I’ve been on a river cruise. Up the Danube from Budapest, then via the Danube-Main canal into the Main, which flows into the Rhine, which empties into the North Sea, but has a canal to Amsterdam. It was fun and I took a lot of photos. But Budapest is not where the journey started. That was when we stepped out the door and locked it. You could call it a prequel, if you like. So… let’s go there.
Out the door onto the Dash 8 for the flight from home to Brisbane, and then onto a Qantas Airbus 330. It’s quite an aeroplane, newly refurbished and very comfy. The food was great and the inflight entertainment first class. I watched Jurassic World (nice effects, basically a remake of the original), Jupiter Ascending (didn’t do much for me story-wise – but yeah, nice SFX) and Despicable Me 2 (fun). Not bad, since I’m not a great movie watcher. And then we arrived at Hong Kong.
I’d never been to the new airport which replaced the unforgettable Kai Tek some years ago. No hair-raising ride between the sky scrapers in the shadow of the mountain. This was just another landing, on a man-made platform among the islands scattered around Honk Kong. But it isn’t just another airport. This place is H-U-G-E. And they have these helpful little signs on the moving walk ways. The mobile phone is everywhere.
We were here for 6 hours, due to leave for Helsinki on a Finnair flight at around midnight, so we kicked our heels in the lounge. A drink here, a nibble there. Read a bit more of the book. When a gate number finally appeared beside our flight at around 11pm, I felt a flood of relief. I hadn’t even noticed I’d been concerned. But it was gate 65 – a loooong way from the lounge we were sitting in. We decided it would be best to start walking, so Pete went for a last minute ablute. While he was away a Chinese gentleman approached me. Were we on the Finnair flight? Yes, we were. So sorry, flight delayed until 8am. Someone from Finnair will come to talk to you.
Well, shit. When Peter returned I told him the good news. Nobody from Finnair appeared, but the same man who’d spoken to me earlier collected all the flight’s passengers in the lounge and took us down to the transit counter – manned by one (1) little Chinese girl. It was now around 11:40 and there were at least ten other people already there, with more joining the end of the queue. This poor little girl had to either find space on another flight for the affected passengers, or give them an accommodation voucher. That’s something like 300 not very happy people. And not everyone was prepared to accept she was doing the best she could. One irate American stormed up to the head of the queue and banged his fist on the counter. “This isn’t good enough. I’m a priority passenger!” When half the queue told him we were also priority Passengers (ie business class) he shut up and slunk off back to his place in the line.
What the hell. It wasn’t the clerk’s fault and she was doing the best she could. After a long wait, we got our hotel voucher and slouched off the to airport’s Hilton for what remained of the night. It was about 1:30 when we finally closed the door behind us, and we would have to be up at 5:30 for an 8am flight. We bet each other the plane wouldn’t leave at 8am, but if we were wrong…
It’s hardly necessary to say sleep wasn’t the best. We went back through security and checked the departure boards. Delayed until noon. Oh goody. We’d both won that bet. Need I say we had time to kill? As it happened the cheap nasty faux leather jacket I’d bought a couple of years ago for a trip to Europe had decided to disintegrate. The vinyl was flaking off the collar and back, looking decidedly tacky. So we went off to buy a replacement. I could have bought something in the designer label stores, but several thousand dollars for a coat I’d hardly ever wear at home didn’t quite cut the mustard. I now have another faux leather jacket made for Asians, not Europeans. Which is to say, it fits around my tummy but the arms are too long. The old one we gave to one of the attendants in the lounge. I’m hoping it has a new life somewhere, with maybe a new collar.
To our huge relief the Finnair jet took off more or less on time. We drank each other’s health in complementary champagne and settled in to read. But it wasn’t going to be quite so easy. The flight we were on was supposed to be a late night service. If that plane had left as scheduled, the cabin crew would have whipped around serving dinner, then collected the trays, as soon after takeoff as possible. Then we would turn in to sleep our way to Helsinki. The fact that this was actually a lunch time flight was completely ignored. The crew conducted the service as they would have at midnight and after they’d collected the trays they closed all the window blinds, FFS. And offered us breakfast for our arrival at Helsinki at around 4pm.
What the hell. We were just grateful to be on our way. And it seemed we’d be able to make Finnair’s evening flight to Budapest, which was due for takeoff a few minutes after we were expected to arrive. We were told they’d hold the flight for us. Someone would meet us on arrival and take us to the Budapest flight. Well, that sounded good.
Judging by the anxious faces clustered around the plane’s exit door after landing, it seemed we weren’t the only people wanting to get onto a connecting flight. No one met us on arrival, so we made a dash through immigration, where we encountered a po-faced Finn with no sense of humour. How long was I staying? he asked. I’m not, I replied, there’s a plane waiting for me, I’m in a hurry.
He looked down his nose at me, and spoke a little louder. “How long are you staying in Europe?”
Oh, fuck. “Um… 15 days.” That was the length of the cruise. Behind me, Peter said, “17 days.”
“Twenty days,” he snapped, shoving my passport back at me.
We ran, dodging past the amblers and the booze in duty free and skidded to a halt at a very empty gate 23. Fuck fuck fuckity fuck fuck.
The Finnair service counter is directly opposite gate 23. Like us, the nice Finnish ladies seemed to think the plane was waiting for us. We gestured behind us to the deserted gate. By now the fatalistic refrain of ‘it’s not their fault’ was wearing thin. Try as we might, the incompetence and lack of communication had become a force of its own which we had to work hard to suppress. We discovered that even if we’d made the flight, our luggage wouldn’t have. But still, it wasn’t their fault and they did what they could.
We were booked into a superior suite at the airport Hilton with vouchers for dinner and breakfast, and seats were booked on the next Budapest flight leaving around 9am next day. We emerged into a Helsinki evening to breathe fresh air for the first time since we entered the international terminal at Brisbane. And it was bloody cold. Pete refused to leave his credit card details at the check-in desk. He reckoned Finnair could stump up for any mini-bar entries. As it happened, we didn’t use the dinner voucher, just drank a couple of mini-bottles of scotch and vodka and ate the cashew nuts in the minibar. I reckon Finnair got out of it cheap.
We rang reception for a couple of toothbrushes and a razor. I wished they had a pair of panties I could buy. Pete had had the brains to bring a spare pair of jocks, but he’d used them up at Hong Kong. We crawled into bed, grateful that we’d scheduled two nights in Budapest before the cruise. Otherwise we could have missed the boat.