Ian flies the world
Either way, I knew that I couldn't get to the travel agent in time, so I wrote stating my requirements, enclosing the gift vouchers and telling them that I would collect the tickets on the Saturday morning two weeks before departure. I did this. We had been issued with tickets valid for the flight, but at the Super-APEX fare of GBP 89 per person. At the date of this journey, the currency was correctly referred to as UKL by international financiers, but now it is called GBP. Partly to be consistent, but mainly because I don't know exactly when the change occurred, I refer to the British currency throughout as GBP, or even pounds. Whether GBP or UKL, these were now valid tickets, but sold at a price too low. However, the travel agent would have to absorb it - not us. As I said, they have since ceased trading.
Turning up at Birmingham airport early in the morning had now started to become a way of life, although looking out of the window at home at the Swissair flight leaving every morning was even more so. Today we would be looking out of the window of the Swissair flight.
Swissair has an excellent reputation among European carriers, deservedly so in my opinion. Food was in abundance, and every few minutes the cabin staff came down the aisle with another basket brim full of bread rolls. Even a hardened bread addict such as myself was unable to keep up with the pace. Zurich is further than Paris, so it was an hour and a half before we reached our destination. Arriving in Zurich, one has an impression of a very clean city, and this impression never leaves.
One of the disadvantages of travelling on an APEX ticket is that reservations are not generally transferable to another date. This came as a great disappointment when we found posters advertising Wagner's Rhinegold, which was to performed in Zurich a day or so later. I had seen the whole of the Ring of the Nibelung in November 1986 in Birmingham, but would have been quite happy to see some of it again. Of such are the disappointments of the ill-informed international traveller.
A short ride by the famed (and expensive) Swiss railways takes us to the centre of the city, and near to the place where our hotel was to be found. There are no doubt many excellent hotels in Zurich, and the one we stayed at was the Helmhaus Hotel, at Schifflande 30.
Switzerland is inordinately expensive to somebody paid in sterling. As mentioned earlier, overseas trips always seem to coincide with adverse currency movements. These only tend to improve after overseas currency has been purchased. Such are the wiles of bankers and exchange dealers the world over. They seem to know when I will be travelling, and probably you too. How they will earn a crust when the common European currency comes along, I do not know. These bankers have probably already thought of another way to make money from unsuspecting members of the general travelling public.
Anyway, after arriving at the hotel, we settled in, before starting on a sightseeing trip of the city. What we saw and what we spent is of little concern, though it was important at the time. In the evening we went to the cinema, to see a film which was then on general release. The name of the film was Crocodile Dundee. It had an English soundtrack, we were grateful to discover, and subtitles in both French and German. One gets a certain pleasure from laughing at the jokes first.
After the film, it was time for bed, so we returned to the hotel through the cool Swiss evening, with plans for Luzern the following day.
One feature that Swiss railways and airlines offer together is the opportunity to check luggage in at a rail station for a flight within 24 hours, and we took advantage of this facility to save us carrying our suitcases all day.
A ride to Luzern on the Swiss railways proved expensive but affordable, and from there we chose to walk through the town to a large museum, the name of which unfortunately escapes me. If you are ever there, you will know it, however. Among other things, it features restored aeroplanes and trains, and is a worthwhile place to visit. On this particular day, the centre was cold, but this was not due to a breakdown in any heating system, but simply a result of the snow outside, which started during our walk from the station.
Our return took us to Zurich Airport rail station, in adequate time for check-in and browsing through the duty-free area. I urge you never to drink Cheri-Suisse neat. It is a sickly, chocolate and cherry liqueur. However, do drink it diluted with milk, as an excellent but rather intoxicating, milk-shake. We also bought a few chocolates and assorted other bits and pieces, but should be more careful about where we do our duty-free shopping.
We returned to Birmingham on time, with a large meal inside us, and cleared immigration without any difficulty at all. Customs, on the other hand, was quite another story.
Could we please step to the side. Thank you. Where had we been? Zurich. Please open your bags. We did. They contained the usual things you would expect from a weekend away - clothes, books, bits and pieces. There was more to come. Had we been anywhere else? Yes, we had been to Luzern that afternoon. No, that wasn't what he meant. Had we left Switzerland during the journey? No, we hadn't. Then how did we have a bag in our possession, containing a bottle of Cheri-Suisse liqueur and a couple of boxes of chocolates, clearly marked Zurich Airport Transit Shops? Surely embarking passengers can't get into the transit area - how then had we got this bag? The questioning continued. Addressing my fiancee, who still had the passenger coupons from the Washington and Paris trips with her, they wanted to know how a student could possibly afford trips like these. Surely the reason was self-evident: travelling with her was a man who is not a student, who is financing the trips.
Zurich isn't a very usual destination for a weekend trip, is it? Well, if Swissair runs special offers, then perhaps this shows that it isn't, but they would like it to be. So we took advantage of the special fare.
Having questioned my fiancee, I wasn't free of suspicion either. Can you explain how you have a yellow fever vaccination certificate in your passport, when you have never been anywhere that requires such a thing? Oh, that was easy too. My company had been expecting to send me to Lagos, so I had started the immunisation course, but the trip was cancelled. A pity, a trip to Lagos would have made interesting reading for you, and an interesting journey for me.
What had we done while in Zurich and Luzern, they wondered. Well, in Zurich we had spent the day sightseeing and watched a film in the evening. They wondered what we had seen. After being told, one of the officers expressed the opinion that it must have been interesting to see that dubbed. No, it was subtitled, I explained. I felt that he might have seized on this if I had let it pass. Either way, I told him the truth, and kept on telling the truth, when he asked the same set of dumb questions a second time, getting the same set of dumb, truthful answers the second time.
After an hour and a half, we were free to go. I got the impression that the officers had received a tip-off, and picked out the wrong couple. Certainly they seemed more disappointed than would be expected after a normal spot-check, which surely wouldn't have gone on so long. I never expected an apology, and I was not disappointed, though one might have been implied by the half-hearted way in which they helped us repack our bags.
I was not prepared to let the matter rest there. I wrote to IAPA, who sent me a map of Zurich Airport, showing that there is no reason to question people buying from the Transit shop as it is in the main air-side concourse, where any international passenger can go. They described the officers as "over-zealous", though I can think of another word. Although quite an expensive organisation to join, I recommend the International Airline Passengers Association. They offer hotel discounts and credit card protection. They offer other services too, but those are the main ones I have used. Retrieval and delivery of lost baggage and keys is also offered, and useful. So is their advice about airports and any problems one might encounter there.
Hearing of our adventure, a friend suggested that maybe the officers were excited by the bag if their tip-off had suggested a baggage swap. Of course, it could simply have been that two customs officers wanted to liven up their Sunday night. Who will ever know?
Arrive, identify the problem, implement the partial solution, check that it works, advise on ways of lessening their workload afterwards, leave.
It all went fine, and I was pleased to be back at the airport in plenty of time to catch the return flight. One good feature of this journey was that it gave me the chance, for the first time, to have a look around the Shuttle lounge area in an airport, and not just at the brochures. It seemed rather busy, but that wasn't really much of a surprise.
The journey itself was reasonable enough, but decidedly not special, and not memorable.