Christmas Eve eve. The wind howls around the house, rattling the doors and windows and whistling like an enraged banshee. Outside, unidentified objects clatter about and crashes come at irregular intervals. I have never heard anything quite like it. I lie rigid and sleepless in bed, my head full of the weather reports and the red alert that is in force for the whole of the Cantabrian coast. Surely there is no way our flight to London can take off tomorrow? Surely even attempting the three hour drive to Bilbao airport would be foolish in these conditions?
Christmas Eve, 6.45 am. The wind, as predicted, has not abated. I replace the ‘Mr Bump’ t-shirt that I had laid out for Jack to wear. The last time he wore it he actually did bump his head and ended up with two staples in it. His first real injury. Not that I’m superstitious, but that wind and the hours of travel by car, plane and train that lie ahead…. A nice plain polo shirt will do just nicely.
We dash to the car, wary of flying missiles. Opening the car doors is a frightening exercise in wrestling the power of the wind as it fights to rip them out of our hands and off the side of the car. In safely, we take a moment to contemplate our route. Driving down the hill to town is clearly not an option; that tree-lined road will certainly be blocked. Over the more open, top road we will go.
We reach the motorway junction without incident and stop at the service station to go online (of course the web is down at home) and check the latest travel information on the Easyjet site. Our flight is ‘on time’. Really? Okay. We continue on our way.
Half an hour later we are nearing Ribadesella, where the mountains rear up alongside the motorway. The black of the night sky is seared through with flickering orange. It takes a moment to comprehend that the hillside is ablaze, flames racing across the slopes of the mountain, accelerated by the 140km an hour winds that the car radio is warning us of. If I were one to believe in omens I would probably be quite anxious by now……
We arrive at Bilbao and join the extensive queue for bag drop. (Isn’t online check-in fabulous?) We stand and we stand. If the queue is moving it is doing so imperceptibly. ‘When are we at England?’ Jack pipes up intermittently. ‘Hmmm. I’m not sure darling. I think it could take some time.’ If you’ve never met a four year old, let me tell you that they are not renowned for their patience. This one’s doing brilliantly. I wonder how long it can last.
Turns out it has to last a LONG time. Several more hours of no information, misinformation and backache inducing standing around pass until eventually we receive a text. Our flight’s been cancelled. Not that the staff on the ground know it yet. We join the surging throng that are storming the Groundforce desk where there is one staff member who can access the Easyjet system and attempt to reschedule flights for the disgruntled horde, all desperate to reach our Christmas destinations. It’s not pretty.
For a while we battle the ‘queue’ (more like mosh pit) and consider telephoning the Easyjet customer service helpline (only approximately £5 a minute and approximately a snowball’s chance in hell of ever actually speaking to anyone. Especially considering they’re probably all currently hiding in an attempt to avoid lynching by the disgruntled horde at Gatwick). Of course there are no flights on Christmas Day anyway and Boxing Day is already fully booked.
Christmas in England is cancelled.
After dodging the third television camera crew looking for their Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) human interest story we decide it’s time to give up the ghost and get the flock out of here. At which point the penny drops. It’s Noche Buena. In Spain Christmas Day is no biggie, Noche Buena is the big night for celebration. But not in a going out sense. In a staying home with family sense. And a closing down of everything sense. As in everything shuts. Bars, restaurants and – OH MY GOD THE SHOPS.
It’s Christmas Eve and the only food in our house is a wilting bag of salad. All of our Christmas presents have been bought online and posted directly to the UK. Sweet Jesus. I think Christmas has just been cancelled.
We leg it to the long stay car park and beg the attendant to tell us where the nearest supermarket is and at what time they close. He is vague on both points. We could try by the big Ikea. It’s a fiesta though, they’ll probably close at 4pm. I know that’s when our local supermarkets will close. Or maybe it’s 4.30? Please God, let it be 4.30. The time now is 3.45pm.
Bilbao is a large, sprawling city, surrounded by an unfathomably complex ring road that incorporates tunnels, flyovers, multiple lane motorways, toll stations and very poor signage. As we pelt westward, Ikea bound but simultaneously scouring the horizon for shopping centres, we spy a towering Carrefour sign perched atop a 50m pole.
We swerve off the motorway and onto the looping sliproad, eyes fixed on our Carrefour star. But the road loops round too far and the mile-high sign disappears from sight. We screech to a halt alongside a startled pedestrian who directs us to our goal. As we speed off again he is muttering something about it being ‘a bit wiggly’ to get there.
He’s right. A few minutes later we find ourselves in front of Carrefour. In front of, but 50 feet below it and with no road access. A few minutes (and u-turns) after that we find ourselves looking down on Carrefour, as the road we are on arches up and away from it. The time is 4.21pm. I am weeping silently. A little voice in the back pipes up: ‘But Mummy, it’s Christmas Eve! Santa Claus is coming!’ I start to sob.
Finally, miraculously we find the entrance. The damn thing is on an island, cut off on three sides by water and railways. I feel foolish running with a trolley through the nearly empty carpark, the time now surely pushing on for 4.30pm. Foolish but desperate enough not to care.
The supermarket doors are open. ‘What time do you close?’ I pant at the security guard, barely breaking my stride as I dash in. ‘Eight o’clock,’ she replies. I stop running and thank God for large, sprawling cities where shops stay open unfathomably late on fiestas.
At 9.30pm we finally arrive back home, with Christmas in the boot of the car. An exhausted child is put to bed. Frazzled parents pour two large gins and set to work. Decorations are retrieved from the attic. A Christmas stocking is unearthed. Santa’s last-minute replacement presents are wrapped. Daddy braves the still-raging gale to trudge to the bottom of the garden and drag back last year’s Christmas tree. It’s a little on the dead side but we convince ourselves that it’s a fine artistic effort in a Tim Burton-esque stylee.
7.30am Christmas morning. We are awoken by an excited voice piping; ‘Mummy, Daddy, look what’s downstairs! Santa’s been. He’s put up a tree. He’s left presents!’ Jack is dancing with excitement.
Christmas is happening. Christmas is magical. I am weeping again.