I am sitting at the watered won British-Lebanese chain restaurant Comptoir Libanais. It’s one of the better chain restaurants that Britons favour, as it actually has some individuality flavour.
A waiter, new to the country I have discovered, comes over and asks tentatively if I would like something from the menu. Food, wine, nibbles? But please note, Lamb Kofta’s not available. It wasn’t delivered today.
Eschewing any former preconceptions of the lamb I go for something a little more temperate; the mixed mezze.
There’s a subtle hum and buzz which is quite claustrophobic and there’s a faint scent of toilet refreshner in the air. This is perhaps due to the fact that the toilet block occupies the entire right hand side of the building. There may not be a Pret en route, but my goodness there’s enough toilets to keep the entire population of Wales well and duly satisfied.
Gatwick Airport North Terminal – the differentiation between North and South is an important one. The south is benign, welcoming and generally pleasant as terminals go. The north, by contrast is undignified and unapologetic in its current state, which is a half-shamble building site with white-washed grubby walls and builder’s utensils bersmirched about.
Most transit institutions (hotel lobbies, airports, waiting rooms) are totally tasteless and bland – there’s no airs and graces needed for limbo. But, my goodness is does make a difference when there’s a tang of attempt on appearance.
The large, almost pitch-like terminal is littered with chain shops. This is one thing I really loathe about Britain – the obsession with commercial, manufactured, colourless, flavourless, insipid, likeminded outlets which abhor individuality and subsequently consume local establishments. Pret, Wetherspoons, Cafe Nero, Costa Coffee, Greggs, Itsu, Wasabi…the list continues. Heck, even here in North Terminal (the bazaar of chain establishments) there’s a miniature knockoff from Harry Potter World, aptly named Harry’s.
From my high-up abode (Compte Lenoir is located on the 2nd floor, far right, rather out of the way. Anyone looking for an ounce of tranquility in Gatwick North Terminal should venture immediately), I see an overweight man sporting a Leeds shirt (should be said bulging across the middle) chomping down hastily on an overcooked Wetherspoons burger. It’s not a pretty site. Not that I’m overly scathing – burgers should be eaten quickly and with the full force of our 32 fangs. No, it’s more the location. He’s parked right outside the female toilets. Literally, right outside. It’s as if Wetherspoons had a deal with the local plumber; ‘let us straddle the lavatories for a fusion of cheap beer, piss and shit’ – to be honest, there is some method in this madness, haven’t these three commodities always gone together?
Everyone comes to the North terminal for an Easyjet flight – the national airways wouldn’t dare venture out here. Besides, the offensive orange decorates the place; there’s no room for anyone else. As I make my way to the gate and then board, I am struck by the contrast of my surroundings to the people I am now with. Stylish, clad in real fur and even realer designer, these are rich Italians going home.
I’m on a one-way flight to Milan Linate, Italy’s capital of fashion. I’ve got my best blazer, boots and jeans on and I’m rather pleased with myself that I do blend in. Yet, the Italians are not impressed (and why should they be). They haven’t eaten (they wouldn’t dare), they’re bored, petulant and salivating for a fag. This isn’t speculation, as demonstrated by four young men who make it onto the tarmac and proceed to light up. Five more follow suit. The bald traffic control warden (with a heavy Liverpudlian accent) practically has a fit.
“You can’t smoke here!” he bellowed.
The cluster of ten merely raise their perfectly coiffured eyebrows and sigh.
“Non rompere le palle,”* one exclaimed as he casually flicks his half-lit Marlborough to the ground.
And when we finally make our way into the ageing aircraft and the designer Armani coats, Celine bags, Dolce furs and Tumi bags are put in the grubby overhead locker, I feel a sense of severe disappointment.
I’m half British, half Australian. The Australian in me is stronger than the British, but I can’t deny that my anglican roots are still there. Why are these public buildings so decrepit and unaccommodating? We should be proud to host foreigners and visitors, not subject them to two hours of commercial, gastronomic torture. Where’s the sense of individuality and Britishness? Certainly not in the North Terminal.
It’s not the greatest send off, we should be wanting our visitors to leave with a sense of sorrow, not urgency. Instead, what I witnessed was a throng of Italians desperate to escape their British neighbours shackles. Their final vision of the UK shouldn’t be of a greasy Wetherspoons and obese toilets. Yet, maybe I have got it wrong. Maybe these things are more intrinsic to British subculture than I previously imagined. Maybe the only thing sticking out here is how unBritishness I really am – I glorify the Britain of postcards, not perhaps the actuality.
*Non rompere le palle translates to ‘break my balls’ and it’s a common colloquialism in Italy used by young, hot headed, blue-blooded Italian males.