The Rome Airport, a Survival Guide

Wow.

I cannot thank you enough for your overwhelmingly kind responses to my Santa Claus blog. I laughed. I cried. I had much to mull over in reading your posts. Hearing all your stories about how you “found out” was very comforting, and your compassion was truly humbling. And thank you for reminding me, too, that the spirit of Santa lives on in our acts of kindness and selflessness.

Great do you all rocketh.

I’m trying to get my muddled brain into a semi-organized state (I’m only on that first cup of coffee—the primer coat) and do a round-up of things:

• First, many of you have asked about the Fear Blog, wherein Lauren Myracle challenged 12 YA authors to face their fears. I will be facing mine at the American Girl doll store…among the creepy, lifeless dolls. Maureen Johnson has graciously agreed to film it all. Actually, she volunteered with a zeal I usually only see in her eyes when people talk about stealing the teeth from baby seals. Don’t let her kind, Catholic school girl face fool you: she’s a killer inside. I’m guessing that the AG store in NYC during Christmas is a hell beyond all description and we won’t be able to even think about filming something there until January.
• Second, a loooong time ago, I did a viewer’s choice poll in which Worst Make-Out Songs was the winning blog topic. Will have that next week, I hope.
• Third, Mr. Fantastic Fiction http://libba-bray.livejournal.com/26535.html is out of prison and asking for some blog time. So I might grant it to him for a mini-workshop here.
• Fourth, this coffee is really, really good.
• I’m hoping to have some interviews in the coming days with some neato-mesquito-super-coolio people about their recent books, if they will grace me with their presence. I don’t think a restraining order means “no”, do you? I’m sure that electric fence Robin Wasserman put up is just for dazzle. And my hands are almost completely healed now, anyway.

Okay. Is that it, brain? Brain says, “Go away. I’m on break.” Brain needs a spa treatment and some more coffee. Coffee will make everything better. I post my entry about the Rome Airport now.

THE ROME AIRPORT

Ah, Rome. The sun. The friendliness of the people. The history. The architecture. The food. The passion. The joy.

The airport? Hmmmm….

First, a confession: I’m one of those people who likes to get to the airport about two days before the plane takes off. You know, just to be sure. I like to get into the orderly line, get my tickets, send my luggage off, go through security and still have plenty of time to buy magazines or water, scope out the closest bathrooms, find my gate. I don’t mind sitting in an airport reading for an hour or two or five. I just don’t want to miss my flight or feel too stressed. (This, no doubt, is a reaction to having grown up with my father who, as we joked in our family, was always running so late he would catch the wing of the plane as it was taking off.) So, this is my own particular brand of uptight. I am punctual almost to a fault.

I show up at the airport two hours before my flight. All good. And then I walk into the Rome airport, which is chaos theory in action. I’m thinking it’s so crazed because there was that torrential downpour the night before and flights must have been cancelled, I’m sure. But I’ve also been through the Rome airport before, and I vaguely remember feeling as if I might either lose religion or find it in the time it took me to check my bags. In short, it’s disorganized madness, and I cannot seem to figure out the logic of the layout. I roll my ginormous suitcases back and forth, back and forth, in an attempt to find my airline, which is Aer Lingus. I jog up and down the corridors of airline counters, but I can’t find it. The taxi driver dropped me at the right terminal. I know that. Finally, with my sense of anxiety rising, I get in line for the information booth.

The concept of a line is very loose, I discover. Another confession: I come from incredibly repressed, uber-polite people from the south. Like, if you bludgeoned someone to death in my living room, my default setting dictates that I should then respond with, “Let’s just take our coffee on the porch then, shall we?” (My other default setting seems to be Samuel L. Jackson in “Pulp Fiction,” but that’s another story.) I would probably wait until I grew mold or collapsed from exhaustion rather than cut into a line or step out of it, and, I find out, that’s not really the way things roll at Fiumicino Airport. People come in from all sides, kind of like the traffic, and you’d better get your butt into the scrum if you want to be heard. So finally, after letting five people jump in front of me, I use my NYC elbows and step up. I ask the woman at the information desk where I can find the Aer Lingus counter.
“Counter 349,” she tells me. I repeat it. She repeats it. Now, like an episode of “The Great Race” in which I’ve been given my assignment and the clock is ticking, I run to find #349, threading through hordes of travelers, dragging my suitcases behind me. I find Counter #349 and it’s…Egyptian Air. I’ve always longed to see Egypt. But not today. Today I am going to NYC. On AerLingus. Which is not Counter #349.

Back to the information booth. The “line.” I glance at my phone. I have wasted almost an hour at this point. Finally, I get up to the other information lady who informs me that AerLingus is booth #68. And I’m off!

Once again, I thread my way through the crowds (why did I bring two suitcases again?) and—huzzah!—there is the counter! I wait my turn. Finally, I haul my suitcases onto the conveyer belt and hand my itinerary to the man at AerLingus with a nervous smile and a “Buon Giorno.” He taps mysterious things into the computer and frowns.
No. No frown, sir. Please don’t give me the frowny face. Frowns=bad news. Let’s work on this—and UP with the corners of your mouth! UP! Sir, you’re not understanding. Work with me, sir. Please.
“I can’t seem to find your reservation. You are not on this flight.”
I point to the piece of paper with my flight info on it. “Um, this is what they gave me…”
“No,” he insists. “You are not on this flight.”
Could we pretend I’m on this flight? Like improv, where the answer to everything is yes. And…go!
He scribbles something on a scrap of paper and hands it to me. “You need to call this number to find out.”
No, see, you’re supposed to say yes. That’s how pretending works. I say, “Hey, let’s book me on this flight!” and you say, “Yes! Let’s book you on this flight AND I’ll give you a free koala!”
Sadly, this only happens in my head. Where the pretty ponies run with their sparkly rainbow tails. Run, pretty ponies, run!
Non-improv-playing man stares at me. “Please, Miss, if you could take your bags off the belt.”
You have killed the ponies in my head, sir. You have taken them to the glue factory. Sparkly rainbow glue.

I take the slip of paper and, under the scornful gaze of the dozen passengers waiting behind me, half climb onto the conveyor built to haul my suitcases off. I wobble over to a spot in the center aisle, where people whizz past me on their way to actual flights. I call the number. An electronic voice comes on. Something is said. In Italian. I say something under my breath. It is not in Italian but is universally understood. A man nearly knocks me over with his rolling suitcase. He mutters something to me in French. It is not “You are the beautiful flower of my Truffaut-ish Day for Night.” Not by a long shot. I am exhausted. I am panicked. I am lost in the Rome Airport with the clock ticking down. And I have just been cursed out by an irritable Frenchman. And so I muster up my last ounce of dignity…and promptly burst into tears.
Right. Time for reinforcements. I stop sniveling and call Elisa. I can hear myself and I sound politely psychotic. Like Ophelia in a bad dinner theatre production of HAMLET. Elisa tells me to stay put and she’ll call me right back. True to her word, she does.
“I’m so sorry,” she says. “The flight’s been changed. You’re now on Iberia Air.” As in Spain. As in Not Ireland. Wrong country. Wrong airline. Wrong terminal. Elisa gives me the new flight info, and I haul butt all the way to Terminal B and scan the booths frantically for anything that says Iberia Air. There’s an information booth, but the line has about a gazillion people in it—been there, done that, bought the t-shirt and wore it out—so I decide to take my chances on finding the counter myself.

And there it is. Huzzah! I jump into line, take a deep breath, and wait. And wait. And wait. The couple ahead of me is on their honeymoon, and they are chatting away with the ticket agent who wants to know EVERY LITTLE DETAIL about their time in Rome. I’ve got less than an hour to get my tickets and boarding passes, send my luggage off, and go through security. I’m hoping there’s a drive-thru duty-free, because if I come home without chocolate, the locks will have been changed, and those people I live with will not allow me to come in. I wonder if I can pretend I’m in labor to speed things up. I look around for something to put under my coat. Finally, the honeymooners finish chatting with the ticket agent. I get up to bat, load my boulder of a suitcase onto the belt and hand over my passport. She types in the magic name and numbers…and frowns. No. Not the frown again. Please don’t give me the frown.
“You don’t seem to have a reservation.”
“Really?” My voice has a sucking-helium quality, which is how I sound when I teeter between hysterical laughter and sobbing.
“No. I don’t see it.”
“Could you give me a minute?” I say.
I punch in Elisa’s digits. She picks up immediately and I tell her the news. Elisa asks to speak to the agent, and just at that moment, my reservation is found. Don’t know what the glitch was and I don’t care. I’m on a flight home through Madrid. I thank Elisa, who is a saint, and I thank the woman behind the counter profusely. She graciously hands me my coveted boarding passes, loads my luggage, and I race to the security line.

On most days, airport security lines are the tenth circle of hell—a hell in which there is no place to sit, you can’t really read, and the kid in front of you is in the middle of a full-tilt-boogie meltdown that involves repeatedly kicking your shins. On this day, it’s the eleventh circle of hell (“This goes up to eleven, see?”) because there are approximately four million (rough guesstimate) of us flying all at the same time. By the time I get through, I have two seconds to grab chocolate and board my flight. But I make it. It was a great adventure, but I’m happy to be going home. So happy that I don’t even cry when I get lost in the Madrid airport later and nearly miss my flight to NYC altogether.

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