I have spent Valentine’s Day at three different airports. On my own. There are worse ways to spend Valentine’s Day, and in fact I rather enjoyed it. When you’re not in a hurry – and once you’ve missed a meeting there’s little point in rushing – airports are second only to train-station platforms for people-watching. I have a client in Amsterdam, and go there a few times a year for meetings. I fly from Birmingham, which is a little over an hour from home, and what it lacks in shopping choices, it makes up for in convenience.
Unless I’m going off on a sunny fortnight, when getting to an airport early and quaffing champagne is an integral part of the holiday, I adopt a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants approach to check-in. It makes me feel like a seasoned traveller to waltz up to Departures as they’re calling my name. In fact I arrived at Birmingham this morning at 10.30am, already checked in online for my 11.15am flight, only to discover it had been cancelled. Not delayed, actually cancelled. Just as I was standing there, looking at the board and wondering what on earth I was supposed to do, the airline called my mobile, which was rather impressive service, I thought. They offered me two choices: wait at Birmingham until 6pm and arrive in Amsterdam a little after 8pm, or take a midday flight to Paris and change there, getting to Amsterdam at 5.30pm. Well, I like Birmingham airport, but not quite that much, so I opted for Paris.
‘Travelling alone?’ The girl asked. She looked a little jaded; too many hand-holding couples angling for upgrades, I suspected.
‘Yes,’ I said. I grinned at her. ‘But maybe I’ll get lucky in Paris!’
‘You’re only there for forty minutes,’ she said, clearly not rating my chances.
I still had an hour to kill, so I headed for the Departure lounge, where I splurged my £8 sorry-for-the-inconvenience food voucher on sushi and chocolate bars, after discovering to my immense disappointment that I couldn’t use it in the Duty Free shop. (Bit of a swizz, if you ask me: who says I can’t have a giant Toblerone for lunch?) The lounge was full of bored business men, courting couples and families fighting over who was going to get the window seat (I always go for the aisle seat, terrified by the thought of urgently needing the loo and being trapped in a corner by a sleeping fat man I can’t climb over). I ate my sushi with a plastic fork, as M&S haven’t yet branched out into plastic chopsticks, and very nearly missed my flight when I became engrossed in an elderly couple’s discussion about whether their move to Singapore was such a good idea. I was desperate to ask why they hadn’t had this conversation sooner, given that the first leg of their journey was about to begin, but the tannoy was becoming increasingly insistent.
Once up in the air, I redeemed my sorry-for-the-inconvenience drinks voucher on a cup of tea. I would have had wine, only no-one around me was drinking, and I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I was feeling rather French by this point, so I had my tea with lemon instead of milk, and imagined I was smoking Gaulloise. Hearing French spoken around me was glorious, and I sank back in my seat to eavesdrop on three different conversations. I lived in Paris for two (separate) years and miss it terribly. The prospect of being in my favourite city, yet not leaving the airport, was exquisitely painful. I wished I had ordered wine after all.
I had little time for people-watching at Charles de Gaulle, so instead I spent twenty minutes pretending to be famous. Have you ever done it? It’s awfully fun. The trick is to wear impossibly high heels, dark glasses and lots of lipstick, and to stride confidently through the concours without looking left or right. Out of the corner of your eye you’ll see people nudging each other and wondering who you are. If you follow an airport official between terminals you’ll look as though you’re being escorted, which adds brilliantly to the illusion.
I was a little confused by this point about who I was and where I was going, but I sorted it out and hopped on a plane to Schiphol. Flying without children is a pleasure, and flying alone is my ultimate indulgence. Not only do I not have to make conversation, but my phone is forcibly turned off and no one can reach me. You can keep your spa days – give me a couple of hours reading and writing time on a plane and I’m a happy girl.
At Schiphol, the same freak weather storms responsible for my cancelled flight had turned Holland into a gridlocked mass of frozen cars. There were no taxis, so I braved the train system and hoped I was heading in the right direction. I was beginning to feel as though I was in a second-rate must-get-home-for-Christmas film. I half expected to be offered a lift in the back of a truck heading for Rotterdam, prompting several hilarious mishaps and A Narrow Escape.
I arrived at my hotel a little under ten hours after leaving home, and five hours late for my meeting. I could have driven here in less time, but I wouldn’t have had half as much to write about.
Happy Valentine’s Day.