I was quite excited to read A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton because personally, I love airports. They represent the gateway to romance with the world. Not all of them, but certainly the big and busy ones, where there is constant movement, and screens blink rapidly with upcoming departures to places familiar and non-familiar.
I look at these screens and I am overcome with the desire to just go to these places, unplanned. I want to put aside the ticket I purchased, and hop on a different plane, to a different place because “These screens implied a feeling of infinite and immediate possibility: they suggested the ease with which we might impulsively approach a ticket desk and, within a few hours, embark for a country where the call to prayer rang out over shuttered whitewashed houses, where we understood nothing of the language and where no one knew our identities.” [Kindle Location 239]
The places I know nothing about, and particularly the ones I have never heard of, always seem more enticing. It’s not because I don’t want to visit again the places I love, but because “The lack of detail about the destinations served only to stir unfocused images of nostalgia and longing: Tel Aviv, Tripoli, St Petersburg, Miami, Muscat via Abu Dhabi, Algiers, Grand Cayman via Nassau…all of these promises of alternative lives, to which we might appeal at moments of claustrophobia and stagnation.” [Kindle Location 239]
Airports, and particularly these boards listing all these places, tantalise us with a promise of an escape, both permanent and temporary, from whatever bothers us at home. It’s up to us to remember that most of our problems go where we go. “How quickly all the advantages of technological civilisation are wiped out by a domestic squabble.”[Location 364] The airports merely offer us the sunshine if want to escape the rain, a chance to practice a new language with the natives, try the cuisine of some exotic country, or meet up with the new friends we’ve made online. Airports can whisk us away to a new romantic adventure.
De Botton seems to share my fascination with the airports, though he’s far better at capturing the sense of it than I. As I read this book and explore his, “snapshots of travellers’ souls on their way to the skies,” [Kindle Location 401] much of what I felt were familiar emotions. We both particularly agree on the importance of what one witnesses in the arrivals and departures halls. “Had one been asked to take a Martian to visit a single place that neatly captures the gamut of themes, running through our civilisation – from our faith in technology to our destruction of nature, from our interconnectedness to our romanticising of travel – then it would have to be to the departures and arrivals halls that one would head.” [Kindle Location 89]
The assembly of people from different places and races, sounds of various language, a multitude of emotions, all against the backdrop of blinking screens with names of the places unvisited reminds us how much bigger the world actually is. Bigger than our own concerns. Bigger than our personal prejudices. Bigger than our idea of normalcy. “One wants never to forget that nothing here is normal, that the streets are different in Wiesbaden and Luoyang, that this is just one of many possible worlds.” [Kindle Location 822]
With the romance of the travel, we are also afforded a glimpse into the wealth of our world. Often busy complaining about the financial crisis and our personal debts, we rarely give a thought to “the modern era’s daunting technical intelligence,” and “its prodigious and inconceivable wealth,” which becomes obvious when one looks at the “dolphin-like bodies,” of aeroplanes, and “knowledge that each plane had cost some $250 million.” [Kindle Location 192]
It is not merely the romance of travel that we see. Airports offer a glimpse into our reality, into the divisions of society that still exist. The first glimpse was through the luggage that passengers carried. Besides the obvious difference between the designer luggage versus the budget suitcases, “The wealthy tended to carry the least luggage, for their rank and itineraries led them to subscribe to the much-published axiom that one can now buy anything anywhere.” [Kindle Location 216]
De Botton sees the whole philosophy of life at the airport. From the romance of the travel to the financial status of the world, and to our human emotions and fears, the worst of which is usually death. Most of us hardly ever think about the amazing feat we are accomplishing, flying in a metal box in an air. As frequent flyers, we tune out the safety instructions and disregard the possibility of a plane crash. We don’t want to think about it, because air travel has opened up the whole world to us, made it smaller and reachable. Yet, the possibility of death exists, and perhaps, “most of us could benefit from a brush with a near-fatal disaster to help us to recognize the most important things that we are too defeated or embittered to recognize from day to day.” [Kindle Location 340]
However, more than likely we are going to spend less time philosophising about death, and more time thinking about, “why, if one was in any way talented or adept, one was still unable to earn admittance to an elegant lounge,” while we waited, “on hard plastic chairs in the overcrowded and chaotic public waiting areas of the world’s airports.” [Kindle Location 605]
Despite the philosophy of the world’s real problems, De Botton returns to the romance of the travel, in comparing it with the profession of writers. “Considered collectively, as a cohesive industry, civil aviation had never in its history shown a profit. Just as significantly, neither had book publishing. In this sense, then, the CEO and I, despite our apparent differences, were in much the same sort of business, each one needing to justify itself in the eyes of humanity not so much by its bottom line as by its ability to stir the soul. It seemed as unfair to evaluate an airline according to its profit-and-loss statement as to judge a poet by her royalty statements. The stock market could never put an accurate price on the thousands of moments of beauty and interest that occurred around the world every day under an airline’s banner: it could not describe the sight of Nova Scotia from the air, it had no room in its optics for the camaraderie enjoyed by employees in the Hong Kong ticket office, it had no means of quantifying the adrenaline-thrill of take-off.” [Kindle Location 710]
We don’t book a ticket for the plane. We book a ticket for the experience. Whether it’s meeting the family back home, have a romantic gateway, a family fun time, first meeting with a new love we met online, a religious pilgrimage, a solo adventure, or something entirely different. De Botton says, “Travel agents would be wiser to ask us what we hope to change about our lives rather than simply where we wish to go…The notion of the journey as a harbinger of resolution was once an essential element of the religious pilgrimage, defined as an excursion through the outer world undertaken in an effort to promote and reinforce an inner evolution.” [Kindle Location 940]
If a travel agent teams up with a psychologist to offer this kind of service, airports will no doubt see a surge of far more happier and satisfied people in arrival halls.