My flight lands and as I peer past my neighbour in the seat next to me and I wonder: am I really home. In all honesty how would I know? All airports have the same look, as if some EU directive established many years ago that every airfield in Europe must contain exactly the same features as the one you left behind, like an oversized decompression chamber. The rush of people heading for the planes exit gives nothing away. It’s not as if the British people form an orderly queue, while the French and German passengers push roughly past without a care for the decorum of their island neighbours. If it wasn’t for the lack of space on most budget airlines, I suspect that exiting an aeroplane would be more akin to the apocalypse, with the strongest happily kicking the weak to the floor and using them as rudimentary carpeting. Once out the plane, the bus to the terminal is equally ambiguous. Even on arrival at the terminal most of the signs are more multi-lingual than the residents of Britain. Therefore there is little to tell you that your now entering the territory of Queens, Princes, black cabs, tea and pasties.
Reaching customs, the first signal that you might be entering Britain is a forlorn looking fellow attempting to organise the inexplicably angry or befuddled into the correct point of entrance. “EU passengers over there, non EU passengers over there, British residents with passport chips over here” he recites, possibly for the billionth time that day. The customs agent at the desk scans my passport and then my face, insuring that I look vaguely like my photo from almost ten years ago. If I was a braver man, I think to myself, I might attempt to grow some grotesque facial hair to confuse these people. It’s only when I walk past the representatives of Her Majesties Royal Constabulary that I remember that joking in these areas is severely frowned upon. Maybe next time.
Once I’ve reclaimed my baggage from the herd of people crowding the conveyor belt, I quicken my pace towards the exit. Anything to declare? Not really, Ryanair is a bit of a headache, but aside from that I think we’re OK. Through the automatic doors and into the airport proper, I look to see the ‘Welcome Home’ banner that every person coming off a flight secretly hopes to see. No such luck. The only welcome home is the Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Hertz car rental that seem to pervade all airports. “Why is it?” I ponder to myself as I buy a cup of overpriced frothy milk type coffee, “that all staff at these places have generic European accents to match the generic coffee?”.
“Perhaps it’s a scam and Starbucks have been training locals to speak this way in order to help people get into or relive the holiday spirit” I answer myself as I wander towards the metro station.
At this point I’m still unsure if I’m actually in Britain. I know the metro warning voice was in English, but that’s not always a give away. I’m sure I heard the same voice in Munich a few weeks back when I almost lost a shoe to the overly enthusiastic tram doors. Perhaps it’s an elaborate scam, maybe this is one of those Inception moments and I’m stuck in a dream, within a dream. As soon as I think this I know that intercontinental travel, mixed with Ryanair has finally sent me a little odd. I knew that cup of in-flight tea tasted funny. I need a drink.
Foregoing my usual stop on the metro line I get off at the station closest to a bar I know. Lugging my bags through the door, I remember that the match is on. This of course explains why the crowded bar is filled with people who look like they have had all hope sucked out of them. Manchester City have just scored, again. My cloud of locational confusion begins to lift with the first shout of “Fuckin hell man, the toon are shite, like”.
“Ya right like, nutha season of this band of wankers” declares the weary looking gentleman next to me as I order a pint. I know I must be in Newcastle, no one carries a greater look of optimism masked by a forlorn pessimism like the Geordies. Still not entirely convinced, I decided to double check. There is only one real way to know that I’m actually back. Asking the barmaid if I can put my bags behind the bar (another good sign) I walk around the side of the bar, heading for the sign marked ‘Gents’. I push open the door and I’m engulfed by the familiar smell Dettol, air freshener and stale piss. My eyes meet what I’ve been looking for. A White porcelain trough with the unmistakable blue stamp of Armitage Shanks. Welcome Home.