I haven’t written anything on this blog for a long time but was recently moved to write something about just how stressful I find traveling. This idea occurred to me at 3am on a transatlantic flight between Boston and Heathrow wedged between the 'Patient Zero' for some kind of new (but as yet unidentifiable) disease and a Jehovah’s witness perusing her copy of The Watchtower under a searing bright light for the duration of the night flight. The throaty coughing and inescapable omniscient glow of nauseating religious iconography was topped off with a high frequency back massage by a small tubby American child called Corey. This nightmarish travel situation reminded me vaguely of one of the paintings of Hell by Hieronymus Bosch. Indeed, I would call this new 10th level of hell ‘Stelios’: a place where those who inflict unnecessary pain and discomfort on fellow travelers, the slow walkers and chanting football fans of the world, would be condemned to an eternal holding pattern over Heathrow to have their spines tenderized by imps wearing iron horseshoes.
Four hours into the flight I began to think about why I find travel so stressful. The truth is there are several things about me as an individual that tend to contribute to my miserable time during transit. I have narrowed down my afflictions to two main characteristics with nomenclature that I shall explain below: (i) The Bean Constant, and (ii) The Hugh Grant Effect.
The Bean Constant. Firstly, technology seems to fail around me, often at the point when it is most needed. It’s as if I intermittently generate some kind of localised Electro Magnetic Pulse which causes any piece of technology more sophisticated than a tooth pick to go barmy. I currently work as a Psychology student in a sleep lab and, when I can get the DVD player working, I will watch multiple Mr. Bean episodes with participants during the ‘wire-up’ process (I spend about 30-40 minutes attaching various sensors to their heads before they sleep). As if I wasn’t sick enough of Bean’s rubbery little face after the 60th viewing, one particular episode keeps cropping up that tragically reminds me of myself.
In this episode (Ep. 11, Back to School Mr. Bean*) Bean is involved in an unfortunate incident at a school open day involving a Van de Graaff machine (a device that makes your hair stick up with static electricity). Bean becomes turbo charged with some kind of electrostatic aura and subsequently any electronic items around him start to misbehave. I too suffer from what I call The Bean Constant (2.15 in the vid below).
When I’m around airport tram cars will catch on fire, departure lounge information will glitch, ticket machines won’t take my money, and twitter tends to post in triple all my tweets whining about the above. These are all events that actually happened on my recent trip to Boston. Indeed, the hydraulics for the plane walkway failed when we arrived on a transfer flight to Heathrow making ungodly noises, as if King-Kong himself was trying to couple with the front docking door. British Airways being British Airways started playing classical music loudly over the intercom to divert our attention from the unseemly malfunctions going on outside, giving the whole situation a Titanic-esque vibe. In the end we had to exit the plane using some stairs and walk across the tarmac like savages.
The Hugh Grant Effect. Secondly, when faced with authority figures at the airports, in fact anyone in uniform really, I tend to have a little English meltdown. My travel companion in Boston recently likened the phenomenon to what he called the Hugh Grant Effect, or ‘Granting’. Like Hugh Grant I stutter, stammer, say ‘I’m terribly sorry’, often for no discernible reason, and twist my face into various beta chimp contortions which tend to make things far worse with the more militant customs officials who pray on weakness.
Below follows an exemplar transcript of what might be considered a typical exchange:
Silverback Customs Official: ‘Where you going to sir?’
Me [avoidant eye contact, pale, grinning]: ‘I….I’m sorry?’
SCO: ‘Where are you staying in Boston?’
Me: ‘I….I….I….I….I…I…I………………………..I think it’s the Constitution Inn.’
SCO: ‘You think?’
Me: ‘Sorry…I KNOW it’s the constitution Inn. I know. With all my heart sir.’
SCO: [furrows chimp brow] ‘Can I have your passport, sir?’
Me: ‘Oh…I…sorry…here…terribly sorry. So sorry.’ [hands over passport with head bowed and palm up] ‘Sorry.’
SCO: [grunts, then looks at me then the passport five or six times]
Me [sweating, patches soaking through t-shirt, grinning like a lunatic]: ‘My… hair like that…hair looked like that…when…when I was a student…bloody ridiculous if you ask me! HAHAHA’ [quick 360 of head to see if anyone else is joining in the merriment].
SCO: ‘Okay sir, after the scanner to your right head on over to gate B32 at the end’
Me [surprised]: I…I…Tha…Thank….THANKyou….ThankYOU….Y
This ‘Granting’ effect may help Huey get the ladies in his films but when a real person ‘Grants’ it becomes the mark of a loon. This probably triggers more red flags than a communist cheerleading squad when they see someone like me twitching and grinning my way through customs.
Perhaps my worst personal case of Granting occurred in 2008 when I was on the border between Canada and America. I was getting a grilling by a massive American Customs official. He looked like the sort of person who would grind all those who gave him unsatisfactory answers to his questions into protein shakes, which he would then later drink from a star spangled flagon while doing curls with the leftover luggage. He also had a large dog with him that smiled at me and not in a good way. My nerves were not helped by the additional fact I was carrying all the alcohol of my traveling party. I was the only one over 21 you see, but also in hindsight there are still legal limits for the amount of alcohol one person can take through customs.
After the boozy cat was somewhat out of the bag and sprawled across the customs search bench he grunted at me a rapid barrage of questions: ‘Who are you with?’, ‘Where are you going?’, ‘What is the purpose of your visit?’. All of a sudden he asked me: ‘Why are your Jeans ripped?’. I looked down. My Jeans were indeed ripped as I thought it was fashionable at the time. My response, for reasons I don’t think I will ever fully understand, was this: ‘I….they….it’s all the more easy for you to search me officer’ [flutters eyelashes]. His monobrow twitched with barely concealed surprise at my response, and I could hear the cogs in his head whirring away, pondering the age old thespian question: ‘to bum search or not to bum search?’. He let me through unmolested in the end but I was half expecting a slap on my arse as I walked through the scanner. Never flirt with customs officials. Ever.
I could go on about other issues I have with traveling. I could, for example, talk about the fact that there always seems to be a weirdo on whatever mode of transport I am on (be it plane, train or automobile). They will end up talking exclusively to me, wild eyed about their sponsorship of a tamed badger breeding programme in the Galapagos or something. I could mention about how much I hate the horrible crystal maze style dash through airports when trying to catch a connecting flight complete with the theme tune running in an intrusive loop in my head. I could complain about my natural ability to shuffle all my important travel documents in a dispersal pattern across every pocket in my body leading to a weird ‘self-touch' fumble routine at various check points, like I am trying to reach second base with myself. All these gems will have to wait, though, until I have checked myself out of the Bear-Gyrills recovery clinic for traumatized travelers.
*Some Bean Scholars suggest this is the reason he has trouble operating his television in episode 4 ‘Mr. Bean Goes to Town’. This incident however, in terms of continuity, appears to occur before the Van De Graff incident in episode #11. Others argue that Mr. Bean’s antics have no sequential canon and that all of the episodes are interchangeable as evidenced by the inconsistent size of his teddy after the Laundromat incident in the episode #12 ‘Tee off Mr. Bean’ and subsequent episodes thereafter. Some Bean scholars have even gone as far to argue that it there is no official Bean canon and that all the extra stuff, such as the Mr. Bean cartoons and comic relief specials, occupy the same universe in a non-sequential manner. I would describe these people as anarchists.