“While I was sitting there, drink in hand, separated from the plebs by a heavy curtain, and with servile maidens swirling around me at my slightest wink, every nerve in my body politic was screaming: ‘It wasn’t my fault! It’s a mistake! I’m not like this!’ But what could I do…?”
I was attending this conference in Holland, about the reception of Augustine — how has the great philosopher from late antiquity been used over the past sixteen centuries? Not a topic which will shatter the foundations of the world as we know it perhaps, but hey, I am a medieval scholar, and otherworldliness is my middle name.
The conference was held at a place called Wassenaar between Leiden and Den Haag. To me it was just a name in this strange throat disorder called “Dutch”, which probably means that if I had had to ask someone for directions, I would probably never have gotten there since I would obviously have mispronounced it. Luckily, the whole trip had been arranged in advance, so I just had to sit back and let me be taken to wherever I was going.
Wassenaar, it turns out, is the richest little spot in the (slightly bigger) spot on the map called ‘the Netherlands’. All the houses in the area had high walls with security cameras and ‘Beware of the dog’ signs, some of them had their own private canals in the garden, and the roads had not only bicycle lanes but horse lanes as well, for the private equestrian enjoyment of the well-to-do and their plastic surgeoned teenage daughters.
As a serious scholar in the sub-prioritized humanities, one is always prepared — prepared to take what one can get, to “get my kicks out of it before this whole shit-house goes up in flames”, as Jim Morrison so eloquently put it — so I enjoyed the surroundings as well as the discussions. He may be long gone, our friend Augustine, but he’s still cool, and the food was as good as the beds.
Wassenaar, of course, is the kind of place where some kind of public transportation passes through once an hour, not because it’s needed, but because that darn bus has to go somewhere, so I was grateful for the option to check in to my return flight online, to cut an hour off my waiting time at the airport. When I was assigned the seat 1F, I didn’t give it much thought, apart from enjoying the prospect of not having to wait in the aisle behind that fat, inconsiderate creature who usually has seat 7C and all the hand luggage in the world, which must be taken care of before he will allow anyone else to pass.
My first suspicion that something was wrong — seriously wrong — came creeping when one of the stewardesses approached me, while people were still standing in line behind Mr. 7C and I had barely fastened my seat belt, and asked me if I “wanted something to drink, Sir?”
There wasn’t even any point in looking around and saying, “You talkin’ to me, ma’m?”, because, as I suddenly realized, I was the only person in the three front rows. And while this friendly seductress was tempting me, one of her colleagues was busy ushering the last passengers past the curtain that she magically produced out of nowhere and which removed every shred of doubt: I was alone. I was segregated. I was cut off from my flock. I was the best. I was a “Sir”. I had accidentally gotten a ticket in business class.
My first reaction was, of course: I don’t want to be here! Can you please move me out of this place and get me a seat where I belong? Hell, put me next to fatso down there on row seven if necessary — anywhere but here! I don’t belong here. Get me out of here! Help.
But the shrewd sirens took no notice of my discomfort. And, clutching my cherished copy of Augustine’s Soliloquies, I eventually regained some sort of dignified calm, and I remained seated. But while I was sitting there, drink in hand, separated from the plebs by a heavy curtain, and with servile maidens swirling around me at my slightest wink, every nerve in my body politic was screaming: ‘It wasn’t my fault! It’s a mistake! I’m not like this!’
But what could I do? There was no point. Who should I say it to? The stewardesses? For all I knew, they were just doing their job. My fellow passengers? Why would they even care if this scruffy guy in worn-out shoes and washed-out jeans wanted to waste his new money, earned in god knows what kind of dot-com hocus pocus probably, on a ridiculously overpriced ticket? Besides, what should I say? And who would then get my wine?
I resigned to my fate and enjoyed the better meal, the extra drinks, the ‘Sir’s, the newspapers (and the sincere apologies that they didn’t have any Danish newspapers — “Sir“), and the extra leg space. Truth to tell, well into the third mini-bottle of red wine I even started taking pleasure in it. So much, in fact, that I would have had to confess: Yes, I am a class traitor. Yes, I enjoy luxury. Yes, I like wine, even on planes, especially on planes. Yes, I could even get used to being called ‘Sir’, if that’s what it takes.
At least during the hour the flight took. Even in my most shamelessly hedonistic moments when I stretched my legs to the full, not because I needed to but because I could, the thought was constantly spinning in the back of my head: ‘This will soon be over — in a few minutes I will be free and this will all just be like a bad dream. Nothing that time won’t heal.’
And when we landed (I got there first!), I was getting ready to enjoy the last privilege: to get out before anyone else.
That’s when I lowered my guard.
In hindsight, I probably should have known better. In my defense, I had no idea what kind of professionals I was up against. It only lasted a second or two, but that was all it took her.
Disguised as friendly chit-chat, she dealt the final blow:
“Are you going home, Sir?”
“So you’re living in Copenhagen, then?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Ah, Copenhagen is a wonderful city.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“And where have you been, Sir?”
“I’ve been at some place called ‘Wassenaar’.”
“Oooh, that’s the richest area in the Netherlands — very nice, Sir!”
Damn was she good. I was crushed, my entire social consciousness hanging behind me in bloody rags, but I couldn’t help admiring her skill.
She knew she had won, of course. She smilingly waved me goodbye with a last “Have a nice day, Sir.”
I tumbled into the arrival hall, but the freedom I had been longing for wasn’t there. I was beaten. I had become a class traitor for real, and there was nothing I could do about it. I hurried out to the cold January evening, and with my tattered carry-on bag half hidden behind my back, I cast a last, melancholy glance at Fatso wrestling his heavy suitcase towards the common subway station, before I turned the other way to find a taxi that could take me back home.