Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell: A Dantesque Journey through Northern Italy, Part 3

Taxi or Limousine?…

Traveling to the Third World (to the Airport, that is)…

Wheelchair Formula One…

Will that be Curry or Cologne?…

Demonic Little Boys…

Sleepless over the Atlantic…

They say that getting there is half the fun. But that depends upon whether you see the glass of travel as half full or half empty. Personally, I’ve always considered those who see the glass half full to be at least half full of it, and those who see it completely full, to be completely full of it.

According to what “they” say, getting to the airport should be more than a third of the fun, since the bumper-to-bumper thirty-kilometre slog through the suburbs takes almost as long as the three-thousand-mile flight across the Atlantic. In Toronto, where there is no rail link between downtown and the airport, getting there presents two choices: taxi or “luxurious airport limousine”. That’s a no brainer, as they also say. You can call a cab and be picked up by a beat-up, broken-down, ten-year-old Chevy Impala with no springs (chassis-wise or seat-wise), reeking with the smell of one of those pine-tree-shaped artificial air fresheners that hang from the rear-view mirror, and driven by a chap who speaks no English and knows no streets, because he arrived from Bwaamba Bwaamba a month ago. Or, you can call a “luxurious airport limousine”, and be picked up by a beat-up, broken-down, ten-year-old Lincoln Town Car with no springs (chassis-wise or seat-wise), reeking with the smell of a pine-tree-shaped artificial air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror, and driven by a chap who speaks no English and knows no streets because he arrived from Bwaamba Bwaaamba a month ago, but wears a cap and natty uniform. Or you can call a friend and beg him to drive you.

We did, and he did, in his just washed and waxed Cadillac DeVille, which he never fails to remind us is “a prestige automobile” (but then, recipients of charity can hardly object to being put in their place). As soon as we reached the highway, I became convinced that I had left the front door unlocked; but then my wife reminded me that every time I leave the house I am convinced that I’ve left the front door unlocked.

 

When a traveler enters the Toronto International Airport, he already feels that he is on vacation. In the Third World, specifically. Practically all of the airport staff (the taxi dispatchers, cleaners, security guards, customs and passport officials) are either from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, or Bangladesh. Knowing Canada’s incredibly lax immigration laws, it makes one wonder. How many of the government functionaries checking visas are themselves illegal aliens? How many of the turbaned quasi-military types wanding passengers down at the security checkpoints are sympathizers of the Tamil Tigers? My suspicions may be completely unfounded, but I doubt that I’m alone in wondering, even if the pall of silence cast by multicultural correctness means that nobody dares to ask. In any case, I’m sure that passengers entering Toronto Airport from Western Europe, say, have often looked around and stopped to wonder whether they got on the wrong connecting flight.

In fact, we remained, contextually speaking, in South Asia until we deplaned in Brussels. That’s because the cheapest flight we could find to Milan was on something called Jet Airways. No one has ever heard of Jet Airways, which is headquartered in Delhi—not even the staff whom we asked at the Air India counter.

When we reached the departure gate, it was already full of passengers, over ninety percent of whom were presumably returning to India from visits with relatives in Canada or traveling to India to visit relatives back home. The other thing I noticed were two long lines of passengers in wheelchairs. There must have been fifty “handicapped” travelers on our flight, fully one-fifth of the total roster. Immediately, I sensed something fishy; even I know that the Indians are no longer stricken in numbers by crippling diseases. When they called boarding for “passengers requiring assistance”, the wheelchairs commenced to roll, and the scene looked a bit like the scrambled start of a Formula One race. The Indians are savvy travelers. They’ve learned the quickest and easiest way to get into their seats. The rest of us stood in line with our luggage for another half an hour. I leaned on my cane, trying to relieve the pain in my hip, and feeling (as usual) like a chump.

 

The flight itself lived up to our low expectations. The interior of the plane was no-frills-airline shabby, the seats more than usually cramped and hard, and the atmosphere thick with the mingled aromas of curried chicken wafting from the galley, and curried chicken wafting from the bodies of the passengers. I wondered if the pilot had an extra artificial air freshener hanging from his rear-view mirror. In the meantime, I sniffed my unlit cigar, but the cheap cologne of the corpulent male passenger next to me induced a persistent headache. We were lucky in that the only two empty seats on the plane were across the aisle, and decamped as soon as the seatbelt sign was extinguished (along with the sign to extinguish our cigarettes. Does anyone in the world still need to be admonished that “this is a non-smoking flight”? If so, where do I find a smoking flight?)

In the row behind our new seats sat a demonic little boy who, every fifteen minutes or so, shouted out, “Die, you bozo”, whenever he scored a kill in the video game he was playing. Then he kicked the back of my seat in celebration of his triumph. Eventually, I turned around and gave him a look that he correctly interpreted to mean, “Die, you bozo”, whereupon he curled up on his seat cushion in the fetal position. Then I kicked the seat in front of me in celebration of my triumph.

Even in the absence of these inevitable olfactory and auditory assaults, there is no sleeping on an airplane. Not for me, at least. On my periodic “walks” through the cabin, I saw rows of arched necks, noses in the air, gaping mouths, and lower jaws thrust forward in the configuration of a fish scooping up plankton. (On a flight to Moscow fifteen years ago, I remember another demonic little boy amusing himself by popping peanuts into the open orifices of sleeping passengers.)

But passengers who are able to descend into the cave of Morpheus from today’s economy class seats would have been able to sleep through the ministrations of Procrustes. When we arrived in Brussels at 8:30 a.m. (2:30 in the morning Toronto time), we had been awake for nineteen hours. And that was when we needed to have all our wits about us.

Like the hoteliers who have never slept in their own hotels, the travel agents who assure you that an hour and a half is plenty of time to make your connecting flight at the other end of a modern, metropolitan airport have obviously never tried it. Unless, in their spare time, they are Olympic athletes specializing in the four-thousand-metre hurdles.

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