Every now and again I find myself in some far flung corner of the world, usually via Madrid, always via London. The worst thing is that the flight from Madrid is always a hard-core 6.55am hop over France. The issue is that technically its 5.55am (UK time). The flight is with Iberia and so departs from T4 Madrid Barajas, T4 just happens to be the furthest terminal from the city and the 20 minute taxi journey is a fixed rate 25 euro, or in my case 30 euro (too tired and hungover to argue). So, each time I stumble out of the hotel at 4.30am (UK time) I know I’ll be exhausted by the time I even get on the red eye to wherever it might be.
Now that per se sounds like a complaint, but it actually isn’t. Let me explain. Madrid Barajas airport is slick, easily one of the best in Europe (probably the best actually) and far better than any airport in USA, whose airports incidentally are all a throwback to 1970’s Miami vice. I digress, during winter months the flight departs in darkness and within a short while the clouds are far below you, through tired eyes you get to witness the stunning-never gets boring-sunrise. It begins as a slither of yellow before turning orange and often a fire like red, and serves up around 20 minutes of absolute beauty witnessed best with some soft music. After witnessing a beautiful sunrise I then spend a day mooching around London before heading off on some early/late evening long haul flight to wherever.
Anyway, back to Madrid.
Madrid is very Spanish which sounds obvious, but it is also quintessentially European, a statement which again sounds very obvious, but let me explain. In the UK we are very British, cities and towns are all very distinct, many are decrepit has beens all but abandoned by many retailers, replaced with shopping centres and supermarkets. Rolling green hills dotted with castles, churches and very British-esque villages. The point I am trying to get across is that there is a real identity in the UK and that identity is British. Hop over the channel and Europe somehow manages to maintain its identity, whilst balancing perfectly the European vibe. Take Madrid, without doubt someone has shares in brown and shades of magnolia paint. The entire city is a palatial nod to Spain’s monarchy and tumultuous history of Spanish colonisation. Every building is razor sharp with an almost manicured exterior occasionally draped with ivy. For me, Spaniards epitomise smartness, crisp suits, beards trimmed to perfection and rarely without a white cigarette held elegantly between thumb and forefinger.
Add into the mix the distinct European feel: A crusty looking metro 30 years past its last service, miniature cars zooming around, graffiti on every vacant wall, plazas and squares dotted throughout cities. Grey roads swept to perfection, North African men selling replica goods, and perhaps most contrastingly with the UK, the majority of people buy local from stores selling cheeses, hams, chocolate and just about anything else that can be handmade. And coffee shops, in the UK we head to Starbucks to pay hefty prices for well marketed coffee, the rest of Europe seem to prefer small shops with even smaller patios whilst drinking their espresso, accompanied of course, with a cigarette.
Personally I refer to myself as British, but am also very proud to be a part of the EU, something which for me signifies equality and a concerted effort to provide for not just the half billion citizens of the 28 nations, but also offers a helping hand to those who were born into less fortunate circumstances. For sure, when the EU referendum in the UK rolls up with trumpets blazing and red tops dramatizing circumstance with unfettered poetic justice, I for one will be voting to stay part of a unity that is driving forward for peace, unity and equality.
Mix together the two elements above and you have an unmistakable European city with a Spanish beating heart. Really, I could sit and write how in Madrid you can head to the Stadio Santiago Bernabeu and take in some of the best football on earth, or how you can head out of town to Parque Warner for some white knuckle excitement, but for me, for us even, the beauty of Madrid is just being there. Walking the streets, finding hidden squares, visiting markets, and soaking up the crispness of it all. Of course no visit would be complete without watching the changing of the guard at the palace, or taking a stroll in Retiro park, but the beauty of Madrid really does lie in just being there and strolling the city on foot.
From Madrid we headed back on the 6.55am IB3170 to London Heathrow.
It is impossible to dislike London. The city is absolutely dripping in history that has gripped the world for centuries and is as relevant now as it was those years ago, except now it is daubed in a fantastic multicultural nod to the world. Alas, I will not go into detail about London as I have before, but the day was significant for us. I was in the army many years ago and have kept in touch with a good friend, Ben. We haven’t met for about 14 years, but have stayed in touch. A quick text the night before and the day was spent walking around London, soaking up the history and reminiscing on our own history. It was a memorable and enjoyable day and the hours flew by.
The final leg of our journey was on one of the oldest British Airways aircraft in the world (genuinely), a 24 year old, queen of skies; the Boeing 747. We have flown on every 7-series variant of Boeing from the 727 upwards and every airbus of the last 20 years. My favourite plane in terms of comfort is the 777, but for me, there is not another plane in the sky that looks as good as the 747. And it is a great plane to fly on too. Sitting on the tarmac, just before take off you hear the engines roar to life and are literally thrown back into your seat as the 412 tonne beast hurtles down the runway. Anyone that has flown on the 747 will tell you just how comfortable it is. In actual fact, I don’t recall a single bump throughout the entire 10 hour flight to Vancouver.
Canada touts itself as at the forefront of modernity and has for decades tried to identify itself beyond the stigma of being the country next door to America. In many ways Canada epitomises itself as a country that is left in policy and more left in politics. It is, in my experience completely draconian regarding certain aspects, one of which is parental responsibility. For the second time (having only been to Canada twice) I was treated with absolute contempt at the border.
Agent – Where is your authority to bring the children to Canada.
Me – I am their parent, what authority do I need.
Agent – Show me the legal document.
Me – What document, I am their father.
He then started lecturing me on how I need a document from a lawyer granting me permission to travel with my kids, I explained I have travelled to 45 countries, the stamps are in all our passports, have a look and see this is regular. The agent started getting angry with me, saying I was inefficient as a parent, and that it looked to him like I was kidnapping my kids. I explained that I come from the UK, have freedom of movement within the EU, why on earth would I come to Canada. At that point he started shouting at me…
Agent – You have no right of abode in Canada, what makes you think you can just turn up and walk straight in. (he repeated that I have no right of abode over and over again).
Me – I explained that it was Canadian legislation allowed me to turn up and enter visa free.
The agent was just being ridiculous, I tried showing him messages from my wife sent saying “have a safe flight” etc and he was having none of it. He even said to me “I will waste your time like you have wasted mine”. I have no idea how I’d wasted his. He continued to lecture me aggressively and it came to the point where it felt like I was being bullied for a male daring to travel with his two children. After about 20 minutes I simply said: “forget it, please allow me to book a flight to Seattle, I won’t even bother coming into Canada I am just not going to stand and listen to this anymore.” The agent got up and walked away. Shortly after he came back, asked to see my messages, and stamped my passport and sent us on our way.
I completely understand the issue regarding child trafficking, abduction and am glad there are stringent rules in place. It is absolutely imperative we protect the children of this world. My issue was that not only did I see single women walking through with children un- obstructed, but the agent refused to apply any common sense. He didn’t want to phone my wife, see my messages, speak to the children, or even look at my website or blog which details hundreds and hundreds of days traveling all over the world with my kids. He just wanted to stand and shout at me and tell me how useless I was. I said to him “if this is how you speak to people you don’t know, I dread to think how you speak to those you do”. He was an absolute arse hole and I was his outlet for a while.
Nonetheless, it was 8pm and had been a very long day but we hadn’t finished yet. After grabbing our cases we were speeding through the streets of Vancouver headed to watch a friend compete in a college basketball game. It was great to be back in North America, but I couldn’t help thinking it’d have been better being in bed. I looked around to ask the kids how they felt and they looked worse than I felt. The day was clearly not finished yet.