Even though the reality of air travel means sitting down immobile for long periods of time, whenever I get to an airport I feel like I’m stepping onto the set of a science fiction film – a portal to leap through time. Actually, it’s not just this feeling: there’s also the mistrust I have of shopping malls, combined with the surrender to the belief that I should be affluent:-
I’m that man in the grey silk suit with chocolate brown attache case and crystal set watch. Why yes, I do only drink the finest whiskey – I’ll buy my clients a case each – here’s my titanium credit card. My lightweight-but-flame-retardant-rhinocerous-strength rolling luggage is navy blue because, well, I’m a bit of a renegade. Watch me sashay down these long corridors of limbo: I can dismount a travelator with finesse, though I usually choose to walk the distance – this chiseled jaw doesn’t stay chiseled by slumming on forward momentum. I get away to cobbled streets and shopping bags; to deck chairs by pools by the ocean. See me sitting just off to the side of my departure gate, cross-legged, with a very-important-person newspaper spread open: I’m checking my shares in the latest technology that’s just about to take off.
Of course, I’m not this guy, but I swoon with the idea. I don’t know how much time he spends at a desk, or on phones in transit. I don’t know how much time he spends at home – if he has one for any period of time. I don’t know how stressful his job is, or how he got it. I imagine people at this superlative endpoint of style and success worked hard, but had the capital to start nearer the top than most. I like the idea of never having to worry about going on welfare. I fantasise a parallel life where Bermuda is the crummiest of family holiday destinations. Where you see a young boy dressed in white shorts and a sailor’s hat, forced to play tennis and study macroeconomics, who will one day take up base-jumping as his final fuck you to an already deceased father. Ahh, the life I could’ve had!
In reality, I have been through many airports, mostly alone, occasionally with a friend, and always funded by myself. I think because of this, I still hold airports in high esteem. I paid for this. Whenever I’m in the international terminal, eyeing up fellow passengers, I get the same buzz I got on my first solo trip overseas:-
Then, in Changi Airport, Singapore, I made rookie errors. Not an hour into my layover I heard my name called out over the loudspeakers. I’d left my passport and boarding pass in the toilets. I had a lot to learn. I quickly figured out how to enjoy a several hour layover in sections. You had to poke around shops, eat, wash your face, read in increments. Back then batteries, film, and a discman were essential luggage items. You paid for slow internet in an internet cafe. You tried to make finding the ongoing flight departure gate number a half-hour event. You looked at everything, you considered all your options.
The longest layover I ever had was in Hong Kong on the way back to Australia from Europe. I’d already been awake for over 24 hours and I had 14 hours to kill before the next flight. I went to Hong Kong Island in a daze. I took the Peak Tram to the summit – I think – and wondered at the fact that the public toilets flushed with salt water. It was rainy and hot so I drank something. Then I took a ferry to Kowloon – I think – and tried to commit to an eatery but couldn’t because I was so tired-hungry. I took the train back to the airport and fell asleep. I was poked awake by a courteous commuter and stumbled back into the airport. I still had 9 hours of layover to go. I ate at Burger King. This is a common indulgence of mine on long-haul flights. Something about the heavy dose of meat and sugar keeps me alert enough to make it through the endless sense of purgatory.
Nowadays better airports have free wifi and you can slum around the place like you would at home, trawling through box-sets of TV shows on your laptop. The trick here is to not drink too much, to reduce the amount of times you have to get up, close down and pack away the computer, to go pee. Helsinki airport is good for this. Outside, a grey-blue haze of calm and cold; the nondescript landscape keeps you focussed on the journey ahead and on the little world on your computer screen. It’s a small hub, distant from the rest of the world. Though once I was browsing overpriced luggage tags here and bumped into a lecturer from my Adelaide university.
Other airports are not so generous. Some are downright antagonistic. My first memory of an airport was when I was almost four years old, in the 1980s. The layover for the Qantas 747 on its way to London was Bombay (Mumbai). It stank. It was hot. And by Vishnu, it stank. Years later, arriving at Cairo airport as an eighteen year old, I was greeted by policemen with machine guns. The staff at London Heathrow, on the other hand, don’t need firearms. It’s a slap in the face. There’s a chaos there that renders everyone indifferent and sour when pushed to perform the job of hospitality. Which is easier to take than the officiousness in an airport like Frankfurt am Main, where staff won’t even acknowledge your presence until they’ve officially clocked on to work. My sympathies are spared for airports where the main nationality of passengers passing through are from a despised neighbour. For example, Cancun airport in Mexico, where Americans obnoxiously order bland American fare from chain stores like Johnny Rockets and Margaritaville; the Mexican workers stifling disdain for fear of losing their jobs.
Airports can be the setting for despair and breakdowns, too. I’ve indulged many a pensive stare out onto a runway, watching the sunset, contemplating what I’m leaving behind and what could possibly meet me next; worrying about returning ‘home’; and upset about the events of where I’ve just been. In Dublin airport my bags, which contained the last nine months of my life in Spain, were too heavy for my ongoing flight. I scrambled on the ground unpacking and repacking, throwing things away, with tears streaming down my face. I couldn’t handle the pressure.
Airports remain intoxicating places to me. Recently, I returned from Melbourne to Sydney (the second busiest route in the world by aircraft movement) through the international terminals of both airports (the cheap fare required me to do so), and was instantly hit with something like adrenalin. The formalness of passing customs and the array of giant Toblerones in Duty Free elicits memories of all the times an adventure is just beginning: going to the UK alone at seventeen; heading to China with a friend travelling overseas for the first time; leaving the Baltics for New York; flying within Brazil, China, Egypt; organising tickets for the Cayman Islands. Airports are the intermission. They reduce your accountability to having a passport and boarding pass in hand (not in the toilets), and not much else. You’re suspended between places. The airport is the real border crossing. Here, the big brands jostle for your attention, but they’re mostly speaking to my imagined businessman alter-ego. In an airport he and I travel through our lives at the same pace.
An airport acts as salesperson for a nation. Sometimes the more well-known the city, or sought-after the place, the less its airport tries to win you over. London, Paris, New York – these rarely rate in the top 10 airports of the world. A tropical island needs nothing more than a landing strip. To a smaller city, however, the airport can reflect prosperity and contentment. Though, sometimes, the hopes of a capitalist state are projected onto one building. An unflattering desperation.
To have seen so many airports makes me realise and appreciate how privileged I am. I needn’t worry about attaining those polo shirts, the linen trousers, that pair of otter-and-yak-skin loafers: to know about airports is affluent enough. I check-in as lucky.