travels with greg – day 2.1
Ahoy. You are reading Travels With Greg, the story of my six-week documentary shoot through Europe in the fall of 2004. Join us as we enter Inner Airport World at Heathrow. If you’re new to the TWG experience, you can visit the Table of Contents and get all nice and caught up.
After taking us on a nice slow tour of the airport’s exterior, Flight 868, the seven-hour Pearson to Heathrow haul, ambled up to the gate at 6:25 a.m. This was the most interminable part of the entire flight, the wait to unsnap our seatbelts and reach for our luggage. A few tentative metallic sounds could be heard here and there in the cabin, the signal of the brave and independent few who risked unbuckling before the little seatbelt went out with a flat slideshow ‘ding’. And then the sudden crush of everybody standing up all at once, affecting an air of nonchalance, as if they’re waiting for a light at a corner and not dying to get off a stuffy jet.
When the mild English September air from the sleeve began to filter in, we all realized how badly we smelled. Sweat, breath, packets of peanuts and bottles of wine were exhaled with us as we walked up the sleeve that fed us into the body of the terminal. One thing about Heathrow: the signage can be terrible, sometimes nothing more than a piece of paper with a “THIS WAY” helpfully Sharpied on by a construction worker, so the best thing to do is follow the mass of people. One or two people can lose their way, but two hundred people have an unerring sense of direction and a steady momentum that detests resistance. The mass of motor impulses and unconscious decisions, when distributed amongst a crowd, somehow knows which doors to ignore and what waits at the end of the line.
At the end of the line was the longest airport line-up I’d ever seen, with the exception of an early morning flight I once took from Vegas to Chicago. Like all airport security and immigration lines, this one was folded into a wide deep space, so that progress actually involved shuffling back and forth parallel to the row of security gates, where the dull-eyed and dangerous airport employees, with their wands and scanners and lists of questions, waited to process us all for entry into Inner Airport World.
Have I told you that Airport World is divided into zones of influence? By my count – for there may be yet more secret zones, dimensions rolled up inside visible space or concealed behind supply closet doors – there’s Adminstrative, Outer and Inner. Administrative A.W., which only employees see, is the maze of beige corridors, fluorescent-lit offices and interrogation rooms that all bureaucracies share and which C.S. Lewis no doubt had in mind when he discussed hell in The Screwtape Letters.
Outer Airport World is the most exoteric, open to anyone who wanders in from the outside. The prices are high and the air smells peculiar, but its parts are made up elements recognizable from daily life. Inner Airport World, especially at international airports, is made of alien materials that appear terrestrial on first glance. Once inside, you are shielded from the country you are nominally passing through and entirely at its mercy. We may have been in England when we passed through the security gates of Heathrow, but England did not know us.
We had a morning to kill. The first task, according to the call sheet, was to get the carnet stamped. In italicized bulky letters – ENTERING EUROPEAN UNION – GET CARNET STAMPED!!! But no one had stamped our passports when we passed through security. Our luggage had not been handed back to us for reprocessing. We were in the most extreme regions of Inner A.W., where we had landed in a country but not been recognized. England lay outside the tall windows of the departure lounge, but it may has well have been on a television screen. There was a good chance that the carnet was not meant to be stamped at Heathrow International.
This was going to cause a minor shit storm back at the company, at least at some point in the next six months, when our collective carnet sins would come back to demand fees from us. I had to say that I at least tried to get British Customs to plunk down a stamp. So I stumbled sleep-deprived down the corridors, on goldenrod carpeting, past newsagents and sunglass shops. Greg stayed behind, safe in a smooth plastic chair.
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