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Airport Security, You Never Cease to Amuse

The girl standing next to me as I put my shoes back on has to give up her Body Shop bottle.

“But I just bought it,” she complains, and points to the Body Shop store no more than fifteen yards from the security checkpoint.

The TSA guard shrugs. “If you give me your receipt I can get your money back for you. But you can’t take it through security.”

She frowns, disheartened. “I figured because they sold it in the airport it would be okay.”

I try not to smile too much at her distress. I’m not smiling because she has to give up her lotion, or shampoo, or whatever it was. I’m smiling because the security guards were able to detect her completely innocuous moisturizing product while once again completely failing to notice either the knife or screwdriver I’m bringing on-board.

I tell myself I have a good reason for doing this, that I really do need to take the screwdriver with me in order to disassemble my camera while in Madrid (new LCD screen still not working right before I left), that the knife was the most useful traveling tool I’ve ever had. But, really, I probably wouldn’t even think about trying to sneak this stuff on a plane until someone told me I couldn’t. Telling me not to do something inherently underhanded is like telling Casanova he can’t sleep with the Doge’s daughter. We’re both just going to interpret those orders as challenges.

The flight is delayed an hour, which is probably a good thing, since the line to check in at the Air Europa counter took about an hour. I was actually afraid I was going to miss boarding. I rush through the concourse only to find I have all the time I could ask for. With nothing else to do in B concourse, I drink, of course, unable to keep my mind on any of the several work-related documents I brought with me about things such as high-yield debt in Brazil and risk appetite among Canadian banks.

The flight is again delayed. It’s 10 o’clock now, and we were supposed to board at 8. All the snack food places are closed, leaving only one solitary sports bar open. I’m beginning to think the delays are a conspiracy to get me to drop money on freakishly overpriced beer.

When the plane does finally get ready to board, I realize to my horror there’s a gaggle of high school students on my plane. American high school students. And my seat is in the middle of them. I listen with mild horror as one of them reads something aloud very slowly, and I realize he’s trying to translate something into English.

Just as he puts his book away, an incredibly bad light jazz cover of Guys & Dolls comes on over the intercom. Desperately, I jam my headphones in my ear to escape the nightmare, but the stewardess informs me “I WILL NOT BE LISTENING TO MUSIC” until we reach cruising attitude.

I’ve been in this nightmare before. Once, on an Iberair flight from Barcelona to Madrid, I had to listen to about 32 bars of a bad cover of the Cure’s “Close to Me.” Imagine listening to that same marimba line over and over AND OVER again while flying over the Iberian Peninsula. Nobody made it off that flight with their mind intact: we were all changed, changed utterly by the experience.

Fortunately, the music doesn’t keep repeating the first 32 bars and does cut out once we’re off the ground.

It’s raining when we land in Madrid, a contingency I’m not prepared for. As a matter of fact, I’m not prepared for any contingency by design. I packed only a small carry-on for my seven week stay, and most of that consisted of a laptop and some books. My clothing choices are limited to a pair of shorts, underwear, t-shirts, and running gear. Hopefully, this will force me into some delightfully comic situations wherein I try to translate the names of items like “Mach 3 Razor Blades,” “Blackberry Power Cord” and “Weapons Grade Viagra” into Spanish for the benefit of bemused store clerks.

But I’m surprised at how well my Spanish holds up the first day. Enough that, for the first time, when I launch into conversations in Spanish, clerks don’t immediately switch to English with an impatient hand wave. I manage to hail a cab, give directions, ask how long the metro transit strike will continue, and, in a truly amazing linguistic feat, explain to a Mobilstar employee that I’ll be staying in Madrid two months and will need a local SIM card for my Blackberry.

This level of foreign language comprehension is something of a new experience for me, and is deeply weird. But I find myself falling into the familiar rhythms both of Madrid, and of life in a foreign country, where the experience of every action is slightly amplified by its alien nature, its novelty, its difficulty. Unable to walk down the familiar streets of New York in a half-somnolent state, I’m forced to actually pay attention to my surroundings, and find that I enjoy them.

Of course, I’m still without lodgings. I’ve got a hotel room through the weekend, at which point I’ll have to find new digs where I can reliably communicate with my editors via internet. If I can’t manage that by the start of work Tuesday, this trip is going to get cut off prematurely, or life will get extremely interesting. I’m having visions of living in a hostel for the next few weeks while sneaking out to McDonald’s hot spots for hours worth of environmental reporting.

In the meantime, I haven’t had a sit-down meal since lunch Friday. I’m off to find a bocadillo.

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