Christmas 2009 in the UK and the USA

The Christmas lights went up almost two months before the special day!

The last months of 2009 were pretty tough in Florida, so I was looking forward to getting home for a few days over Christmas. I started the countdown several weeks before my departure date and exictedly told everybody on an almost daily basis just how many days were left before I was on my way home!

There had been talk in the news of British Airways staff planning to strike over the Christmas period and a few dates were mentioned in the media. If this strike was to go ahead on the proposed dates, then my trip was almost certainly going to be affected. For some weeks to follow, there was no mention of this strike again, but it was about 10 days befores I left for home that it crept into the news again. Airline staff had voted to strike for twelve days over Christmas, beginning 22 December. Unfortunately for me, it was to kick on the very same day that I was supposed to be returning home.

I was very surprised at how well the airline dealt with me and no doubt thousands of other passengers who were at risk of not getting where they wanted to be over Christmas. And, whilst I was convinced that the strike wouldn’t happen (this would cripple further an already doomed airline), I didn’t want to take a chance and just hope that everything would run to plan on the day. A call to British Airways soon sorted me out and I was told I could change the date of my ticket from that moment until up to 12 months later. With little flying going on in Florida and desperate to get home, I went for the next available flight, which happened to be just a couple of days later on Wednesday 16 December – six days earlier than originally planned.

The Christmas dinner that we had planned to have at the house on 20 December was re-scheduled and we cooked up a feast – as close to an English Christmas roast as possible – on the Tuesday evening instead. After raiding Walmart’s freezers and the ‘imported foods’ aisle, we came away with a lot of food, including turkey, ham, all sorts of vegetables, Paxo stuffing, Bisto gravy and more. We even had a go at making our own Yorkshire puddings, which tasted pretty good, but looked nothing like how a Yorkshire pudding should look!

The following day was departure day and I was up early and on my way to Walmart for a quick hair cut before getting home and cracking on with some washing, cleaning and packing. With the end of my flight training so close, I wanted to get as much of my unnecessary bits and pieces home as possible; ATPL manuals, private pilot manuals, clothes that I didn’t wear etc. With three suitcases and a laptop bag, I set off for the airport really early. With this strike action, I was expecting huge queues and jam-packed flights! Three and a bit hours before departure, the check-in area was pretty empty though and it took a matter of seconds to dump my bags and to grab my ticket for my direct flight back to Gatwick. I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of changing planes like back in the summer, when I had to switch in Dallas and then in New York in the return. Direct was much more convenient and also much quicker with a flying time of just 8 hours. The flight itself was uneventful. We weren’t being surrounded by miserable and bitter cabin crew, nor were any passengers in foul moods. After all, the selfish actions of British Airways staff could have ruined Christmas for many of us on that flight.

After landing in a chilly Gatwick, we were told that the temperature was a mere -1°C. Although not bitterly cold, it was certainly a lot cooler than what I was used to. The day I left Florida was a surprisingly warm one and it was a shock being in the mid-twenties one minute to below freezing the next! After grabbing my bags, I went to fetch a trolley to throw them on, and was appalled to see that the airport has now installed coin slots on them all. I probably wasn’t the only one who didn’t have a £1 coin. In fact, I had no English money whatsoever in my wallet. I uncomfortable staggered through customs with my cases being pulled behind me and met up with my mum in arrivals. It was the first time I had seen her in almost four months.

A few days before arriving back at home, I had been reading the local news on the Reading Evening Post (or ‘GetReading’) website and spotted an article asking about local people who had been affected by the British Airways strike. Always keen to get involved with this sort of stuff, I sent off an email explaining my situation, although, unlike many, I praised British Airways for their efforts in the lead-up to the strike. When asked if I would be willing to have a photo taken for the article, I agreed, and that was taken only a few minutes after I arrived back at home, feeling very tired. At the time, I told the photographer that it all seemed a bit “corny”. I was asked to crouch down next to my suitcases, clutching my flight ticket and my passport in my hand! The article appeared in the Evening Post on Friday 18 December and also on the website.

The trip was a lot of fun and it was a chance to not only enjoy myself, but also to take it easy. I hadn’t planned a lot, nor did I want to. I wanted to take everything as it came. It was good to see friends and family again and to spend some quality time with them all over the Christmas and New Year period. Lots of eating out was on the agenda at some of my favourite eateries; Wagamama, Nando’s, Old Orleans, Harvester, the local kebab van and, a new kebab shop on the Wokingham Road in Earley and another kebab shop in Slough that I was introduced to back in the summer. Anybody who knows me will know that I love kebabs, so I was very keen to enjoy a few whilst home! My trip home, surprisingly, was burger-free.

Christmas Day and New Year’s Day were spent with the family, although I did have a quick farewell lunch with Marc and Kelly (and her boyfriend, Leo) in Reading. I didn’t see the point in going out to already-expensive pubs and clubs, who then mark up their prices even more because of the time of year. Not only that, but I like to be able to have conversations and not have to contend with some God-awful music blasting out in the background. BBC1’s New Year programme, I admit, was shockingly bad, but I watched all thirty minutes of it. Myleene Klass, a former pop group member, was trying out television presenting and her efforts were amateurish. From the nice, warm house, I Iaughed not only at her but also at the crazy people who had spent most of the day – in temperatures below freezing – waiting along the south bank in London for 8 minutes of fireworks at midnight. They must have been mad!

So, 1 January was really my last full day back at home, and after spending about half an hour complaining about how quickly the time had gone, I decided to crack on with the various jobs that needed doing. About 18 hours to go before I set off for the airport, I still had washing to get done, packing to do and my two flights to check in for, for this time I would be going via Amsterdam.

Saturday 2 January was an unbelievably long day and it started at around 5.15am when my alarm went off. I shoved the contents of my wash bag into my suitcase, zipped the thing up, and away we went to Heathrow, which took about 25 minutes, as it usually does. After some maniac tried – and failed – to blow up a Delta Airlines aircraft on Christmas Day, I was prepared for all the extra security and possible delays, and wasn’t expecting to get back to the house in Florida at a decent time. For the first flight (KLM), everything went smoothly and very quickly. As soon as we got into the air, I tucked into my complimentary sandwiches (one cheese, one tuna) and my glass of complimentary orange juice (that’s how air travel should be) and then we were told we were descending into Amsterdam. It only took about 40 minutes! The next trip (Martinair) wasn’t quite as smooth, thanks to the ‘enhanced’ security, which ended up delaying our flight by 90 minutes. It took just short of three hours to get approximately 250 passengers through the additional security checks. It was nice to be told that our flight would only take a little over 8 hours 45 minutes, compared to the 10 hours 15 minutes it should take, so we managed to make up every last minute of lost time and eventually landed in sunny, but cold, Orlando.

As is always the case, the queues in immigration were very long and very slow. It took close to half an hour for me to get to the front. The immigration officer asked me questions and I didn’t know if it was to test me or because he was genuinely interested in my reasons for visiting America. He then asked me if I was carrying more than $10,000.00 on me, to which I sarcastically replied, “I wish!” That was probably not the best way to answer his question! He then sent me off to some crowded room for about an hour, full of others who, like me, had visas. When I was eventually allowed out, my passport was stamped and I was sent on my way. There was no explanation for the delay nor an apology, but I was too tired to care. In the empty baggage hall, my two cases had been slung on the floor and the baggage claim belt had been switched off. I had been stuck in immigration for so long that every other passenger had collected their cases and left. After getting through customs, I had to hand over my cases again, which I found annoying. I just wanted to get out of the airport and not be subjected to more hassle! Because it had taken me so long to get through immigration, the corridor I had to walk through was no longer lit and the escalator had been turned off, which was again annoying. Before I could get out of the airport, I was going to be screened again, but only after standing in yet another slow-moving line. At least thirty minute was spent in the queue before I finally got through. After finally being reunited with my baggage, getting a taxi back to the house and getting in, it was 9.00pm. I had been ‘en-route’ for almost 20 hours and I was shattered!

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