Beyond the Bubble

I sit at the Hungry Jacks window gazing nervously out as I eat my Whopper. I stare through the double glazed glass at the tarmac beyond the terminal and think that it’s been a while since I’ve flown and my nerves begin to kick in. It’s strange sitting here watching the huge jets fire up there engines before hurtling down the runway yet not hearing a thing. From the secure air-conditioned world of the terminal take off looks like such a peaceful process, so smooth and quiet, so detached from the reality of the nervous tension I’ll feel at that moment, that very moment when you line up on the run way and you stop. Everything goes quiet and you’ve never felt so still. Before you bounce around and your palms sweat as you’re pushed back into your seat and you’re willing, with every mussel in your body, you’re helping get the plane in the air. But for now the world of the tarmac is peaceful. It’s a territory never experienced as your escorted through an umbilical system of tubes and tunnels into yet another bubble… The aircraft itself.

I remember the first time I flew. I was young and not yet accustomed to such things as airports. There were so many rooms. The check in, the shopping area, the waiting area, and then a long hallway a lady was waiting to greet us at the end. It wasn’t until I noticed that the windows in this final room where small and oval that I realized we were on the plane itself. That’s where it began on this trip… The aerobridge.

I walk through the glass doors. There ridiculously oversized yet make me feel kind of special. I feel as if I have a special back stage pass that enables to pass through these gleaming doors. These doors are what separate the travelers from the fareweller’s. Too often I have sat at airports as a fareweller. I would watch the planes thrusting into the sky in silence without experiencing any of the nerve shattering g forces of actually flying. Not this time.

It’s now that realization hits me like a freak wave. I’m getting on a plane to go to the other side of the world by myself. I’ve studied Italian for almost two years and now I will experience and utiIise it first hand feel my legs go weak and I begin to feel dizzy. The already tiny tunnel seems to shrink as the flight crew in the distance begin to smile and acknowledge my presence. It’s a reality check I had not expected.
Yes I had prepared myself, crossing each day off my ‘STA Travel’ calendar they gave me with my ticket purchase. It was as big as a book mark and was designed to stand up on ones desk. It counts days down from forty until the day of your departure. The Departure day had ‘Sayonara’ printed on it. I thought ‘Arriverderci’ would have been more appropriate, but it still got me excited. It’s the first thing I would do each morning as soon as I remembered. I would wake up in a daze forgetting about my planned trip. This moment before realization was the only brief moment my body and mind could rest before the anticipation would begin to drive my mind and body into nervousness and excitement as it drew closer. I would step out of bed into the cold of Melbourne winter and drag myself to the bathroom. It was always at the same moment. That very moment I would remember. Id then make my way to the study and cross my new day off the calendar. Then sit looking at it for a while, staring at the now lesser amount of days until it was time. But nothing had truly prepared me for this.

I get a seat over the wing. That’s good. They say the wing is the strongest part of the plane. We sit on the tarmac for what feels like hours. It feels strange when I peer out my window and see the familiar Tullamarine freeway pulling away from the terminal as I already feel miles away from home. I already feel as if I’m on the other side of the globe. The flight crew begins there safety demonstration with the life jackets and all. I try not to think of the air craft disaster shows I’ve seen and want to slip back into my previous naivety that planes can float on water and I try to block out the images of planes splitting into pieces on impact.

I get excited as they then repeat all the messages in Italian. I test my self and listen carefully to see if I can understand. However I’m flying Cathay pacific and am having difficulty as I don’t think I’ve ever heard Italian spoken in an Asian accent. Crackly through the speaker it comes across as Chinese Italian. Punctuated with the same stresses and accents as Chinese but Italian words. I give up and settle into my seat.

The flight itself begins to blur into a daze. Long trips are funny as there is nothing eventful, no time stamps for the mind to go on, so the memory can’t operate properly leaving the whole thing feeling like a strange gap in time.

After nine hours I’m in Hong Kong. A nervous stop over as the threat of the SARS virus is at its peak. People everywhere are wearing hospital like masks over there faces for fear of contracting the virus. I feel scared. The place is alien enough for me let alone the fact that even the humans look like strange masked robots walking cautiously throughout the terminal. Some of them wear stickers with a picture of a thermometer on them ‘I’m ok, I’ve been checked today’ it reads ensuring everyone that there temperature today has not indicated that have the virus. We all have to line up as we too have to have our temperature checks. Finally I get to my turn and just as I’m beginning to loosen my jaw and open my mouth the masked man sticks something in my ear. Some new type of thermometer system. I cleared ok, but none of us get a sticker like the airport personnel. For this I feel strangely disappointed.

I sit and wait in the terminal. It’s dark and I try to gaze through my own reflection in the window to see what Hong Kong looks like. I feel like I’m in this strange bubble. I realise now when people say they’ve been to a country, just because they’ve passed through the airport doesn’t mean they’ve been there at all. I could be anywhere right now and if it wasn’t for the constant reminders of the airport P.A telling us to cover our mouths when sneezing, I would have forgotten where we were. Although one thing did strike me.

Every now and then I would get a waft of the smell of outside air through the air conditioner. It was so foreign yet slightly familiar. After some careful deep inhales I determined that it had a similar smell to that of Bangkok that I’d visited two years ago. I was like a strange combination of humidity, fish sauce, pollution and charcoal barbeques that seemed to waft into the sterile terminal at regular intervals.

Finally we were back on the plane and on our way to Rome. Again I remember little, except my disorientation with time. I remember waking during the night and peering out my window to see what I though was the most stars I’d seen in my life, after waking properly I saw the longer sunrise ever, as the sun chased us for hours its dull red sunrise glow lasting until we began our descent. I remember looking at my TV monitor and noticing the plane was tracking over Iraq. I looked out the window at the land below. It glowed in a purple redy hue beneath the thin layer of cloud. I could just make out crevasses and mountains. It looked so peaceful and beautiful. It was hard to believe that a war was going on there right now. That underneath us hid terrorists in caves as American tropes raided and bombed the beautiful continent below.

We descended into Rome. I watch the plan on the screen and watch the synchronized landscape out the window. I see beautiful green paddocks before sea again as we fly from Italy’s heel to its ankle. It’s a surreal experience flying into something so foreign, not knowing what to expect. It’s always so different to your expectation. Bangkok was the same. My expectation assured me I would be greeted by beautiful white linen table clothed restaurants playing soft Thai music with wooded carved ornaments on the wall as we would stroll through the peaceful streets. It wasn’t until we landed in the hot chaotic strange red sun drenched city that I finally made it to a ‘restaurant’. I sit exhausted in my plastic chair as tuk tuks buzz past me and order my green curry from the Thai man standing next to the Coca Cola sign. The food however is better than expected.

It’s a long trip on the tarmac shuttle bus as we fly around witches hats across the hot concrete. This world is very different to the quiet organized tarmac through the Hungry Jacks window. We arrive at customs and again we have to queue up and have our temperature taken as we have come from Hong Kong. I begin to get frustrated and want to tell the officials that I only came through transit and have not been in the city areas where the disease has hit the worst. But I wait. It comes to my turn and again I am greeted with a different type of thermometer. The masked Roman points a gun like device at my forehead and pulls a trigger. Half of his face is masked but I register what I think is a frown on his sweaty exposed brow. He points to a small room on his left and says ‘aspetta qui’. My two years of Italian study suddenly fail me as I completely miss what he said to me but slowly move in panic to where he pointed. My heart is racing as I rub my sweaty palms together. I suddenly have visions of the Australians I have seen on the news who have been forced to be quarantined in bubbles for weeks in strange countries expected to be infected with SARS. I’m panicking now, and at a moment when I want my temperature to go down, this is not great timing. I’m still confused but one of my fellow passengers comes over and says ‘he said wait here’. I nod and try to manage a smile of thanks. Another masked lady approaches me and asks me if I’m feeling unwell. She speaks English, I do speak Italian but not at a moment like this. ‘I’m just nervous’ I manage to say as I explain that I was in Hong Kong in transit only. She gives what is finally a conventional thermometer to stick under my arm as I have to wait inside a small room for five minutes while they take my temperature again. I begin to think of cooling thoughts and loosen my arm as much as possible but not enough so that the thermometer falls from my armpit. The frowning masked man comes in again and says something in Italian to me that again I miss. The English speaking lady translates for me. Normally I would be ashamed that I didn’t understand the mans Italian but right now I couldn’t care less. The lady tells me to give the masked man the thermometer. I do so trying to look calm as I put on my ‘I don’t have SARS face’ and try to conjure up a healthy glow. We have another translated conversation then the man speaks in Italian to the lady for what feels like an eternity.

The man hands me a piece of paper but lets me go. He says if I feel sick to go to a doctor and take the piece of paper with me. They’re letting me go. I am incredibly relieved as I walk out I manage my first bit of Italian ‘grazie… Grazie’. I pass through customs and walk out front of the airport… I’m here… I’m really here with no double glazed glass to protect me; I’m outside breathing the humid Roman air.

Beyond the Bubble

Ben Farrell

Balmain, Australia

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Artist's Description

Chapter one of my Travel Writing book – Solo adventures in Italy. After studying Italian for two years at university I won a scholarship to live and study in Italy for two months, but nothing had truly prepared for what I was to experience…

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  • justineb
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