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first person

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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

I was reminded, recently, that a beautiful face is both powerful and effective in Italy, especially in lineups. That shouldn’t surprise me. After all, Italy gave birth to Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Venus – Renaissance masterpieces that represent physical perfection. Modern-day Italian ambassadors of femininity and sexuality include Sophia Loren, Monica Bellucci and Caterina Murino, among others.

After a 15-hour transatlantic flight, my husband and I land at the Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome. Da Vinci is, of course, another Renaissance heavyweight whose Mona Lisa is considered one of the most beautiful creations ever.

Since buying our Tuscany pied-à-terre over 10 years ago in Montepulciano, the Leonardo da Vinci airport, or Fiumicino, as the locals call it because it is actually in that town, is our point of entry and exit from the Città Eterna.

A decade worth of passport stamps means we know our way around this mammoth building. Along the way, we have also learned a few airport time-saving tricks.

Which passport you carry is key. We have two: one Canadian and one Italian. They both come in handy at different times for different purposes. To get through customs, or dogana in Rome, in a timely fashion, we use our Italian passports. That allows us to take our place in the EU lineup; from experience, it is always shorter and faster on international flights coming into Italy’s capital. Truth be told, I wish I could have flashed the more youthful photogenic picture that’s in my Canadian passport instead of the less flattering, older one in the Italian government-issued document.

But here, time, and not beauty, matters. So out comes the passaporto italiano.

Once we get our stamp, we smugly make our way to the luggage carousel, now ahead of the crowd. We’re confident that the Italian baggage handlers will treat the priority tag stuck on our bags out of Calgary as such: with privilege and speed. Still, we wait. Five minutes pass. Then 10. By now, the non-EU travellers from our flight start to join us. Thirty minutes later, those same vacationers have claimed their bags and gone merrily on their way. There is one lonely red suitcase going around and round – and it’s not ours. In fact, ours never emerges.

Over to the lost luggage counter, or bagaglio smarrito. Twenty minutes later, the customer service agent proudly reports it is not, in fact, Fiumicino’s fault. Apparently, our priority luggage is not lost at all. “It is safe,” she informs, “in Montreal’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau airport, never having made the connection.”

Realizing neither good looks nor charm will change anything at this point, we head to the car rental counter, or auto noleggio. The car rental lineup spills around the corner and down the hallway, with some of our fellow travellers with Canadian passports now ahead of us. The ticket dispenser spits out number 63; they’re now serving numbers 49 and 50 with only three agents on the job. One of them abruptly leaves, abandoning his customer standing at the counter. Another, I call him Mr. Congeniality, seems more intent on providing recommendations on where to eat when in Rome, sites to see and good shopping districts than moving the line along. I like his female colleague more. She knows her job and sticks to it. Unfortunately, Ms. Efficiency is stuck with problem travellers who can’t find their reservation papers, not sure if they left them on the kitchen counter back home, or even if they are at the right car rental counter.

Minutes pass. My husband is assessing our grim rate of progress. “Four customers in 30 minutes,” he announces, calculating we are in for a two-hour wait. It is 40 degrees outside and not much cooler inside because of Italy’s restrictions on air conditioning.

An hour into the wait, my eyes catch the entrance of a fresh-faced young Italian woman. Her chantilly-white linen dress drapes her tiny silhouette. Her sun-kissed skin sets off her emerald eyes. I call her Bella, for obvious reasons. Her companion is Italian, too. He is also bello.

Bella proceeds confidently to the ticket dispenser. Mr. Congeniality announces number 57 just as Bella pulls 68. Her smile quickly vanishes as reality sets in. I overhear her conversation with Bello, and understand they need to rent a car in Rome to make a tight train connection in Florence.

A decade worth of passport stamps have also taught me that Italians don’t like lineups. So now I’m curious to see how Bella will handle her predicament. Without hesitation, Bella strides over to Mr. Congeniality’s desk just as he is wishing his latest customers safe travels and reminding them that the Trastevere neighbourhood is a must see. I watch and learn. Quickly, masterfully, Bella states why she needs to jump the queue. He pleads forgiveness, pointing to the sweaty and tense crowd behind her, where each person is tightly clutching their numbered tickets for fear they might slide out of their clammy palms.

Bella’s first attempt did not go as planned, and to be honest, I was pleased. But for her, it’s only a minor setback. I find myself watching her as intently as she is watching and assessing the crowd.

Numbers 60 and 61 are called and that means we will be in the next batch. I recognize the quiet Canadian couple in front of us as they were on the plane from Montreal. They’ve been standing respectfully in front of us for the last two hours. His soft-spoken wife whispers something in his ear before leaving his side. I assume it’s mother-nature calling because she has been calling me, too, for the past 20 minutes. Yet I dare not answer when we are so close to the front.

What happens next is another learning moment. With his wife out of the way, Bella makes her move, sliding next to the Hapless Canadian Tourist. She explains her woes in rapid, heavily accented English, something that doesn’t phase him.

What matters is that Bella’s beauty has cast its spell. Hapless Canadian Tourist has stoically handed over ticket number 62 and Bella is now at the counter getting the paperwork done for her rental. Minutes later, his wife reappears. A disapproving look freezes her face when she realizes what happened.

Ms. Efficiency calls 63. That’s me! Wait! Actually, it’s not. I’ve automatically fallen back to 64 thanks to Bella. I want to scream and cry out loud about the injustice as my patience is strained after three hours of dealing with lost luggage and queuing. Then my Canadian passport catches my eye. A quiet reminder that civility and generosity are always better options.

Although secretly, I would have preferred to play the beauty card.

Silvana Saccomani lives in Victoria.

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