Saturday, 30 January 2010

Undecking the Halls

This is something I wrote two days after we got home, Wednesday 12th January 2010

If you believe keeping the decorations up after Twelth Night brings bad luck, then I've got a crap year ahead. However, I have rationalised that they don't worry about such things in Europe, so why should I? All over the mountain towns and villages and resorts of the Alps, Dolomites and Pyrenees, lights still twinkle and greenery adorns windows and doors well into March. Thus, if the Fates are watching, I'm being European, ok? So give me a break...

Having been physically out of the country on 6th January, I feel there is some justification to my stance. If I'm not here, I can't do it, can I? And I had rather a lot on my plate on 27th December (the day we departed for holiday as our Christmas week's guests also left) as it was, without having to consider decoration removal. And so we came back to a house that is like the girl who stayed too long at the party, drank too much and is now asleep in the corner, mascara-smudged and with her mouth lolling open. Not attractive.

The first night we were home I turned the Christmas tree lights on as it was sad to see her in the corner all unlit faded glory. We enjoyed her dimmed opulence for one last night before yesterday I set about the task of removing her clothes from her weary limbs. She had done well. Still lots of needles on her, despite being dulled of tone and a little droopy round the edges. It is a job I hate, not least because I find it so sad. Such a contrast to when you are dressing her up in all her finery, a sense of expectation of the festive times ahead, Christmas music on the stereo and a fire in the grate. Now here I was in the cold white light of this snowy winter's day, pulling the tinsel from around her waist and removing all her jewellery. I put on some Paolo Nutini to keep my mood up, but I couldn't help feeling reflective none the less. Every year I do this task, I become a little maudlin and wonder if all the people I love will still be around me next year. Every year we have a good Christmas (and this year was a great one), I wonder if it will be the last of its kind. The year after we'd had a great one when I was in my twenties, my Grandfather died; the year after our wonderfully memorable one in Milan my dear father-in-law died. His departure was balanced by the arrival of our oldest daughter, but things were never quite the same again.

But you find you adjust, as the years go by. You remember the good times, the parties, the laughter and make the best of the line-up you currently have. As my own parents age, we have the youthful exuberance of our daughters to keep the energies flowing, while the ghosts of people past linger quietly round the edges of the room, silently contributing still. It's not quite the same party, but it has new dimensions to cherish. Friends start to take the place of family as you include them more in your celebrations, and this year we added a lone aunt and uncle who had not previously spent Christmas with us up here. It was a huge success, everyone agreed, adding new elements to the chemistry and conversation.

With every discarded present tag, I read the words, the love, the kisses and wonder if that hand will still be writing next year. Three people close to me have lost parents this Christmas time - one before, two after. As the music plays in my empty house, I want to clasp these labels to my chest and hope that next year we can share our time together again. It is so precious, after all.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Trunki Hell - Final Part - The Homecoming

The plane emptied from the back, and as I was now at the front, I was pretty much the last to get off. Both stewardesses smiled sweetly at me as I thanked them and said 'Are you all right now?' I smiled sweetly back and said 'Yes, thank you'. I suppose I was really. The moment of real crisis had passed and my equilibrium had almost been re-instated. Almost. Till we got to the passport queue at least, where we trailed once more through the endless network of demarcated 'lanes' with a collection of Trunkis and The Family from Hell. Yes, yet again, we were thrown together as if in some weird gravitational pull from their swirling planet of ghastliness (ok, I'm being a bit mean here, but let's just say it was all rather perverse). They reminded me a bit of the Russians of Champery in their clothes and manner. When we got to the Baggage Reclaim, despite the large number of people on the plane, we were, of course - by the time N had gone off for an untimely loo break - the only ones left in the hall with them. Huge amounts of baggage (yeah, so we could talk!), lots of skis and ski boots, lots of Trunkis and lots of children of various ages lying all over the floor screaming - or just lying there. There was also much loud mobile phone action and I was completely au fait with their onward travel plans by the end of it.

N emerges from the loo. My teeth are beginning to clench again. I hiss, 'Can't we get the hell out of here' and he shoots me a slightly non-comprehending look. I think we've finally broken free when I hear some frantic trundling of wheels right behind us and much screeching down mobile phone. I turn to find us being hotly pursued down all the long corridors to get out of the wretched airport by one of the women, clearly trying to locate the rest of her family and their pre-ordered taxi. She is yanking a Trunki along (presumably on behalf of one of her offspring) with a bright pink leash and fluorescent yellow wheels like it was some poorly behaved bitch of a dog. She showed it no mercy and it followed us relentlessly to the bitter end, wheels whining all the way. I, meanwhile, was trying to man-handle a ridiculously over-loaded trolley complete with a pair of recalcitrant skis around corners, through doors and out onto the pavements.

While at this point, with the reunion of the lady with her taxi and family, we finally left Trunki Hell behind, we moved seamlessly into Trolley Hell. There was wet snow on the ground, car parks, busy roads and curbs to overcome on our journey to The Long Term Car Park. The point at which my trolley load overturned on the curb by the main road into a pile of filthy wet snow, my humour, let alone my nerves, were in shreds again. I started screaming at the children to stay off the road and hurtled abuse at my husband for being too mean to pay for some more trolleys. This was all perhaps a little unfair as it was a joint decision to embark on this stupid trolley exercise together - one of us should simply have gone to get the car while the other waited with the children and the luggage. But I think our brains were so fried by the Trunki Experience that we just couldn't wait to get out of there - and also, we had no idea what we would find when we got to the car. Having been left in -15 degrees for two weeks, outside in the elements, who was to say it would even start?

I staggered to within about 50 yards of it, still swearing and with back acheing from being forced into absurd angles and effort by the overladen trolley and the snow, and refused, like a horse at the Grand National, to go any further. N grumpily came to rescue the dirty bags and then I annoyed him further by telling him the skis couldn't possibly go inside the car - at which point he had to unpack what he had packed to be able to get at the magnetic roof ski holders. I was not popular. But I was right. G scraped the snow off the windows and bonnet, we all got in eachother's way and sniped at eachother - but at least the engine started. Spared, au moins, the final horror of being stranded in the long term car park in the drizzle. So with that, we made our dreary way home, feeling as depressed as the damp grey clouds touching the horizon, and wondered what would await us there.

We turned off the main road to find the lane into the village still snowy . No gritters been here then. No change there then. No problem if I'd been in my trusty steed with her 4-wheel drive and her snow tyres. But ah no, we were in the wretched Volvo, the car built for the police (literally, we've discovered to our great cost every time it goes into the garage) built seemingly only for speed and vast expense with its non-standard spec and ridiculously low-profile wheels. Not good in snow. We get to the farm just beyond the reservoir where the road imperceptibly climbs and....we stop. Stuck. Knew it. I say, irritatingly, again to N 'I told you we should have left the Audi at the airport'. He retorts 'We would never have got all the luggage in'. Fair point. A lady comes past in a Land Rover and offers help. I know her from village school days. We push and get nowhere. She offers to drive us up our hill to our house to get the other car. We accept the offer gratefully and N climbs in. I am left abandoned in the Volvo, the house in sight on the hill - so near, so far. The children play by the side of the road in the snow. It is pick up time from school so far too many cars are trying to squeeze past us. All very embarrassing. We are not in the best of places. A performance car (low-profile wheels, not 4-wheel drive), newly acquired by a friend in the village, looms into view in my rear-view mirror. Oh-oh, I think, he's not going to be very pleased with me, knowing I will mess up his momentum by being parked where I am. He squeaks by me then grinds to a halt a few yards ahead. I get out of the car, children throwing snowballs, and ask if he'd like me to push. He grimaces at me and says menacingly 'I thought I wouldn't be able to get past you'. I realise he thinks I'm parked there of my own accord. Would I be that stupid on a snowy lane? Think not. I try and push. Doesn't budge. Another man in a Land Rover pulls over and helpfully offers to tow him in on his tow rope. I'm thinking that would be helpful for us too. Mercifully N reappears at this point with my car and it becomes clear to all that, indeed, our car is stuck too and I wasn't just being a silly-arse female driver. As if. We take all the luggage out of the Volvo (heartily sick of luggage by now) to find the little gadget for towing. Load it all into my car. Nice man in Land Rover sets about towing both stranded vehicles into the village as far as the pub. I tell the children to get in and I follow in my car. Thank God for my Audi. Abandon Volvo, hob-nob for a few minutes with publicans, and embark on final half mile of journey, after a very long 24 hours, up the lane to our house. The place is freezing, I tell N to put on the kettle and go back down to pick up the cat from the cattery.

I finally walk back through the door after dark, cat in basket, fire in grate, gasping for that cup of tea. Home Sweet Cold Home, at last.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Trunki Hell - Part 3

We found out all about the nice Italian barman's life, such as the fact he was one of many siblings scattered all over the world and that he was married to a French woman and had lived in Grenoble for some years now. He told us how Grenoble hadn't seen snow like this in years (Copenhagen came to mind again). He also suggested a place we could get to on foot for supper - a very good Indian just around the corner. Well, after a bellyful ('scuse the pun) of steak frites over the last two weeks, we thought this might be just the ticket.

So we set off in our snow boots, swathed in scarves and gloves and found it quickly enough. It was very large and completely empty, but however good it was purported to be, we thought this would be rather a sad little end to what had been a long day. So instead we walked round the block and in the process received a phonecall from our Gatwick mates who had abandoned the designated restaurant they had been bussed to and were instead breaking free like us. They were in the centre of town and had spotted a pizzeria and a bistro-style place - which did we like the sound of? We opted to meet them at the bistro, went back to the hotel, ordered a taxi and within about 20 minutes we were joining them there.

Grenoble is a handsome, imposing city reminding me rather of Turin. Tall, elegant stucco buildings, smart trams, wide avenues. This restaurant was in an old building which had been recently stripped and modernised but retained plenty of character in the old patterned tiles on the floor and in its general atmosphere. It was on a corner with big plate glass windows on both sides giving us a fine view of the streets outside. It was not busy either, but we were now a group of nine, so we made our own party. The waiter was kind, attentive, young, attractive (always helps). We took a long table with a bench on one side. The menu was enticing and we decided to celebrate our survival of the day, the end of our fantastic holiday and the continuation of our friendship with a good two-courser. We ordered kirs, we ordered beers, we ordered wine. In the end, I'm ashamed to say, we couldn't resist just one final steak frites - but what a steak frites it was. Beautifully presented, wonderful sauce, home-cut frites, salad - all delivered on a wooden board with enticing little pots. A bottle of rouge and everyone was happy. We laughed, talked and rambled over the varied elements of the holiday - as well as plans to do the same again next year. Eventually the children conked out and we finished with a bench of prostrate girls ranging from 18 months to 11 years old, collapsed on eachother like dominoes. We'd had a great holiday and, finally freed from the bonds of 'package', we'd salvaged an equally great Last Supper out of the wreckage of our day.

Our taxis arrived and we said farewell till the 'morrow. Back at the hotel we put the girls to bed in their luxurious room, noted that the Family from Hell had, mysteriously and unhelpfully, chucked two single mattresses out onto the landing, blocking it as they did, and headed down to the bar for a nightcap. A bundle of reps were gathered, relieved their (equally awful) day had come to an end and that they'd finally got rid of every whinging punter to their beds. Then we came along to spoil their fun - but we retired gracefully to a corner to give them their space too. The nice Italian barman had already done the till so gave us our drink for free. Then I got another text from our Milan mates trying to get to Bristol. They were now being flown to...Manchester!! Ah well, we'd had a good evening here in Grenoble after all...and at least we could go upstairs to sleep now while their endless journey creaked on.

We got back onto the buses after a rather fabulous spread of buffet breakfast (the girls were in heaven) with our 450 travelling companions. It seemed that we were not flying from Grenoble after all, but were going back to the cowshed. It was rush hour in Grenoble and there was plenty of time to let my eyes linger on the scenes outside. I was reminded once more how much I love Europe, of my time living in European cities and how comfortable I feel there. As we finally broke free from the city and were travelling along the motorway, I tried to block out the mobile phone calls of my fellow passengers to people back home updating them of their progress or saying their children wouldn't be in to school (I had to make the same call myself). Instead I tried to soak up the passing landscape, the mountains, the snow, the houses, the rising morning sunshine turning the white peaks golden. Soon I would be home again and all this would seem worlds away once more. I thought of my ex-London friends who now live just outside Geneva, over the French border, their children now bilingual and skiing all winter, just as, long ago, I imagined children of mine would be doing. I admit, I am envious.

Once at Chambery the luggage lugging horror show began all over again as well as the tripping over bodies once inside. We found ourselves battling it out with a load of bullish Russians as we staggered towards check-in with our bags. Mercifully we stumbled across our friends (quite literally) and went up to the cafe for a final drink together - coffee and a kir for the girls, coffee and a beer for the boys. It was the only way to go. With that our flight was called and, finally, we were off. We hugged and kissed and threatened to meet up in the UK before too long.

As we boarded the plane, amongst another forest of Trunkis, we were - quite unbelievably really - tangled up with the Family from Hell again. They were discussing some problem or other endlessly with the air hostess while we stood behind them on the steps waiting patiently to get on the damn plane. To my horror, I then found we had seats right next to them in the middle of the plane. And yes, there was a problem. It seemed they didn't have enough all together so they couldn't have an adult next to every child. I know this is a real issue and, of course, in the end N volunteered to move to the only other seat available - right at the front of the plane - leaving me alone with my three girls and the people I most wanted never to see again. I could have killed him. Meanwhile the air hostess was getting all pally with the Family from Hell and getting all chippy with me for not turning my mobile phone off soon enough (the pilot had just announced we weren't going anywhere for 20 minutes so I didn't see there was any rush and I was engrossed in the latest text sent from our Milan/Bristol mates - on their bus journey from Manchester to Bristol there had been an horrific crash on the M5. Two of them were medics and got off to see if they could help only to be informed that there were charred bodies only. They got home at 6.45am having been travelling all night. I was relieved they were safe themselves, but couldn't help thinking I was about to go up in the sky in an unnaturally heavy metal tube and I hoped to God there would not be a further grim twist to our travellers tales).

So anyway, we eventually leave, and although the rep on the bus had been pleased to tell us we would be getting food on the plane (and therefore I assumed it would be complimentary) we actually, of course, had to pay for it. Pay through the nose moreover for an utter load of crap. Being in the middle of the plane I was, naturally, served last, and the whole waiting process had been made even more painful by the fact that the air hostess who would eventually be taking my order was the one who had to keep going back to the galley to pick up toasted sandwiches and coffee and other stuff that there was a wait time for. It was like Chinese torture and I was just waiting for them, when they finally got to me, to say 'Sorry, run out of toasties' with not an ounce of sorry in their tight little voices. N of course had long digested his food and was probably enjoying a good snooze when they finally got to us (not before I'd slammed my fist on the little folding table and, to the horror of my children, squeezed out through clenched teeth 'what the hell is going on??!' and asked the all-pally-with-the-family-from-hell-hostess why I was the only person on the plane who seemed not to have been served). I reeled out my enormously long order, trying to remember all the facets of all the girls' requests. I paid by card. I then realised she'd not given me E's sandwich, so I called her back. 'Oh sorry'. She gave it to me. I handed her my card. Minimum payment issues. Had to get my purse out - and we all know what a ruddy nightmare that is when you have a cramped seat, a tray table down and teetering piles of drinks and sandwiches all over it. When all this was finally achieved, and I'd taken my first gulps of wine, I suddenly noticed my hands shaking and then that was it...I just cracked up. Tears started rolling down my cheeks and I just couldn't stop sobbling. I realised how stressed and tired I really was. How fed up. How trapped I felt. How angry I was that, yet again, I was left sorting the children out when all they wanted was for us all to be together (Louisa had kept asking 'Why can't Daddy sit with us?'). How I hate flying at the best of times. How I didn't want to go down into oblivion with the Family from Hell. How I hated being surrounded by all these ruddy people. How rude the air hostess had been to me. How I had spent the whole flight marking E's verbal reasoning paper and that I was obviously feeling uptight and guilty that we'd taken her out of school and that now, because of the delay, she'd missed another day too and that her Entrance Exam was only three days away. And how I didn't want to go back to England.

To give Miss Tight-Face Hostess her due, she noticed my distress and came up to me asking if I was ok and got me a glass of water (despite the fact I'd just paid her handsomely for one which was still sitting on my table). (What is it with offering glasses of water to people in distress?). She came over all concerned and I stammered out that I didn't really know what had come over me and that I wanted my husband. 'Is he the one that moved?' she asked. Yes, the one that's having a lovely oblivious time at the front of the plane. She went to get him. He came to see me. He didn't really understand what was wrong and I couldn't really explain. He started to sound impatient at which point I snapped back 'That's not what I need right now!'. I tried to articulate what had come over me. I just couldn't stand people any more - people's attitudes, people's moods, other people's situations, other people's energy. Being the absurdly sensitive little soul that I am, all these energies were just frying my nerves. After yesterday as well, and all that being thrust together, I simply couldn't stand the feeling of being trapped amongst all these people any more - and I think being stuck in the middle of the plane was just exacerbating the feeling. So he offered up his place (I felt guilty as I knew he probably had work to do). I fumbled around, collecting up my things, and headed off to row two. I felt bad for abandoning the girls and getting myself into such an inexplicable state. Yet the moment I sat down I felt calmer. The difference here at the front of the plane was quite astonishing. My vision was not clouded with rows and rows of heads. Just the space by the exit and the corridor to the loo and the cockpit. The atmosphere here was utterly different to further back. So much more civilised, so much more relaxed. The man next to me was asleep with an eyemask on, so no need for idle chat and no embarrassment over my swollen eyes and tear-stained face. I buried myself in my book (ironically called 'The Pilot's Wife' and involving a mid-air explosion - not ideal reading in the circumstances I suppose) and my glass of wine. But it was near the end of the flight and within a short space of time we were buckling up again and the heavy leaden skies above Manchester were all too visible out of the windows....

Final instalment will follow shortly, you will be relieved to know. Then we can move on!

Monday, 18 January 2010

Trunki Hell - Part 2

I got out my trusty Auberge et Logis directory and found a couple of nice looking hotels nearby in Chambery. I was busting to pick up the phone and book a room. Get out of this massively overcrowded cowshed, stop feeling like wild-eyed cattle being herded at the abattoir. Instead enjoy the sunshine and beautiful scenery which was awaiting just outside those massive constantly sliding doors. We could actually turn this chaos to our advantage - have a wander round Chambery (very pretty according to the pictures on the monitors above the Check-in desks), have a nice dinner and a good night's sleep and return to the airport in the morning. All seemed very sensible to me. I suggest this to a young, paint-by-numbers rep. There is a look of positive horror on her face. They want us to stay together, locked in our joint destiny, easy to herd. No compensation would be offered if we break free. Sod the compensation I thought. The trouble was, at this point, such was the paucity of information, that we were not even clear whether our flight might have a slim chance of coming in today or not. It seemed that it was ready to leave Manchester (according to the immense number of i-phones all around us which were enjoying unprecedented activity at vast cost to the owners) but the only thing stopping it was the backlog of flights from the day before, the day of really bad weather. There were no slots currently available for it to land. A flight for Manchester was announced and people asked to go to check-in. I went to ask one of the check-in staff if there was any likelihood that we could have stand-by seats (as this was a flight that was meant to leave yesterday, so technically not ours). She said I had to go to the desk. The queue was still enormous. 'Jackie' from was still AWOL. Another announcement went out 'Will Jackie from Jet2 please go to the desk immediately'. This was now 2pm. I suspected she just might make a reappearance, stomach pleasantly full from her midday repas, but by now I could no longer be bothered to go and look. There would be a hundred other people trying to do the same thing as me. No point.

I returned, feeling increasingly beaten and tripping over a hundred Trunkis on my way, to our pile of luggage by the loos. The children were getting bored finally (they'd done immensely well so far) of going to the creche and fighting it out with the other kids to draw or play. Even their vast capacity for imaginary games was running a little dry as weariness began to set in. I made a feeble - and slightly desperate - attempt for E to sit down and do some revision (entrance exam/11-plus coming up on Friday - feeling guilty that have taken her out of school and we've done nothing but have a good time for the past three weeks while all her mates have probably been swotting away - but, after all, isn't that what holidays are for??). She sat looking pasty and wan next to the swivelling pamphlets and tried her best to concentrate, dear girl, while I felt increasingly jealous of the friends who were on their way to Milan.

An announcement came over the tanoy that the Gatwick and Manchester flights that we and our friends were respectively waiting for were indeed cancelled. N attempted to button-hole the Esprit executive who was rushing in and out of a small office next to the Information Desk looking increasingly flushed and harrassed as the day wore on. He assured us that they were currently engaged in finding accommodation for their 450 affected clients. It seemed as though we were going to be bussed to Grenoble for an overnight in a hotel and then leave from Grenoble airport in the morning. At this point my dreams of escape were quashed as I understood, if this was the case, we had better stick with the pack. I looked at the huge clock hanging right above us. We had been up since 6.15am, here since 11am and it was now 3.30pm. We should have been home by now, all things being equal, the washing machine on, E doing some proper revision, sorting ourselves out after three weeks of Christmas, visitors and travel. The best laid plans, and all that....

Half an hour or so later, our friends' going to Gatwick were called to board a bus for Grenoble. We said our goodbyes with vague plans to see if we could meet up later. About 4.30pm we too were finally asked to go outside too. We hauled our piles of heavy luggage over the snow, huffing and puffing, none of the many reps offering to help (Chambery does not have trolleys, for reasons best known to itself). Our coach number was pointed out and we loaded the luggage into the holds. There were bright jolly Trunkis everywhere, but by now I was not feeling particularly jolly any more. Climbing onto the bus, I felt a different atmosphere to that of our last bus. There was something tense, more hostile about this one. Young children and babies were crying. People were complaining to the rep about not having been given vouchers. I didn't want to be part of it.

As we sat waiting to go for what seemed forever I watched people go by with precariously high piles of paper plates and croque monsieurs, stock-piling for the next leg of the journey. I was waiting for someone to slip on the snow and the whole lot to go flying. The reps were in a huddle looking like they didn't know what to do next. The Boss was giving them a pep talk. I wondered what he was saying. Probably something along the lines of 'Right, it's going to be a long few hours. Everyone's getting tired and fed up but try to stay calm and for God's sake don't answer back if anyone gets aggressive.' I was thankful I'd never had to get involved in this sort of nightmare in my rep days. The worst I had was a large group of young drunken Irish arriving on a late plane from Belfast, leaving luggage all over the airport for security to sweat over and threatening to urinate down the centre aisle of the bus if the driver continued to refuse to stop (I had to advise him that they were entirely capable of doing what they threatened and best to pull over for a minute). As these happy thoughts rolled through my mind a familiar stench pervaded the atmosphere. 'Someone's nappy needs changing' I thought to myself. Indeed, the lady behind me was suddenly in full nappy-changing swing. It took me back to the old days, now in the mists of time: the manufactured sweet scent of baby wipes mixed up with the raw smell of nature. I gagged gently, got my book out and buried my head in it. I didn't look up again until we approached Grenoble.

We had been told we were going to a Hotel Mercure. At least one uninspiring one, seemingly half built, came and went. Then a rather swanky looking one suddenly appeared out of the darkness at the top of a long tree-lined boulevard. The three coaches pulled up. We all piled out and started the tedious business of lugging luggage across the snowy, slippery pavements once again.

I felt for the receptionists. They'd expected another quiet Sunday night and suddenly their elegant entrance hall was pandemonium with mountains of luggage and hundreds of tetchy families all trying to get a key for their room, jamming up the lifts, being angry and irritable. Not helped by the fact that the rep had originally told us there would be food waiting for us (important for the families with babies and very young children), then, as we drew up to the hotel, we were told that we were to unload, go to our rooms, then come back down and get on the bus again to be shipped off to a huge restaurant somewhere in Grenoble where food would be provided. This went down like a cup of cold sick with almost everyone - tired of buses, tired of travelling.

We were almost last to get our room keys, we waited forever for the lift then pretty much broke it trying to get all our stuff in. Rooms were very smart, newly refurbished and all mod cons. We put the unwanted baby cot out on the landing and it was grabbed in seconds by another family in dire need. Fancy bathroom, fluffy bathrobes, lots of cushions on the beds and groovy lighting. The girls didn't want to leave. This was great. N and I, on the other hand, couldn't wait to get out of there. Not least because, Sod's law, we were on the same floor as the family from hell who had been stalking us from the moment we'd started for Grenoble. They'd argued on the bus. They'd argued in reception, shouting abuse at some poor rep. Everywhere we went, so did they. It seemed we were joined at the hip.

At this point we decided to cut and run. Break for the border. Be independent. The idea of communal eating with 450 crabby strangers was more than we could bear. We called our Gatwick friends. They were at a Novotel and about to get on a coach to a restaurant too. We said we were going to try and find somewhere for ourselves and that we'd see them tomorrow at the airport. With the hotel finally free from the hordes, now being bussed to their food, we sat in the bar and took a breather - and a well-earned drink. Strong one. Chatted to the barman. Detected an accent. Asked where he was from. Italy. So we started chatting to him in Italian and talking about the places we had lived there - and found he came from Padua which had been home for our first two years in Italy. As we chatted and sipped our drinks, I got a text from our mates on their way to Milan: the bus had burst into flames just outside the tunnel through the Alps; their original plane flew back to Bristol empty as they hadn't got there in time; they were now on a plane with a 'technical problem'. Suddenly, as our evening was just starting to look up, I was a little less envious of theirs....

To be continued/.....

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Trunki Hell

At the beginning I was happily pointing them out left, right and centre to my family saying 'What a good idea these Trunkis are!' and 'Just think, Dragon's Den rejected them!' By the end of my 24 hours of attempting to get home with 450 fellow travellers, all with young children, my tune had changed somewhat. If I never see another ruddy Trunki again before I die, then I will die happy!

It all began with snow. There's been quite a lot of that around recently, hasn't there? They call it Winter and, you know, it does sometimes snow in Winter. In fact it used to snow rather a lot in Winter. That was the point of Winter, really. Cold, frosty, snowy. Lovely. The stuff of Christmas cards. Trouble is, it stopped snowing for a fair few years. People forgot. Now, in perfect irony with the Copenhagen conference, we're 'having a harsh winter'. Coldest one for 30 years some say. Bloomin' snow everywhere. In your garden, in your boots, in your car. Tsk. Can't get around. The System breaks down. Not enough snowploughs, no grit. It's fine in the mountains - that's where snow belongs, isn't it? They cope with it there. Got piste-bashers and snowploughs and stuff. And cars have snow tyres or chains. Simple. Just get on and enjoy it. Different story everywhere else, though, isn't it? And it seems the low Alpine valleys of France are no exception.

We descended our picture-book mountain scene in the first light of Sunday morning with no expectation of getting home. We were flying out of Chambery, notoriously difficult for pilots to get in and out of in bad conditions, having just one very short runway and high mountains to left and right. It's a sort of corridor where fog often gathers to make bad matters worse. The day had already not started well - no hot water in the hotel for that much needed wake-up shower or shave ahead of a long day's travelling and downstairs we learned our friends' skis had been loaded on the wrong bus and were on their way to Geneva with no hope of return or reunion in the forseeable future. We hauled bags and baggages out to the waiting bus as darkness hung around and many climbed aboard. Just then I heard the rep say she needed someone who spoke French. It seemed the driver needed to talk to them. Chambery airport is shut, not open till 10.30a.m to give them time to clear the snow off the runway. A decision was taken to get us all off the bus and back into the hotel for coffee and a hang around. The driver was not happy. His union tells him he has to collect guests and get off the mountain. Not allowed to linger in case you get stuck. If any lingering is to be done, it must be at a service station in the valley, closer to the airport. We settle back into the hotel and I'm just making my second attempt of the day to actually get a cup of tea when we are all hauled out again. Tea left abandoned once more. It seems the driver has got his way.

At the predicted motorway service station stop we are told 20 minutes only is allowed for coffee and loo break. 20 minutes come and go. We hang around outside the coach. G slips over on the ice and hurts her arm. Tears. Chocolate. I chat to the driver, taking me right back to my ski rep days, 23 years ago. I always liked chatting to the drivers. You got to find out all the stuff that no one else told you, and if you were lucky and they liked you, you got to eat steak frites and a glass of rouge with them for free in the kitchen at the service station while all your punters queued for sandwiches, crisps and coke the other side of the wall. Well, it was a little early for steak frites today unfortunately, but when I asked how just a few inches of snow could have caused such disruption at the foot of the French Alps where you would imagine they would be reasonably well-prepared, he gave the traditional gallic shrug and sneered 'C'est la France!'. To which I swiftly replied, slapping him matily on the sleeve, that England is even worse when it comes to preparation for snow these days - but nevertheless I found his attitude faintly reassuring. The grass is always greener, it seems. Or the snow whiter, perhaps.

We get back on the coach and drift lazily along the motorway to this cowshed of an airport. It's a smart cowshed, mind. Just rather small. We line up alongside alarming numbers of buses in the coach park and are told to sit still. Rep bounds off to find out more. Airport predictably still closed. Chaos within. 2,500 passengers from cancelled flights the day before now there in addition to all today's travellers. Oh joy. In no rush to join the fray, but eventually we are told to leave the bus while our friends travelling to Bristol should stay on as their flight has been diverted to Milan. I am envious. Could do with a bit of Italy right now. Una bella pastaciutta for lunch or something. Anyway, we drag our 9 enormous bags - five of us on two week, two-part holiday with ski kit, ski boots, two pairs of skis and a bag full of E's birthday presents (she was 11 on Jan 6th) not exactly lightening the load - into the shed. We drop them, together with another family, in the nearest available space, squeezed between the huge opening doors, the loos, the information desk, the operations office and the stairs to the creche and restaurant. Soon realise this is not clever positioning. Freezing cold, constantly bashed and knocked into. Tempers fraying. Oh and also right next to us there's a swirling rack of pamphlets letting people know 'Their Rights' which, funnnily enough, proves strangely popular today. To start with we stand in reasonable humour. The boys head for the bar to seek light refreshment and food. They're gone for hours. The queue is horrendous. We tear at cheese and ham baguettes and slurp beer and wine out of plastic cups, toasting the success of a great holiday. Our friends supposedly heading for Milan reappear. They've been let off the bus as they were clearly going nowhere fast. We have no idea what is happening to the Gatwick and Manchester flights. The tour operator desks are besieged by passengers trying to find out what's going on. Reps look out of their depth. Mark Warner provides MacDonalds for their waiting guests. Thomson, Crystal and others get vouchers. We get nothing. No free food, no information. We run out of idle conversation and fall to trying to amuse the children. The two-year old falls asleep atop the luggage despite the constant knocking and passage of people, the tanoy announcements, the screaming babies and stressed parents scratching at eachother. We all take turns to drift around the airport trying to come up with alternative plans. I go to the Car Rental. Silly idea. All cars sold out hours before as people decide to jump ship and drive. Train? The so-called Information Desk, after half an hour of queuing, offers up no information on trains. have a desk but 'Jackie' is mysteriously missing. Lunching we presume. This is France, after all. Try the airport internet - but not authorised to access it. Milan friends suddenly told they are on their way. Feel envious. More and more tanoy announcements for flights now leaving from Milan. Airport empties almost imperceptibly each time, only to be re-filled by a new influx of Russians. Big, ugly, scary Russians built like brick shit-houses and women in be-sequinned anoraks, tightly belted with furry hoods and garish handbags. We are stuck in our cold corner of Hell, powerless to escape unless a Rep gives us the orders. I am reminded how much I hate being packaged and institutionalised. Next year, if we come again, we will drive both ways. Be free, be independent, be able to use our own minds and resources. We had driven across from the southwest a week ago, staying overnight in the Auvergne, driving ourselves up to the resort the following day in our own time, at our own pace, masters of our own destiny. How very civilised that was.

To be continued/....

The Return

Well, I'm back. Not without a little trouble I might say, 24 hours later than planned. I seem to have left one snowy landscape and re-found another. As I sit at N's desk in the window (I couldn't face my messy, tiny, viewless office today) I'm looking out at an altogether less benign landscape to the one I last described. All is white - white fields, white sky, white lanes and a harsh northerly wind is whipping up mists of whirling snow like spray off a windswept sea. If I'd been in the mountains skiing I would be finding shelter in the warmth of a vin chaud and cosy restaurant by now. Instead I am in a cold house, hunched against the elements, the detritus of Christmas washing around my ankles and confusing my mind and emotions. I have done so much in the last two weeks that it was weird to return last night to a home abandoned on December 27th, the adornments of that festive family time a strong reminder of that happy week which had receded while away into some strangely distant memory. Now here I am again, forced to unravel the chaos we left behind as we shut the door barely two weeks ago, yet feeling like a lifetime.

Those who travel will recognise this sense of time suspended. You leave with expectations and excitement, you return with a mind full of images and a heart full of experiences. They adjust your vision, they confuse your emotions, they enrich your life. The return that stands out most in my memory is coming back from Delhi. I had been on a short press trip in the long ago days when I was young and worked in travel PR. The intensity of what I had lived in the labyrinthine streets of old Delhi will stay with me forever as anyone who has ever visited India will understand. A mesmerising maze of passageways teeming with life in all its forms - a life so extraordinarily different to our own. Dark boney figures with ivory eyes and dusty clothes crouched beside piles of rice and spices, vegetables and meat, watching wordless as you pass, as alien to them as they to us. Pushbikes and tuk-tuks swerving to avoid people and cows, a cacophany of sound, an assault on the senses, an extraordinary world where life throbs and is reduced to the barest minimum. The night I got back I went straight to a party in Fulham, west London, with a load of mates I'd met on a big ski trip. We'd been having a ball ever since we'd got back from the holiday - endless get-togethers, drinking and dancing. But that night my mind was full of other images, more real and essential than the place I now found myself. I stayed a while but it didn't quite fit that night. I left soon after, taking my suitcase of experiences with me, to allow them to settle themselves into my soul and psyche in quieter circumstances. I needed time to adjust.

So here I am now, trying to adjust again, though less dramatically it's true. From windswept beach to snowy mountain; from snowy mountain to snowy peak; from fun and friendship to lonely domestic chores. N is back at work: the girls are back at school. Just me and the cat, a pile of washing, a heap of happy memories and the view. The stuff of life - my life.
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