Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Best Laid Plans Of Mice & Men.......

So Christmas was nearly off for us this year. This was going to be a post about the BA strike, but then it kind of snowballed, if you’ll forgive the pun.

As I said last year in my blog, here Christmas doesn’t really happen in Albania. 25th December is an ordinary working day. Having been a communist state it wasn’t celebrated. It is changing year-by-year, signs that commercial Christmas, at least, is being assimilated: lights, trees, shops selling decorations creeping in etc. But last year it was a bit of a damp squib. Not much festive run up, not much happening, & we felt the kids missed out a bit. So we decided to treat them to a wk in England with grandparents, going to a panto, to Hamleys, to see the Christmas lights in Oxford Street, a carol service, & so on.

However on Monday after the BA strike ballot results we had to break it to our children that actually we weren’t going to be going to England for the Christmas week because of the BA strike. We were 4 of the million people about to be affected by the strike. The children took it surprisingly well. I have come to the conclusion they are used to our unpredictable life. Our son is one of those ‘glass half full’ kind of boys & all our daughter knew was that she wd now get to be a lamb in the end of term nativity play after all.

My husband and I, however, were infuriated. Our chance at a quick getaway from Albania for some festive cheer for the children had been stymied. He had worked for the airline for 12 yrs. & knew what the Unite union was like, from the inside. Because he took voluntary redundancy we are still eligible for staff travel for the length of his service with them. So we get cheap, but standby, flights. He was not an air steward but was in management (boo hiss) He was very careful not to admit this to cabin crew when flying, as ‘management’ is generally seen as ‘the enemy’. The unions have held the airline to ransom for years. Of course pilots, crew & baggage handlers can do this. Without them the company founders. I am glad Willie Walsh is taking them on. Somebody had to sometime.

Oh I could tell you stories about the unions & the deals they have secured; like this one I particularly like, though not a cabin crew one; BA wanted to put CCTV cameras on the baggage belts so they could see quickly where bags had got stuck. The union were in uproar. Invasion of privacy, checking up on them etc. They negotiated a deal eventually that, yes, they would accept the cameras, only on the condition that even if a handler got caught on camera stealing from a bag it, could not be used as evidence against him. Beggars belief hey?

A fellow manager told my husband that when they join BA, cabin crew are given ‘Golden Handcuffs’ which they choose to slip on & then can't bear to remove. With starting salaries at £26,000, rising to £35,000 (double what e.g Virgin stewards earn) & Cabin Services Directors earning £56-£59,000 the strike can hardly be about money. It's not. On staff travel they get 1st class, (because cabin crew look after each other), they stay in 5* hotels when working on flights, & on e.g. a long haul flight their allowances will tot up to £995. People often complain that many BA cabin crew can be miserable or snooty etc. Basically they are probably thoroughly bored, but can’t leave. What other job would earn you this amount with 1st class travel & 5 * luxury thrown in, all for being a glorified waiter?

As we had expected to be in England, we had presents to collect that family hadn’t posted, bike parts, a ski helmet, school texts for me etc. So, after much deliberation, we decided I should go & do a mad 3 day dash, stuff my bags with all the British booty I had to collect & sneak back under the radar on the Sunday before the strike started.

This would mean that the kids got their Christmas presents, I could teach my play next term & my husband could bounce down hills on his new springy front shocks, (suspension forks) and IF the strike should be called off, my husband could bring the children on Saturday 19th. Win-win. As long as he could get back on standby, the flight wasn’t cancelled & it didn’t snow…

So that’s what I did. I must say it is easy to demonise the air stewards &, for all they do not live in the real world with their privileged life style, to be fair they were led astray by the Unite who only asked for a yes/no on the strike/don't strike ballot, they weren’t told it would be a Christmas strike or that it would be 12 days. Many said they wouldn’t have voted for that.

But I have to say however, that on the flight over, I was very impressed by the air steward who dealt superbly with a woman, who after we had ascended through very, very turbulent skies, heavy dense clouds, burst into tears & was in a real state. The steward led her to the back of the plane (behind me) and comforted her, brought her a cup of tea, arranged for the Cabin Services Director to come & explain exactly what was happening when the plane experienced turbulence (not sure if this was because it was beyond her to do so…), kept reassuring her, (which included telling her they had brandys in the trolley should she need them), but basically sat with her, calmed her down & checked in on her throughout the flight.

How this woman had ended up in Tirana (a Brit) when she said she hated flying & clearly had not done it very often I don’t know. On our descent, the air steward talked her through it again, but the woman was in tears again. I must say in all my years flying I have never descended with someone sitting behind me in such a state, whimpering & wailing every time we dropped down a bit. She cried, she squealed, and then kept asking, “What was that?” And “Is this normal?”

So we arrived to bitter temperatures & snow. A friend texted me when I arrived to say the strike was off. Hooray, so I knew my husband & children could come too. This was only the start of the adventures though. I don’t think we could have picked a more eventful week transport & weather wise if we’d tried.

Diary of a Snowy Christmas week in England. What the news today called ”5 Days of Transport Misery.”

Friday. My ebay car, bought in the summer for £450, failed its MOT & needed some pipes replacing which the garage had not been able to get for over 2 wks, (so much for buying a Ford because its parts were cheap & readily available) so I had no transport & my dad (Holder of ‘The Kindest Man in The World’ Award) has uncomplainingly ferried us back & forth to various places numerous times during our stay.
Saturday. My 9 yr old cooks meals for my ‘snowed under with work’ husband back in Tirana. They catch their flight amidst lots of snow, & cancelled flights, but their flight managed to arrive only an hour late. Children got to bed at 1.30a.m. But we're all here. Let the festivities begin!
Sunday. Lovely, uneventful day. Carol service at church, lunch with daughter’s godfather &, excellent as ever, Oxford panto. Oh yes it was (sorry). Children were unfazed by the sight of wild boar, furry rabbits & feathered game hanging in the Covered Market. When you regularly see cows & sheep slaughtered by the road & hung up & skinned, the covered market is tame I guess.
More flights cancelled as weather worsens. Eurostar tunnel closure.

Monday. Fabulous Christmassy day in London. Hamleys, Selfridges window displays, Science museum, Fortnum & Masons, hot chocolate at Maison du Chocolat with our 9 y old’s godfather. My son shows his ‘3rd Culture Kid’ credentials when he innocently asks if we can drink the water the waitress had brought us alongside our hot chocolates. She looks slightly askance, uncertain as to whether this is a joke or not.
We have tea at Patisserie Valerie’s on smart Marylebone High Street, where 10 minutes after arriving they have a power cut. How nice of them. We immediately feel right at home, & the children don’t bat an eyelid but just carry on chatting & playing. However, the waiters are slightly more fazed by this turn of events & we are told we have to leave. We get our tarte au citron fix at ‘Paul’s down the rd.
It has now been snowing very heavily for 2 hours. The roads are slushy, it is freezing. We wait 40 minutes for the ‘every 15minutes’ bus to turn up. It does. It takes us 4 hrs to get back to Oxford. My father, (recent winner of the ‘Most Patient Man in The World’ award), has been waiting 3 hrs for us.
Children get to bed at midnight. Husband packs case to go back to Albania (he cd only spare 2 ½ days from work) We get to bed at 1.15a.m. We get up at 5.15 a.m to get him to the 6 .30 a.m bus to Gatwick. Eurotunnel still closed, everywhere still snowy.

Tuesday. Hubby is very worried about the snow, the roads, cancelled flights, full flights, getting fired (his boss told him it was very risky & unwise to go to UK at such a crucial time of his organisation gaining independent financial status, if he couldn’t guarantee getting back). He was fielding calls from the Bank of Albania, his lawyer & his NGO before he even knew if he had a seat on the flight. Turned out there were 5 commercial passengers ahead of my husband’s staff standby ticket. By some miracle he got on. Phew.

Went carol singing round my parents' village with my oldest. Beautiful, clear starry night.

Britain has ground to a halt. We fly back on Christmas Eve. I will let you know if we get back on the flight & get back in time to buy a turkey (at least you can buy them ‘Ready Dead’ in Albania now.)
Our flight is also full & we are on standby. And it’s still snowing…


Sarah said...

Phew! What an adventure! Glad you got there in the end and had a fabulous time in the UK. Wishing you all the best with the return journey and getting your turkey! Merry Christmas and best wishes for a happy, peaceful and fun-filled 2010!

Iota said...

Aaaargh. Patisserie Valerie let you down!

Almost American said...

Merry Christmas! Thanks for sharing that adventure with us!

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

Need to get back to the Balkans for some ability to travel in the snow!

Ah, lovely Oxford. Was it looking stunning? I miss the Covered Market. Sigh.

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