Return journey to London

While I had managed to sleep soon after 1.30am, I am unable to get up at 4.30am as planned, and it is 5 by the time my eyes open. I was supposed to have left town by now. With a bit of rushing about, I finally check out of the hotel at 5.15am.

I would have imagined a sunrise around now, but it is pitch dark; autumn is here. Back on the highway, there are a reasonable number of cars rushing to Bucureşti. Of course, the highway is dominated by lorries and trucks in terms of percentage of vehicles on road.

As I cruise down the highway, I find my sweet spot behind a pick-up truck doing 125 kmph or so. As luck would have it, the “I” has dropped off from the large printed make name, and all I see written in front of me is “Daca” (the truck is evidently a Dacia, a popular Romanian brand). If there’s a God, (S)He sure loves irony (Daca means “If” in Romanian).

The sky starts turning dark grey around 6.05am, though I know sunrise is still a while away. The air is cold and the headlights of the oncoming traffic are distracting, sometimes blinding. The only comfort is the crackling voice, on the radio, of Richard Marx crooning, “Wherever you go, whatever you do, I will be right here waiting for you”.

I reach the airport around 7.20, shortly after dawnbreak – it took me more time to navigate the streets of Bucureşti than to traverse the distance between the two cities!

I have to wait a while before the check-in opens, but at least I have the satisfaction of being first in line for the counter that still reads “Milan”. Meanwhile, my cellphone battery dies, and I can’t spot any electric sockets around. But that’s alright, I am not expecting any calls.

When the counter opens, a smartly dressed ground staffer checks my details and assigns me a window seat, not on the wing, as requested. And then, the printer refuses to print my boarding pass. The poor staffer struggles with the printer, and after 15 mts of what can only be described as bloody war, he is finally able to get me my boarding pass.

All I have to do now, is go through the security screen. As I am collecting my belt, wallet, jacket etc., a security guard comes up with my backpack and asks, “Is this yours?”

“Yes”

“Open it please”

I ask her what she’s looking for, and she tells me: “Two bottles”. I know right away that she’s talking about the two jars of zacuscă that a friend gave me last night. I take them out, and she tells me, “You can’t take that. Creams not allowed.”

“This is not cream”, I reason, “this is food.” By now, a small contingent of security people has congregated around me. A helpful guard points me to the words, “..or objects of similar consistency” on the poster listing the items not permitted past the security screen.

A stout and scruffy man, who is quite evidently the supervisor, trudges over. After a quick word in Romanian with the guards, he shakes his head and tells me solemnly, “You can either throw this away, or check it in.”

Of course, I know he is right. “I’ll check it in,” I say gruffly.

There is no way I am leaving the zacuscă behind. Nor am I checking in my laptop and the glass jars for Heathrow. I pick up my wallet and keys and put them in my pockets very slowly. I take my own sweet time getting the belt and jacket on. Then I pick up my backpack, and studiously walk right to Gate number 9.

Rules are not for Indians. Not in Romania.

Gate number 9 is currently boarding for Milan. I take a seat, and try playing with my laptop. After the flight has been boarded, the gate display changes to say that Athens, scheduled for 10.05, is checking in. This makes me nervous – may be they’ve changed the gate for the London flight. I want to check, but there are no staffers at the gate. So I walk to the other gates – 7, 8, 10, 11, and 12 asking each if they know anything about a gate change. They don’t, and advise me to wait.

After what seems like an interminable length of time, I ask the lady to my left for time, and it is already past the boarding time. So both of us jump up, and start asking the staffers at the other gates again. They still have no clue, and again advise us to wait. I am in no mind to follow that piece of advice, and tell my fellow passenger that I will go and check upstairs (Yes, there are gates right over one another – ground floor gates open outside for boarding via stairs while the first floor gates are used to board via jetways/ aerobridges).

Sure enough, the gate for London has been changed to 5, and sure enough, the flight is late by a half hour. By the time we board, however, it is clear that takeoff will be delayed by over a quarter and one hour.

As I sit down in my seat, I suddenly feel very tired. It is as though I have walked a thousand miles. I have no idea what the girl in the aisle seat is saying to me, and my eyes are droopy; but before drifting off, I do manage to tell her to hide her phone as the host who told her to switch it off is coming back towards us.

I am woken up by the host who has brought me the special “raw vegetarian” meal. My neighbor, it turns out, is returning to London after 4 months to give it another chance. She spent about 8 months there the first time around, but couldn’t stand being away from family and friends. Originally from a small town close to the Moldova border, she has been living in Bucureşti, working for a car rental company. The owner of the company, she says, is smart: He doesn’t ask for hundreds of Euros worth of deposit for rental cars, and instead charges a fee of €20 which goes directly to profits. Smart indeed, I agree.

She tells me about what she used to do in London (site manager for a construction company), where she used to live, how her boyfriend totalled the car they loved and didn’t have insurance for, and how she was supposed to fly the day before yesterday but couldn’t. She also tells me about a few good Romanian restaurants in London, though unfortunately, I have forgotten the names 😦

This is the fourth time she is going back to her boyfriend. “I used to be a happy person,” she tells me. In spite of everything, I have to struggle hard to suppress a smile. I am sure (S)He must be laughing somewhere.

We land in Heathrow about a half hour late. Thankfully, since my seat is close to the aircraft’s exit, I am among the first people to get off. I overtake the rest of the people en route to the border controls, and manage to be the first person in the “Non EU passports” queue. Border controls and customs are a breeze, and I am able to run into the Picadilly Line tube about to depart.

It is already after 1pm by the time I reach home. I need to unpack, repack, shower, shave, and dress in formals quickly, and get to Upper Slaughter for a company event. While I would have liked to go to office for a little while before that, there’s no time now.

As I run to the tube station, I manage to grab some Chinese take-away food, and get to the Paddington station at what I consider to be a reasonable time considering that I need to reach the hamlet called Upper Slaughter only around 4pm. At the self-service ticket kiosk, I don’t see Upper Slaughter in the list of stations connected to Paddington by train, so I go in to the counter and ask for help. The cheerful and polite African lady tries to help, but can not figure out how I could get to Upper Slaughter.

Time to open my magic laptop. Apparently, the closest station to Upper Slaughter is Kingham, from where it is a 15 mts taxi ride to the hotel. Excellent! I buy a return ticket from the kiosk, and look at the departure boards. Hmmm…no trains listed as calling at Kingham.

A quick trip to the information desk reveals that I just missed a train, the next one is due for 3.51pm (I’m definitely not getting there by 4pm as planned) and the platform would be announced 5 mts or so before then.

The 3.51pm train is just a couple of minutes late – in India, we wouldn’t even call it late – in arriving at Paddington, but drops me off at Kingham shortly after 5.15pm as per schedule. As I walk out, I see a little bus, and the driver is looking straight at me. Perhaps, he is waiting for me. But I don’t recognize the town name on it. So I wave him off, and set out to find myself a taxi.

There is a car park double the size of the station itself, but I can not see any taxis. Heck, there is not a living soul in sight anymore. I check all the signs and posters to scout for information. Nothing! Of course, the office is closed as it is after 5pm.

So I walk towards the road on which the occasional vehicle seems to zoom by. No taxis. I try tumbing a ride, but no one seems keen to stop, which is understandable considering that most of the drivers seem to be little old ladies. In any case, even if they did stop, I haven’t a clue as to which direction I need to go.

I walk up to the building about 200m and knock on the door. The gentleman answering the door is kind enough to tell me that there are no cabs within town, and that the closest place to get a cab would be Chipping Norton. He also tells me that there are taxi service numbers posted back at the station.

Getting back to the station, I am finally able to locate the numbers, and call from the public phone booth at the station. I try all the services I can till my coins run out, but none of the taxi services is willing to send anyone this far away.

Thus I wait for the bus, and board it when it arrives. It is going to Bledington but is the only bus that plies by Kingham, and on its return journey, it will indeed go to Chipping Norton. I am fine with that, and welcome the opportunity to sit in the bus as opposed to freezing outside. The driver recognizes me from his previous trip, and asks me where I need to go.

“Upper Slaughter”

“Upper Whaa?”

“Slaughter”

“Huh?”

“Sloter”

“Sorry, whaa?”

“Slowwter. S.L.A.U.G.H.T.E.R.”

“Oh, Slowthaa!”

“Yeah, I guess I should be able to get a taxi from Chipping”

Finally we reach the last stop in Chipping Norton, but there are still no taxis in sight. The jovial and perky driver, however, tells me not to worry.

He leaves me at the Fox Hotel’s bar after speaking to the landlady. The nice landlady phones a cabbie, and he promises to get down in about 20 minutes. So I sit there sipping some Orange-Passionfruit J2O, reading The Guardian, and waiting for the cab, which arrives promptly in about 30 minutes.

As it turns out, Upper Slaughter is just about 20 minutes away from Chipping Norton. On the way to the hotel, the driver tells me that India has won the 20-20 cricket world cup final against Pakistan. Finally…something to celebrate.

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