I wrote in my last blog post about our complicated preparations for travelling to the UK this summer, with about ten days to do considerably more than is normally needed. Not that the pre-pandemic 'normal' applies any more. But as I said at the end of that post, it wasn’t until we boarded our mainly empty flight, late on a Thursday evening just over a month ago, that I finally started to allow myself to believe that we might see our family again.
I'm very thankful to live in an age of modern technology. Whatsapp, Facebook and Zoom have enabled us to stay in touch, to share photos, to see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices. My brother instituted a fortnightly (now monthly) family Zoom and it’s been one of the highlights of the pandemic, as far as I’m concerned. Just half an hour or so catching up with news and trivia has made all the difference to my feeling of being isolated from my relatives for so long.But it’s not the same as being together, and I hadn’t realised how much I had missed it until we were, at last, en route, and a little frisson of excitement started to rise in my chest. I was tired - our flight wasn’t until after my usual bedtime - and quite stressed; it had been a hectic week making all the arrangements necessary. I dozed once or twice, but can never really sleep on flights.
Gatwick Travelodge is a familiar place, but we had never before booked two nights there. This was necessary for various reasons, including the lateness of our flight. We had decided to have a day to ourselves - to pick up our rental car about noon on the Friday, so we could take it easy after the substantial Travelodge ‘all you can eat’ breakfast.
Collecting the car was not stress-free. This is an example of British understatement. We had opted for a different rental company this time, as our usual preferred one was charging extortionate amounts. But we should have known that it wouldn’t be easy. We did eventually get the car (which was fine, thankfully) but we left feeling irritated, having had to leave a very large deposit with the company, who did not trust our excess insurance. It was not a good start to our break.
When we arrived at the nearby shopping centre where we had decided to eat lunch and make some necessary purchases, I felt oddly nervous on seeing so many people milling about, many of them not wearing masks, and with little observance of any social distancing. We had N95 masks, and while I prefer the more comfortable cloth ones, we wore the more protective ones as we had no wish to acquire the virus and potentially pass it on to our vulnerable relatives.
There are always a few things we buy in the UK, that we can’t easily find in Cyprus. Solid deodorant, for instance. It's quite pricey, but each one lasts over a year, and can be taken in hand luggage on a flight. I usually buy a selection of inexpensive birthday cards, too. Richard was looking for a new backpack, I was looking for some new sandals. And he always likes browsing shopping centres.
We stayed at a nearby Travelodge, and then spent the whole of Monday with my father and stepmother. One of my brothers came for the day, with his wife and her granddaughter, and there was also a brief visit from my nephew and his wife. It was a lovely family day and I tried to appreciate every moment.
On Tuesday we drove north again, and spent a couple of hours with my other brother and his wife. Then on to our last destination, the one I was looking forward to most: a whole week with our sons, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Our younger son was staying with the family, having moved out of his last flat in the south. So we had all our descendants together, for the first time in eighteen months.
Spending time with the grandchildren was wonderful - we went with them to nearby parks, read them books, played board games, and chatted in ways that just aren’t possible when video chatting. We saw places they had talked about, so we can imagine them for ourselves.
On August 25th we drove to Newcastle Airport. Returning the rental car was, thankfully, straightforward, and the lady who dealt with us was a great deal more helpful and friendly than the guys at Gatwick. The airport is quite small, and many of the shops and eateries are still closed. but we found somewhere to eat lunch and bought sandwiches for the return flight.