We've known for about six months that one of the clan would be celebrating his 50th birthday in the Netherlands in mid-October. But did anybody book any flights when they were cheap? Nooooo, of course not. So we ended up organising the most bizarrely impractical itinerary for the weekend just gone.
We had basically given up on the idea of the Holland trip because we had no money and the fares between Madrid and Amsterdam had just become insane. But then one of the bruvvers said he would be driving from Surrey to the Netherlands via a car ferry from Dover to Dunkerque. So if we could get to Dunkerque, he could take us to Holland. A bit of research quickly revealed that to be a non-starter (based on flying to Paris CDG, TGV to Lille and local train to Dunkerque, we'd be looking at €350 each, each way). But then he had a brainwave-ette, and we checked fares from Madrid to Gatwick. Not too bad, actually, for the outbound sector. Coming back on Monday was pretty nasty though. MamaDuck needed an earlyish flight because she had classes from about 1330 on Monday. But we bit the bullet and got her a direct ticket from Schiphol to Barajas, while I opted to return to London in the car, stay overnight with the Offspring, and grab a €34 flight back from Gatwick on Tuesday evening.
As you can imagine, getting to nearly-Amsterdam was going to be somewhat circuitous, but we didn't mind because
1) We weren't driving
2) We'd have a couple of hours on the ferry, and that might be fun
3) It makes a total change from flying everywhere
MamaDuck was working late on Friday, so we'd booked an early flight on Saturday, along with a minibus to take us to the airport. I am totally paranoid about missing flights and stuff, and when they say you need to be there 2 hours before departure, that is what I do. So we were up at 0430, in the van at 0515, at the airport 10 minutes later. The formalities were completed in no time at all, and we spent a couple of boring hours waiting for the flight. When it was all boarded we waited half an hour on the tarmac because the Air Traffic Control computer had crashed (that's really not a word you want to hear your pilot using) and so they couldn't issue the aircraft with a flight plan. Smart-ass passengers thought things like 'go North', but it's apparently a bit more complex than that.
At Gatwick we found our driver after a fair bit of exploration of the various car parks. We headed down to Dover, and arrived in plenty of time for the ferry. It was a pleasant surprise to find that security consisted of nothing more than a quick look in the boot.
I haven't been on a ferry for decades, but I remember loving the fact that you could wander around the public bits of the boat and weren't restricted to one tiny seat. We had a good, reasonably-priced lunch, served by jovial staff, and before we knew it we were pulling into Dunkerque.
We thought the drive up to nearly-Amsterdam would take about 3.5 hours. It actually took more like 5 because we got lost around Antwerp. We stopped for a coffee somewhere in Belgium, and didn't know whether to order in French or Flemish (as if!), but the girl spoke perfect English anyway.
The weather was lovely - sunny and warm - there were hot air balloons and lots and lots of wind turbines. Once we'd recovered from our undesired tour of Antwerp's ring road, we made good time and were around the outskirts of Amsterdam at dusk. We had GPS on one of the phones, but hadn't used it much because of astronomical data roaming charges. We did use it when we were lost in the little residential streets around our destination, and you really had to be there to hear the English GPS voice try to pronounce 'Wijkermeerstraat'.
The Dutch make a big deal out of 50th birthdays - blokes of this age become 'Abrahams' and ladies are 'Sarahs'. Abraham is a wise and reverend old man who 'knows where the mustard comes from'. Don't ask. Anyway, our Abraham's wife (who still has a few years to go before becoming a Sarah) had hired a local bar/restaurant, decorated it with the traditional Abraham stuff, and invited half the neighbourhood. A great time was had by all, and we staggered home about 2am, having been up for 22 hours.
Sunday was a pretty lazy day. Abraham cooked a full English breakfast, his two boys were delivered by his mother-in-law, and we all went to a nearby patch of woodland with a couple of lakes in it. The kidz had a great time, and we finished up having some nibbles and drinks at a futuristic restaurant built out over the lake.
We returned home, and then went back to the restaurant where the party had been and had dinner. Being accustomed to Spanish mealtimes, the idea of booking a table for dinner at 1830 just seemed plain weird.
Monday was the parting of the ways: we set off at 0800, dropped MamaDuck off at Schiphol ('just catching the plane to work, dahling, see you later xx'), and then headed back to Dunkerque, from where we were booked on the 1400 sailing. The weather was a bit foggy, but not dangerously so, but we really had no idea how long the trip would take because we were likely to get stuck in morning rush-hour congestion around Rotterdam and Breda. As it happened, there was no serious congestion, we didn't get lost, and by 1115 it looked possible that we could make the 1200 sailing. So we went a lil bit faster. What we'd forgotten, of course, was that the Ferry Terminal is about 10kms south of Dunkerque town, and the last 5kms are on windy little local roads with lots of roundabouts. We got into the Terminal at 1150, but UK Border Agency were a bit dubious about Driver's passport picture (and I don't blame them - it's 9 years old and looks a lot more like Abraham than Driver), and the ferry was pulling out as we parked up. Entering the Terminal building, we realised we'd made a terrible mistake. It was nothing more than a big room containing a play area, some tables and chairs, some vending machines, and a determinedly shut café. Pretty grim place to spend the next 90 minutes.
The crossing and the drive that followed were unremarkable, and around 1800 I was dropped off at Woking railway station. The ticket office was closed, and the ticket machine was too dumb to tell me why it kept rejecting the €20 note that I was trying to feed it with. I finally noticed my mistake and hurried off to a bank to withdraw some BritDosh™.
The plan for the evening was to meet Offspring and Old Mate From When We Lived In Dubai, and have a beer or two. Offspring had found a completely amazing, hidden-down-an-alley pub called Ye Olde Mitre, and it's really worth a look if you're ever in that part of London. Old Mate toddled off about 2130, and we weren't far behind. We toddled off to Offspring's new flat in St Reatham, made a plan for the following day, and had an early night.
So, the plan was that Offspring would get off work a bit early, and we would meet in a pub near London Bridge Station at 1630. I would have to leave between 1730 & 1800 to get a train to Gatwick in plenty of time for my flight.
I got to the pub half an hour early, so I went into the station to get me a ticket to Gatwick. As I was waiting in the queue, I pulled out my boarding card just to quadruple-check the departure time. I was beyond surprised to see it was a little over one hour from now. Instant panic ensued, and a quite unbelievable problem materialised out of thin air.
See, I'd bought Offspring a belated Graduation Present. I can't tell you what it is, because he hasn't got it yet. But it's definitely something you cannot take onto an aeroplane in your hand baggage; for the sake of brevity we'll say it's a 101g Jelly Tot. I rushed around London Bridge station, found the Information Desk and asked if there was a Post Office or Left Luggage facility. Nope, they had neither, but Waterloo station had both. No good. I phoned Offspring, told him what had happened, got a ticket and was at Gatwick Airport in about half an hour.
A helpful lady there said no, there wasn't a Post Office, but there were some postboxes. In my addled state, I didn't know what she meant, and I asked her to explain. She happened to be standing beside one. A tall red tube-like thing with a slot that you put letters into. Ah. No, thanks. Left luggage? Yes, in the Arrivals Hall.
I ran to this place and deposited the Jelly Tot. The chap explained it would be £8 per day or part thereof, and I said I would get someone to collect it tomorrow. Fine, said the chap, just make sure they bring the original receipt. Another part of my world crumbled. I explained I was on my way to Spain - surely I could fax them a copy or scan it and email it? Nope, guv, has to be the original, guv, I don't make the rules, etc, guv. Grrr.
No point in arguing further, and I had a plane to catch. I mentioned Gatwick's marvellous new security system in this post, and was thrilled that it worked pretty quickly even when there were quite a few passengers - I think I got through in 7 minutes, and then pelted down the corridor to the gate, stamping on small children, leaping over carelessly positioned wheelie-bags and pushing aside other obstacles in a willy-nilly fashion. They had just opened the gate when I arrived, and quite a few stragglers joined the queue after me - some of them looked like they had recently been roughed up by a small tornado or a high-speed maniac. A couple of them looked at me with very slitty eyes indeed.
I was home by about 2130 Tuesday, twitching mightily as I retold the story to MamaDuck. Even now, I haven't the slightest idea how I managed such a monumental screw-up. And now we have the problem of getting the Jelly Tot to its rightful owner. Just to complicate things a bit more, OffSpring is off to Scotland today for a week. So Driver is going to retrieve it: I've sent him the receipt by Registered Post. He should get it Friday morning. He's driving past Gatwick anyway on his way down to Dover (to get a ferry and then drive to the South of France where he mostly lives). He will then have to try to post it before attempting to board the ferry with it.
But the good news is, after all this stressiosity, I didn't reward myself with a smoke.
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