A reluctant traveler tries to get through her first Covid-19 flight without succumbing to overwhelming anxiety and loneliness.
Contrary to my normal behavior of feeling terrified of flying, or terrorists, this time around at Terminal 2, my fragile inner self is frightened of an unplanned move, the one you make without any awareness and pick up Covid-19. Having done my duty by self-isolating as advised until 12 June and in the process suffering horrendous anxiety, I have decided to test my inner self and book a flight to Europe to visit my relatives.
My pink rubber gloves, bought from Amazon rather than Victoria’s Secret, look like the latest fashion accessory, and are giving me swollen finger tips. My face mask, bought for my mother who suffers from COPD, is the latest piece of technology with HEPA and active carbon filters. It’s red, which attracts too much attention, but it could be a good thing; people would notice you early and follow the 2m distance requirement.
Still, I feel anxious even before boarding the plane. All that idea of swapping a hoard of toilet paper for a short-haul flight during lockdown disappeared like my latest business plan. I am truly scared, but am pretending not to be. The only solace is that every single person I pass is scared, too. Their eyes are tense, no blinking, full terror mode. There is not much politeness going around, just military marching orders: Go Left, Next, Stop.
Arriving three hours before the flight, as advised by the airline, brings extra anxiety. The airport staff, neatly tucked into crisp uniforms and surgical face masks, glide around the well-polished floor, checking on every single arrival who comes through the glass entrance, and directing them to the right gate. The whole sterile atmosphere looks like preparation for a lifesaving operation, not a flight to a different part of Europe.
Because my gate hasn’t been opened yet, I am reprimanded for coming so early and advised to go outside the building to get some fresh air. That dismay when no one wanted to play with you in the kindergarten comes back instantly. Luckily, as a grown up, distraction springs to mind in the form of cigarettes, but the smoking zone is on the other side of the building, and two heavy cases, courtesy of Business class, make trekking over there impossible.
Disheartened, I sit on the rail to get fresh air—well, really smog—only to be told off by a security guy to move further from the entry door. Apparently, I am a security risk. Of course, I am. My face is covered in a mask two sizes bigger than my face, with reading glasses as thick as the bottom of a jar. There is no security camera that would recognize me, not even my mother.
After a whole chapter of Master and Margarita, the book I read a long time ago in a different language, I notice that it doesn’t make any sense in English. It seems it was translated by a person fond of Google Translate. Disappointed, I try my luck at re-entering Terminal 2, only to be let in without any custodians stopping me going into zone 1, where I am supposed to check in. With sweaty hands and forehead, and blurred glasses, hardly able to breathe, I go straight to the Business class lane.
“Did you pay for the second bag?” the defender of the empty Business lane asks brusquely.
“It’s included in the price.”
“Are you flying Business class?” And this time she turns around to give a full-frontal view of her neat uniform and angry, maskless face. She is ready for a confrontation. Me, too.
“It says on the ticket.”
The young and inexperienced Z Generation employees at the local WHSmith on a Sunday morning are more polite than the lady with a big pretentious smile, squeezed into a too-tight uniform, pretending to be a female airline deity. An ugly one.
Or maybe my unimpressive appearance makes her think that I am a little confused human being who has never traveled before? Or never used Business class? Does she expect people to dress up for a mere 3-hour flight in the middle of a pandemic? Yes, I have trainers with mud collected on long walks through the countryside to beat high anxiety. My hair looks like it was done by a 3-year-old, but it’s difficult to see the back of your head in the mirror. And my nails are not polished to the expected requirements of Business class and the airline deity, for a simple reason—I bite them. And I am in a very advanced stage of hypochondria, not because of my age, medical condition, or frustration with airline staff, but because the abnormality of the whole worldwide situation is dumped on my shoulders.
“Can you please put a fragile sticker on the first bag?” And I think to add, “my head too,” but that would make her staple a sticker.
“We don’t have them.” Instead of feeling bitter, the sensation of relief runs through my sweaty body. Looking at the airline rep in front of me, the idea of a hidden stapler under the printer seems plausible.
“What about WiFi? Is it free?”
“I don’t know. It would be best if you ask on the plane.”
I begin to wonder if I know her. She is so casual, but the quick answer seems like a standard mantra as if the same reply had been recited over the phone and retweeted on my feed. It makes me wonder if any ground employee knows what services are offered onboard? I can forgive them for not knowing from which terminal the plane is supposed to take off as we are living in extraordinary times, but not knowing what clearly has been stated on the website is seemingly beyond staff training.
The boarding pass is duly passed over without the obligatory eye contact, a thank you, or have a good flight. Instead, the tight and ugly deity quite proudly adds that the Business lounge is closed.
Welcome to the hostile service of one the oldest airlines in Europe.
Not to be beaten by the lack of service, stickers, closed lounge, and maybe unavailable Wi-Fi, I rush through security checks, almost naked, eager to speed up the process, and I curse the long queue, especially a mother with three kids, each equipped with a very expensive laptop, the size of a TV, stored orderly in their rucksacks. Some adults really should stay at home.
The trek from security to the gate is a long passage through a graveyard. All the restaurants, once heart of the airport, are closed with the chairs neatly stacked on the tables, like gravestones. Two shops, WHS and Boots, are open. I already have a book and a home-made sandwich. It’s time to find somewhere with a socket and enjoy the extraordinary peace at Terminal 2. The only issues are that, even for the small number of passengers, there are not enough sockets. Living in extraordinary times makes you do extraordinary things. After jumping up over the locked gate of one of the restaurants and committing a crime with a mask like a professional burglar, I find a secret corner with a socket, pull up a chair, and enjoy my lunch by reading the latest death toll, announcing my location on Instagram, confirming my arrival with my sister, and managing a few pages of Master and Margarita, very much an appropriate satire for the times we are living in.
Once the announcement is made, the rush to the gate becomes swamped with animal noises. Social distancing, one of the essential factors for staying alive, simply evaporates.
At the gate, the only reason I know it’s time to board the plane is that my “tag” couple move. In order not to be late or get lost, I usually tag people who are getting on the same plane. And no, it’s not stalking, just a simple reminder when and where to go—kind of an alarm clock with a visual GPS built-in.
It isn’t easy to see which lane is assigned to Business class, and with hordes of people, I and my tag couple push through. On board, we are coldly welcomed by staff in uniform and masks. No disinfectant. No distancing. No smiles. Just a long arm pointing the way, more military ordering to your seat. It seems the staff are as scared as we are.
The Business class cabin, three rows of three seats, defended from the plebs by dark blue vertical blinds tied up in a knot, didn’t exactly scream “luxury.” People in the row behind Business class have the same space and probably paid half the price we did. The justification of the price doesn’t say “capitalism” and “free market.” It shouts “robbery.”
It seems that each row in Business class has two seats empty, except for those occupied by an amorous couple. Pleased with my anti-Covid-19 travel plans, I pat myself on the back for not having a fellow passenger in the adjacent two seats.
The service on board the flight is adequate for the worldwide pandemic situation. No meals, no WIFI, no drinks, except for a small bottle of water. Even the Business class toilet is closed, and we are redirected to the only two left on the other side of plane. Shiny suit, sitting next to me in row 3F, isn’t happy. Following his not-very-pleasant experience with an agitated, well-built member of staff, I sit with my legs crossed until we land.
The time passes quickly, with me deleting photos from overindulging on a previous trip and thinking of a nice cold Stella when I land. There is no eye contact, no service, no usual chatter between fellow humans or deafening baby screams, just an independent silent bubble for each passenger. I am surrounded by people, but I feel so alone.
Worried, I take yet another helpful pill, hoping to sleep the whole situation off and wake up in a pandemic-free world. That would be magical, wouldn’t it?
Editor’s Note: A story by Tara Goldsmith appears in the upcoming travel writing anthology Fearless Footsteps – True Stories That Capture the Spirit of Adventure, coming November 2020 and available for pre-order now.