There are a lot of things I dislike about airports, and they mostly involve the concept of waiting.
Waiting to drop off a bunch of heavy, cumbersome baggage that’s been grazing against your palms for hours during the preliminary parts of the journey. Waiting for your plastic tray of personal gear to catch up with you when passing through security. Waiting for the relevant gate to be listed on those otherwise clinical-looking departure boards. Waiting for the attendant to call out your designated seating area so that you can finally board the only thing you came here for. Waiting to take off. Waiting for the in-flight pretzels. Waiting for the air hostesses to finish pushing their trolleys to the other end of the aisle so you can finally get to the loo and relieve yourself of the complimentary pinot grigio and one too many coffees. Waiting for landing. Waiting to wait through whatever processes come on the other side…
But then there are also a lot of things I love about airports, and I’m not just talking about the inevitable excitement that comes from taking a holiday abroad.
I like airports because, to me, they compress the concept of globalization into one premise and make you feel like a citizen of the world rather than of a single town or country. Every day, any international airport will press its fingertips against those of multiple others, connecting countries that may otherwise feel much more distant, and that alone produces an emotional intensity so easily felt within the confines of the terminal.
For starters, airports surpass any time zone. You might arrive into London at 3 AM, and in the cold, fresh light of the Big Smoke, Wetherspoons and Nandos may have firmly shut their doors for the night, but at the likes of LGW you are more than welcome to order yourself a bunch of chicken wings or a half pint of lager and act like the day is still young. To one of the planes currently making its way into the airport, it’s still the middle of the afternoon right now. If somewhere in the world lives, then so does the airport, no matter what its coordinates.
Then there’s the fact that an international airport amasses the smallest of spaces into which people from all over the globe may enter. Take London Heathrow, for example. The airport itself takes up a space of only eight miles squared, yet it’s the predominant server of an island which is 93,627 square miles squared. That’s 0.008 percent of the UK’s land that acts as the major gateway for the rest of the world who wish to enter it. This essentially means that within that small, tiny space that may otherwise cause so much frustration due to the extent of waiting, you’re also experiencing the wonder of dancing around in that narrow stem of a much wider funnel, a stem that enables familiarity and camaraderie, with people from a wider range of cultures and customs. No matter your native tongue or culture, you can all share a mutual frustration when takeoff is delayed, or gasp in unison should the jet traverse through a rocky turbulence that takes you all by surprise.
I also like the fact that when you sit and eat dinner at an airport, your neighboring diners are making plans that involve up to 200 different countries. The couple next door are looking up Amsterdam hotels on TripAdvisor while the guy behind you speaks in Arabic on a video call. A small, fractious child runs between the tables clutching onto a Spanish storybook, shouting words you don’t understand at her parents. Aussie backpackers congregate around a set of USB ports and upload the latest in their photos of a ’round-the-world trip to Facebook. You may sit considering your own trip, your own nearest and dearest… your day job… your life admin…but yet you, too, are one of those strangers that represent your own small corner of the globe, no matter how obscure it seems against those listed on the A-List departure boards that surround you.
The most interesting parts of the world are those we don’t necessarily see when flicking through guidebooks or browsing the internet. It’s not about the perfected images of the biggest skyscrapers, the most prosperous cities, or the luxury islands. Instead, it’s about the lights on at 11 PM in the bedroom windows of suburban street houses, the rubbish spilling over the tops of dustbins, the queues at the supermarket checkouts, and the excited teenagers trying on mascara in the shopping malls. It’s about the activity that takes place behind—or beneath—the picture perfect imagery…and the airport encapsulates all of the above, and more.
I’ve yet to focus on the most notable bit. The bit that truly pulsates through my veins when I’m hanging around at an airport. That is, the raw emotion of those hellos and goodbyes that reverberate around airport halls in a wide range of vernaculars. Statements like “I love you” and “I’ll miss you” are animatedly expressed in every language within just eight square miles of a single country.
A billion stories behind every statement.
A billion stories that found their way into that narrow stem of global symbolism.
A billion stories being narrated in front of the entire world.
Or so it seems.
So it feels.
This is airport romance. And any passenger can access it.