Wednesday, 26 December 2018

A new adventure!

It is now a distant memory, when my friend from Ukraine, Marta came here in July and she may come back next year. For sure, the door is always open. So I thought that I would like to see her and Marina some time before next summer and rather impetuously, about a couple of months ago I booked flights for a whole month in Kyiv from 7th December when we have what is called "un puente" (two holidays combined into one / a bridge) until just after Orthodox Christmas in Ukraine on 7th January. My plan was to rent an apartment, go to one or two Meetup groups and visit Marta and Marina when they were free. Marta lives not far from Kyiv and Marina lives in Kharkiv which is one hour by air. But it was quite a long time to be away and I rather forgot what cold feels like. 

A few weeks ago, I received an offer from Ukraine International Airways (UIA) for an upgrade to business class on my outward journey for €80. But previously I had paid extra for seat selection and a meal on my regular ticket and these were included in business class. So effectively I got an upgrade for about €60. That was a very good deal!
But that didn't solve my preoccupation about my time in Kyiv during December - Marta would be working. Solution, go to Dubai! Where it is warm enough to go swimming.
So that is what I decided to do. Dubai is 6 hours from Kyiv by UIA and the airfare was really cheap, I paid in UK Pounds and it was about £200 return including seat selection and a meal outbound. Ah, I remember now, I paid £50 of that with my Panorama Club air miles but that is still very cheap.

Usually I write my blog as I go along but I was always to busy enjoying myself to sit down at a computer and so I am writing this back home on Boxing Day as it is called in the UK, or St Stephen's Day in Spain. I decided to come back earlier than I had planned but in fact, I simply booked a return flight with the option to change it if I wanted to. Sure, I had to pay €100 fee to change it, plus the fare difference but it still worked out cheaper than if I had bought a fully flexible fare in the first place.

I will start with my arrival back in Spain on Monday (24th) because it is still fresh in my mind and it was quite eventful. I had spent the weekend with Marta in her new apartment in Nizhyn which is about 1h30 from Kyiv by train. I took the express train at 6pm and Marta waved me off at the platform. I shared my compartment with a Ukrainian guy who gave lessons in Ukrainian to a pupil in Spain on Skype, so we had an interesting conversation and in no time at all we were in Kyiv. There is a cool little train (photo) to the airport now but in fact I took the regular Sky Bus to the airport because the timing was better and it drops its passengers off at Departures on the top floor which is where the shuttle bus from Ligena Hotel picks up its passengers.

I've written about Ligena Hotel before. I always stay there before taking the 9.50am flight to Barcelona as it is so much more convenient than travelling from the centre of Kyiv in the morning rush hour. It is in the town of Boryspil and the transfer takes only 15 minutes, so in no time at all, I was in the restaurant with a large glass of beer. I texted Marta on Skype to say that I had arrived safely and ordered a meal.

I got up next morning at 6am (5am in Spain), had breakfast and took the shuttle bus back to the airport. UIA has a neat self-service check-in which explains why they insist on a printed boarding pass (or loaded on a phone). There are a number of terminals with a screen and the usual weighing platform. I put my suitcase on the machine... 20kg ... and it scanned my boarding pass (I still prefer paper to using a phone, it is simply more convenient and hotels are always happy to provide the service). The machine issued the bag tag which I attached, then I took my bag to the bag drop, which scanned the tag with "BCN" and off it went! The bag drop issued a receipt. So in fact, there was no need to present my passport, that happened at Security.

Kyiv Boryspil Airport (KBP) Security is excellent (as is Barcelona) with a large area for preparing the trays, taking off belt, watch, boots, etc. Then it is normal to take computers out of the bag, of course. I remember once travelling out of Bristol Airport and the Duty Free area was so large that it had stolen space from Security so preparing the trays for the scanners was a nightmare, in a very cramped space and a feeling of pressure as the security person issued instructions! But then Security doesn't earn money!

I was a little annoyed with the UIA website because, when choosing a seat and logged in as a Panorama Club member, I could see that 6F, for example, was free. But when I clicked on it, the website accepted it and then a second later showed an error. If I logged out, it showed it as occupied! So I chose 10A. Never choose 10A on a 737-800, there is no window, just beige plastic! I reported the bug in the website, it is very new so these things happen!

The flight was 3h30 with a pause for 25 minutes before takeoff to de-ice the wings. I would guess the temperature was hovering around zero with flurries of snow.

When I arrived in Barcelona Airport, I was able to use the Passport Control for EU citizens but after March 30th, I will no longer be an EU citizen so I guess I will have to join the long queue for "All others". That is a little humiliating, coming back to my adopted country. I will try it anyway to see what happens. My passport has European Union printed on the cover and that won't change for 10 years. But my status certainly will change regardless of whether the UK leaves the EU with a deal or no deal. So there will be no preferential treatment for me after March unless I get myself a Spanish passport which is something I am considering. But, in theory, I cannot have dual citizenship.

My main preoccupation is over my free health care because that will only continue if there is a deal. But my doctor is so nice, she would probably see me "on the quiet" anyway and I wouldn't want the health service to spend vast sums of money extending my life by a year of two anyway in the event of something serious coming along.

After Passport Control, I picked up my suitcase from the Carousel and walked out to the shuttle bus which runs between T1 and T2 where I catch the train to Barcelona Sants. I had already booked a seat on the AVE to Girona at 3.40pm so I had plenty of time. But I reckoned I could just catch the next train, so I walked briskly across the bridge to the station. There were many people attempting to understand the ticket machines on account of there being a long queue at the ticket office. The first one I tried, the touch screen didn't work. I tried another, it didn't seem much better. Then two women next to me asked for advice. I said, "Go to Barcelona Sants, then you can take the Metro, do what you like". She said, "But we are here for 3 days". I gave up, went back to my ticket machine, inserted what I thought was my Spanish debit card, but in fact it was my Barclays debit card, both are now the same shade of blue. I entered the wrong PIN twice before realising my mistake by which time the train was departing. So I had to wait 30 minutes for the next train. 

It was only yesterday, Christmas morning that I received an unexpected present. On inserting my Barclays debit card into the little card-reader that the bank provides, I saw on the display, "PIN Blocked". I could not log in to my account.

I rang one or two numbers and finally got through to a very nice Indian girl in India with a huge delay on the sound. She took me through simple checks such as mother's maiden name, date of birth. Then she asked me a question about my account, "What direct debit payments did I make?" (or maybe she said "regular payments" as well). I answered, "None". I make a regular card payment to The Times, but I was thinking in terms of direct debit agreements with the actual account. The result alarmed me. The girl said that I had failed the validity check and one more failure would result in some kind of dramatic measure such as blocking the account altogether. I can't remember exactly what she said but obviously by now I was under suspicion. She said she was using some international standard of verification which sounded very impressive and a little scary.

I said, "Well, just send me a replacement card to my home address" (this card is useless now and can only be revived with a visit to a UK branch of Barclays). She replied that I needed to pass the verification process for her to do that. I got anxious and said that I would write to Barclays. No way was I going to risk a test failure because I had no idea what the consequences would be.

I raised the point that I only entered the wrong PIN twice and cards are blocked after 3 failed attempts. She said that maybe previously I entered the wrong PIN. So... what is the period during which the failures are added up? She couldn't tell me. A normal reset to zero would occur when the correct PIN was entered. This is like collecting points on a driving licence.

So, now I am writing to Barclays in the UK, requesting a replacement card but I am worried that my failed test will count against me. I suspect that they have all kinds of draconian safeguards in place and that I may have to visit a UK branch.

"Happy Christmas, Steve, from Barclays Bank where you have been a customer for 50 years". And will this relationship be even worse when the UK is no longer a member of the EU?

By contrast, I can send a personal email to Jordi my bank manager here, any time I like. But I have no personal contact at Barclays despite having a reasonable large sum deposited there; money stranded in UKL hoping for a better exchange rate but in fear of a drop in the value of Sterling in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Now, I am going to write about my trip to Ukraine and Dubai where I went up Burj Khalifa.. a very tall building indeed!

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