Post card from Brussels – Village People Redux

BRUSSELS – It’s as predictably irritating and ultimately amusing as a speech by George Bush: when a RyanAir boarding call announcement is made, a no-holds-barred attack from all sides ensues. There’s no room for mercy or goodwill when these no-frills carriers come calling, no latitude for politeness allowed. It’s a stream of usually tired bodies, cooped up in a small out of the way airport’s tiny departure lounge, suddenly springing to life, a frenzied commotion that can be likened to big city Italian rush hour traffic converging on a dangerously small, narrow traffic circle.

That was the scene, one I’ve lived too often, late this morning at the tiny Venice Treviso Airport, as disheveled Belgian backpackers and young Italian couples carrying crying children, along with about a hundred others –including a pair of young lovers joined at the lips and an invalid in a suped-up wheelchair– all made their mass assault towards the flight’s lone ticket-taker.

But jaded to the drill, she was prepared. With the stern determination and unassailable control of a dominatrix –apparently, a quality RyanAir aggressively seeks during their employment screenings– the petite gatekeeper quickly asserted her absolute control after curtly, if marginally politely, scolding an elderly man for cutting in line. Not that anything resembling a line actually existed. Except for the one Madame RyanAir firmly drew in the sand.

Besides the priority given to some of those adults with the small bawling children, not the remotest sense of boarding order is found here; there are no seat assignments, no real queues. It’s an anarchy that works remarkably well thanks only to the terse and total control of a slight woman who takes absolutely NO shit.

Anyway, after ten or so families were allowed through, a half dozen middle-aged men, all waving some sort of passes tucked into their U.S. passports, wormed their way through the chaos, cacophonously chanting, “priority pass, priority pass.”

They were carrying bags that certainly challenged the carry-on limits, wore a variety of music-themed baseball caps –one was from the recent Cher tour– and chatted about concerts and music as they weaved through the melee.

While being shoved from behind and elbowed from the front, a man asked one of the not-so-dirty half-dozen: “Are you guys a band?”

He laughed, and replied: “Yeah, we’re a band. Guess which band we are?”

Sensing a leak in the chaotic dyke, the inquisitor didn’t reply, choosing instead to forge full-speed ahead through the fracas. But I interjected, facetiously and tiredly, “Umm… The Village People.”

The guy let out a huge roar of a laugh but said nothing, and slowly ambled on through the combat that is RyanAir boarding.

Now, I didn’t just sarcastically pull that name out of my ass; I knew the band would be playing a gig in Brussels on Friday, and I only knew that because I learned last night that they’re the evening-cappers at a sporting event I’m covering that night. In short, and unfortunately at that particular point in time, The Village People were at the forefront of my mind. I don’t think that’s every happened before. But after three hours sleep, a two-hour train trip and a 40-minute cab ride to the airport that wound up adding nearly 60% to my “cheap” airfare –all on top of what has probably been the most exhausting month of my life– 70s disco bands are the kinds of things that float through my mind. And my mother wonders why I’m still single.

After a terribly brief and brutally uncomfortable nap during the flight –did I mention that cost-saving measures by RyanAir led to a new fleet of planes with cheap plastic and vinyl seats that do not recline?– my mind eventually wandered towards more pleasant thoughts –the Iraq war, the miserable weather around Europe, Lance Armstrong’s latest drug problems, my over-drawn bank account– by the time we began our descent towards Brussels Charleroi. (RyanAir destinations, by the way, have absolutely no footing in reality. An hour by bus to your actual destination, like today’s, is actually pretty good, in Ryan terms.) And it continued to wander on the tram ride to my hotel, until it was stopped cold –bludgeoned actually– by a woman’s desperate scream.

It was immediately after a Muslim man, dressed in traditional garb, full bushy beard and all, left a large, plain brown paper bag on his seat as he prepared to get off at his stop, that the woman unleashed her yelp of horror. With more than 50 sets of eyes focused on him instantly, the large man quickly returned, looked around as he reached into his bag, pulled out some fruit, and said in perfect French to a captively terrified audience: “It’s only oranges and bananas!”

Some of us broke out in laughter while the woman, still shaking, openly wept. I decided against any more chance encounters with would-be or imagined fruit cocktail bombers, and got out at the next stop to walk the final two kilometers to the Sheraton Towers.

But the prevailing theme quickly returned. I had dinner at a modest pub run by an extended Senegalese family, by all appearances a pleasant immigrant neighborhood gathering place with a phenomenal juke box that bounced and danced with lively west African rhythms. As I sipped my coffee, an infectiously annoying pop dance song ruined the groove, and again the Village People returned to haunt my mind.

After dinner, I ran into a press officer for Friday’s event and we briefly discussed the evening’s entertainment.

“Couldn’t they have come up with something, well, anything, better for a sell-out crowd of 47,000 besides a Y-M-C-A sing-a-long?” I asked.

After a few off-color jokes, I was told that the band would be paid 30,000 euros, roughly $36,000, for their 20-minute set.

I was dumbfounded. “Really? Those guys can still command that kind of money?” Not that I know much about the role of 25-year-old disco acts in the music industry these days, but I found that impossible to believe.

Now even more infuriatingly Village People-curious, I rushed back to my room to find their official website, and there they were, the six guys who playfully dealt with the RyanAir chaos this morning, minus their infamously resplendent wardrobe that will one day figure prominently in an exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in my old Cleveland home: the Lakota Sioux Indian, the hardhat-wearing construction dude, the cowboy, and the others decked out in vintage 70s leather. Their tour listing had them playing a gig at a casino in Nova Gorica, Slovenia, yesterday, the divided city on the border with Italy. (No, I didn’t know about that gig.)

Maybe I just need some sleep, but this whole episode seemed a tad weird, more weird than most. Lost in the anonymity that only something as chaotic and aloof as a RyanAir flight could provide, was a band whose songs are known to hundreds of millions of people worldwide, whose ditties are enjoyed by three and four generations at a time at virtually any wedding party. And there we were, dozing together over the Alps. Not everyone can say, or at least would care to admit, that they slept with The Village People.

Life IS so much stranger than fiction. The dominatrix-in-training documentary clip I just watched on BBC 2, with some Village People music humming in the background, simply provided more proof to that.

Yes, I do need sleep.

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