Wednesday, December 20, 2006

20/12/06 Schiphol, Gatwick, Sussex

Christmas was definitely in the air this morning. Ordinary things were talking much, much longer than usual and people were already bubbling with that most Christmassy of emotions, anger. In fact, I've never seen so many short-tempered people squeezed into one place. The reason, other than the proximity to the dreaded day, was a romantically seasonable layer of fog that stretched across the British countryside. Because of this, planes to and from the UK were subject to delay and / or cancellation. And to ease people through this was the good, old Dutch customer service.

In Dutch, customer service is an oxymoron. It exists only in tourist haunts and the odd up-market shop or restaurant. Elsewhere, if it is the barmaid's cigarette break, you'll have to wait for your beer or if something you brought is broken, then (a) that's a shame and (b) why are you bothering the person who sold it to you with this?

Ironically, in the run-up to Sinterklaas and Christmas nearly all shops will wrap ANYTHING you say is a present. They take their time and wrap it properly, and better than I ever could. It seems incongruous but actually its very annoying for the people behind them in the queue. I am sure they only do it as a way to work without actually having to serve a customer. I know I would.

There were obviously a lot of Brits waiting for flights, for whom bad temper is usually just under the surface but then again only usually emerges as muttering or saying something sarcastic or ridiculously lame but indignantly. I remember being stuck in a crush in London slowly filtering out of a station at 8:40 am when someone seethed, "I'm trying to get to work." I had to bite my tongue not to say, "really? I'm here for fun." It wouldn't have helped.

But also there seemed to be a lot of Americans. Americans tend to have even more anger bubbling away, plus have the added annoyance that they are spoon-fed good (and often over-the-top) service back home so that the Netherlands can be a bit of a culture shock. A land where "Hi, I'm Candy and I'll be excited to help you today," translates to "Yes, what?"

We managed to get checked in after first joining a queue that turned out to be the wrong one after we grilled a man handing out pieces of paper with ambiguous instructions. The queue was for people with connecting flights and they were not a bouncy bunch. The same guy went did some giggling and got the self-service check-in computers to work so that we could get to the slow-moving Fast Drop-in desks. I think because the word 'fast' was above them, people were even more frustrated, even though their flight was delayed by two hours and so they had plenty of time. After this passport control was a doddle (easy).

I must point out that there were not nearly the number of people and not nearly the same depth of emotions as experienced in the British airports where for a few days before Christmas they whole thing came to a crashing halt and people had to hang around in tents in the freezing cold. And instead of paying for heating, they hired a few street performers to go around and cheer people up. When you're cold and pissed off the last thing in the world you want to see is a juggling mime. I don’t know what they were thinking. So actually we had it pretty good in comparison. Especially as we were ourselves very laid back about it. It was 5 days until Christmas, after all.

Very recently, Europe brought in new security regulations. As with previous ones they don't deal directly with security and are more designed to (a) make it look like security has been stepped up and (b) give the little men in big uniforms at the security desks more specific instructions to follows. Probably so they don’t have to spend so much money training them.

For example it wasn't clear why the tube of hand cream left in the luggage was dangerous and had to be gleefully thrown away by a glorified night-club bouncer where as had we remembered it was in the bag and put it in one of the sealable plastic bags it would have been safe. The only explanation the guy had was that those were the rules and laid a piece of paper in front of me explaining what the rules were but probably was very vague on how actually the rules help make things safer. When I threw the piece of paper away, it got placed back in front of me with great purpose. I should have been glad something had a purpose.

I have a theory that the level of X-rays has been increased many-fold in the machines and can now turn small quantities of liquid radioactive if they are not put in the lead-lined bags provided. That's my theory as not much else makes sense.

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