After almost three months away from home, we left our cousins’ place near the centre of Bucharest (lovely people, Gigi and Rodica, and I love the GREAT FOOD Rodica cooks, gained a few kilos to prove it). They drove us to the airport to take the long journey back to Sydney. The almost three months away were very exciting at times, extremely satisfying at times, frustrating at other times – we covered parts of Romania and visited relatives, saw some beautiful Greek islands in the Ionian Sea, did a trek in Nepal crossing Kang La, a 5320m high pas in the fascinating Nar-Phu region, and – just at the end of last week – had a book launch in the breezy and friendly capital of the Republic of Moldova, Chișinău.
Finally it was all over, with all the stress of packing to just above the maximum allowed weight of 23kg (my check-in luggage weighed in a 23.7 – as you do), This stress included the more concentrated stress of what books to take with me vs what books to leave for next time, and and even sharper stress of my wife’s scolding that I take too many books back, and that my small office in Sydney will topple on top of me with their weight, so that, on day, she’ll eventually find me, reduced to a paper-thin mess under the rubble blah blah blah… Finally, we were being dropped at the airport by our very accommodating cousins. But as I did the routine check of items while getting out of the vehicle – panic!!! No mobile phones. Neither the Australian nor the Romanian handset responded to the appeal. Checked everything just to make sure, but since I have a certain routine about placing them when I go on trips, and I knew I left them at their place. I am the ultimate creature of our times. Without mobile connectivity for more than 30 minutes, I shrivel up and die, like fish on the beach. Millennials have nothing on me, in fact I could teach them a few things, including appropriate levels of narcissism for various situations etc.
However, the panic was mild. We came to the airport early (a habit of mine, and it proved invaluable this time around – for other reasons as well, as you shall read), as our cousin’s place was 15 minutes drive from the airport. While we did the check in, they kindly did the round trip again and promptly presented my phones to me – I left them on the desk that was my office while in Bucharest. Panic subsided. All good, adrenaline level back to normal.
Well, the story about real PANIC! starts at this point. After passing security check and passport control, we noticed a young lady with two children in tow – a boy and a girl maybe 8-9 years old, frantically taking in broken English with a gentleman, seeking directions to her gate – or at least this is what I could make out. By the headgear – she wore a nikab – I assumed she was Muslim. The gentleman explained and gestured that she needs to walk further, maybe another 50-100 metres, “to that light you see in front, where you see that queue. Keep going! Keep going!!” he finished, before turning away to his own business. She quickly grabbed the kids each by one hand and rushed away like a whirlwind. My wife commented that she still looked confused, frantic even – maybe she was very late for boarding the plane – but the young lady had disappeared into the crowd in less than two seconds, children in tow.
We continued after her–our, the general direction for our gate was similar, hoping to see if she is ok. No chance, she was gone. At some stage we went down a long elevator – our gate was one for the smaller planes /shorter destinations, where they take you to your plane by bus – hence they are below, on the ground floor. We were only flying to Thessaloniki in Greece, as the first short step of our long journey back, boarding a small ATR42 turbo-prop. The gates for larger jet-planes which fly to further destinations, are placed on the on the top level, enjoying the luxury of mobile air-bridges.
As we were walking, the whirlwind with two children in tow passed us by in the opposite direct, appearing even more frantic and panicked. As mentioned, we had enough time on our hands, so I run back and stopped in front of her asking “Can I help you? Where are you going?” – “Malmo, Sweden” she said, a great fear in her eyes, as well as tears”, I moved to paces away pointing to the big monitor with flight/gate details which, by luck, happened to be right near us. She followed me closely, “Can you help, please?!” – “Yes, yes” I answered, I was concentrating on the monitor – I saw Malmo advertised at gate 14, meaning the gates above – those with air-bridges – and the status was “check-in open”. This meant there was no rush, boarding had not been announced yet. “Let’s go upstairs” I said, as the lady and the children were clinging to me as if I was a life-raft in a stormy sea.
“You please take us there?! We need to get there!!” She sounded desperate and hopeful at the same time. “Of course, it should be upstairs, somewhere”. While checking the monitor one more time to make sure (my attention to detail is atrocious at best), I happened to follow the woman’s eyes at the same time, as she was gazing at the monitor too. It was a blank stare, she was not looking at the Malmo line on the table, she could not locate it, even though I was pointing at it from close up. I suddenly realised that, while she was definitely not blind, she did not know how to read, not in the Latin alphabet, anyway. She probably did not recognise numbers either. I am a bit slower than most, but finally, the possible reason for her panic dawned on me: she could not follow advice that involved letters or numbers, nor read instructions. People were telling her the gate number, giving her the appropriate information – showing her the gate number on her boarding pass. This was of absolutely no use to her. It was not enough. She could not read. And being in a great panic, she was in no position to follow advice with any shred of insight. Panic does that to people. She needed someone to physically, practically take her “by the hand”, as she was holding her children, and plant her in the right spot. Nothing less, no amount of advice, no matter how good, would do, right then.
We went up the long elevator, I finally saw gate 3, and knew that 14 must be nearby. We got there, and the reassuring board with the gate number on it said MALMO, writ big. It was there. I sensed that just showing her the sign will not suffice, she could not read it. Other people were sitting in their waiting chairs. Right in front of us was a stereotypically Swedish academic-type lady – very short boyish hair, BIG round silver earrings, stylish but subtle reading glasses – an almost hard-core academic looking Swedish woman – and asked her in a clear voice, for the benefit of my charge, if this was indeed the gate for the flight to MALMO – SWEDEN. The Swedish woman (or maybe it could have been a Romanian masquerading as a hard-core ball-breaker Swede – Romanians are the most adept at mimicking), kindly confirmed, imitating me in an even clearer voice: “YES. MALMO – SWEDEN” – she realised the reason for the exaggerated manner of my question, and was smart and kind enough to reply in kind, looking the young lady in the face. The drop of a huge load of her shoulders was almost audible.
Then, from her fixating on the Swede (or maybe fake-Swede) she turned to me and thanked me profusely: “Thank you very very very much!” she bellowed, at least three or four times. This would have probably continued for a while, but I said “All good, you are welcome” waved goodbye and smiled to the children, whose big eyes were looking at me as fi seeing a vision (I am deluded enough to think I am moderately ok looking, but those who know me, know that angelic I am certainly not). I turned away and left to join my wife back down at the lower gates.
On the long elevator ride down, it occurred to me that, at least a couple of times in my life, I have been in a similar situation to that of this young woman. Not in terms of being lost in airports, I can clearly read instructions. In fact, my prowess around airports is legendary, or should be!. From JFK, to LAX, to Heathrow, to Sydney, to Frankfurt, to Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International, to El Alto above La Paz, to Queenstown, to Nadi, to Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary horror, and many others – I am the master and commander in terms of negotiating my way through airports, I am the bees’ knees.
What I mean is that I was in situations in life – not many, maybe two or three – where I was in such panic, so frantic and desperate – that simple advice would not and did not cut it. Even if clear, concise, simple, and – in all other situations – perfectly insightful and useful. Nothing of that kind was of any help to me in those rare times.
What I desperately needed, was for someone to take me by the hand, and lead me. To feel that I am not alone, and that someone is with me who know what they are doing – and are doing it. Not just talk, not just explain. Logic and rational thinking were not useful to me in those instances – I was incapable to resonate with them, never mind follow instructions with any amount of coherence.
Not sure if you ever experienced this. If you were very lucky until now, or if you are a sociopath, maybe not. But if you are a human being outside these extreme categories, you had gone through this, or you will for sure.
When that time comes, don’t be afraid to reach out. Do not be ashamed to feel uncool – you know, panic, desperation, they are not cool. But should you experience it, be like the lady wearing the nikab. Reach out to someone, grab their hand, tell them you need help. Some people might just explain things to you, and in some situations this might be just enough. But if that is not enough for you there and then, reach out again and reach out some more and ask for help. Grab someone’s hand, look them in the eyes, and tell them your need. Eventually you will get to somebody who has enough time on their hands, will understand the state you are in – understand emotionally, not just intellectually – and who might reach out to you and lead you to your gate. And there, you might find a calm, kind, hard-core academic-type Swedish lady (or a fake one, it does not matter) – who will clearly and reassuringly enunciate what you desperately need to hear.
Bucharest HC Airport
20 August 2018