If you don’t know already, I’ve set myself a bit of a challenge. The objective is simple. I have to visit every single European country in my lifetime. A visit constitutes being across the country border for longer than five minutes and has to be marked by buying a postcard (which is lucky, as I collect them). Since I only have to spend five minutes in each country, I could probably zip about like Billy Whizz for a week and get them all ticked off. But as I’d like to see as much of each country as possible, that isn’t going to happen and instead, I’m going to take my time. Earlier this year, I went to Paris (for which there are loads of articles). Having already been to France many times in the past, this made no impact on my challenge. I had to get at least one country ticked off before 2007 ended. Switzerland was the obvious choice. Having already been to all of the countries surrounding Switzerland, it was somewhat of an big empty gap in my destinations map that needed filling. So, I decided to go there. After having done some research. I knew I wanted to stay in a beautiful little town in the centre of Switzerland called Lauterbrunnen. How I would get there would turn out to be a difficult problem to solve. I had two options. I could take the Eurostar from London to Paris, stop over at Paris for one night, catch the TGV from Paris to Geneva the following day and then catch a domestic Swiss train to Lauterbrunnen. Not counting the Swiss rail fare (as this would be covered by a Swiss Rail Pass) this would come to approximately £200 (US$400). The second option would be to fly from Luton to Basel. This would come to approximately £50 (US$100). Price wise, there was no contest. I absolutely love train travel, but it was hard to argue against the difference in price. The trouble was, I had never flown before. Although up until this point, I had been fairly well travelled, I had reached destinations by car and train. I had never needed to fly before. Could I really get on a big, polluting, noisy, scary airplane?
It had taken weeks of mulling the idea around in my head for me to finally conclude, “screw it, let’s fly!” Up until the evening before the day of my flight, I felt alright. No particular worries or concerns. Even when my dad was taking me to the train station to catch the train to the airport, I felt a little bit sick, but otherwise I was fine. I was more concerned with patting the pockets of my trousers and bags to make sure I had everything, then worrying about soaring 30,000ft up through the air in a hunk of metal. Millions of people fly all the time. It’s a Sunday morning flight to Switzerland, one of the most politically neutral countries in the world. Nothing’s going to happen. I kept a diary throughout my trip so that it would be easier for me to summerise what I got up to on my blog when I got back. The first thing I wrote in it was, “I hate dealing with anxiety.” I wrote that while sitting in the departure lounge at Luton airport, sat next to a lady I’d mistakenly thought was crying because she was nervous about flying, but was actually crying because her husband had just died. A few days before, I had taken an exam, so I had already had to deal with anxiety that week. Now, three days later, I was having to deal with more. Quite frankly, I was getting a bit sick of it. That was the extent of my troubles though. I wasn’t frightened or nervous. I was just anxious. The whole experience was all very new to me.
Having checked-in, I realised I didn’t have a clue what to do next. Did I head for security now or did I hang around a bit? I headed for security, where I discovered what appeared to be a primitive fizzy drinks shop. Trade didn’t seem particularly brisk, probably because most of the bottles were only half-full. The shop didn’t even have a name. Awful business model. Upon reaching the x-ray machines, I was made to take off everything baring my trousers and t-shirt (coat, jumper, trainers, belt). It wasn’t terribly inconvenient and I was through in about 5 minutes (2 of those minutes were spent getting re-clothed and patting all my pockets again). Past security was a plethora of shops, cafes, crying widows and others distractions to keep my mind off of the reason I was there. Walking to the gate was an unusual affair. The departure lounge at Luton is plush and modern. Polished curves of wood fittings and blue neon lighting. Passing through the double-doors towards to gates though, and things change. You’re no longer being made to feel comfortable in the hope you’ll reach for your wallet and buy some doughnuts, or a new camcorder. You’re in the forgotten basement of a 1970’s hospital, where the lights don’t really work, the paint’s peeling off of the walls and there’s peculiar smell. And it just goes on and on. I must have walked for about a third of a mile, half expecting to find the old morgue being occupied by a cackling phantom janitor. I didn’t of course. What I found was a medium-sized, bright orange room/cupboard where myself and the rest of the passengers traveling to Basel were made to stand and wait. I was in boarding group ‘B’ and had to wait huddled together with the rest of the lower-class citizens in the corner of the room behind a barrier, while boarding groups ‘AS’, ‘AA’ and “A” pointed and laughed as they hurled tomatoes at us. It was grim. I would have been just as grim without the tomatoes. Even now, while I was in what was essentially a pen, covered in tomato juice, I felt OK. I could see the plane through the window. A Boeing 737. Looked sturdy enough. Is sturdiness a good test for air-worthiness? I was eager to get on now, purely because I’d been sitting around for ages in the departure lounge and I was now standing far to close to strangers for my liking. Boarding commenced. I walked out onto the tarmac and climbed the stairs. I reached the top, a stewardess smiled and checked my ticket and I joined the scrum for seats. I was travelling with EasyJet, a budget airline where the seats aren’t allocated. I had read the best place to sit on an aircraft was by the wing, as this was where it was most stable, so I headed for that general area while being elbowed and being hit on the head by bags as they were put into the overhead lockers by their owners. The scramble for good seats seemed very uncivilised, but I wasn’t going to miss out on sitting where I wanted to sit, so delicately pushed people out of my way to get to the centre of the plane. I found a good spot just in front of the central exit doors, lobbed my bag in the locker, sat next to a tired and very grumpy man and put on my seat-belt. It was then that I realised I was on a plane. It was suddenly very real that was going to go higher in the air than I ever have before.
Taxiing takes ages. The planes rolls towards the runway at such a slow pace. As the safety information in French was played, I looked out of the window and watched as other planes took off. I would be doing that in a couple of minutes. Good grief! The plane rolled onto the runway, did a pirouette and came to a stop. The engine noise decreased slightly. I looked around at my fellow passengers. They were chatting, reading the in-flight magazine, eating crisps. One lady had her head on her lap, adopting the ‘brace’ position, seemingly having a nervous breakdown. The engines roared. This was it! Quite unexpectedly, a smile broke across my face. Surely I wasn’t actually looking forward to this!? The plane lurched forward. I was pushed back into my chair by the force of plane accelerating down the tarmac. I looked out the window, past the grumpy man who was having a nap, mouth agape, big stupid grin on my face as I hurtled towards the unexpected. The plane adopted a different angle, a more upward angle, and the ground fell away. I was airborne. It was brilliant! All thought of how much I was polluting the environment had vanished as we ripped through the cloud and emerged above it to see it as a fluffy blanket spreading to the horizon, gloriously lit by the sun and beautifully contrasted against a vivid, blue sky. This was alright! I was enjoying this. Everyone I had spoken to was right. This wasn’t a big deal at all. I gave the grumpy man some space, sat back, switched on my ipod and enjoyed the flight.