Shoved to the narrow, tail section of the aircraft amongst the folk who never make eye contact, who keep their electronic devices going during take-off, and only speak when spoken to – I feel a unity with them, because the system has let me down, just like their lives molded by a system that has let them down. Here is what happened in cultured Northern Europe, where civility is keeping your voice low and your emotions in check, where not fussing is a virtue and no-one expects anything of anyone except the government.
We had booked and paid for two flights, the first from Visby to Stockholm and the second from Stockholm to Hamburg. Our accommodation in Hamburg was prepaid, beginning Friday night. We had a big travel day ahead of us, checking out of our quaint medieval earth tone Airbnb Friday morning, taking a final bike tour of the old walled town, climbing a five hundred year old tower on the town ramparts, admiring the botanic gardens at a leisurely stroll, returning our rental bikes by midday, picnicking in the park, an afternoon taxi to the airport, and then aboard the first leg of our back to back flights (since there is no direct flight from Visby to Hamburg). We informed the check in agents that our connecting flight departed one hour after landing in Stockholm, that we had baggage to check, and that we were concerned about making the connection. They assured us there would be adequate time, assigned priority to our check in bag (it was no 6 coming down the chute at Stockholm baggage claim), and no problem, they would notify the Hamburg flight to keep the check desk open for us.
The stewardess on the first flight was similarly reassuring, the flight was on time, the two terminals were only a few hundred meters apart, we would make our connection. At Stockholm airport we deplaned rapidly, found a luggage cart, whisked our bag off the turntable as soon as it hit, and marched at full speed through Sky City to terminal five – international departures. Asking where to find our check in desk we were directed, by a bored clerk, to the huge display board halfway down the spacious departure hall. It directed us to counters 41-44. We strode fifty yards but found no-one there, empty lines, vacant desks. Not a soul in sight at 41-44. Was the information accurate? Another attendant, who was rearranging check-in lane markers twenty yards away pointed us to the travel advice desk. It was now 47 minutes to departure.
We took a number – ticket 153 – and stood in line, arms folded, awaiting our turn. ‘153’ flashed on the screen and we presented our case to the short haired blond travel advisor, we needed access to our flight but there was no-one there to help at counters 41-44. He shook his angular head: “I am sorry but the check-in counter is closed. It closes one hour before the flight.” One hour before? We explained the reassurances that we had been given at Visby airport. “To say is one thing, to do it is quite another. They are different airlines” he said in sharp English, consulting his screen. “They do not talk to each other. You should have booked the same airline. It is your responsibility to be at the check-in on time.” Flabbergasted, having tried our very best to comply with every procedure, “What can we do?” we murmured. “Let me see,” as he tapped more computer keys. “You say you are going to Hamburg. I am sorry there are no more flights for today.” “But … “ we stammered. “You have lost your tickets, you will have to buy new ones. Go to the travel office downstairs. There you can book a new flight for tomorrow.” Visions of weary travelers curled up on unyielding, metal framed airport lounge seats through the dark hours of the night flashed across our minds. Dollar signs for new tickets – how many hundred a piece? Airport police clearing out the airport at midnight like they do at the central train station, forcing us onto the streets, exhausted, disheveled, dirty and hungry, in a city where hotels cost $400 per night and cheap dinners $100 per person. There were still 40 minutes until the flight left but it was a lost cause, the travel advisor thrust his elbows on the counter, shoulders hunkered forward for a football or rugby play, he would not be moved. Disheartened we wandered away from the travel advice desk, his gaze on our backs, in the direction of the travel office.
On our right, within arm’s length of the tubular steel luggage cart, stood the security gate, blue lights illuminating personnel scanners, trays and beltways for hand luggage and carry-ons, security cameras pointing downwards prominently mounted on poles and walls, a single line of a dozen passengers queuing for inspection, as if waiting in line for entry into heaven. “Quick, let’s go through security!“ exclaimed Andrea with a determined look, parking the luggage cart, whisking out her mobile and pulling up the boarding pass, orange backpack on her shoulders and green carryon and purse strung across her body. Scanning the QR code into the reader in front of the gate, the translucent green barrier momentarily paused and then opened for her. When your wife displays such certainty you dare not question, even if all of airport security is monitoring you and matching your face with known terrorists. Hesitatingly, weighed down with seventy pounds of luggage, I pulled out my phone and held it before the scanner. Magically I also was let through, carrying two back packs and a piece of purple hand luggage. Was this a mistake, would we be arrested by airport police, was the travel advisor about to stride over and find us out? 35 minutes to boarding, but we were into the secure zone – and no-one had stopped us!
What next? I stared questioningly at Andrea. My backpack felt five feet tall, I had steel nail clippers and a bottle of sunscreen in my toiletry kit, bags of flour, oats, ground coffee, sugar and assorted snacks packed alongside my hiking boots, and various vials of contact lens solution, shampoo and facial cleanser that Andrea needed. How would my bag get through security? Bewildered I stood in line as Andrea grabbed numerous items from our big back pack, then crushed it down to medium size, as clothes and liquids and groceries were redistributed into empty smaller bags. We bundled all these items into used white trays no questions asked, laptops in one, belts, phones and pocket change in another, liquids and creams of all sizes into a third, some food items in a fourth and our backpacks and other travel bags each on their own. It all happened so quickly. Our two backpacks edged along the rubber beltway and barely fit into the scanner, a beep sounded as I walked through the security gate, a guard indicated for me to stand to one side as my body was whisked with a wand. My hands were tested for traces of powder – coffee grounds, flour, baking powder? Nothing. I breathed one sigh of relief.
Then my backpack was pulled from the conveyor belt by a uniformed security guard. He gazed at me questioningly. “Is this yours?” “ Yes, mine,” I confessed. “Will you open it for me?” “Why, of course.” Any hesitation and we would be doomed, hauled in for interrogation, turned back onto the streets of Stockholm, stuck with no inexpensive means of progress and in for a costly, energy depleting unplanned stopover. I mentally calculated the value of my belongings in the backpack. Less than the cost of another flight. If worse came to worse I could surrender the whole lot and buy some new underwear in Germany. 28 minutes before the plane took off.
I unclipped the brittle plastic backpack latches and pulled open the black drawstring, revealing its contents to the dark blue uniformed officer. Out came a sky blue plastic container of muesli, a sack of sugar (a slight trickle of grains spilling out of one corner), two boxes of teabags (Earl Grey and Indian Chai), a cannister of baking powder and a bag of whole meal flour (when staying in Airbnb’s Andrea likes to bake – and I like it too – but why, oh why had we carried all this with us?) The bemused official asked “Any more food?” Noticing him smirk rather than glower, I felt reassured. Good thing we had finished up our jars of Norwegian marmalade and Swedish honey at breakfast that morning.
Apologetically I replied: “Yes, I have some oatmeal down here and Swedish flatbread, a can of mackerel and …” He waved away my exposition and returned the backpack to the scanner, minus the extracted foods. I retrieved my cell phone and belt from a generic plastic tray, slid the laptops into the smaller backpack with a pair of beige shorts that had tumbled out in the excitement, and my spirits rose as he hefted the rescanned backpack my way. Were we really through security?
23 minutes to departure and Andrea had gone ahead to gate 12, not far from where I stood lifting the back pack over my shoulders and cinching it around my waist. I strode over to gate 12 where a throng of expectant passengers milled.
Luggage that had made it through security needed reorganizing to make it onto the plane and into the overhead bins. We sat on a circular lounge seat beneath a staircase, taking clothing out of one bag and stuffing it into another, under the gaze of curious fellow passengers, chorizo flavored chips nestled in with socks, and assorted almonds, peanuts and cashews snug with rolled T shirts, until we were sure that every bag would fit in the overhead bins, just hoping the airline staff would not question the number and size of the six items we were now carrying instead of the small allowance of four. We anxiously stood in line as the passengers in front of us scanned their passes and proceeded through the gate. 17 minutes to departure time.
For the second time our QR codes scanned successfully, I noticed seat numbers 29C and 30D light up with each code as I avoided eye contact with the airline staff, no-one questioned our legitimacy, we entered the tunnel to the awaiting aircraft door, huge grins spreading across our faces. “Well done!” I exclaimed to Andrea. We stepped onto the aircraft, stowed our bags in the crowded bins, took our seats alongside the fellow travelers at the rear of the plane, and began to giggle. The aircraft doors closed and happily we taxied away from the gate. Hamburg here we come! We had no objection to flying third class.