Passaporto per favore

passport(why I hate airports, part 3)

Many years ago, en route to Berlin, I spent some time in Milan’s Malpensa airport. I had chosen the cheapest flights to get to Berlin and the layover in Milan was nine hours. The flight to Milan was bad too. As they served dinner, a steward and stewardess got into a brawl. At first I thought that Italians spoke like that, saying basta a lot, but the Italians on the flight seemed upset. I became upset too, just to be safe. In a final flurry of flailing arms and bastas they marched off and left the dinner trolley parked in the aisle near my seat. When they didn’t return I helped myself to little bottles of wine and two hot meals. In the morning, as we approached Milan airport, the captain addressed us.

“Good-a morning, ladies an-a gentleman,” he began.

Then he told us about the weather in Milan and how glad he was that we all flew in his plane. As an afterthought he remembered the night before.

“And,” he said, laughing, “we apologise-a to de passengers in de back. In Italy we are hot in de blood, sì?”

And that was that.

My visa covered Italy as well and so my plan was to take a taxi to Milan and spend a few hours exploring before the onward flight to Berlin.

“No problem,” the travel agent had said. “Just go to Milan.”

At the airport in Milan there was a problem.

“Passaporto per favore!” an extremely Italian-looking official demanded.

Beyond the gate I could see the taxi ranks and what looked like the road to Milan. I dug out my passport and gave it to him.

“Milan,” I added helpfully.

“Parparpa allegro puccini!” he snapped and held out his other hand.

On instinct I gave him my boarding pass.

“No!” he snapped after he’d glanced at it. “Transito!”

With that he ushered me back to the large transit hall. I wandered around and tried to read the signs. One said uscita and had a picture that looked like an exit, so I followed it. At this gate another man barked in Italian until I retreated to the transit hall. I couldn’t believe it. It was eight in the morning, I was virtually in Milan, with a valid visa and hours to spare, and yet I was stuck in this fucking place.

“Attenzione, attenzione,” the PA system announced every few minutes. “Molto andante parparpa linguini!”

Or something like that. Everything ended in a vowel and it was driving me mad. How could the language be so open and the airport so closed?

“I want to go to Milan,” I told a woman selling flowers.

“This Milano,” she said with a smile. “You buy flover.”

I hadn’t noticed how beautiful she was. From farther away she had been merely pretty. Now, up close, I could see a small scar beneath her left eye and the slightly crooked way she smiled. She was an errant goddess, banished to this airport, a mermaid on dry land.

“No, thanks,” I said.

With every second I noticed more imperfections to add to her beauty. Going to Milan didn’t seem quite so important anymore but I waved my hand at the larger world beyond the airport.

“Milano,” I emphasised. “Outside.”

“Sì!” she nodded.

She pointed down a narrow corridor I hadn’t noticed before.

“Milano,” she said. “You go!”

It was a long walk down the corridor towards the outside world. I could see trees and cars and then I could also see a turnstile blocking my way. Next to the turnstile sat two guards, one on either side. As I got closer I could see that one was gangly and the other one fat, like Laurel and Hardy, and that they wore silly chevron caps and sat slumped in their chairs, half asleep. It was obvious that hardly anyone ever came the way I was coming, but as I approached they perked up.

“Perdono!” Laurel called out and staggered to his feet.

I thought of the captain’s words and kept walking.

“Ciao!” I cried and jumped over the turnstile.

Laurel and Hardy were galvanised into action. Perhaps they had sat at that gate for years without anything happening, but now their training kicked in. They tackled me before I got too far beyond the gate. Hardy grunted with the effort as they frogmarched me back up the corridor. It was ridiculous and I began to laugh.

“Parparpa parparra e quattro stagioni!” Laurel insisted as we struggled along.

“Parparpa parparra!” Hardy agreed.

“Sì,” I laughed.

They turned off the corridor, marched me down another, darker corridor and into a little room where they cuffed me to the only chair that was in there.

“Hey!” I shouted. “What the fuck is this!?”

It was suddenly not so funny anymore.

“Sei pazzo!?” Laurel asked and wiped his brow.

“Pazzo schmatzo!” I shouted. “You can’t do this!”

But they closed the door, locked it and walked away. I listened to their receding footsteps and then to the ominous silence that followed. Fuck Milan, I thought, and fuck Italy. I wanted to go to Berlin. This was all the flower woman’s fault. If she hadn’t been so convincing I would still be wandering about in the transit hall. What if they never came back? What if they just went back to their chairs at the turnstile and fell asleep?

I started sweating while I imagined the various outcomes of my situation. The cuffs were large and tight. Perhaps I could break the chair, I thought, and escape, but I’d have to break down the door and I’d also look pretty suspicious walking around an airport with cuffs around my wrists. A few long minutes later the door was opened and a man with an Elvis-like lick of hair stepped into the room. Laurel and Hardy hovered behind him. He surveyed the scene and said something in Italian. Laurel uncuffed me and pulled me to my feet.

“Passaporto per favore,” Elvis said calmly.

I dug it from my pocket and handed it over.

“My God,” I began in my best American accent.

I was going to out-talk him.

“I’m sorry,” I went on.

Elvis held up his hand and quietly flipped through my passport until he was satisfied. Then he grabbed me by the shoulders.

“Parparpa risotto rotondo con carne?” he demanded as he shook me about.

“I — ” I began.

Laurel grabbed my shoulders and gave me a shake too.

“Parparpa con carne!” he emphasised.

Elvis turned to Laurel and levelled a wave of Italian at him. Clearly he was the boss and only he would do the shaking. He stared at Laurel until he backed off. Then he grabbed me again.

“Parparra adagio con doppio espresso!” he insisted.

“I’m sorry,” I said again.

Elvis put on a sad expression and motioned for me to go.

“I can go?” I asked.

Without a word they lead me back to the transit hall and left me there.

“Attenzione, attenzione!” the PA system blared as I walked around. “Ultimo viso con porta cappuccino.”

Or something like that.

“You go Milano?” the flower woman asked.

“No,” I said. “I stayed here with you.”

“You buy flover.”

She held out a single rose. Even her wrists were beautiful. I bought a flower and went to sit where I could watch her. I had five hours to kill and nothing to do.

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The Platinum Card

platinum(why I hate airports, part 2)

In the 2000s I often travelled to London for work and ended up getting a Platinum frequent flyer card. This card was a passport to all kinds of assholery, the most important of which was being able to use a special check-in counter. I didn’t really care about the other things it offered. I cared about checking in.

This was my father’s fault. For some reason he always tried to do his taxes just before we had to drop him off at the airport and on a few occasions we actually missed his flight, including the part where the plane took off. Seeing that scarred me for life. I was going to make damn sure that the flight couldn’t leave without me. Checking in was as close as I could get to that.

The Platinum Card made things a little easier. I no longer had to queue like a prisoner. I could stroll past everyone else to the Platinum Counter. I remember watching a man with pointy shoes and a pinstriped suit at the Platinum Counter when I still had only a Gold Card. He looked calm and deserving and disinterested. It was obvious that the Platinum Card was just one of the smaller benefits he enjoyed in life. I hated him. I hated him so much that I wanted to be just like him. I wanted pointy shoes and a pinstriped suit. I wanted to be calm, like him. I wanted a secretary who could book my flights for me instead of having to book them myself using a website designed by the inmates of an asylum. This website was called I-fly and it made it so difficult to choose a flight that it should have been called U-stay. I hated I-fly and I hated this man, but what I really hated was the Platinum Card.

Until I got one.

I fell in love with it and became an asshole overnight. I strutted deservingly to Platinum Counters and drummed my fingers royally upon them until an agent appeared to check me in. I liked it particularly when there wasn’t already someone at the counter and I could do that. I started to relax a little. I arrived a little later than I usually would. I sweated a little less at the thought of an airport. With the Platinum Card I even managed to look calm and disinterested.

Until one day.

It was obvious that something was wrong from far away. The check-in area looked like a street market in Lebanon. There were more people pushing about than could possibly fit onto the remaining flights of the day.

“What’s going on?” I asked a man who was stretching to see the counters.

“They cancelled three flights,” he said flatly. “We’re all on standby.”

“On standby?” I wheezed and grabbed his shoulder. “For which flights?”

He eyed me.

“Dude,” he said and glanced at my hand, “for all of them.”

A voice came over the PA system.

“Ladies and gentleman,” it barked.

A severe-looking woman at the counters was doing the barking. She paused for effect.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she began again. “To repeat, for technical reasons we’ve had to reschedule the remaining flights to Cape Town. We’ll try to get as many of you onto these flights as we can. Please queue in the demarcated lanes. We apologise for any inconvience this may cause.”

I pushed and shoved through the crowd to the counters. There was a Platinum Counter but the area around it looked like a field hospital. The severe woman was at it, talking to a couple while others poked at them and looked over their shoulders.

“Excuse me — ” I interrupted.

The severe woman gave me a withering stare before she returned to the couple.

“Your original booking is no longer valid,” she explained.

While she talked I took a moment to look her over. Everything about here was stiff and ironed into pleats, the way you’d expect of the matron in a military hospital. She had wide eyes and plucked eyebrows and puckered lines around her mouth. This gave her a surprised look, as though her digestive tract had suddenly shortened and pulled her mouth and her ass closer together.

“Those seats,” the Matron said with infinite firmness, “are no longer reserved.”

The couple stood their ground while the crowd washed at us in waves.

“But we booked them six weeks ago,” the woman grunted.

“Excuse me,” I said again, a little louder than before. “Is this the Platinum Counter?”

“Wait your turn,” the man growled.

The couple were outsized people, tall and heavy-boned. There was no way either of them could ever fit into a pinstriped suit. They couldn’t possibly be Platinum Card holders.

“Is it?” I asked the Matron.

Someone shoved me against the counter and my face came close to hers. She smelled faintly of baby powder.

“This is the Platinum Counter,” she snarled, “but we have a larger problem, as you can probably see. Do you mind?”

She turned to the couple again.

“What we can do —” she began.

“I’m sorry,” I interrupted again. “I do mind, actually.”

The Matron straightened and pursed her lips.

“You can continue to have a larger problem,” I added and swallowed, “after you’ve helped me.”

I slid my Platinum Card across the counter like a little bribe. The large woman said something but her voice was so deep that I couldn’t make it out.

“Sir,” the Matron said, “like everyone else, you are on standby at this moment — ”

She motioned with her hand to indicate everyone.

“I understand that,” I said, “but surely the Platinum preference applies even now?”

The couple looked at her and then at me.

“The Platinum preference!?” the woman boomed.

The Matron stared through me and appeared to be restraining herself.

“Please?” I added.

“Booking confirmation?” she snapped.

I handed her my printout. She turned to the screen in front of her and typed something.


I told her the flight number.

“It’s printed on there,” I added miserably while the couple glared at my cheek.

“I had a window seat,” I whispered.

“I see that,” the Matron said, suddenly more friendly than before.

For a moment I thought of I-fly and how it was perhaps not so bad after all. The Matron returned my card and the printout.

“You still have that seat,” she said with an almost smile.

“Thank you very much — ”

“A month from now.”

“Excuse me?”

“Today is the 4th of the 3rd,” she said, pointing at my printout. “Your booking is for the 3rd of the 4th.”

“But — ”

She turned to the couple who were now smiling broadly.

“Things should be calmer by then,” she said.

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It’s my job

(why I hate airports, part 1)

It was seven in the evening and my flight was only at eleven. There was a single agent at the check-in counters, and no one checking in. A maze of demarcated barriers outlined where one would usually queue, but I ducked under them.

“No, no,” someone said.

A very fat security officer had materialised from nowhere. She waved a gloved finger at me.

“Go back,” she insisted.

“Why?” I asked. “There’s no one here—”

She folded her arms across her vast bossom.

“Everyone follows the rules,” she added.

The gloves made her look like an overweight Mickey Mouse.

“Not everyone,” I tried. “I didn’t.”

Mickey pointed at the entrance of the maze. I walked back along it and then returned. When I finally reached the front again, Mickey insisted on checking my passport before I could proceed to the check-in counter.

“Why!?” I asked.

“I must check it,” she wheezed as she took my passport.

“What for? She’s going to check it anyway.”

I nodded in the direction of the woman at the check-in counter who was eyeing us with disinterest.

“It’s my job,” Mickey declared.

She fumbled with my passport, bent it open and folded the pages with her gloves.

“Why?” I pressed on. “Why check it here if she’s going to check it there?”

“I must check it,” Mickey droned and looked past me. “It’s my job.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s a stupid job.”

Mickey looked at me and then she slowly walked away, taking my passport with her. I watched her as she waddled toward a little office, her gloves paddling at her sides as though she were swimming.

I started to sweat. I looked at the woman behind the check-in counter but she appeared to be removing something from her eye. A couple approached, ducked under the barriers and proceeded past me. A minute later I decided to follow Mickey. The little office door was closed and I knocked.

“Uh—um,” another security officer stroked her moustache behind me. “Can I help you?”

“She’s took my passport,” I croaked. “She’s in there.”

Mickey #2 guided me silently back to the maze.

“Wait here,” she said and folded her arms.

By now I was sweating profusely. Mickey #2 looked at me and at my bag with mounting suspicion. A few minutes later Mickey #1 reappeared. She made me stand at a little table while she filled out my passport details on a form she’d brought with her. Then she stuck an orange sticker on my passport and handed it back.

“It’s my job,” she said.

When it was my turn, the Mickeys followed me to the check-in counter.

“I’m OK now,” I turned to them. “I’ll take it from here—”

“Passport?” the woman at the counter asked in a tired voice.

“See?” I said to Mickey #1, but she looked into the distance.

The woman behind the counter paged through my passport, looked at the orange sticker and at the Mickeys, and then she typed away on her keyboard. I watched as she did this. She had double hair buns with little pins in them. She also had an extremely long neck and one eyelash which was much longer than the others. She looked like a giraffe.

“Is this your bag?” Giraffe asked and batted her lash.

I imagined a secret factory in the mountains where the ground staff were made. There were large vats of bubbling liquid and a conveyor belt which moved security guards and check-in agents along so workers could screw in their hands and glue on their lips and hair.

“It’s Friday, folks,” the floor manager hollered. “Shut’em down!”

“This one’s stretched!” a worker cried above the din and pointed at Giraffe on the conveyer belt.

The manager prodded her.

“Tough shit,” he said. “Time’s up!”

“I’m alone,” I said. “Whose bag could it be?”

Giraffe stopped typing and batted her lash a few times.

“Is this your bag, sir, or not?”

Her lips were pouty, like a giraffe’s.

“It’s my bag,” I said.

Behind me the Mickeys edged closer.

“Did you pack the bag yourself?”

No, I wanted to scream, the fucking butler packed it!

“I did.”

There was a stout hair growing from a mole just above her lip. She batted her lash and moved to the next question on her screen.

“Could anyone have tampered with your bag?”

“Not anyone,” I said, “surely?”

Giraffe looked at the Mickeys.

“The Pope couldn’t have,” I explained, “could he? You mean someone—”

Giraffe pursed her lips. There was another, smaller hair growing out of the mole, like a kind of back-up.

“Could someone you don’t know of have tampered with your bag?”

“I can’t answer that,” I said.

“Excuse me?”

The Mickeys edged a little closer still.

“If someone I don’t know of did this,” I said, “I wouldn’t know of it, would I?”

The Mickeys folded their arms and stroked their moustaches.

“Sir,” Giraffe said and leant forward, “these questions are for your safety as well as those of other passengers.”

Sweat was now running down my back.

“I know,” I said a little too loudly. “That’s why I get annoyed when they’re wrong!”


“The only logical answer to your question is yes.”

Giraffe craned her neck and batted her lash.

“Someone could’ve—!?”

“No! No one could’ve. You should ask whether I’ve left it somewhere without watching it.”

Giraffe looked at me as though I’d handed her a bag of shrapnel.

“That would make sense,” I added, “not someone you don’t know of.”

“Why are you sweating?” Mickey #2 asked behind me.

“In fact,” I said, turning around, “you could have tampered with my bag while I went looking for her!”

“Why are you doing this?” I whimpered as Mickey #1 lead me to the little room.

“It’s my job,” she said.

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