Friday, 21 June 2013
This time I’ll be in Italy in some remote villages with very little English spoken. Ironic that I should be apprehensive since I’ll actually be in my great grandfather’s home territory. He was a native. I will be an outsider.
Before I go through customs I’ve already broken my commitment to remain alert. I try to fill in my customs declaration form as I progress in the line to check in and only when I reach the head of the queue do I realize that I haven’t got my second bag. My carry-on back-pack. It sits abandoned 30 metres behind me where I put it down. No one has tapped me on the shoulder to ask if its mine or to take me off to the bomb disposal centre. It’s a reminder that I’m very much on my own.
Brisbane airport is so familiar to me. I head down the escalators which transport you to a cave like space where passengers mill and fill out forms before entering the customs area. There’s usually a gathering of friends lining the railings above the cavern which we enter calling, waving, crying. Tonight it’s strangely quiet. My wife has put me on the Airport train. She’s so sensible. Besides farewells are not what they used to be. I recall lining the wharf at Hamilton with streamers tying those of us on the land to the passengers aboard the departing passenger liner . There was an air of excitement. Of course, travel overseas has become such an everyday event these days. No longer is it the case that the special moment when the paper ribbons uniting us broke meant we might never see our loved ones again. It had gravitas.
I’m early. So, like a proper tourist, I fill in my time shopping. For what? I conjure up a need to buy something special for Marina whom I will see for the first time in 25 years in Orsago. The girl at the souvenir shop suggests a pendant. I say it’s not a romance so I’d rather stick to something less personal. I buy a jewellery box purportedly painted by a central desert Aboriginal woman. It’s laquer ware so is not really an Australian product.
If your memory of flying is one of romance and the exotic forget it. Airlines have fallen on hard times. Emirates serves up four meals in fifteen hours and all are appalling. The one thing they do right is serve the worst one first (a doughy shredded chicken and salad bread roll) so that we might be fooled that later meals are something a little more edible. Who prepares this rubbish. And why feed us bad food frequently. Feed us one bad meal and then cut your losses – stop there. If your budgets are that tight we can help you. Feed us less or send the food to the needy. But even they would have standards.
I usually don’t mind flying but this seems interminable. I can’t get comfortable. My bony bum aches. The two teenage brothers beside me have a four hour fight over who should have the arm rest they share. The younger one wins. Their parents and Greek grandmother sit in the row in front and are happy to let them fight it out. Their father is one of those people who has the capacity to make everything interesting sound boring. He knows too much and insists on sharing his knowledge.
He’s taking his family to Greece for a week and then he will then join a group of thirty obsessives who will ride the Tour de France three hours ahead of the race proper. I hope his wife and his Yaya have got some shopping planned.
I’m reading a book ahead of touchdown in Italy to get me in the mood. Italian Ways by Tim Parks documents his experience of Italian rail travel pretty much along the route I will travel. It’s a story of convoluted Italian ticketing systems where every step seems designed to thwart the basic purpose of getting from A to B efficiently. It sounds like madness. It’s funny, but a little daunting. Thanks Tim.
Stop in Singapore where the parents of Harry and Charlie (very Greek) move the younger into their row and put YaYa with Harry and me. It’s quiet again, though I see where dad gets his obsession with detail from. YaYa is intent on helping Harry understand the ways of the world on her computer map and goes into a lot of detail.
Touchdown in Dubai is in full daylight. I can’t imagine why people would want to stop here. All I can see is sand and houses made of materials much the colour of sand. They’re very neatly arranged around cul de sacs. The desert stretches to the horizon. There are sparse patches of cultivated fields around small villages outside the city. They look very poor. The meager fields look like a community garden. Enough to support the extended family. They are certainly not the food bowl for Dubai. And yet there are swimming pools in almost every residential complex only a matter of kilometres away on the fringe of the new city suburbs. Water but no oasis. I can’t see any palm trees. I can’t see any trees at all.
Dubai Terminal is huge. It’s an immense and expensively fitted out Nissan Hut, curved roof and sides creating a cylinder. We’re in a giant hot dog. It mimics the shape of the plane we’ve just suffered in for 15 hours. Do they not understand our need to escape. Our need for relief from the aluminium sardine tube.
My five hours in transit in Dubai is spent watching escalators make their never ending journey to nowhere, observing the other tourists trapped here and, well, window shopping.
On a positive note I do like the Emirates steward’s uniforms. Sand coloured dresses with a slash of red in a pleated section at the bottom. The same red then as a headpiece and a flowing white scarf which curls from one side of the hat to the other, under their chins, like a never-ending waterfall. If only their chefs could take a lead from their design team.