A Love of Layovers
From the Seattle airport:
I was absent here for awhile – occupied with several houseguests and lots of work. Now I am on the move again; I’ll be taking eight flights through eight airports (Pau, Paris, Charlotte, Chattanooga, San Francisco, Seattle, Anchorage, Kenai) in ten days.
Although this trip is just bringing me from the place that I currently live, Pau, to a place that’s always been a home, Alaska, I still feel a slight hint of adventure as I go along. Traveling is always like that for me. I love the moment of release, of freedom, that comes the minute I pick up my small suitcase or backpack, ready to journey. There is something about stepping out onto a sidewalk into crisp, energetic early-morning air, when everyone else around me is heading to work but I am heading somewhere else, somewhere different and new, that I find kind of intoxicating.
In fact I think one of my favorite feelings in the world is standing on a platform of a train station, waiting to board a train heading towards the as-of-yet unknown. Air travel, I admit, is not quite as exhilarating. On some level I seriously dislike it- I hate the dry, stale air, the unused cramped sensation in my limbs that makes me feel like it must be my first day as a farm animal, the over-priced over-cooked food, dehydration, all the long lines, the grumpy travelers, and the way flight attendants are required to smile.
But beyond the discomfort there is still a lot to enjoy. Once I’ve checked in, gotten rid of the burden of luggage, and passed unscathed through security, I relax and begin to appreciate my surroundings, as strange as that might sound.
Part of my enjoyment of airports comes from this feeling of nothing particular to do apart from the need to move my body from Point A to Point B. Real life hangs suspended for the day and the hours spread out in front of me, as of yet unportioned, unscheduled. There’s a deliciousness in knowing I can choose to fill them in any way I want. I could read, write, watch a film, wander the magazine and book aisles, or sit brazenly at an airport bar and order a cold, overpriced, wonderful beer and drink it all alone as fast or as slow as I please. I could watch all the people streaming by or settle in next to a group of them and listen in on their conversations.
It’s sort of a similar feeling to the one I’d have as a child at the beginning of a sick day off from school, when the day was suddenly reclaimed as mine, entirely mine. Even within the confines of the walls of an airport or the walls of your own home, an unbroken day can feel pregnant with possibility.
When I’m on a layover, enticingly close to some city or other that remains unseen and unknown due to time constraints, I usually feel like I never quite touched down. Time hangs suspended in a bubble, dangling just a little bit above the real world.
Airports have more in relationship to each other than to the world outside, and nothing feels quite grounded in reality until you are spit out into baggage claim at the end of your journey.
Airports have always seemed more like space stations from old science fiction to me – hovering above the earth slightly, a world unto themselves. Their own atmosphere, food and water in measured plastic boxes, and long windows looking out on a desolate atmosphere that barely seems to support life apart from alien flourescent yellow creatures zooming around on four wheels or extending orange flag-like limbs.
Air travel is the most disconcerting of all kinds of travel. Because you cannot see or feel your movement through space and across the planet, you must rely on a vast imagination or else a complete disassociation from the strangeness of being transported almost magically from one environment to an entirely different environment. Air travel makes everything dreamlike for a few days until I forget how strange it is to be in this new place and stop vaguely feeling the question hovering over my body of how I got there. Perhaps it’s not so different from how my cats feel as they are transported in vehicles or even in elevators from one place to another without the capacity to smell everything along the way and thus absorb the distance traveled. While they know perfectly well they are somewhere new, how they came to be there and where it lies in relationship to the familiar are unanswerable questions.
With my human brain and human skill for abstraction I can look at a map or google earth and maybe be able to imagine that kind of travel in a vague hypothetical way, but I will never truly be able to absorb how it could be possible to travel as fast as we do in airplanes and have it feel like nothing at all. I understand the physics of it, but my body remains confused.
I think that’s why the kitsch you find for sale in every airport becomes sort of comforting. The little tourist stores selling knick-knacks and curios give you a watered down reminder of where you are – mini eiffel towers in Charles de Gaulle;
smoked salmon, Ulu knives and a wide variety of moose paraphernalia in Anchorage; and t-shirts that say “tar heel” in Charlotte (a nickname for people from North Carolina dating back to the civil war). Even if I never get to step outside the airport, it feels necessary to see how a place represents itself and what it highlights as memorable, unique and kitsch-worthy.
Many airports clearly hope to be more than personality-less junctions or purveyors of kitsch. They seem to be in a kind of identity crisis – wanting to be the gleaming evidence of a sparkly modern new world, and divert our attention away from the airport’s primary purpose – to act as a people sorter, shuffling us together and separating us out again into our proper containers to be carried away to the next port. Airports struggle to be interesting, classy, even enjoyable in order to somehow distract people from the actual lack of glamor of flying. Airports often even try to be museums (for example SEATAC and San Francisco International); Paintings and sculpture, at times visually arresting, at other times just totally bizarre, are scattered around every corner. However, because of the location, most of these pieces are seen more as “decoration” than “Art” and travelers tend to walk right on by without so much as a second glance.
If airports aren’t the right environment to cultivate art appreciation, they are places capable of momentarily breaking down certain behavioral norms. Conduct that is inappropriate in the outside world is acceptable in an airport; we are all allowed to act homeless and sleep in random locations, settle in on the ground with our possessions spread out around us. Men in business suits sit on the floor to plug their laptops in or curl up in corners to take little naps. The rules are different.
There is a sense of community, but also a glorious anonymity in an airport. Everyone is a traveler – no one will stare at you as though you are something curious or out of place. It is an amazing equalizer – we all belong there as much as anyone else.
The only place I’ve ever felt as wonderfully anonymous was New York City – a city where anything goes, completely full of people who have seen it all, and are too much in a rush to be curious. In that sort of a place there is so much chaos and movement that many create the personal space they are craving by putting walls around their own minds. It’s in THESE sorts of places that it is ideal to people watch, step outside the self for awhile and become a true observer.
Walking through an airport in the ebb and flow of countless other bodies, with nothing significant to root me to my location on the planet and nothing around me to give me the context of my life beyond that moment, I like to let my identity fall away for awhile.
I become the silence that fills the little spaces between all the voices, beeps, whirrs and hums. I become nothing but a little floating bubble of consciousness contained in a moving body- my thoughts become so simple, and I just listen and watch and take in.
I love to watch people spilling off an airplane, still colored somehow by a tint of the place they were in. They seem to carry a little of the air with them from this other place and you can almost smell the different flavor, as they spill in waves towards you.
In airports I love to pause for awhile and watch the people streaming by, listening for their accents, trying to guess where they are from and where they might be going, and make up stories about their lives. I love watching all the faces and body types, all the styles of clothing for example which women choose comfy clothes, versus the women who wear high heels and full layers of makeup. All these faces, a constant stream of details to absorb – each simultaneously unique and part of some archetype. Looking at all that variety, and all the patterns, feels satisfying, nutritional.
In airport hubs hundreds of people arrive from a different direction every few minutes – from so many countries and cities, all converging in this one place and then within minutes or hours breaking away again, splitting from those they travelled with, joining up with others, and then splitting away again, until finally they reach their homes or hotels or the houses of family or friends. As sterile of an environment as airports seem, they actually full of more diversity than most places we go. An airport hold thousands of different stories in a given moment, only to be refilled with new stories in the very next moment. I do love to tune into the movement, the life, the kitsch, the voices, the faces, and the stories for a few hours now and again, and then be on my way to my own destination. See you in Alaska!