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Friday, 24 December 2010

26. Heathrow, snow, woe

This, but for breakfast.


It’s so sad to see people’s Christmas travel plans disrupted by the weather. We had our share of stresses when we went to Bulgaria at the beginning of December, right in the middle of the first heavy lot of snow. But at least we managed to make it.

Our Gatwick flights were cancelled so we booked last-minute BA flights from Heathrow. These were shockingly expensive and would have paid for half a septic tank in Bulgaria! But we didn’t want to delay our plans (and I’m glad we didn’t as the travel chaos has only gotten worse).

The night before we were due to travel to Heathrow it started to snow heavily – and the prediction was it would get much worse overnight. After spending all that money on flights we were worried we wouldn’t even make it to the airport. So we took drastic action, packed our bag and set off for the airport that night - twelve hours before our flight. We made good time too, thanks to our taxi-driving neighbour Paul (who was completely undaunted by a very hairy drive up the M3 – legend). We arrived at Heathrow Terminal 5 about 11pm at night.

Anyone been to T5? It’s a really cool structure, very masculine with all its engineering on display (big struts, girders and nuts everywhere). But comfortable it aint. There is only one place open through the night at the terminal – Costa. Now, I love a Costa, but it can only kill an hour or so of time, even that’s stretching it. There is nothing else to do at T5 in the middle of the night.

But we were not alone. Clearly plenty of other people had the same idea and had travelled to the airport massively early. Everyone just staked out their area on the floor and bedded down for the night. Airport staff were giving out free rollmatts and blankets! It was like being in the blitz, but with neon blankets and Italian coffee.

We managed an hour or two of sleep before the security gates finally opened. This meant we could go through to the departures lounge and experience a new kind of uncomfortable seating/floor.

Still, nothing open in terms of shops or food.

Finally, at 5.30am, Weatherspoons opened. Good old Spoons! Despite the unsociable hour I got straight onto a large glass of wine. Yum, wine and breakfast. Four hours and quite a few rounds later, our flight was ready to board. Slightly delayed, more than slightly trollied, we embarked on our journey feeling very pleased with ourselves for defeating the snow.

I was hoping we were on for a white Christmas this year but it seems not. Never mind - when we eventually move to Bulgaria hopefully every Christmas will be a white one.

Merry Christmas everyone. Bestest wishes for a happy and adventurous 2011!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

25. What a bunch of bankers


Life as a homeowner goes on much the same as before. We can’t afford to do any work on the house for a few months and won’t be going back to Bulgaria until April at the earliest. So, for now, it’s back to business as usual: working, saving, working, saving, Christmas, working, saving.

Fear not, I still have some entertaining stories to tell about our recent house-buying visit. Starting with the tale of how we ended up paying for the house in cash…

We fully expected to pay for the house by bank transfer but by the time we got the Bulgarian bank details my UK bank wouldn’t guarantee that the money would arrive in time. My bank is a very well-known high street bank (beginning with ‘S’ ending in ‘antander’) – you would think they would have some option for an express money transfer (24, maybe 48 hours?), but no. This meant the only way to ensure the money would be in Bulgaria for the day of the purchase was to take it with us. In cash. £12,000! The very thought of carrying our entire savings had me breaking out in a cold sweat – no travel insurance would cover you for that sort of money if you were robbed! But there was no choice.

Neither would my bank allow me to withdraw the money in Euros (all big transactions in Bulgaria are done in Euros, even though their actual currency is the Lev). But I can forgive the bank for that – they don’t do currency, fair enough. So, I had to collect the money from my bank in sterling and take it to a Bureau de Change to get Euros. I was so scared about doing this on my own so my lovely stepdad came with me for protection.

My, oh-so-helpful bank was only too happy to complete the transaction in a completely secure and private way and it all went smoothly…

Sorry, I wandered off into a dream sequence then. In reality, what actually happened is they handed me a huge brown envelope over the counter with “£12k” written on it in nice bold letters. They may as well have sounded an alarm and done a song and dance routine to alert any would-be muggers.
“Hey now what’s that sound
Everybody look
12,000 pounds”

Also, you’d expect them to give the cash in as small a bundle as possible – I was expecting £50 notes and maybe some £20s - but it was all in £20 and even £10 notes!! I had to beg to use one of their offices so I could take the money out of the envelope and stash it away about our persons in private.   

The walk to Intercash was extremely nervy! It was a bit like being in a spy movie: trust no one, suspect everyone.

The guy at Intercash couldn’t have been more helpful, although he was a bit miffed at having to count all those £20 and £10 notes! And the bundle of Euros I came away with was tiny – thanks to it being in 500, 200 and 100 notes.

We travelled out to Bulgaria with the money in one of those belt things that you wear under your clothes. I kept giving it the odd reassuring pat to check it was still there! But it all went fine. Sadly, I think the Bulgarian vendors were a bit disappointed when we handed over the tiny bundle of cash. They may have been expecting a suitcase full of notes!