Arrivals. Departures. Lost bags. Small snack packages. Long lines. Great expectations and grand disappointments.
All are covered in Alain de Botton’s short book, A Week at the Airport. Asked to spend a week as a Writer in Residence by BAA, de Botton wrote of his observations of daily activities at Heathrow in this slim volume. It was an assignment that even de Botton thought was a bit odd at first, but his book is neither a promotional piece nor a piece of simple “day in the life” reporting.
And yet to refuse to be awed at all might in the end be merely another kind of foolishness. In a world full of chaos and irregularity, the terminal seemed a worthy and intriguing refuge of elegance and logic. It was the imaginative centre of contemporary culture. Had one been asked to take a Martian to visit a single place that neatly captures the gamut of themes running through our civilization — from our faith in technology to our destruction of nature, from our interconnectedness to our romanticizing of travel — then it would have to be the departures and arrivals halls that one would head.
From the false sterility of the airport hotel, to the people who make those inedible in-flight meals, to the uncertainty and identity-stripping routines of flight security, de Botton observes what life is like in a typical week at what could be any large airport in the developed world. In fact, it is the sameness of the airport that makes his observations insightful, a runway liftoff to ruminations on human behavior, things one is likely to miss when in an airport precisely because the point of being there is to eventually be somewhere else.
The utilitarian aspect of an airport can make one merely an unaware participant in the complex system of a terminal. It is the functionality of the place that makes us turn off our observational skills and rarely think outside of our immediate needs — the line that is too long, the flight that is delayed, the uncomfortable waiting rooms with plastic chairs, too many people and not enough electrical outlets. The people who work there are only there to serve us — the corporate slogans enthusiastically boast this from signage throughout the building. “We are here to serve you! We may not be enthusiastic about our travel companions, or sure that we will win the big sale, or we may not find the refuge and relaxation on a trip to an exotic island. But, de Botton suggests, we may not even think about those things as we hurry on to the next place.
This isn’t so much about why we travel — I would assume that de Botton’s book The Art of Travel addresses that — but how Western culture can be observed within one massive functional building. (In that regard, A Week At The Airport may be similar to de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, which used several people’s occupations as a springboard to discuss how we live.)
We may all go to the airport for the same external action — flight — but our reasons are varied: work, pleasure, joyful reunions with loved ones, or sorrowful departures. As short as a mid-distance flight, this work may not be one that I remember for much longer, but it was enjoyable reading, that pretty much covers the gamut of human emotions involved in leave-taking and returning to places, while offering a few philosophical tidbits on our lives to nibble on before landing.
In a way, I think John Denver captured all of these same feelings in his song, Leaving on a Jet Plan. When I was 9, I sang along with Mary Traverse non-stop for a few weeks, surely driving my parents to the brink of insanity and angering my older sister who had purchased the record. I couldn’t find a decent recording on youtube of Peter, Paul & Mary singing that hit, but I very much like the one below. Besides, in a vocal throwdown, Cass Eliot would beat Mary Travers any day.
From The Midnight Special television show, August, 1972. (Yep…people really dressed like that!)
This is review #1 in BlogLily’s BSLURP. Points: 30