Last night i had terrible nightmares about having to take the early morning train with the bass. Our rush-hour experience yesterday had been special, to say the least. I have to drop off the bass at Narita Airport today, and there are only two Narita Express trains per day that make the trip from Omiya to the Airport: one in the morning around 9, and another one in the evening. Like last year i want to leave the bass at the airport one day early, so tomorrow we can travel light. Well, “light” still means all the rest of our luggage and the violins…
Also, Tobias wants to fly back to Shanghai today. His return flight was originally scheduled for tomorrow as well, but he called the China Eastern Airlines Shanghai branch and they told him he could change his flight to today.
So once again we have to get up early because we’re taking the 7.15 from Minami-Urawa to Omiya, where we will board the Narita Express. But since today we’re travelling in the opposite direction from Tokyo, and only very few people commute from Minami-Urawa to Omiya, there is no problem whatsoever to get on the train with all our stuff. Nightmares for nothing.
At Omiya we have breakfast, then we go to the platform where we’re all alone to wait for the train. This makes me a bit uneasy. Maybe we’re on the wrong platform? But the announcements confirm that this is where we have to be.
No change in our routine of getting up early: this morning it’s 5 am when the alarm goes off. We walk to Minami-Urawa station for the last time, with the red suitcase that contains two violins, with our backpacks and the Viola d’Amore, and with our memories of a fascinating two and a half weeks.
At Omiya we have to catch the Airport bus. When we fly back to Belgium we always take the bus for our return trip to Narita Airport, because morning rush hour on the railways is often disturbed by “personal injuries”. We can’t afford to be late at the airport. After our last Japanese breakfast at Omiya Station, we’re still early enough to catch the 6.30 instead of the 6.45 we originally booked.
We plunge into the morning traffic. At this hour the highways are full already. We arrive at the airport at 9, pick up the bass (to my great relief it’s still there, safe and unharmed), and we proceed to the check-in at the airport’s North Wing. We’re lucky to be there so early. There’s practically nobody yet. We squeeze some more of our things into the big suitcase with the two violins, so our hand luggage is lighter and easier to handle, and then we go to the Aeroflot counter. As soon as we’re there, the queue behind us starts to grow exponentially. In no time there are hundreds of travelers waiting to check in. I feel sorry for them, because we know from experience that checking in the bass will take a lot of time. This is Narita, not Zaventem.
As usual, we’re met with curiosity and suspicion when we arrive at the counter with this enormous white case. The Aeroflot lady seems to be under the impression that the bass is extra luggage, on top of our suitcases, but she softens up when she understands that this is it. This IS our luggage: we only have the bass and the red suitcase. Still, the bass case is precisely measured up and weighed, so as to determine the extra cost for oversized luggage (in Brussels they’re always a bit more easy-going. They just weigh it, but for the measurements a rough estimate is enough). I have to pay something like 200 Euros, then i take the instrument to Security Control where it’s X-rayed. It makes me wonder how this compares to the radioactivity the bass has had to endure in Fukushima. I leave the case in the hopefully capable hands of the airport staff. Then the Viola d’Amore is thoroughly checked for size and contents as well, to see if we can take it along in the airplane. No problem.
In Japan regulations are taken seriously and there is little or no leeway for personal initiative on the part of employees. At the next counter a passenger is getting all worked up about a luggage problem: “This is ridiculous. I’ve been doing it like this for three years already, and in all the airports of the world it’s no problem. But here in Japan”… and so on and so on. You know the style. But the Japanese clerk doesn’t budge and he’s not in the least intimidated by the shouting foreigner. “I’m sorry Sir, international regulations don’t allow it, and i cannot go against regulations”. I find myself secretly admiring his cool against the verbal shrapnel. I always have a soft spot for the underdog.
Our Gate is number 24, and we say good-bye to Tobias. He’s due to fly to Shanghai later this afternoon, from Terminal 2. It’s been good to have him with us, and i’m happy i was with him when he was feeling so sick. Having raised two children practically by myself from the ages of 2 and 4 onwards, i’ve become a mother almost just as much as a father. With hindsight, it’s been one of the greatest blessings of my life.
After the Security and Emigration checkpoints we have some time for Udon noodles. There’s free WiFi so we can check mails and slowly and reluctantly start reconnecting with the home-front reality.
On the flight to Moscow (almost exactly 5.000 miles in 10 hours) we have daylight during the entire journey. I fall asleep several times for what seems no more than a few minutes. I’m exhausted and i have a splitting headache, but two Woody Allen movies and a documentary about Robin Hood help me through the day.
Our landing at Sheremetyevo is very shaky again. As the plane hits the ground (and “hits” is the right word to describe it) it suddenly veers to the right very violently, then to the left again, before it finds a steady course. It leaves us all gasping for breath. I’m beginning to have second thoughts about flying.
We have a few hours to spend before our flight to Brussels. I get one cup of coffee and a glass of water in exchange for 10 Euros, a bit steep, i find. We’re supposed to board at Terminal E, but we can’t find it where we expect it to be, between D and F. Instead it’s hidden somewhere in a side corridor. As in all modern airports, at regular intervals there are these glass cubicles where smokers can voluntarily gas themselves. It’s a very strange sight, something for a Fantasy or S.F. movie, and i can’t help feeling pity for them.
It’s getting dark as we board our last plane. It’s 9 pm. The airport is covered in a thin layer of fresh snow. Inside the plane the safety instructions are given in the old-fashioned way with a steward showing all the necessary movements and gestures. On our last plane we had to watch the filmed instructions on our little screens – accompanied by this ridiculous, moronic background soundtrack that is so loud all you want to do is to switch the damn thing off. Some radio stations (Flemish Radio, not too name it) give traffic information in the same way, with a soundtrack that is so intrusive and annoying it makes it impossible to concentrate on the traffic message itself. Makes me wonder who is the genius who came up with this idea.
I always feel a bit sorry for the air hostess or the steward who stands there in the middle of the airplane corridor with absolutely nobody paying any attention whatsoever (except maybe in the case of a hostess, when most male passengers will want to “check her out” for a few seconds before losing interest again).
Today however, it’s a sturdy-looking Russian bear with sad, tired eyes, and nobody takes notice. I wonder how his day was. It’s evening now, maybe he’s had a long, rough day already. Now he’s going through the motions before an uninterested audience, like a musician who can’t find a way to connect to his listeners. Here too, as in classical music, he has to stick to the score. Not much improvisation or personal interpretation is allowed, although he seems to pull the cord of the yellow inflatable vest with a tad more vehemence than i’m accustomed to seeing from the stewardesses. As if he were human after all, and this is his only possible revenge for the passengers’ blatant lack of empathy – apart from spitting in their coffee, of course.
Through the plane’s porthole i can see heaps of dirty, shoveled snow by the side of the runway. Still winter here in Russia. It’s pitch dark now, the airco is blowing cold air from below the seats and freezing my feet and lower legs. I have that cold-sweat feeling i always get inside airplanes, feeling hot and cold at the same time.
We taxi for a long, long time to the departure runway, and once again the many sights, sounds and smells, the feelings and emotions of this tour play a roll-and-tumble blues in my mind. There’s so much to digest, it will take time before the dust settles down. As soon as we land in Brussels, it’ll be back to business as usual: tomorrow i’m rehearsing the Beethoven Septet, for which i first have to change the gut strings to steel on my second bass. After Beethoven it’s back to gut again for a Concertino at La Monnaie with my Ensemble Per Questa Bella Mano (Rossini, Dragonetti and our beloved Paganini), then there’s the next concert of the orchestra to prepare. In the meantime i have to organise my many hastily scribbled notes from the iPod and from a couple of note-books, and the hundreds of pictures into something that resembles a coherent story for this blog. Reviewing and reliving the experience is bound to become an emotional task, but i have to do it now, in the next few days and weeks, before the memories fade.
This airport is really enormous. In the distance i can see a myriad of lights in various colours. The’re yellow, red green, blue-ish white. Some of them flash rythmically, i guess those are other airplanes that have just landed or that are waiting to fly. There’s a queue on our runway: two planes, a small one and a bigger one are ahead of us, awaiting their turn to take off. We’re third in line but i can’t see whether there are any others behind us.
The plane procession moves slowly forward until we come to a complete stop. I think about our two recent landings at this airport, the first one when the plane was suddenly pushed down onto the runway and the second one earlier this evening when the plane violently shook from one side to the other.
A NOTE OF THANKS
Korneel Le Compte, April 2014.
“The risks from nuclear power plants, in terms of the consequences of an accident or terrorist attack, are minimal compared with other commonly accepted risks. Nuclear plants are very robust”. (World Nuclear Association)