I’m at Fiumicino airport queuing to get on the plane to go back to the UK for Christmas. Word comes down the line that there isn’t enough space for all the hand luggage. This makes sense. Most people travel with far too much stuff these days. Between me, my (Italian) wife and her parents (who’ve gone on ahead) we’re transporting seven bags of various shapes and sizes, containing not just the standard four hundred adaptors and chargers and six hundred panettoni but also rabbits, bears, elephants, one human infant and enough nappies to feed a nappy-eating army.
However, the news that our suitcases will need to go in the hold doesn’t go down at all well with the people ahead of me in the corridor, particularly with a posh-sounding woman and her friend from Liverpool, which is where we’re flying to. They’re annoyed at the apparent incompetence of the staff, who should (how?) have anticipated such an eventuality.
Someone of the attendants come to explain. Although it’s a Romanian airline, both the attendants seem to be French and don’t appear to speak Italian. This also makes sense, because English is the international language of air travel, and they probably spend their days dashing round between random European cities. It’s not a problem, or at least it shouldn’t be, because the queue is mostly composed of people flying home for the holidays.
Personally I’m not bothered by the slight inconvenience. We’ve got to pick up check-in luggage at the other end anyway. But behind me there’s a bald man in his forties with a strong English accent, which is unfortunate because he’s insisting on speaking Italian even though the flight attendant doesn’t understand it. Yoh facho kwesto veyagio chentoh voltey per anoh, he’s complaining. I-ya nev-ah ave-ah such-ah an-ah aysperience-ah. It’s basically the equivalent of the unwittingly hilarious foreign accents that we British love to take the piss out of, and I’ve done so in the past in class, for example by getting Spanish students to speak English with the strongest Spanish accents they can muster in order to focus on the differences. My compatriot fellow passenger sounds like someone who Has Mastered The Language, Thank You Very Much, and now expects to be honoured for it, even when (as in this situation) using it is redundant to the point of farce.
The attendant who is patiently dealing with his unreasonable requests speaks perfectly servicable English, albeit with a mild Inspector Clouseau accent. He’s polite and helpful. However, the Liverpudlian woman in front of me is also complaining about the situation, which she says typifies Italy, and she should know, because She Lives Here. She emphasises this point by repeatedly telling any Italians within earshot that ‘Non c’è logico in questo paese‘ – there’s no logic in this country. Beh, maybe she needs to focus a bit more on her grammatico. Or, as the Italians say, grammatica, which is their word for grammar, much as their word for logic, a word which their civilisation derived from Greek, is logica. Maybe she should just say what she wants to say in English, which after all is her language and which everyone present seems to speak perfectly well. Perhaps, while she’s at it, she might want to avoid making crass generalisations on the basis of a specific situation which doesn’t even have much to do with Italy per se.
In fact, another fellow passenger (Italian) helpfully intervenes, in perfect English. He explains that it’s not unusual and not really an inconvenience. It’s happened to him a dozen or so times. (He actually uses the word ‘dozen’.) She’s listening to him (I think she, you know, gets the gist) but is still responding in the language of Dante Alighieri and Joe Dolce.
I suspect that the woman, whose command of Italian is actually pretty commendable (quite possibly better than mine), may work as an English teacher. I’m basing on two things, which are actually one: 1) I myself am an English teacher 2) I’m given to projecting my own bad habits onto others. I have, on countless occasions in the past, bolstered my sense of self-worth by insisting on speaking foreign languages when it was completely unnecessary to do so, even though I make my living by helping, indeed encouraging, foreigners to speak English.
The friendly Italian man is presumably choosing to speak English in case there are people present who don’t understand Italian. It’s completely reasonable to assume that I might be one of those people. After all, you don’t get much more an international environment than an airport. Plus there’s the not-insignificant fact that we’re boarding a plane to England. (Maybe he even lives there.) It’s a linguistically fraught situation for those who see their command of foreign languages as a notch on the bedpost of their identity. I’ve written before about my own anxiety around language borders, whether in Portugal, Germany, Mexico, or Italy. I feel belittled and rejected when I’m trying to speak another language and someone switches to English. When I speak another language I feel like I’m making a claim, and desperately want to be recognised, validated. Who, after all, wants to be bloody British?!
The woman’s comment about ‘this country‘ also riled me, because in its petty-minded resentfulness I recognise my own bad habits. I’ve said things like this, probably even this week. Two hours ago I was stomping around the airport looking for a non-existent Terminale 2, cursing whoever designed the airport. Last week doing my application for citizenship I was damning in the strongest terms whichever stronzetto had devised the seemingly interminable and irrelevant questions. While doing my tax documents in Mexico a couple of years back I probably at certain points sounded to any purported eavesdropper like a proto-Donald Trump. It’s very, very easy to essentialise, to attribute any minor inconvenience to the entire people and culture of the country where one finds oneself.
She’s now explaining to us in English, from the perspective of someone who knows everything about Italy, that it takes some adjustment to live here. In England things work…differently, she says. Meaning: better. Meaning: My country is better than this one, the one I’ve chosen to make home. Non c’è logico, she repeats. But it looks beautiful and tastes nice, and that’s all that matters.
I’ve derided the expat mentality before, and it seems that here we have a living and whining embodiment of it. But maybe I’m being unfair. Perhaps she’s had a bad morning. Travelling is stressful, especially when at any given moment someone might – horror of horrors! address you in your own language. So I respond, in a jocular but pointed fashion, that at least people here don’t get worked up about the colour of their passports.
She might have laughed, but maybe she’s not from the same tribe as me. Apparently someone tried to have a ‘Brexit conversation’ with her in her hotel this morning at 7.30. I feel tempted to point out that it’s a very common topic of conversation. People around the world are confused by a country whose good sense they respected doing something so clearly harmful to its own interests. A lot of people in Italy look to all northern countries as emblematic instances of organisation and good sense. I could point this out, but the stewards are here with the sticky labels for our bags. I thank them profusely in English, a language I’ve spoken all my life and taught for the last twenty years. Such people have been funding my lifestyle for two decades; it’s also foreign students that keep my hometown (Sheffield) in existence.
I get on the plane and tell my wife about what happened. It strikes me it would make an entertaining thing to write about on the strictly (well, hopefully) non-whiny expat blog that I keep. I start to take notes but then remember that we have parental duties to attend to and also that we have a long journey ahead and my phone only has 48% of battery life left. What a depressing number.
The girl next to us looks Turkish but turns out to be from Moldova. She speaks no English or Italian and my Romanian is limited to place names and words like seatbelt and fasten which I can see translated on the back of the seat in front. She seems not to have flown before, judging by her confusion upon that she can’t make phone calls once we’ve taken off. Despite the linguistic barriers, she’s brilliant at engaging with the baby and distracting her from her favourite game of Let’s Take Daddy-Waddy’s Glasses Off. (Her other hobby on aeroplanes is ripping up inflight magazines, publications which I had thought existed in order to sell high-end nick-nacks and trips to more glamorous destinations, but whose main purpose is I now realise, to give parents a bit of a break.) Across the aisle there’s a guy reading an article in La Repubblica headlined ‘Russia, Iran e altri exploit del gaffeur Boris Johnson’. I wonder what the girl next to is off to do in the UK. It’s wrong to essentialise, but I know that Moldova is often associated with sex trafficking. Still, I hate when people make negative judgments about me on the basis of where I happen to be from to me. Like assuming that because I’m English and live abroad I must be a self-centred, self-hating, whiny and overly judgmental English teacher who thinks they’re some sort of uniquely gifted linguistic genius because they’ve sort of half-mastered a foreign language and who believes themselves to have a God-given right to more and better working options on the basis of their national origin. That’s actually, I hate to admit, not 100% wide of the mark. But I’ve got no interest whatsoever in acquiring a blue fucking passport.