On Friday, I flew back to Vienna from Brussels. It was a bit of a drawn-out affair—bus to the train station, train to the airport, flight to Amsterdam, flight to Vienna, train into the city, subway back home. Needless to say, it gave me some time to think. About airports.
I have spent a lot of time in airports. I first started flying when I was twelve, and my mom took me and my sister to Boston for the Fourth of July. I flew to visit my father as a teenager. When I went away to college, I flew back and forth between North Carolina and Utah, and later between the US and Europe. At a rough estimate, I’ve flown more than twenty times, and I would consider myself something of an expert on the various gates, terminals, and overpriced sandwich shops you might pass on your next journey. So here are a few of the highlights.
- Salt Lake City International: home base. While the drive to this airport never feels that long, the trip back is always interminable. Are we sure it took this long the first time? However, the SLC airport has its advantages, mostly in familiarity and using the dollar (I’ve gotten really sensitive to airport prices in Euros). Also, there’s a Cinnabon! How can you not love that?
- Vienna International (Schwechat): mixed feelings. On the one hand, this is the gateway to Vienna, city of my heart and dreams. That said, it feels inconvenient to get to (multiple trains, or else a 40 Euro taxi ride), and it has a really loose layout. Most importantly, VIE lacks an essential airport component: moving walkways. Seriously, you have to get everywhere entirely under your own steam, which is as best monstrously inconvenient. When you are running to make your flight (because the one time you need the *$%^ trains to run on time, they can’t be bothered!), you would like all the help you can get, please and thank you.
- Amsterdam Schipol: an unexpected pleasure. I think it’s because they have lined their hallways with lush green plants. You don’t even register immediately why it feels so much more restful; it’s just a little wave of well-being that hits you, suddenly. Airports generally tend to be quite sterile, efficient sorts of places; they need to be, transporting all those people every day, and yet it can be so wearying. The harsh light, the gleaming floors, the fluorescent neatly-lettered signage—it’s a bit soul-killing, which makes the sight of these avenues of full, dark, glossy leaves such a necessary (yet unexpected) pleasure. Fun fact: they also have charging stations for your electronic devices that are powered by bicycle! Even though my own products were fully charged, it was tempting to set down that oh-so-heavy carry-on and do a bit of pedaling.
- Dulles International: hell on earth. My sole experience here was wandering through its shiny interminable corridors while having to wait seven hours for my flight the next morning. The shops and restaurants were all closed; I was starving and very tired. I had hoped to get some sleep, but the banks of seats at the departure gates aren’t really conducive to rest. Besides, I had no pillow, no blanket, no way to stop shivering. It was just miserable. Until I heard someone talk to me. “Miss?” I raise my head. It’s one of the night janitors, a man I guess to be in his fifties, from Indonesia, I think. He’s left his mop and rolling bucket somewhere down the hall, and in his hands he has a blanket: it’s thin, dark blue, and wrapped in plastic, the sort they hand out to first-class people on their flights. I have no idea where he got it, but I accept it gratefully—tearfully, even. Eventually, I get a bit of rest; the restaurants open up again, and I can grab a muffin and some tea before my flight finally departs. We move on.
The act of travel, of simply getting from Point A to Point B, has been stripped down to its barest parts: stand in line, bags on the table, keep moving, stand to right, walk to the left. Airports, then, are spaces outside of our normal conceptions of space and time: you’re somewhere, but also nowhere in particular. You need to be on time, and yet the minutes and hours bleed and blur into each other, and you lost track of how long you’ve been waiting and queuing and sitting. It makes the brain fuzzy.
Which is why it’s all the more precious to come across those things that pull you from the airport fugue state, that connect you to something concrete and connected. The bicycles, the wall of full green plants, the man on the late shift who can offer a blanket to a tearfully exhausted nineteen-year-old—they ground us, and in so doing make the whole process of getting somewhere a little less hellish, and a little more human.