Our Wonderful Trip Home

Sunset at Hong Kong airport – from the Qantas lounge

Hi there. Have you missed me? We’ve been Up Over with good friends Sandy and Col for a few weeks, sampling food and wine and seeing a few sights in France and Italy. Our trip started with a couple of nights in Milan to settle the jet lag before we flew (on easyJet) to Bordeaux, where we joined a river boat for a seven-day wine and food cruise around the Aquitaine region. Then we flew back to Milan and used Italian rail to head over to La Spezia, the gateway to the Cinque Terre, where we spent five nights. From there, we took trains to Montecatini Terme, where we joined a tour group for a week of looking around Tuscany. When that finished, we trained it back to Milan to catch our flight home.

I’ll tell you all about it – but first I want to share our Wonderful Trip home. The journey started in Montecatini Terme, the interim destination being Terminal One at Milan’s Malpensa airport.

We bought most of our train tickets in advance, from Australia. Despite Pete’s valiant efforts, we’d been unable to book seats on the high-speed train from Florence to Milan. (Let’s just say the Italian railway system’s website is not the most user-friendly.) Instead, we caught a local train to Viareggio, then transferred to an intercity train to Genoa, where we changed trains for Milan. The train to Viareggio was just the local service, which was fine. From Viareggio we’d booked first class (ha ha) tickets on the intercity trains. On the platform there was the usual undisciplined crush to get on board and to our allocated seats. If you don’t do a bit of pushing and shoving you never get anywhere in Italy. I carried my backpack and camera bag and pushed my suitcase in front of me through the train’s narrow aisle, of course impeded by the people in front of me and suitcases blocking the way. I almost jumped when Peter yelled, “Get your hand out of her back pack!” I whirled and caught a glimpse of him grabbing a girl’s shoulder and dragging her away. She was clearly frightened and said, “Sorry, sorry” as she scuttled away – and off the train, probably nursing finger-shaped bruises. She’d been right behind me in the crush, against my back, with Pete behind her. Pete wondered why she seemed to be so close to me, then realised she was trying to get her hands into my back pack. Crowded places and distracted people are plum hunting grounds for these low-lifes. She hadn’t had time to steal anything, but she’d managed to get the zip on one side of my back pack’s pocket half undone when she was caught. She’d picked me out as a suitable victim, climbing into the train right behind me. Just as well she hadn’t picked that Pete and I were together.

After that encounter we weren’t in the best mood when we found an Italian woman in one of our four allocated seats, two pairs of seats facing each other with a table in between. Despite us showing her our tickets, she obfuscated until tempers became a little frayed. Although she didn’t speak English and we don’t speak Italian, I think she knew exactly what she was doing, taking advantage of more room and a table where we were supposed to be sitting. An Italian in another seat explained to her that she should be in the seat behind us – and we discovered that a few other people were also ‘misplaced’. These things have a domino effect. Her husband eventually turned up and although we don’t know what she told him, he shouted at us in Italian with a few words of English thrown in. This was NOT America. You Americans are all the same!!! In Italy we are kind!!! He flung a few newspapers up into the overhead racks for good measure, to make sure we knew he was angry.

In retrospect, I suspect Italians aren’t too interested in ‘allocated’ seats, working on first in, best dressed. But that’s not how we work. We all stared out of the windows trying to settle down before we got to Genoa.

The plan was that we’d have lunch during our 90-minute wait at Genoa before going on to Milan central station, where we should arrive in plenty of time to catch the Malpensa Express to the airport to catch our flight. But this time we weren’t quite so lucky. Although the train left only a few minutes behind schedule, it arrived in Milan 25 minutes late, which meant we missed the smooth connection to the airport we had expected. That was okay. The airport trains run every half hour, so we’d be fine. We’d left a sufficient window for a few glitches. But the airport train was 15 minutes late. The inevitable chaos ensued, with people and baggage coming off the train onto a platform barely wide enough for three people clashing with the stream of travellers trying to board. I have to tell you, it’s not good for stress – but we found seats and somewhere to stow our bags. SCORE!

Sandy and Col were overnighting at a hotel near the airport, so we said our goodbyes and parted ways. Since we had business class tickets, Pete and I weren’t too worried about the time. The big advantage of business class is you get through all the checkpoints faster – even at an Italian airport. We checked in at Finnair and we were given express access to security, which was fine except that the system couldn’t scan the barcodes printed on the boarding passes at Finnair’s desk. Never mind, we managed to attract the attention of one of the three officials chatting together at the desk next to the priority aisle. One of them established we had genuine tickets and escorted us through the back way. It was all good – we got through in plenty of time, and headed for the business class lounge, situated a cut lunch and a compass away. We’d become accustomed to non-existent and/or confusing signage in Italy, so we eventually found the place. In typical Italian fashion not everything worked as it should. The toilets were fitted with a ‘hands free’ flush, but they must have had motion sensors, because they flushed whenever you came near them. I suppose it could have been worse, eg no flush at all.

As it turned out we needn’t have rushed. Our flight to Helsinki was delayed. It was meant to take off at 1900 and arrive at Helsinki with a 50-minute transfer time to our flight to Hong Kong. But boarding was scheduled for 19:15. Things were starting to look grim, especially when the board displayed a message that gate allocation would not be given until after 20:15. It was looking like there was no way we’d make our flight to Hong Kong. We abandoned the (pretty ordinary) lounge and went down to the gate. Pete asked the (Italian) girl at the counter about the connection but she didn’t know and didn’t care – it wasn’t part of her job.

This was starting to sound ominously like the debacle we’d experienced three years ago, when we last flew to Europe via Finnair. We’d had to stay overnight in Hong Kong, and then overnight in Helsinki (at Finnair’s expense) before finally getting to Budapest at least a day late. You can read the gory details here. But three years on, we figured we couldn’t be so unlucky twice. Or then again, maybe we could.

When we finally got on the flight it seemed that just about everyone on the not-full plane was trying to make a connection, and four long haul flights (Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and one other) were delayed, waiting for passengers to arrive from Milan. So were smaller flights headed for Russian or Baltic ports. Shades of 2015 again, where we were told a plane was waiting for us at Helsinki for the flight to Budapest – only it wasn’t.

As we waited on Milan’s tarmac for final departure, the captain explained the flight had been delayed because the plane had to sit on the ground at Helsinki for an hour because of congested airspace over Europe, it being a Friday and all. And then they had to wait to be allocated a gate at Malpensa. Yeah, right. Was this particular Friday any different? And why couldn’t they have used one of the many empty hard stands (when they park the aircraft on the tarmac and you walk down the stairs and into the terminal), which was what the plane used when we first arrived in Milan?

After the plane landed at Helsinki we had to go through immigration. Being in business class, we had a head start off the plane, but a bunch of nervous people ran past the two old farts to get into the line at the checkpoint first. Despite the pile-up of delayed flights, all scheduled to leave shortly after midnight twenty minutes away, passport control had only two of the row of desks open, one for EU, one for everybody else (eg most of us). Several flights to smaller destinations had already left without the delayed passengers, so a number of angry people were directed elsewhere to be put up in a hotel. They were not happy and I don’t blame them. I don’t know why they weren’t told before they made it to passport control and I felt sorry for them. Once again, shades of our experience in 2015.

About then the Finnair official supervising the line of non-EU passport holders directed us over to the other desk, where all the EU passport holders had been processed. It seemed like a sensible idea to us, so we popped over. The young fellow at the desk, however, was more interested in protocol and his own five minutes of fame than getting us through to a waiting Finnair plane. He asked me if I thought Australia was part of the EU. No, of course not, I responded. He nodded, scowling at me as if I was a simpleton. “You should be over there”, he said, indicating the line we’d left. When I said the official had sent me over here, he replied that she wasn’t part of his organisation. Muttering ‘fuck you’, I vowed never to go through this fucking airport ever again. In fact, I’ll never fly Finnair, ever again. And I shall also write that very rude young man into my next book, where he will die in  a particularly nasty way.

With half a dozen people still to go through Immigration they finally opened a second non-EU desk. The kid who finally processed me took his sweet ever-loving time to scan my passport and put in his very own stamp. Bully for him, a Hero of the Finnish Border Force, protecting his country from a special agent cunningly disguised as an elderly tourist trying to go home. Pete, who’d stayed in the other line, was already through, waiting for me. Then we were off on the long trek through the deserted building to find our departure gate. No travelators at this airport, and Pete’s legs were feeling the strain of a long day. At least there were plenty of signs. I was still more than a little convinced we’d arrive and see an empty gate, so I hurried (a bit)  in case they got sick of waiting, leaving Pete to catch up. We were the last passengers on the plane, disgruntled and angry. It was ten past midnight local time.

We’d eaten on the plane to Helsinki, we were totally buggered after a long and trying day and all we wanted was to go to sleep. But even that was stymied. All the passenger comfort systems in the business class cabin of this pretty new aircraft (that is, media, seat controls and the like) didn’t work for over an hour. We couldn’t watch a movie, we couldn’t recline our seats and we didn’t get a drink. I’d ordered a Glenfiddich with ice, but after an hour or so, I was told they didn’t have any Glenfiddich left. Would I like something else? By then I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open, so I declined. Pete asked his attendant for two bottles of water, but it seemed they’d run low on that, too. Not a good look.

The plane was an Airbus 350, fitted out with each business class passenger having a small, semi-enclosed compartment. We’d flown up to Hong Kong from Brisbane on a Cathay A350, which was laid out rather better than the Finnish one. The difference was details – places to put your belongings without having to chuck everything into the overhead compartments. Finnair offered menus and the like in a folder – which looked good but didn’t fit into the magazine rack which was filled with online shopping magazines and nothing else. There was no place to put laptops, phones or shoes while taking off and landing. Cabin crew were overly officious about stupid things like putting said folder away (it didn’t fit and there wasn’t anywhere else) and putting used blankets (FFS) into the overhead locker for landing. The bed wasn’t comfortable, either. I woke half way through the flight with pain in my legs where I lay on the section of the bed where the seat and the backrest came together. From then on it was listless napping and waking until we had to sit up for landing.

We finally landed at Hong Kong mid-afternoon local time. Even then the travel gods were having a laff. We had to go through the transit security checkpoint before we could go on to the Qantas lounge to wait for our next flight. The security gate beeped when I went through. The only metal on my person was the underwires in my bra. I endured the feel-up by the security officer and went to collect my belongings. Peter had been checked through the gate, as well – and then they’d found a suspicious object in his carry-on luggage. His car keys. At least they said sorry.

We’ve been in the Qantas lounge at Honkers several times for long periods. It’s clean, with good facilities, a great bar and hot food. But this time was even better. Attendants came to offer food and drinks, which they brought to your seat. We ordered a pot of tea, plugged into the power, connected to WiFi and whiled away the time. Pete took the chance to have a shower and a shave and changed into clean clothes. Around about 5pm we were offered little Chinese nibbles rather like Dim Sum, and a glass of wine. It was all very civilized. So was reaching the plane parked some distance away in this enormous airport. All the travelators worked and the gates were clearly marked.

We were going home on a Qantas flight, an Airbus A330. The configuration is, in our opinion, better than that of the A350. You’re in your own little space with plenty of places to put small items like your phone and your tablet, and the bed slides down under the seat in front of you. We were late taking off, but the captain kept us informed, explaining that storms over the Philippines and Indonesia had caused congestion as pilots tried to go round them. We pushed off about half an hour late. But while we waited the cabin crew offered drinks, and also offered to fit up the seats with a light mattress, designed to smooth out that bump between seat and back which had caused me grief on the A350. (It worked, too). We were also given a blanket, a good-sized pillow – and a pair of grey, unisex PJs.

Qantas menu

Dinner was great, served like in a restaurant, with your choice of entree arriving first, then cleared before the main was served. I had roast duck salad, followed by spaghetti with prawns and a tub of ice cream which was immediately edible, not the usual solid block impervious to anything but an ice pick. I ate and went to sleep, only waking once for a wee.

Entree – roast duck salad

Main course – spaghetti with prawns

This is business class done right.

We landed at Brisbane a few minutes late, picked up our duty free booze, and found our luggage. We’d been worried that after the debacle at Helsinki our bags might not have made it, so that was a relief. We’d both slept pretty well and headed home up the Bruce Highway in drizzly weather – a welcome relief after months of drought. After a quick stop at the supermarket for eggs, milk, and veg and some chicken thighs for a home cooked meal, we pulled into our driveway and pressed the button to activate the garage door. No response. We thought maybe the remote had failed, so I unlocked the front door and walked inside.

There was an odd smell coming from the kitchen. Pools of nasty, reddish liquid had congealed on the tiles in front of the fridge. I opened the fridge door and was almost knocked over by the stench of rotting meat. The power had failed while we were away. All our frozen food – in fact everything in the fridge – was ruined. Any plans of a gentle chill-out as we re-acclimatised to home were put on hold. We put the defrosted food in bags, then cleaned the fridge and the floor. We’ll refreeze the food to stifle the smell until we can put it in the garbage collection on Wednesday.

We finally worked out that the power was failing because of a fault in the septic system which uses power to recycle the effluent. We’ve had to turn off the power to the septic, so that is now an urgent fix which will have to happen before I can tackle the mountain of washing.

It wasn’t quite the home-coming I’d looked forward to, especially being forced to eat dead ordinary take away chicken for dinner. The stink in the kitchen was too gag-worthy to want to prepare anything. In fact, we couldn’t get the smell out even though we washed everything with disinfectant, then again with bleach. Anything plastic seemed to have absorbed the odour. Fortunately, insurance will cover the fridge.

I’ll stop here. Next time I’ll start at the beginning of this roller-coaster ride of a holiday. One thing’s for sure; it was rarely boring.

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