Alex Grech's blog

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lost in Transition

When I was a child, Luqa Airport was the crumbling gateway to holidays, real chocolate and escape. Things change. You grow up, your hair thins, you join a generation of suits with red eyes whose working life keeps them on the move. Until you find yourself in another airport and you stop.

Everyone has an airport story to tell. 300 cancelled flights and a mountain of 28,000 bags over 5 days means a lot of people will shiver at the mere mention of London Heathrow’s new £4.5bn Terminal 5. Somewhere, in Milan or Memphis, lies the unreturned luggage of a passenger who died on a BA flight from Hong Kong to Heathrow on 2 April. “To lose the luggage of a dead person is unforgivable," said his son.

There is something mildly surreal about airports. There are silent airports, electric ones, sad ones, others crackling with life. In most, design has gone riot. Spider-like structures morph out of steel tubes, concrete. Everything seems to be vacuum-wrapped in plastic. The wavy roof at Barajas Airport is supposed to be calming.

Once you arrive, you are sucked into a conveyor-belt of queues. It’s like being back in primary school. There are lines for check-in, then passport check, then security, then the gate, then your seat on the aircraft and then baggage reclaim, immigration and customs checks at the other end. Whether you’re the Pope or Paris Hilton, at some stage, you’re just going to have to queue.

Sandwiched, between the queues, is so-called consumer heaven. Airports are the new plazas, the new town squares. Brands elbow each other for space and your attention. The familiar has made way for the more exotic Giraffes, Wagamamas, and Victoria’s Secrets. There is food for the mind and for the soul. Mountains of pastries, fine leathers, silk ties, smoked salmon, designer trainers, sunglasses, ice cubes, gadgetry. The new colour for luggage is lime. I purchase my guilt offering to a five year-old who doesn’t quite understand why I have to be away.

This is a good place to go numb. To remember that you forgot to take the suit to the dry cleaners. That Dad’s birthday is round the corner. You are lulled to stupor by security ding dongs. Do not leave anything unattended. The fire alarm is just a test, do not be alarmed. The flight announcements at Sofia Airport are made by a girl who is into James Bond movies.

So you ease yourself into a rich tapestry of people watching. A carousel of rabbis, happy shoppers, modern gunslingers, window cleaners with yellow stripes silhouetted against a backdrop of buses and snow-capped mountains. Women with golden handbags and gentlemen with leather holsters. ID Tags. A rose tattoo quivers on the wrist of a waitress with jet-black hair. People hang on to kids, the kids struggle out of the leashes of their comfort zones. Awkward teenagers rub shoulders with silver surfers with men in crumpled suits with nervous blackberries. Deals on the run. Newspapers with Cyrillic lettering. Shields. Feet. Clacking heels. Phones that refuse to stop bleeping. You drum out text messages to people you love, to people you hardly know. Pot bellies, hairy bellies, pregnant bellies. Pouts. A Pekinese lady in a cat suit purrs in the ear of the guy with a bullet head in front of gate B3 at 07.17.

There is humour where you least expect it. The Zurich Airport shuttle has a soundtrack of mooing cows and tinkling bells. “We’ll soon have you naked,” winks the Customs girl in Gatwick, as I studiously remove my belt, my watch, my shoes, my jacket and place it in the plastic box. A granny sets off the alarm system and watches sheepishly as a stranger fiddles with her bra strap. A friend missed a plane and sleeps at a gate at Rome airport next to an attractive girl from Serbia. They raided the Duty free for hams and cheese once they realised the restaurants had closed.

Things go wrong. The checkout girl fixes her makeup and cannot be bothered to check if your bag can be checked straight home. Suitcases break. Suitcases go missing. You arrive in a heap in Vienna from Sofia to find the Air Malta flight is doing a little detour back east to Budapest. A 5am flight to Rome via Reggio is delayed by an hour because Reggio Airport does not open in time to greet the Air Malta flight.

Perfectly rational people turn to gibbering wrecks within a matter of seconds. Anxiety mounts as the bags roll off the carousel. You look in envy at jolly fellow passengers with red suitcases and redder arms. In a noisy toilet it is possible to experience soaring resentment. I start feeling a sense of brotherhood with people who vandalise toilet flushings and write cryptic graffiti on the doors.

Who are these people, who piss on the floor, refuse to flush, spill cartons of coffee and stuff half-eaten burgers into the folds of pseudo-leather seats?
You tune into conversations. “I cannot just live on love and air! Either they pay me my share or I make sure the contract dies! She had keyhole surgery in March. We’re waiting. And this is how you pop your ears. Stop pulling your tongue at that old man. What do you mean, he winked at you?”

Do we need to be dragging all this luggage, all these designer tags? How many of us will still be here, in a year’s time? You eye up the size of your fellow-passengers’ hand luggage and just hope that seat 6D is not next to the Jehovah Witness with a loose bladder.

I close my eyes and try and drift for lift off. An airport is a Faustian farce, full of ants rushing to make it to the top of the ant-hill. We are all cattle now, herded from one check point to the next. Perhaps that is why airports have terminals and gates. We are here to be bounced by a pin-ball machine from one holding point to the next. One day someone will see the business opportunity in running therapy courses for air travellers.

Then the plane starts to board and I am on my feet to join the shuffle before I know it. We are all going somewhere. We all have other lives. We are all nomads now.

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