Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Heil Helmut

Modern-day Germans simply do not conform to the longstanding stereotype of the authoritarian personality. As on my previous (and first) trip to Germany, I’ve found it a pleasant surprise – indeed a revelation – that Germans are for the most part pretty laid back.

Where is the tyrannical train conductor, the overbearing policeman, the scary passport official, the stentorian shopkeeper? Where is the ubiquitous, unsmiling “Helmut” to tell you that your attempted behavior “is forbidden” or to castigate you for not sitting in your assigned seat? My goodness, here in Germany you can even jay-walk with total impunity.

Passport control for our flight to a non-EU country was a little booth just outside our departure lounge. It was also right across a narrow walkway from the restrooms. This made for a chaotic queue, as folks seeming to be on line would abruptly duck into the restroom, or people emerging from the restroom seemed to be forming part of (or cutting into) the line. Not to mention those needing simply to pass through the corridor to other gates. The setup seemed to lend itself to espionage, and for a passing moment I wondered whether my own trip to the restroom placed me under suspicion.

But it was all so caz! Even more casual was the boarding process. Without the benefit of an announcement, it became apparent that it was time to line up at the gate because the passengers – first a trickle, then building into a general flood – began to get up from their seats in the departure lounge and crowd toward the jetway entrance. “Lining up” does not in anyway describe the procedure. It was not even what Calvin Trillin has called a “French queue” (a triangle with its base at the service counter). It was more like taking a corked bottle halfway filled with marbles and flipping it over. We cascaded down toward the choke-point (the barred jetway entrance) until we formed a tight matrix. What stopped people from cutting in front of you was not any sort of queue-courtesy, but mere physics.

Only then was our flight announced, together with a call for “preboarding” – the usual call for “passengers with small children and those in need of special assistance.” I saw no elderly or disabled person, but the matrix of marbles shuddered as the largest influx of “passengers with young children” I’ve ever seen on an airplane flight forced their way forward. “Small children” was spaciously construed to include anyone below their teens. Not that there weren’t infants galore, along with large car seats and massive baby bags. It was apparent that this “pre-board” would fill half the plane – it was as if Noah’s ark were “pre-boarded” with a call for “all creatures with four legs or more.”

I should point out that this flight was one of those European budget airlines – “German Wings” – which uses unassigned, first-come/ first-served seating. A boarding priority is theoretically assigned by numbering each boarding pass sequentially, starting with #1, based on time of check-in. And B, who adeptly plays the angles in travel situations, had gotten us boarding passes #1 and #2 by checking in on line the day before.

This splendid coup was undermined somewhat by the “pre-boarding” process, and took another hit with the next announcement – “we will now board passengers with boarding passes number 1 through 30.” But our boarding advantage disappeared entirely when it became plain that no one was bothering with boarding pass numbers – not the passengers, not the ticket-takers. The cork was simply removed from the bottle, and the marbles rolled out and onto the plane.

Well, more accurately, onto the tarmac. I guess “jetway” was a misnomer, since it was just a staircase, and we passengers were directed to the plane by a sequence of traffic cones and airport workers hopefully placed to avoid unfortunate collisions with tarmac vehicles, baggage handlers and running jet turbines.

Where is Helmut when you need him? He might have been quite useful up to this point. It was then, as we stepped onto the plane, that our craving for order got the better of us, and B politely and foolishly asked the male flight attendant whether our rolling bag “would fit in the overhead compartment.” A foolish question because it’s a bag designed to fit into any normal-sized overhead compartment and a quick look down the aisle would have revealed two dozen instances of passengers with much larger and heavier baggage: heart-attacks- and back-injuries-waiting-to-happen that they were manhandling into the overhead bins. Our bag, at 20-22 lbs, was no heavier than my book-and-laptop filled napsack.

“No,” said the flight attendant in crisp German-accented English, “it is far too heavy. You will have to place it under the seat in front of you.”

I’ve never understood this instruction, which is always given but, sensibly, never enforced on U.S. flights, since the space under the seat in front of you is about the same size as that in the overhead bin. So B quite sensibly ignored the instruction, and when she got halfway down the plane to the exit row, put the bag in the overhead bin, and plopped down into the window seat.

Before I could even get my napsack up there, the flight attendant was on me.

“You cannot put your luggage up there!” He was positively vibrating with restrained fury. I quickly inspected his face for veins about that might be about to burst. “I have told you this, yet you have done so anyway. This is not okay!”

I had finally found him. It was none other than Helmut, the authoritarian German. So good was he at his role that he could make the phrase “not okay” sound very threatening indeed, and I began to worry that he would put us off the plane.

“I’m... sorry...” I stammered. A female flight attendant quickly whisked us and our offensive bag toward the back of the plane. She ended up having the bag checked into the cargo hold. B asked why our bag was a problem when all those others....

“I do not understand him,” said the female flight attendant.

Nor I. If only Helmut could be trained to work for rational order...

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