For many people, the annual holiday abroad is one of, if not the, highlight of the year. It is something to look forward to; from the moment it's booked to the second that the first, ice-cold beer is downed by the side of the swimming pool. It's an event the excitement for which builds and builds as the departure date grows ever closer. It is the same for me too. However, as well as the excitement building for me, the dread builds as well. Because as well as being a source of excitement and fun, for me the annual holiday abroad is also a source of anxiety and fear. Why is this? Because I'm afraid of flying.
Flying is something I didn't first experience until quite late in life. As a child and teenager my family were never really well enough off to holiday abroad. Mablethorpe was our usual destination of choice. After that, for many years I never had the need to fly. Then finally in 1999 a football trip with work took me to Dublin and my very first flight, aboard a 50-odd seater twin-propeller plane. I loved it. And the return flight too. The sensation of power as the plane gathered the speed required to lift off, the view of the clouds underneath me. The novelty of it all was great.
Then, in November of the same year, my friend (and eventual Best Man) Tim and I booked a late deal holiday to Fuerteventura for a week. The outward flight again was fine. This time it was longer (around 3:30 hours) so I had my first experience of a TV on the plane (gasp!) and was fascinated by the updates on our flight, speed and distance to our destination.
All good so far, until the return flight. We were seated near the back of the plane. The faint smell of aviation fuel hung in the air. There was no TV close enough to watch. No MP3 player to distract me. And it was windy and rainy. Not 'items falling out of overhead lockers' windy, but still 'seat belt lights on and stewards/stewardesses not allowed to walk round' windy. It was my first experience of turbulence and I didn't like it one bit.
Tim - an experienced flyer - didn't help matters by cheerily informing me that the seat belts on planes are primarily to keep the bodies in one place should the plane crash into the sea. The Captain's announcement of 'we're just flying into some 90mph headwinds' didn't help much either. Time seemed to crawl. The plane bobbed up and down like a dinghy on a choppy ocean. The sky was grey, so no hint outside of how far we'd traveled or still had to go.
Then, finally, it was over. I don't remember much about the landing other than feeling profound relief. The Pope at the time - John Paul II - used to kiss the ground upon arrival in a new country. I sincerely felt like doing the same.
Since that one flight I've never enjoyed the experience. I've suffered it where unavoidable (three flights in a day once to travel to Latvia for another football tournament), but I've also avoided it where possible (a 24 hour train journey from London to Krakow for Tim's Stag weekend). I went several years without having to fly, until meeting and marrying Clare meant a return of the need to be airborne. Initially on our first holiday abroad together to Menorca, and since then on our honeymoon to Egypt, and subsequent holidays to Majorca, Benidorm, Salou and - most recently - Cyprus.
As bad as it is for me, it's not much better for Clare. For days before the flight I'll be withdrawn and moody. Clare, who is naturally caring and attentive, finds it hard to leave me be, when all I want is to be alone with my thoughts. Tablets have helped somewhat (I have been tempted to have BA Baracus style drugged hamburgers), but I'm just never comfortable up in the air. The feeling of relief when we touch down safe and sound - as we have done every time of course - is wonderful. As another friend once put it: 'it's like someone switches you back on again when we land.'
I'm sure I'll fly again, and I'm sure I probably won't enjoy it, but for a few months now at least the need to fly is put aside.