This month, I went to Finland for a work conference. Every now and again, it is fun to travel on company expenses. I don’t fuss about prices and I always order a starter, a dessert and fillet steak for mains. One time, I rode in the back seat of a taxi and the driver apologized for taking an awkward, congested route while the meter ticked on. I shrugged, leaned between the front seats and said, ‘Sir, to be honest, I couldn’t give a hoot. I’m on expenses.’
Sadly, I am not high enough up the corporate food chain to travel business class. I have upgraded beyond The Curtain on three international flights by cashing in my lifetime’s supply of personal air miles. My business class trips rank as one of the highlights of my life so far. The first time I upgraded, I slept through 80% of the flight and woke up tearful and furious with myself for blanking out during such a rare and precious experience.
Long haul flights in business class are not long enough. The problem with sampling business class is that it makes the fall back to ordinary life in economy so much more painful. Now I know what I am missing and I struggle to gracefully endure the dead legs and neck spasms from the dribbly, head-lolling dozes that are synonymous with economy.
As long as I am not indefinitely delayed by ash clouds, airline crew strikes or bad weather, I like airports. Some are better than others. The new Johannesburg airport is the most vibrant and entertaining whereas Dubai is sheer torture. Each time I have connected through Dubai in the dead of night, all seats have been taken and I have rested standing up as if I’m a flamingo.
In the airports on the way to and from Finland, my colleagues clung to their Blackberries and emailed with quick, squirrel-like gestures while I sat back and soaked up the atmosphere. Airports are the best places for people-watching. There is constant buzz and anticipation. Airports are one of the few places where you see raw, uninhibited emotion in the extremes. People are sad in Departures and happy in Arrivals and they are not afraid to show it. I love watching families and friends fall into each other’s arms in the international arrivals hall. It gives me perspective and reminds me that loving relationships matter most in life.
As a child, I imagined I would work in the airline industry and I regret I didn’t pursue this interest as a career. I wanted to be an air hostess or the person with head phones that stands on the tarmac and waves those two ping pong bats to direct planes into parking bays. My grandfather snuffed out my air hostess dream when he said it was ‘being a waitress at high altitude’. He told me I could ‘do more with my career’ which, ironically, I haven’t.
Irrational security and long passport queues always wreck my airport experience. The Americans are most pedantic about border controls and so, in September, we spent 2 hours in the passport queue in Miami and they fingerprinted me for the umpteenth time. London airports are most anal retentive and rules based (sometimes worse than the Americans) about security.
Most times I go through security in London, the machine beeps and I am frisked. The x-ray machine stops, security zooms in on the contents of my bag and then flags it for a more detailed physical inspection.
Once they reprimanded me for being proactive and putting my liquid toiletries in my own plastic bag instead of the one they provided. A security guard put my packet in a black box for about 30 seconds and handed it back to me. When I asked him what he did, he said the machine was ‘checking the vapours’ in my plastic bag. I sighed and rolled my eyes and Al whispered in my ear, ‘Keep cool. Keep cool.’
Another time, a listless security lady confiscated my eye-remover because I didn’t keep to the 100ml liquid limit. ‘Oh yes I did’, I argued and shook the bottle, ‘As you can see, I have about 30ml left.’ She grabbed it from my hand and chucked it into the bin behind her. ‘The bottle is 120ml’.
What exactly is the security risk – the bottle or the liquid inside it? Anyway, it is not worth arguing. Even though I wanted to stamp my foot and plead for the release of my precious 30ml of eye makeup remover, I bit my tongue. Security people hold the power and that’s that. It is fruitless being aggressive. That’s why I am passive-aggressive instead and roll my eyes and look at them the way I would my shoe if I saw some poo on the sole. It doesn’t help much but it makes me feel better.
At Heathrow in September, I forgot to declare my liquids at all, even though they were below 100ml. This required a full body and bag search. The conveyor belt stopped. A stern man lifted off my suitcase and carried it to a metal table at arm’s length, like it was radioactive. He put on surgical gloves, unzipped the case and dipped his hands into the guts of my bag. He held each item up to the light. Out came my stash of UK foods I miss and wanted to squirrel away in Switzerland – two packs of Jordan’s Crunchy Nut Muesli, Tesco custard creams, a block of cheddar cheese, a jar of crushed garlic and 30 little packets of Oats So Simple.
When we moved to Switzerland in March, we flew out of Heathrow Terminal 5. Alastair and I padded through the security queue in our socks. I preempted the liquid check and put my miniature toiletries in the airport plastic bag, so they wouldn’t stress about the vapours. I thought I was in the green for once but then security pulled my bag aside and told me I had two pairs of scissors in my hand luggage – one small nail scissors and the other big kitchen scissors.
While I think confiscating 30ml of eye-make up remover is nuts, removing my scissors seemed reasonable. I bowed my head, apologized and accepted I would never see them again.
So, I was surprised when security confiscated my nail scissors but returned the kitchen ones with a smile. I trotted down the airport concourse and found Al browsing duty free. ‘Look at me Al!’ I said as I waved my scissors and chopped the air. ‘Look what they let me keep! Can you believe it?’