I travel a lot by plane even though it’s environmentally destructive and increasingly boring. Airports in places like Bucharest or Tirana used to be so different from anything we’d seen in the west – the airport terminal in Tirana, a European capital city, was no bigger than a cowshed when I went there in 1999 and the road was made of mud – but now it’s a modern glass cube at the end of a motorway.
But a recent trip from Bucharest to Stockholm showed me that air travel can still be bizarre. I was flying with a new airline called Air Serbia, a smart new outfit that has been built on the wreckage of the once-proud Yugoslav Airlines (JAT) with money from the Middle East. The first stage of the flight was to Belgrade, only 50 minutes away from Bucharest, but there was a delay and I was re-routed to Stockholm on a KLM flight.
A bearded man in a suit, who looked rather like a Serb guerillas from WW2, gathered us up and led us on the most bizarre walk I can remember doing through an airport – backwards. We’re so used to going through an airport in one direction only – through the security check, through passport control – that to go backwards through it felt exciting and naughty.
Our bearded guide marched through passport control but was stopped by an outraged police officer who said something like “what the hell do you think you’re doing?” A short argument ensued and the policeman eventually stood aside as we trooped through. I felt like a schoolboy who’d been allowed to rifle through the headmasters office. It was exhilarating.
It took us a while to work out what was happening but when we reached the arrivals section and were waiting for our luggage the penny dropped: we had to collect our bags and then check into KLM, as a new passenger, and then go through as normal.
What I love about situations like this in a country like Romania is that they don’t feel the need to tell you what the hell is going on (this is something to do with the Communist heritage when things just happened to you but no explanations were offered). If this had happened in the UK a stressed-out-but-smiling airline official would have explained exactly why we had to walk back through the airport, how long it would have taken and so on. All the mystery and wonder of this little adventure would have been removed.
The first time I flew into Romania was also bizarre: it was early 1990, just after the revolution and it was my first foray abroad as a journalist. For some reason that was never explained, the plane got diverted from Bucharest to Constanta – Romania’s port city – a small provincial airport that obviously had no experience in dealing with a planeload of capitalist pigs like myself.
We were herded into a large, freezing room and surrounded by a squad of soldiers who were armed with dangerous-looking AK47 machine guns. We were held there for hours and nobody knew what to do, what was happening or what the problem was. The time passed relatively quickly as the soldiers were young, friendly and didn’t look like they wanted to mow us down. By this time we had all made friends with each other and were chatting away endlessly. Eventually we got herded onto a bus, driven into town and shown into an old fashioned hotel – with not a word of explanation from anyone.
My most bizarre experience with airports took place in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. I had been living there for almost a year when my mother and her boyfriend decided to visit – and they were arriving by plane. I had hitched into Tibet and kept away from Lhasa’s small airport as I couldn’t afford a plane ticket to anywhere, but there I was with a bunch of Tibetans and Chinese people waiting for the plane from Beijing. We were standing at the end of the runway staring into the sky, waiting to see the plane appear over the mountain tops. Suddenly a huge silver shape appeared, as if from nowhere, and we all jumped in shock. The plane landed and made a terrible noise.
The passengers disembarked and I found my mother and her boyfriend Stewart. The first thing Stewart said to me was “where’s the airport building?” and I pointed towards a tiny shed-like structure that was probably used to store equipment. I had got into the Tibetan way of thinking (I was almost fluent with the language) and it had never crossed my mind – until that moment – that there was no airport terminal building and nowhere for passengers to take shelter or get information. In the context of Tibet in 1987 that airport had seemed perfectly normal.
Back to the present day: when I returned from Sweden I had a 14 hour layover in Belgrade, just enough time to get a glimpse of the beautiful capital of Serbia. Back at the airport I was checking into the Air Serbia flight to Bucharest when an officer pointed to the screen above the x-ray machine and said “what’s that?” He was pointing at some pointy, dagger-like things on the screen and ordered me to open up my bag.
With a groan I realised what the problem was: in the old town of Stockholm I had come across a remarkable shop that sold cast iron replicas from the Viking age – miniature longboats, drinking horns, strange knives and all sorts of curious things for the modern household. I had already spent too much in that expensive city and was determined not to blow more cash, but when I came across the big, hand-made Viking-era nails I thought “yes!” and I bought ten of them for one Euro each.
The heartless officer in Serbia’s modern airport wasn’t impressed with my Viking-era souvenirs and ordered me to throw them in the yellow container. For a moment I thought of pocketing them and throwing something else in the bin but what if he called the police and had me arrested as a terrorist? That would have made for a good story but I’m not sure I’d want to go through with it, so my beautiful nails were lost forever.
Photo credit: U2 Spy Plane by John Bryson