I am stuck here!!!
Attached is the latest version of my diary notes. Please distribute it to family and friends as you see fit and apologize to everybody for my absence.
Love and everything,
On Not Getting Home for Christmas, or, Doubting the Joys of Global Travel
Saturday afternoon, 18 December, Heathrow
The designated boarding time of 11.45 am for BA30 leaving London for Melbourne has come and gone, and Qantas is not telling us anything. I keep checking the board and some Iberian flights have been listed as cancelled. People around me are repeating conversations over and over on their mobile phones, and various delegates from our section go forward to the desk only to be told that Qantas plans to fly soon.
A beautiful flurry of snow begins to obscure the view and I take photos of an Air Emirates plane taxing into Terminal 3. A snow plough leads the plane in, and the curving dark line in the snow and the faint colour of the Emirates’ fuselage make a subtle pastel-on-white composition.
Finally, a public address suggests that BA30 has been delayed until a late-afternoon departure. It all seems hopeful and I settle comfortably into reading an airport thriller on the history of typography and working on an essay on Be’er Sheva and a mosque that has been closed since the 1948 Naqbah when hundreds of thousands of Arabs were displaced from Palestine.
A few hours later we hear that Qantas no longer knows what is happening, but we should wait. I am good at waiting. A week earlier I had waited patiently for a few days (in vain as it turns out) for a visa from the Israeli authorities to get into Gaza, a visa that I had applied for six weeks earlier on a notified five-day turnaround. My four colleagues were allowed entry, but despite a further day of phone calls to embassies and relevant NGOs I received no word. I was never formally rejected, but still do not know if I am to be approved. The backdrop to that occasion was a wind storm that swept in across Syria and made the air gritty and the streets ugly. Here the snow is exquisite.
The snow stops falling outside. This is much more pleasant than Be’er Sheva buffeted by the dust of the Negev desert. The wine in the Lounge is unusually complex, the coffee is drinkable, and the food is sort-of appetizing even though the beef curry is mostly spiced sauce thickened with flour. By late afternoon I am feeling tired and sleep a little.
A few hours pass with a long Qantas silence on what is happening. Eventually, we do receive some news, but not from official sources: it is the BBC news on a wall-mounted television which announces that the airport is now closed for the evening. At the same time ITV news suggests that a few planes are still leaving Heathrow. A number of clearly-influential passengers had been on their mobile phones and seem to know more than the news reporters and Qantas staff. They pack their bags to leave.
A crowd has gathered to find out what is happening. Some are good natured; some less so. One elderly lady reproaches a tall burly Qantas staff member for not telling us anything. Her voice is not loud, but she is stridently insistent, asking the same question three times, and he turns and walks out saying that he feels threatened. His official-looking hat and jacket look unconvincing from behind as he walks away self-consciously. His legs move with mincing care as if he is new to the skill of walking away.
At around ten o’clock an announcement comes over the public address system that our plane is not leaving tonight, but is now rescheduled to depart at 9.30 in the morning. We need to leave the lounge and be back at 7.30 am. Parents with children are distressed; one parent urges solidarity. ‘We should all stick together. We cannot let them divide us.’
It is announced that Qantas has made no arrangements for hotels or buses. ‘All passengers need to find your own way’, they say. More distress. Five police officers arrive—they are carrying guns—and we are told again that we need to leave by 10.30. ‘You are of course welcome to stay until then and eat what is left of the food, but it is impossible to stay beyond the closing time.’ I return to see if there is any curry sludge left, but all the food has been cleared away by the kitchen staff who are rushing to finish their shift.
I decide to leave. My sense of solidarity has wained. Most of the shops have closed in the terminal and people are rushing in different directions not knowing where we pick up our luggage. When we find the collection area all the signs are dead and there is no way of knowing which is the relevant carousel. I walk up and down the carousels with hundreds of other people, everybody relatively careful not to run others down as they successful find their bags.
Then the final ignominy: we all have to go through border control in order to get out of the airport. It takes an hour. I stand with a Canadian couple who joke about four inches of snow causing such chaos. ‘Call that snow!’
We exchange ironies, and just before midnight I stand on the inside of the state border-line thinking about whether it is worth an hour of travelling on the London Underground in order to get a few hours sleep in an expensive hotel before returning to the airport. It hardly seems worth it. I hate waking up at 5.30 groggy after deep sleep. I choose the romance of finding a quiet space in Heathrow, some forgotten corner to sleep quietly till the morning. I am good at sleeping.
3.00 am, Sunday 19 December
Heathrow Terminal 3 has been taken over by people, thousands of people: some standing, some sitting uncomfortably with silver-foil emergency sheets wrapped around their shoulders, and others sleeping on the hard, cold terrazzo tiles. Copies of newspapers have been spread on the ground to slow the emanation of the cold, and a few people over to the other side have yellow thin-foam camping mattresses that were handed out during the night. They are the lucky ones.
The light is cold and bright except for the ‘Departure’ signs glowing warm yellow with back writing. What is that simple san serif typeface? Is it ‘Transport’, clean and clear, developed for the British road system, or ‘London Underground’, developed by Edward Johnston in the midst of the First World War? I’ll check later in the book on typography that I had been reading in the Qantas lounge yesterday. [Note to self: the book does not say; look it up on the web.]
There are people who appear to be sleeping soundly and comfortably, lying on their sides with the legs pulled up to their bodies and their arms wrapped around their chest. I now know from experience that they are neither comfortable nor sleeping soundly. Over time, and despite the cold, your body and mind enters a nether zone in which moving a limb or twisting a torso is barely possible even though you are conscious that it might help. It takes an act of will to shift your body weight so that the accumulating pain is transferred from one part of your body to another. But it is not sleeping as such. Strange how a crumpled soft body on a hard floor can appear to be comfortable when you are not inside that frame to feel how a hip bone grinds against the marble.
I was in one of those nether states when they—whoever they were—came around with the silver-foil sheets and I missed out on the distribution. Despite being clear now that the floor is hard however you lie on it, my second thought was that the people who appeared to be sleeping soundly were at least snugly warm underneath the foil. I had lain against the counter for organizing hotels—now closed—until the terrazzo had sucked all the warmth out of me and I had then walked, shaking with bone-chilling cold, up and down the arrival halls looking for either a warmer place to sleep or one of the magic transporting silver wraps. After about half-an-hour of walking I found a silver wrap left on a plastic seat. I tried the seat for a while, but it was as a hard as the floor and the breeze from the nearby walkway exit was icy. I find a spot on the terrazzo floor away from the exit, and realize that the thin foil made little difference. I am still cold.
6.00 am Sunday
As the morning opens, people mill in small groups and couples, talking in German, Italian, Spanish and English, repeating conversations with each other, and asking parallel questions of any official-looking persons who happen to be coming by. Nobody knows anything for sure, and all the public address does is repeat messages about staying with your luggage and refraining from smoking as a courtesy to other passengers. A young woman stands above me as I type these notes, oblivious to my presence, shifting backwards and beginning to press with her leg against the laptop screen. I put my hand on her calf to signal my presence and she looks surprised, says something in a language that I do not understand, and moves on in a semi-attractive, slow, zombie-like way.
Other people step over my legs and few acknowledge my presence. I move my bags forward to protect my space. People are moving without purpose, perhaps with the notion that soon they will be in the right place, at the right time, as something happens.
A woman tries to step through the narrow space between me and my bags and begins to lifts her leg over my computer. I put my hand up and tell her that I am here and she might consider walking around me. She retreats and finds a different way through the massing crowd, all without looking at me or saying anything.
Then a passing Qantas official says that the only Qantas plane leaving before 6.00 today in the QF32. Four inches of snow yesterday and London’s Heathrow has closed down for another day. Nobody knows anything official—all the important looking people with Business Class purple tags on their luggage have long gone— and the website still has the plane leaving at 3.00 pm yesterday. It is time to retreat from the madding crowd.
This time I leave to go back to the city to find a warm hotel room. Back in the room I turn up the heat thinking that the vagaries of climate change may have contributed to the early snow storm, but I need to use some thick carbon-producing electricity to make me feel better. I hope that I get home for Christmas. However, at least I am more comfortable that the people of Gaza as they struggle with few resources locked inside a five metre concrete wall. I have all the resources of gold-level frequent flier membership and the ‘Priority Club’ at the Holiday Inn.
There is no notification from Qantas, no email, no phone call — this seems strange given that they had only a few planes flying out of Heathrow on Saturday and I am one of their most important customers. A thoughtful staff member with a web connection could have set up a group email list and kept us informed. I am beginning to doubt that being a gold-level frequent flier counts for very much. Certainly it is excellent for getting those small advantages and status reinforcements such as getting a forward window seat on the plane so that one can disembark three minutes earlier than others. But it made no difference to the bag collection process at midnight after a few inches of snow.
When I go to the website I find that my booking has changed to Monday midday. No fanfare, no accompanying explanation, but very efficient. I register a wake-up call, and excitedly anticipate the next day. I am going home.
Monday morning 20 December
I check the website again. The booking has been changed to 25 December. It seems that I will not get home for Christmas. The last time I missed Christmas with my family was three decades ago when I was eighteen-years-old and on a Qantas flight from Cairns to Port Moresby. But that is another story.