between the two men gallantly defending her from the baying crowd. Step by step they retreated till they stood, backs literally to the wall, and had to deal with their foes. I suspect that had a rope and a lamppost been available, we would have witnessed scenes that would not have been out of place in the Faubourg St Antoine.

It was a glorious illustration of the incapacity of a mob, made up though it is of individuals capable of rational thought, to act rationally as a collective.

‘Easyjet will accommodate you in a five-star hotel in town,’ the staff were telling us.

‘No,’ cried the crowd, ‘we will stay here, all night if necessary, to keep up the pressure on the authorities.’

‘But your pilot is already on the way to the hotel.’

‘We don’t care,’ they called back, ‘we shall not be moved. We shall stay here.’

On the edge of the crowd I was timidly clearing my throat, holding up my hand. ‘Errr… if it’s all the same to you… and even if it isn’t… I’d like to go to the hotel please.’ I’ve spent the night in airport terminals before. Call me eccentric, but I prefer five-star hotels.

But the baying wasn’t done. At one point, the poor young lady found herself alone against the masses, her back against the locked door leading to the outside world, fighting off the crowd. Gradually, though, the revolutionaries left, to conspire amongst themselves, and we at last found ourselves at the front with just the rational minority of Spaniards and an Estonian couple distraught at the prospect before them – Estonia is one of those countries, like New Zealand, which is inherently remote – I mean, New Zealand has an excuse, since it’s surrounded by thousands of miles of sea, but Estonia is just as remote even if it has land borders on three sides. The couple had to get from Marrakesh to Madrid, from Madrid to Zurich, from Zurich to Helsinki, and then get a boat home. When they told me that, I pictured them rowing across the Baltic in some open vessel, though of course it turned out to be the famous Helsinki-Tallinn ferry, justly celebrated for providing Finns with about the only opportunity available to them to get completely legless without having to take out a mortgage to fund the alcohol or travel hundreds of miles to more enlightened countries. It’s an opportunity, I’m told, of which Finns avail themselves freely.

Anyway, in the meantime the Estonian woman was in tears, while the Moroccan lady from the airport was close to the same state.

‘You are all so unreasonable,’ she told us.

‘No, no,’ we replied, ‘we’re the reasonable ones.’

‘But you all shout at me.’

‘No, no,’ we told her, ‘as you can hear we’re speaking quite softly.’

‘But you all want to stay in the airport.’

‘No, no,’ we reassured her, ‘we want to go to the hotel.’

‘But you refuse to go to the hotel.’

‘No, no,’ we repeated, our teeth perhaps beginning to grit a little, but nonetheless keeping our voices down, ‘we would really like to go the hotel. If you’d just open the door we’d go now.’

Eventually some form of sanity prevailed, the doors were opened and we started to head out of the airport; by chance, we happened to be at the head of the queue. At the bottom of the steps we were met by plain-clothes policemen, clearly far from happy about the bad behaviour that had been shown to the woman from the airport.

‘What’s all this?’ they demanded of us accusingly.

‘Err, nothing,’ we replied handing over our passports.

‘You have been behaving in a threatening manner towards the staff.’

‘Not us,’ we told them.

‘You need to calm down,’ they admonished us.

‘We’re calm,’ we replied.

Fortunately, at this stage one of the policemen looked at my passport.

‘British!’ he exclaimed. ‘Of course you are calm. It is the famous sang froid anglais. You may go.’

I didn’t tell him that as a child I’d enjoyed a comic song which translated sang froid anglais as ‘the Englishman and his usual bloody cold’. As it happened, I had a pretty lousy head cold at the time. But I was just grateful to be allowed out.

We gathered on the car park and waited for the coaches to take us to the hotel. Of course, there weren’t enough to take us all in one trip. Entirely unsurprisingly, the people who fought and shoved (and would no doubt have bitten and kicked if necessary) to get on to the first coaches were the very same who’d made such a fuss previously about refusing to go the hotel at all.

At dinner that evening – which was excellent, by the way, and massively superior to the appalling sandwiches on offer at the airport – we shared a table with the Estonian couple. Pleasant conversation and mutual commiserations helped us while away the evening far more easily than we might have expected.

Next: what happened on the Madrid leg of the trip. Don’t miss the final thrilling instalment of the epic


Anonymous said...

I can't wait for the next instalment


Mark Reynolds said...

That was very funny David.

Awoogamuffin said...

Thanks for sparing me in your description of the experience! It must have been hard to resist to temptation to tease...

David Beeson said...

How can you say such a thing? Nothing would be more alien to me than to tease you