August, us: sees ya! Cock a doodle moo

Helen’s reaction to being told what headline I was going to use for this diary entry was the word “groan”, in capitals. That was exactly the reaction I wanted. I do think perhaps she knocked it out of the park with the sub-header though, the meaning and relevance of which will become clear if you’ve the patience to read through what follows: the story of how, on Saturday August 31st 2019, we started the day in our Surbiton flat and ended it in a Helsinki prison.

It was a Saturday unlike any other Saturday. I did not attend a Parkrun, breaking my recent streak of 8 weeks in a row - all at different venues, too. I was quite sad to not be able to continue this, as I also was to miss an AFC Wimbledon home game, yet another gig by my friends’ band Vulcan (each time they’ve played locally so far, I’ve been out of the bloody country), plus not be around to watch WWE NXT Takeover Cardiff and AEW All Out in something approximating real time.

But the sadness was entirely tempered, countered, and in fact entirely replaced with salivating joy at the prospect of what we had planned. Now, every year Helen and I buy each other a mystery long weekend away for Christmas, but usually physical goods for birthdays. In 2019 however we failed, for reasons, to get behind the birthday thing. Well, I did - she bought me a load of very cool books - and instead opted to do yet another travel thing. Bless her, she bought me essentially my perfect short haul flight: a oneworld alliance flight, leaving from Heathrow Terminal 3, and earning enough tier points to ensure I re-qualify for a British Airways gold card in this membership year.

So. Yes. Up early but no parkrun. There were chores to do, mostly around feeding plants, the cat, and the birds and squirrels in the garden such that none of them starve while we’re away. We packed, and then realised we were ready well over an hour before the cab was coming to pick us up. I’d gone for a new cab company - Addison Lee - on the basis of being in possession of a discount code AND ten quid statement credit on a card, making it considerably cheaper than our usual cab from Mogul. But keeping up with Mogul’s tradition, the driver turned up a full 15 minutes early.

He was friendly enough to say hello and ask if we’re sure we’d remembered our passports, then said fuck all for the rest of the journey until dropping us off. At any moment when the car wasn’t moving he was as fidgety as Steve Smith at the crease, constantly checking stuff in his glove box or changing from sunglasses to normal and back, or finding where his lemsip capsules were.

At 1050, precisely 3 hours before our flight, we were outside T3. After a quick vape we went in, up the escalators, and through a slow “fast track” security rigmarole, emerging into the main departure area at 1105. By 1110 we were in the Cathay Pacific lounge, getting a friendly welcome from the staff at the desk and being directed to the first class bit.

Here’s why the present was so perfect. My existing shiny gold card was “earnt” through the glory of a few mistakenly cheap first/business class flights back in 2016/17, and then extended for two further years courtesy of a BA IT cock-up over a bank holiday weekend during which we flew, but were unaffected. I reckon I’m the cheapest gold card ever. Being in possession of such a card grants me access, when flying with a oneworld airline from Heathrow T3, to four separate lounges – three of which have a dedicated first class section. Yet during the past 2.9 years of having such a card I’ve failed dismally to take such a flight. And it was really bugging me. So it was with GREAT ANTICIPATION AND JOY that I was finally able to check them all out.

Cathay Pacific, first class lounge

So, here we were at Cathay’s lounge. It’s a fairly small place, not crowded but not particularly spacious. Poking our head around we spot the restaurant-style eating area, with proper menus and table service and stuff. There are staff but no other punters, so we have the pick of our seats. Grabbing a corner, we’re given a couple of minutes to make our choices.

I’ll have the signature Dan Dan Mien noodles, thanks. Helen opted for the western set breakfast. Did we want any tea or coffee? No thanks, but I tell you what – I’d love a champagne. Helen opts for a mimosa. Let the holiday begin!

The noodle soup was thick, peanut-y and delicious. I’m told the fry-up was also very good, though not up to Galway standards. The champagne, being the first glass of the day, was obviously great.

Moving through the lounge after breakfast, there seems to be a half decent selection of spirits, some comfortable seating, and a self-serve beer tap. But we’re not hanging around, to be honest, because as nice as the food, service, decor and ambience was, it was time to move on. Departing, one of the staff from the desk calls the lift for us. It’s a nice touch. Bye, Cathay!

Qantas Lounge

The Qantas lounge literally is next door. As soon as we enter, we’re visually greeted with the glorious gin bar and lots of empty tables set up for eating. A split second later, we’re told by a member of staff that breakfast has just been cleared away, but lunch is now being put out upstairs. Trying to take a seat at a booth we’re then told that, no, the whole downstairs area of the lounge is now closed. Go upstairs.

Not wishing to actually use the stairs, Helen makes us get the lift one storey up. This is a mistake. It takes about, I dunno, 2 minutes? 2.5 minutes? Just to go up one floor. At no point is there a sensation of upward movement, rather the whole thing just vibrates ever stronger like a washing machine spin cycle going out of control. It’s with a mixture of surprise and relief that the doors do eventually open, up on the second floor.

This bit of the lounge is very boring. Like, really lazily done out. There’s a few different types of seat, and a fresh buffet of food out, and TVs showing variously news or Australian horse racing, but nowhere appeals. Having had a smaller first breakfast than Helen inspires me to go get a plate full of cake, mind.

Not bothered by the chicken thighs or curry.

Nor the cold savoury stuff. I want cake, damn it.

And two strawberries, for food measure.

The cake is dry. The strawberries are sweet, but not juicy.

And the seating is naff.

There’s a bar up here, much worse than the gin bar downstairs. It’s manned by a man, and I go fetch a mimosa and a beer. Probably should’ve stuck to champagne, but feels nice to walk up to a bar with beer taps, get a beer and not pay for it.

I had a Little Creatures. The tap wasn’t working and I had to settle for a bottle. Whatever. I’m told the Qantas mimosa beat the Cathay Pacific mimosa, but other than that this lounge is worse in pretty much every way. The gin bar would’ve maybe changed that verdict, but being denied our place there we necked this sauce and buggered off to lounge #3.

American Airlines international first class lounge

I’ve been in the AA lounge at terminal 3 before, but not the first class bit. In fact I’m not sure there was a first class bit back in 2014, but who knows. I recall very much disliking it at the time, so was taken aback upon entering this one and having a very good first impression.

Perhaps it was just due to the Qantas disappointment, but American impressed me here. The range of seating was all more attractive and we grabbed a couple on the mezzanine bit. Helen went off to fetch a small cake, after which I tagged in to go get another plate full of stuff. Man, I was totally pigging out here.

There was a large fridge well stocked with soft drinks and a variety of beers, plus a bunch of spirits and wine for self-pour. The hot food was a honey glazed ham with Savoy cabbage and small potatoes and it was very nice. On the cold side there were a bunch of decent looking sandwiches and other choices. It all looked better than the Qantas food.

Seeing other people had champagne but with no obvious source of it, I asked a member of staff. Lo and behold, a champagne and a mimosa arrived. This mimosa was the best yet, apparently. Part of me wonders if “the third champagne is better than the second and first champagnes” is a truism not even worth mentioning.

While I’d been doing that, Helen had popped to the magazine rack to get some reading material befitting of our social status. Thus we are checking out “The Luxury Report” and, err..

“What have we become!?”, I stage-whisper-scream. Bloody hell.

As we leave, there is time to stop and fill a paper bag with sugar. This is something unique to AA’s lounges as far as I know: the pick and mix sweets to take for your journey.

Pick. Mix.

British Airways Galleries First

Lastly, our “home” lounge. My oneworld emerald level card is a BA card, after all. We left it to last because both of us have been in BA’s “Galleries First” lounge(s) tons of times, at T5 at least. The T3 one is barely different, just smaller – a reflection of the many fewer flights which they have from this terminal, plus the choice available to eligible passengers, as we’ve just proven.

We sit down in the first seats directly behind the reception desks, because they are huge comfortable thrones and this crawl has made us feel properly regal.

The self-service champagne is about 3 steps away. There is no orange juice with which Helen can make a BA mimosa, only canned orange which she turns her nose up at. I mean, Jesus.

Back and seated, Helen starts repeating “it’s the best!” to me. She’s a huge fan of BA’s lounges, finding them classier than all the others. I can’t help but agree, mostly, though I do think table-served food is always better than a buffet. Mind you, I also like being able to pick precisely how much cheese I want to fit on a plate when I decide to be in a cheese mood.


Actually, that’s only about half the cheese. I got loads, expecting Helen would want some, but she didn’t. Oops. Likewise the scone and clotted cream.

Having completed the 4 lounge crawl, and now being very merry, I am happier than a pig in shit. “So, now do you see why I’ve wanted to fly to Luxembourg for ages?” I’m saying, over and over again. What a preposterous, magnificent, indulgent morning. I really can’t express how much fun Heathrow lounge bingo is to me. That it ended because we had to go catch a plane wasn’t exactly a bloody hardship though was it?

Heathrow to Helsinki

We were leaving from Gate 5, back up beyond all the other lounges and indeed past the Emirates lounge. By the time we get there, boarding hasn’t started even though it’s only about 25 minutes until departure. Helen nips to the loo, taking sufficiently long enough that by the time she’s out and we’re back at the gate the monitors say “closing” and it seems like we’re going to be last on. Entirely unlike me, I actually had a bit of a panic there. I blame the Qantas beer.

Onboard, we’re in row 1, seats 1D and 1F on the right hand side of the plane as you face forwards. In order to re-qualify for gold – legitimately, this time, without any mistake fares! – I needed 115 tier points. This return will earn me 160, with the added symmetry of being to the same destination which got me over the line back in 2016.

There’s instructions for connecting to WiFi. For the entire duration of the flight, except for a split second when it was clearly showing default content, I am only able to connect to the page which says “you can’t get online just yet”. Thanks, BA.

We are given hot towels, and I’m somewhat startled to read in the magazine that taking your own booze onboard has now been banned. This is definitely news to me.

Helen’s got the window seat, and thus gets all the cool views.

Such as this big car park.

And this reservoir.

And then England’s excellent patchwork fields.

Business class is very full back to about row 8, so I’m extra glad we’re in row one. Once the seatbelt signs go off, the crew come round with menus – well, actually, one of them drops the entire supply of menus all over my lap and feet and the floor around me.

A couple of minutes later we’re asked if we’ve made our choice: I go for the vegetable korma. When asked what I’d like to drink, I’m apparently keen enough to respond “champagne please!” that the crew member comments on how certain I was of my choice. I assure them I’d made my decision hours, if not days or weeks, in advance.

Hummus (hidden by) bread. Veg korma. Cheesecake. Cheese. Champagne.

Ever since having seen the menu some days earlier courtesy of Flyertalk, Helen had been bemused by the third item, the beef and chicken. Was it beef and chicken pasta, or beef and chicken stew, or what?

Just orange juice, not a mimosa. I know, right.

No. It was some beef and some chicken. Just like it said. I dunno why people want to read between lines that aren’t there! But anyway, there’s yer formula: beef + chicken = cock a doodle moo. Maybe someone in BA catering department is a big fan of Cow & Chicken?

The trays got cleared away, but the champagne kept getting refilled. By, like, 4 different members of crew I think. Seems a bit excessive but just to be clear this IS NOT A COMPLAINT.

Talking of excess, all this boozing was making me somewhat tired. Flights do that to me anyway, too. I didn’t fall asleep though, but became navigator for Helen. Having never been up to Scandinavia before I was explaining where we were with help of the moving map, while she looked out of the window and said things like “Denmark looks like Norfolk with turbines”.

Soon enough we’re flying over Sweden, which is gorgeous, and then Finland, which is also gorgeous. Snatching my pen and pad from my hand, she draws a bunch of squirrels across the pages, handing it back to me so that I can note down our 20-minute early arrival and how roaringly happy drunk I am. And gluttonous. And drunk enough to write the 20-minute earliness on two separate pages.

From the airport to prison

It’s a long walk from the gate to the oyster-y immigration gates, which themselves are really bloody slow. Several people in front of us seem not to understand the clear instructions on their usage, which doesn’t help matters. Both Helen and I are let through without fanfare, though for some reason it takes twice as long for her as it does for me.

The walk from gate to baggage to railway station is even longer, and we miss the 1901 train by a matter of seconds because we needed to buy tickets. Thankfully there’s a 1904 too: Helsinki has this circle line train system, the I and P trains, and the airport is almost at the centre – so we can go either way. The train is empty and comfortable and the ride is pretty nondescript. Helsinki may be a beautiful place, but the stuff next to the train lines doesn’t really demonstrate that.

The half-hour or so journey gives us time to read the handful of tourist attraction leaflets we picked up at the airport, to charge our phones since there’s power sockets, and for me to get vaguely annoyed by AFC Wimbledon 0 Wycombe Wanderers 0. I mean, it’s a point against a team who’ve started very strongly, but fucking hell when are we going to win? The BBC match report says the first half was “utterly devoid of quality”. Woe is me.

In Helsinki proper, I’ve laid out our options. They are:

  • Get a tram
  • Walk

I don’t really remember how the tram system works around here, but I do know my way around on foot and that it’s not far. I also know it’s still light, and warm, and this will be a nice introduction to the city for Helen. So, walk it is. Past M&S, over the tram lines and beyond the bus stops into the pedestrianised bit, down to the park, along to the market square and waterfront, and behind the big wheel. Which looks bloody lovely.

All over the place there are hire bikes, and also hire scooters. The latter don’t seem to have any racks or places they must be returned too, they’re just kind of abandoned. We figure they must be electric and just run out after a certain amount of time, meaning you’ve a good chance of finding one anywhere in the city.

Also all over the place are people in running kit. Tonight is the occasion of the Helsinki Midnight Run, a 10km thing around the city centre. I’d have loved to participate had we flown in on Friday or Thursday, but plainly the exhausted, bloated, drunken state I knew I’d get in was not going to tally with a run. I’ll be back for Parkrun one day though.

Anyway, I digress. We’d walked to the island just behind the wheel, called Katajanokka. Our hotel is, in fact, named Hotel Katajanokka. Because Helen bought the flights, my present to her was to find and pay for the accommodation – so of course, we’re in a converted prison. It still kinda looks like a prison - tall walls around the perimeter, bars on many of the windows, references to cells, but best of all the corridors and stairs between the floors.

You can see two non-doors for each actual door, behind which are the rooms (obviously). We’re in room 314, which is on ... well, now there’s a thing. I’m an Englishman, meaning I’m used to floors numbered Ground, 1, 2, and so on. But I’m also well-travelled, meaning I don’t have trouble coping with floors numbered 1, 2, 3, and so on. But here? Reception, on ground level, is on floor 2. The basement is floor 1, and our room 314 is on the first floor. Wait. What? Really, yes. Absolute madness.

Acquanting ourselves with the room, we almost instantly decide that a supermarket must be sought out because fuck paying €6+ for minibar cans of beer. There’s a branch of Alepa just up the way, in a residential bit, next to a rough looking boozer called Red Fox. It’s a cramped shop, with very narrow aisles, and some Tesco Finest products. There’s a decent booze selection, and two fruit machines just by the door. Huh. We buy beer, bottled water, and some muesli bars for breakfast. Oh, and some 4.8% sparkling wine in a goddamn can.

Back at the room once more, it’s quite apparent that we’ve had enough for the day. The TV has BBC world on it. Sides of the bed are chosen, chargers are plugged in, and beer/wine is cracked open. I just about manage to get through my can without dozing off and spilling it all over the bed sheets (something I absolutely haven’t recently done at home and I’ll sue anyone who claims otherwise). Keeping my eyes open is ludicrously hard, so I opt to not even try. That was a lot of day to sleep off, and anyway, we wanted to be up early in the morning to go do Helsinki stuff.

Created By
Darren Foreman

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