travels with greg – day 1.3
I say ‘Ola’ to you because this is my grown-up and entirely desperate version of Dora the Explorer. This is the fourth entry in the ongoing story of my six-week documentary shoot through Europe in the autumn of 2004. Four entries in and I still haven’t left – I haven’t even boarded the plane yet. Already this memoir of six weeks shooting a documentary series throughout western Europe is taking longer than the actual trip. It will never end. I am writing it and writing it. It will never end. And I’m switching to present tense for this entry, because it suits my memory. Visit the travels index above the header to find your way along.
A friend of mine asked me the other day if this story is my masterpiece, or the thing that I have to get out of my way before I write my masterpiece. Three pints of beer had lit the fire of honesty within me (because beer’s naturally inflammable, so the metaphor works, you see); I said, “It’s… um… the thing”.
Most international airports tuck their Customs Office away in hard-to-find corners, weird empty culs de sac or hidden hallways. You won’t find the office without careful instructions, and once you get there, the office is invariably a tiny room with a plexiglass grille separating you from the bored man in white shirtsleeves. There is no way of knowing how far Customs will be from your departure gate. There is no guarantee that Customs even exists in the same terminal.
Greg and I have walked into strange spaces in our history of foraging for Customs offices. Long empty hallways with all the ceiling tiles torn out, wires and ducts snaking everywhere like an abandoned set from Brazil; a huge room with a middle-aged Sikh man seated at one end behind a desk, whose sole function was to point at the sign that pointed to the exit; empty areas adorned with huge signs advising you that alarms will sound if you stop walking; clean white corridors branching rhizomatically into the null-space of Airport World, the extradimensional bubble blown into reality by the bureaucratic sighs of nation-states. Sometimes I imagine that there is only one airport, an endless building of conveyor belts and sunglasses stands that spills out into our world at certain points, and there’s a door somewhere that will take me into the in-between spaces. Not that I would want to meet the people who live and work there.
The Customs office at Local International* Airport is a nice fifteen minute walk from the terminal. It is well-defined, with its own flat-roofed one-story building set off by a modest parking lot. We pull up there first to get the carnet signed.
Strictly speaking, this is a cheat; we should be taking this to Customs in Toronto, which is our point of departure from
Canada. But the Customs people here know us and are forgiving of the atrocious drooping shabbiness of our carnet. We drag everything in from the van, on the chance that an overzealous noobie may decide to comb through it item by item.**
I’m doubly reassured by the familiar faces: over there are the two women with blonde frosting for hair; and back there is the man with the dark molded hair and the poreless peanut-coloured skin, like a giant Playmobil character. Mostly we are a source of amusement for the people at Local International Airport. “Where are you off to this time?” they ask. I give them a brief rundown of the itinerary. They agree that Europe is a wonderful place for a vacation. I agree too, except that I will not be on vacation. In fact, over the next six weeks I will be enjoying only six days off, most of which will be spent reassembling my tattered sanity from the nightmare of the previous week. I don’t go into this, because the frosted-hair woman is about to stamp my carnet with a giant device that looks like a cross between a giant hole punch and a giant nutcracker. To my relief, she stamps the correct page, tears off the right sheet and hands it back. First carnet hurdle conquered.
At the ticket counter comes the second ritual of departure (the first one was that carnet business, in case you skipped the last paragraph) – the luggage weigh-in at the check-in counter. This one pisses everyone off, from the people behind the counter to the lengthening line full of anxious passengers. First we lower the giant black case onto the scale. Only fifteen kilograms overweight. Then the silver lighting kit. A paltry ten kilos over. Now we have to open our personal luggage, which is already bursting with stuff, and redistribute twenty five kilograms of sharp, sometimes greasy, film gear. Smaller items – duct tape, voltage meter – we throw into my backpack. Greg drops the tripod head, heavy and compact enough to kill a man, into my clothing and pins an unlucky pair of boxers to the bottom of my case.
Then we try again. This time the black case, which is practically empty at this point, is only two kilos over the limit. We do it again. The head of the check-in queue crests and breaks. People are walking around and through our open luggage while ticket agents beckon politely. Greg’s cheeks and foreheads are turning red with embarrassment; he hates holding people up. When we first worked together he tried to get the luggage checked through when I wasn’t paying attention, but overweight baggage charges are a line item on the production budget. At this company, the line item rules over our personal feelings. Or any human feelings. By this point we’re slapping our suitcases closed and hauling them to the scale, but not before a guy in a red windbreaker notices that we’re checking in film gear. This starts the following conversation, which Greg and I have every single day when we’re working:
Rubbernecker: That’s some crazy luggage you got there.
Me/Greg: Sure is.
Rubbernecker: Wow (points to Betacam) that’s a pretty big camera.
Me/Greg: It’s not small.
Rubbernecker: What are you shooting? Are you finishing a shoot? Are you from Vancouver/Toronto/America? What kind of film stock does that [Beta] camera take? How much does it cost? Is it heavy? It must be heavy. If he’s the cameraman, are you the sound guy? Oh, you’re the unit director? Oh, you’re the field producer? You’re the interviewer? What are you again? Hey, I’ve seen that show [note: everyone in Canada has seen the show I work on]. So you’re with History? You’re with Discovery? I prefer History/Discovery/The Learning Channel to all the other channels. Yup, my TV set is permanently tuned to those channels. I just got a bundled package.
You must meet a lot of interesting people.
Here’s the weird thing about traveling with film gear in North America. Strangers will ask you, with a complete absence of guile, what we’re carrying in that huge black case covered in a million HEAVY/LOURDE stickers.*** For some reason the cases and the cameras (Greg has his Betacam with him at all times, I have the 16mm in a carry-on) give people the notion that we’re public property. Sometimes people insist that they’ve seen us on television before. In my case that’s marginally possible, but Greg stays on the viewfinder end of the industry. Only once or twice have I been short or abrupt with curious people, and I’m always amazed by their shocked expression when I’m not friendly or forthcoming. They don’t know we’re strangers.
Once the luggage is finally checked in we meet with June and Edna, who’ve been sitting in the Bon Voyage Cafeteria for the last half hour. We buy overpriced coffee and sandwiches wrapped in plastic, which marks the start of another weeks-long regime of overpriced coffee and sandwiches wrapped in plastic. I’m hoping that Western Europe, with its refined ways and clusterfuck medley of ancient cultures, can offer us exotic and tasty sandwiches. I have yet to find out that what it has to offer is a different brand of mineral water at every stop
I would like to halt the narrative for a moment to say: goddamnit. Godfuckingdamnit. I started this project to talk about kooky times in Europe. Don’t you want to read about kooky times in Europe? Because believe you me, they were kooky. Instead we’re 4300 words in to this thing (I checked) and we are not in Europe. We’re not even in the air. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I stop talking about a dinky international airport in the middle of the Canadian prairies? I think it’s time for another Dilaudid**** and a philosophical pause to examine why I’ve never seen any of my longer writing projects to completion.
Leaving is not something done all at once; instead you pass through a series of filters, until all that belongs to your home has been removed from you. At the security gate, Greg waves goodbye to June and Edna. I’ve never seen him kiss his wife in public. I turn and give them a quick wave of my own as I file into the security line. As usual, I seem to be holding too many items: coffee, boarding pass, carry-on bags, passport. Nobody else in line, with their pastel slacks and fanny packs, has my problem. When did all these people get so organized?
The security woman at the head of the scanner belt, with a hairstyle that was drizzled lovingly over her head that very morning, takes no interest as I transfer items from one hand to another in an attempt to shuffle the boarding pass and the passport into the best position. I try for a comic smile, one of those Hah-hah aren’t we humans funny creatures expressions, but her the set of her face doesn’t break. There must be a trick, I decide, a mental habit that allows security personnel to block out superfluous elements and allow in only the necessary items: a boarding pass, an opened passport, handfuls of change, sets of keys, belts, hats and boots. Or maybe my comic expressions look like stomach pain.
Once past the security gates we have entered the zone of impatience, restlessness and soothing colours that mark all departure lounges the world over. Even the most flight phobic of passengers are broken by the departure lounge; after five minutes you just want it done with, the sitting and checking of boarding passes, the middle-distance stare that allows you to stare directly into the eyes of another waiting passenger sitting across from you but not acknowledge the exchange. Greg tucks his body into one of the chairs and goes into waiting mode, which involves a resigned look and the tenting of fingertips. I consider pulling out the travel binder, but that will only slow me down when the flight is called. Greg and I have learned the many tricks of being among the first to board a plane. And here it is: when they call for pre-boarding, go up and get on. Explain that you have delicate equipment, either in your carry-on or as part of your anatomy, and they will allow you to pass by and make that long walk down the articulated sleeve. All other passengers will hate you, but that is a very small price for the unequaled feeling of walking down an empty airplane aisle and not tripping over senior citizens as you struggle to your seat.
My mother says that the sky appears so huge on the prairies because you don’t need to look up to see it. And now we are about to trade places with the standard order of things and join the inverted world of air travel, where the clouds sail beneath you and the cold hard dome of the sky skates along the roof of your plane. The plane rotates into place on the runway and begins to pick up speed, channeled into a straight line by the barrel walls of force pushing it along and upward. As we lift up, it is September 21st. We will not see home again until Halloween.
*International because NWA employs one squat ugly jet full of fatigue-soaked middle-aged flight attendants with skin problems to grudgingly haul its bulk through the air to Minneapolis International once per day, dumping its glazed passengers into an airport that forces you to walk a mile and a half to eat at the nearest Chilies franchise.
**Despite my dire descriptions of customs hassles, this only ever happened to me once, when we were staying overnight in San Fransisco on the way back from the Philippines. A friendly but methodical crowd of young men from the Department of Homeland Security checked every piece of equipment. We spent an hour or so helping them find serial numbers and entertaining them with anecdotes. The next day we flew home from San Fransisco, but not before the same DHS staff went through our stuff again. We didn’t bother with anecdotes that time.
***After a while I started answering “some guy who owes me money”. Usually this got a laugh, but when I went down to the Florida Keys, people just nodded and walked away. I should learn not to be small, olive-skinned and talking about stuffing people in suitcases in Florida.
****Back pain. Possible junkie cred.
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