I spent three days as a stranded air traveller and I rather enjoyed it. There—I’ve said it. Book me a place in an asylum if you like.
Sure, there were dark moments. The first came with the news that our delayed flight from Cairo to Heathrow was being diverted to Brussels; the second, when we learnt that all the airport hotels were full. But thereafter things began to look up. Though it was after midnight by the time Egyptair despatched us to the Hotel Le Plaza in the city centre, its elegant lobby told us that we had landed firmly on our feet.
Morning brought the news that both Heathrow and Brussels Airport were closed. Separated from our luggage, our first move was to buy clean, warm clothes. For someone who feels a puritanical guilt about spending money on himself, to be forced to go on a shopping spree brought a deep illicit thrill.
Brussels—a city I had never previously had a chance to explore—looked magical through a veil of snowflakes. The scene at the Grande Place could not have been more Christmassy: a large, brightly-lit tree; a life-size crib with real sheep; stalls selling Glühwein and waffles. As we feasted on moules et frites in a cosy restaurant with an open fire, our ordeal felt like a holiday at someone else’s expense.
Back at Le Plaza, amid rumour and counter-rumour, we bonded with our fellow passengers. During our sightseeing holiday in Luxor and Cairo we had barely spoken to anyone; now we were able to have long conversations with charming elderly Egyptians. In the course of the second day (Heathrow a logjam, Brussels low on de-icing fluid, Eurostar booked solid) we got to know the Serbian ambassador to Cairo, and my teenage stepson—monitoring developments via his iPad—became the toast of the lobby.
We realised, of course, that we were the lucky ones. We had no urgent engagements at home; we were with an airline that took its responsibilities seriously; we had money to buy what we needed, and we had EU passports. Those without permission to enter Belgium had had to spend the first night in the airport; one Muslim woman remained there with her two children rather than be photographed with her ears showing for a temporary visa. On the other hand, a British teacher so enjoyed the camaraderie among the Red Cross blankets that he turned down the offer of a room at the local Sheraton.
Our one complaint was that the sporadic flow of information made it impossible to plan our impromptu holiday properly. We could only have visited the Musée des Beaux Arts at the peril of missing our best chance of getting home for Christmas: the bus which eventually took us by ferry to England, depositing us at Heathrow three days and six hours late. But our appetites were thoroughly whetted for a return trip to Brussels. In summer. By train.
Picture credit: garybembridge (via Flickr)