It is less than six months since my last visit to the U.S., but I’ve forgotten what an adventure getting into the country can be.
The experience begins during check-in, where the friendly but firm German official behind the Lufthansa counter asks me if I have a machine-readable passport. It is an unexpected question, one that I have not been asked before, and I hesitate. He repeats: “Do you have a machine-readable passport?”. I tell him no, I have a U.S. visa; if one has a visa, a machine-readable passport is not needed. He says he has to check that, and starts searching for something on his computer. After a while he is still not sure, so he turns to the young blond in the next counter and asks her if there are any exceptions to the machine-readable-passport-rule. She replies without thinking: when someone has a visa.
After check-in I proceed towards security check. There is a long queue, winding endlessly through the hallway. I join the line, and I’m followed immediately by a middle-aged lady wearing dark glasses, who shifts to the side to get a better look at the length of the line and mutters something under her breath. At that instant a man tries to get into the position behind me; the attempt is immediately rebuked by the lady who tells him sternly, in German: “Behind me”. He falls in behind her, and she turns around and addresses him:
“Do you know why I’m so impolite?”
“It is a long line,” the man says.
“Yes, and I have been in transit for eighteen hours, and these officials at Frankfurt airport have sent me from one gate to another, from one counter to another. Utter incompetence!”
They talk about the declining standards in airports, and she says she has been living in the U.S., where things are much better. In the conversation that follows, she frequently visits the how-Europe-is-falling-apart theme, and at one point refers to the book ‘While Europe slept‘. My mind immediately springs to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir Infidel, and an interview where she refers to the book ‘While Europe Slept‘. I make a mental note of buying this book in an airport bookstore. If I have time before departure, that is.
The queue moves slowly. Along the way, some even jump across when the tape demarcating the lines – unusual behaviour in Germany, but human behaviour in large crowds is seldom usual. When my bag passes through the scanner, the official places it in a different queue which means it has to be opened. The lady who looks at the snapshot of the X-Ray says there is a pair of scissors; I can’t remember putting any scissors into the bag, so a search begins. It takes a few minutes until she finds the offending object; I smile at her and say “Sorry!”. She smiles back and throws it into the waste basket, amongst dozens of other similar scissors. Despite the crowd the atmosphere is relaxed, which keeps the experience from being unpleasant.
After security check comes the passport check, and then near the gates there is yet another security check – an identical routine, only the officials are different. It is already past boarding time for my flight, and I can sense the anxiety in some passengers around me. When I reach the corridor that leads to my gate, there is another queue: a final passport check. The American citizens can’t believe it; “But we just had our passports checked!” a lady cries in dismay. Others shuffle uneasily in their positions, ask people in front if they are in a later flight, and some even try to squeeze into the middle of queues.
It is a relief to get into the flight: the greeting from the stewardess seems more welcoming than usual. I have an aisle seat, and next to me is a young man reading what I later find to be a book on Thomas Aquinas. Across the aisle is a lady reading Haruki Murakami in a language I cannot decipher. The man in front is reading Die Zeit, and the pages strike me as luxurious: it is the effect conveyed by the font, layout and graphic design. Just looking at those pages makes me want to read them.
I pick out my book (an excerpt from Herodotus’s Histories), plug-in my headphones to Lufthansa radio (playing Schubert), and push back my seat. The eight and half hour flight passes quickly.
At the Newark liberty international airport the immigration queue is a short one; when my turn comes, I am asked a few routine questions about my visit. I answer them, including one about any previous visits to the country, which I answer with a vague “earlier this year”. This prompts a repetition of the question, now in a tone that appears to demand specificity. “I was here in April this year, and stayed for a week.” I reply; the officer stamps my passport and hands it across the counter: “Welcome to the United States.”