Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Trapped in Toronto by the Polar Vortex!

The Male Trailing Spouse has just returned from a 48 hour nightmare trek like no other.  It all began in the wee hours of January 5th, when I lobbed the Christmas tree out of the shuttered windows of Mum's flat on Notting Hill Gate, and fled the scene of my crime for Heathrow Airport and Atlanta via Toronto. 

The getaway was all going according to plan. It was Sunday. One day short of the Epiphany. And not a sucker did stir in da hood. No nosy neighbors, "Community Support Officers," or 21st Century Secret Policemen from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to catch me dumping the £50 Norwegian fir at the white gated pillars of Linden Gardens. 

Polar Vortex over Yankland

But the Male Trailing Spouse was flying out of London via Toronto Pearson International Airport at the height of the so-called "Polar Vortex" -- a blast of freezing Arctic air that snarled key routes, stranded travelers and brought extra costs, delays and complaints.  Our connecting flight to Atlanta from Toronto's Pearson Airport, a humble one hour and forty odd minutes, was delayed and eventually canceled due to the deep freeze. The local hotels were all full. So the Male Trailing Spouse and his Memsahib stoically bivouacked on the north floor of Terminal 1 for some much needed Zzz. 

After a distant, craggy dream about Castle Espie in Comber, County Down in Northern Ireland, I woke up on the tiled floor of Canada's busiest airport to find out that 600 flights had been canceled before breakfast. And our connecting flight to Atlanta that night, at 21.00hrs, was delayed and eventually canceled due to the severity of the winter storms. The airport had instituted a "ground stop". Oh drat, stranded in frozen Canada with an estimated 4,500 other foolhardy punters. We could not believe our rotten luck.   

Dunkirk Spirit

But the bizarro seasonal weather, the most crippling storm to hit North America since 1994, had brought out the old Dunkirk spirit in me and the better half. Rather than follow the hordes of angry tourists and travelers to much promised hotel vouchers and $100 towards the cost of nearby accommodation, we staked out another bit of real estate in the airport and used a plug socket to charge up the iPhone and iPad and regroup our senses.

Brass Monkeys like Ice Station Zebra (1968)

This was the night of the big freeze.  Monitoring local media reports, as you should always do in a crisis, we had found out that the temperature, plus wind chill, in Toronto was hovering at around -50C. Fortunately, I had packed Gore Tex trousers, coat and gloves for London (9 years of hot living in South East Asia had softened me up) in event of climate extremes back in the homeland. Cooped up for 24 hours in the departure lounge (after clearing US customs in Canada, twice) I was dying for a ciggie and went outdoors for a quick burn.  I soon wished that I hadn't.  The big chill was no fat joke. Even in thermals and Gore Tex kit I soon regretted that cigarette, bust, unceremoniously, out of that box of 200 Duty Free Benson and Hedges buried deep at the bottom of my jailbird orange Samsonite holdall. It was too painful to breathe let alone smoke a cigarette. The wind had a killing chill and it bashed my beardless face and pummeled the exposed lobes of my ears. I chugged down the ciggie and stubbed it out in the iced-over stand-up ashtray. It was enough to make me give up for the New Year. Almost. 

Snowed under at Toronto's Pearson Airport

Stepping over hundreds of sleeping bodies in the airport, who had seized their own bits of real estate on sofas, benches and even the carpet by the kids playground; dodging the blue air and red faces of angry looking fliers looking for airport officials to berate and threaten, I found the Contessa and went over the options. We were trapped (Dut-Dut-Duah!) due to adverse atmospheric conditions beyond our control. That much was blindingly obvious. But, like that old Commercial Union insurance advert in the 1970s and 1980s used to say, "Don't make a drama out of a crisis!" So, once again, we reviewed the options and "known-knowns" (facts) to find the quickest route home. All flights were grounded, delayed or canceled. Logically, we had to stay put and try to blag our way out via our existing carrier, Air Canada. After all, we were in transit, and they had an obligation to get us to our final destination.   But the news was dire.  The next flight out of Stalingrad was on the evening of Wednesday the 8th. Another day and night stuck in the airport with the rest of the internally displaced tourists and international travelers.  It had been one Hell of a haul from old London town.  But there was no way this freak storm was going to last, surely?

I got talking to another stranded traveler about the instant Ice Age. The man took me for a fool and offered a crazed suggestion: take a $1 bus to Buffalo, New York from Toronto and get an internal flight to Atlanta.  The wind chill must have gotten to the old timer's bald head. He was, he told me, on his way to Bangkok via Hong Kong for a series of bargirl bunk ups. I told him to go foxtrot oscar in terms most uncivil


Packing a sense of humor in your old kit bag and deploying it in situations like this is essential. And there was plenty to laugh about. The high maintenance blonde with BDSM hair-do, Burberry checkered throw; skintight, super-heroine white leggings and dominatrix boots was demanding immediate passage on the first First Class flight back to Los Angeles (her hang dog hubbie stood by, silent and obedient like a good little boy, as she went off on one)Another trophy blonde, a lithe, sinewy, kale and beet juicing, New Age type, oblivious to the looks of frustrated and bemused travelers, vaulted into a handstand to show off her yoga skills by the baggage carousels. 

"There's always one worse than yourself," I joked

The Contessa and I began to talk about The V.I.P.s a film about a bunch of rich people stuck in the VIP lounge of an airport during a bout of freak weather in London (made at a time when flying was exclusive and ultra chic). 

"I am Taylor and you are Burton," said the Contessa, shamelessly.   

"Rod or Elizabeth?" I asked, facetiously. 

"Elizabeth of course (pause, raise of eyebrow, position aloft) who is Rod Taylor?"  


"The Aussie businessman who shacks up with a sort of hot looking Maggie Smith...if you are Elizabeth Taylor, don't go shagging Louis Jourdan."


"Louis who?"

"The French playboy with the thin wallet...Liz Taylor is shagging him to get the attention of Burton."

"Sounds like the sort of thing that you would get up to. I'd better watch it again...that's if we survive The Day After Tomorrow. Who else was in The V.I.P.s?"

"Orson Welles as a film director running out of town to avoid a tax bill and Margaret Rutherford as an impoverished aristocrat." 
The similarities between our situation and the ones depicted in those silly old films briefly amused.  We had indeed been in a VIP lounge but the fool airport authorities closed it at 9pm and now we had to sleep on the floors of the Terminal, with all the other ranks. This time, more than any other time, we had to keep a cool, calm head and retain our English stiff upper lips. A lot of people were losing their tempers.  Thankfully, they were all foreigners.  Some lads down on a baggage carousel, American johnnies, got into a scuffle with the local fuzz; hundreds and hundreds of frustrated travelers converged and hurled abuse at stressed-out airline officials at check in counters, almost sparking a full blown riot; all of it was selfish and short tempered. It was best to stay frosty, we sardonically observed from the sidelines, it was all an act of Godly nature and too icy and dangerous to fly, anyhow. There were innumerable safety concerns wreaking havoc for transport and operations-- a backlog of planes on the tarmac, cargo doors too frozen to open or close, it was unsafe for ground crew and baggage handlers to be outdoors on the airfield for too long, and was so cold even the glycol used to de-ice aircraft froze. It really was a situation out of the ordinary -- it was even colder than weather readings from the Mars Rover on the distant Red Planet.

I pulled down the Gill tweed cap from Lock & Co. and lazily settled to read Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham. I had managed to find a copy of this elusive-but-still-in-print vintage spy thriller at one of the few bookstores left in London (Waterstones). I was up to the mysterious death of Grantley Caypor when the Contessa came out of the shadows with her iPad.  She had been on the phone, on hold, for 49 minutes, but managed to get the ear of an Air Canada rep and get us both booked on the 08.45am flight out of Toronto to Atlanta.  There were only four flights a day to the new capital of the Old South.  This was the first. If it was cancelled, we would have another three goes for a home run.   But the only thing going south was our luck.  The Male Trailing Spouse was put on standby. 

"I am not leaving you here," said the Wife with a dramatically defiant tone. 

(Alas, ever the would-be gent, I would have had to let her go on ahead of me, but did not say-so there and then).

There was a break in the heavens. There was space on the Bombardier jet. After the wings were de-iced we managed to take off for home and touched down to a crisp and bright -14C in Atlanta. Costa del bloody Sol after the big chill of Toronto. We arrived, suitably shagged, after a nightmare trip that had started in London on Sunday morning two distant days ago. The bottle of Irish whiskey in the hold was unbroken. Ditto the large, floral Cath Kidston teapot in hand luggage.  I called up Fairy Gill in Notting Hill to let her know that we had arrived home, safe and sound

"The bin men collected the tree on Monday morning," she said. 

The illegal dumper of dead Christmas trees had almost forgotten about his crime.

"Good," I replied. 

Drama over. Happy New 2014. It's only just begun.