Friday, 12 December 2014

The Xmas Surprise

Image courtesy of Vanessa Knipe- Crooked Cat Author
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If you've read my mystery thriller - Topaz Eyes - then you'll know that it starts in Heidelberg. What follows today is a true story about my journey to that fantastic city in Germany - a place I'll never forget for more than one reason.... 

The Xmas Surprise 
Sunday 21st October, 2001, Frankfurt Hahn Airport.


Fully armed security screamed at her tired eyes. At entrance doors they were expected but the rash on the floor of the huge concourse wasn’t. Airports always had security but rarely had Mrs. J been anywhere that had quite so many highly visible armed personnel. Green khaki was intermittently broken by uniforms in a dull brown and some even wore other paler hues. She couldn’t tell the difference between army, armed police and the more usual airport security guards. However, noting the fine nuances of clothing didn’t matter one whit - they all carried the kind of very large semi- automatic weapons that seemed to take two hands to bear the weight at the front. Of course, for all she knew about guns they could easily have been automatic ones. Terminology aside they intimidated, as intended.

The 4 a.m. coach from Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof train station had just deposited her at Frankfurt Hahn’s International Departures where she and her younger daughter, Sheena, were checking in for their return flight to Prestwick, Scotland.

Making her way to the check-in desk, she reflected that the extra security was a necessary measure to ensure passenger safety, given the recent horrific events of 9/11, still too fresh to make flying comfortable. She was so glad that the heavy armed presence hadn’t been visible in Heidelberg: nothing like that had impinged on the fabulous holiday that they’d just had. The five full days spent in Heidleberg with her elder daughter, Fiona, had been just what was needed to recharge their batteries before she went back to her teaching job the following day and Sheena back to her course at Aberdeen University.

Check-in was efficient; though possibly a tad slower than during other holidays.

Breakfast was next since a full feed at 3 am hadn’t been appealing.

A couple of hours later, they were close to boarding. The flight was still delayed by some twenty minutes but in the grand scheme of things that wasn’t so bad. As she settled down beside Sheena on the bench seating, she surveyed the pre - boarding lounge. She’d had the experience of being in a lot of airports over the previous three decades and had noted that the accommodations varied tremendously. This one was a bit like being in a very bare goldfish bowl. Looking back towards the automatic door that she’d recently entered through, there were two armed security personnel stationed at both the inside and the outside. The fully glazed walls gave way to the view outside of other passengers walking towards their own boarding lounges. Silently, of course, since the sound insulation was amazingly good.

The fact that the swell of people in the goldfish bowl sat in almost total silence, all added to the other-worldly eeriness of the experience. Of course, everyone looked half asleep as she must also do.

On the opposite side of the room was another totally glazed wall with one regular manual open/shut door. Again, it was guarded by two armed female officers to the inside, weapons at the ready. Behind the glass walls was a narrow, completely silent and empty corridor. The far wall was of basic undecorated grey breeze blocks. Mrs. J idly reckoned it probably led straight to the access gangways for entering the aeroplanes. At least she hoped so because it might mean less of a walk to get on to the plane.

Alongside her, Sheena nudged against her shoulder, snuggled in to her neck and then closed her eyes.
The short week had been fabulous. A small smile was suppressed as Mrs. J thought about the touristy things they’d done with Fiona who was studying at Heidelberg University for that academic year. They’d packed a lot into the days, working around the times that Fiona spent in classes and tutorials, since she wasn’t on holiday.
Mrs. J & 2 daughters

Heidelberg was such a fabulous town to visit.

The shops in the old town were amazing. Moving from one to another was a joy and that was pretty astonishing because Mrs. J wasn’t normally a browser. Since her daughters had hit their early teens, she’d volunteered to wash windows, do the ironing, clean the oven, do almost anything, rather than shop with them. Wandering around and trying on just about everything before they eventually made up their minds bored Mrs. J something awful - but Heidelberg shopping was different.

Jewellery had twinkled from behind many windows. Clothing was draped artistically on inside racks of the small clothing boutiques, often with hanging rails at the doors for easy handling and inspection of the fabrics. There were specialist this and specialist that outlets. The shops were very individual and some of them were probably entirely unique. Mrs. J had found that it had been surprisingly good fun wandering around with two twenty-ish year olds and living it through their eyes.

The three of them had spent some time in the fancy liquor store- the D-I-Y sort of shop for specialist drinks. Resembling a winery, inside the shop you could choose everything that you personally wanted- the bottle shape, its size and its contents. Small gift options were possible for tourists aware of avoiding excess baggage weight. Attractively shaped bottles were filled from the vats and barrels set around the room in an almost festive display – even though it wasn’t a festival time in Heidelberg. The locals, according to Fiona, also used the shop to fill their much larger demijohns and litre sized containers with their favourite tipples. Most of the drink options had English translations below but when they didn’t it was just as well that Fiona could translate. Combinations of sloes, logan, cloud, juniper berries and many more were quite mind boggling: the images portrayed often looking exactly the same. Purple berries and even more juicily purple berries!

Naturally, a sampling of the products was a huge part of the experience.

And then…there had been that magical All Year Round Christmas Store.

Fiona had warned her when they stopped at the doorway. “This is the most amazing shop. You’ll never want to leave but we have to get to our table at the beer keller in an hour or it’ll be given to someone else, though if you don’t spend too long, you can have a quick look.”

It was magical. Every floor was stuffed with Christmas goodies - some seriously expensive and only for the most ardent collectors, but other items were affordable.

“What’s taking you so long?” Sheena was clearly desperate to get to Fiona’s favourite student beer haunt.

Mrs. J had laughed at her eagerness, and told her younger daughter she would be done paying very soon.
“Mum!” She felt Sheena’s head nudge her arm as she straightened up. “That’s your name they’re calling.”

Mrs. J had a tendency to tune out airport announcements because they were rarely clear enough to understand them.

“Me? Why me?” She was jolted out of her reverie.

Sheena urged her up and towed her over to the gate check-in assistant. “I don’t know but they're not happy.”

At the desk, the airline assistant was calling her name a second time... and very stern about it. “You are Mrs. J?”

Answering was more than a wee bit difficult because the two armed officers who were at the long corridor door marched across towards her. By the time she confirmed she was the person they were calling for, a high degree of panic had set in.

“You will follow us!”

The weapon was twitching, one of the officers burbling into the microphone attached to her uniform.

Bundled into the corridor with Sheena, via the manually opened door, two more armed personnel thumped their booted feet down towards her. In the firm grip of one of them dangled her suitcase that she'd checked in more than two hours previously. The case was laid down on the corridor tiling.

“Open it!” demanded one of the female officers, a figure who might have moonlighted as a sumo wrestler. 

Another chipped in, just as intimidating and frozen faced. “Slowly.”

In a complete tizzy, Mrs. J panicked a glance at Sheena. “Is it my hairdryer? Should I have put it in my hand luggage?” Utterly inane things were jumping out at her because she had no idea why this was happening.

Gritted teeth whispered back. Sheena was the practical, pragmatic one of the family. “Mum, it’s not your stupid hairdryer. Just open the bloody thing.”

The key trembling in her hand Mrs. J opened the suitcase, mortified because she knew what was on the top layer. The smelliest items would be first in the washing machine when she got home.

“Remove them. Show what is beneath. ” The officer’s English was good enough to get her point over… and the only other good thing about the whole affair was that it wasn’t a male officer seeing the dirty knickers.

Hastily Mrs. J shoved the top layer onto the opened lid of the suitcase, gradually revealing a white plastic bag. As she peeled off more items, the logo of the bag became more visible.

What seemed to be guttural German passed between the four officers.

“Open the bag.”

As requested Mrs. J opened the bag and took out a myriad of tiny parcels. The grunts of frustration around her were unmistakable.

“You will remove the paper!”

There was never a please nor a thank you, only grim expressions which were becoming more annoyed as the seconds passed. After about the twentieth small package had the tissue paper removed from it, one of the officers barked at the others. Her gun twitched that everything should be put back into the case.

More burbling into microphones.

Little more was said. The case was filled and locked again. It was carted off by the one who had delivered it. Using mute signals only, Mrs. J and Sheena were escorted back into the now emptying goldfish bowl.

It goes without saying that they were last onto the plane.
On the last day of the school term before the Christmas break, Mrs. J’s Primary Seven class of 12 year olds had the usual party in their classroom in the afternoon. Her normal practice was to have the clear up done and dusted around fifteen minutes before the 'home time' bell, that small slot just enough to give out her Christmas gifts to her pupils. It was her habit to wrap and label each parcel with the recipients name on it and present it individually. That year was a little different.

She ensured she had a few extra minutes to spare.

“You’ll maybe have heard from previous Primary Sevens that I try to give you all something hand-picked by me as a Christmas keepsake?” 

She went on to relate to them that their Christmas gift was so unique it came with a story as well. Inside each parcel was a specially chosen tree ornament. Trains, Santas, cars, sleighs, baubles, trees, animals… Each one had been bought with care and stored with care. Each one had had new tissue paper wrapped around it since the original had been shredded in a Frankfurt Hahn airport corridor.

Her last words to the pupils before they left were to the tune of…Have a happy holiday and if you should be flying anywhere during the two week break, make sure that you have ZERO metal in your hold baggage.

Those tiny tree decorations were mostly made of wood but a few weren’t quite. Some were of the thinnest metal and some had the tiniest pins holding wheels together.

Airport security was so efficient that the 35 tiny ornaments had triggered the metal detectors.

A red face it had been, but a salutary one.
p.s. I hope that some of those ornaments might have been treasured because that was the general intention.

Mrs. J had 33 pupils that year. Here are the other two ornaments which go onto her Christmas tree every year - just to remind her that sometimes a red face isn’t so bad after all.

I think I bought this Christmas cloth in that Heidelberg shop too, though it may have been the one inVienna. Vienna is a city that also appears in Topaz Eyes...but that visit for Mrs. J was a different holiday.

*insert smiley face here* I'll need to write another true story about that holiday some other Christmas!

Please keep checking in to the Christmas with the Crooked Cats for more stories and poems!



  1. What a scary experience for you, Nancy.

    After the death of Osama Bin Laden, it was said (I forget by whom) that he shouldn't have been killed - he should have been taken alive, and forced to spend the rest of his life going through airport security :-)

    1. Sue- That's something I wouldn't want to repeat but justice is another thing.


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