Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The life of the International Commuter

If I have learned anything over the last few days, it is this: I am a rather nervous airline passenger. My girlfriend will tell you I'm a massive worrier anyway, but flying really does seem to bring out the worst in me. Granted, I've not really done myself many favours by spending many late nights on Wikipedia looking at articles related to aircraft disasters, but I can't help but wonder why this is manifesting itself now. It's not that I have a particular fear of heights, it's the prospect of plummeting from that height to an almost certain death which frightens me somewhat. All I know is, I couldn't wait to get off the plane yesterday evening, having flown home for a fabulous few days back in Birmingham with Anne (realistically, there was no way I was going to spend my 5-and-a-half-day weekend sitting in my apartment on my own in Barcelona when I could be in England spending some quality time with my girlfriend), although it has to be said that flying through a lightning storm and severe turbulence did nothing to steady my nerves. It could also be that it's simply because I don't like flying on my own. However, being as it's not possible to take the train everywhere in life, it's something I'll have to get used to this year. Because of the last-minute nature of my booking (I wasn't going anywhere until 10 o'clock the night before I flew out), I ended up flying into and out of different airports in the UK (by the end of this year, I will have used almost every major airport in England at one point or another), and both of them were, predictably, nowhere near Birmingham. Thus, it ended up taking me the same amount of time to travel from Liverpool to Birmingham as it did to travel from Spain to England. I have come to accept that, being a diabetic, I am virtually guaranteed to be the one who gets stopped at the X-ray machine and interrogated as to why I'm carrying sharp things in my hand luggage. I would put my medication in my hold baggage (if I had taken any this time-I had forgotten how much simpler flying is when you just take carry-on baggage and check in online), but the truth is I don't trust the airlines not to lose it. However, the woman at Spanish security didn't even bat an eyelid when I shoved my bag through the machine. What she did do was give the bloke behind me the third degree for not taking his laptop out of his bag, taking him off to one side and asking him to take literally everything out of his bag. At this point, I must say that the easyJet terminal at Barcelona airport is one of the most barren places on Earth. The departure lounge is empty, thoroughly devoid of anything to help pass the time between arriving at the airport and getting on the plane. Even more annoyingly, unlike in UK airports, where one can easily get hold of some water and snacks to take on the plane, the Duty Free shops in Barcelona stocked nothing even remotely useful to the average airline passenger-if I wanted spirits, I'd buy them when I got off at the other end, not lug them onto a plane, trail them through baggage reclaim and arrivals and then onwards from there. I also object to the myth that Duty Free shopping is much cheaper than the High Street (or what's left of it)-in most cases, the part of the price that would have gone on tax simply goes straight to the retailer instead, and since they have a captive market, the shops can charge pretty much whatever they want. At completely the opposite end of the scale was Doncaster Sheffield (such a misnomer, it is literally in the middle of nowhere, miles away from both of the cities it is supposed to serve), where, in spite of its small size, I found shops, bars, gaming machines and most importantly, other people. Everything was so leisurely, it felt like I was flying from my living room. Except my living room had a school trip to Barcelona Zoo in it. International travel doesn't have to start with the likes of Heathrow, with the hideously low-ceilinged concrete prisons they call Terminals 1-4 (I don't fly British Airways on principle and so have no idea what T5 looks like, but I'm surprised that anyone can justify to themselves the prices BA charges now, when one can arrive in exactly the same place-minus the free sandwich-for a 10th of the price by using one of the many budget airlines out there), and really, there's no need to shoehorn as many people as possible through security at any given moment until everybody's through to the Duty Free zone/overpriced lager-selling establishment on the other side. It was refreshing to be able to talk to people on the way through, to strike up some kind of conversation with the staff while they establish that I'm not Osama bin Laden's white infidel cousin and that I'm going to Spain to study not cause untold chaos (the Spanish are doing too good a job of this themselves). There are always going to be some airports that are better than others, but however it is that Heathrow came to be so big, it's not thanks to its welcoming atmosphere and friendly staff (you can't beat the good folk of Yorkshire for some good honest airport banter). As far as creating positive first impressions of a city go, it's about as successful as New Street Station.

On the home front, there is really very little happening: I roll out of bed an hour before my lectures; I turn up to my lectures late, but still before the lecturer shows up; I sit and understand to varying degrees what is being said; I come back home again; repeat ad infinitum. I have, however, managed to set up a sort of language exchange with one of the people from my French class-I help him improve his English while he teaches me Spanish and/or Catalan. Plus, if all else fails, we can revert to French. I'm quite impressed with this to be honest, given my proclivity for avoiding most forms of social contact and then feeling really surprised when I find myself on my own at 2 in the morning watching Spooks (nonetheless a BRILLIANT series) in bed with a can of imported German lager (although again, in fairness, Veltins is as rare as rocking-horse droppings back home). We shall see how it goes, anyway. I suppose the other big news is that I've decided to take up swimming on a vaguely serious basis. However, this being Spain, it was never going to be completely straightforward. I started well, doing my research on the opening times and making sure I had exact change so as to avoid any potential hiccup in my admission to the swimming pool. I used a Sunday, when I had naff all else to do, to scope out where the pool was and where the nearest Metro station was. I then rocked up on Tuesday afternoon at about 4.30, expecting to get in a good first session, only to be told that last admissions were at 4, and that the time of 5 o'clock that I'd found on the website was the time when everyone without a gym membership had to be off the premises. Undeterred, I turned up in good time on Thursday (no thanks to the Metro, which seems determined to make me late for everything) and got in. Here, I was presented with the most hilarious set of rules and regulations I've ever seen in a swimming pool, the most notable among which is the requirement to wear swimming caps. Having left my extensive swimming cap selection in my other trousers, the lifeguard simply handed me one from a massive pile. Free swimming cap: result (I later found out when I went on a wander around Decathlon in the City Centre that I saved myself the best part of €5, not to mention the untold embarrassment of having to purchase such a ridiculous article of swimwear in public). I managed 35 minutes of incredibly slow breaststroke before I realised just how out of shape I am. I was engaged in an unofficial race with a middle aged woman, and, shamefully, I was beginning to lose badly by the end. Ego bruised and neck sore, I stepped out of the pool to two realisations: one, given that I was barely able to walk, I had massively overdone it, and two, that it will take many more sessions like that before I improve. Definitely something to work on in the long term, and I can at least take some satisfaction from the fact that me in swimming trunks is much more normal-looking than me in running gear, which was the other alternative I briefly considered. My ├╝ber-long weekend is sadly drawing to a close now, and, being as I have to restart the university cycle again bright and early tomorrow morning, I shall wrap this up now. Tomorrow will come only too quickly, I fear.

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