Monday, 6 December 2010

Nice Joke Henry. Well done

I knew that I was due to set out once more to the Holy Land. The last few months had been spent gathering equipment together, egging on those who needed to fix things to bloody well get on with it and finish fixing them and generally whining, cajoling and if necessary, downright begging colleagues to spare some of their vital time helping me (and therefore the company) to scrape everything together. Finally though, the system had been assembled, tested, installed, retested and packed up and shipped. I just had to wait for the word that it had arrived in Haifa and that would be me off to tidy up those last little loose ends that inevitably are left flapping before the start of any job.
The confirmation email that my equipment had arrived in Haifa came on the Sunday, just as the snow first shut down Edinburgh Airport and much of the road and rail system with it. Still, there was time. The forecast showed that the snow would abate into the week and cold sunshine was expected for Wednesday. The logging of the prospective gas well wasn’t due to start until about the 6th or 7th of December. If I got out there on Wednesday, Thursday latest, it would be okay. Just.

With Monday came the further snow as expected. On the Met Office look-ahead Tuesday would be fine. It wasn’t, at least where I am living. Being right on the edge of the Firth of Forth, where I am in Leith is usually the last place around Edinburgh that gets snow. As so was the case this time. But by the time we had a few more inches, my friend Dave was reporting eighteen inches (45cm) on the south side of the city. The airport is further to the west, general transport had shut down and Tuesday saw heavy snow. So I called the office and advised postponement of the flight until Thursday. There was also talk of another friend, Richard, being brought up on standby “just in case”. Fair enough.

Wednesday’s forecast was for fairer skies and a decline in the stiff easterly wind which was the cause of the drifting. Except nobody actually told the weather that. The pellet-like snow continued to hammer down like grey curtains of gravel, each new storm being driven up into the mouth of the Firth of Forth by a persistently intransigent east wind. The Kingdom of Fife was blurred out of existence and in one remarkably heavy sharp shower, the massive hulk of the Platinum Point apartment complex that dominates the view from my house to the north disappeared. Unkind correspondents on facebook called this an improvement and as a reporter of fact, it is my sad duty to note their opinion here.

In truth I was getting nervous. After barely being able to negotiate the horribly snowed roads within the city while driving Mrs Veart to her place of work, I called my boss Nikos again and told him that Thursday wasn’t looking probable either, as the route chosen for me meant departing early-morning (06:05) via Paris. No agreement came forth for another postponement however. I packed and was ready to go.

04:00 Thursday. Checked the BAA website again. Edinburgh Airport still shut. Not surprised. I dropped an email to interested parties and went back to my warm bed.
At least when morning proper did come, things were not looking so bad. The wind had decreased. My daughter’s school, closed throughout the week was now open again. The work/school run was easier today and after the check on the Scotrail website, the trains were running again. The worst was over. But still Edinburgh Airport was shut. I had a brain-wave. I advised Nikos not to risk Edinburgh again for Friday but instead I would travel across to Glasgow. The West coast had not been so badly hit by the storms and with the rail running, there was every chance of a successful departure.
Nikos advised setting out for the west immediately. I have to confess that I didn’t do this. The lines were open, the forecast was fair but cold and the situation was normalising. So it wasn’t until later in the day that I arrived in Waverly station to pick up my pre-ordered ticket. Just in time to see the rail timetable be suspended again. Oops.
Trains were still departing but now on a ad-hoc basis, with rail management deciding which destinations were to be attempted. They did well to get anything moving but still fair to say there was a goodly amount of confusion and chaos. When I finally made it through to Queen’s Street station, it was clear to me how lucky I had been. Snowfall in central Scotland had been in the order of two feet (60-70cm) or more. Goodness that was tight and needless to say that the journey had taken many hours. But still, made it to Glasgow. A taxi took me along the near-empty roads of Scotland’s largest city and by evening I had made it to the Holiday Inn, Glasgow Airport. I wouldn’t recommend the food though. My flight via Amsterdam was not until late Friday afternoon. My friend Richard could stand down. After an indifferent (and poor value) meal I turned in.

The book I had been reading so far on the journey was Mark Kermode’s autobiography It's Only a Movie Now safe to say that Dr. Kermode, by his own account, isn’t one of life’s more adventurous travellers, at least by temperament. And while the account of his life as a film critic is often hilarious it is not in the least soothing. Frankly, the guy is nuts. His style of writing is exactly how he talks so reading the book was just like having him whining on about his experiences travelling across Russia and the Ukraine while being in the room standing next to you. It is so easy to hear the guy’s voice because he (with Simon Mayo) has a two-hour radio show on a Friday afternoon to which I am a devoted listener. Having undertaken several similar trips (and in worse conditions Mark) I sympathise but with my stress levels already quite high, it was not the best choice of book for such a trip. But I did laugh, when I could bear to return to reading it.
I had a real lie-in Friday morning and went to breakfast about 09:30. Ate far too much and behind me the eldest toddler of a very young Chinese family alleviated his boredom by drumming his metal spoon upon the plastic of his high-chair; very, very loudly and with a degree of persistence that will surely stand him in good stead later in life. I beat my own retreat back to the room, which I had the hotel’s agreement to quit at 14:00hrs. Which is roughly the time I crossed the road to Airport Departures. On the boards there was no check-in deck listed for Amsterdam but I put that down to just being early. I noticed a bloke talking to a Serviceair person who deals with KLM matters in Glasgow and since the same idea had already occurred to me, I asked him if he was enquiring about the check-in desk number. He had but the lady there only referred him back to the board. As I went to wonder off, I looked back to see him talking to another woman at an actual desk. The man saw my gaze and waved me across has he lifted his bag onto the scales. We were in!
Now divested of the heavy hold luggage, I decided to go through security early and amuse myself as best I could in departures. A flow of wellbeing was now upon me, unabated by the “necessity” of removing my boots for x-ray or not being able to find Israeli shekels in any of the exchange counters. The gate number of the Amsterdam flight appeared on the departures’ board. Excellent. I called Nikos with the news who informed me that “I was the Man.” I indeed felt that way and cleared off to the bar for a celebratory pint of cider. It’s called “Thatcher”? No, not even that can put me off.

I ripped my head up and attention away from Kermode’s latest misadventure. What was that announcement saying? Amsterdam? Cancelled? No. This was not right. He couldn’t be saying that those who had already checked in should go to the domestic arrivals to retrieve their bags from Belt One. How can this flight be cancelled? Was anything else cancelled? Was the airport shut? Sure there were delays but…. Check the board. The board knows all, tells all.
Cancelled. I make the phone call “Bad news Nikos.”
“Fuck fuck Fuck FUCK!”
I retrieved my offshore kit and went back to the Serviceair counter. There was already a large queue. Instead of joining it, I headed straight back to the Holiday Inn, reserved a room and dumped off the bags in their holding room. Earlier that day I had hinted to the reception staff I might see them later in the day. Must be more careful with my predictive humour.

Rejoining the queue, I noticed the guy whom I had spoken to earlier and waved him across. After talking for a wee while, we found that we had links to Donegal, which led to great chat taking place. Usually it only takes one Irish person to start an epic chinwag but when two get together the gab is non-stop. Telephone calls allowing. Must of bored the poor ladies who were Bali-bound to distraction. Sorry. Stephen, if you ever read this, I’m on facebook.
As we neared the head of the queue, one of the ladies mentioned above said to me “When you said it would take two hours to be seen, I thought you were joking. But you were right.” Sadly I was but I was not so surprised when I was booked on a BA flight for London. Bidding farewell to Stephen at the Holiday Inn (one cancellation, one new booking) a returned to check-in, this time with British Airways.
“I’ve booked you on an earlier flight sir and you should go straight through to gate now.”
Cool! This might work after all.

Indeed there was a throng around Gate 22 but gradually the queue was going through. I handed over my boarding card. There was a disagreeable beeping noise and a red light flashed.
“Sorry sir, this is the wrong flight. You are on the next one.” I looked at the clock, the boarding time was right. There was one difference in to flight numbers, my card ended in a 5 and the flight was a 3.
Where now? Bar. Before I made it there though I fell into another conversation with the young guy who was manning the Best-of-the-Best lottery stand. Apparently the company is winding down their operations and within six months he will be out of a job. Sometimes there are good reasons to talk to a person and after finding out a little more of his background, I advised him to go to university. I was thirty when I graduated and my degree gave me a fighting chance.
Back to the boards. Since leaving the gate, BA1495 had slipped another half-an-hour. Grrrreeeaat. The chances of making that last connecting flight to Tel Aviv was evaporating quicker than a snowflake in a blast furnace.
Heathrow wasn’t reached until after 22:30, the departure time of my connection. We were directed through to the baggage hall, where a queue had formed in front of the help desk. No bags were coming through and there was on other staff except for the two workers behind the counter. It took an hour to reach the front of the queue, only to be told that my bag was still in the system and I should instead just go up to Zone G for an accommodation voucher.

That hour seemed to be a massive waste of time but as it turned out, it wasn’t.

Up at G Zone in Terminal Five, Heathrow airport, approaching midnight, it was chaos. The omens were not good when waking past sleeping figures stretched out on the hard cold floor. Which queue to join? Any one of them I guess.

After a while though I thought “What the hell am I doing? Let’s just phone around the local hotels and check in. Better than standing here for the next goodness-knows how many hours.”  So I did, but to no effect. Either the hotels were all booked solid or just not answering. Back to the queue.
“Excuse me,” asked an feminine Irish voice behind me. “Do you think that it is worth standing here in line?” The voice belonged to a tall, beautiful girl in her twenties. Now her name isn’t Alma but I’ll call her that to spare any blushes. Not that anything untoward happened but the lady did fall silent, at least for a little while when, during a long conversation, I mentioned my wife and family. Perhaps I imagined it and I speak with the fading vanity of a middle-aged guy. However, taking with Alma made the next few hours speed by, at least from my perspective.
During this time in the queue I noticed an interaction between one of the BA ground staff and a customer who was trying to get some information.
“Excuse me”
The young lady obviously heard the request but blanked him.
“Excuse me,” this time said just a little louder as obviously the first attempt had not being heard.
“Don’t yell at me!” the BA ground person yelled at the customer. That guaranteed that everybody turned to listen to the interaction to follow. The guy persisted and refused to be fobbed off. He asked her for information and received the reply “I told you to ask my colleagues.” She waived her left arm vaguely. His gaze followed the direction of her gesture. There was no BA staff there.
“Which colleague?”
“Any of those colleagues!” Still there was nobody in the direction she was pointing.
“Can you point to the person you want me to speak to?”
She couldn’t.
“You can’t help me, you’ve got no information and you won’t tell me who to speak to. You are a fucking joke woman.”

The customer stormed off and within moments the young woman found real (and not imaginary) colleagues for her own comfort.

At the time I put this down to overtiredness of all concerned. When my turn came I found out why the hour spent earlier had not been in vain. In G sector they were making no attempt to arrange onward flights; their concern was just with accommodation. I on the other hand had already been booked on the 08:25 to Tel Aviv. Appreciated.
By the time me and Alma reached the Copthorne Hotel in Slough (very nice too) it was after two o’oclock. I set an alarm for 05:45. The room was excellent but I was overtired. Woke up several times in the night but the oddest occasion was at 04:35. O4:36 there was a knock on the door.

“Hello? Is there a problem?
“Sorry,” answered a male voice. “Wrong room.”
Certainly was.

Check-in about 07:00. Went to the machines that treat people like themselves. Fed in my booking reference. “Please seek assistance.” Try again with the same result. Join another queue.  Finally get to the front. A new guy has just taken over.
“Hello,” I say. “I need to check-in for the Tel Aviv flight.

“Why didn’t you go to the machines? You should go there.”
“I went there and they referred me to assistance. Last night I queued over five hours.”
“Well I’ve been working 15 hour days for the past couple and if you argue with me I will go home.”
Various options went through my head. He had instantly lost my respect. True, the last few days had been tough on everybody. But this new strategy of “defensive stroppy” isn’t impressive. ‘If you don’t play by my rules I’m going to take the ball away.’ Let’s think this through. So this guy goes home, citing stress and abuse. I am referred to his colleagues who either a) turn me away and refuse to fly me or b) accept that their colleague over-reacted and fly me. Either way “defensive stroppy” merely is a dereliction of duty, creating an angry client that then has to be handled by other staff members and if case a) occurs, future loss of business for British Airways. It really is a no-win strategy.
I do not accept a friend’s alternative explanation that the T5 ground staff are really aliens who feed off human misery.
Back to the assistance desk.
“I am not arguing with you. I merely want you to check me in to the Tel Aviv flight please.”
Which he did.

The rest of the journey when pretty smoothly, despite the hour-and-a-half delay on the tarmac owing to Spanish air-traffic control strike. Okay, I was in the middle seat, flying cattle class but my fellow passengers were civilised and seem to have similar reading habits. I got into Tel Aviv and cleared immigration, giving the officer behind the desk a “Spasibo” (Russian for “thank you”) and winning a knowing smile in return. I even found the taxi without much stress, despite being known as “Martin Ward.”
Just south of Haifa the smell of burn pine strongly entered the car. Just in the past days forty one Israelis had died in the recent forest fires.
The hotel was rubbish and I headed out to a restaurant since the only thing I had eaten was the foil-wrapped item served on the flight.
During the consumption of my warm salad I received the following message.
“Hey Martin, hate to give you the news after your endeavour to reach Israel but logging has been postponed for a month.....”
“Nice joke Henry. Well done”

Except it was not a joke.

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