Trip to the UK – Chapter 1: Are we going to get this flight?

Prologue

My little sister and I organised this trip to the UK with three months advance, which naturally resulted in as much time spent in fantasising about the amazing things we were going to see and do. My mind created the ideal vacation during those three months without thinking once to compare it to reality. I only had those seven days of complete and utter freedom, so all my expectations were concentrated on this one holiday: I needed it to be perfect. I didn’t leave it all in the hands of Fate, I actually did some research and put some effort in looking for alternative spots to sightsee.

To cut a long story short, I had put all my money (literally and figuratively) on this trip, so it was bound to disappoint, at least partially. Nevertheless, some stories are worth telling even though they are not all rainbows and unicorns.

Are we going to get this flight?

I had the genius idea to go to the Esperanzah festival the day before our departure. We had arranged a shuttle to pick us up at home (in Brussels) at 3:00 am to bring us to the airport. The festival takes place in Floreffe and officially finishes around midnight, but no public transportation is available that late, so we had to leave earlier. We were so worried about missing our last connection that we decided to go to the bus stop well in advance (20 minutes). It would have been a good move too if we didn’t notice (obviously too late) that we were waiting at a suppressed stop. We did run to the following stop, tongues sticking out and heart pumping, but deep down we knew we couldn’t make it in time to catch the bus.

You have to know that the last bus from Floreffe is at 21:10, and it’s the only connection from Floreffe to Namur where the last train for Brussels leaves at 21:45. So missing that bus meant we had no passage to Namur and we could, in all likeliness, miss our last train to Brussels… and then our shuttle to the airport and our long awaited holiday. Stress started boiling up. Still standing at the stop at about 21:20, we repressed the instinct to despair and we tried to find a solution to get to Namur instead. We split jobs: I searched for local taxi numbers (since I speak French and could ask for information) while my sister gave a shot at hitchhiking with a scrap of paper where I had scribbled ‘NAMUR’.

However, my sister is a shy person and she was holding that tiny paper as if I had asked her to wave her underwear at the passing cars. You had to be a very observant driver to notice our cry for help. I, on the other hand, finally got a hold of the local taxi service, when someone cried: “Ce n’est pas pour vous?” (Isn’t it for you?) showing us a car waiting a few meters away. We ran to the driver while the taxi man explained his fares at the other end of my phone. Once the young man at the wheel confirmed he could give us a lift to Namur, we hopped on and I cut the taxi service short, hanging up. Sorry chap!

With our sign once safe on the train.
With our sign once safe and sound on the train.

Out of breath, but a little relieved I tried to start a little conversation with our saviour. We didn’t get his name, but he lives in the area and works as a baker. He was driving home from work when he decided to help us. If he reads this by any chance and remembers two ragged young women on a Sunday evening needing a lift to Namur, many thanks to you and your kindness. We left him in a hurry to run to our train, not before leaving him a few symbolic euros to get a beer in our name. Running through the station we attracted a few annoyed and tired looks, but adrenaline was pumping by then and we got on the train breathless and laughing.

***

After a shower and a couple of hours sleep we were on our feet again checking that we had packed everything we needed. I found out later on, that I did forget one crucial thing. In my defence I had just moved houses and all my stuff was still in bags and boxes all over the place.

We arrived to the airport safe and sound and a little in advance thanks to the very efficient and kind shuttle service, navetta Mimmo. The driver was very nice which is always welcome especially when you travel at such an unholy hour. The airport was overflowing with people going on holiday, so we had to queue a few times. Once we got through security without a hiccup we looked for our gate. The screen showed ‘gate 1’ so we followed the signs to gate 1.

Now, for those who haven’t experienced Charleroi airport before, you have to know a few things:

  • it is a very small airport and when it’s so busy with holiday-makers it becomes quite tricky to move around, especially with trolleys;
  • part of the gates are on a lower level which is even smaller;
  • finally, arrivals share the same space as departures.

To sum it all up: a hell lot of people filled the narrow passages of Charleroi airport making it almost impossible to move around. The early hour had anaesthetised my instincts, so I didn’t react to the very weird sound of ‘gate 1’ though I’m very familiar with this airport and should have known better.

So we elbowed our way towards gate 1. We were redirected to the lower level where a sign ‘gates 1-10’ kept us going. When we reached gate 7 we arrived at what clearly looked like a dead end. We stood there confused, blocking the way for others. Our logical first deduction was that on the way there we missed a sign for gates 1-6. We doubled back carefully looking at all signs to the great annoyance of people waiting to be boarded. Nothing. Having verified that we had gone the right direction the first time we pushed our way back once again. We were almost hoping that in the meantime a magic corridor had appeared that would take us to gate 1. As you might guess, it hadn’t. Once again we blocked the way standing in front of gate 7 without a clue on what to do next. Should we run with our trolleys against the wall of gate 7, Hogwarts style? Starting to feel frustrated because something this easy should have gone smoothly while here we stand starting to feel the stress mounting up again. Grumpy and on the verge of going into angry I looked around in desperate need of an airport attendant. Finally I spotted someone with what looked like an official vest and I ran to her, hoping she could rescue us.

She looked a little puzzled at my question, which I should know by now it’s never a good sign, then she told us we had to check in to gate 7 to then reach gate 1. It did sound odd to me, but hey, she’s supposed to be the informed one, not me! So I trusted her information and tried it her way. Gate 7 was though assaulted by an hostile crowd determined to get to Barcelona. Impossible to get through them, but if we had to queue respectfully we would have never made it in time (not to mention we weren’t sure it would work). Fortunately I decided to follow my instincts and tagged a disabled being pushed to the front of the line. The smiling attendant at the gate looked at my boarding pass and started:

“Manchester…”

I cut her off “Yes, but your colleague just told me we have to come through gate 7 to get to gate 1.”

At which she replies confused “But Manchester leaves from gate 22, on the other side of the airport.”

Crap!

While we ran through the airport shovelling people in our way, I wondered:

  1. What the heck was the screen showing when we looked at it? Would it be possible that we got confused with the check-in counter number?
  2. Damn the 7 am flights. I’ll never take one again!
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