An abortive trip to Canberra, Australia

I recently took an abortive holiday in Canberra, the majestic and much-maligned capital city of Australia. In this time of plague, border controls and quarantines, holidaying in one’s own country is really the only option left for a summer getaway. Why an “abortive” holiday? Well, as it turned out, I couldn’t avoid virus-related border chaos even within my own country! Read on to find out.

Day 1

I was supposed to be visiting a friend on this trip to Canberra. An old school friend: we’d both gone our separate ways (to live in separate cities) after we finished high school together in 2012. I’d seen him only once since we left school eight years ago—I visited him when he was studying in Melbourne, which was my first visit to the delightful and now much-beleaguered city of Melbourne.

As it turned out, he would be in self-isolation for the entire duration of my visit. He had unwittingly gone to visit family in Sydney for Christmas, unbeknownst to him that a cluster of coronavirus cases would break out in Sydney, leading to much of the rest of the country, including the Australian Capital Territory (wherein Canberra is located), to impose border controls against people arriving from Sydney, requiring them to go into self quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

Ho hum. I wouldn’t be able to see my friend (apart from maybe through a window), but I decided to go ahead with my trip to Canberra anyway; a holiday is a holiday, even one spent on my own. I had the better part of a 3 week break from work anyway, what else was I going to fill it with? I don’t mind solo travelling. On balance, I prefer to share my travel experiences, but solo travel comes with the advantage of being completely free to do what you want with your time.

The departure terminal was completely packed. That sounds like an uninteresting observation to make about an Australian airport at the beginning of January, at the height of summer holidays. But it’s an interesting observation to make when a pandemic made the idea of travel, for most of 2020, an out-of-reach mirage. Look at all these people, I thought: like me, choosing to holiday in Canberra of all places, they’re desperately trying to claw back as much of normality as they can. They’d rather be flying to Japan or Italy (so would I), but Canberra, or Melbourne, or Cairns, is a tolerable substitute while Japan is impossible. It’s just nice to be travelling somewhere again.

I picked up my hire car after I flew into the city. This was the first time I had ever hired a car while travelling—I thought it was probably a good idea when visiting an Australian city: our cities sprawl over dozens of kilometres, their public transport tends to be inefficient and unreliable, and, in any case, all the most interesting things to see and do in our cities are outside rather than inside them, being outdoorsy and nature things.

My hire car, a Mitsubishi Eclipse, came with a long set of terms and conditions prescribing the many circumstances in which I would be required to pay thousands of dollars in dubious compensation to the hire car company. I was utterly petrified about anything happening to it as I carefully steered it out of the airport.

As I drove toward my Airbnb, though, the prettiness of the city became apparent to me. Grand, broad avenues lined with hundreds of big old trees on the sides and down the middle made Canberra a very pleasant city to drive through. This was not Brisbane, practically devoid of any greenery on residential streets; this was a city where care and planning had gone into making the feel of the city and the experience of moving through it as pleasant as possible. The architecture of the city, too, set it apart from Brisbane: few concrete apartment blocks and brick bungalows, but attractive, traditional styles, even on low-cost social housing, everywhere you looked.

After I had settled into my Airbnb (nothing to write home about—comfortable enough, but I got what I paid for for $290 for 7 nights), I decided to take a drive up to the peak of Mount Ainslie, a small mountain protruding out of the suburbs of eastern Canberra, and a favourite lookout for locals. The view from the top was impressive, and seeing Canberra from above really underlines why it’s given the nickname of the “bush capital”. Canberra is compact for an Australian city, and encircled by bushland which also creeps into its streets and green spaces. From above it looks like a large country town, not the national seat of power. It was, after all, a city planted on what was practically untilled bushland (there was a small hamlet there, I believe) for the purpose of putting the national capital somewhere neither Sydney nor Melbourne would be jealous of.

For dinner that night I went to a little, family-owned Chinese restaurant in Dickson, where I was staying. It was called The East Kitchen and I’d recommend any Canberrans reading this to check it out: an unassuming place both on the outside and the inside, looking a little daggy next to the glitzy, Instagrammable Korean BBQ’s, sushi trains and dumpling houses around it, but the food was the kind of authentic, mouth-watering fare you’ll only get from a rinkydink little Chinese restaurant run by a toothless old Cantonese couple who’ve been cooking the same dishes for 60 years. If, like me, you get the Sichuan Kung Po Fish with a side of steamed rice, you will be immensely grateful for the recommendation.

I was the only guest in the restaurant other than a table of four: a young couple and an older couple. The younger couple were possibly the most bourgeois people I’ve ever seen. They were dressed like hippies (dreadlocked hair, baggy clothes), but it was clear from their voices that they were privilege personified. They spoke with the kind of genteel, sophisticated Australian accents that, in Brisbane, tend to be heard mostly among graduate students and members of humanities faculties. If I had to guess, I’d say they worked in academia or some nook of the Department of Human Services.

I don’t say this to disparage these people: I have the same kind of Australian accent. I’m every bit as bourgeois as them—it’s the only reason I took any notice. I only mention this because Canberra, unlike Brisbane, seems like the kind of place where these kinds of people—young, trendy, bright, a bit bohemian, lefty—tend to cluster and breed. The kind of people who, in London, would live in Islington and Clerkenwell. It makes sense when you think about it: Canberra is essentially an artificial city built to house the federal government and its gigantic bureaucracy. The public service, as opposed to potentially more lucrative careers in the private sector, attracts graduates and young professionals with this profile. According to this hypothesis, Canberra is a little enclave of the most middle class people in Australia. It actually does remind me of the social profile of parts of London I frequented when I was there.

Day 2

On my second day in Canberra, it was time to see some of the big sites.

Parliament House was first—the building housing the Commonwealth Parliament of Australia. From the outside, it’s an impressive and somewhat unorthodox structure. It’s like no traditional parliament building, which tend to be built in some form of traditional architecture such as Gothic or Neoclassical (as Australia’s Old Parliament House was); it looks like something Howard Roark in The Fountainhead might build in the way it seems to be an outgrowth of its surroundings, while at the same time being shamelessly a man-made structure. It seems to hug the earth, like a gigantic starfish. I’ve never been all that fond of Australia’s Parliament House, but, standing before it in person, I can’t deny it’s impressive.

Inside, I toured the House of Representatives and Senate chambers, in addition to a central committee room and a large “Great Hall” built for hosting receptions and functions. The chambers were obviously the centrepiece of the building. Seeing the loci of federal legislative power up close, a place I had only ever seen before on television, is certainly something to take in.

Next was the Australian War Memorial. The War Memorial is a great, stone, domed temple-like structure directly opposite Parliament House across Lake Burley Griffin. In my opinion, it’s one of the more impressive buildings in Australia, a fitting tribute to Australia’s war dead. The commemorative area, an open area featuring a pond with the names of Australia’s war dead across various wars carved onto the walls, lined with poppies, was particularly poignant, apart from the rather naff recording of a child reading out the names of the fallen one by one—the silence of a graveyard would be much more affecting.

The museum itself is enormous, detailed and informative. I’ll be honest, I’m not a museum person. Never have been. Like every other museum I’ve visited while travelling, I started off exploring this museum by reading every blurb and looking at every display. I ended, sick with severe museumitis and sore feet, merely scanning the displays and heading in the direction of the exit with as much dignity and tact as I could bother to muster.

It didn’t help that wars and military history don’t really interest me that much. It’s not that the displays were not high quality—I learned a lot, and many displays were very interesting (particularly the very detailed dioramas of battles)—it’s just that the nitty-gritty details of battles and weapons and campaigns and the like has always gone over my head. Wars and military history has only ever interested me insofar as it was an extension of politics and political history. So the displays that grabbed my attention most were those concerning the high-level political machinations: what was happening in Germany in the 1930s? Why were the Japanese steamrolling their way across the Pacific? Et cetera. While it’s good to collect that information in a museum like this (and many visitors will be learning this stuff for the first time through looking at the displays), it’s not the kind of thing I can’t read in a history book.

So my appraisal of the Australian War Memorial (the museum bit at least) is that it’s a fantastic attraction and a high-quality museum—just not for me.

That evening I found my way to a little pub in the suburb of Ainslie, close to where I was staying in Dickson, called Edgar’s. It was consciously mimicking the look and feel of a British pub, albeit with touches and a menu that catered to the tastes and dining habits of Australians, particular the kind of Australians who live in an affluent, trendy suburb like Ainslie, Canberra. I was glad, in any event, to have at least found an Australian pub that consciously tried to replicate the experience of a British pub, something Brisbane is unfortunately deprived of.

Day 3

I knew that Canberra was located in a beautiful part of the world, and wanted, at some point in my trip, to go out and see some of the countryside, preferably by way of a hike. After some research about hiking trails around Canberra, I settled upon the Gibraltar Peak walk in the Tidbinbilla Nature Conservation Park, a climb up to the peak of what is either a large hill or a small mountain called Gibraltar Peak.

I had designated my third day in Canberra for a hike. That’s because (conscious of previous experience), if I was going to spend a whole day walking uphill, I wanted to do it before, not after, I had spent several days back-to-back wearing out my legs walking around Canberra.

I needn’t have worried because the Gibraltar Peak walk, although classed as a “challenging” hike by the National Park authorities, was a fairly comfortable and gentle climb, certainly unlike other hikes of similar length I had done which were steep uphill ascents the whole way. An advantage of hiking in the ACT, unlike Queensland, is that it’s cool, even in the middle of the day in the middle of summer. There was plenty of pretty scenery to gaze at and snap photos of along the way, and the views became more and more breath-taking the higher I climbed.

It was when I came back down from Gibraltar Peak that my trip to Canberra really took an eventful turn. I checked my notifications (I had no internet connection or phone reception on the peak), and saw a news notification: something along the lines of “Scott Morrison announces new coronavirus restrictions”. An ominous feeling came over me.

You see, I was aware, before going on my hike, that a case of the “more contagious” UK variant of coronavirus had been detected in Brisbane that morning. Annastacia Palaszczuk, the Premier of Queensland, had made the decision to put Greater Brisbane and surrounding regions under a snap 3-day hard lockdown to prevent any spread of the new variant (unnecessarily, as it turned out), and had unilaterally declared Brisbane a “coronavirus hotspot”—again, over one case.

I knew all this before I set out for Tidbinbilla in my rental car (some 45 minutes’ drive from my Airbnb in Canberra). And I did the due diligence: before I set out for Tidbinbilla, the directions from the Premier’s office in Brisbane were that, if you were a Brisbane resident currently elsewhere in Australia, you could return to Brisbane as long as it wasn’t during the 3-day lockdown period. “Well, that’s that, then,” I thought. “I don’t plan on coming back to Brisbane in the next 3 days anyway, I’ll just stick around Canberra and fly back to Brisbane the following Wednesday as I planned. No need to worry. Actually, it’s quite lucky I’m in Canberra and avoided the lockdown!” So satisfied, I set off for the drive to Tidbinbilla.

Between setting out on my hike up Gibraltar Peak, though, and returning three and a half hours’ later, a National Cabinet meeting of all the Australian heads of government had been held and Brisbane had been unanimously declared a national coronavirus hotspot (did I mention there was still only one case?). This was the point I saw the ominous notification on my phone: “Scott Morrison declares new coronavirus restrictions”. Had anything changed while I was up that mountain/large hill?

The reason for my feeling of dread was that the nation had watched, over the last two weeks, the quite shocking spectacle, after a spike in coronavirus cases in Sydney, of the State of Victoria slamming its borders shut to New South Wales, including to its own citizens who happened to be visiting New South Wales at the time. They were given barely 12 hours to get back to Victoria and, if they missed the deadline, were effectively locked out of their own state, out of their own homes and properties. So followed a mad scramble for the border in which a large number of Victorians didn’t make it across the border in time and were thereby effectively rendered refugees in their own country.

I sure as hell didn’t want something like that to happen to me, which was why I was already apprehensive about leaving Queensland for my holiday. So when I saw that notification on my phone, a feeling of dread came over me. In the Tidbinbilla Visitors Centre, I was frantically Googling the status of the border between ACT and Queensland, to check whether anything had changed since that morning. With a pang of painful resignation, I quickly found what I was looking for: the ACT Health webpage about Queensland had been updated. “If you have visited any hotspot areas in Queensland (i.e. Brisbane) since 2 January 2021, you must immediately quarantine for 14 days. You may return to Brisbane, but must do so immediately.”

“Immediately”. A little more detail would have been appreciated (such as “by 12:00pm tomorrow”), but I got the picture: I needed to get out of ACT and back to Brisbane as soon as possible, or I would be legally required to quarantine for 14 days in Canberra. Did I mention that this was all over one case?

I tried seeing if I could log into the Virgin Australia website, on my phone in the Tidbinbilla Visitors Centre, to change my Wednesday flight to that evening, but was having trouble navigating the website on my phone. I gave up and decided to drive as fast as I could the 50km back to my Airbnb in Dickson, to my laptop.

It took me about an hour, but I managed to book a new flight with Virgin back to Brisbane at 7:50pm that evening. I couldn’t change my flight: the Virgin website seemed to be struggling to process a large volume of flight change requests at the same time, and the call centre was being bombarded. So I ended up just buying a new flight for that evening (Virgin’s website seemed to handle that easily enough…)

So I packed my bags and scrambled out the door (forgetting to take with me a six-pack of Asahis in the communal fridge I had bought the previous night). I was quite concerned about making the flight on time, given that I had booked the flight only 2 hours in advance. I calculated that I’d have enough time to make the flight, providing there were no delays returning my rental car at the airport or dropping my luggage off. As it happened, there weren’t, and my decision to take a detour into a petrol station to refill my rental car’s tank didn’t waste critical minutes (I didn’t want to lose my $400 deposit over a couple of litres of fuel). The rental car return took barely 2 minutes, and, despite having trouble locating the departure terminal, I was through check-in and security within another 15 minutes.

What I felt after walking out of the security screening, my carry-on luggage passing the x-ray examination, with about an hour and a half to spare until my flight, was a mixture of relief, adrenaline, and the self-congratulatory feeling I had dodged a bullet with remarkable ease. It’s worth stressing that the unfortunate stories of the Victorians locked out of their own state had been close to the front of my mind for some weeks (I had been keenly on the lookout for signs that something similar might happen to me), and I really didn’t want to quarantine in Canberra for 14 days if I could help it. That’s why I was feeling the way I was at that moment, when I realised I had avoided what, given a few hours’ difference, may have been an unnecessary and unfortunate fate.

I bought myself a toasted salmon bagel at an airport café (I hadn’t had time to eat lunch in my scramble for the airport), and a beer—I needed one. I had time to people-watch what looked like a lot of other stressed-looking Brisbanites who also booked same-day flights back to Brisbane, escaping the prospect of 14 days’ quarantine in the place they were supposed to be taking a holiday.

The flight itself was delayed some 30-40 minutes. A flight from Brisbane had arrived at the gate our flight to Brisbane was departing. Australian Federal Police were at the gate, checking off, one-by-one, every passenger, escapees in the opposite direction from the impending Brisbane lockdown, all with that same look of mixed stress and relief we were sporting.

Finally we were on the plane. The mood was surreal; we were glad to be on the flight, but at the same time not glad. This was the first flight I had been on full of passengers effectively fleeing a state. I expect the mood in hotel quarantine facilities would be similar: we were all on that flight, not necessarily because we wanted to be, but because events outside our control and the arbitrary actions of governments gave us no other choice. That we were all returning to a city under lockdown was also a dampener on the general mood. In any event, I opened my copy of The Brothers Karamazov and spent the duration of the flight reading.

I touched down to a Brisbane in its first hours of lockdown: a real, hard, Victorian-style lockdown, where we were not even permitted to leave our houses except for certain permitted reasons. Not like the half-hearted lockdown we experienced in early 2020, which most people treated as a holiday if they weren’t blatantly flouting the barely-enforced rules. Appropriately, it was dark and wet, and, as I looked out the window of the taxi taking me back to my house, I thought that my city had the tense, fearful atmosphere that came through palpably in the historical photos of London during the Blitz.

Three days later

Three days later, with zero new cases over the weekend, lockdown was lifted on schedule. The ACT announced that, not only would it now be accepting flights from Brisbane again, but visitors from Brisbane quarantining in the ACT no longer had to quarantine the remainder of their 14 days. My reaction was along the lines of: “Are you fucking serious?”

What I loved about Canterbury and Dover + travel photos

Some months ago I started a series of posts on my travels around Great Britain and Europe while I was studying as an exchange student in London. I started with Oxford, my first foray out of London—but have since neglected to continue the series. That changes today.

On my second jaunt out of London, I visited the White Cliffs of Dover and Canterbury on a one-day round trip. Again, I made the trip with the two of my new acquaintances who would become my fastest friends for the rest of my time in London. As someone who has done a great deal of both solo travel and travelling with others, I much prefer having company when I travel. I think the experience of travel is invariably made even better and more memorable by sharing it.

Our first stop was the White Cliffs of Dover. It was still early February, the depths of winter, and it was freezing. All the more so because the cliffs, being on the coast, bear the full brunt of the icy sea winds. Pity me, a poor Australian traveller who almost never has to endure temperatures lower than 10°C where I come from. I think my friends got sick of my incessant complaining about the cold after a while, and were sorely tempted to throw me off those cliffs.

The first challenge that faces visitors to the White Cliffs is actually getting down to them. This endeavour requires an arduous trek over mud-strewn country that will leave your shoes caked in wet earth, and the rest of you, too, if you’re unlucky enough to slip over in the very slippery mud. I didn’t slip, unlike some unfortunate members of our party (we came on a student coach trip), but I don’t think my poor Converses ever forgave me for what I put them through that day. It wouldn’t surprise me if many mud-soaked visitors to the cliffs don’t give up and turn back without ever catching a glimpse of them.

The second challenge is actually catching a glimpse of them. It’s not easy finding a good view of something you’re clambering around on top of, no matter how close to the edge you stand. Eventually we managed to find a good vantage point by performing some particularly daring feats of cross-country that, I think, deterred many of the others. Have a look:


What cliffs, eh? What marvellous cliffs. To use any adjective less superlative than “majestic” in connection with the White Cliffs of Dover, I think, would be to do them an injustice. They really are a sight, once you actually get to see them.

And yes, in that photo above, I am sitting about one metre away from falling to my death. I did it for the ‘gram. Sorry, mum.

Was it worth it? Was it worth drenching every part of me from my knees down in muck and fighting my way through furlongs of hostile countryside? To see some cliffs? Oh yes. But I wonder if I hadn’t had friends to share the experience with, my answer would have been “no”. Wading through mud in the biting cold is certainly less irksome when you’re laughing with equally mud-soaked friends all the way. What might not have been a very enjoyable trip, apart from a glimpse at some—admittedly breathtaking—cliffs, was turned into one of my most memorable experiences from my 6 months’ abroad by the presence of great company.

Next we went to Canterbury, site of the eponymous Tales and charming medieval town par excellence. The rain had really set in by the time we arrived, and our experience of Canterbury was a wet and gloomy Canterbury. “Don’t worry,” a local told us cheerily, “it’s always like this!”

Gloomy and rain-sodden though it was, it was hard not to appreciate the charm of the studiously-preserved medieval town. Cobbled streets, beamed houses and Gothic spires abound in Canterbury. Maybe cobbled streets are a bit passé for Britons and Europeans whose countries have cobbles coming out of their ears—but, for this Australian, walking down Canterbury’s cute old lanes was like walking through Diagon Alley.

Soon we settled down for lunch. Skipping the tourist-infested pub on the high street, we found ourselves in a smaller, more out-of-the-way pub packed with cackling locals. As I watched them drinking and laughing I thought of Anglo-Saxons in their mead hall, and it struck me that, in some ways, not much had changed since Hengist and Horsa had arrived on the shores of Kent, not far from that pub, sixteen hundred years ago. Even my pub lunch of a steak and kidney pie and warm Kentish ale was probably not so different from what those pub-goers’ Saxon ancestors ate and drank all those centuries ago.

After lunch we swung ’round Canterbury Cathedral, seat of England’s top archbishop. Again, the Gothic cathedral and its grounds reminded me, an Australian Millennial whose only reference point is Harry Potter, strongly of Hogwarts. But, to be fair, all centuries-old Gothic cathedrals do. What made this one special was its historical significance as the site of one of the most famous murders in history, that of Thomas Becket. Here you can see me roleplaying the “turbulent priest”, about to be struck down by four of Henry II’s dagger-happy knights, at the very spot it happened:


Yes, my friends gave me very strange looks when I told them I wanted a picture kneeling on the spot a medieval Archbishop of Canterbury was gruesomely murdered. But what matters is that I got a picture kneeling on the spot a medieval Archbishop of Canterbury was gruesomely murdered.

Don’t worry, I did my penance by buying two postcards sporting Justin Welby’s face—Thomas Becket’s current successor in the See of Canterbury—in the cathedral gift shop on my way out. I got strange looks for that, too.

Stress brings out the worst in people: my experience with a cancelled flight

Personally, I’ve never found airports as stressful places as other people. I’m just not someone who stresses very much in general. I had an aunt once describe me as “horizontal” and that I had “no pulse” because of how “chilled out” I am.

Certainly, I can see why many people become stressed and anxious in airports: the number of obstacles one has to traverse between arriving at the terminal and boarding one’s flight, the long, slow-moving queues at every one of those points, the ubiquity of officialdom, the feeling of being herded, the unbearable time pressure, the imposing scale and confusing layout of such complexes, the brusque announcements blaring out — often in a foreign language — at frequent intervals, the fact that everyone else also looks stressed, and the possibility that something could go wrong at any point along the way. It’s enough to induce anxiety in anyone.

But, while I don’t particularly like spending time in airports (apart from the duty-free shopping zones), I’ve never found them especially stressful. I’ve always taken the attitude that, while this is all very inconvenient and unpleasant, we’ve got to go through it and things are going to work out, as they always do. Nothing will go wrong. Nothing ever does. It’ll be fine. A very laid-back Australian way of approaching things, maybe. Or it might just be me.

Since a trip I took to Barcelona earlier this year, though, I’m not sure that’s an attitude I’ll be able to take again when flying. In short, my flight got cancelled. Everyone dreads their flight being cancelled, especially when returning from abroad, but it rarely happens to anyone travelling on a half-decent airline. Reputable airlines don’t tend to make a habit of cancelling their flights and leaving hundreds of people stranded. I certainly didn’t imagine it would happen to me.

It was an experience that made me understand a little bit more about the stress others go through when flying. I’ve also come to learn something rather unsavoury about human nature and what people can be like under stress.

Let me recount what happened.

It was the first of June this year. I’d just spent the day exploring Barcelona with my best friend and his new wife. It was their honeymoon. Yes, I crashed my best friend’s honeymoon. But it was because they invited me, as I wasn’t able to make it to their wedding as I was studying on exchange in England at the time. At the end of a very enjoyable day we parted ways, they back to their cruise ship to depart for another exotic destination in the Mediterranean, and I to the airport to fly back to London.

Apart from a lot of traffic on the way, getting to and through Barcelona-El Prat Airport was one of the most painless experiences I’ve ever had at an airport. Very short queues and efficient security and passport checks meant I sailed through the place and ended up at my gate with almost too much time to spare. I settled down at a nearby café with a cup of tea and a jamon iberico baguette and waited for boarding time. Eventually I moved back to the gate as people started to queue up. There was a gigantic gaggle of English teenagers in blue t-shirts who were evidently returning from a school football tour (a successful one, apparently, as I gathered from the upbeat speeches of their teachers which, with nothing better to do, everyone at our gate was listening to).

Both our designated boarding and departure times came and went and we were still queuing up, as we were informed that our flight would be delayed for unspecified reasons. I wasn’t concerned at that point — no one was. Delays are normal, practically to be expected, in high-traffic European airports. We were told that our new boarding time would be in forty minutes, which seemed to put people’s minds at ease. That boarding time came and went, too, and we were still standing around (sitting on the floor, actually, at this point). They didn’t bother to state a further revised boarding time. Something was wrong. People had started to stand around the desk asking the hapless gate officer for answers he didn’t have, and waiting to hear news. The school kids seemed to be the only ones who didn’t look worried.

It must have been two hours after we were supposed to have flown out that we got the news that the flight had been cancelled. A lot of people started to panic. Most of the passengers on that flight were English and flying home, for whom a cancelled flight wasn’t just an inconvenience but meant we were stranded in a foreign country with nowhere to go. We all huddled around the boarding desk waiting to be told what was going to happen. Some people took their stress out on the poor young gate officer, seemingly demanding that he, personally, put everything right.

Eventually we were marched back through passport control to the Vueling check-in desk, where we joined a long queue of people who were also waiting to be reallocated to new flights. Apparently there were a lot of flights cancelled that evening. There were no more flights to London that evening, we were told — they had all been cancelled. No one was telling us why flights were being cancelled, but the word going around was that striking air traffic controllers in France were behind it all.

So I stood there in that queue for what must have been an hour and a half as I waited for all the cranky passengers ahead of me to haggle over their new flights with the tired and harassed-looking check-in staff. No one seemed to be able to get a direct flight to wherever they were going. Everyone walked away from their negotiation with a check-in officer looking highly displeased. There were rumours making their way back through the winding queue that some people were put on a flight back to London via St Petersburg. I winced just thinking about it.

I really just felt for the school kids, who, all forty-odd of them, had to be put on a flight back together, and their teachers, who suddenly had to deal with much more than they bargained for. If anyone had reason to complain, they did.

Being English, a lot of people seemed to be dealing with the unpleasantness of it all by trying to laugh about the whole situation. It’s one of the things I admire about the English. Their attempts at light-hearted joking, tinged with a note of desperation, didn’t sound all that convincing in that moment, but joking they were nonetheless. It was at that point that I thought that only the English would be standing around politely in a queue and trying to laugh about it all in this situation. Imagine if it were Italians. Or Greeks.

When it was finally my turn to talk to a check-in person, I was offered a flight to London Gatwick via Rome the next day, with a 7 hour layover in between. I took it. I was too tired to argue.

We were bussed to a hotel the other side of Barcelona, in fact outside the city itself, and told there was a coach — just one — that would take us back to the airport leaving at 5:00 am the next morning. It was 2:00 am by the time I collapsed into bed dreading the next day.

Two hours of sleep and a very early coach ride back to the airport later, I once again found myself milling around a boarding gate waiting to board a flight to Rome. It was with a very anxiety-inducing sense of déjà vu that I took the news that the flight was delayed. Fifteen, thirty minutes after the designated departure time and we were still standing in a queue. “Here we go again,” I couldn’t help thinking. If, indeed, striking French air traffic controllers were to blame for my and God-knows how many other cancelled flights around Europe, who was to say the same thing wouldn’t happen to me again? Some of the passengers on my cancelled flight the previous night said that was the second time in a row their flight had been cancelled. I was tormented by the thought that successive tickets back to London would be repeatedly cancelled, and that I might spend an indefinite number of days airport-hopping around Europe trying to find a clear route back to England through a turbulent French air space.

Forty-five minutes after we were supposed to have flown out we were finally let onto the plane. I breathed a great sigh of relief. But I wasn’t back in England yet. I wouldn’t breathe easy until my flight from Rome had left the ground. At least the airport in which I spent the next seven hours — Rome Fiumicino — was rather nice. One of the nicest airports I’ve been in, actually. I ate delicious pizza for lunch, tried my first authentic Italian gelato and listened to other airport-loiterers taking turns on a grand piano placed strategically in the middle of the airport lounge.

I felt the return of a familiar sense of panic when it was announced that, once again, the flight was delayed. “Please don’t tell me it’s happening again,” I thought to myself desperately. Fortunately it wasn’t. Half an hour later we were happily, mercifully boarding. Two hours after that I was back on God-blessed English soil. I could have kissed the ground I stood on as I walked off that plane, except that it was an airport and the floor was probably dirtier than a toilet bowl. It had all been a thoroughly stressful and unpleasant experience. And I was exhausted.

If there’s one thing I’ll take away from the whole saga, it’s the unpleasant realisation that a lot of people, at heart, aren’t quite as reasonable and nice and level-headed as they appear. It takes putting them under stress, like cancelling their flight home, that brings out the worst in some people. On the night the flight was cancelled, I saw quite a few of my fellow passengers who otherwise might have been perfectly pleasant people to be around, who, under the stress and panic of a late-night cancelled flight, had become disagreeable, unreasonable, selfish and, in some cases, outright obnoxious and abusive.

When the flight was cancelled people shouted abuse at the young gate officer who clearly wasn’t responsible for anything. People were just looking for someone to shout at.

When we were led back to the check-in desk to be reallocated to new flights, people jostled past each other to get to the desk first. While we were queuing, one woman somehow ended up about a dozen places ahead of where she started. This is literally kindergartner stuff.

People spoke to Vueling staff, no matter how low-ranking, with utter rudeness and entitlement.

Many people seemed to be under the impression that their inconvenience mattered more than everybody else’s. “We have to be at a wedding,” “I’ve got a meeting tomorrow,” “I have to get home!” and so on.

One extraordinarily obnoxious person spent the entire time being rude to Vueling staff and angrily telling anyone who’d listen (and few would) how this was all bullshit. When he got his turn to speak to a check-in officer, he subjected the poor, tired man to a furious twenty minute tirade which ended with his declaring “this is the worst fucking company I’ve ever seen” and stalking off without having arranged a new flight.

I wasn’t particularly cheery about having to waste a full day of my life getting home, but, by God, at no point did I feel the need to be unacceptably rude to people who were not personally at fault in any way, or lose control and make an embarrassing spectacle of myself as others did, or treat my fellow passengers with discourtesy just because we were in a stressful situation. I was one of a number of the passengers, perhaps half, maybe more if I’m being generous, who — while peeved about the situation like everyone else — remained outwardly perfectly calm, pleasant and courteous throughout the whole experience. We were the normal ones — or, at least, we were normal according to what I thought was supposed to be normal. I thought normal people didn’t drop civility and courtesy and turn selfish and rude when they found themselves in an inconvenient situation. Maybe I’m wrong.

Ironically, the most conspicuously mature people in the whole situation were the teenage school kids, not one of whom I saw uttered a word of complaint, nor were they panicking or making a fuss like the “grown-ups” were. Remarkably for a group of forty minors who were going have a very difficult time getting back home, they were taking the whole thing coolly in their stride.

Is it just that some people are worse at dealing with stress than others? As someone who doesn’t stress very much, who wasn’t even particularly stressed in that situation (at least until I realised it might happen again, if the French continued to be difficult), is it unfair of me to call out others who do get stressed more easily and don’t deal with it well? Should I check my #ChillPrivilege?

I don’t think so. I think there’s no excuse for abusing people who don’t deserve it, or treating people badly just because they’re wearing a uniform. No excuse for forgetting basic civility and consideration, even if you’re stuck in Barcelona — especially when everyone else is in precisely the same situation you are.

Maybe I’m still being too generous. Maybe it’s not just that some people don’t deal well with stress, but that some people just aren’t nice people at heart. I can say without hesitation that the dude who embarrassed himself in his twenty-minute tirade in an unfortunate check-in officer’s face was truly a twat of the highest order. Some people are just twats. Maybe more people are twats than I realised.

I really hope, for the sake of my faith in humanity, that it’s the former. I can understand, if not forgive, that a lot of people lash out and turn into disagreeable twats under stress. But if the proportion of the population who really aren’t nice people at heart is equal to the number of people on that cancelled flight who were acting like twats, I’m tempted to think that humanity actually doesn’t deserve to be saved.

One thing I’m sure of, though, is that cancelling a flight really does bring out the worst in people. If only for that reason, I don’t want to go through that experience again. I don’t think what positive opinion of people I have left could survive it.

What I loved about Oxford + travel photos

This is the first of a planned series of posts about the places I visited while I was studying on exchange in London — not necessarily in chronological order.

The “Bridge of Sighs” is one of the iconic, most recognisable sights of the university town of Oxford. It supposedly takes its name from the other Bridge of Sighs in Venice, which was so called because of the “sighs” of the prisoners upon seeing their last view of sunlight out of the bridge’s windows before being marched into the dark, gloomy dungeons beneath the Doge’s Palace where they would spend the rest of their days.

For me, the name of Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs evokes very different imagery. Oxford is a place that positively heaves with the memory of a thousand years of history, a place that’s been touched and passed through by countless generations of youth. It’s a place where you can feel the electricity in the air created by the meeting of ancient learning and heritage, and curious, hungry youth. The “sighs” may well be the groans and yawns of generations of undergraduates sighing under the weight of Latin translation exercises and endless tutorial essays on the Augustan Period or Locke’s Second Treatise.

I visited Oxford for the day with two of my new friends at the end of January. It was a typical English January day — cold, and set against a canopy of thick grey clouds which occasionally thawed to admit brief spells of sunshine. We wandered around, taking in the sights and the town’s distinctive beauty, occasionally passing a gaggle of haughty-looking students dressed in rugby or rowing blues. The highlight of our day was the view from the bell tower of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, which we climbed to be rewarded with the most breathtaking view of the town in all its Gothic, masculine grandeur.

It really is a beautiful and evocative place. History, knowledge, excellence, continuity, prestige, exclusivity, youth, nobility and curiosity are all things associated with Oxford, and which are all evident as you wander its ancient streets and venerable colleges. It’s very apparent why so many have romanticised Oxford and the life of its elite undergraduates before. An exemplary case is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which, in both the book and the ITV TV series, paints a sumptuous, fawning picture of an idealised Oxford in the interwar years populated by the genteel scions of England’s leisured classes. It’s enough to make anyone wish they were an aristocratic Oxford undergraduate.

Personally, I would have loved to have studied at Oxford. It’s not just that it’s the best, most prestigious university in the world, or that a degree from Oxford looks amazing on the CV, or that it looks like Hogwarts. It’s also the experience of passing through an institution that generations upon generations of students have passed through before you, including many of the greatest names and minds in British history. It’s about being a student at an institution that, for nearly a millennia, has prized and elevated learning and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and doesn’t see its role as chiefly a certificate-granting body or university education as merely a means to obtain employment, as most universities these days do.

Oh well, I’ll have to comfort myself with the thought that maybe in another life I was Charles Ryder treading the corridors of Hertford College. Maybe.