Thursday 19 September 2019

Sophie Donaldson: 'Why I won't be making the annual pilgrimage home this Christmas'

'Tis the season for travelling to see loved ones, but jetlag is not my idea of festive fun, writes Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

There isn't a single airport that gives a better festive welcome than Dublin.

Perhaps it's due to the vast number of Irish people who live abroad, or perhaps it's because Ireland is famed for its cead mile failte all year round - but as of last week Terminals 1 and 2 were officially revelling in Christmas spirit with the announcement of the airport's festive entertainment programme.

There will be more than 1,600 performers waiting to greet the flurry of passengers who will be passing through the airport up until Christmas Eve.

Whereas so many Irish people will be returning from Australia, that's usually where I am headed at this time of year. This December, however, I couldn't be happier to not travel home for Christmas.

No, there wasn't a falling out. The seed was planted last December 23 when I woke in the early hours for the first leg of my 24-hour journey. Still bleary eyed in the taxi, I checked my phone to find a text message from the airline advising my flight had been delayed by two hours.

My stomach dropped, and not just because I could have had another two hours in bed. My layover was just under two hours, meaning I would miss my second flight to Sydney.

At Dublin Airport, the kindly check-in steward advised that there was nothing they could do until I reached the UAE. They conceded I would most likely miss the connecting flight, but they would put me on the next flight which wasn't for another nine hours.

With the time difference included, that meant I would have travelled all that way to spend Christmas morning in an airport lounge in Abu Dhabi. On any other day of the year the missed connection would have been an inconvenience, but on Christmas Eve-eve, it was disastrous.

The fervid anticipation that surrounds Christmas is not even matched by weddings; at least in that instance there's generally only a handful of people who appear to have lost their minds, and for good reason. There is so much planning put into one day and there are an awful lot of things that can go wrong.

The same can hardly be said for an annual holiday that is lauded for its cloyingly familiar traditions. There is no real reason that Christmas should induce stress; after all, we know exactly how the day will go. Many people don't even really enjoy it, and yet we all collectively descend into mania for December.

Travelling home for the big day is a part of the irrational decision-making that marks the season. There couldn't be a worse time to travel than at Christmas. Airports are busy, flights are far pricier and, if you are travelling to the Northern Hemisphere, the weather is pretty rotten.

The combination of excessive alcohol and piled-up deadlines means that come the third week of December most people could do with a good, long sit down. For those who have travelled from abroad, however, that unfortunately won't be happening.

Instead of spending a few days in a darkened room, quietly sipping fizzy water as the body and mind recovers, those who have made the annual pilgrimage home will crawl through the first few days in a fug of dehydration, sleep deprivation and hangover.

The main reason we travel home is to spend quality time with loved ones, but that simply doesn't happen at Christmas. Sure, most people have a week or so off work, but it's not a week of respite in which you can enjoy meaningful time together.

So much of Christmas is spent with people you rarely see; should you extricate yourself from that unending conversation with Pauline, your mother's tipsy colleague who's heard so much about you, and slip out with friends or siblings to your nearest watering hole, it will probably be either too busy, booked out or simply closed.

It's Christmas remember? If you do manage to nab a seat at your local, the evening will likely be spent dodging the people you grew up with.

That's the thing about Christmas - you are back on home turf, but so is everyone else.

As it happened, I didn't end up spending Christmas in that airport lounge. As soon as the plane landed I belted through three terminals, arrived at the gate gasping for breath, and saw those two cherished words: final boarding.

The airline had decided to delay the flight so as many people as possible would be home for Christmas Day. As I stood, sweating profusely from the mad dash in the Middle Eastern heat while wearing the thermal tights I had put on in Dublin, I wondered if this could be a Christmas miracle.

One year later, I concede that the gesture was likely a cost-saving measure by an airline at its busiest time of year, rather than an otherworldy aligning of the stars. But then again, perhaps that's not the point.

When I awoke in my childhood bedroom I was indeed dehydrated, jet lagged and exhausted - but it was Christmas morning and I was home.

Sunday Independent

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