Many happy returns of the day, is the expression. One I like a great deal since my diagnosis. Already this is my fifth “return of the day” since I heard the words which made me think I would not see another Christmas, never mind another birthday. There is another story in there which I am also picking up, but for now, I am looking at a birthday policy of “no return” which I have stumbled upon in recent years.
In 1999, I travelled on a rare adventure to celebrate my 40th birthday. I had never been out of Europe, save to a short holiday in Tunisia so the thought of a train trip to Asia was a huge step into new territory, literally as well as metaphorically.
In mid July 1999, I flew to Moscow and then caught the Trans Siberian Express. The rest is history, and was a great part in the shaping of my own history. This was the first time I had travelled to Asia, and to make this all the more meaningful, I ventured into Asia one kilometre at a time, as the train moved forward and spent that magical 40th birthday in Southern China, cycling alongside paddy fields. In 2000 I had started work in Nepal and spent my birthday there, and from then on developed a kind of tradition. Spend the birthday in Asia, if possible in a new country. And as a result I have spent every single birthday in the intervening birthdays in Nepal, Thailand, Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar. Cambodia and Malaysia.
This year looked a little different. For a start there are important family events which I have to be here for. No question. And now for the trivial, but practical. My bank card expired on 31 July and the new card would be delivered to a UK address. Hmmm. Of course it is possible to get from Asia to Europe and then back again for a birthday in Asia. Possible yes. Realistic, less so and sensible – almost certainly not. I would definitely be booking a birthday trip from the UK.
The only option which looked viable was to book a few days in Istanbul, the cusp of Asia and Europe, and celebrate my birthday there. I looked at options, and was particularly encouraged by the fact that I could fly direct from Edinburgh. I could also fly back into London and then see family in the Englandy side of the UK. It all looked good and feasible. So I then looked at hotel options, initially highly surprised at the ridiculous costs, but managing to find some reasonable options. Next step is to do the “side-by’side” crab approach to booking. First the flights, then the hotel, not confirm one nor the other until both appear to be workable. Fights were available and so was the hotel, so I moved to the next step. Booking and Paying! Now, if it takes time to search for options, that is nothing compared to the challenge of paying for them online. Our weak connectivity always brings a challenge and was true to form when I tried to pay for the flights. The payment process would almost complete, but a dropped connection for a second would bounce me back to the start of the process. After the third attempt, the inevitable happened. A message appeared advising me that my bank card was not accepted. My heart sank, as although I knew it was probably due to the repeated attempts at payment, it always stresses me when the card refuses to work. By this time it was late in the evening and after an extremely expensive phone call resolving the card I decided to call a halt to the long and tedious proceedings and try again the following day.
The following day was Friday 18 July and we woke to the news of MH17, a commercial flight which had been blown out of the sky on its route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Suddenly, selfishly, the thought of booking flights which were strictly speaking “unnecessary” became very unappealing. I did not make a conscious decision not to book, but I made no move to take forward the planning and confirmation of the previous evening.
My appetite for booking the birthday break had disappeared, and conveniently I was buried under the necessary tasks which have to be done generally before depart on leave. Time ticked on and by the time I arrived in Scotland all I had was a great deal of confusion, far too many ideas and wishes and very few days to plan and book. There were a number of options and my criteria were clear. Firstly, I wanted to go to a country I have not been to before and secondly I did not want to fly. But translating this into a booking was somewhat more difficult. There were so many options – even Istanbul by train, Budapest, Vienna and Prague. Riverways in Europe were another option and I have also not been to Portugal, Sweden or Finland and they were also accessible over land and sea. In my mind, an exotic journey on the Orient Express was what I was hankering after, but that is but a dream.
Fantasy aside, amongst the many options, the biggest challenge was in pulling all of the information together and making sense of it. I really just wanted to go into the International Bookings Office which used to exist in mainline railway stations and find out what was possible, and for them to hand me an exciting ticket. Sadly, these facilities no longer exist and a complicated phone call to London would be the only way forward. With only 48 hours before I wanted to leave, though, many of those options were reducing dramatically as was my will and capacity to organise anything at all complicated.
There was one very simple option which emerged and gathered favour, however, and one which did not need a complicated booking or reservation. And – it was to a country I have not been to before………. If I caught Eurostar (easily bookable online) to Brussels, I could then catch an onward train to Luxembourg which would arrive 3 hours later. These trains departed hourly and did not need advance booking! I could leave London in the morning and be in Luxembourg in the afternoon!
I realised that I knew very little about Luxembourg, but from a quick image search I knew that it would be a good fit, even if not near Asia. Luxembourg city is highly impressive and looked very appealing. Before I booked it, however, my attention was drawn by one image on the Visit Luxembourg tourism site and before I knew what had happened I was off on another hunt! I had seen images of beautiful woodland and wanted to spend my birthday, right there!
I soon learned that Luxembourg is a very small country and to get to this village very near the eastern border with Germany, it would take less than an hour. Finally, a decision had been made, tickets were rapidly bought and a characterful guest house booked.
And that is how I came to decide how to spend my first non Asia birthday in 16 years! And that is a tale for the blogging morrow!