'Welcome home, ma'am', said the Immigration Officer, with a smile, after he interrogated me, without the smile, for what seemed an eternity. In reality, it was probably no more than two minutes. The Customs Officer did not question my bringing in nearly $50 worth of 'chips, candy and chocolate', and also welcomed me home to the USA. The 'holidays' were now over.
Ten days earlier, it was a very different story. It had taken several days to place, and replace the contents of my suitcases, which had become an obsession during the week before my departure. It was similar to one of those solitaire games, where the tiles are moved to make a picture. Boxes of cereal were swivelled, stood up, laid back down, and turned back to their original position. M & M's were spread across two cases, and stuffed into empty spaces. Jackets, t-shirts and various other pieces of clothing were laid on top with wrapping paper folded in the pocket. A 'carry on' case held a pair of jeans, a couple of tops, and a pair of boots; after all I had to wear something when I arrived!
My journey was, unfortunately, eventful. I was dropped off at Austin airport, and deposited my cases. Undressing at the security gate has become second nature, and whilst other's ask, 'do I have to remove....?', I am whisking off all but the bare essentials, leaving just enough clothing to stop an arrest for obscene behaviour. However, as the criteria seems to change each time I get to the security check, I am often the cause of a delay, as I struggle to redress, and explain to bemused officials that, 'last time, I had to remove.....'.
My flight from Austin to Houston was very pleasant. As I reached the gate for my London connection, however, I realised we were not going to be taking off on time. 'Maintenace on Board' rebounded off the walls like a squash ball in a tournament, without a thought for those of us who are aero-intolerant. In order to keep levels of anxiety at a reasonable level, I convinced myself that a television needed repair. 'I do hope it's not mine', I told Samantha, whom I am sure was suppressing laughter at my heightened sense of insecurity. I had mixed feelings when the crew disembarked with their luggage, and a rather harassed gate attendant explained that the plane would have to be replaced. Taking a 'spare' aircraft from anywhere, always poses the question, 'why is it not in service?' I was not going to get an answer from the lady behind the counter to quell my immediate fear, so I just asked whether I should return to the lounge. I should, was the answer, which emerged through gritted teeth. Her frustration, it would seem, was not from the constant barrage of questions, but from the lack of answers from the engineers, who were refusing to answer any calls about the delay.
As I sat and watched, whilst they unloaded the bags and other items from the ailing aircraft, I was sending messages to Samantha, and my niece, Emma. After an hour, the removal took place, and we watched for another ship to dock. Watching from approximately 200 feet away, perhaps more, I was instructing the baggage handlers. I could not see my cases and was concerned that my two heavier bags, which contained the essentials to make a very merry Christmas, would not be transferred. Emma suggested I talk to the pilot. I responded that I was making my way down to the tarmac, wearing the required hard hat and high visibility jacket. Emma further responded with jovial comments, until I mentioned that the bags contained her boyfriend's aftershave, at which time she told me that I really did need to organise the transfer!
However, all's well that end's well, and we were called to board the flight. I always have mixed feelings about an empty plane; on the one hand, I am always grateful when there is an empty seat next to me, so I do not have to disturb my neighbour each time I need to use the facilities, but on the other hand, the lack of fliers could be caused by recession, and that is not good. I decided not to dwell on this, immediately, as I was on my way home, and there wasn't a thing I could do about it, especially when I was going to be 38,000 feet above the world for the next eight hours! Instead, I focused on what film I should watch whilst eating my dinner, and what film I should use as a sleeping aid. For both reasons, I decided against the new Matt Damon movie, regarding the global deadly epidemic, as being in an enclosed space would only force my mind, once again, on things that I could not control. I was, however, in control of the television assigned to the next seat, and turned it to the 'flight map' channel. How organised I felt!
My entry into the UK was quick and easy. Returning home is always emotional, and I was very pleased that I was sitting alone, as it seemed to hit much harder than normal. As I came off the plane, having dried my eyes, I greeted the rather tired looking Heathrow staff with a resounding, 'Good morning!' and received a very cheery response. There were several people in the customs hall, and I was rather glad not to be stopped. Although I was not carrying anything that may have been considered contraband, I did not relish the thought of repacking four cereal boxes. and other breakfast products, together with a year's supply of sweets. As I exited, I scanned the waiting crowd, and then heard my name being called. Jan, Richard's future mother in law, was waving furiously, and as we gave each other a hug, my emotions got the better of me for a second time, but this outburst was also short lived and we were soon on the way. The rest of the day was rather an organised blur, and I went to bed, thoroughly exhausted.
Christmas Day started early, as usual, and I was presented, as usual, with a sack of potatoes. After convincing my mother that ten people did not need a pound each, she relented to six pieces per person, with a few extra for good measure. I knew I would not win the argument for moderation, and peeled for the next fifteen minutes, before vacuuming and preparing an assortment of vegetables that would have fed a small continent. By five o'clock, all was consumed, table cleared, dishes washed, and presents had been given and received; it was 'all over' for another year. Steph's 'Secret Santa' initiative had been a wild success, and although the presenters were far from anonymous, it was as much fun watching everyone opening their gifts.
Monday morning was another early start. It is a myth that I am attached to the hip to the vacuum cleaner, but we do seem to develop a closeness when I am staying with mum. Our 'quality time' was approximately an hour, as together we made the lounge and dining room sparkle. Being that dust is banished from the bungalow, (and it dare not apply for readmission in my mother's lifetime) and the meaning of a 'mess' is redefined to an ornament being slightly left of centre, most of the cleaning is a mere action. My mum does not have to try to be organised, she was made that way. As jealousy is such a strong word, I will remain simply envious. However, I digress. Our day continued and it was time to eat again. Our first episode of 'left over turkey' took place at around 1pm, which then allowed time to clear away and for me to make a couple of phone calls before Rick arrived to take me to my next banquet. Boxing Day with the ex-in laws is another tradition, together with 'arguing' with the GPS system. This year we were prepared, and put the exact address into the little black box, ready to resist should we go off course. Our friendly computerised lady became increasingly agitated as we failed to 'turn around' at every roundabout or side road. We did not want to take the motorway. At approximately three miles from our target, my confidence wained slightly, and we bowed to the superiority of the machine. Seizing her opportunity, she almost succeeded in redirecting us miles out of our way, but failed when I noticed the sign to 'Mountfichet Castle'. As we followed the winding roads circumnavigating the old ruins, she screamed for us to backtrack, and as we finally pulled into the road of our destination, she responded by telling us we had another fifty three miles to travel. Definition of Satisfaction: Unplugging the 'sat-nav'!
My additional 'Marmite' merchandise was a very welcome present, with two jars of the scrumptious spread being part of the package. My gifts also appeared to be well received, and all too quickly the clock struck two, and our annual reunion came to an end. Having been fed all the finger food delicacies I miss when in the States, and enjoyed the company of the 'exes', I was very content. Skyping at 3am with Samantha and Dana was, in retrospect, a bad idea. I suddenly developed a fit of the giggles, and they quite unnaturally assumed that I was inebriated. I attempted to convince them that I had only partaken of one glass of wine (I am sure it was only one), but apparently that is enough to claim this 'lightweight', and my inability to stop snickering through my nose (in an attempt not to wake my mother) failed miserably. Whilst Samantha was asking for a minute by minute reenactment of the evening, Dana was still attempting to come to terms with the fact I did not arrive home until 3am, for no other reason than I am usually struggling to stay awake at 10pm! Insisting that I get at least a few hours of sleep (before having to make the obligatory waltz around the lounge with my electronic partner), they said goodnight (or good morning) and as my head hit the pillow, I vaguely remember a final chuckle emit from my lips, and then no more.
The rest of the week was very full. I managed to catch-up with a few friends, went out for dinner with Lesley (one of my 'longest term' friends....oldest friend can be misconstrued!) and completed my shopping for essentials; twiglets, chocolate, etc. Richard and I spent some time together, going to the mall, picking up yet more Marmite memorabilia. Unfortunately, my one trip with my sister ended with her going to the physio for a back problem. Bending down to find my size in a pair of navy ankle boots was, it would appear, the final straw, and not the cause of her injury. We did manage to share a New Year's Eve meal together, at mum's, as well as lunch on Sunday (and I did find my size in the navy boots!) Steph treated us to a lovely homemade spaghetti bolognaise on Sunday evening, and then it was Monday; time to fly back to my other home.
Richard and Steph landed on the doorstep, bright and early, and my somewhat lighter cases were put in the car. Many hugs and kisses later, I walked into the departure area and made my way to the desk. Yes, I had packed my bags myself, and yes they had been in my presence at all times, and no, no one had asked me to carry anything. With lipstick, liquids and gels in a plastic bag, I proceeded to the lounge, after the bi-annual purchase of 'London' t-shirts. The chicken sausages were as good as I had remembered, and I ate a hearty breakfast, followed by a yoghurt, banana and satsuma, the latter consumed through boredom rather than to balance the diet.
Although we left the gate late, the tailwind helped to keep the flight ontime, and this time, it was full. Not watching the new Matt Damon film was a better choice the second time around, as my neighbour was not in the best of health. Although a charming young gentleman, who kindly placed my hat in the overhead bin, together with my duty free t-shirts, his need for a nurse would have been more apt than that of a flight attendant. I was thankful for the partition between the seats as we reclined, no matter how small, as he curled into the foetus position and slept, snoring, waking for intermittent coughing, for most of the flight. I managed, again, to perform my bi-annual gymnastic routine, in order to use the smallest room on the plane, and once again (having a view of half an engine from my window,) when attempting to secure a good photo opportunity over Greenland. The cloudless sky allowed the most spectacular views, which was most unexpected this time of year.
We landed on time, and my flight to Austin had no delays. A Bailey's on the Rocks completed perfection, and for a third time the non-watching of the Matt Damon film proved to be an excellent choice, as my neighbour for the next thirty minutes, dribbled continuously. (He was asleep; he was not playing soccer down the aisles!) My welcoming committee were slightly late, as I made it to the carousel before espying Matnee running into the building, closely followed by Dana. Edward breezed in, almost apologetically. My bags appeared, and we left for home, for the January 2nd Christmas day distribution. All appeared to be happy with their gifts and I was happy to go to bed and fall asleep before the end of the college football bowl game. I awoke full of life and raring to go, at 1am! Oh the joys of jet lag!
Back to work. A new week, a new year and the opportunity of yet....another story.