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Opinion

Sam Delaney: held hostage by an unsolicited flute recital

Travelling with my family is stressful enough without having to deal with maniacal cab drivers

It’s flying season again, as families pile into hot and sweaty terminals, hyped up on pre-holiday adrenaline and travel anxiety.

Some of us – including me – didn’t set foot on a plane for a couple of years during the pandemic. I’d half forgotten how stressful it is. The problem is, my wife and I operate at completely different speeds. She likes to pack days in advance, get to the airport with three or four hours to spare and, once through security, proceed straight to the gate and just sit there, solemnly waiting for the plane to arrive.

I am a nightmarishly casual traveller. I throw things in a bag on the morning of departure, rock up to security about an hour before take-off and then take my time perusing the terminal shops. I’ll often buy an unnecessary pair of trainers at JD Sports or a pair of headphones I can’t afford at Currys Digital. To me, that’s all part of the holiday vibe. 

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Holidays are an act of anarchy. From the moment you leave your house and stick your luggage in the back of the Uber, the usual rules do not apply. For the next week or so you are likely to be wearing swimming shorts at breakfast time and eating octopus for lunch.

It’s mental, so I try to lean into it. I spend, eat, drink and time-keep as if the world is ending and all actions have no consequence. This is why my wife falls out of love with me every time we set foot in an airport. The kids have taken sides. My daughter is bang up for shopping and time-wasting with her dad; my son is a schedule neurotic like his mum. This divide fuels a toxic, interfamily psychodrama every time we fly. It’s awful.

Last week we travelled to Budapest to visit my in-laws. Things got really strange before we even reached Heathrow. The cabbie who drove us there was a talker. I had to sit next to him in the front and he WOULD NOT stop telling me about the varied battery lifespans of electric vehicles. It was very early and I wasn’t in the mood. In Germany (where people aren’t half as uptight and awkward as we are) Uber gives you a conversation opt-out before your car even arrives. They are such a civilised people.

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As it turned out, the driver’s chatter was only half the problem. As we approached Terminal 3, he announced that he was an accomplished flautist. I made the mistake of expressing mild interest in this, at which point he took out his phone, mounted it on the dashboard and – while we were waiting at the lights – looked up a video of himself on YouTube. In it, he was sat in his front room playing a not-entirely unappealing Indian folk song. I tapped my foot, nodded my head and just hoped no-one in the back started awkward-laughing.

Eventually we arrived at the drop-off point and my wife, consumed with her usual fears about missing the flight, lunged for the door handle. But the doors were locked. He didn’t want us to get out of his taxi just yet. We had seen the video of him playing but that wasn’t enough. Now he wanted to play for us in the flesh!

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With a flourish, he produced a hand-carved bamboo flute from the footwell. “Just one quick tune before you go,” he insisted. He began to perform a melodramatic ballad that felt as if it lasted for days.

It was hot in the car. The driver made unblinking eye contact with me while he played. I glanced at my family in the back: my 14-year-old daughter staring at her feet; my 10-year-old son consumed by rage; my wife on the verge of an aneurysm.

Just as I was beginning to contemplate a physical intervention (grab the flute, snap it over my knee and run?), the recital reached its conclusion. The driver beamed at me and waited for a response. I applauded. He released us from his car and we hurried to departures. He was talented, that was for sure. But there is a time and a place for that sort of thing. I’m all for holiday chaos but this was a bit much, even for me. Maybe Uber should offer a flute opt-out.

Read more Sam Delaney here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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