When First Impressions Fail

There was a loud slap as the girl’s face smacked the smooth, hard marble of the airport’s immigration hall.

It wasn’t where she’d planned on laying her head after the seven hour flight from London, yet there she was. Out cold. The eyes of an entire plane full of people joined the friend and friend’s mother she was travelling with in the anxious search for someone who could help.

The reaction of the ground staff was not at all what I expected. A grumpy woman in a uniform sauntered over after what was clearly too long, while a cloud of concern hung in the hall above the girl and her fellow travellers. The stone-faced uniform didn’t seem to care.

“I can’t touch her,” the woman said, shaking her head and standing so far back that you’d assume the girl was incubating a fatal disease.

“Do you have her passport?” was the only other thing I heard her say.

Welcome

You can have all the doormats and welcome signs you want – but it doesn’t matter if the people don’t welcome you.

Her indifference was almost laughable. Yet as the girl’s grey face clung to the cold floor, there was nothing funny about any of it. There was no sympathy, no compassion and such a genuine lack of urgency that it was borderline ridiculous.

Finally, I released a breath I didn’t even realise I’d been holding when we heard the girl’s friend declare that she had fainted before. Given the length of time we’d been queuing, fainting was perhaps not a surprise for someone prone to it. But still, one would assume that medical assistance and at least a glass of water would be an automatic response in an airport environment like this, much as it had been when another girl had fainted upon boarding our flight at Heathrow, delaying the departure of this very same journey.

Fortunately, the sense of communal passenger panic began to dissipate as we saw colour return to the girl’s cheeks and gradually, she came round. For us, there was nothing else to do but hope she’d be okay. And so we simply continued to move forward, weaving our way through the hall with the masses.

It would be almost another three hours before we left the airport.

The lengthy arrivals process took us late into the night and way beyond our original arrival time. My enthusiasm for the trip ahead faded a little with every minute that passed. You could have carried your weekly shop home in the bags that hung heavy under my eyes. And although I knew the fingerprinting and questioning by the immigration officer was coming, I was not prepared for how intrusive the experience actually felt.

Perhaps it had all just got a bit too much because I was exhausted, but there just seemed to be an atmosphere in this airport that was thick with far too much attitude.  It meant that my first welcome into America was the least welcome I’d ever felt in my life.

Statue of Liberty

I wish I’d met this lady in the airport instead – I’m sure she’d have been a lot more welcoming.

The four days we went on to spend in New York were fantastic. We never stopped and nor did we want to. There was so much to see and experience that the city felt like a feast. In so many ways it was the ultimate city break.

It’s also the only place in the world where a girl has ever stopped me in the street to tell me I looked cute, declaring that she loved my outfit. I smiled all day after that, but I just couldn’t shake that first impression from the airport, which is something I still feel guilty about.

When we returned to JFK on our way back home, I wondered if I’d feel sad to leave. I didn’t. There was a duty free overcharging debacle still to come minutes before boarding, and the staff in departures generally gave off the vibe that they were glad to see the back of every single visitor (with the exception of one extremely helpful retail manager).

I’m often fond of saying that I leave behind chunks of my heart in cities I’ve loved throughout my travels, but something stopped me from giving a piece of it to New York. Instead I left only what was taken from me – my fingerprints. Regrettably, I felt like that was all New York wanted.

It’s said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and I suppose you don’t, but you can always change your mind. I’m certainly open to changing mine and so I’m genuinely willing to give New York another shot.

Departure Gates

A different place, a very different airport experience.

Ultimately, all this got me thinking about which city has made me feel most welcome in the past. The Irish capital Dublin is the first place to spring to mind. I’ve encountered airport security staff there who’ve actually made me laugh, so in a way it’s funny to think that by flying Aer Lingus next time, I could in fact clear US customs before even leaving Ireland.

I guess maybe that’s just what I should do – let the city I’ve already given so much of my heart to over the years be the place to welcome me to America instead. They’re all  about the hundred thousand welcomes in Ireland after all.

I found this post hard to write which is why I’m only doing so now, three months after my trip. I was worried people would think I hated New York when what I really wanted to do was emphasize the importance of first impressions. Has your first impression of a new place ever been negative because of an airport experience? Please share your stories in the comments.

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33 Comments

  • Jo says:

    Great post Clare. It’s a difficult topic to write about. I remember feeling exactly the same the first time I went to Spain in the late 1980s (I was, of course, dreadfully er hum, young). In those days there was no free movement between European countries, and travelling on a Commonwealth country passport, I needed a visa. I distinctly remember being made to feel like a criminal.

    I’ve deliberately avoided the US since 9/11 for precisely those reasons – I just can’t be bothered with their immigration process, when there’s plenty of other places where I know I’ll be welcome.

    • Clare says:

      It’s horrible to feel like you might dismiss somewhere just because of the immigration process, but when you know you can avoid feeling that uncomfortable elsewhere, it does make sense.

  • I totally understand what you mean! New York has always been a wonderful place I enjoy visiting, but could never see myself living or even spending more than a week. I’ve just had too many encounters with unfriendly locals even when I’m not being an obvious tourist. Perhaps we’ve had so many wonderful first impressions and encounters that it’s hard for us to warm up to a place where that’s lacking.

    Happy travels 🙂

    • Clare says:

      It’s funny how encounters with people are really what matter. We’ve just returned from Amsterdam and I haven’t met people who’ve made me feel more genuinely welcome in a long time. Really wonderful and a world away from New York I have to say.

  • MummyTravels says:

    Agreed, great post. I first visited NY in July 2011 and the difference is incredible. It definitely makes a difference which airport you go into JFK and LAX are diabolical but Miami and (especially) Seattle were great, immigration officials who treat you like a human. Miami’s queues are hour-long though. Israel was similarly unwelcoming at immigration (though as with NY, not once you get through). I think those are my worst worldwide although most places make me feel like they’re very suspicious of everyone. And it can colour the whole trip -hopefully most places redeem themselves afterwards but it’s never a fun start.

    • Clare says:

      What I don’t understand is that it’s obvious that the vast majority of people are visiting a country to spend their money there. I honestly felt for everything I spent in NY, all I got in return was snarled at. And in that respect I go beyond the airport. There was also a very uncomfortable tipping debacle with an extremely rude waiter. It just wasn’t a pleasant people experience overall.

  • This is a common complaint actually. Sometimes it’s a regional thing. My family is mainly Southern, and find the Northeastern culture to be too brusk, and bordering on rude. New York is one of those places that my own mother would never visit again in her life if she could avoid it. Thankfully it’s not like that everywhere. I’ve never had to clear customs in New York. But you’re right, you never get a chance to make another first impression!

    • Clare says:

      It’s really interesting how you say it can be regional, and it does make me want to visit other parts of the US before I’d go back to New York. I am on your mother’s side at the moment for sure!

  • bevchen says:

    My first impression of America was awful! I flew to Philadelphia to visit my boyfriend, who was living out there at the time. I was interrogated for AGES because I couldn’t remember his house number… I had the street name, zip code etc, but not the house number. They made me give them the phone number of his landline, then insisted on calling it despite me telling them several times that he wouldn’t answer because he was in the airport waiting to meet me! Because he (obviously) didn’t answer, I was sent to a little room to talk to wait to talk to someone else. After waiting about half an hour, my name was FINALLY called, I told them why I’d been sent there, and the person behind the desk just stamped my form and sent me away, no questions asked. All that after an 8 hour coach journey followed by the 5.5 hour flight. I could have cried!

    I was also interrogated before I even left the UK for only having hand luggage (“Where’s your suitcase? Are you SURE you haven’t got things in America from a previous visit that you’re planning on bringing back?” It was the first time I’d ever been to America!).

    • Clare says:

      That’s a shocker. I bet you were really quite upset by the whole thing. I can’t imagine it! And for what? It’s just not good enough, or reasonable.

  • Julika says:

    Great, honest post, Clare! Knowing you’ve been struggling with this experience, I’m glad you found a way to write about it!
    I can absolutely relate to the importance of first impressions (especially when traveling) and I know how they sometimes define the theme of an experience. But sometimes, it’s also possible to overcome first impressions: When I visited Lisbon for the first time, I was nearly pickpocketed in the bus from the airport into the city, and everything I saw from the bus looked dirty, ugly, and ruinous. I almost regretted booking the flight. But with every day I stayed in Portugal I learned how wrong my first impression was — and ultimately decided to return for a longer period of time, because I loved it so much in the end.

    • Clare says:

      You’re so right Julika – and I know feelings about a place can turn around in time. I’d give New York another chance, but I’d long to turn a corner and find the kind of cafe lined square or pedestrianised shopping area you get in Europe.

  • Countering a failed first impression is a hard thing to do, but I hope you give the US another chance! Not everywhere is as difficult as New York as the culture can sometimes lend itself to the cold reception (and thick with attitude as you so accurately described). However, they they were hit the most devastatingly by the 9/11 attacks so the custom/immigration/security process has morphed tremendously in the past decade. You will see a drastic difference in receptions from the Northeast and the South (the warmest reception!).

    The Irish reception may still be my favorite to this day as well 🙂 The New Yorkers will need to take a page out of their book! Great post, Clare.

  • Maddie says:

    It’s such a shame this was your first impression of New York but airport security in the U.S is renowned for it’s lack of humour and generally terrifying people! Such a shame as from the amount of time I’ve spent travelling in the U.S I’d say Americans are some of the friendliest people in the world. I had a similar experience in Lima airport in Peru, the staff were so rude and condescending that it immediately gave a terrible first impression.

    • Clare says:

      I know what you mean – these people have a serious job to do and I would never dispute that, but I’d like to see where the role profile says you have to go out of your way to terrify people because that’s just bang out of order.

  • Sammi says:

    God that’s awful. I can imagine getting into America being a total pig if you’ve not been before (and even then, perhaps?). I’ve not been yet, and when I go I plan on flying into New York, so we shall see 😉

    • Clare says:

      I think the time of day you fly in can make a difference, but to be fair I’d read that late evening was quieter – and that’s when we arrived so that didn’t do me any good! I hope when you do visit, you have a better experience than me!

  • Catherine says:

    That sounds like a horrible experience, no wonder you left with such a bad impression! Is it normal to spend three hours getting through security and into the US? I’ve never been myself, but that would certainly put me off going!

    • Clare says:

      I think it can be quite normal – but definitely coming from the UK I’d fly via Dublin or Shannon next time so I could clear customs in Ireland and hopefully sail right through like a domestic arrival once I got to the States.

  • Yes, please give NYC another chance. When I’m not in NYC (and the last time I visited was over 2 years ago), I crave it. I’ve been there quite often and even had a 3 month stay that was an amazing experience. I kind of expect rudeness at airports, so when I experience the opposite, it’s a real treat.

    • Clare says:

      It’s a shame that we shouId expect rudeness isn’t it? Being efficient and professional in a airport job should not go hand in hand with being rude. But I will return to the US at some point!

  • Lorri says:

    Interestingly, I had a very unwelcoming experience in the UK. Waited forever in a queue, after a 9 1/2 hour flight and with 3 youngish kids in tow. The immigration officer was horrible to me. It was quite the interrogation. We were there to visit friends and FAMILY. My husband’s parents and extended family are all British. I can’t imagine what the officer thought of me but it was horrible. I was almost in tears, which really says quite a lot. I didn’t have the address of our first stop readily available. It was on my computer, which was in my carry-on and obviously turned off. He was skeptical. I explained that my husband was waiting on the other side for us and that our friends had sent a driver, who had also been waiting for hours, to take us to their house. Thus, I didn’t have the addy handy. I said we were visiting family and he never once even asked about that. I found it all quite unsettling.

    Had an interesting encounter in Brussels, where the officer was quite intrigued about me traveling with 3 kids during school session. He wanted to know all about that. I explained that we homeschooled and that they were on a big field trip. He seemed rather puzzled but accepted the answer and then went on to ask all about homeschooling. It made me laugh.

    With respect to New York, I am not a fan. New Yorkers have a reputation for being rude. Come south…we are quite friendly in the south! As a matter of fact, a lot of New Yorkers move south. It is much more genteel here! They settle in quite nicely after making some adjustments!

    Please don’t let your visit to NYC color your impression of the US as a whole. NY is only one place in a large, vast and diverse country!

    • Leanne says:

      I live in the UK (legally!) but have an Australian passport. Even though I have a visa I get the standard 5 questions, hard looks as if i must be lying and fingerprints taken. I don’t understand why they have to be so stern when it’s obvious from my passport that I live and work here. It puts me off leaving the country to be honest, just to know I have to come back in again!

    • Clare says:

      The stories everyone has been sharing are both intersting and shocking at the same time. Yours are not good at all. Thanks for sharing.

      As for me, I won’t let it put me off the US – I promise!

  • Aggy says:

    What a great post, I know this kind of topic is always hard to write. I’ve had my shares of unwelcoming places, like when I first arrived in Bucharest, but I did love it after living there for several months. So sorry you had to experience all that, but it’s certainly an experience.

    • Clare says:

      It’s a funny one, because these bad experiences can happen any time. But they can really put you off returning when it’s only a short trip you’re taking which doesn’t allow for time to settle in and let the destination redeem itself.

  • Blakeley says:

    I am from America (Chicago area to be precise) and even as an American first impressions aren’t always the best here. I think a lot of it has to do with 9/11 because it still creates a lot of tension and sadness almost 12 years later. Arriving to LAX was okay, I never had to go through customs and such, but on our way home I could not get over how rude some of the people were! Especially to people of different races. I was appalled. But I do agree with others, it’s a lot about where you fly in. Big cities (New York, Chicago, Miami, LA, etc.) are rude and overwhelming. I’d go south next time! Nicest people, I swear. Hope your next visit will be more inviting!

    Side note: I’m taking my FIRST out of country trip to Ireland and I am SO SO happy to read about how lovely a people they are! (also taking a paddywagon tour…)

    • Clare says:

      The south is definitely on my mind now, so many people have told me how the people are so lovely! And Ireland? Oh you will love it! I only did a Paddywagon day tour but it was so great. Have a fabulous time!

  • My first two times in NYC I didn’t like it… (On the first trip we had a terrible hotel with a resident mouse in it, ugh!) I thought the city to be overcrowded, dirty, and too chaotic. A few years went by and I went back, because it’s one of my husband’s favorite places and I thought I’d give it another try. And now it’s one of my favorite places too! Now I appreciate the chaos and crowds, plus I love the variety and the FOOD.

    Here’s a different story. When I was landing in Barcelona, I thought I’d love the city. Beautiful setting, beautiful airport, on paper everything looked great. Then I got to the center and all of a sudden, it felt just ok… But maybe I’ll like it better next time. 🙂

    • Clare says:

      I’m interested to know how I’d feel after a second visit – I’m sure I’ll return at some point. And I’m sure you’re not the first person to say that about Barcelona either (ha ha I know you’re not – I think Mr Holiday Addict felt a bit like that after our trip, too).

  • Jac says:

    oops a little late to the table but I thought this was a great thoughtful post! It’s inspiring me to think about some of the places I’ve been to myself and my first impressions… And yeah my first impression of Barcelona is always going to be about how I nearly got scammed/robbed with fake birdshit as I reached my hostel, tired from a long day of travelling, but it was a really beautiful city, and I enjoyed it even when I returned the following year!

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