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 led 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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