My Mystery Holiday Experience
Is pitching up at the airport with no idea where you're flying to really a salve for travel-related anxiety?
A few months ago, two friends and I decided we wanted to go on holiday. These were my friends Caroline and Jake, and all three of us are admittedly quite stubborn and indecisive, which made choosing a destination rather difficult. Caroline suddenly alighted upon the idea of a “mystery holiday”. We would entrust her with all our money and documents – and she would book everything without our knowledge, our destination being revealed when we turned up at the airport.
We had no idea where we were going, what sights we might be seeing, and how much our Brexit-weakened pounds were worth in currency X. All we knew was roughly how long we’d be away, and that it was winter so it would probably be cold. I packed shorts just in case.
The Days Before Departure
Now, Caroline is perhaps one of my more… juvenile friends. I say that with complete love of course. However she does have high standards of 'prettiness' and is generally unlikely to stay in accommodation which doesn't meet her exacting standards; so I believed I could trust her. Her outgoing personality and love of tormenting Jake and I did have me concerned that we might end up doing something ridiculous such as parachuting into the Gaza Strip “for a laugh”.
I have long struggled with anxiety, and assumed that relinquishing all my holiday-planning responsibilities might alleviate the stress which often attends 'big occasions'. I could not have been more wrong. The days leading up to my departure were terrifying. A cognitive battle between sheer terror and nervous excitement began to rage in my head – knowing you'll be flying thousands of miles in simply a direction is horrifying for an anxiety sufferer.
Caroline’s parents were the only other people who knew where we were headed: “Don’t worry Joe, you’ll love it! We’ve been and it’s great!” Somehow all this hype made me even more worried. I slept very little the nights before departure, envisioning myself running out of currency in a far-away land, or being tied to a stake whilst locals performed alien rituals. Perhaps I’ve watched too much Come Fly With Me.
Arriving at the Airport
The trip to the airport was the most fraught taxi ride of my life. Walking into the terminal, Jake and I paused for a quick cigarette, savouring the moment/fearing for our immediate futures. By this point in time I had heavily, heavily convinced myself that we were going to Euro Disney. It was within our budget and appealed to Caroline’s (and our) childish side.
Inside, Caroline gave us an envelope that contained our destination. I now know how those people hosting the Oscars feel – all the pomp and ceremony is rather nerve-wracking. Jake and I opened the envelope to find a letter from Caroline. It read like this:
“Dear Joe and Jake. Thank you for trusting me with hundreds of your well-earned pounds. Lift the flap below to reveal your destination.”
We lifted the flap: “Afghanistan” it read as our two openly-gay mouths dropped in horror. We then saw an additional flap under it, which we lifted once more:
I was relieved and excited, yet in this weird state of denial. I knew Rome would be beautiful, yet I had somehow convinced myself I was going to Disneyland. Even after seeing the plane tickets from Manchester to Rome, I was sort of expecting them to be forged and for the REAL tickets to be concealed elsewhere. I suppose the brain doesn’t know what to do when it spends weeks convincing itself of something before being suddenly forced to do a 180 in a couple of hours. I was secretly looking forward to seeing Mickey and the gang.
All of us hate to be seen as ignorant British tourists; so Jake and I spent much of our time in the airport searching for Wi-Fi so we could research Rome and learn some basic Italian phrases. I was also busy practising my best Don Corleone impressions (complete with Italian hand gestures) which everyone found amusing initially, and irritating eventually. Such is life! We ate breakfast in the god-awful cesspool that is Manchester Terminal 3 (it doesn’t even have a Burger King!) at a restaurant with incredibly slow table service.
Our flight was leaving soon and our disinterested waiter didn’t come to take our card payments, despite us gesturing from afar that we were ready to pay three times. I’m not saying that we were forced to dine and dash in order to catch our flight. I’m not saying that I spent the extra money on sweets. I am not saying that I teased a paranoid Jake that the waiter would be waiting angrily on the runway in Rome. I am definitely not saying that I once had to do the same thing in Schiphol Airport. That would be rather illegal.
So eventually it was time to catch the flight. Chain-smoker Jake was busy trying to Google-translate '20 menthols, please' and I was busy trying to pronounce the Italian for 'vegetarian' because I’m one of those awkward people you don’t want to take to a restaurant. We were flying in the super-cheap Ryanair Sardine Can Express which for a 6’3" person such as myself is a nightmare. My friends slept like babies the entire journey while I sang, “No Sleep Till Rome!” and tried not to develop Deep Vein Thrombosis. I told my parents and significant other where I was headed, to their overwhelming jealousy. I would’ve gloated more – but a part of me still hadn’t processed that it was all real until the plane left the tarmac.
“Oh Christ, I’m actually going to Rome.”
I was speaking to Christ directly of course. I was raised Catholic and head-honcho the Pope lives in Rome (kind of) so I was treating this as a pilgrimage with more pizza and Prosecco. Caroline and I had already planned to dress Jake as a nun and throw him into the Vatican. We expected we’d all burn on the way in, though.
As the plane touched down the reality of what was happening materialised. I never in a million years expected Rome to be an option, and as ungrateful as it sounds I was almost annoyed at what was happening. Perhaps my inner control freak was irritated at being incorrect. Either way, the waiter we definitely didn’t steal from was not waiting for us on the tarmac, which was nice.
I cleared Italian customs with a smile and a sloppily-pronounced “Buongirono!” reminiscent of Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds. This was happening mere weeks after the Brexit referendum – I was slightly concerned that European passport officials would just spit on British passports and shoo us away. I didn’t know how to say 'I voted to remain!' in Italian.
One of the benefits of flying with Ryanair is that you arrive at an airport a mere seven light years away from your hotel. Luckily Caroline had pre-booked a shuttle service, and I finally understood what it’s like to be one of those people who have a chauffeur holding their name on a sign at arrivals. After 15 cigarettes (two hours is a long time for a chain-smoker like Jake) we hopped in the Taxi and made our way towards the city.
As we travelled up the motorway we passed a small shopping mall with a domed roof to which Jake exclaimed, “Look! It’s the Vatican!” I began to feel like the more well-read out of the two of us. I’m pretty sure the Holy Micro-state that is Vatican City doesn’t pass the Roman equivalent of the M6.
Jake was already working out where he could buy cigarettes (shops called “Tabacchis”) by pooling his knowledge of French and my knowledge of Spanish together to create a sort-of pseudo-Italian that enabled us to understand street signs. These romance languages are all basically the same.
The taxi route itself could not have been better really. On our journey we passed the lush countryside, the Roman Forum and the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II. The views were immersive, yet I was in disbelief. I was expecting to be prancing around Cinderella’s castle right now, yet I was passing the Colosseum.
Despite my initial scepticism, we had a brilliant time and I would highly recommend this mystery holiday experience. Not just with friends – perhaps with family or a loved one. Just make sure you trust the organiser, because being in the dark is exciting, terrifying or both, depending on your mindset.