I said previously this blog would be about Anything and Everything and I fully intend to live up to my word.
Yesterday I returned to the United States permanently (maybe, we’ll see) after living in Europe for Three years. I would love to say I traveled “extensively” but that wouldn’t be true in the strictest sense. When you work in Europe it’s the same as when you work in the United States. There are bills to pay and a job to get done to pay the bills. Travel was still a luxury. Yes, it was easier to catch a train to Venice for the weekend. I did hop over to Prague for a 4-day holiday. A whole week in Iceland is the trip of a lifetime! But on the whole, finances and time prevented me from doing everything I wanted or going everywhere I wanted to go. However, now that I’ve had a taste of Europe, I will go back someday. Whether to work again or just to travel, I will go back. And it will be Amazing! Everything will be Amazing–Except the Getting there.
I’ve flown back and forth to the East/ Middle East seven times. That includes coming and going. And I have flown back and forth from Europe a total of eleven times. And the one thing that always makes that trip less than enjoyable? Airports.
A lot of people do travel blogs so I won’t bore you with more of That. However, I’ve seen very few reviews on actual airports. I’m going to do one today.
Some might disagree with me but, Atlanta is my favorite Airport (behind Marco Polo in Venice, Nuremberg and Frankfurt). And, I can now say I have my two Least Favorite Airports.
Yesterday I traveled for well over thirteen hours, including layovers, to get from Nuremberg to Virginia. And until the last layover, I wasn’t unhappy with my experience. I like Nuremberg–it’s small and easy to navigate, kind of like Marco Polo (Venice) and I enjoy that. No long waits for security and you never have to run far to catch your connecting flight (like Chicago and JFK). Frankfurt is larger, of course, but it’s very easy to navigate. I deliberately told the travel agent, Do Not Put Me Through JFK–because I loath JFK for many reasons. It was my least favorite airport in the world, or so I thought and I wanted to avoid that headache. Well, JFK WAS my most hated airport. And Then I hit Newark (EWR).
Now until yesterday I thought JFK was the Worst Hands Down Airport experience of my entire life. It’s always ridiculously crowded; I think they’ve been under construction for the last hundred years; the signs are often confusing and doors you Think are fine to go through, aren’t, and doors that look off limits are the doors you’re supposed to use. I found most of the people Rude and unhelpful–when I could find someone who spoke English well enough that I could even understand their directions. Not an exaggeration…my first time through JFK I was extremely Lost and only had half an hour to board my connecting flight. I finally gave up and asked a nice gentleman how to get my gate. His accent was so thick I couldn’t understand him. He (not graciously) hand walked me half way to the bus that would take me twenty miles from my current location to my gate. And he looked at Me with impatience the whole time, like I was an unruly, mentally challenged child he had been handed without his consent. If there is one thing that will set me off, it’s being treated with contempt. And especially when YOU have Failed in the very simple task of making it clear where people are supposed to go. If you hand me a map with no roads or landmarks on it, only an X, and then tell me to find the X, it’s not my fault You suck at your job. I went through JFK two more times over the next year and after that, I swore I’d avoid it at any cost. I can find my way now but I still found the general atmosphere chaotic and unpleasant. And travel is unpleasant enough without people who Hate their jobs making it worse.
So, the Travel Agent put me through EWR (Newark). BIG MISTAKE! HUGE MISTAKE!
There is something Rotten at the core of EWR. If Not Killing someone is akin to saving their life, there’s a customs official in New Jersey right now who should send me a “Thank You” Note for his existence.
This went beyond people not liking their jobs, general rudeness or expected New York Attitude into outright Hostility. A dangerous and frightening level of Aggression. I didn’t confront the customs official (not because I fear confrontation) but because from the minute I walked off the plane I had this uneasy feeling that if I so much as said a polite, “No, thank you” to anyone in that airport, I’d be detained, strip searched and beaten in some windowless, sound-proof room under the airport complex. And it wasn’t just the customs official.
Coming off the plane, EWR had a very unpleasant “atmosphere” all together. The smell of the airport, as if the ventilation systems weren’t working properly or people hadn’t been cleaning it well, struck me. I didn’t want to stop at a bathroom because I wasn’t sure how it would be. A sense of … Dirtiness, pervaded the whole place.
Everywhere I looked, airport workers were slumped in their chairs behind their little podiums or desk, some leaning their chin on their hands, glaring. If they weren’t outright glaring, they looked as though they’d gone from boredom into Zombification. Uniforms weren’t crisp or put together well. No One Smiled. No One. No One Joked with co-workers. No One managed to speak to anyone coming off the plane in less than Rude, short and aggressive tones. It had the feeling of a place that was on a powder keg waiting for the right spark to set off a dangerous, even violent, mob mentality. I wish I was exaggerating.
Then I got to Customs. I had nothing to declare and my customs form made that very clear. Anything I wanted that wasn’t a necessity for the next few weeks, I’d packed up with the movers. I like traveling Light. Lugging a hundred and fifty pounds of luggage through an airport isn’t my idea of a good time, and the little carts make me feel like a hoarder. I had One Carry and two medium /small suitcases.
With layovers it was a thirteen hour ordeal to get the United States and eight straight hours of being cramped into a sardine can listening to a baby scream for seven of those eight hours. This child screamed almost non-stop the whole way. Sleep had been impossible. I had jet-lag hangover. As we moved toward the customs line, people must have thought we were in Italy. They were jostling for position and crowding up to cut off other people; no sense of proper queuing was being adhered to. Being short and behind several tall people I couldn’t actually See my final destination until the last man in front of me stepped up to the podium.
That’s when this male customs official looked at me with the same contempt one would use for a child abuser and says, “Are you together?” Startled I said, “No.” And he proceeds to say, “Then you need to step behind the line like everyone else in front of you did,” in a tone I haven’t heard since my third grade teacher, a woman we used to call Mrs. Hell for her nastiness.
And being a law abiding sort, that didn’t even bother me as much as it Should have, or maybe Would have, if I’d been less hungover and exhausted. I stepped back behind the line I hadn’t seen until that moment.
When I get Up to the podium is when I realized I was dealing with an outright bully with hostile intentions who wouldn’t hesitate to claim I’d been hostile or “suspicious”–in fact, was looking for an Excuse to take someone down. He looks at my customs form (which clearly states I had nothing to declare), looks Me up and down with Contempt and Hatred in his beady eyes and says, “Proceed to line 16 behind me”. And waits for my reaction. Line 16 is for X-ray of Agriculture claims on the customs form. Line 16 is manned by two older men who look as though someone just made them sit through a ten hour long power point slide about the mating habits of the common fruit fly.
I look into his eyes and I know he’s waiting for me to go off on him. He’s anticipating (no, Enjoying) my coming protest that I didn’t declare anything, I don’t have anything agriculture related, I’m already in a twenty minute window to get to my gate or I’m going to miss my flight (which was True). He WANTED Me to say something, anything, so he would have the satisfaction of calling Security on me.
Have you ever felt like you were standing on a precipice? Maybe you’ve been in a verbal altercation with someone and Know that if you say the wrong thing, or move the wrong way, violence is going to erupt. That’s how that moment felt. Drawn out longer than it should have been in your own mind, like seeing a stop-action film.
Very calmly I took my customs form back from him and proceeded to line 16 without saying a word. And he was disappointed; he made no attempt to hide it.
I walk up to the older man slumped in a chair by the x-ray machine and hand him my customs form. He looks at it briefly, hands it back to me without any expression and tells me to continue on my way with a slight wave of his hand. So I gave him my best Southern Charm smile, said, “Thank you,” and kept on walking.
But there was a moment–a moment in which you know you’ve just been hit by a nasty bully and you have two choices in this life. Punch them right in the dick, or turn and walk away. I have no doubt if I hadn’t walked away, I’d have missed my connection and more, been treated to prolonged questioning in some sound proof room in the airport with Security.
There were other ways to deal with this. A child who has been taught simple etiquette knows those ways. Most people Want to do the Right Thing. They don’t break rules on purpose. Moreover, there are Errors of the Rules and there are Infractions of the Rules. The former is a simple mistake of a rule, a lack of attention paid. You didn’t mean to cut in line on front of the other person, but you weren’t paying attention. And there is an Infraction where you deliberately push the person out of the way to cut in line. Then there are Large Rules and Small. This was a Small. It wasn’t as if the Customs official was discussing their medical history or Attorney Client privilege. It was a customs form. Whether I accidentally stood one foot behind the tall man in front of me, or ten feet away, really made no difference in the grand scheme of one’s overall Life. If he’d smiled at me and said, “Ma’am, please step behind the line”, the result would have been exactly the same. I would have felt bad for not paying attention, apologized, maybe even made a joke about it that made Him smile, and everyone would have walked away happy.
So clearly, this was a premeditated, spiteful attempt to Cause an altercation which would have caused me a great deal of grief, headache, delay…and Fear.
I continue on my way and nothing I saw after that made me want to spend anymore time in that airport than necessary. I made my flight (with about ten minutes to spare) but I never once saw anyone smile, say Thank you, have a nice day, enjoy your flight…. Every single employee I saw after that was outright hostile and contemptuous, from the man who checked my ticket to go back through security, to the security agent who checked my ticket again, the security officer who re-ran my carry on through and wanded me, to the ticket agents at the gate. Hostility was Everywhere.
I have never seen so many people in one place Hate their Job, Hate their Life and Hate all of Humanity with such an overwhelming malignancy and Contempt.
When I got off the plane I told my daughter about this and she says, “Well, Mom, it was New Jersey!” and rolls her eyes as if that explains everything. Only it doesn’t.
There are stereotypes that Southerners are backward, uneducated and poorly rounded (don’t travel). There are stereotypes that Northerners are rude, hostile and always in a hurry. Neither are necessarily true. But again, this went beyond mere rudeness, say, being in a hurry and having no time for nonsense. The Germans have That down to a science. The Dutch don’t like small talk and if they mean something, they Will say it. They’re a blunt culture. But they are never Hostile or Aggressive.
There is a sense of underlying Violence in EWR that is frightening. Scary. Being no nonsense or blunt is one thing. When you throw in the elements of Contempt and Malice, you take it to a whole new level. Someone in a hurry or impatient is different than someone who will Maliciously cause others problems for their own self-satisfaction, or who hold you in such contempt as a human being that they no longer care whether or not violence erupts around them, even seeks it out. That is when things escalate.
And escalation of force is never a good idea. On the news I’ve been watching the riots break out and Americans turning against Americans. And EWR and places like it are the Cause of that, not the Symptom. It’s an easy stretch to go from treating someone on your job or a customer with contemptuous malice, to rioting in the streets and burning cars and disrupting political rallies. You already hold everyone but Yourself in Antipathy and every day at work, you hate them more. So when you go outside your house and there is a world of people who are now faceless, contemptuous enemies, extensions of your everyday job, its no stretch to continue to think of them that way and destroy their property and livelihood.
There IS a solution to this. If employers would give their employees sensitivity and politeness training, then make it a requirement of their job to smile, to say “Thank you” and treat others with Respect, they would begin to see Humans and not faceless, contemptible Problems to be dealt with. It’s been proven scientifically that when you smile, it causes a marked change in your own attitude. When you smile and treat others with Respect, they smile in return and treat You with Respect. A greater feeling of well-being is shared by everyone around you and our feelings toward our fellow man soften. We become less rude and impatient; we see Humans like ourselves and not enemies.
Poor management is a huge problem at EWR; employee morale is the worst I’ve ever seen anywhere in the entire World. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that the airport shut down at some point, or worse, that employees decided to strike and riot. They’re on the verge. You can feel it. It’s a pervasive perfume of rage and malevolence that permeates the entire place.
I Urge the management there to take a step back and look at what is going on in their Airport and take steps to fix it, before something happens that cannot be fixed.
And I will not be using EWR Again, if I have to take a slow boat to China.