Sunday noon at Barcelona airport. Nuno and I are coming back from a weekend with his son Francisco and his Catalan wife Mati. We have checked in online but they have large bags. There are tons of people everywhere. Heavily armed policemen patrol the airport – supposedly security is even tighter because of the recent Munich attacks.
While we wait for them to check in we hear a child cry in rage. It’s a girl – around five – who desperately wants something that’s inside a bag, and for some reason her mother will not let her take it out. She cries, she hits her mother, she kicks her – we are all astounded at how calm her mother is, stoically standing all the abuse! Everybody is looking at them and of course we older parents cannot help ourselves and comment something about how “old fashioned education” was good as a child with a tantrum like that would be slapped and eventually shut up. But to slap a child at the airport, in front of the crowd? Finally the girl stopped crying – still without the bag- and her mother tenderly picked her up and held her in her arms. What patience, I thought. But how will the girl know she did wrong and not do that all over again? We all wondered.
Then it was time to go through security, the usual nightmare of taking out our transparent bags with liquids (strictly under 100 ml) and iPads and computers… This time I’m lucky, my bracelets don’t beep. But as I look back Nuno and Francisco have been stopped, they have to be more thoroughly searched. I wonder why but soon Francisco explains it’s all about extra security measures because of what happened in Munich. Nuno waits for a long time before they search him and he is irritated.
Then off we go to the boarding gate, no time for stopping by the bookshop – no need either, I have so many books lined up for holidays. As usual the TAP plane is some minutes late. While they wait in the line I go to the toilets. They are full but fortunately without a queue. As I get into one of the compartments I freeze: there is a small lady’s bag hanging there. I look out for its owner but I see no one looking for a forgotten bag. Immediately I think it may be a bomb. What to do? It doesn’t look like anything strange, probably just someone who came to pee and hung the bag and forgot it… I calm down – but still I hurry. When I get out I’m thinking how in the good old days this would mean nothing, someone would have forgotten their bag and when they realized it they would go back anxiously trying to find it. In this “new world order” I should tell someone working at the airport about this. As I join Nuno and Francisco Nuno says I’m exaggerating but Francisco agrees we should pass on this information. The problem is to find someone from the airport personnel in the middle of thousands of holidaymakers. When he sees one of them – a woman pushing an empty wheelchair – he goes and tells her there is an abandoned bag at the nearby ladies’ toilet. She nods absentmindedly but we both get the impression she was listening but somehow not processing the information. So we stay put, and I hope the next person entering that toilet after me has managed to pass on the information; somehow I think it will be alright, it was such a small bag, I cannot think explosives would fit in there but then what do I know about this sort of stuff?
As we board the plane I’m still thinking about all the passengers that, like us, were calmly waiting to check in and board their planes at Brussels airport and who were suddenly caught up in an explosion. I suddenly recall how it was to travel before 2001, when we could bring our bottles with us without any limitations, when passing security was much less stressful and most of all when we did not panic when we saw a bag without its owner; we simply looked at it for what it was, a forgotten item, and we sympathized with its owner and made a quick wish that he or she would be able to get it back. Now we travel in fear, we have become suspects and suspicious, and it’s getting worse with each attack. And in a matter of weeks, months, everything changes so drastically: only two years ago Nuno and I spent a few days in Istanbul and we felt completely safe, completely at ease, even when walking the streets at night…and now trips and events there are being cancelled and no one wants to go to that beautiful city anymore.
Is this something completely new, or is it that for a few years we thought that we could live without fear? After all, as Mom was saying just the other day, when she lived in London in the late seventies and early eighties the IRA made several attacks in London and it was usual to wake up with news that a bomb had exploded somewhere in the city. Not to mention what happened in Spain with ETA which in addition to exploding bombs used to kidnap high profile people…and that also happened in Italy as well.
As the plane takes off I still think about the bag hanging in the toilet, and I picture its owner missing it and running back there to find it. Hopefully she has got there before the bomb squad arrived. Or not. Probably – hopefully – I’ll never know.