The Scottish Saltire

The Scottish Saltire

Monday, January 3, 2011

Christmas 2010 Part One - The Adventure of Getting There

Every year we hear about someone's nightmare adventure trying to get from point A to point B or people stranded for days at some airport or another. I've always been fairly lucky with winter traveling. Always seemed to avoid the mayhem and get where I was going with very little fanfare...until this year.

My travels plans were to take a bus from Inverness to Edinburgh, fly from there to Heathrow airport in London and then on to Frankfurt. From Frankfurt it's a 30 minute train ride to Mannheim and then a short Taxi ride across the river to Nikki's place in Ludwigshafen.

What should have been a 13 hour door-to-door trip turned into a 3 day odyssey! When I checked my flight status online before leaving home I got conflicting info about the flight from Edinburgh to London but I knew I had no chance of getting anywhere by just sitting at home so I figured I'd at least get to Edinburgh and then hope for the best.

The Edinburgh airport was a madhouse. Almost nothing was flying. Everyone was trying to get rebooked and the lines at the service counters were soooo long! I really didn't think I was going to get out of Edinburgh that night but a few of us got wind of a flight going to London City airport. Nothing flying into Heathrow or Gatwick but the smaller airport was operating? Hmm...

Landed in London about 9pm. Nikki had found me a hotel room near the airport. I shared it with a young girl whom I had met at the Edinburgh airport who had also decided to take the same flight. She studies at Edinburgh University and was trying to get home to her parents' house in Ohio for Christmas. She has flown, of course, but had never experienced the confusion of severe weather and canceled flights so she was a little overwhelmed and not quite sure how to navigate the madness. So we kind of 'buddied up' for as long as we could. We ended up saying good-bye at Heathrow the next morning - different airlines, different terminals. I was happy to get a text from her later on saying she had managed to get on a flight to Chicago that was leaving within the hour.

I was not so lucky. British Airways was doing nothing for their customers at the airport. If you didn't have a confirmed flight that was leaving within the next 3 hours you were asked over the loud speaker to leave the airport(!) and contact BA over the phone or on their website for a refund or a rebooking. Fat lot of good that was going to do anyone! People trying to get through on the phone were finally giving up after more than 2 hours on hold and the BA website alternately crashed or said to see someone at the airport for rebooking!

I realized that if I was going to get out of Britain before Christmas it was not going to be by plane so...time for "Plan B". Plan B was hopefully to get a train from London to Paris, then from Paris to Mannheim. Hmm....evidently the first part of my Plan B was also the first part of everyone else's Plan B. The trains from London to Paris were completely booked until after Christmas. Okaaay....Plan C! Rush to the Victoria Coach Station in hopes of getting a bus to Paris. Stood in line for quite a while (but I was used to that by now) and held my breath as I finally reached the counter and asked the nice lady for a ticket to Paris on the next available bus (crossed fingers, crossed, toes and by that time I'm pretty sure crossed eyes, too, although that part had less to do with superstition and more to do with traveler's mania I think). Before she could answer me her pushy colleague approached her from behind (holding a ticket) saying that her brother wanted to rebook his trip to Paris for Wednesday. Nice lady #1 looks up from her screen and says, "Perfect! Then I'll just give his seat on tonight's bus to this lady." Huzzah! Thanks, pushy colleague! Nice lady #1 had been just about ready to tell me that there were no seats available until the next day. Nice lady #1 and Pushy Colleague coordinated very carefully the cancellation of "Brother's" ticket and the issuance of mine so it wouldn't slip away from us in the computer. When Nice lady #1 handed me my ticket I felt like I had just won the lottery! The last seat on the last bus to Paris leaving at 10:30 that night. Of course, being sure that everyone behind me in line was also trying to get to Paris and had overheard our conversation I was careful to clutch my precious document close to my bosom and not to make eye contact as I scurried past them to the door.

The next trick was to figure out what to do with myself for the next 6 or 7 hours. Too cold and slushy to wander the streets of London, especially dragging my suitcase which was extra heavy because I had carefully bubble-wrapped and boxed 6 pint bottles of selected Scottish beers for Bert, which had necessitated bringing the largest of my suitcases to accommodate said gift box and all my own bulky clothing for 10 days in the snow. I had expected to check my bag at the Edinburgh airport and be done with it...not drag the damn thing all over London and Paris! I kept thinking throughout the whole adventure, "Man, Bert better like these beers!" LOL! Steve said if it was him, he would have just drunk the beers!

In search of coffee and a warm place to sit and catch my breath for a few minutes I ended up at Victoria Place, a nice little shopping mall connected to Victoria Station, which should not be confused with Victoria Coach Station. I had earlier realized this after circling Victoria Station a couple of times, inside and outside (through the slush), looking for the bus ticket counter (all the while dragging the beast behind me). After finally giving up and asking at a 'local tour tickets' office I was informed by a nice man that it was a common mistake and that the Victoria Coach Station was out those doors and about 3 blocks down.

So, having found the Victoria Coach Station and managing to obtain the scarce and coveted transport ticket out of Britain and being in great need of something hot to drink I settled at Costa Coffee with an obscenely over-sized cuppa. From there I called my friend, Larry, who lives in London. Larry and I grew up together in Salem and have remained good friends through the years. I was hoping that he would have a free evening and we might be able to get together. They say there is a silver lining to every cloud and getting to have dinner and spend a few hours catching up with a dear friend was certainly an unexpected treat for me that day. Larry and I share the same social and political ideology so the conversation was enjoyable and interesting. I felt rejuvenated and ready to tackle the next part of my adventure.

When I arrived back at Victoria Coach Station the place was packed. More long lines and anxious travelers. Checked in by 10:00pm and, of course, the buses to Paris were late arriving from the great beyond. As the first two buses arrived a wave of people flowed toward them in hopes of getting a 'good seat'. It was then that we realized that we had each been assigned to a specific bus. Folks began scrambling to retrieve their luggage from the wrong bus and find the right one. "This is 'O' bus" "What bus are you on?" "I'm on 'P'." "Where is 'B'?" Is that 'O'?" "'O' is over there? Where is 'W'?" "What bus are you on?" My seat was on the "W" bus. The "P" bus loaded its passengers and luggage as did the "O" bus. As they pulled away the rest of us stood in the cold like anxious puppies waiting for the "B" and "W" buses. By 11:00 the lucky "B" bus passengers were on their way but the mysterious "W" had yet to appear. We waited and waited...and waited. A bus would pull in and we would all crane our necks to see the destination. "Manchester" or "Edinburgh" would elicit an audible sigh and after a while more than one groan. Eventually we just started laughing. Finally the "W" appeared and we actually cheered.

After loading 'the beast' into the luggage compartment I managed to get a window seat on the bus and waited for the rest of my fellow travelers to settle in. I was immensely relieved when at last we pulled out of the parking lot. The guy who sat down next to me turned out to be a young U.S. Air Force officer who had only just arrived in Europe about a month ago and was stationed at Geilenkirchen Air Base in Germany. He and his friend were traveling for the holidays. You could see his surprise when he found out that this middle aged woman sitting next to him was ex-Air Force. We talked for about an hour and then both decided to try to get some sleep. About 90 minutes into the trip the driver pulled into the "Euro-Tunnel Center", something like a really big rest stop. It was 1am and we had to wait there until it was our turn to be loaded on the train going through the tunnel. I remember when the tunnel was being built so I was kind of excited about finally getting to experience it. Unfortunately, we were told that we would have to wait for about 5 hours before our turn to cross! Most people just stayed on the bus and tried to sleep but some of us got off and went inside for coffee or in search of electrical outlets to charge various electronic gadgets.

When it was finally our turn to cross, it was...well, creepy. The driver drove the bus into something that I can only describe as a boxcar. No windows and only about 3 feet wider than the bus itself! So the ride through the 'Chunnel' was on a bus, in a box, on a train, in a tunnel, under the water. I don't have many phobias but I do have to admit to a certain amount of claustrophobia so this was more than a wee bit unnerving. The crossing took about 35 minutes and then - Voilá - we emerged in France and eventually arrived in Paris. What should have been an 8 hour bus ride turned into 13 hours. However,I was slowly but surely getting closer to my destination!

From the bus station in Paris I made my way on the subway to the Gare de l'est train station (dragging the beast of course) where I bought a one way ticket to Mannheim, Germany. There were seats available on the train that was leaving in less than an hour but only in 1st class. The difference in price between 1st and 2nd class easily convinced me to wait for the 5:17pm train. No matter, though. I had gotten very good at waiting. So I found one of the many sandwich stands in the train station, bought a sandwich and a coke and found a place to sit, eat my sandwich and people-watch. I love the baguette sandwiches in France. Somehow the bread just tastes different. "Jambone et Fromage, si vous plait." As 5pm approached I began watching the board to see which track my train would leave from. As I continued to track number, no track number, no track number aaaannnnd.....train delayed. Then train delayed again...and again! Waaaaa!!!! I'm so close!! Finally the train arrived and just before 6pm we pulled out of the station. It was a smooth and uneventful ride to Mannheim. I really wanted to try to sleep but I was afraid I would oversleep my stop. I think it says something about travel fatigue that it didn't occur to me to just set the alarm on my phone! So I read instead. I had started a new book on my kindle as I left Inverness on Sunday morning and finished it just before arriving in Mannheim Tues night! As the train pulled in about 9:30pm I put away my kindle and wrestled 'the beast' off the train, through the train station and out to the taxi rank. "Now let's see. Where did I put those German language brain synapses? Oh yes, there they are!" I had a nice conversation with a very friendly taxi driver who delivered me to my final destination where I was met outside by a happy daughter who had been following her mother's odyssey via text messaging for the past 3 days. We lugged the beast up to her apartment where there were more hugs from Bert and Steve. After about 30 minutes of excited chattering between us all (and a shot of tequila for me!) the ever thoughtful Bert told me that it was time for me to relax and pushed me toward the bathroom. His arrival gift to me...a hot bath had been drawn and the bathroom was glowing softly in candle light. Oh the bliss! I carried in another shot of tequila with me and Nikki sat on the floor chatting while I soaked away the all the travel miles. When I emerged from the bathroom all clean and relaxed and in my 'comfy' clothes Bert got another big hug. That was so thoughtful of him!
Just a few minutes later Shauna arrived from Zürich. Steve was working in Munich so he had arrived earlier in the day. More hugs and kisses and chatter and laughter. It was well after midnight when we finally all fell into bed.

I had made it to Ludwigshafen just in time. Our train reservations were for 6am the next morning! Steve and Bert took Bert's little car filled with everybody's luggage and all the stuff we would need for the next 10 days. The girls and I took the train to Leipzig to pick up Michael who was landing there at noon. He flew from the west coast of the U.S. and HIS travel all came off without a hitch! Then the 4 of us continued on the train to meet up with the boys at the house we had rented for the holidays in the very small village of Cranzahl, a stone's throw from the Czech border in Saxony. Bert grew up in the town of Sehma next to Cranzahl and was excited to show all of us where he came from. Nikki has been there many times but this was the first time Bert had brought home the 'whole passel' of Ami's. It was beautiful. So, at last, we were finally all together and our Christmas celebrations could begin...

1 comment:

Nikki said...

Haha, clever advertising! Kudos, "Hotels Heathrow."