Tuesday, November 14, 2006
I’ve just come back from a holiday in Romania.
I won’t tell you about that here, as I’m saving it for a book.
However, I can tell you about the journey.
I flew from Gatwick to Budapest in Hungary, and caught a coach from there: to Timisoara in western Romania.
A couple of things happened on the journey which told me that I was in for an unusual time.
First was while standing in the check-in queue. You know how it is at airports. They are large and anonymous, full of bustle and noise. The mind becomes abstracted by it all. There are obstacles to be overcome. Hurdles. Queues and queues and queues. You go sort of blank. So you pick your queue, having found your flight number, and then you wait. And wait, and wait. You have to wait because that’s what queues are for. So you wait.
It was only after about fifteen minutes of this blank waiting - watching the people in the other queues either side shuffle forward slowly but surely (there was one bunch of girls off to see a concert, one of whom had on lighted bunny ears and a picture of her idol on her back, and they were all giggling with expectation) - that I suddenly realised that our queue hadn’t moved. Everyone either side had moved up four or five places since I’d joined the queue, while I was still stuck in exactly the same position. Also, the middle aged couple immediately in front of me suddenly seemed noticeably agitated.
I said, “am I imagining things, or is our queue moving more slowly than all the others? I can‘t remember when we last moved.”
“Especially when the check-in girl disappears for about ten minutes,” said the man, visibly stomping from one foot to the other.
“Pardon? Oh yes,” I said. And I looked, and sure enough, we seemed to be missing our check-in person. I couldn’t say whether it was supposed to be a boy or a girl because I hadn’t noticed. I hadn’t noticed because I hadn’t checked because I hadn’t been paying all that much attention. There was simply no one there.
After a while the middle -aged couple realised that their flight was being called, and rushed off in fearful agitation, while I moved up a step or two, and, after a while longer - in which I vaguely contemplated jumping queues - our check-in girl returned, and the queue resumed its steady, incremental, forward-shuffling motion, like beer bottles on a production line, stopping to be filled before rattling on again.
Until I got to the front of the queue that is.
I arrived at the desk, placed my bag on the conveyer belt, smiled as I placed my passport and reference number on top of the desk. It was just a smile, one of those non-committal, half-vacant smiles you give to strangers on whom you are temporarily dependant: like check out girls in supermarkets, or check-in girls in airports. The smile sort of says, “hi, I’m human, I won’t harm you, I’m a nice person, now can you deal with me so I can get on to the next thing?“ As hollow as the spaces in the cavernous hall above. And the check-in girl looked at my face, took in my smile, then promptly burst into tears and went running out the back.
I mean: you just couldn’t make this up.
What can you do? I laughed and looked around. People were looking at me. Everyone had noticed. I shrugged. “Boyfriend trouble?” I suggested, tentatively.
Now what? I was standing there, empty desk in front of me, twiddling my thumbs.
“Um, is she all right?” I said, addressing the girl on the counter next door, after another few minutes of waiting.
“No,” she said. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” she said, and then she, too, disappeared round the back.
At this point my friend in Romania rang to see if I’d checked in all right.
“No,” I said, laughing nervously, “the check in girl took one look at my face and ran away crying.”
“It’s the effect you have on all the girls,” he said.
Eventually the girl from the other counter came back, and got on with the job, typing in my details, asking me about my baggage, putting a sticker onto it before sending it off along the conveyor belt, and I was out of the check-in queue and into the bar for a beer.
Next thing was on the flight.
The air hostesses did all the usual miming stuff: you know, pointing out the escape doors, what to do in the case of an emergency, the life jackets, the oxygen masks and all the rest, while the camp male attendant read out the instructions. He had a very theatrical voice.
When this was over he said: “One person on the flight has a nut allergy. Can I ask everyone on the flight to please refrain from eating nuts.”
Pardon? Was this a joke? One person has a nut allergy, so no one else on the entire flight, even twenty seats away, can open a bag of nuts.
I laughed. Then I realised that no one else was laughing.
I mean: what on earth is happening in this world? Are nuts so dangerous now? Yes, maybe, if you have a nut allergy. Maybe then you shouldn’t eat nuts. But a person sitting fifty feet away: they can’t eat nuts either. Why? In case the person with a nut allergy develops a slight rash and sues the airline I guess.
On the other hand, if nuts are so dangerous it’s a surprise they haven’t banned them from flights altogether. Terrorists could use them. “Watch out, I have a bag of nuts and I’m not afraid to open them!”
Well it's no more ludicrous that hijacking a plane using plastic knives and forks, which is what they claimed about the 9/11 conspirators. Or with bottles of water.
I was almost inclined to take out the KP nuts I had in my bag and open them anyway, just to watch the reaction. Except when I looked there was a warning on the packet.
“Warning!” it said. “May contain nuts!”