Months prior to Christmas 2010, booking flights back to the UK from Poland, I had done the highly reckless mental conversion of potential cash saving to units of beer and, as usual, it had been a no-brainer. Screw the pricey-but-direct Gdansk to Glasgow flight, do the 2-hour stopover in scenic Bremen instead and save the beers for a rainy day.
The second flight was cancelled. Not just delayed by a few hours but properly erased and the 30 or so British soldiers, all heading home with families in tow, were taking the news in a distinctly unfestive manner. Extreme snowfall across Europe had evidently been too much for London Stansted's solitary snow plough-cum-lawnmower, scores of aircraft had been grounded and we were feeling the rather sickening knock-on.
In the midst of my unbridled woe and a soul-sappingly long Customer Services queue, I contemplated my sparse options. Holing up for 20 hours in a more-or-less cardboard terminal with a bunch of irate squaddies, for a flight which might not even go the next day, said nothing to me but misery and perhaps a mass brawl of some sort. I duly bolted for the train station.
Some panicked research in an internet cafe reeking of long-unwashed kebab shop workers confirmed my suspicions that most UK airports were now „under snow” (a common British euphemism for „indefinite lock-down”) and told me that a morning flight from Berlin Schönefeld to Glasgow the next day was as good as it was likely to get. I'd have to cover 400km that night by super-efficient, hold-on-to-your-hat train to stand any chance of making it but it had to be done.
Having your bacon saved comes at a price though and presumably the rivets for the train had been forged on the very thighs of Angela Merkel because, between it and the prime time flight, I was virtually Greek with insolvency by the time it left Bremen. Safe in the knowledge that any kind of paid accomodation in Berlin would now be impossible, I proceeded to pray for delays. Surely even the Merkel Express couldn't traverse an epic snowstorm like this on time?
Two thirds of the way across and my prayers were seemingly answered as the driver, sounding genuinely (and to me, promisingly) distraught, deemed it necessary to make an announcement. The German version went over my head but when a bespectacled businessman threw down his paper on the table next to mine in obvious displeasure halfway through, my hopes were raised several notches. Then came the English version: „Hello, this is your driver (sob) Dieter Haufmann, and I regret to be saying that (sob) thistrainisdelayed...” I was full of inexpressible delight. „...by 4 minutes.” I threw down my paper on the table in disgust. What kind of delay is that? In Poland, we'd have been talking fractions of a day.
Cursing employee-of-the-month Dieter all the more for actually making up one of those minutes, I disembarked the heinously under-delayed train in Berlin's Hauptbahnhof at 11pm to be smashed in the face with a slab of self-pity. Even under cover of the roofing it was clearly far too cold to just loiter on the platform for 6 hours beating myself at paper chess. So, with 15kg slung over either shoulder, off I set to see Berlin by night and by blizzard.
My all-night trudge was a stupified one and, other than the cold and the distinctly samey white scenery, my only abiding memory is of strap-induced regret at having bought such heavy Christmas presents. Numb and exhausted from my mammoth circuit, I passed out in the warmth of the first S-Bahn train at 5am and made my way to the airport in blissful ignorance. There was still more to come though.
Schönefeld on 24th December 2010 was nothing short of a pre-Christmas turkey abattoir, packed to the rafters with pale, nail-biting, would-be travellers much like myself. The cancellations were incessant and every time the ding-dong came to announce another, hundreds of people did one big synchronized flinch. Naturally, some would then collapse into tears as Christmas officially died while the rest of us set ourselves for the next.
I eventually got to board my flight, albeit with nerves like shredded lettuce and eyes like Japanese Rising Sun flags, and I like to think I earned it. Nevertheless, there is a very important lesson to be learnt from all this. Never ever choose beer over a direct flight.