Thursday, March 24, 2011

Several Airports

San Francisco

TUESDAY 8 MARCH. For me, this counts as a long, daunting trip, lifting off from the West Coast at mid-afternoon on Monday and arriving in Rome at mid-afternoon on Tuesday. The eight-hour time-zone difference (eight or nine or some number like that) contributes its share, of course – so it’s not literally 24 hours in airports and planes – but subjectively that’s what it is (and of course I’m always readier to credit my own perceptions than to accept the authority of so-called facts.) Royal Dutch Airlines (or KLM) did a good job – not just that the staff were friendly and efficient, but that the mother-company had been smart enough to provide plenty of them, which meant that the service could be leisurely and generous. I try to remember this when I get exasperated at home by MUNI drivers, for example, who are aggressively rude more often than helpful – but MUNI is chronically understaffed and badly administered – so the workers themselves exist in a permanent state of frustration, which means that the system isn’t really giving them the chance to do a good job. KLM took care of the long leg of the flight, from SF to Amsterdam. Most of my fellow passengers appeared to be returning Europeans with body-clocks on European time. Around 6 p.m. San Francisco time, with dinner already out of the way, the lights in the cabin were lowered and virtually everybody went to sleep. There was a lonely little spotlight over my seat where I stayed awake reading for another six hours, and then dozed for the last part of the flight – when everybody else was waking up and having breakfast.


Not surprising, then, that the Amsterdam airport is one endless blur in my mind, hardly a memory at all. The corridors extended for miles and miles – moving sidewalks lined up one after another after another – like a dreamscape with infinite edges. I drifted through immigration and security and customs, the compliant sleepwalker, and even the simplest questions (“what is your final destination?”) had to be asked two or three times before I could frame an answer. The Alitalia flight was more like what I was used to in America, too few employees, overworked and surly, small glitches and delays the rule rather than the exception. By the time I staggered into the empty cavernous baggage hall at Aeroporto Fiumicino – in my crumpled clothes and sunglasses – I resembled a befuddled Marcello Mastroianni in more than my usual sunny California self. The plan had been to get Euros from an ATM at the airport BEFORE collecting the luggage, but I forgot about the plan – in my eagerness to go to the bathroom and get a drink of water, both of which had (in my diminished capacity, combined with the indifferent service) seemed unobtainable during the Alitalia flight. So there I was at the carousel, already spotting my two enormous black bags, which I knew I could not carry unassisted even ten feet. But a luggage trolley could only be detached from the holding pen by depositing a one-Euro coin. Far in a corner, miles away, I saw a lighted glass wall with people moving behind it. When I trekked over there and bravely entered, four uniformed Italian airport workers sitting behind desks gazed at me in silent curiosity.


“I need a luggage cart …”  I blurted, “… and the machine wants a Euro … but I don’t have any Euros … I just have dollars … and it won’t take a credit card … what can I? …”

In truth, I did not so much finish speaking as run out of breath – and my hopes were not running high after the initial exposure to Alitalia – so I was thinking I might just curl up on top of my suitcases (once I got them off the carousel) and sleep for a while. The three chic Italian women in green suits sat behind their desks and looked at each other in consternation. Their pale plump male colleague in navy blue (with epaulets) came around the barrier and gestured me back through the glass doors.

“Let us see,” he said.

I followed him back to the cart-dispensing area where he swiftly pulled a Euro coin out of his pocket, fed it into the slot, detached a cart, and presented it to me.

"But isn’t that your own money?” I asked.

"Is fine.”

“No. I must pay you.”

“No, no, no. Only just you think This is the Italian hospitality.”

“Oh God, thank you. That is really kind, thank you.”

I no doubt should have protested more, but he was already walking away, smiling back over his shoulder, and it truly did not seem like he would let me present him with any of my useless Yankee currency.

As I yanked the bags off the carousel and fitted them onto the trolley, I was approached by a dapper young North African in a suit, with a plastic badge dangling from his neck on a cord. He asked in Italian-accented English if I needed a taxi. (Golly, how could he possibly have guessed I was an American?) Now – everything you read warns you against accepting taxi offers inside Aeroporto Fiumicino. The licensed taxis are small white vehicles – I knew this—stationed in a rank somewhere outside and their drivers are forbidden by law to come inside. It was supposed to be my next job to get myself outside and locate the authorized queue and stand in it to obtain transportation into the city, and then pay the price of 45 Euros, also fixed by law. Except I had also been told that I should have the Euros ready to hand, which I certainly did not have. And just the idea of looking for the authorized taxi rank (and/or a present supply of Euros) seemed more difficult to me than setting off and walking to Rome.

“Where are you going?” asked the dapper man with the plastic badge.

“Piazza di Spagna.” Aware of its sadly diminished state, my brain registered pride in simply being able to remember the name of my destination – and even remembering how to pronounce it, more or less.

“50 Euros,” said the unauthorized man.

“Deal,” I immediately said. “Except for one thing. I haven’t got any Euros.”

By that time he was leading me to a new gleaming four-door black Mercedes sedan. “We can put the luggage in the car and then go back inside for the ATM,” he suggested.

Relief at the very idea of unloading the luggage easily trumped the combined voices of all the guidebooks and their many warnings. Besides, would this rather large man steal my luggage? What good would he get from a dozen pair of Hugo Boss boxer briefs, size small?

“Or else credit card, 55 Euros,” he offered.

“Yes, wonderful, let’s do that.” The car was parked in a file of twenty identical Mercedes sedans along the curb, immediately outside baggage claim, while I could dimly see the small white authorized cabs lined up far, far in the distance. My new friend somehow spirited the luggage into the trunk without appearing to touch it, then with a flourish opened the rear door for me. I sank into a world of fragrant leather and abrogated all further responsibility. “If this is the Mafia, long live the Mafia,” was my sincere but shameful thought.

Ahmed, his name turned out to be. He gave me his business card. Charged me exactly what he said and delivered me swiftly to the front door of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Building at 26 Piazza di Spagna. Where I could take a shower! And the housekeeper had left me fresh milk and fresh-ground coffee!

Evening was falling as I went around the flat opening tall shutters and peering out through high windows.

I walked outside, thinking about a question my daughter had recently asked. She wondered if I had a different relationship now to the difficulties of travel, knowing as she did that these have always been substantial for me (in a neurotic and exaggerated fashion). I said no, the whole process was still terribly confusing and exhausting, but what had changed was capital-M Mortality. Certain trips, I had decided, were simply worth undertaking at whatever cost under the proximate shadow of decay and death. Of course I would like to make some sort of marvelous spiritual breakthrough and no longer be so vulnerable to workaday abrasions like traffic and avid striving mobs and mechanical conundrums, but in the absence of a complete character makeover I would just muddle along any old way, knowing that eventually, whatever I had been through, I would find myself standing at the top of the Spanish Steps with a crescent moon descending over Rome through an indigo-colored sky.