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. Jet2.com 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/....