Flying Down to Palermo

On Thursday 28 June, 2000, I was travelling to attend a wedding…

Luckily, I arrive at Heathrow airport unexpectedly early. Why luckily? I find out that my flight to Fiumicino is already running half an hour later than scheduled and Alitalia won’t check me through for the Palermo connection because I might not make it. I refuse to check in at all and hold onto my baggage. The wedding is less than 24 hours away. I call Alessandro, who is supposed to be meeting me in Rome so that we can travel on to Palermo together. By this time, Alitalia inform me that my first flight is delayed by an hour and a half. I will get to that damn wedding; I am determined. I ring Alitalia from the customer service phone; unsurprisingly, they don’t want to answer. I become increasingly persistent and assertive with the aid of the lovely Laura (BAA Customer Services). I repeat and repeat that I will NOT stay in a hotel in Rome to a laddish Alitalia lad who tells me I could have a wonderful night there, ‘a single woman, alone in Rome’. I hold my temper, just. Now, two hours into my time in the terminal, Laura the lovely (who, I have become convinced, has it in for Alitalia) has found me an Alitalia customer service feedback form (these have, hitherto, been hidden from plain sight). She hands me the paper with the encouragement to ‘let it all out’. Form completed and submitted, my name, with two others, is announced with the message – ‘Report to Alitalia Customer Service at Gate 1 immediately’. The nonchalant-sounding voice betrays fears of a stampede. The three of us are now transferred from the Fiumicino flight to the Malpensa flight, which is itself running one hour late. We are spirited away before other Fiumicino passengers can find out that we have taken the last three seats on the Malpensa flight. Our bags are going in the cabin, there’s no time to put them in the hold and we all have connecting flights out of Milan – ‘you will need to run’, we are told. Several Alitalia ground staff come up to me – ‘In bocca al lupo!’ they exclaim, smiling and patting me on the back. (It’s a phrase I was to become very used to hearing). I manage to get a call through to Alessandro in Turin before being shepherded onto the aircraft. Once aboard, in seat 32B, I am kept sane by my new-found, good-looking, amusing travelling companions in seats 32A (from Trieste) and C (from Ancona). 32A assures me that Alitalia will be late out of Malpensa to Palermo and that I shouldn’t concern myself with running through the airport – all will be well. I do, of course, not believe him. He is, of course, right. As soon as we land, I check the gate for the Palermo connection, pick up my bags, kick off my shoes, and sprint; collapsing at the gate, I’m told there’s another hour’s delay. That flight, when it does take off, reminds me that Sicilians are a breed apart and that, in fact, I am really leaving Italy after my brief dash through Malpensa. This feeling is reinforced on landing at Palermo just after midnight. I have beaten Alessandro from Turin by an hour, his waiting family wash over me and I’m gone. Gone into a swell of hugs, embraces, kisses, food, drink, scent and sweat – until I come up to catch my breath and glimpse the disdainful faces of the Piedmontese guests on the northern shore of their superiority. Tomorrow, we’ll all be drunk together at the wedding but, for now, Palermo is another country, they do things differently here.

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