Thursday, October 2, 2014

Hello, America!

On the River Arno
"Never underestimate the power of
stupid people in large groups."
~ George Carlin
(Note: As with yesterday, since I couldn't take photos in customs, I'm just filling with a few others.)

Let me just put it out there: Some people are just idiots. 

If I'm tired and I encounter an idiot, I become very cranky very quickly. Travel days, especially international travel days, are the worst. My crankiness by the end of a travel day will be in direct proportion to the number of idiots with whom I come in contact.  Tuesday, on the cranky scale of 1-to-10, I hit about 9.7.  A certain airport that we flew Tuesday has more than its fair share of idiots working there. Had one more idiot crossed my path, my head might have exploded.

I'm not going to bore you talking about the almost-eight-hour flight we took from Madrid to Philadelphia the other day.  If you've ever been squished sat in an airplane seat for more than 20 seconds, you already know the hell joy eight hours hurtling through the sky at 38,000 feet would bring.  On the other hand, I'm guessing that most of you have not had the misery pleasure of going through Philadelphia International Airport, so i thought I'd introduce you that abyss pride of the East and the idiots who work there.

Piazza Nettuno
Our flight landed in Philadelphia around 2:30 pm as did another from London, so the herd heading toward Customs was large.  As we hurried along, we saw signs announcing new self-service, automated passport control machines. They were, the signs assured us, easy! Fast! Free!  All US citizens had to use them, so the line snaked around the check-in area.

As we got close to the machines, I noticed that more than half of the machines were empty.

"Oh, good," I whined to Mike, "they have 24 machines, and they're not using more than half of them."  We were, by that time, about 30 people back.  (Explanation note: If you consider that line at this point to be a "U" with the head of the line to be on the right at the top, we were on the left at the top of the "U.") Two women were talking to the customs agent who was directing people to the machines...or not directing them, as it were.

"If we put too many people on the machines, they'll all go down," the agent said.  The two women nodded and said something back to her.

"Why do you have so many machines if you can't use them?" Mike asked.  One of the two women repeated what the agent had said.  "I heard her," he continued, "but that doesn't answer my question."

"Don't start this again," I hissed.  "I don't want to be arrested."  (If you haven't ever heard the story about our coming through customs at JFK, remind me to tell you sometime about the incident then. Mike disappeared for some time, and I thought TSA arrested him.)

"I'm not starting anything. This is ridiculous."

"You don't have to tell everyone that," I pleaded. "Let it go."  Telling  him that was like urging him to continue because he kept making comments.  Loud comments.

"These aren't the people you want to antagonize," an old dude behind us said. "They'll haul you off somewhere."

"I don't know," Mike laughed, "it could be fun."

"Stop," I said.  At this point, we were about five people from the front.

I need this Vespa
 As we got to the head of the line, Mike asked the agent why they had so many machines if they weren't going to let everyone use them. She gave a BS answer about overloading the system.

"Then why do you have so many machines?" he asked her.  Luckily, before she could snap cuffs on him or answer, a machine opened up, and we yanked our luggage over to it.

The machines are straight-forward. You answer a few questions, scan your passport, have your photo taken, assure the machine that you are telling the truth, and press "Submit" to get your little slip so you can take it to a human Customs agent. If you get a giant "X" through your little slip, you have to go to a separate line where a different human Customs agent will look at your "X'd" slip, your passport, and your face, type something into the computer, and stamp your passport before sending you on your way.

Mike answered the questions, scanned his passport, didn't smile for the camera, and checked "Yes" that there was another family member with him. I got to do the same, and we hit, "Submit."  Round and round the little dots went, but no permission slips came out.  "TECHNICAL ERROR" flashed on the screen.


"We've received a "technical error," Mike informed an agent standing near us. "What do we do now?"

"Try again," the guy snapped.  Two men at machines across from us got the same message.

"I'm on my third try," one guy said, "and he's already tried four times." He pointed to the other guy.  We repeated the procedure and got the same result as did the couple at the machine next to us.  Suddenly, everyone was getting the same "TECHNICAL ERROR" message.

"What do we do now?" Mike asked again.

"Try again," the guy said.  Mike started the process again, and I saw an older woman approach a group of agents huddled in a corner.  She whispered something to them about the system being down and hurried away. That irritated me.

"We have a connecting flight," I said to an agent near me.

"Everyone has a connecting flight," she snapped and walked away.

Via Farini
 By this time, the two guys across from us were one their 8th or 9th tries, and Mike and I were on our 4th or 5th.  Nine agents huddled in that corner, and one guy was walking around. In addition to the five officers working the non-US citizens, there were three Customs officers sitting in their little cubicles doing absolutely nothing because the machines were down. That made me furious.

"What is the back-up plan?" Mike asked him. I didn't even try to keep him quiet at this point.

"Keep trying," the guy said.

"The machines are not working. What is your back-up plan?" Mike was hot, and I was trying to keep both him and me from exploding.  People‚—and there were more than 200—who were still waiting in line to get to a machine started to complain.

"We have flights."

"Do something.  This is ridiculous." 

The agent just shrugged.  "Keep trying."

"You said that," Mike said, "but the machines are down.  What is the back-up plan?"

"We're trying to figure that out now, sir," the guy said.

"Who's trying?" MIke asked.  I pointed to the people standing around. "Who's trying?" The agent walked away without answering.

"Ten of them are just standing there," I exclaimed. "This is ridiculous."

One of the guys behind us finally got his golden ticket, and he ran to one of the idle Customs officer's lines.  "How many tries was it?" I yelled after him.

Portico in Bologna

"I lost count around 12," he told me and waved.  "Good luck."  We switched to that guy's machine since he had gotten through.  The other guy's machine finally spit out his ticket.  Our new machine screamed, "TECHNICAL ERROR" on our first and second tries with it.  Every few minutes, one of the machines would actually work, but people were getting really angry and yelling.  The huddled mass of agents stayed away from us all.

Finally, on our 8th or 9th try, we got our magic tickets and headed to the cubicles.

"Are you together?" one of agents asked us.  We nodded. "Then you have to go to that line." She pointed to a line of about 50 people.

"Now what?" MIke asked.

"We have a connection," I snapped.

"You have an "X," Ma'am," she snapped back at me.

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"That means you go in that line," she replied and walked away from me.  Another flyer who, after trying numerous times to get his ticket, started to complain to that agent.  "Write an op-ed about it," she said and walked away from him, too.

Crowd in Madrid's Plaza del Sol

"Why was I flagged?" I asked the Customs officer when we finally got to his cubicle.  Stout with close-cropped hair, he chomped his gum in much the same way Riley chews on rawhide.

"No idea."  He held my passport up to the light and then examined the stamps I had in it. He typed my name into his computer, studied the screen, and looked at the "X'd" slip.  He held up my passport again,  looked at the photo on it, compared it to me, and continued to clack his gum.  He lowered the passport, stamped it, and waved us on.

"I bet his mother would be proud to see him chewing gum like that," Mike said loudly as we walked away.

"Can you wait until we get to where he can't hear you?" I still had visions of missing our flight because Customs wasn't happy with someone's remarks.

"I want him to hear me," Mike replied.  I rolled my eyes and hurried on.

A regional train

We finally got to our connecting gate about two hours after we landed.

"This is great," Mike said as he stared at the filthy seats in front of us.  A few of them were torn, and most of them were repositories for food particles and  trash.  "You would think that an airport of this size would have the decency to clean the gate areas."

Rather than get into a discussion about the filth, I went to get us dinner at Wendy's in the food court.  I ordered two singles because, "Them is the smallest burgers we got," the gal at the counter told me.

"I also want two small drinks," I added.  "One Coke, and one Coke Light."  (In Europe, they refer to Diet Coke as Coke Light, and I wasn't thinking American soda yet.)  The kid stared at me.


"Diet Coke...Diet Coke"

"You want two mediums?" she asked me.

"I want the smallest you have," I repeated.

"That's a medium," she said.

"Then that's what I want."

"You want mediums, right?"  I looked to my left and right to make sure she was speaking to me and not someone else.  I was sure I had spoken English. Had I not been holding money in my hand, I might have yanked my hair out.

"Sí.  Yes.  Whatever."  I was getting really cranky.

She poured the two drinks and brought them over to me. "You want a carrier?"  No,  I thought, I want to balance one of the two cups on my head while carrying the other and the bag of sandwiches in my hands. 

Berliners from Chök

I hauled dinner all the way back to the gate, and as soon as we started to eat, we noticed that they were changing our gate to another that was half-way back to the food court.

"We have time," Mike said.  "We'll eat this while it's hot and then go."  I just nodded since my mouth was full.  I was already through half of my burger.  As crappy as airport food can be, it was an American hamburger.

When it came time to board, we pre-boarded because of the problems I've been having with my foot.  In front of us, there was a gentleman who had just had a knee replacement.  "Let him and his party board first since he's in a wheelchair," the gate agent requested.  Fine by me.

When they brought the guy to the ramp, a group of 20 people got up and started to follow him to the plane.  Only one of them, and that was the one in the wheelchair, needed help.

"Wait," the gate agent said. "Are you all with him? Do you all need to board?"  They all answered by filing on behind the guy.

When we other pre-boards got on the plane, most of the group had put their luggage in the overhead bins. They stood in the aisle talking to the knee-replacement guy who was sitting.  No one could get past them.

"Ah, maybe you can hurry so we can all get on" Mike said.

The lady in front of me dropped her suitcase to make a little noise.  I sighed loudly.  They didn't notice and kept joking around.

"For crying out loud," I almost yelled.  "Get out of the way."  No one moved.  At this point, they had started general boarding, so a line formed behind the pre-boards.  "COME ON." I did yell that.

The flight attendant who was standing in the seat next to where I was finally got a clue.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "can you please move out of the aisle as we have a long line forming here."   Finally.  Finally. Finally, they moved.

Mailboxes in Bologna

 The flight was full, and we were late pushing back from the gate.  Slowly, slowly the plane went from one place to another.  Almost an hour after we were supposed to take off, the pilot made an announcement.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," he started. "Now that we've completed our tour of Philadelphia International Airport, we're in line for take-off.  Apparently there is only one working runway, and there are nine planes in front of us.  It will be another five-to-ten aviation minutes before we're in the sky.  After that, we'll have a smooth five hours to Las Vegas."

Mike promptly fell asleep.  I don't sleep well on planes, even when I'm exhausted. I spent most of the time reading or watching people cruise the aisle. I have never seen so many people walking barefoot in a plane in my life.

And I hope I never do again.

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