There’s a patch of waste land off the car park next to Madrid’s Chamartín station.
It’s an unceremonious back door to this major rail terminal, widely used by people who need to cut the massive corner to get to and from the northern end of the Castellana main street. It’s a rutted bare patch of mud, often filled with deep puddles and parked cars, and, until recently, a tiny shanty town of makeshift sheds.
I walked through, carrying my small case, and noticed for the first time that the area had been cleared. I often thought it odd that such a settlement had been tolerated by authorities not always known for their deep sympathy to those who live on the margins of society.
A policeman friend of mine once described the role of the police as “to control the people” and I thought how this attitude clashed with my own (British?) understanding of their role. A policeman came to speak at my school when I was a kid and his description always stuck with me: the police, he said, were there to protect the people. He didn’t say control the people. This is an important distinction, and leads to an important change of mindset.
I once pulled over on to the hard-shoulder of a busy motorway because the back door of my car wasn’t properly closed – within seconds the police had pulled up (actually the Civil Guard, but it’s the same principle) and a young officer jumped out his car, already shouting at me “Why have you stopped?!”
“Because the door was open,” I said, completely calm, because I knew I had done the right thing.
He must have known I had done the right thing too, but he was too high on his own petty power, unable to calm down because he saw his role as there to control me, not protect me, and so he couldn’t back out without losing face: “Well, get moving. Now!” he hollered unnecessarily, ordering me about like I were a new recruit on the parade ground (we were only one step away from him screaming in my face: “only two things pull over on the hard-shoulder because their back door isn’t closed properly, steers or queers, which are you, boy?”).
That was years ago and it still annoys me that I meekly got back in my car and didn’t challenge him on why he thought it was OK to shout in my face.
Perhaps it was the better decision to swallow my pride and move on, but it rankles.
I marched on to the station and saw a train to the airport was leaving in a few minutes. There is an odd reluctance in Madrid railway stations to reveal the platform until the last minute, even for airport trains when passengers are likely to be less familiar with the system and laden with luggage. This can lead to some inelegant mad dashes across stations as trains leaving from faraway platforms are announced with a minute to spare.
It is odd in a country that rarely sees much value in surprises. Baby’s genders are revealed as soon as possible, no one ever says they want to wait for the birth, and even Christmas presents are opened the moment they are handed over, people don’t wait for the big day to let the excitement build … and yet, with train platforms, they keep you in suspense until that last possible moment.
As soon as the information was released, I descended to the platform and waited at the far end so I could be at the front of the train to be able to exit more quickly when we got the airport. A man was already standing there and I kept the regulation social distance and, because he had arrived first, I stepped back as the train pulled in to signal that he should board first. He seemed confused by the concept, and unsure how to open the door, so I edged forward, not wishing to barge in and take over, but keen to get on the train before it tired of our indecision and left without us. If he needed help pressing the button to open the door, I said to myself with a sigh of antsy impatience (it was the end of a long working day and I was tired), l was ready to step up and save the day … but then he got on, exchanged a few words with the driver who was leaving the train, and settled in to the drivers seat … so OK, maybe I was a bit swift in labeling him a clueless clown, unable to open a train door.
The queue for food in the lounge was not long, just one couple in front of me, so I quickly dumped my luggage and went back, peering myopically at the different options, nervous about which to choose before a flight (my post-cancer body not being quite the robust beast it used to be in the digestion department). The couple slowly edged away with their meals and I put on my best smile so as to place my order when a man to my left elbowed in front and insisted he was at the front of the line. I was momentarily incensed, but calmed myself quickly, thinking that maybe he’d arrived when I had dumped my bag and I’d missed him. I couldn’t be sure, and his abrasive assertiveness suggested he was convinced he was right, so he probably was, and so I waited, annoyed more at his lack of courtesy than anything else. It didn’t much matter, and as he went off with his meatballs and rice, the couple behind him barged in next, also pointing to the tray of meatballs in tomato sauce … now this was too much, I had reluctantly supposed that the first guy was probably in the right and he had seen me as a queue interloper trying to cut the line, so I could see his point, but seriously, the now entire – suddenly lengthy – queue was going to shove me out the way forever and ever … I could feel the heat rising and my face turning red, an irrational fury building in my body … and I knew this feeling all too well because I have children and so I know from bitter experience that it doesn’t lead anywhere positive.
I stomped off, as controlled as I could manage, but muttering to myself that I had been waiting first, that it was all unfair, and now I was being edged out by some massive anti-me conspiracy that probably goes all the way to the top … when a nice person, third or fourth in line, offered to step back and let me in, “It’s fine,” he said reasonably, “Just wait here in front of me.”
“Thank you,” I said, as calmly as I was able, but the anger was still evident in my tone, “I appreciate it, but it is not right when I am waiting there, where the queue was before, and just because a new queue forms the other way, I am excluded …”
“Yes, I know, but there’s enough for everyone, just wait here …”
But I was in no mood to just be waiting there, willy-nilly, next to sensible helpful people. I was already slightly embarrassed at losing my temper in the first place and the last thing I needed was a nice person staring at my back while I huffed and puffed in the queue. It wasn’t about the food, it was the principle of the thing … it was about behaving like polite mature adults, even when there’s a misunderstanding … and so I stormed off to sulk.
But I was hungry, and so after the queue cleared, I went back for my meatballs … but it was too late, they’d sold out.
The next queue was for Priority Boarding, another potential hotbed of hot-tempered queue shuffling. I was lucky to even be in this line, I was a queue interloper again, although this time I had the credentials to prove it thanks to the airline’s response to flat passenger numbers during Covid. They had lowered the requirements to get a fancier frequent flyer card and extended the time period to accumulate points, bringing such luxuries (like standing in a better queue) into the reach of people like me.
I find the pursuit of frequent flyer points to be distasteful, a silly game of minor status symbols that ignores the ethical elephant in the room: the carbon footprint of aviation. I wish airlines would add carbon-offsetting to the card benefits, I would gladly sacrifice the meatballs for a few extra trees.
A man wandered up behind me, “is this line for Business?” he asked and I nodded, feeling a fraud because I wasn’t travelling in Business. I wish I were, although on these short flights it is pretty much identical to Economy except you get a meal and no one sits in the middle seat, but that’s not really the point … it’s the principle of the thing … I tried to make conversation but he wasn’t having it. He was scruffy and wore a baseball cap which meant that I immediately regretted not bringing my own cap – I regard travel as an opportunity to wear hats – and then I started to wonder why he was in Business because his combination of cool confidence and standoffish-ness made me think he might be famous, perhaps in the music industry because he wasn’t in the right shape for sport.
We go through the gate to the jetty and have to queue again by the aircraft door. It doesn’t look good, they are playing with the door, trying to get it to close properly and I turn to the unfriendly potentially-famous-person to pass a comment about the importance of a shut-able door on a plane, but he ignores me.
I briefly wonder if they’ll cancel the flight, which I half hope they do because I don’t really want to go. This happened to me once, but it was on the return leg of a trip to Germany, so not as convenient because I couldn’t just pop home again. We got on the plane at about 8:00pm, then off again before 9. Those of us with luggage had to collect it and then wait in line to get a hotel and re-book our flights for the next day. I retrieved my bag and joined that queue at about 9:25pm; I got to the front of it just before 6am.
In this case they don’t cancel the flight.
I find my seat and sort myself out, getting my phone and headphones and Kindle out and putting the rest of my case and jacket above. The Cabin Crew guy intervenes, telling me I cannot do this, that there is an Italian regulation about the dangers of Covid spreading via clothes and so my jacket is deemed too dangerous to go in the overhead bin. I am all for evidence-led policy making, and if there is evidence to back this up then fair enough … but I am not in the best of moods by this point and I can’t resist rolling my eyes. It isn’t his fault, and his niceness is disarming, and so I decide to limit myself to just the essential half-dozen sarcastic witticisms.
Three hours later I shuffle down the aisle to get off. I pass the potentially-famous-person in his Business Class seat, still trying to get his stuff together to get off the plane. I glance down and see the end of his bag was full of pill bottles, lending credence to my idea that he might be in the music business.
I get off and wearily look for the exit, suddenly remembering I’m supposed to take photos of my journeys for this blog:
I get the train to Termini Station:
Then, after waiting an age for an eco-taxi (I do what I can), I get to my room, scoff some food, go to sleep, get up, go to work before rushing off to get a PCR test done for my upcoming trip to the UK.
Here is a post-PCR selfie:
I am in a better mood by now, and for the first time I start to enjoy being in Rome. The PCR test had been a logistical worry, and that I may have caught Covid during the flight an even greater one, and then needing to do a day’s work that was not inside my own house was a little unnerving after so many months of working from home … but when there’s a view like this, it’s easy to appreciate life and feel grateful:
That I evening I relaxed for the first time: job done, test done, and now it was just one more night and I could go home. I decided to eat a pizza by a busy road in front of an ancient aqueduct and a Vespa, just to get the full Roman experience:
I got up early the next morning and went directly to the station. No breakfast, no coffee, thinking I’d get to the airport and check in and then be able to relax an enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the lounge at zero cost.
I had to queue to check-in and show my Covid documentation, so one of the advantages of travelling light was extinguished. This didn’t much matter because I could join the posh queue to check in, but as with many things in airports, it isn’t really designed for the volume of passengers nor sufficiently staffed to smooth out the kinks that inevitably pop up in the process.
One such kink was the posh queue needing to cross the normal queue, causing anxiety in both camps as people worried they might be losing their place. My position was just beyond the normal queue … look, I’ll draw a diagram, it’ll be easier to explain:
So you can see why Person S (S for Stroppy) was a little antsy … so I smiled, which made no difference behind a face mask, and said in Spanish, “Are you waiting in this line, or that one?”
“I can’t hear you behind your mask,” he said, in English, barely able to contain his short-temper inside his mask.
So I said, in English, and louder (to be fair, I tend to be quietly spoken), “ARE YOU IN THIS QUEUE OR THAT ONE?”
He mumbled something then started shouting at the person to my right, let’s call them Persons I (I for Interlopers) who thought this queue-gap was the back on the normal queue. It wasn’t, and Person S made that VERY CLEAR INDEED and so Persons I looked at each other and called him “tonto” (a fantastic Spanish word that means “silly” but can be much harsher than the silly word “silly” if you get the tone of voice right).
Tonto, sorry, Person S, looked back at them and with a look that could kill a man, said “Excuse me?”
Persons I were not up for any trouble and so backed down and found the end of the line whilst I shuffled forward, safely into the posh queue enclave.
I made it through and eventually found a café for a nice breakfast where I had to show my vaccine certificate to be seated. The checks to get breakfast were more rigorous than the checks to enter the country! It was a pretty good breakfast, the supposed healthy option – which included a huge chocolate-chip cookie – and was accompanied by raucous female wresting on TV.
As I ate I checked my email and saw my PCR test results waiting.
Should I look now?
If it was positive, then I’d be required to isolate in Rome, ruining my travel plans.
If I didn’t look, I could continue home and look when I got to Madrid … but then, if it might be positive, I should know so I can act accordingly. Is maintaining deliberate ignorance really the most ethical decision in the world when you know you might endanger other people? I supposed there wouldn’t be too many vulnerable people on a flight but that didn’t diminish my own responsibility here.
It was negative, I was going to be able to go home without any ethical quandaries, and I was going to be able to get on the plane to London on Sunday.
I got on the plane, and relaxed. I plugged in the Square Ball podcast and glanced around.
There’s an odd moment of animal-like instinct when I catch the eye of a woman across the aisle who instinctively turns her body away from me and leans slightly over her baby as if to protect her young from the unwanted advances of a male. I turn away, I was only stretching my neck when our eyes briefly met, and although I don’t think my gaze lingered or my eyebrow raised, Roger Moore style, but without intending it I had transmitted something she had reacted to.
A friend who had recently come out as gay once said how weird it was, that after decades of having sex with women where you get to be the physically larger and stronger partner, that was no longer the case when you fuck other men. I had never really thought about this vulnerability angle, and felt bad that my glance across the aisle had triggered her to flinch protectively.
People were still getting on, an entire family with small children in Business Class which always makes me wonder, lines of people inching down the aisle, squinting to find the row numbers “It’s 1 … this one is 2 … er … this is … er 3 …” and I wonder at what point they might spot a pattern and realise that row 31 is toward the back.
A woman passes with a t-shirt that says “STRIKE FIRST, STRIKE HARD, NO MERCY”, carrying a little baby and I nod knowingly. You have to have been a parent to really understand that approach to parenting.
Behind her is an eccentric looking black woman with white curly hair, then a woman in a Friends t-shirt, followed by a man in a The Who t-shirt. If we continue back in time like this, the next person is going to be wearing a Cliff Richard t-shirt… they’re not…
We take off.
I made it! The first work trip since the pandemic done, and Covid avoided.
Today is Saturday, tomorrow I go again …