The Strange Thing about Airports...

Heathrow Terminal Two

Heathrow Terminal Two

...is that once bags are dropped, passports checked and pockets patted down, we all instantly become citizens of a bizarre in between ecosystem where no one is here to stay and everyone is here to leave.  But that’s just one of many things I find intriguing about this transitory space.  And it’s not just me, it seems.  No, we’ve seen films crop up on the topic, most recently ’The Terminal’ and we’ve also witnessed Heathrow Airport invite the marvellous Alain de Botton as a writer-in-residence.  It seems, then, that the place so many skip over as a mere inconvenience on their way from A to B does in fact merit some weight, some fascination and is thus a topic worth exploring.

But I need little convincing; for since the first time I ever stepped foot in an airport up until my current predicament waiting for the 7.05am to Stockholm at an age where existential crises forever invade my thoughts, I’ve felt that sense of intrigue.  As mentioned, it’s the fact that we are all forced to co-exist in a limited space that first gets my thoughts running.  Generally, apart from those lavish enough to have their own aircraft and associated facilities, we are all, regardless of class, colour and race, in this together.  We share bathrooms, queues and dwindling comfortable chairs as we all wait for that magical time our gate is called and we walk like only Olympic walkers could, for the fear of our flight leaving without us. 

But a flight for what?  Well, I’m here to go and visit family.  So what about that guy over there, whose headphones have been seeping out sound to the chairs beside him and that family, with the kids arguing and the baby sleeping straight through it all?  I’d love to ask.  For we all enter here for very different reasons.  My trip, of seeing family, could probably be termed as a happy reason.  But that gets me thinking that there must be people here with equally sad reasons and then others with equally mundane and routine excuses.  Here we all sit, though, regardless, with the same flight number, the same security checks and the same onboard drinks selection from a worn out laminated menu to look forward to.

I’ve always been prompt and wary of time.  Passed down to me, I guess, from my dad, his dad and his dad’s dad; the military precision of careers in the British army.  Add to this that I’m a chronic worrier and you have one man forever early to catch planes.  Indeed, taxi drivers have often laughed when I’ve told them my flight time, scorning at me that I (and indeed, they) could have had a couple more hours in bed if I’d wanted.  But, I don’t mind.  Sitting at a coffee shop in the terminal with a good book or notepad with literally nowhere else to be, is actually rather appealing.  And it’s only from this vantage point that I can also enjoy the habit of observing this strange place, in between sips of bitter black coffee.  We have the twitchers, the sleepy, the newbies, the assured, the bored, the excited, and the drunk; call them what you will, they’ll be here somewhere, all playing their part in this cacophony of noise and movement.

I look around and wonder if anyone else finds these places quite as crazy as I do.  Nowhere else in my life have I seen, at the tender time of 5.20am, Mulberry bags being bought by tourists, pints being downed by eager adolescents and oysters being sold to men and women in freshly pressed office attire.  No, I don’t know of a place.  And with that thought in mind, I eagerly skip off to my departure gate now flashing on the screen above, knowing full well that I have plenty of time but with a nagging metaphorical woodpecker at the side of my head chirping away with the thought of a missed flight.  I navigate and weave my four wheeled friend across the terminal.   Past the masses I go , dodging the abundant sprays of perfume wafting out of duty free, waiting behind slow airport trolleys and racing those who choose to take the comfort of the travellator.

Soon enough I’ll be on my way, 30.000 feet in the air, where the grandest structures on earth will be mere indiscriminate dots hidden by sheets of clouds.  And again, we’ll all be in this together.  Human beings from the widest array of backgrounds being forced to live in harmony for the next few hours.  We’ll all listen to the same safety announcements, clip the same safety belts and perhaps we’ll engage in some conversation about the same things people always talk about on planes.  But, for sure, what will definitely not be the same is the way our lives play out once we all touch down in northern Stockholm just before lunch.  And it makes me realise that this airport, skipped over by so many, is so much more than just mere bricks, mortar and steel; for it’s one giant cauldron of individual life stories and memories to come, all waiting to be realised via one simple skyward  journey.

Piers McEwanTravel1 Comment