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!