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.
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.
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.
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.