Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On airports and feelings

Airports, as George Clooney's character demonstrated in Up in the Air, are perhaps the least sentimental place on earth. The air, the food, the pleasantries and just about everything about the experience is completely fake. Most people, he says, hate it, but he thrives on it. I have a love-hate relationship with airports. While I love travel and I love airports, I absolutely hate flying.

Airports are a self-contained world of their own, as Jerry Seinfeld noted almost twenty years ago. When I had a layover at the Beijing airport last year, I remember paying four dollars for a piece of cake and six dollars for a cup of instant coffee. The airport in Dalian had a $13 cup of organic, fair-trade coffee, for which they may have very well never found a buyer outside of spite or novelty. To wit, Seinfeld said:

Do you think that the people at the airport that run the stores have any idea
what the prices are every place else in the world? Or do you think they just
feel they have their own little country out there and they can charge anything
they want? You're hungry? Tuna sandwich is nine dollars. You don't like it;
go back to your own country.

At any rate, one of the things I love about airports is that, at least in the developed world, they're completely cultureless. Airports in Toronto, Tokyo, Tianjin and Tampa are virtually indistinguishable from each other. There are the high-end stores, the vaguely ethnic restaurants, the booksore-cum-convenience store with $14 copies of Sports Illustrated and $8 bottles of water, and the well-intentioned but nearly universally-garbled attempts at helping people stay connected (Bangkok invented a weird flat computer with a metal keyboard that runs on credit cards).

Someone asked me recently whether I felt more comfortable around Pakistanis or Canadians (though, I suppose, technically Korean was also a possibility), to which I replied that the answer was neither. I would have to say that I'm most comfortable around people who don't use words like "normal food" or "those people", people like the Namibian guy I met in China who had evidently studied abroad for much of his life, if not his entire life, or the Dutch girl I met in Vienna who spoke no Dutch.

Airports are like that too, although to be fair, they're more like taking food from a dozen different cultures, putting it into a blender and serving it up in $14 cups a a new take on cuisine. However, there comes a time in every trans-Pacific flight, around that two-thirds mark when you can't sleep any more, you can't watch another movie and you can't open the windows, that your fried, confused brain thinks about just what it is that you're doing.

It's at that moment that, hopefully, for me, at least, I can assure myself that as much as my sense of time and space have been obliterated, that I'm okay at the present moment. Not only that, but if I can tolerate the flight, I can probably also tolerate anything in life. The emotional crises induced by the chaos of travel, I like to think, in my case at least, produce a healing catharsis along with everything that they take from me.

If you get a chance to recover in between flights, as I'm doing right now at the Hong Kong airport, you'll probably realize that the emotional insights and panic on the plane were both sheer nonsense. Having gone through it all, however, it's possible to learn something, even if it's that there's nothing at all to worry about.

While I was writing this, I also thought about just why it is that I like airports if they're the equivalent of a vast 7/11. It can't be the people, because all you really see are the richest, say, ten percent of the world, hardly an interesting idea. It's not diversity either, because seeing people with four different colours of skin was never that interesting in high school. Much like a train station, an airport gives you the chance to go anywhere in theory. Airports being far less pleasant an experience than a train station, I prefer train stations much more.

1 comment:

Alex said...

I REALLY liked this post.