Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

Water is precious, says the little logo on the NI Water company vans. It’s particularly precious when you haven’t got any, but that’s not a problem the Norn Irish have ever had.

For here, it rains… and it rains… and it rains. Most of the year round, in fact, except when its too cold to rain, and then it snows. And freezes. And then, as has been the case over the past few days, it thaws. Drip-drip-drip… it’s all you can hear all around as the snow gradually disappears. Drip-drip-drip in the gardens, drip-drip-drip on the rooftops, drip-drip-drip in the living room… oops, hang on, that can’t be right, can it?

But sadly I have returned to the Home Land at a rather chaotic time, and we have gone straight from the madness of the icy roads and snowed-in homes and frozen pipes to the nightmare of The Thaw. The frozen pipes all across the country have melted and promptly burst in vast numbers. Shops throughout our town have hastily scribbled signs outside saying “CLOSED DUE TO FLOODING”. Tearful women on the TV are showing the news reporters through their ruined houses after drains overflowed and filled their kitchens with raw sewage. Town by town, the water supply is being shut off in an attempt to ration the now extremely low reservoir supplies caused by all the leaks and floods. Leisure centres and suchlike have been set up as emergency drinking water distribution venues (limited to 20 litres per family, and bring your own buckets!), and offering free showers. People are queuing for hours and then discovering that there’s no water left anyway.

It truly is a case of water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink. Dad sauntered in this evening and cheerily informed us that he’d heard that our water would also be cut off, at 6pm. Which is in about, erm, 7 minutes, he added, as I leapt up and bolted upstairs for the fastest shower I have ever taken – and the coldest one I’ve ever taken in December, I might add, not having had time to wait for the water to heat up. We filled the sinks and buckets and the bathtub.

It is now 7.30pm and the water is still on, but at least we’re prepared, I suppose… and if nothing, that shower was probably good for my circulation after a week of sitting around watching TV and eating chocolate!

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Nothing strange

I seem to have travelled a bit too far in all the confusion, for I have arrived back in the Ice Age.

Everything is frozen. The first thing I had to do when I got back (after eating sausage rolls and sleeping for four hours, I mean) was buy some boots so that I could actually remain upright for any length of time. I have been home for over two days now and still haven’t seen anyone beyond my immediate family, since everyone is snowed in or reluctant to drive in these conditions.

To be honest, I’m a little relieved, because it is quite nice to just relax with The Parents and Kat the Cat in a nice warm living room with twinkling Christmas tree lights and Christmas TV and a wee drink, without feeing guilty that I’m not out and about rushing all over the place trying to visit everyone. I’ll see them when things thaw out a bit. In the meantime, it’s cosy relaxation all the way!

I haven’t been hit too badly by the ‘reverse culture shock’ I’d been warned about, since I haven’t really been out much. It is, however, somewhat embarrassing when the girl in the shop says “That’ll be one fifty” in a strong Ballymena accent, and you reach her the money with your hand touching your elbow most respectfully, and then try to thank her by saying “Kamsahamnida” and bowing your head politely. I also took my shoes off out of habit at the front door of my parents’ house, but this didn’t look as strange as it might have at another time of the year, when my shoes weren’t caked in snow and ice.

Maybe I’m not the exotic stranger I fancied myself as, after all, and am in fact just a normal wee Ballymena girl at heart…

Frozen in time

3.11am For the first time in my life, I join in frantic applause as the plane makes contact with the runway. Aer Lingus are my heroes. Fearless, daring, determined heroes, who have gotten me home for Christmas where so many failed. Taking off and landing using ice-caked runways and feeling the plane veer sideways was… interesting. The first time I have ever been afraid in an aeroplane. The pilot has my undying respect and gratitude. I am home!

3.20am  I skip deliriously along the halls of Dublin Airport, grinning insanely at the passport guy. Overjoyed to no longer be in Brussels Airport!

3.40am  Having found an internet connection to announce my arrival and request transport from Belfast, I discover that my transport to Belfast will be delayed as there was a bus 20 minutes ago and won’t be another until 5.20. No matter. I am happy to hang out in the nice warm airport, and perhaps drink some coffee and sing to myself. I have escaped from Brussels Airport!

3.47am  Nice girl at information desk informs me that I have read the timetable wrong and there is in fact a bus at 4.20am. Well, this can only be good news. Hurrah!

3.48am  Search for bus stop.

3.50am  Nice man in car park booth points out my stop, tells me I can buy a ticket from the driver, and informs me that the next bus is indeed at 4.20. Yippee!

3.55am  Stand at bus stop.

4.10am Start to get a little chilly but don’t care. Bus will be here soon, and anyway, at least I am not in Brussels Airport!

4.19am  Toes very cold. But no matter. Bus will be here in one minute.

4.20am Bus?

4.21am  Bus has not arrived yet.

4.22am Where is bus?

4.25am Recall that transport in Ireland is not exactly as punctual as in Korea, and decide to put my gloves on.

4.30am Still no bus. It is really very cold, now that I have had time to sober up from my happiness-induced stupor. The cold cannot hurt me, though. I am not in Brussels Airport! Life is wonderful!

4.35am Put on hat.

4.45am This is starting to get a little worrying. Put up coat hood over hat.

5am Am now jogging on the spot to stop my toes falling off, and cupping my gloved hands over my face to perform the same service for my icy nose. Bus is still not here. The charm of the other buses saying “Stand clear! Luggage storage operatin’!” in lilting Irish accents is starting to wear off. But at least I am not in Brussels Airport, eh?

5.10am Go for a little jog up and down the path. Fear frostbite. There is a complete absence of Ulsterbus buses. I think the airport staff have made a mistake somewhere.

5.12am Stupid, misinforming airport staff!!!! I was right about the next bus time all along!

5.15am There will be a bus at 5.2o. I am not going to die out here. Hold on, girl, hold on. Bus will be here in 5 minutes. I think Brussels Airport was warmer than this.

5.20am Where the feck is the fecking bus?!!! I think fondly of my time in Brussels Airport as I prepare to say goodbye to my throbbingly painful toes.

5.24am Never, never, NEVER have I ever been so glad to see an Ulsterbus bearing the name BELFAST. For a brief moment I feel sorry for the people at the next stop waiting for the Derry bus, and then I realise I don’t care any more. Get on to bus. It is warm. Driver has a Belfast accent. Brussels Airport is a long distant memory, and Dublin Airport is about to be, too. Don’t care about misinformation or lateness. I am going home.

7.30am Have not yet thawed out, but could not care less as the bus pulls into the Europa bus station. Frostbite is a small price to pay for finally being home and seeing The Sister run towards me wearing a Santa hat, and being given a welcoming packet of Tayto. Hurrah!

Lessons Learned

1. I don’t like snow nearly as much as I’ve always thought I did.

2. Asiana Airlines are rubbish, and not a patch on the fabulous Korean Air.

3. People can be really nasty towards one another, as evidenced by the near-riots I witnessed at Brussels airport.

4. People can be really generous, warm, and loving towards one another, as evidenced by the many, many little acts of kindness I witnessed at Brussels airport. These include two young men carefully constructing a little bed out of their own blankets, coats, and sweaters for the baby of a tearful lone woman near them in the chaotic terminal, and also the lovely couple who shared their food and water with me and then insisted on giving me money to make sure I got home OK after my bank blocked my card again (I really must sort out that travel issue!).

5. Planes have to be de-iced before take-off in this weather. I did not know this, and looked out the window with great interest to see if I could spot someone walking around the plane shaking a wee can of de-icer, but sadly didn’t manage to spot him.

6. A neck pillow is an extremely worthwhile investment if you plan on spending a weekend getting stranded in airports and on planes. Not only does it help you rest more comfortably on the plane, but it also doubles up as a back cushion when you’re sitting on an airport floor googling endlessly for flights and trains, a handy buffer between your face and the window when you’re dozing on the bus, and a convenient bum-warmer to let you sit on the freezing cold bench at the bus stop.

7. Belgian waffles are very soothing things.

8. Cats are snooty, unforgiving creatures. But I am still hopelessly in love with mine, even if she continues to ignore my existence.

9. The Irish exude a great collective cheerfulness, positivity, and friendliness that I never really noticed before.

10. However addicted to travel and adventure you may be… at Christmas, there’s no place like home.

When is it OK to yell?

You know those Airline programmes, where they basically film everybody getting pissed off because their flights are delayed?

I used to watch those in a sort of amused horror, laughing and cringing as people attacked the poor airline workers in crazed frenzies. Since then, I’ve travelled through many airports and seen lots of tense conversations, but never the sort of ridiculous drama of those shows… until now.

And the scary thing? I can actually understand it now. I feel like it would take very little right now to snap the thread holding on my mask of calmness and quiet dignity, and turn me into a screaming, crying, shrieking lunatic trying to beat the crap out of a total stranger. I mean, I nearly shoved someone earlier just for walking in my path, and I was surprised by the urge I had to shake a woman who was moaning about the fact that she’d been stuck at the airport all night. I paid to go to London Heathrow on the 18th, she whined, glaring at the airline worker, and now it is the 19th. This is not good enough. Why am I sleeping on a cold floor and not being flown to London Heathrow RIGHT NOW?

Because London Heathrow is CLOSED, ma’am, said the harrassed airline worker. And this is the thing, you see, about complaining. I can understand it if it’s going to change something – but really, what can an overwhelmed representative really do about the fact that your destination won’t let you in on account of it being all covered in snow? You just have to accept it and wait patiently.

But that’s very difficult to do when you’ve been looking forward to being on the other end of that flight for so long, and it’s Christmas, and you want to see your family and cuddle your cat, so I have to confess I understand how the frustration can turn into rage at the only people who are there. You’re disappointed, you’re tired, you need a shower, you’re hungry and thirsty… oh, yes, when I finally got a food voucher (there is no ATM in the terminal) I joined the hundreds-strong queue at the only restaurant, only for them to run out of food when I was halfway along the line! Sigh. I ended up going very humbly to one of the Red Cross volunteers who have been providing sleeping bags and suchlike, and begging for a bottle of water.

While I have remained my usual patient, “oh, no problem, don’t worry about it” self on the outside, I’ve been gradually unravelling on the inside, to the point where a kind and helpful email from a friend earlier made me start to cry, sitting there surrounded by people. I hurriedly dried the tears and decided to search for a new way home instead – but had there been someone there for me to scream pointlessly at at that moment, I might well have done so!

On the plus side, many random conversations with strangers have been had in French. There’s that spirit of “everybody help each other out, we’re all in the same boat here, or at least wish we were in a boat”. As I type this, curled up by a power socket I found sneakily hiding beside a check-in machine, I have the iPhone of some guy plugged into my laptop to recharge it, and what’s more he trustingly has left me with it to go and get me some food. The only regrettable part of all this human interaction is that when the first girl approached me she spoke so fast that I got confused and said “please speak slowly” in Korean instead of French. Ah well.

Original flight abandoned. Had to get out of the crazy terminal filled with mad people. Dublin flight booked. So much for my paid-for vacation. Don’t care, as long as I get out of here soon!

Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain…

I’ve said it before and I will say it again, as unfortunately there is no way for me to avoid it: I hate flying.

However, the uncomfortable 13 hours in a cramped plane seat would have been worth it to then get off in London as planned and hop on over home. I watched the little “we are here” plane on the screen as it got closer and closer to our destination, and was almost thinking that it was actually going to happen, when all of a sudden it did a neat little u-turn and proceeded to circle over the Netherlands for a while before disappearing altogether as the actual plane landed in Dear Knows Where.

There were various muffled announcements about our snowy plight, but I didn’t manage to hear much as my ears had popped quite painfully, and also the announcements were all made in Korean first, which meant that all the Koreans reacted and talked when it was over, making the English translation difficult to hear, especially with broken ears.

They kept us in that horrible, dark tin can for hour after hour after hour, until my legs were throbbing with the agony of sitting in such a cramped space for upwards of 20 hours. Then they decided Heathrow wasn’t going to reopen after all, and herded us off the plane, which is when I discovered I was in Brussels.

I have been napping on a sleeping bag on the floor of a an airport terminal, which looks like a refugee camp. I am thirsty and can find no water. I am hungry, and did not get my promised food vouchers. Nor do I have any money. Nor can I find a cash machine. The only information I can find is a departures screen with about a million flights to Heathrow, all saying CANCELLED in pretty red letters. There are no staff whatsoever.

Flying sucks, and flying in winter apparently sucks even more. White Christmas? Bah, humbug. Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain…

It’s not just about December 25th.

Christmas starts a month or two beforehand, or at the very least, in the first week of December.

Christmas is hearing the songs you’ve heard every year since you were born, over and over again until you can’t think of anything else.

Christmas is seeing the lights twinkling every time you go into town.

Christmas is sitting in Starbucks with a friend, drinking Gingerbread Lattes and eating cinnamon cookies.

Christmas is visiting the Christmas market and drinking mulled wine, or whatever they call it in your part of the world.

Christmas is enjoying a Bailey’s on ice with your best friend in front of a roaring log fire in a local pub.

Christmas is listening to little kids learning to sing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Christmas is sitting in your parents’ living room watching The Snowman with The Sister and a box of Quality Street.

Christmas is getting thrown out of a local pub for singing Fairytale of New York too loudly whilst draped in tinsel.

Christmas is a carol service in an echoing, candlelit church.

Christmas is giving what you can to that homeless guy outside the subway station.

Christmas is watching your Granda make his novelty slippers do a happy dance to the tune of a Slade song.

Christmas is helping tiny little children to write letters to Santa on decorated stocking-shaped cards.

Christmas is sitting in a karaoke room singing Last Christmas and Oh, Holy Night with your friends.

Christmas is walking home in the snow.

Christmas is not just about December 25th. It’s a whole season, and for the first time in three years, I am travelling home to spend it with my family (and Kat the Cat). I’ve had to mostly bite my tongue and keep my mouth shut about it here in Korea, since I know that all my friends would love to be going home for Christmas, and I’m trying not to make them sad by rubbing their noses in the fact that I am*. All I want to do, however, is shriek in a girlish, high-pitched squeal: I’m coming home for Christmas!

See you soon. :)

[*The one friend in Korea who does faithfully read this blog will have to bear with me through the excitement… you know I would love for you to be coming, too!]