Robert Hampton

Another visitor! Stay a while… stay forever!

16th September 2014


Liverpool JLA

I have just made my first ever solo trip abroad, spending three days in Berlin. It was my second visit there and overall it was a wonderful few days, which reaffirmed my view of Berlin as my favourite of all my European cities I have visited so far.

Before I go on to talk about what I got up to, I need to describe the “fun” I had on my flight to Berlin. Those of you who follow me on Twitter will already have a rough idea of what happened, but I want to get the facts down. Actually, a Norse epic poem may be the best way to write about what happened, but that’s a bit beyond me, so you’ll have to make do with a blog.

I was nervous. I’ve been to Berlin before, so I wasn’t entirely unprepared, but I was still anxious about being a lone traveller in a foreign land. In my head, I replayed all the worst-case scenarios that could happen. Urban unrest, bad hotels, striking train drivers, eruptions from unpronounceable Icelandic volcanoes – all of them could put a spanner in the works. I tried my best to put those thoughts to the back of my mind, but not entirely successfully.

I turned up at Liverpool Airport on Thursday afternoon in good time for my flight. I’m well versed in security and related procedures thanks to the expert tutelage of Andrew Bromage, so I got through the checks quickly and was in the departure lounge with plenty of time to spare. I bought a Boots Meal Deal and sat down alongside my fellow passengers to wait.


The flight was called and we climbed aboard the plane. Just before the scheduled departure time of 18:10 we were taxiing along the runway, ready to take off. I sat back and relaxed. I would be in Berlin by 9pm, checked into my hotel by 10pm. Then, maybe, I would have time to slip out to Blond for a quick drink while… ahem, admiring the view.

It soon became clear, however, that all was not well. I became aware of an unusual smell in the cabin. A strange chemical-ly sort of smell. In fact, it smelled exactly like TCP. I started thinking of that One Foot in the Grave episode where Victor uses it briefly and the smell lingers on him for days.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed it. The other passengers and cabin crew were aware of it, as was the captain, who announced that the plane was returning to the terminal building for the engineers to take a look at what was causing it.

This announcement was greeted by a collective groan all round. A second, louder groan soon followed, when it was confirmed that the problem was not going to be an easy fix and we were all ushered back into the departure lounge.

I tried to stay optimistic. It would be a simple problem to fix and we would be on our way within an hour or so. Right?

Sadly, this was not to be. Soon a further announcement was made – the problem with the plane could not be fixed and we would therefore have to wait for a replacement from another airport. New departure time: 21:00.

Travelwelfare card

Not that easyJet didn’t look after us, mind. We were given a voucher worth £3 to spend in any of the airport shops (not on alcohol, though). One small problem: it was close to 8pm and many of the shops were starting to close for the evening. I dived back into Boots and grabbed a jumbo size packet of crisps and another drink before the shutters came down there too.

After that, there was nothing to do but wait. I worked out that my new arrival time would be midnight, Berlin time. By the time I had made the journey from the airport into the city centre, it would be close to 1am. I tried to phone the hotel to inform them of my late arrival, but a terrible quality line conspired against me. I think I managed to get my message across.

At 7.45pm, the notice on the airport’s departure screen stated that boarding would begin in 30 minutes. Excellent, I thought, We’re finally going to be on our way.

Not for the first time, a departure board lied to me. At 8.15pm, it was announced that there would be a further delay… of another three hours. New departure time: ten past midnight.

Berlin departure board

I wanted to cry. My holiday was in danger of being ruined before it had even begun. I thought of my nice warm bed back in Aigburth, just a few miles away from the airport, and was tempted to pack the whole thing in and go back home to weep softly for the whole weekend.

Some other passengers did give up and go home, cursing easyJet and letting the beleaguered customer service staff know exactly what they thought.

The rest of us just resigned ourselves to waiting. Have you ever seen the pictures on the news when flights are disrupted by snow or volcanoes? They always show people curled up on seats in the terminal buildings, fast asleep. Well, ITN could have stopped by to grab themselves some new stock footage, because people did just that. Not me, though – I was too agitated for a nap and was paranoid about leaving luggage unsupervised.

One guy lying near me had just dozed off when he was woken up again by a loud noise. One of the air-conditioning vents in the ceiling was loose and had started to vibrate, making an ungodly racket.

“For fuck’s sake!” exclaimed the man, before getting up storming off. I suspect this is the first and last time I will ever see someone flick the V-sign to an air-conditioning unit.

I played with my phone for a bit. After venting my frustrations on Twitter and Facebook, I decided to do something more constructive. I had installed the official Deutsche Bahn and BVG (Berlin public transport) apps on my phone, so I loaded them up to see what my travel options would be for an expected arrival time at 3am. The simple answer was: not much. There were no trains at that time of the morning, and I would have to change buses twice to get somewhere near the hotel. It looked like I would have to get a taxi, which could cost up to €40.

I spent rather too long investigating various combinations of buses, running my phone battery down to 25% in the process. I decided to turn it off for a while; I would need my phone to help me navigate my way around Berlin, should I ever land there. This left me with a definite shortage of things to keep myself occupied.

By this time, even the Duty Free shop had closed. There seemed to be only one outlet remaining open in the whole building: a bar. This fact will become pertinent a little later on.

I marvelled at a couple of guys I saw loitering in the departure lounge, who were dressed top-to-toe in leather gear, including knee-high boots. That must have been fun to get through security with. God knows how many piercings they had to set off the X-ray machine. “Folsom Europe”, one of the world’s largest fetish events, was taking place in Berlin that weekend (I know what you’re thinking and no, I didn’t know about it when I booked).

Then, oh joy of joys:

I hurried back to the gate with my fellow passengers. We got onto the new plane quite quickly. It transpired that the reason for the further delay was because the original cabin crew had exceeded their allotted flying time and were thus unable to be on the rescheduled flight. EasyJet had drafted in standby crew from Gatwick and Belfast(!) for us. Seems a bit extreme, but better than cancelling the flight altogether which was the only other option.

We taxied onto the runway and this time we actually made it into the air. I watched as the ground fell away beneath the plane. A million street lights twinkling, their orange glow giving an aura-like effect, until eventually we headed out over the sea and the lights disappeared.

The seats next to me were empty (nobody else, it seemed, wanted to shell out for priority seats). However, about 30 minutes into the flight, a man plonked himself on the seat next to me. Some of his friends got into the row behind. It seems that they had been moved there by the cabin crew after another passenger, who they believed to be drunk, had become abusive towards them. One of the flight attendants got on the intercom and had a confab with the captain.

Soon after, I felt the plane turning, but didn’t really pay much attention. The “fasten seatbelt” light came back on unexpectedly – there was no turbulence to speak of. A bit odd, I thought. Then I noticed that the patchwork of street lights was visible again beneath us, and the plane started to descend.

Oh, crap.

Sure enough, it was announced that we were returning to Liverpool. The captain said it was for “operational reasons”, but there was a police van with blue flashing lights waiting on the tarmac when we returned to the terminal. It was only then that it was confirmed that a drunk passenger was about to be taken off the plane. Curse that bar with its tempting “pitcher of beer for £12” offer!

“We would ask you to respect the privacy of our crew and passengers,” pleaded a flight attendant, as a hundred camera phones were produced to film an embarrassed-looking man and his partner being escorted off the plane. I heard a passenger opine: “if the police won’t do anything, get him out on the tarmac and I’ll sort him out.” Another yelled a completely unnecessary comment at the passenger’s girlfriend about a “cock in a frock”. It’s safe to say that tempers were getting frayed all round.

We had to wait while the police spoke to the crew and some of the passengers, and then there was a further delay while the plane was refuelled. We took off again at about 1.15am. This flight passed without further incident, although a lad a few rows behind me was slightly too in love with his own voice for my liking, and kept loudly repeating the same joke about TCP. Even his friends weren’t laughing.

We finally landed at 4am. If a train arrives somewhere seven hours late, questions are asked in Parliament, but with airlines the occasional extreme delay seems to be accepted as par for the course. As an added bonus, we landed at a remote gate and had to be bussed to the terminal building, adding an extra few minutes to the journey. By the time I’d got through passport control and out of the airport, it was 4.20am.

This actually worked out quite well, as I was just in time to catch the first train of the morning, at 4.42am, which would get me to Berlin Zoologischer Garten (the nearest station to my hotel) at 5.17am. Better than a bus, and much cheaper than a taxi.

Schönefeld station Deutsche Bahn ticket

I was unimpressed by Schönefeld Airport station when I last visited in 2012, and it remains a terrible gateway to the city for intending visitors. This airport was supposed to be gone by now, replaced by a grand new terminal with a modern public transport hub. But the opening of the new airport has been delayed, so the old station, with no visible staff and poor information provision, soldiers on for now. I had to load up the DB app again to find the correct platform for my train.

I also had to wrestle with temperamental ticket machines. The first one I tried rejected any coin I tried to insert into it, the second was only accepting exact change – literally: I tried to overpay just so I could get a ticket, and it wouldn’t let me; I had to press the coin return button and try a different machine again. Eventually, I managed to convince a machine to take my money, and I wandered up to a deserted platform to wait for my train. It was right on time, which was the only thing that had gone right for me so far. One of DB Regio’s modern electric units pulled in, which disappointed me slightly, as I was hoping for a double-decker train, like the one I used last time I was here. Mind you, the state I was in, even a Northern Rail Pacer would have been appreciated. I hopped aboard and took a seat.

Normally, I would enjoy a train journey like this, but I was cold, miserable and tired. I simply wanted to curl up in bed and sleep, but I still had a 35 minute journey to Zoological Gardens station, then a 10 minute walk from there to the hotel.

Airport Express train

The train was quiet but got a bit busier up as we got closer to the city centre, with shift workers and the odd dirty stop out who had clearly been sampling Berlin’s famous nightlife. From Zoo station, I walked along deserted streets to my hotel, the Art’otel Kudamm. I was glad that the hotel was on a straight line from the station; working out left or right turns would have been beyond my addled brain at this point.

I was worried that, despite my call to them earlier, the hotel would have put me down as a “no-show” and cancelled my booking. There was a brief moment of panic when I found the hotel front door locked. I had to buzz the intercom to be let in.

“Mr Hampton! You are very late,” said the receptionist. I waited for him to follow that with, “we have given your room to someone else,” but he didn’t. My room was waiting for me. It was warm and comfortable and had every facility that a guest could need, but frankly I would have settled for a mattress on the floor of a heroin addict’s squat by this point. I collapsed gratefully into the bed. I had an itinerary planned for the next day, but I was prepared to tear all of that up if I could get a good night’s (morning’s) sleep.

So, my city break in Berlin did not exactly get off to a good start. It would all be uphill from here, surely?

Tags: , , ,

One Response
  1. Pingback by Flight of Fancy « Robert Hampton
    17th November 2014 at 8:42 pm

    […] readers (all three of you) will recall my flight from hell back in September, when my plane was delayed by seven hours (SEVEN!) en route to Berlin, after […]