Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell: A Dantesque Journey through Northern Italy, Part 4

Flight Delayed on Account of Ice (i.e., lack of)…

Airport Ikea Floor Plans…

Basic Training…

Expecting the Worst…

Architecturally, with their soaring glass vaults and high-tech construction materials, modern airports are all about the future. And so is air travel. The departure of your flight is always about the future–into which it has inevitably been delayed–, as is its landing, when your plane is in an interminable holding pattern, waiting for the backlog of incoming flights to clear (waiting, that is, for the past to catch up to the present).

There is more hurrying up in order to wait in airports than in hospitals, doctors’ offices, or prisons. As a people, we are loath to keep our doctors, prison guards, or flight crews waiting; so we dutifully arrive ahead of schedule, lest, by some miracle, our doctor, prison guard, or airline is on time. (Unless you are my eighty-six-year-old mother-in-law, who kept a 767 along with two shuttle buses idling on the tarmac for forty-five minutes because, as she said, she was “enjoying a nice cup of tea in the cafe”, and she “thought they would come and get me when they were ready”.)

The official reasons for flight delays are always either lies or truths so absurd one wishes they were lies. Before the aforementioned odyssey to Moscow, I checked in at Kennedy the prescribed two and a half hours ahead of the nominal time for take-off, only to temporize at the gate for another seven hours. We all assumed that there had been some minor mechanical malfunction that was taking seven hours to repair (in the way that all minor mechanical malfunctions take my car mechanic seven hours to repair). But the flight was delayed, as we were told, because the cabin crew was waiting for a delivery of ice. The airline’s thinking was that passengers would rather be kept awake until 2:00 a.m. in a cramped, un-air-conditioned departure lounge than suffer the intolerable hardship of drinking their Mountain Dew at room temperature. Was I the only one who was struck by the irony that Aeroflop Flight 666 was scheduled for a refueling stop in Iceland?

 

In modern airports, the only time the hurry-up-and-wait formula doesn’t apply is when you are trying to catch a connecting flight: then it becomes, hurry-up-and-hope. The footprints of metropolitan airports cover millions of square feet, every one of which is always between you and your departure gate. The theory of probability suggests that the two points in space at which your incoming flight arrives and your outgoing flight departs must, at least some of the time, be closer to each other than half the length of the airport. But this never happens. Even if they are contiguous, there is a law (literally; see below) that prevents you from taking the shortest distance between the two, and requiring instead that you circumambulate the entire airport only to approach it from the opposite direction. Airports seem to be laid out like follow-the-red-arrow Ikeas, which ensure that you walk the entire store on the way to whatever item you’ve come to buy.

When we deplaned at Brussels, we had ninety minutes to catch our flight to Milan. We were doing splendidly, I thought, on the first stage of airport basic training: running—well, walking fast (about 8 mph, with a 4 mph assist from the moving sidewalk)–down one of those long glass corridors that are so suffused with light you almost forget how miserable you are. I might have reached 9 mph, but for the computer bag, camera case, and document wallet suspended from my neck and oscillating violently with each stride like the streamers on a Maypole in a reversing wind. The multiple lacerations caused by the straps digging into my flesh would have been only a minor irritation for, let’s say, a member of the Navy Seals, but the bags kept shifting and throwing my gait off balance. The only way I could restore their equilibrium (since one hand was dedicated to my carry-on and the other to my cane) was to stop periodically and shake myself like a dog that had just come out of the water. This also served to dispel the rivers of sweat that were coursing down my forehead and cheeks; but it didn’t endear me to the other passengers on the moving sidewalk, who evidently had the news about Ebola on their minds.

 

After twenty minutes of running, stopping, and shaking, I arrived at the end of the corridor. Mrs. P. had been waiting there for about five minutes (but then Mrs. P. takes weekly classes in Yoga, Tai Chi, and Osteo-Fit, which is apparently better exercise than driving a golf cart). When I reached her, exhausted, I considered collapsing in a heap at her feet in the theatrical manner of Olympic cross-country skiers when they are three meters past the finish line; but Mrs. P. would not have been impressed.

The corridor gave out into the main terminal, and there everything ground to a halt. We had reached the first of two chokepoints through which all airport traffic is funneled (hence the logic of airport floor plans, as described above). One line, for passengers carrying EU passports, moved briskly. The other, for the lumpenproletariat from the rest of the world, was a rodent maze that followed twenty switch-backs, each fifty feet long, and occupied by a total of some five hundred passengers. (As we inched forward, I wondered why the deadbeat inhabitants of Greece, Spain, and Portugal should be allowed to flounce through, while Canadians, who haven’t cost the German banks a penny, are treated like supplicants. At least in Canada we only sponge off the productive citizens of our own country for our cradle-to-grave welfare entitlements.) At the end of the line, I could see three passport control booths, and a lot of shuffling back and forth from one to the other by the officials. Apparently they only had one stamp amongst them.

 

I knew then and there we wouldn’t make it. My universally optimistic disposition, if you are wondering, is predicated on the utterances of three of the most venerable founts of philosophical wisdom in the entire Western Tradition: William Shakespeare, Melvin Brooks, and my late Aunt Freda. In King Lear, Edgar laments, “The worst is not, so long as we can say, ‘This is the worst’.” By Act IV, scene i, Edgar has already been dispossessed of his birthright by his evil half-brother Edmund, driven into exile on the heath, and reduced there to the state of a “poor, bare, forked animal”. Then he encounters his father Gloucester, whose eyes have just been put out. (Edgar recognizes the folly of assuming that, after a string of disasters, one’s fortunes are bound to improve.) Mel Brooks updated the language, but preserved the meaning, of Edgar’s paradox in the refrain of the theme song for his movie The Twelve Chairs: “Hope for the best, expect the worst”. Good advice, given that the film is set in nineteenth-century Russia, when things were rather unpleasant for the peasantry, until they followed the example of their French cousins. Then they got Lenin, Stalin, the Ukrainian famine, the Siberian gulag, and the Lada sedan. Wisest of all was the sapient imprecation of my old aunt: “When I die, may I go straight to hell; I don’t want to be disappointed again.” I have it on good authority that my aunt went, disappointedly, to heaven, where she complained about the accommodations, the weather, and the fact that she couldn’t find a decent piece of brisket.

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