England, o England (and a touch of Mieville)

Yesterday, I jet-setted, to some degree unintentionally, between three countries.

The day began at 6am with farewells to the French family and a Ryanair flight from Limoges to London Stanstead. My idea – bear with me, all you seasoned travelers, and do not laugh too loudly at my optimism – my idea, as I say, was to hop from the center of France to London, arriving early afternoon, dash into town to meet my lovely agent for a powow at Victoria station, and then high-tail it out again, Italian Job-style, from Gatwick to Basel on an Easyjet flight the same evening. No expensive hotels, no need to leave the family for more than a day.

The plane option was cheaper than a train ticket, took up very little time on paper, and was supposed all told to give me a two hour window for the meeting.

But London transport had other ideas. First of all, I had no idea quite how far out of town Stanstead actually is. Let me rephrase that: I knew Stanstead was far away from central London, but assumed there would be direct, relatively regular transportation by various means into town, a journey that might take up about an hour and a quarter of my time, no more. In fact, I was searching for a train into Liverpool Street station. I’ve heard it exists: people have had visions of it, and heard the heavenly music…

But once in Stanstead I was faced, at the ticket counter, with a train-atheist. The National Express ticket lady did not mention even the breath of a possibility of a train to Liverpool Street station. After advising me that if I wanted said train, I’d have to take a bus to Tufnell Park and change for the Victoria line (?!) she proceeded to sell me a bus ticket for Victoria station. Fine, I thought. Bus it is. Take me through town in an hour and a quarter or so, and I’ll be a happy little train-agnostic.

I tried to take one bus and failed – therein lies another story. Finally I found myself on the ‘right’ bus, twenty minutes after I’d hoped to be off. Never mind, I thought. There’s still time.

Imagine my chagrin when that second bus was twenty-five minutes late getting started, and when I found, as it pulled out, that it was due to crawl all over North London before going to Victoria, and that it would take an hour and three quarters, minimum, to reach Victoria station. Here I was, already a good 45 mins late, learning that I would miss my appointment with my agent altogether, and arrive at Victoria only to turn around and leave for Gatwick again.

Now, fair reader, imagine at this time that I had no mobile phone, that my laptop was ensconced in luggage, and that I had no way of reaching said lovely agent while she sat and waited, and waited, and waited, and I crawled around Edgeware, and Finchley, and Hendon, and Grot-by-elbow, and Pinkeye-by-Fleasville, growing more desperate by the minute. Free wi-fi, cried the sign on the back of the driver’s chair, unhelpfully. I was firmly barred from the twenty-first century: I was somewhere in the mid-1980’s, perhaps.

Enter my American saviours, the two Katherines, or rather Katherine squared, my seat neighbours in this London-crawling endeavour. Katherine the First kindly let me use her overseas i-phone to try and contact my agent. (I failed – the agent’s phone, I later learned, had chosen that very day to bite the dust – but I was able by circuitous means to get a message through to her office.) Katherine the Second, after putting up with my endless bellyaching about missing my appointment, suggested very sensibly that I take the tube from Golders Green, when we finally got there, instead of going on another 40 minutes or so on the bus, meandering through central London.

Clever Katherines. I was able to take the tube, arrive pellmell in Victoria at my appointment (a good hour and a half late,) have a very pithy twenty minute conversation with my agent, and zoom out again, if not in a red mini, then in good time on the Gatwick express. Thence – Easyjet, Basel, north east France again.

There were more astonishing stories that day – namely an angel on the plane who, when Easyjet credit machines choked on my card, insisted with immense generosity on paying for my sandwich dinner. But to cut a long story short, I arrived home, grubby but content, and deeply thankful to the people who eased my way, and also to my staunch agent, who waited faithfully for one and a half hours to have a garbled conversation in the Grosvenor hotel bar. Never was so much business attended to over a single Coca Cola.

But it was worth it. So very, very worth it.

And the third country in the story? Well, on exiting customs at Basel, I did not find my wonderful family waiting to take me home. In fact, I found no one there I knew at all. That’s odd, thought I. Has there been a problem?

Then I remembered a fact so bizarre it would not be out of place in fiction, perhaps in a Kafka or Borges story, or in one of Mieville’s fantastical cities. There are different ways of exiting Basel airport. There are corridors that bring you to France or Germany; others that bring you to Switzerland. I was standing on the Swiss side, looking through a sheet of glass into two other countries. I needed to get to the other side.

A help desk, pleasantly crescent-shaped, spanned the three countries. I rang a little bell to bring the stolid airport employee from France into Switzerland, to answer my question.

How can I get to the other side? I asked, indicating the glass wall that stopped at her desk.

Oh, you’ll have to go upstairs to the third floor, she answered me, and pass through customs. Go left, take the elevator, follow the sign leading you to France and Germany. It’s not far.

I stared at her rather blankly, I’m afraid, before leaving her multinational desk to climb wearily two floors up, walk down an empty, entirely customs-free corridor, then take another elevator down, emerging on the right side of the glass wall.

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6 Responses to England, o England (and a touch of Mieville)

  1. Kim Falconer says:

    OMG Mary, this is why I tend not to travel.

    But cheers to the help along the way. I mean, if we never get into trouble, how can anyone lend us a hand?

    Glad you got to see your agent!

    When are you coming home?

    • MaryV says:

      Hi Kim! It was worth it, despite the pain. 😉

      I’m getting home to NZ on the 12th of June, passing through San Francisco on the way back. Yay!

  2. Helen Lowe says:

    Wow, Mary–what a tale! But I have to say, English bus transport doesn’t sound as though it has changed one jot in the last quarter century since I first encountered its (lack of) charms …

    • MaryV says:

      Never again.. 🙂 But that’s what happens when you need to be somewhere, panic, and believe the bored lady behind the ticket counter. Adventures!

  3. Tyson Perna says:

    I have to agree with Kim. This is why I don’t travel. The whole experience sounds painful.

    • MaryV says:

      I have to reiterate, however, it was worth it! Worth all the pain… because I touched base with someone who mattered, even if I had to get to the other side of the world.

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