When I’d taken a flight to the US from Spain last year there was an extra security check conducted by US border security officials, after the regular security check and just before entering the gate. I remember finding it a real pain because they went through all your carry-on bags and you had to take your shoes off again and the line was pretty long. Based on the knowledge I gained due to this prior experience, I was prepared this time. Oh, yes, I was. I had a plan.
I was to get to the airport several hours before the flight so that I would be able to get the VAT refund before checking in. You see, most of the many, many things I had boosted the Italian economy with were packed in my check-in bags. I had checked in online the day before and spoken to Alitalia about my second bag which I already knew I would have to pay for. So I’d given them my credit card information and I was told I would be charged for the bag right then so I wouldn’t have to worry about it while collecting the boarding pass at the airport. Perrrrfect, I’d thought. Then I would be able to be one of the first passengers to check in and I would proceed through security check early enough so that I could get through the next US security check without having to wait in a long line. Sound plan, si?
I got to the airport around 5 am and found that almost everything was closed. And the little tax refund booklet I had with me showed me no VAT refund points near me in that terminal. Also, remember how I said I spent my last €2 on gelato because I was so hungry? Well, I had no money for a goddamned cart for my luggage. And I had 4 bags. Two to check in and two to carry on. Somehow I managed to wheel all my bags down to the aisle listed on the screen for my flight and all the counters were closed. Of course they were closed! My flight was scheduled to depart at 10:10 am! I was more than five hours early!
So I just waited there, patiently. There were many other people around, some sitting near the counters, some almost on the luggage conveyor belts, but they weren’t waiting to check in for the same flight. They didn’t even speak English. When I tried asking them if they were there for the same purpose as I was they responded in something that sounded like Spanish. Then they slowly left that area and started to line up at one of the desks that lined the wall of that huge hall.
I waited. Patiently. Until 6:30 when the Alitalia staff finally started setting up shop. Just as I’d wanted I would be the first to check in. Except that they couldn’t find the payment for my second bag. And I did not want to pay for it twice. I mean, it was €75 for one bag which can usually qualify as carry-on baggage but was just too heavy for it. So the girl helping me spoke to a colleague and then they both went to the ticketing office to find out more while I waited patiently. Honestly, what else was there to do?
When she finally came back she told me they had my credit card information on file, but it hadn’t been charged. I asked her if she was sure and she said she was. Fine, I told her, go ahead and charge it now because I really do need to check that bag in. She gladly complied. As I leaned forward to get my boarding pass from her, I saw a sticker on the counter about getting the VAT refund. It’s just around the corner, she told me. I had seen it before. The sign there simply said “Customs”. How in the world was I supposed to know that’s where I had to go!
So, anyway, I had to drag the checked in bags all the way there, but I was the first one in and it was quick and painless. The efficient person stamped my forms without asking to see the goods. (Thank goodness because only I know how I had to pack the stuff.) Then the bags had to be dropped off at a dedicated conveyor belt for VAT-refund-claiming persons. I get there and there’s no one manning that counter. How great.
I patiently waited for a few minutes, tried pushing a couple of buttons I saw near the counter and no one appeared. So I picked up the smaller bag, put it on the belt and almost immediately it started moving and took away my bag. Yay, thought I and proceeded to struggle with placing the bigger bag on the belt. And then the conveyor belt wouldn’t move. I panicked a little and ran up to an official asking him to please help my bags be together. He directed me back to that customs office. The nice man in there was controlling the belt. The second bag was whisked away a moment later.
My gate was in section G and the tax refund spot was in section H. Oh, yes, there was another step. The “customs” office had simply stamped the forms. Now there was the matter of actually getting the cash back. So I went all the way to H and was happily the first one there just as the counter opened. I got the refund back in USD, at a terrible exchange rate but I wasn’t going to argue, and then had to get on a train to get to G.
I found my gate fairly quick and guess what? There was no second security check. You see, at the main security check, they divided passengers into two queues, one for “All Other Countries” and one for US, UK, and, I think, another country or two, and that was it for the US security check. That line was quite short too, luckily enough. Or, well, as you know by now, I was just that early.
I was the first one at my gate and gulped down a cappuccino to keep me up until at least boarding the flight. Then my best friend called with news that jolted me wide awake and I spent the rest of the time while waiting to board talking to her. After I’d been at the airport for what seemed like ages, it was finally time to get on the cramped flight. The plane was really packed with people and the guy sitting next to me was a closet-jerk with a huge fake smile. One of the stewards was really nice to me who gave me more than my tasteless low-calorie meal when I was absolutely starving. That was the saving grace.
But this time there was no thrill. There was so much to miss. So much to want to go back for. The culture, the history, the monuments, the art, the music, the language, the food, the entire experience. I spent time getting to know the city, falling in love with it and all its little quirks and then had to leave it not knowing when I would return and when we would meet again.
It looked like I was leaving voluntarily, peacefully, content, readily, but my heart…it was kicking and screaming.