My bank cards had all expired and their replacements sent to my address in Cambridge. My 13 month old Mac Book Pro had seized up in the week after lockdown was declared. And the impending rule of compulsory quarantine for those entering the UK from abroad was approaching. It was a sign that I had overstayed my welcome in Sicily and it was time to return to Cambridge.
Easyjet, RyanAir and British Airways all stopped flying to Sicily before Easter. Only Alitalia – plying the routes Catania to Rome and Rome to London offered a sky-bridge home. Or rather, tickets were still on sale on their website, which, as we have come to learn, is quite a different thing from a guarantee that the flight will depart.
In the days prior to my departure from Sicily, I had developed an obsession for listening out for the occasional plane passing over Milazzo, then checking the flight radar website to identify it. As far as my researches would confirm, Alitalia’s aerial corridor to Sicily was still operating.
But how to get to Catania airport? I am not usually wanting for solutions, but on this occasion, I was stuck. The direct buses were no longer running. The indirect buses and trains were too infrequent to make any combination of them work. A taxi would go against my principles of budget travelling. I deliberated an overnight in Catania, or even sleeping at the airport. Persuading a friend or relative to wake at five in the morning and drive me seemed opportunistic. Eventually, I buckled on my principles and ordered a taxi.
At the end of May, mid-morning, Catania airport would usually be a seething confusion of car-park rummy, brontolating buses, hugging and tearful relatives and trolley-loads of suitcases. Today, the atmosphere more resembled a supermarket forecourt an hour after closing-time. According to the departure board, only four flights were operating all day – three to Rome and one to Lampedusa.
Before passing through security, there was a form to be filled in (in duplicate) and handed to the police. I had to declare my personal details, including the start and end points of my journey and an onward contact number, as well as my familiarity with the consequences of disobeying the recent mobility law.
But I didn’t resent it. Apart from being a potential obstacle to travel, it is also an effective (though perhaps cumbersome) method of contact tracing. The Italians have been doing this since the day they declared the lockdown on 9th March. (I just pity the poor admin assistants who have to process these forms.)
In addition, I was required to state my reason for travel as being one of four options:
- For provable work-reasons
- A dire emergency
- Unavoidable necessity
- Health reasons
No other reason was permitted. Not even: “returning to a place of residence”, “family reasons”, “childcare” – all of which, under a normal course of events in Italy, give licence to virtually anything.
I checked the first. Then, there were six blank lines to be filled in to amplify my motive. Wary of giving too much away in a manner that would then lead to a daisy-chain of unanswerable questions, I also didn’t want to seem flippant.
I penned “operatore turistico in rientro alla sede di lavoro preso capo ufficio, Cambridge, UK” “touristic operator returning to the seat of work at head-office” thinking it sounded plausible enough without being too convoluted. (Even though it was obvious I wouldn’t have been performing any touristic operations in recent days).
Cordoned off by a rope, a picnic table with three policemen seated around it had been set up outside security. A girl checked over my form to ensure I had filled in each section. She lifted the cordon and I was invited to present myself before the triumvirate.
“Buongiorno,” I pronounced assertively as I handed over the sheaf of documentation. They read through my papers. Did I have a payslip that clearly confirmed the address of head office in Cambridge? Fortunately, my reply must have sounded convincing enough as they didn’t ask for further evidence. And when was I planning to return to Italy? My suggestion that I was likely to be gone some time, seemed to assure them. They stamped my papers.
“Buon rientro”. Have a safe return, the policeman smiled as he handed me back the duplicate. I was waved through.
In addition to the usual security, there was the thermal screening camera to pass. But these things have become common in Italy now. Even in February we were having our temperatures taken whilst passing through an airport.
In the departures hall, expectantly enough, all the cafes and shops were closed. But luckily there was a vending machine conveying coffee. I pressed my last euro coin into it and it served me one of the best coffees I’ve had for a long time.
Promisingly enough, the inbound flight from Rome arrived on time, about an hour before it was due to take off again. Furtive and slightly nervous passengers crawled out from all the corners of the departures hall to form a queue and it became apparent the flight would be fuller than I had anticipated. There were perhaps eighty or ninety passengers waiting to board and maintaining a “respectful distance” between us meant the queue traversed almost the entire width of the airport.
But our movement was premature – as just then, the cabin crew of the inbound aircraft stilettoed through the departure lounge towards the pastry shop which, miraculously, had just opened up. Ten minutes later, the hostesses (this being Alitalia, they were all female and gorgeous) traipsed back to the plane with beautifully wrapped boxes of Sicilian sweets and pastries and faces beaming like children who have just been let loose in the playground. The pastry shop had done enough business for the day to justify its opening.
On board, we were seated alternately, with only one person per pair of seats. For whatever reason I know not, but I had been upgraded to business class. The “4L” on my ticket turned out to be more like a hotel suite than a plane seat. Accustomed to a perch on Ryanair, I reclined awkwardly and self-consciously into the leather upholstered couchette.
Arriving in Rome after an otherwise uneventful journey, a fleet of six buses awaited the plane on the airport tarmac. We were kindly asked to remain in our seats, until, row by row, we were invited off to descend the steps and board the shuttle buses. A maximum of 18 passengers were allowed on each shuttle.
Fiumicino airport is one of the world’s great labyrinths. I no longer pass though often enough to remember the layout, but I suspect even for frequent travellers, and perhaps also the workers, finding one’s way around must be like shopping in a Moroccan souk. The signage has improved vastly over the years, and there are also smiling and welcoming facilitators on hand to ask the way. I noticed too, from the adverts, that if you are still confused and don’t want to approach any of the helpful assistants (but why wouldn’t you? they are all so cheerful and radiant), you can download a “find your way” app onto your smart phone.
You still have to walk half a mile, up elevators, down staircases, through tunnels, along conveyor belts, under bridges only to arrive exactly twenty metres from where you started but on the other side of a closed glass door. So be it. Personally, I am grateful to be able to stretch my legs.
On the flight from to London, there were perhaps only two dozen of us, some of whom were returning British Airways crew and the boarding was completed so efficiently that the plane took off twenty minutes early.
We arrived at Heathrow half an hour ahead of schedule and were disgorged into the jet bridge. Feeling relief that that the journey was coming to an end, we padded up the ramp, only to be met at the top by a closed and locked glass door. On the other side was the vast loneliness of abandoned emptiness. There was only a single cleaner, optimistically polishing seats. But the more we banged on the glass, the more resolutely she polished, as if determined not to notice us.
Ten minutes later, a huge matron in high heels and a tight skirt, trotted up from nowhere and flashed a plastic card against the sensor to open the door. It was the first unmasked face I had seen all day and her naked jaw and red lipstick was such a brazen display of nudity, I almost recoiled in discomfort.
After another trek through the urban jungle, we arrived at passport control. There was a big sign saying that temperature screening trials were taking place. But it was only a sign. There was no camera, no control.
Another sign indicated two lanes for arrivals: e-gates for UK, Swiss, American, Korean and Canadian passport holders, normal procedures (and queues) for everyone else and cattle class.
A man in a suit beside the sign was apologetic. The e-gates were not working. We were all cattle-class today.
It was bad luck: a full Dreamliner flight from Sri Lanka had just arrived ahead of us and we were in the queue behind them. Border Force were also evidently short-staffed as only three windows were open.
We have got so used to breezing through e-gates with our electronic passports that talking to a Border Force officer seems like an indignity. But the real affront was actually this lady’s indifference. She hardly even opened my passport. Just tossed it back as if she didn’t want it and let me through. I was longing to tell her that I had successfully made it back to the UK after twelve weeks of near-total isolation in Sicily. But actually she didn’t want to know.
Perhaps it was fair enough. But getting back into Britain felt too easy. I felt short-changed.
Then, outside Heathrow, the warm sunshine – as warm almost as it had been in Sicily the day before, and warmer for sure than Rome – made me forget my grumbles. I headed back to Cambridge.