This was my fourth visit the state of the art Specsavers optical laboratory. It is designed to become one of the leading centres for spectacle manufacturing in the world. Where is this flagship facility? in which leading edge technology city? Where in the centre of the European transport network is it located? In which fashionable metropolis should I be “going to Specsavers”?
The answer is three hours east of Budapest in the far reaches of eastern Hungary, a stone’s throw from Lithuania and Romania, surrounded by fields, grim buildings and grimmer peasants, in the lesser known town of Mateszalka. In the dead centre of nowhere.
Here we stay at The Kastle, a rambling idiosyncratic hotel with eclectic rooms and random electrics. It seems to be run 24×7 by a lovable old boy, Johnny, who looks like the butler from a Dracula film, and seemingly never sleeps. Maybe he had flown across from Transylvania. He does look a little batty.
Having said that I was not in the main house, but exiled into the garden in one of two Swiss-style chalets. These are like saunas in construction if not in their heating. The trick is to occupy the one with the heating control. Otherwise you are at the mercy of the temperature tastes of the adjoining occupant. This time I think my neighbour was a vampire. I’m not saying the walls are thin, but when you change TV channels in your room, it changes them next door also.
Breakfast is an experience also. Down in the basement of the hotel, the choice ranges from grilled eggs through to strange cold meats and Tesco-bought cereals. Yes – there is a Tesco in town. I think this defines both “ubiquitous” and “incongruous”. The coffee machine has a mind of its own. After breakfast, we pile into a car and pop round the corner to the amazingly modern and impressive laboratory building, to be greeted as ever by the warm and hospitable staff.
As I walked into the laboratory on Thursday morning, Zuszu offers me a coffee with a glowing smile. Dentists are cheap and high quality in Hungary. Just like the spectacles of course! My colleague Paul, however, looks at me with some concern and asked me whether I had heard about the erupting volcano in Iceland. Okay so Iceland is about as far the other side of Europe as anywhere can be – at least 2000 miles away. Why on earth would this be affecting me? Paul explained that it was spewing volcanic ash into the atmosphere and flights were being cancelled into East Midlands airport. As I was due to fly out of Budapest that evening to, yes, East Midlands airport, I began to see the potential interruption and disruption of this eruption.
As the day unfolded it became clear my flight that evening with Ryanair was under serious threat. Ironically this was the first time I had flown Ryanair. The usual Hungarian hop was from Birmingham through Frankfurt or Zurich on Lufthansa, followed by the long drive up to Mateszalka. An end-to-end journey of around 12 hours; worse when delayed by snow; worser when they lose my luggage. Even worserer when I have to go back to the airport the next day just to fill out a form. But that’s another story.
In the circumstances, Ryanair direct from East Midlands was irresistible. A new summer schedule, which meant me arriving on Monday and leaving of Thursday. I almost felt like a tourist on the way over. Normally would have left on Wednesday afternoon, like Maria and Dick just had. The Maria and Dick, that is who were now home.
Paul and I busily looked at alternatives. He and two others were due to fly into Heathrow on Friday morning. The plan was for all four of us to drive into Budapest on Thursday evening for my fast plane, and for them to stay over in a hotel ready for their early morning flight. So we searched for other flights for me, assuming the volcanic ash cloud would soon evaporate or blow over by the morning. There were few options. I rang Lufthansa to reserve a flight to Birmingham, until I heard the price. Eventually we found a reasonably priced MalevAir flight into Gatwick, which I booked; worrying only how I would find my way home from there. I texted Debbie who found a decent train home. Oh well – a night in a plush Budapest hotel and a lie in, was a price I was prepared to pay.
Between meetings and conversations we kept up with the news. We tracked pictures of the cloud, diagrams of the cloud, analysed expert opinions and read detailed explanations of what the ash could do to airport engines. Which was it could stop them – but then every time that had ever happened, they had restarted them pretty quickly. So why all the fuss?
Meanwhile I nipped out to the car to get my passport out of my suitcase, only to find my shampoo had leaked inside my toilet bag and oozed out inside my case. My head and shoulders was all over my socks and pants. Secretly sneaking several paper towels into my pocket, I was able to clean up quite a lot crouched down behind the boot. Nobody saw me. I think I got away with it. Although I am sure I smelled of shampoo for the rest of the day.
By about 3 or 4pm it was clear that there was a significant risk of our Friday flights being cancelled too. The volcano was still vomiting. The cloud was becalmed. The ash was intransigent. We all gathered round our lap tops and played this bizarre game of predicting volcanic ash cloud migration against a Hungarian roulette of trying to book flights early enough to get us home whilst late enough not to get cancelled. All of this in competition with no doubt thousands of other invisible net users across the country, also plotting an escape. My son’s PS2 games or my wife’s Nancy Drew adventures had nothing on this.
We also looked at trains. Zuszu, her smile fading, was on the phone, trying endless permutations of planes and trains and passages under the channel. We found we could take a series of trains to Paris – so long as we made the 12 minute connection in Munich. Paul and I were up for this. It seemed like a great adventure. So we leapt onto the eurostar website to book seats on the Paris chunnel express.
Tony signed up for this trip too. I had three seats, had typed in the three names and was about to hit “pay now” when James decided he wanted to come along. I backed up, restarted. But now there were no seats. We tried again. Paul and I frantically trying to book two pairs separately on two laptops. Sometimes we found two seats, but the booking failed. Sometimes there were no seats. Sometimes we got error messages. Finally the website hit melt down and froze. Which is a clever trick, a bit like a baked Alaska I guess.
The next suggestion was to hire a car and drive straight out of the prison gates. The thought of a Steve McQueen style Great Escape flashed through our minds. Paul & I were up for this too. By now James and David, the two who had also been due to drive back with us that night were prepared to chance their early morning flights, or just stay the weekend in Budapest. They were working in Mateszalka next week anyway, whereas Tony (the fifth member of the party) Paul and I wanted to get home, and possibly never come back.
So we checked out the price of a one-way car hire whilst successfully booking flexible priority tickets for the vehicular version of the chunnel. But the car was a staggering 1500 euroes. Tony – one of Specsavers finance directors – was pretty clear that this cost represented far too many sales of glasses. His plane was Friday night. The four of us would travel to Budapest tonight, stay over in the plush hotel, and chance the planes. Tony would do the same on Friday. It seemed like a plan.
We said our goodbyes to our Mateszalka friends, and drove in the dark the three hours back west to Budapest through the grim rain. Dropping the car off at the airport, we took a taxi to the aforementioned plush hotel. We had resolved to have a quick snack in the hotel and get an early sleep. A few hours later we had eaten, drunk too many rounds of Merlot, and solved the entire IT problem (whatever that was). The Hungarians export the cheap wine and keep the best for themselves. It would have been rude not to taste it. We floated off to our rooms on the seventh floor and fell into our beds.
For some reason, I spent 15 minutes rinsing through my toilet bag to get rid of all traces of the shampoo, lining the contents (nail scissors, painkillers, various shapes of plasters etc) neatly along the edge of the sink on a towel. I assume this obsessive compulsive behaviour was stress rather than alcohol related. As soon as I had done this to my satisfaction, I was asleep in the bed in my pants. The bed was wonderful. At the Kastle, the duvets are smaller than a modestly sized cushion cover, the sheets have the texture of a large teabag, and the mattresses are thinner than either. This bed was like falling into a bath of feathers covered in silk sheets. Maybe I had wine-tasted a little too much.
I woke at 8.30am. It was Friday morning. Was I going home? I checked the web on my laptop and realised that the cloud was settled. I frantically tried to find another flight. But any suggestion of a spare seat on a plane was a figment of the internet. It was a nightmare loop of trying to pin a virtual tail on a manic donkey. To book a plane, or not to book a plane, that was the question. The risk of it being cancelled. The risk of it not being cancelled after you have decided to take the train, at the cost of £900. The seeming impossibility of ever escaping this place. Either way we were at the mercy of the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.
I felt trapped. I had to get out for air on the Budapest streets. It seemed unsolvable. Later, I met Paul for breakfast. Tony called from Mateszalka. We divided £1,500 by three, realised this was less than £900 each and voted for the car. It was an easy decision.
Finally we had control of our destinies. We could not control the volcanoes or the cloud of ash. We could not control the domino of cancelled flights and closed airports, nor the actions of innumerable invisible competitors. But we could control a car. So Zuzsi was asked to book it, the finance director signed the cheque, and then he jumped in the car to meet us in Budapest. I packed my case and clean toilet bag. My room had been serviced over breakfast. Even now they would be chuckling at the compulsive Brit in room 717.
I checked emails and took a few business calls. Normality was returning. I met Paul for lunch in the plush restaurant and we took a taxi to the Budget car rental. The taxi driver spoke good English and was unusually inquisitive. We told him our plans. As we waltzed across the bridge over the Danube, he said “I have another question, may I drive you to England for 1000 Euros?” We weighed up the pros and cons. Well just the cons. The taxi was small and a bit, well, like a taxi. With a driver we would need two in the back seat, without, one of us could lie down there. More importantly, did we want one driver to drive for the whole 17 hours? This seemed more risky that flying through volcanic ash. At least if an engine stalls you don’t crash immediately, whereas if a taxi driver nods off you do. More crucially, we were not paying, so the attempt to undercut the price was wasted on us. We now had “board level Specsavers clearance” to spend “whatever was necessary” to get home. So we continued with our “do it ourselves plan” to get home. And wondered how much money we could spend.
Budget were very helpful. We picked up the “best car they had” (in a disgusting green, but then that was for others to see, not us). We added various clever stickers to get us through the tolls and by 2.30pm we had rendezvoused with Tony and were crawling out of Budapest on our 1700km drive home.