“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

André Gide, Les faux-monnayeurs, 1869–1951

The plane came to a halt, and the engines died. I assumed, in an effort to save energy and gasoline, that the pilot had chosen to turn off every possible drain on his electrics and fuel. The air conditioning shut down, and the cabin lights were switched off. 

Almost immediately, the aeroplane became hot and stuffy and increasingly uncomfortable. I peered out of my nearest window to try and get some bearings, but could see nothing except for, in the distance, a line of trees. On the other side of the aisle, my fellow passengers were looking out, but I couldn’t see past their shoulders to establish whether or not there were any buildings in sight.

It took about a quarter of an hour for anything to happen. Then I saw two cars pull up next to the aircraft, and from somewhere out of sight, a mobile stairway was produced and put up against the side of the plane. Our door was opened by a flight attendant, but any hope that this would be accompanied by cool, fresh air was dashed when it became clear that one of the reasons that the cabin was so stuffy was that the temperature outside was even more uncomfortably hot.

From the cars, up the stairs and into the aircraft climbed three characters straight out of Central Casting. Broad, Slavic-looking, grim faces, raincoats and homburg hats, they came up the aisle looking from side to side, glaring at each passenger as if to seek out an enemy of the State. 

There had been no welcoming message over the intercom that I could identify, and there was certainly no hint of welcome in the faces of these three men as they traversed the aircraft. Apparently satisfied that, at least outwardly, there was no Western spy on board, the three about-turned, descended the stairs and returned to their cars, which drove off. 

However, any assumption that this meant that we were now free to disembark was clearly unfounded, since we then waited a further quarter hour without any progress at all, it seemed, being made.

I sat back and thought about our situation. It had been agreed that I should travel to Romania with my mother rather than Carmel, but meeting my mother at Heathrow had been a shock. She was dreadfully overweight. I knew that many heavy smokers who gave up smoking found it difficult to keep control of their weight, but my mother was now in a different league. She was clearly finding it difficult even to walk anywhere at a reasonable pace, and she didn’t look particularly happy carrying her one, thankfully small, suitcase.

There was nothing I could say. I was grateful that she had immediately jumped at the chance to come to Romania with me, but I wondered to myself whether she knew what was ahead of us both. I, of course, had no idea, but I doubted that it would be easy and I was immediately concerned that she might not be able to cope.

Language was probably not going to be a major problem – it was already clear from the signs on the plane and from my limited research that French was the second language of most Romanians. I knew my mother was pretty good at languages, and I had spent a summer vacation en famille in southern France when I was a teenager, learning to speak the language or, effectively, starve. No, it wasn’t communication which troubled me, it was the ability to get around.

We had made ourselves as comfortable as possible on the plane, which, mercifully,  was only a little more than half full, and although leg room was extremely cramped, both she and I were able to sit with empty seats on either side of us.

During the flight itself, we had had a foretaste of the deprivation which we were to witness at first hand. It was a small example, but a telling one. The in-flight catering was clearly a resource which Tarom, the state airline, could not afford to purchase outside Romania, and consequently the passengers were treated to the sight of a tea trolley advancing up the aisle bearing a battered metal tea urn. With the cup of tea, assuming one accepted it, the stewardess offered us a piece of stale bread and a small piece of ham. My mother declined it, while I nibbled at the bread and drank the tea. 

While we waited on the tarmac, I took a longer look at my mother. She had slept for most of the flight, but had not looked particularly comfortable. I tried to convince myself that the cause was the relatively spartan aircraft and the increasing stuffiness inside the cabin rather than anything more fundamental, but I wasn’t convinced. 


Finally, as we endured the mounting heat, an ancient single-decker bus wheezed up and pulled to a halt at the aircraft steps, and with apparent reluctance, the flight attendants invited us to move out of the aeroplane.

My mother and I were lucky enough to be close to the front of the cabin, and so we found a place on the bus in the first tranche of passengers to be released from the plane. When it became clear that one bus was not enough, our unhappy fellow travellers had to remain in the cabin while we were taken to the terminal and disgorged to allow the bus to return.

This achingly slow pace gave me an opportunity to survey the terminal before we entered. Towering above us was a rather unpleasant-looking large cube made, it seemed, either of wood or with wood facings and a significant amount of dirty glass. It had all the appearance of one of the worst examples of 60s’ brutalism. It did not exude menace – it was simply thoroughly unpleasant.

Eventually, joined by the remaining passengers, we entered the building in a bedraggled crocodile, through the beginnings of the arrivals hall, to collect our luggage. We moved, in single file, past a cubicle which appeared to house some sort of border control. Each of us proffered our passport, and, almost unseen behind the glass partition, an official stamped it, without appearing to take the least interest in its contents. 

We moved on, through a small door into a cramped area which was almost devoid of light. I couldn’t see any form of carousel, but eventually, an official switched on an elderly angle-poise lamp and pulled the cord of a petrol generator, which struggled into life with something of a clatter. This appeared to power an ancient conveyor belt behind a rubber screen, and slowly, to the sound of a dreadful rattling, suitcases began to push through the screen onto a set of metal rollers which themselves came in a straight line down the centre of the room toward the waiting passengers.

In the gloom, I  could make out suitcases, baby-walkers, boxes – the usual detritus from a disembarkation. Each passenger who recovered his or her belongings was given a cursory check by bored-looking Customs officials who, with a piece of chalk, would make a faint mark on whatever possessions were produced to them, after which they and, in due course, we, emerged into the main hall of the terminal.


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