The lost souls of Rome’s airport
As I walked out into the cool night air at Bristol Airport, I felt euphoria and shouted into the darkness: “I’m free! I’m free! Sod the police! Sod officialdom! I’m free!” Actually, I shouted some stronger Anglo-Saxon words as well – but you get the emotion. For the last two days I had been living in a type of purgatory in Rome’s Fiumicino Airport where I was marooned due to having my invalid passport confiscated by the police. It was only for 36 hours over the weekend of the 17-18 September 2022, a tiny amount of time compared to Mehran Karimi Nasseri (AKA Lord Alfred) who lived in Charles De Gaulle Airport for 18 years, or the weeks Viktor Navorski spent at John F Kennedy Airport in the 2004 movie The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks. But it was long enough.
I was not stateless but instead I was the same as the lost souls I encountered there who like me had invalid travel documents and were caught up in a twilight zone unable to go anywhere. As the police officer told me: “You are not in Italy, or London, but in an international zone.” Well, he didn’t say that, but he said something similar in broken English as he banged his fist on the table in the detention room and said something that the Pope would blush at.
My experience was of my own making. Last year I feared I had lost my passport after a trip to France and so reported it missing – within days I found it in the lining in my travel bag and completed an online form to say it was found and thought no more of it. I hadn’t noted that if you report a passport missing – you have to apply for a new one – and return the found one to be destroyed. And so, on Saturday Linda and I set off to Bristol Airport to fly to Rome for a long-delayed trip to the eternal city on a pilgrimage so see the places of her Italian heritage (her dad was an Italian POW). No problem at Bristol – so we took off and landed in Rome at around 9.15am local time. At the passport control Linda went ahead but mine was rejected. I was sent to a different check point where for what seemed ages the police scanned my passport and made notes. No eye contact – which was worrying – and then the killer question: “Have you stolen this passport? It’s on Interpol’s list.”
Hands on revolvers
I was escorted to a police station within the airport and the nightmare began. And the nightmare because I had met the wrong kind of police officer. According to the Foreign Office, (I rang them), in my type of case when clearly, I’m not an international criminal they would have let me through on the promise that I would go to the British Embassy in Rome and get a temporary travel document – and continue my holiday. But no. There was shouting, fists banging tables and rather disconcertingly hands resting on revolvers. I was sent to a waiting room filled with others with lost or invalid passports including an American called Liam who was told he would be sent back to the USA. His wife Mary was outside with my wife – now both separated from their husbands, and both in despair. Liam was devastated – partly because he had his wife’s clothes and cash in his bag and partly because it was their honeymoon – 17 days in Italy. We exchanged stories while others in the room of misery wept. Eventually I was told I would be sent back to Bristol but until then I must stay in the arrivals and transit area of the airport.
I asked to see my wife Linda who I could see across the hall through glass panels from the police station, but the very aggressive officer refused to let us meet. Frustrating and very annoying as I had some of Linda’s clothes in my case and she had some of mine in hers. And even more problematic I had all her make-up and negligee. I was taken to the arrivals zone and told to stay there in no uncertain terms: ‘Do not try to leave or you will be detained and charged’ was the message – all said by a police officer fingering his revolver. I got the message.
Thankfully something good happened. My son Lawrence and his girlfriend Claire were to join us on a later flight for part of the holiday – arriving a few hours later. Just as I thought all was lost, they appeared. What a relief – as they could carry out that most important task of re-uniting Linda with her make-up bag and negligee. It was so good to see them but also to explain to their disbelief that I was to be deported – something I may well put on my CV.
Initially I thought this won’t last and I’ll be back in England within hours – but this idea was dashed when a police officer told me I would stay a week in the airport and return on my prebooked flight. “No! A week – that can’t be right,” I said – but he was adamant and left me to find a toilet cubical for some seated lavatory contemplation. When you are in a fix, things don’t always dawn on you at first as you are partly in denial, partly thinking common sense will prevail and partly thinking, ‘this can’t be happening.’ After much thought I began the process of phoning the British Embassy, EasyJet and the not very helpful Help Desk to see what could be done. It turned out nothing could be done. I was in the hands of the police. I guess they deal with idiots like me every day when they would prefer to be arresting bank robbers, so I sort of understood their attitude.
Back to the world of Lord Alfred, Tom Hanks and the like. Yes, you can live in an airport, but your spirit dies with the unrelenting blandness and artificial light that never dims. No fresh air, but free wifi and unlimited seating. I read a novel cover to cover and watched countless thousands of people come and go. Large extended families with tiny toddlers and struggling grannies, excited teenagers herded by concerned teachers, obese couples eating on the go and beautiful young couples with matching tans. For people watching you can’t beat an airport. And the accents – some are easy to pick up but so many are not. I did ask a couple on a seat opposite thinking Vietnam, China, Taiwan? No. Sri Lankan, but from Nuneaton.
A Kafka-esque circular horror
My fellow lost souls included a teenage girl from Georgia, a lad from Albania, several Kosovans and a wide group of people of unknown nationalities. If this is typical, then around the world there are thousands of people with missing or invalid passports who are at any one time in the same predicament. Plus, there are even larger numbers of stateless souls all around the with some living permanently in airports – refugees, dissidents or those condemned to a Kafka-esque circular horror.
Meanwhile Linda was with Liam’s wife Mary who was even more distressed, as don’t forget it was her honeymoon. Having met up with Lawrence and Claire they did the only thing possible – give Mary support – take her by taxi to her accommodation and generally look after her. The next day they all visited the main sites in Rome and ended up as friends for life with a meal in the evening. So, something else that was good came out of the disaster – although Mary’s honeymoon was obviously not consummated. I’d better not dwell on that.
Airports we think – when we visit to catch a flight or to meet someone – are very busy. Yes and no. They are busy for bursts of time – when thousands throng every area – but within half an hour the vast halls and corridors are empty save for a cleaner. And the same is true at night as I found out as I tried to make myself comfortable on a large soft seating area – suddenly you can be surrounded by excited elderly German tourists at 2am or a group of girls on a hen do drinking something pink from plastic beakers at dawn. And then silence. Sleeping in an airport without ear plugs or blind folds is difficult. That night I tried to go to sleep at ten o’clock and actually slept until ten past ten. Result.
After dozing on and off I awoke at midnight to find I had been joined by a number of very large older women wearing hijabs – snoring in chorus. Sadly, not the nocturnal fantasy of my teenage years. In fact, something had happened which was far away from those teenage sex fantasies. Without realising it I had become increasingly stressed. Not the hair falling out stress or panic attack stress but the going to the toilet every twenty minutes stress. Fortunately, the loos were very clean and plentiful in number. I visited every one of them several times and probably can answer questions on their locations in the vast confines of the airport.
More cheese rolls
Sunday dawned and it was my 66th birthday and the day I would finally be able to have a state pension. A day of presents and cards and maybe a glass of champagne. But no, a policeman arrived with a brown paper bag containing cheese rolls and a bottle of water. This was my breakfast he said – well actually he said, ‘for you, eat now.’ And off he went. I discovered that the airport has ‘a duty of care’ for us lost souls so security officials would bring us bags of cheese rolls, the odd croissant and a bottle of water. It was rather reassuring, but their hospitality skills lacked something – and by the time I eventually left I had so many cheese rolls that I took some home and had them the next day.
Thus, my birthday was not the one I had planned with Linda, Lawrence and Claire – treating me to a meal in a Roman restaurant. Instead, it was a day of increasing concern about when I could leave. No news from the police but then a breakthrough when Linda rang. She had looked on the internet and a place on the 9.55pm flight to Bristol was booked in my name. I tried to confirm this with the police, but I got nothing, until in the evening one of them said to be outside his office at 9pm – and handed me another bag of cheese rolls. I counted down the hours and read a second novel cover to cover in one sitting. 9pm came and I sat waiting and hoping for the police to escort me to freedom. As 9.30pm came and went I began to think the worst – I would be here for a week. At 9.45pm an armed policeman appeared and said, ‘you come with me Mr Harry.’ I followed. We marched up to the head of the long EasyJet queue, a few sharp words and we were through – past the wheelchair passengers and onto the plane. Talk about Speedy Boarding – I was first on board.
The policeman left and a nervous member of the cabin crew asked me what I had done. Afterall in the eyes of the passengers and crew it looked like I must be a criminal. Something I felt immensely proud of as I am the least likely member of the criminal underworld despite playing a spiv in a recent play. I briefly explained my story to her, that it was also my birthday, and was met with sympathy as the plane filled up. I had wondered how I was to pay for the flight as the website said it was £300 pounds one way. Money, I didn’t have. Later I discovered the airline pays as they should have stopped me at Bristol. They may even get fined. I even felt a bit sorry for the airline since it was all my fault. We took off and my nervous urge to visit the toilet disappeared. Stress is a funny thing. You know when you have it and you know when it goes.
Later when the same female member of the cabin crew came down the aisle with the food and drink trolley, I asked her for a very large gin on the basis I needed it. She smiled and poured me the drink and whispered, ‘there’s no charge – after the day you’ve had – you deserve a drink – and it’s your birthday.’ A free gin, a smile and some sympathy – my faith in humanity was restored. And so far, Linda has not filed divorce proceedings. She’s still in Rome – so maybe the 36 hours in the airport will soon be forgotten.
The moral of the story is to check that your passport is valid.
For details for the work of the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk and follow him on FaceBook, Twitter as @HarryThe Spiv, Instagram, YouTube and God knows where else!