There’s nothing quite like a wise man from the East turning up to make a Christmas seem special. So way back in the spring I booked a seat on the Sofia to Gatwick aeroplane scheduled to appear in the sky just a few days before the star of Bethlehem. I thought I’d surprise all my family with an unannounced visit so I didn’t tell anyone except my sister, Beverley. I needed just one confidante in Britain to make the adventure possible and alleviate any fears I had of being met by all that ‘no room at the inn’ nonsense. It turned out to be agony for both of us for the seven months that we had to keep quiet about it and then, in the days immediately before my arrival there, that agony was made almost unbearable by unforeseen complications that would have even made Mary and Joseph turn the donkey around and go home.
Three times during the week that I was due to travel, obstacles appeared that made me think that my journey would be impossible. Obstacle number one was finding someone who would look after the smallest of my cats. He wasn’t very well in the toilet department and due to legal technicalities, he wasn’t able to stay at the cattery where I always take my cats while I am away. Also, because of the explosive nature of his little feline bottom and the state of any wall or floor within a metre of his litter tray, it wasn’t a good idea to leave him with friends who had cats or nicely decorated walls and lush carpets of their own. So, for most of a miserable afternoon I felt that I was well and truly stuck and I would have to cancel the trip. Fortunately, however, my friends who run the Streethearts BG dog rescue centre about an hour’s drive from where I live, and who weren’t afraid of getting a bit of raw sewage on them, agreed to take him on as an in-patient despite the fact that he wasn’t a dog.
My calmed nerves were again shattered a couple of days before I was due to depart as a medium size deluge of snow hit Bulgaria. Travelling on the roads became very difficult and raised doubts in my mind about whether or not I would be able to distribute my seemingly ever-expanding cat community (I currently have three) amongst the various establishments that had agreed to house them, whether or not I would manage the trip along the rocky road to Sofia airport, and whether or not my sanity would hold out through the bad weather, or even at all.
The medium size deluge of snow that hit my garden.
My dear friend Anne-Marie helped me out with the cat-drop job, demonstrating the deftness of her navigational skills as we wound along the icy mountain roads, steadying me with words of support when the going got tough as only one of the finest of rally drivers’ sidekicks could, and accompanying me for a nice hot cuppa in a little café in Dryanovo when our task was complete apart from the getting home in the dark bit.
A day later my trusty Bulgarian taxi driver friend, who shall remain nameless in case the Bulgarian Traffic Police happen to be reading this, got me to Sofia in similar circumstances but without the use of his hands as he needed them for other tasks such as texting his girlfriend, gesticulating to emphasise certain important points in his incessant conversation and propping himself up in his seat so that he could see through the ten square centimetres in the top left-hand corner of his windscreen that were still clear during the hour that remained of the journey after the contents of his screen wash reservoir had been exhausted. The wintrified scenery as we sped, nay warped, through the Stara Planina mountain range was spectacularly beautiful but I couldn’t enjoy it as the combination of the G Force and fear made me wonder if I should have brought the cats’ litter tray with me to make myself comfortable in. But at least he got me there, so that was another big worry dealt with more than adequately. Surely nothing could go wrong from that point onwards.
I stayed in Sofia overnight (I was still too paralysed with fear to move on to anywhere else) and made the short journey to the airport at a leisurely pace in another taxi the following morning. I chatted to the driver, whose name was Emil, about the weather, football results, horses wandering loose on the city streets and holidays, just as I would with any taxi driver, but in my best Bulgarian. I knew that we were getting on well but I was a bit startled when he scribbled his phone number on a piece of paper and asked me if I would like to go on holiday to the Black Sea. It took a lot of concentration and effort to establish that he meant that he had a holiday home near Chernomorets that I could rent from him. Obviously, I said yes to his offer but asked no further questions, just in case I had got the translation wrong and I ended up on a cosy getaway weekend for two. It is incidents such as this that inspire me to persevere and become fluent in the local tongue sooner rather than later. Then, thankfully, as we approached the airport, the topic of conversation changed completely as we tried to locate the precise whereabouts of a big airport that we couldn’t see in the dense fog. The possibility of my Gatwick-bound plane not taking off brought back the anxiety of the last few days and I consoled myself with the fact that if all else failed I had Emil’s little seaside cottage to go to as a holiday backstop.
Having eventually bumped into the airport, paid Emil and given him a tip (the tip being, don’t try coaxing me away on holiday again) I then had the joy of waiting in the queue to check in my bag. Such was the excitement of this that I completely forgot about the fog, and then even more so when I read a phone message from Beverley telling me that flights to Gatwick were suspended because of a drone flying about over the runways and possibly bumping into aeroplanes. I’ll spare you the full details of the monotonous ten hours I spent sitting around in the departure lounge with fellow passengers knocking back copious amounts of red wine bought with their complimentary flight-delay catering vouchers as they speculated about the possible outcome and tried to decide whose fault it was. In this respect blame was cast upon easyJet (for not telling us when we booked our tickets months beforehand that this might happen), the Russians, Argos (for being major retailers of drones) and Theresa May, obviously!
The non-departure board at Sofia Airport's Terminal One.
Beverley and modern technology kept me up to date all day with news from various agencies demonstrating that they had more than one way of telling us that we were going nowhere. I sensed this early on in the tortuous wait and just wanted the powers-that-be in easyJet’s marble corridors to tell us straight and put us out of our misery so that I could just go home, put the kettle on, forget all about the wonderful Christmas that I had been looking forward to for more than seven months and sob uncontrollably. Eventually the word in the right-hand column of the departures board changed from ‘delayed’ to ‘cancelled’, my heart sank and simultaneously I received a text message from easyJet telling me to go home and start the sobbing.
Overcome by a wave of utter dejection, I sent Beverley a message to say that the mission had been aborted and that I would try again next Christmas. I dragged myself along the draughty corridor from the departure lounge to the arrivals area and showed my passport to the border police officer at passport control, even though I hadn’t actually left the country. Then I collected my bag from the luggage carousel, even though it hadn’t actually been loaded into an aircraft. Then I went in search of a taxi to take me to the bus station to catch a bus home. It was bitterly cold, light snow was settling on the piles of ice leftover from previous days’ blizzards and there were no yellow cabs waiting at the rank which is usually awash with them. Where was Emil when I needed him? Probably sunning himself on the beach with a dozen other passengers he’d given lifts and phone numbers to that day. I felt like I was hurtling towards the bottom of an abyss of misery, but at least the fog had cleared. Luckily, only myself and Beverley were disappointed because we had been so good at keeping the secret nobody else in England had been expecting me. I suppose some people in Bulgaria might also have been disappointed as they had known I was going and were probably looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet over the festive period with me not there.
The only thing I could think of to cheer myself up was to go back into the departures building and have a cup of lukewarm coffee from a vending machine and watch all the passengers excitedly going off on their Christmas breaks to other non-Gatwick destinations while I waited for a taxi to turn up outside. My envy of these disgustingly happy people had me as green as the middle horizontal stripe on the Bulgarian flag. If you’re a Bulgarian person reading this you should look away now to avoid the disappointment of me possibly letting this lovely country down by saying that this was the first time ever that I had been in Bulgaria and had wanted to be somewhere else.
As soon as I was out of the snow, out of the corner of my eye I saw a queue. I assumed it was the queue for the coffee machine as they are very popular in Bulgaria. However, I found to my dismay that there isn’t such a machine in the departures building at Terminal One and the café had already closed because the final flight of the day was about to depart. Although on a much smaller scale, this was another disappointment, at least until it dawned on me that the line of people in front of me were trying to buy airline tickets. Suddenly there was a glimmer of hope! I sent a message to Beverley and she had a glimmer too. I didn’t have to wait long as so many people seemed to be turning away from the desk with looks of disappointment on their faces. Soon I was face to face with a young woman who told me she could get me on a flight the following morning with a different airline, to a different airport, for a much different price to what I had originally paid. I doubt if anybody in the world has ever been as overcome with joy at the news that they would be going to Luton as I was at that moment. It’s strange how happiness can be so much more intense when it follows soon after moments of great despair; rather like the time I saw Leeds United beat Southampton four three at St Mary’s after being three goals behind with only twenty minutes to go to full time. I wanted to jump over the desk and hug all the ticket desk staff. I wanted to run topless around the departure building foyer as I swirled my shirt around above my head in celebration. I later found out from a fellow delayed passenger that I had bought one of the last two tickets remaining for that flight and that he had bought the other.
I needed to check in at four o’clock the next morning for the flight to Luton. By the time my heart had stopped racing and I had, by the skin of my teeth as it was just closing, found a shop where I was able to buy a couple of cans of celebratory Bulgarian beer and a celebratory curly British petrol station style cheese sandwich, it was almost ten o’clock in the evening. There was little point wandering out into the snow in search of a hotel or even a better sandwich, so I found an uncomfortable seat in a draughty corridor and settled down for the night.
I didn’t sleep on account of the discomfort of the seat, the snoring from my airport terminal bedfellows and the fear of not waking up at four o’clock and missing my flight. The music from the ‘what to do when going through security’ video that played on a constant loop throughout the night sounded a little like ‘Lullaby’ by The Cure but had no lulling effects on me at all as every time my eyelids grew heavy this tune would start to gnaw at my weary brain as if air travel demons had thrown everything at me that they had to push me over the edge and this little earworm was the last device in their battery of evil. Little did they know that Paul McCartney’s ‘Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime’ would have done the trick! With two hours to go until check-in time I alleviated the pain in my nether regions caused by the seat and the fear of oversleeping by getting up and walking around for the remainder of the wait, primarily in an attempt to keep warm but also to count the floor tiles. There were 9,802 which made Thessaloniki airport’s effort look pathetic but was no match for the vast ceramic expanses of Alicante.
The rest of the day went perfectly well. The plane for Luton took off bang on time, with passengers applauding as the wheels left the runway in the same way that they sometimes do when a plane safely touches down. We arrived bang on time and saw the winter sun rise above the Luton skyline, illuminating the city to show it in all its majestic splendour.
The captain welcoming us aboard our Wizz Air flight to Luton.
The rest of my Christmas trip went without problems. I had been a little concerned that my family would all try to surprise me by turning up unannounced at my front door in Bulgaria at the same time that I would be knocking on theirs. However, all went to plan and I was greeted by shrieks and even tears when I appeared totally unexpected. I’d really thought they’d have been pleased to see me though.
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