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 Jet2.com desk. The queue was still enormous. 'Jackie' from Jet2.com 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/.....