While I’ve noted that traveling is good for the body and mind and maybe especially the soul, there is an aspect to modern travel that can drain the life and spirit right out of you. The security checks at airports, and in Europe the train stations as well, are positively inhumane. Our own are bad enough. Theirs seem to be worse, at least in London and Madrid they were.
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We did security in San Francisco on the way out. It was pretty standard except for not having to take off my shoes for some reason. They kept the lines moving at a snail’s pace, but there was a skosh of progress every minute or two. In London, waiting to transfer to another plane for Barcelona, there was the requisite trying to figure out which gate to go to, trying to figure out what the little signs and icons meant with the arrow pointing up or down where there was no up or down to be had. Then passport control. Those folks don’t fool around once you finally get to the head of the line after the other hundreds have gone through the checkpoint.
It is an undeniable fact that no matter where I got into a line, there were hundreds, many hundreds of people in front of me. They weren’t moving, just milling about trying to be comfortable while standing on the concrete or other hard floor surface. And when I looked around, I saw hundreds more piling up behind me, poor saps. From passport control you move toward the actual security scanning department. On the way there you may be lucky enough to pass along a couple of low walls that have pictures of all the things you can’t bring on the plane with you — obviously dangerous or incendiary things like oily paint rags and blowtorches, but also baseball bats, golf clubs, knives with blades longer than your eyelash, corkscrews with the little knife for removing the foil to get to the cork. More accurately, sometimes you can take those on but not always and not at every airport in my experience. Blowtorches, baseball bats, crowbars, spearguns? No. That department also has reams of little plastic bags for all your toiletries, lotions and notions and toothpaste that you didn’t realize had to be bagged all together in a clear bag. I believe the limit is three ounces per item.
There you tend to see a lot of people scrambling around, digging through their carry-on luggage and quizzically asking anyone around if it’s OK to bring Burt’s Bees hand cream or lip balm onto the plane. From that area, we went up an escalator and walked what seemed like a mile or more, pretty much just following the hundreds in front of us. That walk brought us to the place where you stand in line waiting for the thousands in front of you to get to the conveyor X-ray stand, pull out all their change, take off their belts, remove their pens and keys and unsheathe their laptops or iPads and dump all into a plastic tray, usually with backpack and purse or belt pack in a separate tray. Getting to that point is like being on third base with Willie Mays up to bat. You’re pretty darn sure you’re almost home.
Except, invariably, the screener device beeps after I go through and they have to run the wand over me or pat me down to see what contraband I’m carrying. Sometimes it doesn’t beep and they pass me through to the body scanner thing. Sometimes it’s the other way around and sometimes it’s a little different depending on where you are. I’ve got a fair number of medical accessories and surgery souvenirs like staples in my chest, titanium doohickies in my back and such. Sometimes they set off the howler and sometimes they don’t. We had about two hours between flights in each place we changed planes, and we literally spent all but 15 or 20 minutes in security-related lines from the time we walked off the first plane to climbing aboard the next one. Any notion of grabbing a coffee or a snack along the way was immediately dashed at the first stop. We experienced the same or more as the trip progressed.
Madrid, our first of three airports on the way home was the worst. Madrid made London, which was awful, feel like tea-time at the palace. Coming in on a commuter prop-jet from San Sebastian early in the morning, we landed and walked down the cramped little stairway onto the tarmac. We were directed to a bus, standing room only because we’d been at the back of the first flight. The bus lurched off swaying and swerving around the terminals and the baggage carts and food supply trucks and dropped us near a gate that led us to a train. The train roared off and seemingly traveled over the whole gigantic airport. Don’t take the next stop, take the stop after the next stop we were advised. I never realized that the word “next” doesn’t necessarily mean the same to different people or in different languages. Or “second.” To me, the second stop is two from where I am. To some, they’re already at the first stop, so the second stop is one away from where they are. We got off where most of the others got off, and it turned out to be the right choice.
From exiting the train, the signs led us to an elevator, but it wasn’t clear where we should get off. We went up and down a couple of times, as did some others until either we figured it out or somebody did and ‘splained it to the rest of us. Once off the elevator, we went up a couple of flights of stairs, walked along for a while, went down an escalator a floor or two, walked to another elevator and went back up into some other part of the facility. From there, if memory serves, we were only about 200 yards from the gate we needed to be at within the next eight minutes. There we waited while all the first class folk, the business class, the people in wheelchairs, the people with little children, the people with strollers and other baby gear, the people who didn’t feel well, the people who were successful in jumping the line or convincing the gate crew that they needed to get on before the rest of us got on. Then we got close and finally on. We sat for a good 40 minutes waiting for something to happen, and sure enough it finally did. We took off to fly back to London to change for SFO.
London on the return trip wasn’t as bad as Madrid, but it was considerably worse than on the first part. Up the elevator, walk 100 yards, go down the escalator, walk another 100 yards, go back up an elevator and stand around. Shuffle toward the barrier that just opened. Stand and wait behind another several hundred people. Repeat the “take everything out of your pockets and remove your belt” and put the rest in a tray and hope it all makes it through the X-ray scanner. Maybe or maybe not get patted down. Maybe or maybe not have to go back through the body scanner.
Flying back to San Francisco started out pretty rotten. We were in different rows in the middle of a jumbo jet. We complained to several of the crew who were very accommodating and after takeoff invited us to move in together on a side that only had three seats, us and a young woman from Oakland.
At SFO, again came the long wait in the customs line where we didn’t declare anything and didn’t have to take all our stuff out of our bags. Then to the passport control line. There were hundreds of people ahead of us, because even though we’d sat closer to the front, my bag was back at the ultimate rear where I’d been assigned originally, so we got to that line later than 90 percent of our fellow passengers. Ten minutes or so into the passport control line, a woman came back toward us near the end of the line.
“If you’re American citizens, you can go to the front of that other section up there,” she said. “Come again?” I said. “Yes, if you’re Americans, you don’t have to wait in this other line.”
I turned to several people behind me whom I’d heard speaking American and relayed that information. One said he was American but he was traveling with people who weren’t. I said good luck, and we walked as fast as we could to the counter that processed people like us, Americans, Yanks, Californians. It was good to be home, and I’d go again in a heartbeat.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.