It was 9am, and I wore the smug, punchable grin of the stickler who has everything under control. The tour pick-up was at 9.45am, and the location a 10- to 15-minute stroll away. I just had to sling my jumper in my bag and perhaps buy some water en route.
Alas, a quick glance at the voucher to check the itinerary threw up a big problem. Pick up was actually at 9.05am. I’d suddenly become the person I not-so-secretly despise.
There’s at least one of them on every tour; the person who seems to be under the impression their time is much more important than everyone else’s. He or she is the one that will delay departure by 10 minutes at every juncture, no matter how much the tour guide stresses the importance of being back on the bus by the agreed time. Never mind that the rest of the group is waiting, or that there’s a tight schedule to meet so that everything can be fitted in, they’ll saunter back on without apology, oblivious to the sea of stern faces.
To someone like me — indoctrinated in childhood to be absurdly over-polite, to the extent that I’d sooner turn up two hours early than one minute late — this is unforgivable behaviour. I always want to grab the culprit by the lapels and give them an extremely shouty lecture. “The driver said to be back at half past. Everyone else managed it. Why can’t you?!” my more courageous alter-ego would scream. “Look at what you’ve done. Look at everyone’s face. Look at the small girl crying in the back — it’s not because I’m being needlessly aggressive, it’s because you’re two minutes late and we might miss the honey tasting. How can you live with yourself?”
I don’t do that, of course. I just grumble to myself, perhaps breaking out into a particularly daring tut.
Tour buses are odd affairs, particularly for anyone with mildly sociopathic tendencies. You’re in an enclosed space with the same people for a short period of time, but it’s just long enough to judge every person by a single attribute. Complex human beings are reduced to ‘The One Who Eats Crisps Loudly’, ‘The One Who Gets Suckered Into Buying Mountains Of Tat At The Gift Shop’ and ‘The One Who Should Really Stop Drinking So Much Coffee If It Means They Have To Go To The Toilet Every 30 Minutes’.
There’s also the one who tries to be mates with the guide, monopolising attention whenever possible; and the one who spends the entire tour waiting for a slight factual error in the commentary so he can loudly denounce the guide as a charlatan. I’d try and have the last one run over if it wasn’t usually me.
Others you really don’t want to share a tour with are the family that complains about having to walk more than 30ft and the two middle-aged women who appear to have mistaken the bus for a cafe and continually overdub the commentary with inane gossip. But I’d sooner have all these people than someone who doesn’t understand the concepts of looking at a watch and setting off a few minutes before the stated meet-up time.
When it comes to punctuality, I always admire a guide who sticks to their word and leaves any latecomers behind. This time, however, I needed soft-hearted leniency. I charged out of the hotel, legging it as quickly as possible (which, given my state of fitness, is about as quickly as a limping sloth) through the streets of Krakow. Phoning the tour company as I lolloped, I begged them to contact the driver and make him wait.
“Where are you?” the voice at the other end replied, with a pitch-perfect level of disdain. I looked up, compared the street name with the map and realised I’d run five minutes in the wrong direction.
At 9.25am, wheezing and bearing the ruddy face of paralytic farmer, I finally managed to blurt out my apologies to anyone who’d listen. There is surely no greater walk of shame than the trudge to the last remaining seat at the back of the bus when you’ve kept people trapped in a car park for 20 minutes. Still, at least no one grabbed me by the lapels.