How scary can an e-passport machine be, really?

Street art. Malaga 2016.

The flight back from Malaga ended in a rather distressing experience at Manchester Airport.

Almost all of my companions on the aeroplane had not grown up with the Internet and whilst technology to me, who had my own computer when I was 6, can sometimes be a bit daunting, to many of my fellow passengers such an exciting and innovative technology as an electronic passport scanner was as terrifying as a mysterious disease or venomous spider.

This isn’t a blog post about doom, so I shan’t concern myself with the idea that maybe these people are right to have such fears. Fear of something complex, especially if it uses your personal data, is understandable. Yet, sometimes we do get carried away with it.

Like in the queue for the e-passport machines

These people had been contentedly sitting in a metal box in the sky for the last couple of hours, and they’d been perfectly fine playing candy crush on their iPads, arguing over the last muffin and dozing gently to the hum of the engines, but once their feet were on the ground and they had to wait in a queue for ten minutes, they became much less bearable.

Jokes are made about the English people’s ability to queue, but I’m not so convinced. Whilst these men and women didn’t push or shove, they weren’t very good about making the experience a pleasant one.

They just kept complaining

The more complaints and worries were aired, the more people didn’t listen to the instructions, or read the instructions, or dare to just stick the damn passport in every way until it worked. I pitied the poor man standing at the front of the e-passport machines who had to repeat himself again and again in his loud, bellowing, increasingly desperate voice. At the back of the queue, the tension increased. More mistakes were made, progress slowed and the queue took longer.

Now I’m not going to say that getting through the e-passport machine is always a smooth adventure, it’s not, but it most certainly isn’t the end of the world. I couldn’t help but think that if there was less complaining and more listening then the queue would move much faster. Yet the queue was stalled by the immense fear associated with scanning your passport and looking at a camera.

When we’re emotional, especially when it’s a feeling like fear that we really don’t want to accept we feel, we react in some truly creative ways. I had underestimated the range of possible complaints. It’s alright complaining about the staff cuts and the impersonal nature of the procedure, but it’s unfair to also expect cheap air fares.

I don’t have much tolerance for complaining

Complaining about immigration, then stating that you’d be better off in the immigration line because there are fewer people waiting in it, and then going on a rant about immigrants when you have a house in Spain also seems rather unconsidered. I found filling out the forms to get my Egyptian visa at Cairo airport stressful enough, I wouldn’t envy doing it with children or for a more complex visa.

Complaining that the queue was much slower now that the people had been replaced with machines also seemed naive. Unless of course you’ve been flying through Manchester Airport, from Malaga, and landing at a time where there was only one plane load of people to be processed, like ours, and only if you’d measured the time taken for the whole plane load of people to pass through passport control then could you really make a comparison. More likely, this wait was more acute because it was the only one currently being experienced. And dear man, you were at the back.

By the time the family ahead of me got to the front of the queue, the oldest lady, presumably the mother or mother-in-law of the chief complainer looked at the machine as if when she stepped into it, she would be gobbled up.

I’m not saying only this one man was complaining, this was most certainly not the case, no, every conversation I heard was a complaint.

Why do we pick a fear and then exacerbate it?

I do not know, but I do know that fear stops us listening. Whilst I’m unafraid of e-passport machines or silence, I am afraid of many things, like being judged as not good enough, conflict, getting my interpretation of people wrong, and disappointing anybody.

Most of the time though, my problem is in recognising that I’m afraid. Fear often appears in disguise.

We rarely dare say to a family member or friend, is this you speaking, or your fear?

Which means most of the time, when if comes to working out why I’m upset or angry or suddenly having a rant about something I didn’t even know I cared about, I have to remind myself to stop and consider what else I’m worrying about. Fear makes me behave irrationally. It limits my ability to be creative and warm. It makes me rather a pain to be with.

This blog post is one big complaint, and I think it’s because I am terrified of life being swept away in mindless negativity. Quite frankly, these people were old. They were stood in the company of their loved ones and were ignoring each other. I waned to point out that standing in the passport control queue might not be the most wondrous place to be, your legs might ache, you might be thirsty, hungry and tired, but each minute that passes is another minute you’re never getting back.

Soon, you die.

Picasso and I

I paid a visit to the Picasso museum in Malaga

He’s not everyone’s favourite artist, but he’s cast a spell upon me. He doesn’t tell you what exactly is going on in his paintings, he makes you work. You can’t just look at a Picasso and think, what is this? A man’s face? He’s got a weird nose and what’s up with his deformed eyes? Next painting.

It’s easy to quickly make many assumptions about what it is we’re looking at, first impressions are given excessive weight because they’re all we have. At least in the beginning. We draw conclusions without knowing we’re doing it, every day, all the time.

I watch them. The people listening to their audio-guide about one painting, whilst walking the length of the gallery staring at the other paintings as they go. I’m sorry, but this isn’t how to get your money’s worth from an art gallery, especially one with paintings as potentially powerful as Picasso’s are. You have to put the work in.

It’s like going to the opera wearing earplugs

There’s one particular picture that resonates with me, but I’m not sure why. I stare at is so long my audio-guide gives up. It resets back to start and asks me to select a language. Some paintings are too painful to look at for too long, others I stare at wide-eyed, grinning like a small child given a chocolate ice-cream with sprinkles and a flake. I already have the feelings. The paintings just act as a map showing me how to feel. All I have to do is be there, with my mind in the present and without too much prior judgement.

I need that map. Sometimes I keep everything I feel so carefully walled in I get stuck trying to decipher how I actually feel.

Picasso’s paintings take you stage through stage of different aspects of emotion

Each one shows you something different about yourself.

How did I learn to stop and look like this? I know that my parents and grandparents taking me to galleries when I was small certainly helped. A little part is schooling, a practical understanding that there are different artists communicating the same messages of love and hurt but through different mediums, different techniques and different perspectives. Life drawing teaches you to focus on what it is that you really see, not just what you believe you see. I know that if I spend two hours staring at the same scene, I’ll see it differently to if you just take a quick glance.

And then there’s my paintings. When I’m just creating with no purpose other than the compulsion to do so, I find myself creating something that tells me more about how I feel that I had been willing to admit.

Other people use music or stories

Yet despite taking the time to wait for a picture to talk to me, when the face is animate, when it’s a real person I’m looking at, my immediate assumptions dictate everything. I leap to conclusions and pretend to myself that I understand, which might well be a useful survival instinct, but when you’ve passed the ‘is this person intending to do me harm’ stage of analysis, these quick conclusions begin doing more harm than good.

Left long enough they begone ingrained as beliefs

It’s impossible to understand all that a person’s face is fighting to tell and hide. You can live with them for many years, and still be stunned by how they behave. The Mother, for example, left my car radio on loud when I collected her from the station one afternoon recently. I would have bet a whole week of washing up on her turning it down. I was wrong.

Picasso can make the simplest construct of a few lines and some bright colours appear to have depth. It isn’t a false depth. It isn’t an illusion. People really aren’t all they appear at first sight. If you want to see depth, you have to be patient, even if it means eventually having to ask for help because your audio guide got bored.

The cathedral with only one arm

Malaga Cathedral
Malaga, March 2016

I took a long time to see the cathedral was lop-sided, even if at one point I lived opposite. I have some excuses. For most hours of the day, the winding streets of the old city are closed to cars. These streets disobey any expectation of straight, parallel or perpendicular planning. Surrounding apartment blocks stand close to each other, so it’s easy to lose sense of which direction you’re facing. There’s a lot going on at street level. Tourists and locals weave between the other sketchers, almond roasters or craftspeople, twisting insects and trees out of wire to sell. There’s the guy who plays the Pink Panther theme on the saxophone and the guitarist who strums out Eric Clapton songs.

So I admit, it’s still kind of embarrassing that it took me so long to work out where the front of the cathedral was. The visitor entrance was large, decorative and surrounded by the cathedral garden. I just assumed it was THE entrance. Here, women sat on the ground, wrapped in shawls holding out an empty paper cup for a couple of coins. This wasn’t however the main entrance. That’s around the corner, fenced off. If the great gates were to open, people would walk out onto a large square where I sat and drank a café con leche and ate salty popcorn which failed to persuade this stingy sketcher to buy more drinks.

Malaga Cathedral

When you climb up to the top walls of the Alcazaba, the Moorish palace, there’s an excellent view of the city, this includes the odd, single cathedral tower. Like all normal cathedrals the architectural plans ask for symmetry. In the case of the Malaga cathedral this would mean a second tower. The architect planned it, but nobody ever built it.

Unlike the Sagrada Familia, here in Barcelona, which is moving towards completion, the cathedral in Malaga is an unfinished project. There’s little hope of continuation. The citizens of the city, and the tourist industry’s marketing people, affectionately call the cathedral ‘La Manquita’ or ‘the one-armed one’.

Building a cathedral is an expensive undertaking. The sort of project that historically took lifetimes. Sometimes when it comes to such big projects people become distracted and spend their money elsewhere. The Malaga people donated the money for the second tower to the British colonies in America. They supported the fight for independence (according to the sign in the cathedral). And possibly, less excitingly, also on building a road (according to Wikipedia).

Maybe, if it had been completed, I might have forgotten visiting. It would be easy the blend it with all the other cathedrals and churches I’ve visited. There needs to be something striking about the experience to make it memorable.

Yet in March when I was living beside it, I felt a strange fondness for the building. Can you empathise with a building? I don’t know. I can’t forget it. Its asymmetry and story make me smile because it’s imperfect, just like all of us.

Malaga Cathedral

Sketching at the Teatro Romano Malaga

Teatro Romano Malaga
Teatro Romano, Malaga 2016.

There’s a spot  where you can sit on a wall at the edge of a vibrant plaza, overlooking the remains of the Teatro Romano Malaga. The towers of Alcazaba look down at the commotion on the ground. Small children run giddy as their parents natter unconcerned. Quite often from the far side of the plaza you can hear the street sellers laugh. They’re working with their hands, making jewellery or bending and snapping wire into the shapes of trees and small animals.

Teatro Romano Malaga
Sketchbook. Malaga 2016.

Sometimes there’s a man whose Michael Jackson puppet dances to Billy Jean, amusing the people pouring out of the narrow alley that leads away from the Picasso museum. Or other times a group of musicians playing, including a rich saxophone which makes me smile every time I hear it. They laugh at each other, not worrying when one stops playing to talk to a passer-by. The music flows.

I sketch. The sun is warm. I have strawberries (which I share with a passing homeless chap), a carton of orange juice and just perhaps a handful of chocolate digestive biscuits.

In the evening, slightly further down the street another man plays the saxophone alone. When I’m walking (or running) home from the port or the beach, he’s always there, always playing the Pink Panther as I pass.

The restaurants overflow. It’s February, but people huddle together outside, comfortable in the glow of the electric heaters. Large, round wine glasses kiss with a chime. Hours slip by unnoticed.

It’s the sort of place where it’s easy to practice living in the moment.

‘Just arrived’ travel anxieties…

…and an irrational battle with the contents of the suitcase, in which there was no clear champion

Street art, Malaga, Spain
Street art. Malaga 2016.

Time to take a deep breath.

I’m many miles from where I woke up this morning. After a bout of being home in England, and feeling comfortable in my surroundings, I find myself face to face with a large mirror I’ve never seen before reflecting back a room which until a couple of hours ago, I’d never entered.

The clothes are the same. They’re flung haphazardly across an unfamiliar bed as if war broke out of the suitcase. It’s the electric plug converter’s fault. It was hiding. Then it took me so long to find the light switch I started to worry I was going mad.

What sort of room has its only light switch nowhere near the door?

Part of my grouchiness is a lack of sleep. It’s very rare I cannot sleep, but the night before I fly it’s guaranteed. I keep on waking and prodding my phone to see the clock, paranoid that I’m going to miss my flight. You would have thought with the amount of flying I’ve done recently I’d get over this.

It’s ironic that the time I came closest to missing the flight I actually arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. So much time that I treated my sister to a proper breakfast. We relaxed, started chatting about our plans and lo and behold when we finally thought to look at the screen our flight to Vienna was being boarded.

None of my many alarms failed me this morning, but it was still dark and cold outside all the same and I still awoke, worrying, many times throughout the night.

It’s hard to remember that worry is entirely internally generated and unnecessary once when there’s a multitude of different alarms on different devices all set.

Arriving in Malaga, making sure the Internet works on my phone, finding an ATM and cursing as it’s stingy about the ratio of paper to Euros was all fine.

As a side note, I listened to a podcast the other day that pointed out that just because you arrive at an airport you don’t have to rush through it, you can sit down and catch your breath for a while. You don’t have to leap right into the stream of people amassed outside the arrival hall. I consider this wise advice.

I was also fine getting the bus and even in hopping off at the right stop. A version of ‘fine’ from the newer version of the Italian Job.

John Bridger: Fine? You know what “fine” stands for, don’t you?

Charlie Croker:  Yeah, unfortunately.

JB: Freaked out…

CC: Insecure…

JB: Neurotic…

CC: And Emotional.

JB: You see those columns behind you?

CC: What about them?

JB: That’s where they used to string up thieves who felt fine.

CC: After you.

The Italian Job

A few hours later I’m in a different state of mind

The most important stuff has been extracted from the suitcase. I’ve had a cup of tea (there’s a packet of PG Tips here?) wandered outside – without following the commands of an electronic map around each corner or dragging my suitcase behind me.  I find a statue of a friendly chap playing what looks to me like a tambourine. He seems ever so jolly.

chap playing tamborine, Malaga
Tambourine man. Malaga 2016

It feels like someone caring put together this place. Someone with an eye for detail. There are random bits of coloured tiles mashed together. It is beautiful. Floral decorations accentuate balconies and I can’t help but think that Cairo could learn a lot from the brightly coloured shutters.

I like shutters. Places with sunshine have shutters. It’s a promising sign.

Big paintings on public walls draw your eye. But so do the small flourishes on signs and doorways. Minor amusements, like the clinic for bicycles amuse me. Cambridge has one of these and both the one here and the one there have half a bicycle stuck up on the wall. Spain isn’t that far away really.

Picasso was born here

I’m excited to step outside with my sketchbook and grateful for my paints. But not tonight.

I’m feeling happier by the time I’ve bought pasta. I shocked myself by understanding that the woman at the till was asking if I wanted a carrier bag ‘bolsa’, because it’s so similar to the Italian ‘borsa’, even without her pointing or holding out a bag (yes I know it’s a guessable question at the check-out, but still, you’ve got to appreciate the little achievements).

My spoken Spanish is non-existent, but how much I can read is a pleasant surprise. Context of course is everything.

I buy vegetables in the greengrocers

I stare at the courgette and the cucumber wondering which is which before making a random choice. I get back to the apartment in time to Skype my sister and tell her I’m well. I discover it is indeed a courgette as I hoped.

This span of travelling comes with a purpose. I’m in the city centre. My room is spacious, indeed is contains a substantive desk at which I now sit and a double bed where I shall sleep. I have books, my notebooks and a clear plan for writing. To find restaurants and bars, or a plaza with sculptures, benches and coffee shops takes no more than a minute or two, it’s all just outside my front door.

Malaga is a different colour to England

More tints than tones. Travel pours images and characters into my imagination, without which there would be no stories begging to be written. A woman harvesting herbs from her balcony. A child with his whole body pressed up against a glass pyramid twice his height, staring down through it into the Roman remains below the street.

What’s more, I’m not rushed. I’ve got plenty of time to explore my surroundings, and plenty of time to sit still.

Sitting still is important too

It’s easy to talk about writing without actually putting a pen to paper, or to put a pen to paper and be prolific with the word count but stingy with the produce or quality. Well-meaning isn’t enough in practice. You can be well-meaning and still wreak havoc.

If you can’t read what I write, it doesn’t count

My routine is broken. I’m here, free, and that means there can be no excuses and no complaints. I’ve got pages and pages of draft material that deserves a second look. My job here is to refine it and learn something from it. There’s space in my mind. Everything slows down to accommodate this shift of pace and I stare around me with wonder.

The slower pace suits my writing.

The to-do list doesn’t matter.