The promise of continuous warm sunshine, white sand beaches, azure blue seas, friendly natives, inexpensive delicious food and plenty of affordable local booze might be tempting to the unpatriotic naysayers who continually run down our wonderful country, but these easy pleasures become tedious compared to the delights of an English summer. A holiday suggestion of a walking tour of Walsall`s lost architectural heritage and perhaps a picnic with some of the delightful characters that congregate outside the fine hostelries in the town centre was rejected and we ended up joining the common herd heading abroad.
Leaving home, even if only for a short period, can be a bit of a worry. People beyond our borders are different and difficult to understand. So it was with some trepidation that we journeyed by taxi to Birmingham International Airport. Our charming driver respected our privacy by only speaking to ask for a pound coin when we arrived at the airport. This was for the “drop and go” area which would allow him to stop for 30 seconds to allow us to alight in the same metropolitan borough as the departure terminal. With the entrepreneurial spirit that made Britain great, he spoke again to ask for the return fare in advance. We, of course, were happy to pay for the guarantee of being picked up on our return and were impressed that the hard-working driver was so busy and popular that he started to leave for his next job before we had informed him of our return flight number and arrival time. We wrote down the information and it gave us confidence that he found it important enough to place it in the glove compartment along with a number of fixed penalty notices.
Finally in the queue for flight check-in, we savoured the last moments in England. Birmingham International Airport is certainly the finest transport hub ever conceived and is possibly the most sublimely beautiful building ever constructed on this or any other planet. With breathe-taking perfection of form and functionality, this palace is worthy of Xanadu or Elysium. We were delighted when the departure board indicated a two hour delay to our flight meaning that we could linger and enjoy this earthly paradise for longer than expected.
Making our way “air-side”, a series of holographic images of a woman issued helpful instructions regarding the disposal of liquids and the purchase of plastic bags. Real men and women issued further instructions and because of the general hubbub, were forced to shout but added an endearing “guys” at the end of each barked order so as not to sound too offensive. “Keep moving, keep moving…guys” appeared to be a favourite along with “this line, this line… guys. Keep moving”. Ranks of plastic bag vending machines offered complete protection to the safety of our borders at a mere pound a pair and bins had been thoughtfully provided for the disposal of bottled water, sun block, shampoo and other liquids in quantities more than 100 mil. In the interest of national security, we would have the opportunity to purchase these items beyond in the fabulous boutiques in the departure lounge for twice or three times the price.
Having enjoyed the professional and efficient service offered by the UK Border Agency, we passed uniformed men reassuringly armed to the teeth protecting sumptuous displays of “irresistible and essential international fragrances” costing more than the return taxi fare. Having to negotiate a path that meandered and weaved around the glass cases placed conveniently and directly between security control and the access to the aeroplanes resulted in an urge to buy something, anything that was both expensive and useless. Rationality returned with the realisation that a thimbleful of unicorn perspiration was free of duty and would not attract income to the exchequer. It would be far more patriotic to buy the irresistible and essential fragrance upon our return and in so doing pay our duty of taxation.
There can be no finer experience than spending three hours in the departure lounge at Birmingham International Airport. The shops were full of treasures and the airport operators have thought of everything to delight even the most experienced of travellers. They have even catered for the vilest of social pariahs by providing a smoking area adjacent to a charming drinking establishment. At the door to the leper colony, a helpful notice informed nicotine addicts that the security code required to open the door could be obtained by making a purchase at the bar. The perfect way to stimulate growth in the economy is to charge a smoker twice the price for a beer in order for the smoker to smoke more cigarettes. On the way back, a fifth invitation to spend £10 on a raffle ticket to win a sports car was for the fifth time politely declined. The idea was attractive but as the car had been manufactured overseas, the purchase would benefit the economy of Bavaria rather than that of Castle Bromwich or, indeed, India. At last, the flight was called and armed with the most expensive bag of crisps in the known universe, we left this sceptred isle.
As for the holiday? Yeah, well. It was fine if you like that sort of thing.
After days and days and days by and in the pool, on the beach or in the sea and nights inside tavernas or watching the moon and stars, we eagerly awaited our return to England. Imagine our delight as the coach arrived to transfer us to our departure airport and our joy at being told to hurry up in a Lancashire accent by a holiday rep we had never seen before. At the airport, she told us to join the queue outside the terminal building and disappeared.
After half an hour in the midday sun the queue had not moved and the children were becoming irritable. A search party was organised to gather information, the rep was found and firmly told us to return to the queue. After an hour, the queue had not moved and an elderly woman became quite distressed. Another search party was dispatched and this time the rep did not hide her irritation with her inquisitors. After an hour and a half the queue had still not moved yet the departure board was displaying two check-in desks open for our flight. A third search party discovered that the rep had left the airport with a coach load of incoming tourists. A quick conversation with a Greek airport official resulted in us being rushed straight inside to check-in; offered water, prioritised through security and into the air-conditioned departure lounge with every local airport worker we encountered offering profuse apologies. Another example, perhaps, of indolent southern European workers ruining the profits of our banks. The letter to the holiday company regarding the lassie from Lancashire had been composed before the aircraft doors had been closed.
Clear skies gave us views of Venice, the Alps and the Rhine valley and a tail wind would return us to the bosom of Birmingham International Airport 15 minutes early. A thick unbroken wall of grey cloud marked the English coast and a welcome home. Descending into drizzle, the cloud remained unbroken until, after being stacked over Kingstanding, we plopped out at about 2000 feet and to the east of Spaghetti Junction. Aston looked glorious in the rain.
Safely inside the terminal, the queues for e-passport machines were longer than the queues for the lovely human passport control as the machines seemed to be broken so we decided to once again enjoy the good-natured bonhomie of the UK Border Agency. A very nice man directed our party to different desks and after explaining that we were all together said: “Desk A, Sir, now. Next person, desk J, now.” At least we were now sirs and not guys.
Desk A was nearest to the exit, which was nice. Desk J was not. Apparently Mrs Hippo was asked if our son was our grandson, which caused some delay. Back at Desk A, another nice man in a nice suit said: “Move beyond the exit doors, Sir.” An explanation that we were a family resulted in: “Move beyond the exit doors, Sir. Now.” A hand gesture waved toward the delayed family accompanied by a shrug and a quizzical expression gave this protector of homeland security a very good reason to reach for his radio and ask for security to attend passport control. It is heartening to know that we are so well protected.
Safely reunited and avoiding being shot dead, we hugely enjoyed an entire game of travel Monopoly whilst waiting for the baggage to arrive. The new grandson was victorious using a strategy that bought all four stations and the utility companies. At the end, a hotel on Mayfair was worthless. Suitcases reclaimed, we ventured out through the last chance winding path of irresistible and essential fragrances to meet our taxi driver. Scanning the little hand written signs at arrivals, he was nowhere to be seen. We telephoned. “Ah yes”, said the voice, “he`ll be with you in a couple of minutes.” Six hours earlier we stood outside an airport terminal in temperatures of 30 degrees plus. Now we stood for an hour outside an airport terminal for an hour in cold pouring rain. It was so good to be home.
We had kept in reserve a pound coin for the wonderful “drop and go” facility and travelled with increasing joy through the M6 road works and the rain. Arriving home, the driver demanded payment and hungry children demanded fish and chips. The driver was to be disappointed, but not as disappointed as the hungry children.
Being a Bank Holiday Monday in Walsall, the local fish and chip shop was closed. It is great to know that our British economy is so much healthier than that of some failing nation like Greece. Better not tell that to the couple who ran our regular and favourite family taverna where we enjoyed our final evening meal. When the settlement came for this last repast, the bill did not include the meals for the children. We questioned this mistake, of course, but Leo said that Greeks do not make mistakes.
“Leave now, Sir” he said. “Leave now, and come back.”