Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Nightmare Of Berlin

It's pretty hard knowing where to start in telling this story. Like Blackadder's Palladium stage show it starts badly, tails off a bit towards the middle and the less said about the end the better.

And yet I feel it should be documented.

We'd planned a trip to Berlin. Emma's mum and dad had invited us. They had been a number of times before to visit the Christmas markets. This didn't sound much like my sort of thing but Emma seemed keen, and I could certainly put up with a few hours shopping if it meant I got to spend my evenings in quaint European bars drinking interesting German beer.

Since we only had three days (Friday to Sunday) we needed to get out there early on Friday morning. Unfortunately, this meant that we were unable to fly from Manchester because the only flights on offer from there would have got us to Berlin a little too late. Instead we decided to fly from Heathrow, leave the car there and meet up with Emma's mum and dad who live in the altogether more Heathrow-friendly location of High Wycombe.

This left us with a four-hour drive which we decided to take on the Thursday night straight after work. There's always problems on the roads around that time but we got to the Premier Inn (when we eventually found it) for around 9.15. Whereupon we encountered our first problem. We hadn't eaten since lunchtime and were told that while the restaurant was open, it would only be open for around another half an hour. As quick as possible we dumped the bags and sat down to eat.

The service was abysmal. It seemed like forever had been and gone by the time our food arrived and even then we still had not been given our drinks which had been ordered first. In mitigation the restaurant was quite busy, but that is a situation not helped by service staff standing around talking to each other about the weather. Well, they may have been talking about the weather. I couldn't tell because none of them appeared to speak any English.

At 3.00am on Friday the alarm went off. We had to be at the airport for around 5.30 for our 7.05 flight. I was feeling groggy but still optimistic, and so it wasn't such a wrench to be out of bed at that hour. Emma's mum and dad (we shall henceforth refer to them as Susan and Roland, because those are their names) met us at the hotel and we drove on to Heathrow's long stay car park. It was here that it first dawned on me how cold this weekend was going to be. Despite my thick gloves my fingers stung as I waited in the bus shelter for the bus to take us to the terminal. Perhaps it hadn't helped that I had momentarily taken my glove off so that I could use my phone to check the cricket score on the internet.

We checked in without any fuss and went for a cup of tea. There were screens all around displaying flight information but, having been told we would be met by the gate at 6.15, this time came and went without any gate information. There was going to be a delay. All of which was unsurprising given that it had snowed in Berlin. At around 6.40 the information flashed up and we proceeded to the gate. I fended off the usual attempts by airport staff to manhandle me (what is it about my form that drives them so crazy that they feel they have to touch me, and why doesn't that work in the world outside of airports?), and was assisted without too much incident on to the plane.

Where we sat and waited. And waited. Susan rather unhelpfully began telling us a story of a friend of hers who boarded a plane recently which remained on the ground for four hours because of a delay in obtaining clearance to depart. Not wishing to hear the denouement of this sorry tale I closed my eyes and put some music on until it was time to take off. Eventually we received our clearance from Berlin and the flight began. We landed in Germany only around 90 minutes later than scheduled (what were those flight times from Manchester I wondered, but daren't ask) and I waited for more man-handlers.

Again more fending of unwelcome advances. I transferred to an aisle chair and as we got close to the exit I became a little nervous that the plane had not managed to stop at an airport terminal, but that instead a bus was waiting at the bottom of the steps to take us inside. This meant that I would be carried down the stairs by the man-handlers on the aisle chair. The same steps about which the other passengers had been warned because of the amount of ice covering them. If they were dangerous for able bodied people to walk on, what status would you attach for people carrying an overweight biff on an aisle chair? I looked upwards to the sky the whole time and hoped for the best.

It was snowing heavily. Germany was arse-achingly, ball-breakingly, finger-stingingly cold. The good news was that the bus to take us to the hotel was waiting right outside the airport terminal once we had cleared the usual immigration shenannigans. German transport links are far superior to ours. I cannot imagine being refused entrance on to a German bus because there's already a wheelchair user on board. All of their buses are fully accessible (except annoyingly the city sightseeing tour buses) and it was very easy for us to get to our hotel. The bus dropped us off right outside the Park Inn at Alexanderplatz. Despite this convenience, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed to have travelled so far to end up in a Park Inn, given that there is one next to Tesco in St.Helens. And that one probably has tea making facilities in the rooms.

It took an age to check in. Where Germany does not differ from England is in their outright fear of disability. The lady took one look at me and panic set in. The rooms we had booked were mere double rooms, and so she spent a lifetime scrambling around to find me a wholly unnecessary disabled access room. She has no idea of the amount of non-accessible rooms I have slept in particularly on basketball trips, where shuffling to the bathroom on one's posteria is par for the course. That's bloody difficult to do after a skinful of Stella but you just get on with it. In the end they gave me both a double (which we would use) and a single which had extra disabled facilities should I need them. Since I had them available I ended up using them, but couldn't help but feel a bit grumpy about the fact that the disabled room was a single. What were they saying socially about disabled people in doing that? Like I say, not that different from England after all........

And so it was time to hit the Christmas markets. I was overwhelmingly underwhelmed, if I'm honest. The heavy snow didn't help, but trudging around from stall to stall looking at what can only be described as Christmas tat did very little for me. There didn't seem anything special about the markets. There's supposed to be an 'ambience' they say, but I couldn't feel it. All I could feel was the cold. It was around -13 which wasn't really a problem while we were moving around, but became one when we stopped at one of the stalls for a drink. The others drank Gluhwein, a kind of hot wine very popular with the locals. I didn't like the look of it, but then I'm extremely fussy with food and drink. To my mind it looked like some kind of flu remedy. I can drink Lemsip, but I tend not to do so for pleasure. Instead I sampled a local beer, the name of which I probably couldn't spell even if I could recall it. Something like Schofferhoffer, but I'd be guessing wildly. Roland informed me that it was a wheat beer, and said he was surprised that I liked it. It was good stuff, but clinging on to the icy cold glass while I drank it was beginning to make me shiver.

We took a train (yet more high quality transportation to be fair) to another Christmas market but it didn't change my view. There was more Gluhwein and more beer and so I loosened up a little. We were refused entry into the Hard Rock Cafe due to a private party which is almost unfathomable, and instead found a restaurant nearby. I was almost dancing. A warm place where I could drink local beer and eat junk food. Determined to avoid sausage I scoffed down a baconburger and a couple of Berlin Pilsners. Again this disappointed me slightly on account of the fact that I can get Pilsner at home. What I really wanted was something a little more specialised.

Day two was a sightseeing day. We took a bus down to the Reichstag, the parliament building of the original German Empire in the early 20th century, and where modern day parliament often meets. However on this day it was closed to the public. There was a large police presence and barriers all around. Susan had said that it had been open not long ago but there had been some sort of terrorism scare which forced them to close it to the general public for a while. It is still an impressive sight from the outside and certainly something for enthusiasts of architecture to go and have a look at.

So too is the Brandenburg Gate. This is the only remaining gate of a series which once signalled the entrance into Berlin. It was built as long ago as 1791 but restored at the start of the 21st century. Perhaps more interestingly, and as Roland pointed out as he gestured to a spot just further on, it is where Gary Lineker and the team based their television studio while presenting the BBC's coverage of the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Now, at around that same spot there were men dressed as border guards and, rather more cryptically, bears and even one kitted out as Darth Vader. He was quite a small man, which made him look a little more like the Space Balls version of the Dark Lord rather than anything George Lucas had in mind. He was clearly a fraud, as at one point he removed his helmet and there wasn't so much as a slight singe mark on his face and head. This was not a man who had been cast into the molten lava on Mustafar.

On route to Checkpoint Charlie we were getting very lost, and were fortunate enough to bump into a local man with at least a rudimentary grasp of English. It turned out we had reached the location of part of the former Berlin Wall, and as he pointed towards it he also informed us that we may be able to visit the Gestapo museum. All of which seemed a little 'Allo Allo' to me, and put me in mind of an otherwise awful film called Rat Race, in which in response to his daughter's request to visit the Barbie Museum, one of the characters takes her instead to the Museum of Klaus Barbie, a Nazi Captain and notorious war criminal.

"Socialism. It crazy idea ya?" said the man. You can forgive Berliners their dislike of socialism. It's only just over 20 years since their people were being shot for trying to escape into the West through Checkpoint Charlie. Close to that site there is a wall of large photographs depicting some of the people and events from that time. Their stories are truly harrowing but genuinely fascinating too. There is one shot of American and Soviet tanks facing off just yards either side of Checkpoint Charlie in 1961. Now around the actual checkpoint there are more mock border guards and it is all photo opportunities and laughter. There's even a McDonalds, into which we quickly dived for a much needed drink and to plan our next move.

The Gestapo Museum was closed. There was a foot of snow all around it in any case, and so we resolved to move on. Herr Flick would have to wait, perhaps forever. Any enthusiasm I had for Berlin was already wavering at this point. Maybe things would pick up with a visit to the Olympic Stadium. It was there that Jesse Owens defied Nazi logic on racial supremacy to win four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games. It was only a short train ride away, and the snowy roads around it did at least have clear pathways around and about so that I could get closer. Unfortunately, and as was becoming the theme for the day, it was closed.

Emma and I had been to Barcelona's Olympic Stadium last year and were fortunate enough to be able to view the inside, albeit from a fairly lofted position at the back of the stand. There was a souvenir shop enjoying a roaring trade. There was no such activity here. We were met only with high walls and locked gates. The only tell-tale sign that this actually was an Olympic Stadium were two towers between which hung the iconic Olympic Rings. A man jogged down the path running the entire breadth of the stadium without once looking up to admire it. There was nothing to see here.

I could compel you with more tales of Christmas markets and restaurants. I ate a salami pizza and enjoyed a few more of the local beverages but in the context of a European weekend excursion it was uneventful. So we'll leave me there to my pizza and beer and skip to Sunday.

The flight home was at 6.00pm. We still wanted to visit the Berlin Wheel. You know the drill by now. Every city seems to have one these days. You get into an enclosed carriage and are lifted around in a giant circle at vomit-inducing heights, but on the plus side you get some spectacular views of the city. After a large breakfast we made it there for about 10.45am and it was.......well.......closed. Thankfully we were told that it should be open for business by about 11.15 so we dived into a little hut for some tea and warmth. There were an awful lot of tea and warmth stops across the whole weekend, but this one was particularly welcome given the inactivity outside.

There was one carriage wide enough to allow my wheelchair to pass through but once inside I decided to jump out on to the seat. Spinning around at ludicrous heights is less comfortable in a brake-less wheelchair. Helpfully, they offer blankets inside the carriages to keep you warm. It is exceptionally cold inside, so you'd be well advised to make use of them should you ever find yourself there. Finally settled, I really can say I enjoyed the experience. There were some awesome views as advertised, and there is nothing like coming to a grinding halt at the very top of the cycle for what seems like a fortnight, but was probably no longer than about 30 seconds. We moved on again just in time before Susan began to scream, which she had promised us she would if things got a little hairy.

Shortly afterwards it started to snow once more. We made our way back to the hotel, still with around three hours to kill before it was time to leave for the airport. Emma and I managed to sneak off for some light lunch, a seriously poor cheese and tuna baguette from a cafe next to the hotel. There was a Burger King opposite which may have been a better option. Yet we hung around, for once enjoying the privacy and for another thing, there was only the chairs in the lobby to rest on. There was more room on the restaurant benches.

Now apparently you've had some snow over the weekend here in the UK. Blissfully unaware of this we reached the airport to find that our flight had been cancelled. Roland went to investigate, and reported back that there was a queue of people similarly affected heading towards the Lufthansa ticket desk. We would have to join and try to book another flight. We reached the end of the queue (some distance from the start of it) and waited. And waited. And waited. It was fully four hours before we reached sight of the ticket desk. The only crumb of comfort came when airport staff moved along the endless line with a cart dishing out free drinks. Small drinks. Cans the size of those you might get on board your flight. Thirsty or not I took them and stored them. I was going to need them.

Finally we reached the desk and were informed by the airport agent that Heathrow was closed, and that therefore there would not be an available flight there until 7.20 on Tuesday morning. While slightly inconvenienced by this I reasoned to myself that if we could guarantee being on that flight and that it would go I could cope with another couple of nights in a hotel, provided the airline was paying for it. Roland, however, could not. He wanted to find another way home, and so began the debate about where else we could fly to to then get a connection. They came up with a flight to Zurich and then a further one to London City airport. I didn't fancy the idea of two flights but foolishly did not intervene. Even the thought of being lugged on and off two flights in the most undignified manner imaginable could not stir any response from me given Roland's reluctance to wait. It was ok for me, I could quite easily get an extra day off work, but he was clearly more worried about his situation.

So I kept it shut, and we went to the airport hotel at the airline's expense. They had given us a voucher for food, but we were told that we would only be able to have whichever meal they were offering with the voucher. In the event it was a rather dry looking potatoes and turkey. I paid eight and a half Euros for a sickly cheese omelette. At 6.15 the next morning Susan phoned through to our room. Roland had been up half the night on the internet and found that there was no accessible transport from London City airport to London Heathrow, where the cars were parked. We had to go back to the airport, back to the four-hour queue, back to the desk to get our tickets changed again.

We had been in the queue for around two hours when a member of staff strolled by. She wasn't pushing a drinks cart, but instead picked us out of the queue and told us to follow her. She led us to the front of the queue. It was a miracle, freak occurence, whatever you wanted to call it. This was it. It got better, as we reached the desk and were told by the agent that the best solution would be if we were to go straight on to the plane that was waiting to leave for a temporarily re-opened Heathrow right there and then. She printed our tickets and we raced off to check-in.

There was endless security, so the 11.20 to Heathrow was going to be late, but we were going to be on it. A man-handler tapped me on the shoulder and shouted 'Board' at me. I brushed him away and pushed down the tunnell to the aircraft. Poor Emma was carrying what seemed like all my worldly goods as I was carted down the aisle to my seat. It was an indignity, but we were going home. We were sat on the plane half asleep. Half an hour or so had passed before the captain announced that he was sorry for the delay, but the aircraft had a broken tow bar. No matter, they were in the process of moving a new one into position and we would be on our way soon.

Another passage of time. It could have been half an hour, maybe more. I was still drifting in and out of consciousness, still dizzy with relief at finally being able to go home. And then it came. The captain addressed us again;

"Well ladies and gentlemen I'm afraid I have some bad news."

What? England lost at cricket? We had to stop off at a Berlin Christmas market on the way? The in-flight meal was sausage? Er......none of these........

"While we have been waiting for our new tow bar to arrive Heathrow have imposed further restrictions and are cutting flight arrivals down to 33%. Ladies and gentlemen I'm sorry to tell you that this means that we will not be able to take this flight today. In a moment we will ask you to disembark the aircraft and re-enter the terminal building."

It was like being kicked in the genitals by a Grand National winner. I felt physically sick. We were now not going home, but instead going back into the queue to get our tickets changed again. Only this time, though we didn't know it at that point, the queue had grown. The monster of this morning had quadrupled in size. The Lufthansa ticket desk is near to gate 11. The queue began just outside gate 5 where we had disembarked. This time there would be no staff member to pull us out of the queue and fast-track us to the desk, no Heathrow-bound plane waiting at the gate once we got to the desk. None of this. Just an unhelpful woman who insisted that we could not book on a flight to Heathrow but that she had to book us on something, regardless of the fact that nothing else seemed sensible in terms of access.

Staggeringly, it was a further two hours before we got away from the desk. The agent had insisted on booking us a flight to Cologne and then a connection to Heathrow for Tuesday afternoon, but then found that computer had said no. She couldn't print out the tickets because Heathrow was still closed on her system. I wanted to ask why she had suggested it then, and why she had been able to print out one ticket and not the others. It was 11.30pm. We had disembarked at 1.15pm. Even now, Emma and I were sent on to another hotel without Roland and Susan while they waited to resolve the ticket problems.

This hotel was 20 minutes away in a taxi. On arrival we were told that the restaurant would be closing in 25 minutes. We dumped the bags in reception and sat straight down. It was a buffet meal and, being the fussiest eater since Ian Brady, I couldn't find anything that I could digest. I had a go at a chicken and potatoes concotion but in truth the whole experience was making me sicker by the minute. I couldn't even bring myself to enjoy a beer, instead gulping down a couple of cokes like they were tequila slammers. When we were all together again we discussed plans for the next day and got nowhere. Should we settle for the Cologne plan and go the airport for that 2.55pm flight, or go early again and queue up in the hope of Heathrow re-opening? We went to bed still undecided.

Sleep was impossible. I woke up at regular intervals suffering from shortness of breath. No matter how much I tried I couldn't get enough air into my lungs. I was wheezing and feeling sick. At 4.30am the phone rang again. Susan. They had seen on the airport information screen downstairs that the Cologne flight had been cancelled. Our decision had been made for us. We would have to get up there and then, and go straight to the desk to change our tickets once again. This would be the fifth flight plan we would be booked on, and still we seemed no nearer to getting anywhere resembling England.

We arrived at the airport at around 5.00am. It's just an enormous circle. There's around 15 gates and the building just loops around all of them until you end up back where you started. Most likely that is in a queue. It's The Circle Of Despair. Mercifully we'd arrived before the queue got really serious, and found Roland at the check-in desk having been told that a flight to Heathrow was scheduled for 7.20am. It was full, but there would probably be cancellations. This being far from a given, Susan and I went back to the Lufthansa desk to see if we couldn't guarantee some seats by outright unfair and desperate means. It was only a half-lie, but when we again reached the desk we told them that due to my disability we were fast running out of medication and other necessities, and that if I didn't get home that day I would be in a Sticky The Stick Insect situation.

Miraculously, she didn't question it. On the contrary, she issued us with four tickets for the supposedly full 7.20 to Heathrow there and then. We later met a woman at the departure gate who told us that she'd been issued with tickets for it the previous evening, the evening when computer said no to us, but only because she had told them of her son's arthritis. Either they like seeing people suffer, or the airlines deliberately leave some seats vacant in case passengers come forward with problems of this type. The woman also told us that this was the sixth flight she had been booked on, and that if this did not leave she thought we would not get home for Christmas.

It was going to be a nervous old wait. It didn't help that we were asked to board two hours early. Apparently they do this because they then have to send a ready signal to the destination airport and await clearance. We had a time slot of 9.20am UK time, three hours later than scheduled. The captain told us that this had been brought forward to 8.55am but we still faced an interminable wait. I have never been more nervous and terrified in my life. The prospect of having another flight cancelled at that late stage again made me very ill. There was nothing to pass away the time except Susan going over worst case scenarios over and over until even Emma snapped at her. The only mild diversion was the de-icing machine they use which looks rather like a little Star Wars droid. It lights up and sprays the body and wings of the plane. It's a very clever little piece of kit.

More waiting, and more, and more. And then, wonderfully, we began to back away from the terminal. The impossibly nice stewardesses began the safety demonstration, a stage we had not reached on the previous day's aborted flight. Again they checked overhead lockers and underneath seats before finally we started to taxi towards the runway. At that moment I recalled another story from the woman with the arthritis boy, one in which they had once taken off on a flight and been re-routed to Dublin. Even if this thing got in the air we were seemingly not out of the woods.

We gathered speed as we entered the runway and the plane lifted. I forgot about Dublin and began instead thinking of London. The nerves slowly eased, though I stopped short of eating anything. Touching down in London was one of the greatest feelings of relief I've ever experienced. And this is a place I normally refer to as England's toilet. We still had a pain-in-the-arse bus ride and a four-hour drive ahead of us before we reached home, but at least at that moment we were in control again.

I've never been so pleased to see my front door. Even if I couldn't get to it until Emma had cleared the path with a shovel. Poor Emma.

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