Friday, October 24, 2014

On an Airport at Rome



The flight from Palermo to Rome departed Sicily at 6:20 am. Julie and I left our hotel in Palermo’s city center at 3:45. The streets around the hotel were crowded with young people – apparently, downtown bars had just closed. Boys lounged around smoking cigarettes and posing nonchalantly on motorbikes that they didn’t own. Pairs of girls, each supporting the other, staggered down the sidewalk. Arched over the streets, frameworks of wire and lathe supported arrays of Christmas tree lights – the illuminated archways had been built for a religious festival and they crowned the narrow roadways like candles on a birthday cake. A girl and boy were kissing on the sidewalk, oblivious to the people going in both directions around them. The bar crowd looked like a defeated army, bruised and battered and in reluctant retreat.

Ten blocks away, the streets were empty and dark. The taxi-cab coursed swiftly through suburbs, gliding beneath huge apartment buildings and, then, hurrying toward the black sea. We passed through tunnels and under hill-towns perched on high buttes overlooking the Tyrhhenian Sea, a couple lights sparkling on the edge of the big, barren cliffs. The airport was empty. At the ticket counter, Julie, who was suffering from a very bad cold, proclaimed that she was sick and that she wanted to check a second bag. "Is not possible," the ticket clerk replied. "I’m sick and I don’t want to carry it," Julie said. The woman working for the airlines shook her head. "No, is not possible," she repeated. "I’ll pay," Julie said. "Is 75 Euros," the woman said sadly. Julie dug in her purse for her credit card. "Oh, no, no," the woman said. She looked drowsy, tired, irritated. Apparently, she didn’t want to process the credit card payment for the additional bag. "Is okay,’ she said, "I approve it. Is okay. No charge."

The plane took off at its appointed time and deposited us in Rome at Fiumocino Airport around dawn. We didn’t have seat assignments for the ten-hour flight from Rome to Chicago and so had to locate the Alitalia desk to obtain our tickets. This search was daunting. The airport in Rome is only incidentally a transportation hub. Indeed, from within the airport’s glittering corridors, there is no visible evidence that the place is even an airport. Rather, Fiumocino is a vast and maze-like shopping mall, a series of endless walkways conveying travelers between expensive shops and restaurants – there is MaxMara, Dolce and Gabbano, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and a host of other shops, vacant, of course, at 7:30 in the morning, but, nonetheless, open,dark-eyed women enigmatic as sphinxes lurking among the precious items on sale. At intervals, the traveler, defined in these quarters primarily as a consumer, a shopper en route between shopping malls in the great bright world, encounters eateries: places with names like the Mercedes Benz café, a sandwich shop despite its pretentious name. While the women max-out their credit cards, the men, stylish as well, are supposed to enjoy cocktails and a panini in restaurants named after Grand Prix races or Monaco or svelte sports cars. You walk and walk between luxury boutiques but there is no sign of any gates or airplanes, no vistas opening out onto runways or showing the horizon, whether stormy or clear, just an endless array of stores and dining rooms, here and there, a clubroom for premium frequent fliers discretely tucked among the merchandise emporiums.

It turns out that the gates and the airport infrastructure is located above or below the concourses lined with fashionable shops. At last, we limped to a promising escalator rode, the wave of metal and rubber to the business level of the airport, and located an Alitalia desk. There was a single female agent involved in an interminable and complicated dispute with a huge family of American hillbillies. The hillbillies were dressed in a curious combination of beach clothing and winter coats and several members of the family, despairing it seems of ever sorting out the problem with the clerk, were squatting glumly on the floor. We stood in line overhearing the controversy, but too tired to understand what it meant to us but another, apparently, endless delay. At last, a second young woman appeared as a reinforcement to her beleagured colleague. With feline insoucience, she gazed at her computer, gently stroked its keys, then, feeling herself slightly too warm, divested herself of her blue blazer, very carefully arranging the garment over the back of the chair on which she had been sitting. She rummaged in her purse for some trinket, studied the screen of her cell-phone with studied indifference, and, at last, stretching and rubbing her eyes, announced in a soft, remote-sounding voice that she was available to help us. Julie asked for the seat assignments for the flight to Chicago. "May I see your luggage claims and the receipt for your bags?" the young woman asked. This was, of course, a problem. Julie said that the gate agent in Palermo had waived the fee for the third bag. "But there is a third bag?" the young woman asked with a kind of strained remorse. "Yes," Julie said. "Then, I must charge you 80 Euros for the bag," the young woman said. "80 Euros?" Julie said with outrage. "It was only 75 Euros in Palermo." The young woman brightened: "But this is Rome," she said. "Is 80 Euros here." She grinned at us. Of course, this was Rome and she was from the north of Italy, perhaps even Piedmontese, and it was obvious that she thought her colleagues in Palermo were indolent, perhaps, even criminal and here, at this airport at the center of the civilized world, she was not about to accede to what someone had done in Sicily. "Must pay 80 Euros," the young woman said insistently. Julie clawed through her purse and found a credit card. At the station next to her, the dispute with the hillbillies continued and one of them burst into tears.

It turns out that the gate for our flight is hidden somewhere above the shopping mall, perched atop upscale souvenir shops and perfumeries. The waiting area is cramped and inadequate, the toilets ludicrously limited, but it doesn’t much matter because Italians are last-minute people, whistle-splitters as they are termed in industry, and the great majority of passengers scheduled for the flight arrive at the very last minute, breathless and damp with sweat. Boarding is according to prestige (First Class, Platinum and Gold Members), disability, maternity, and, then, by groups identified numerically. But every Italian older than 35 claims incapacity, a limp or a stagger, and most of the women younger than that age are toting bambini and so there is a general rush to exit the waiting area and descend to the gate as soon as boarding is announced. The staff are extraordinarily solicitous, continuously calling for wheelchairs on their walkie-talkies, half-carrying people hors de combat toward the gate. One stylish woman lugging huge cartons of duty-free cigarettes, points to what looks like stubbed toe, argues melodramatically that she can scarcely walk, and is waved forward to the gate as an early boarder on the basis of injury. In only a few moments, the waiting area is vacant; Julie and I dutifully waiting to board according to our group number are, more or less, left alone among the empty chairs and discarded water bottles. Through the window, it is uncertain as to where the plane is concealed. Wide-body buses are crawling around under the terminal, apparently hauling people to planes that remotely located. Below us, we can see small jets and panel trucks scooting about and crowds of men and women in florescent vests waving at one another, shaking hands, kissing on the cheeks. The scene is one of merry chaos.

At last, we are authorized to board and so we pass the gate agents who look at us quizzically, and, then, are directed across an oil-stained parking lot to stand in the crowd of travelers crammed into a waiting bus. Wheezing apologetically, the bus rolls through a maze of planes and fuel truck to find the jet that we are supposed to board. The entire protocol of boarding by sections and, according to rank, turns out to be meaningless. All of the passengers are reduced to a common mob, standing on the lurching bus like commuters on a subway train.

On the other side of the terminal, the planes are parked haphazardly, as if their pilots were drunk when they brought the big craft to a halt, located at all angles next to a roadway where various service vehicles are scuttling along, zigzagging to avoid one another, there being, apparently, no clearly delineated lanes on the roadways. The travelers disgorge from the buses and, then, shoving and pushing, crowd around wide portable staircases mounted on little wheels and set like nursing puppies against the teats of the plane. The hatch into the plane is smaller than the top of the portable steps creating a bottle-neck and as we stall on the steps, a vertical mob dragging luggage upward toward the sleek steel flank of the jet, I wonder whether the flimsy-looking metal structure can bear all of this static weight. Step by step, we proceed, packed elbow to elbow on the steps, any distinction between ranks or groups long since completely obliterated – the only difference between passengers now is whether you enter the plane at its head or rectum. (We come in through the rectum).

Inside, the plane is also crammed with passengers, hot and uncomfortable, the aisles an obstacle course of people stretching, quarreling, slinging heavy bags here and there. The pilot has to drive the huge craft along a winding path to reach the runway. Then, we are aloft on the ten hour flight to Chicago.

At Chicago, passengers disembark and walk long corridors that turn at the corners of the big enigmatic terminal its interior hidden behind provisional-looking walls, a passageway that seems completely anonymous and sinister, and that emerges at Customs. Welcome to the home of the free and the land of the brave! U.S. Customs are like the entrance to a Maximum Security prison, long, plodding lines of people huddled together between steel stanchions linked by elastic tape, dense congregations of travelers forced into lines folded accordion-style into one another while great expanses of the people-maze are empty, entirely vacant, steppes and prairies of floor where no one is standing. Signs warn us not to take pictures or make recordings of any kind and there is an aura of menace that discourages conversation. No one moves. The stationary queues seem to lead nowhere at all. Then, suddenly, some kind of people-weir opens and the crowd lurches ahead, but this also is illusory – you simply move from one motionless crowd to another, hustled quickly forward only to wait some more. United States Customs has ostensibly expedited processing by establishing electronic kiosks that read the traveler’s passport and, then, pose a series of questions as to the contents of your luggage and any freight, or currency, that you are carrying with you. Of course, everyone answers those questions dishonestly. Indeed, dishonesty, it seems, is encouraged and your entry into America costs you a half-dozen lies and the kiosks are equipped with cameras that take hideous-looking pictures weirdly foreshortened by the angle at which the lens is pointed: images that show the exhausted, jet-lagged, and foul-smelling passengers looking down into the camera as if peering into a cistern or inspecting a dead body inexplicably dropped at your feet. These kiosks, supposedly designed to speed the process of entry, merely add an additional layer of bureaucracy to an ordeal that is already inscrutable and Kafkaesque. No one knows how to operate the kiosks and so irritated agents circulate, slapping the passports of travelers into the devices and urging people to cooperate, pay attention, press forward with these procedures intended to categorize and catalog persons seeking entry into the United States. Armed with the pictures taken by the kiosks, carrying them like badges of approval, the traveler joins yet another line, is nudged forward to wait some more, and, then, bleary-eyed, dragged before the high-bench of a sort of minimum-wage judge who must decide whether you are to be granted entrance or, instead, cast into outer darkness. The judge is a man or woman obviously disgruntled and ignorant, a civil servant who regards him- or herself, as grossly overworked, wearing latex gloves so as to avoid any kind of contact with the miserable crowds of travelers, most of them fellow countrymen, supplicant before their bench. A few insulting questions are hurled your way, most of them like quips, like the punchlines of jokes that you can’t quite understand, and, then, you are approved to enter our land of liberty. At the edges of the crowd, dark-skinned people are being hassled, stripped, detained, their luggage searched, their children howling in misery. Welcome to the United States!

Of course, Julie’s third bag, for which she paid an 80 Euro transportation fee, is lost.

Twelve days earlier, we landed in Palermo. Flying over the sea, I saw the surface of the water marked with strange passageways, a patchwork of different textures like an aquatic version of cultivated fields seen from the air. Sicily’s northern coast seemed to be a bank of volcanic dust and gravel, dropping forty feet into the Mediterranean. A huge mountain stood guard on the island’s cape, studded with lava dikes like the spine of a stegosaurus. At the aeroporto, we had to clear Italian customs. Dragging our bags, we walked down a short warm hall to a station where two young men, each of them cutting a bella figura in their uniforms, occupied an elevated cubicle. Ahead of us were two German girls wearing shorts and tank-tops, apparently, dressed for an afternoon at the beach. The customs officers were delighted to see the girls and exchanged some witticisms with them, happily gesturing that they should make themselves at home in beautiful Sicily. Both of the young men turned to appraise the girls from behind as they strolled toward the airport parking lot and, since their attention was distracted, they didn’t even bother to look at the passports that Julie and I presented to them – with an irritated gesture, they waved us through customs and into their country, all the time ogling the German girls who had gone before.

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