Two weeks ago, I got a call from my Dad’s mobile.  For most people, this would not be a big deal.  When I saw the missed call however, my heart plummeted to my shoes and loitered waiting for everything else to join it.  Dad really never uses his mobile unless he isn’t with Mum and/or trapped under something heavy.  You see to call my Dad merely technologically challenged, is like calling Kanye West a bit full of himself. (I once told him he needed an app to do what he wanted to do and he told me he wasn’t tired).  I missed the call because I was having my legs waxed and getting off the frankly rickety table without endangering my life, the life of the lady who waxes my legs and the downstairs neighbours’ lives should I fall through the floor of my apartment complete with massage table (circa 1980) and a large vat of hot wax and land in their living room means that any movement that happens on said table is slow and measured.  By the time, therefore, I had slowly made my way to my handbag, my phone had rung, the call missed and a message left.

When I saw it was from Dad, my legs went wobbly.  I pressed the button quickly to hear the message.  As I had feared, it was a message to tell me that something was wrong.  Mum was in hospital.  I had spoken to Mum the day before and she told me she was feeling lousy, which Mum doesn’t say easily, and she thought she had eaten something that had given her food poisoning.  To get a call the next day saying she was in hospital and in a message from dad which meant that he had taken the phone out of his pocket, unlocked it and actually found my number in his contacts list to call and leave me a message was shocking to say the least.

As well as being technologically challenged, Dad also is not the best at leaving messages.  He tends to pause as if waiting for the answering machine to offer information as to my whereabouts or how long it will be before I am back.  The message went something like this:

“Maria, this is your father calling. [long, slightly breathless pause] Eh, listen, we are here with your mother in the hospital.  She wasn’t feeling at all well, and asked to come here.” Here is another red flag.  Mum doesn’t ask to go to the hospital unless her severed limb looks like it might not re-attach itself just because she held it in the general vicinity of her body.  “The doctors are doing some tests, and ah – wait a minute, here she is, [noises off, talking in Greek to Mum], call us.  It’s Daddy, your father speaking.”

The waxing lady, A, was very understanding and lovely, she went off to make me a cup of tea and I sat heavily on the table (and wobbled dangerously) to call Dad back.

I had to do it 3 times because it kept going to voicemail.  Eventually I got through.

Mum had been admitted to hospital with suspected kidney stones, she was extremely uncomfortable (a fact which was borne out by her grumpiness as Dad tried to update me on the situation)  As I was speaking to Dad, the nurses gave her a huge painkilling injection, they were going to give her antibiotics, and send her home that evening.  I told Dad I would be available to talk to him whenever he needed me, I would let my siblings know and to let me know if he needed me to fly to Athens.  Then I got back on the table and drank tea prepared by the lady who was now trying to rip my skin off patch by patch, for which I pay and thank her profusely every month.

Later that evening, we spoke to Mum who was back at home and sounded extremely chirpy (obviously very strong painkillers).  The next day she was also well, and on the weekend, we were busy what with one thing and another and we didn’t end up talking on the phone.  On Monday, I emailed and texted in the morning and got nothing.  I started to worry a little.  Then at lunchtime, I got a text message from Mum saying she was back in the hospital and would call when she got home.

Two hours later, she called. 

“Hi Mum, are you home again, what happened?”

“Yes, I am home but only to pack a bag and go back into hospital, they want me in overnight, for more tests.”

 “Shall I come over and keep you company while you’re in hospital, and be with Dad in the evening while you’re in?”

They tried to make me feel like it wasn’t necessary, but who are we kidding, it was necessary, just as much for my peace of mind as theirs.  I re-arranged my week, booked a ticket for the next day, went and kissed my nieces goodbye and packed a suitcase.  It was the new one I had bought on Christmas eve and when I opened it to pack, I found a box of biscuits for cheese we had bought and forgotten in there.  Anyway, I had stuff for Mum, my cousin had asked me for some stuff, I also had cards and papers for my parents etc.  When you are part of a big family, the only time you don’t have to take anything for anyone else is when you are travelling incognito.  (Which is almost impossible to do when you are part of a big family by the way).

As I was getting ready to leave, my sister-in-law called to wish me a safe trip and send her love to Mum. 

“Kalo Taxidi (safe trip). Are you sure you’re going to fly with this weather?”

“What weather?”

“Are you serious?  There are 110 mph gusts here, we have battened down the hatches in preparation for the worst storm in the history of weather.”

I had been so busy worrying and preparing, I hadn’t heard or read anything.  The weather around us was wet and windy, but nothing to write home about.

“I’m sure it will be fine.”

The cab came, I got to the airport, handed over my suitcase, went through security which has essentially become a striptease show, and sat down by these enormous windows for some lunch.  The information screens showed that the gate would be announced at 15:45 and the flight was at 16:35.  I read and wrote and ate carbs like it was going out of fashion.  All the while, Noah and his ark were being tossed about outside, at some point it felt like it was a giant screen showing bad weather, it couldn’t actually be real.  The only things we didn’t see floating by were penguins, I assumed they were safe and sound in the ark.

At 15:45 I heard the following announcement.

COULD ALL PASSENGERS TRAVELLING TO ATHENS ON AEGEAN FLIGHT A3603 PLEASE REPORT TO BLAH BLAH BLAH.

And then in Greek. With the same indistinct ending.

I asked for the bill and got my stuff together.  I started to go to the screens in case blah blah blah became more obvious. 

As I was wondering around, the announcement came over the speakers again.

ATTENTION PLEASE.  ALL PASSENGERS FLYING TO ATHENS ON AEGEAN FLIGHT A3603 PLEASE REPORT TO BLAH BLAH BLAH IMMEDIATELY.

And again in Greek.  With the same indistinct ending and AMESOS afterwards.

It became apparent that it was not only me who was not understanding the announcements.  The central passageway started to fill up with worried Greeks.  Talking to each other, over each other and getting more and more irate.  Just then, a woman in what looked like a uniform came out of one of the doors marked no entry.  We all turned towards her as one.

“Flying to Athens?” she asked nervously.

“Yes, where are we supposed to report to?” we all said (not in unison and with varying degrees of aggression, had I been that woman, I would have been very afraid.)

“Follow me, please.”

There followed a weird procession with one petite woman leading about 200 people dragging suitcases, coats and shouting to each other (this is, after all, how we communicate).

She led us to these desks which even though I was stood there, I still could not tell you what they were called.  Blah blah blah had therefore been as accurate a description as any.

The lady stood as tall as possible, (not very) and said as loudly as possible (again, pitching against 200 Greeks is very difficult even if they are actually listening, never mind if they’re all talking to each other): 

“The incoming flight from Athens couldn’t approach Heathrow and was diverted to Stansted Airport.  You need to go to gate 16, go through immigration, retrieve your luggage from carousel 1 and then go to Bus Stop H5 where a coach will be waiting to take you to Stansted to get your flight.”

There was an infinitesimal moment of silence before absolute pandemonium broke out.

All you could hear were snatched conversations in Greek.

“What?”

“Stansted? Where the hell is that?”

“What did she say?”

“How long will that take?”

There were some American accents too.

“Is this really necessary?  Can’t we just wait here for the next flight?”

The woman explained that there was no guarantee the next flight would be cleared to land at Heathrow either.

After all the explanations and re-explanations, everyone took out their mobiles and started calling their families and/or friends to say they were going to a different airport.  It was at this point that I got out my mobile phone and texted Mum that the flight was going to be delayed, and that we were going to Stansted because of the weather.  What I hadn’t thought about was that as Mum was in the hospital, she hadn’t been aware of any adverse weather conditions in London.  When she got my text, she went to the BBC website on her iPad and saw the news reports, not to mention the fact that the Greek news also ran the story in true melodramatic fashion, and then my phone started going bananas. 

SMS from Mum:

MARAKI, PLEASE DON’T COME.

SMS From Mum

YOUR FATHER AGREES.  CHANGE YOUR FLIGHT AND WAIT UNTIL MORNING TO SEE HOW THE WEATHER PANS OUT.

SMS From Cousin, D

JUST LET ME KNOW WHAT TIME YOU’RE COMING IN, I’LL COME AND COLLECT YOU WHATEVER THE TIME.

SMS FROM SISTER, D

OH NO! WHAT A FAF.  HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE YOU TO GET TO STANSTED?

SMS From MUM.

PLEASE DON’T COME. 

SMS From PIZZA HUT

IT’S TUESDAY, THE INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNISED OVERSPENDING ON PIZZA DAY! GET £10 OFF WHEN YOU SPEND £25 OR MORE ON PIZZA. COLLECTION OR DELIVERY, T&CS APPLY.  

SMS From MUM

HAVE YOU GONE TO ASK IF YOU CAN CHANGE YOUR TICKET YET?

I realised that if I was to travel now, my Mum would be up panicking until she got the text saying I had landed safely.  I was wondering what to do as I slowly made my way back to immigration.  The thing about Heathrow is that the distances are so vast, that you often feel like you landed somewhere else, and walked the rest of the way.  When you fly Ryanair, you land at an airport vaguely near (45 mins by coach) your destination.  Under the guise of being a ‘London’ airport, Heathrow also lands you 45 minutes away, but just doesn’t lay on coaches.

We stood in the queue while one man checked all of our passports.  As it was approaching my turn he was joined by a couple of colleagues.  I went up to one of them and showed my passport.

“Where are you arriving from Madam?”

“Heathrow Departures.” I answered

“Pardon?”

“We are being transferred to Stansted as our incoming flight landed there.”

“That can’t be right. Are you sure? Hold on please.” With that he took my passport and went over to his colleague.  They conferred and he came back very quickly.

“Right, sorry, ok, pass through.”

Off I went, trekking to the carousel to get my luggage, past the massive images of the cabbie and beefeater welcoming me with their arms wide open, my phone still vibrating and beeping like mad.

My suitcase came out, and I had to unlock it and take out my coat which I had packed in there upon my arrival in anticipation of arriving somewhere hot.

I went to bus stop H5.  It was like a loud smoking den.  My phone vibrated again.

PLEASE DON’T COME WITH THE WEATHER LIKE IT IS.

One part of me knew that we wouldn’t travel if it wasn’t safe to do so, and I thought that although it was a hassle, it probably made sense for me to just get there.  The other part though kept reminding me that I was going there for Mum’s peace of mind, and at the moment she was frantic and promised to be that way until at least 6 or 8 hours later when I landed. Also, I was looking at a one to two hour coach ride in a coach full of angry Greeks, during rush hour because it was 5pm by then and there was no guarantee that the flight would leave as soon as we got there. I made a decision and went upstairs to the Aegean desk to see about changing my flight.

The extremely camp man at the desk was super-helpful, although it did take the person behind me in the queue to point out to him that there was a flight leaving the next day at midday from Gatwick airport for him to put me on it.  That done, I texted Mum to tell her not to worry that I would be there the next afternoon at around 5:30.  Then I got on the Heathrow Express and was home in under an hour. 

When D came home from work, we had a tearful reunion (much like the tearful goodbye we had shared not 12 hours earlier) and I went to bed hoping that the weather was going to be better the next day.

The flight the next day was from Gatwick, so I woke up extra early to get to Victoria Station to get the Gatwick Express. My mum had already called three times for a weather report, and I told her that there was in fact a lull and the bad weather would start up again the following day.  Anyway, as it was I was probably going to get there after Mum got out of the hospital, so one of the primary reasons for my visit was no longer valid. I couldn’t have had a smoother journey to the airport, even though there was a lot of disruption on many train lines due to the previous day’s weather, the Gatwick Express train was running on time.  Less than an hour after I left home, I was at the check in desk.  Everything was looking good.  I handed in my boarding pass and passport.

“Sorry Madam, but your passport is only valid for another 2 months.”

I smiled. “Yes, I know, it’s on my to-do list for as soon as I get back.  In 5 days.”

“You need to have at least 3 months on your passport before you can travel to Greece.”

“Seriously?  I checked in for a flight yesterday and there was no problem.  I am due back in 5 days.  My passport will still be valid then.  I thought that only applied to travel outside of the European Union.”  I had noticed that my passport only had two months on it and thought that only the US are really particular about it.  This belief had been confirmed when I had had no problems with my passport at Heathrow. 

“Yes, I don’t think you can travel today Madam.”

“Please,” I said, I understand that there are rules, but could you not make an exception here?” I explained the circumstances of my trip.  “I genuinely am due back in 5 or 6 days, you have the details of my return journey.  Is there anything I can do?”

“I will go upstairs and ask, Madam.  Please wait off to the side, while we check for you. You are delaying the other passengers.”

All at once I felt like a criminal.  An ignorant criminal to boot, as I genuinely thought there wouldn’t be a problem.  After all, you don’t actually need a passport to travel within the EU.  Most Europeans travel with their ID cards.  Of course, we don’t have ID cards in the UK, as people immediately assume that it is another way for the government to know what you are eating for breakfast.  This is usually screamed loudly by people who post pictures of what they eat for breakfast on [insert social media network here] every day.  Sorry, I digress.

I waited nervously.  After all, Mum would be upset if I didn’t go, and I wanted to be there for them.  And then as I got myself worked up, I started thinking what is the point of having an expiry date if your passport actually expires 3-6 months before its expiry date? I mean then the expiry date should be 6 months earlier.  But then it would still not work because you would have to stop using your passport 6 months before that.  As my thoughts on the subject became more and more cyclical, I began to hyperventilate.  I mean, when we buy stuff from the supermarket it has a sell by/use by date on it.  That date is the date after which you sniff and eat tentatively and at your own risk.  The thing is though, it doesn’t take 4-6 weeks to buy a new pot of yoghurt.  It does however take 4 to 6 weeks to apply for a new passport during which time they have your current (AND VALID) one.  This means that you are stuck in your country of residence.  For me, this is usually no problem at all.  I travel about as often as the Parthenon Marbles (which – according to George Clooney – are due for a trip home soon.)  Still though, on the one occasion I may have to travel more often, I expect my (I repeat, current, valid) documents to work for me.   About 20 minutes later, the lady came back down and said:

“They said it was OK as long as you renew it as soon as you get back.”

Phew, ok, let’s get this show on the road.

I flew out to Athens, a smooth flight with a hilarious in-flight movie (for a change) and made it on time, safe and sound.  I went outside, got into a cab gave the guy my address and settled back for the 20 minute ride home from the airport.  The cabbie was chatty:

“Where did you arrive from?”

“London.”

“Oh, do you live there?”

“Yes.”

“Did you marry an Englishman?”

“I’m not married.”

“WHAT?  You’re not married?  How is that possible?  Your parents must be so disappointed!”

“Er…”  I started to look around for hidden cameras.  We hadn’t even left the actual airport yet.

“Don’t you want to make them happy? They will be wanting grandchildren.”

“They have grandchildren.”

“Yes, but it’s different when it’s their daughter’s kid.”

By this point, I was incredulous. 

“Have you been talking to my Dad?” I asked.

He laughed. 

“You should get married and give your parents some grandchildren.” he said.

“They have 5 perfect, healthy and amazing grandchildren both from their son and from one of their daughters.  They have girls and boys, blue and brown eyed, all the bases are covered, there is nothing I could add to the equation, let’s drop it, thank you.”

He took the hint and we moved on to safer topics such as the state of the economy and politics. At some point he asked me what I thought was necessary to get out of the current financial crisis we find ourselves in.  I do find it interesting that everyone has an opinion and that they feel that they should let everyone know it – in case it is overheard by some hapless politician and implemented presumably.  When asked what my opinion was and what I would do I said:

“I think I’d like to go back to the question about the grandchildren.”

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