Wednesday, January 12, 2011

My alternative Christmas

As the new year makes its first attempts at waking up from the holidays, let me tell you the interesting story of how my Christmas turned out to be the complete opposite of what I had originally planned, but still ended up being great fun.

As in most years since my sister moved to Scotland, we had decided to celebrate Christmas at my sister’s place and for the first time it would be in her new house on the outskirts of Edinburgh. I had planned an evening flight for the 23rd of December, which would give me an extra day in Scotland or, if push came to shove, would leave a day to arrange a plan B to get there, which seemed sensible at the time because, as you have probably noticed, the weather across continental Europe in general, and around the British Isles in particular had been horrendous to say the least over the weeks preceding Christmas.

I left the office on Thursday the 23rd with my hopes up and the weather looking decent. I had been neurotically monitoring both the Dublin and Edinburgh airport websites all day (and the day before to be honest) and on Thursday, Dublin had been closed only for about an hour and a half around lunchtime. When I reached Main Street in Swords, the ugly grey banlieu on the northern outskirts of Dublin where I work, at around quarter to 4, it started to snow. And in true Irish fashion, all traffic came to a standstill within minutes. There were no busses coming in or going out of Swords, apart from one number33 bus which, I noted carefully, had made a progress of 60 feet down Main Street in the 10 minutes that I stood at the bus stop. I walked across the street to a taxi office, enquired if I could get one and was told that I would be picked up in about 10 minutes. Everyone who knows how the Irish estimate time, will tell you that such a statement normally means that you will be lucky to get going within half an hour. A very friendly local lad in a tracksuit, Nike runners and a hooded sweater let me take his taxi as I was on my way to the airport. This earned the guy an avalanche of abuse from his girlfriend, but my gratitude. After taking another 10 minutes to make the turn off Main Street, the taxi was standing in front of the building that I had left over an hour earlier. It still snowed. In the end, it had taken me about an hour and a half to get to the airport, which, at that time, was still operating.

I walked into the departures area, ignored the panicking crowd (people at airports are always panicking), walked through security, checked my gate and got a beer. As I had plenty of time until my flight was due to leave, I wandered around the airport a bit, got to my gate, ordered another beer and watched the neverending stampede of people running by, juggling bags and suitcases while franctically shouting into mobile phones. I saw no real reason to panic because even though it was snowing heavily, and delays where increasing, flights were still departing. I spent some time looking at the runways where airport staff in snow shovelling tractors where racing up and down the airport in an attempt to keep the show on the road. It looked surreal from up in the terminal bar, like watching some sort of real life Lego cart race unfolding in front of me.

Even 20 minutes before I was supposed to take off, my flight (and a
whole lot more) were still on the monitors as SCHEDULED. Obvisously with ever increasing delays, but hey, you can't have it all. And then.. then the worst blizard in the history of Dublin hit the airport. I have never seen it snow so ridiculously hard anywhere, ever. It started snowing so hard that I couldn't even see the plane anymore from the bar window. That is a 200 foot long Boeing 767, parked about 30 feet away from me. It was completely invisible. It was then that I realised that my flight might be in danger. Sure enough, a voice came through the PA system, incomprehensible as ever, and started to real off some sort of message. I walked out of the bar, beer in hand and towards the departures monitor. And then all of a sudden, flights started to fall like dominos including, 5 minutes later, my flight to Edinburgh. While people started rushing for the exits, I calmly finished my pint and had a strategy meeting with myself.

My first Plan B was spending the night at the airport, so that I would be in prime position to get an early flight out the next morning. I knew from experience that the bars at the airport normally close at around 1.30 in the morning, so by the time you have finished your drink and lazily made your way back through customs and to the arrivals hall, it would be well after 2am and there would be only 3 hours to go before the next day’s flight schedule would start. On top of that, I would have a significant advantage over the people coming in in the morning when it came to reaching the airline desks early. My first Plan B turned out to be short lived, because at around 8.30 bar staff started closing all the bars, reasoning that, as there were no more flights, there would be no more customers to serve. I didnt fancy just sitting around the departures hall for 10 hours with nothing to do. If I could have stayed in the bars until 2 in the morning, that would have been no problem, but I decided to go back to Dublin. I contacted my sister who was so sweet to book me on the lunch time flight to Edinburgh the next day, spent half an hour in the scrum at the Airlink stop and finally got back to the city. Annoyed by the fact that I had just spent 6 hours going away, and ending up about 6 miles in the opposite direction of where I had planned to go, I went to the pub, had a couple of beers against the nerves and went home.

The next day I woke up, apprehensively moved my bedroom curtain a couple of inches and was quite stunned to look at Dublin, bathing in watery winter sunshine. Not a cloud was visible in the sky and, according to my sister, the weather in Edinburgh was excellent too. With a smile on my face, I jumped in to the shower, got dressed and happily set off for the airport again, walked through security and set myself at a bar. Can't go wrong now, can it? Beautiful weather in Dublin, beautiful weather in Edinburgh, Scotland, here I come!
So there I was, celebratory pint in hand, waiting for my flight (Aer Lingus this time round) to come in and take me to Scotland. A couple of flights were obviously still delayed but that didn’t faze me at all. Clear sky all the way from here to the East coast of Scotland. Not until the ‘Edinburgh 14.00’ message on the monitor above my gate was suddenly replaced by the message ‘Manchester 14.30’ did I sense that something might be amiss. Surprised, I marched over to the departures monitor and to my disgust found that my flight had been cancelled again. The one thing that I had left out of the equation was the weather in the rest of Europe. While it was great in Dublin and Edinburgh, the weather was still terrible in most of continental Europe. And despite fine conditions here and in Britain(well, most of it) most of Aer Lingus’ planes were grounded in Paris, Frankfurt, Brussels and Bachus knows where else. So now the problem was not that the airport here was snowed in but that there weren’t enough planes to fly all the people out!

So yet again, my flight was cancelled. And like the day before, I took up the idea to rebook my flight to Glasgow, Aberdeen or even Newcastle, reasoning that, if not IN Edinburgh, then to at least I was going to get somewhere NEAR Edinburgh.
I knocked back my beer, made the way through customs again and I knew all bets were off when, for the 4th time within 24 hours, I entered the departures area. There were already over 700 people in the queue at the Aer Lingus desk alone. What I had initially assumed to be the end of the queue, was just the halfway point. Airport security had closed down all the queues in the interest of public safety and were manouvring people towards the exit. That's when I finally gave up on the idea of getting to Scotland. I had spent the better part of the last 24 hours in trying to get out of Dublin and it wasn’t going to happen. After briefing my sister of the events that had taken place, it was time to come up with a back up strategy. If I was not going to go to Scotland, at the very least I was’t going to give up on a party that easily. I called a friend who, as I had understood up until that point, was throwing a Christmas Party. It turned out that she wasn’t and she informed me that I had mixed up a couple of things. The correct version of the Alternative Christmas party was that another friend of mine, who is Australian and obviously couldn’t just go home for the weekend, was going to another friend of ours(also Australian) to celebrate Christmas at her place.

Here is where the story takes an unexpected turn.

I called Kylie and asked her what was up for Christmas. She instructed me to get back to central Dublin, load up on booze and walk to the Ulster Bank building on Eden Quay. I joined the scrum at the Airlink stop outside the airport again and forty minutes later I was, again, back on O’Connell street in the centre of Dublin. I walked to the nearest off license, spent 15 minutes in the queue there (Irish people are very, very afraid to run out of booze when shops close for 1 day) made my way to the bank building as agreed and called again for further instructions.

“Okay, to your left is a sign that has ‘KAVANAGH BUS SERVICE’ on it”

- Yes

“Get on that bus and get off when you’re in Kilcullen”

Now, I had never even heard of either Kavanagh Buses or Kilcullen, but I agreed anyway and got on the bus which, as it turned out, I had nearly missed because of the queue in the off license. I spent most of the trip talking to a Austrian girl who lived in Waterford and had been trying to get home to Vienna for 4 days but was turned back at the airport again and again. I then received another call, telling me to get off in Naas as that was more convenient. I walked up to the bus driver and found out that we had already passed Naas and he hadn’t bothered to stop there. Excellent. I then asked him to give me a shout when we got to the stop in Kilcullen as I wanted to get off there. He informed me that that would be the next stop but, ofcourse, it wasn’t going to be as easy as it looked. The road to Kilcullen, the busdriver told me, was snowed in and icy and, as the road into the village is at an angle, he was afraid that he would not be able drive his bus out again if he drove down the hill. So, I got off the bus NEAR Kilcullen and fortunately there was someone else getting off there, who told me that the village was about 5 minutes in THAT direction. After shuffling across the icy road like a penguin for about 10 minutes with 2 heavy bags full of beer, I reached what looked like a village. Well, a gas station, a pub and a Centra shop. Having apparently arrived at the correct destination, I made another call and informed Meagan (the girl who was throwing the party) that I had arrived in Kilcullen. She then said “are you in front of a gas station called Frazers?” Yes. “Good to your left is a pub called the Hide Out. Go in there, order a beer and wait.”
By now I had the idea I had ended up in some cold war spy movie but going into a pub is always a good plan in my book, so I walked in, ordered a beer and sat there, slowly getting the feeling back into my fingers and toes. And sure enough, 20 minutes later, a Landrover pulled up outside the pub, my friends poured out, and 15 minutes later we were on our way to the house. As it turned out, my friend works for the owner of a golf course hotel in Wicklow and also lives there on the hotel premises.

And so, instead of spending my Christmas with my family in the suburbs of Edinburgh, I ended up spending my Christmas in a 5 star hotel in Wicklow with 5 Australian girls.

Despite the disappointment of not being able to get to Scotland, I had an excellent time. We ate a lot, drank a lot, built fires and even found a Christmas tree in a barn when we were out collecting fire wood.

So I would like to extend a BIG thank you to Meagan, Kylie, Renae, Sally and Beth for taking me in over Christmas and for being great company during a Christmas weekend that would otherwise have been rather bleak.


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