Last Saturday I picked relatives up at JFK, and realized that, not only have I not been to an airport in almost a year and seriously miss traveling, but that the very act of going to the airport woke a craving to pick up a book and a mocha and hang out near the gate of a delayed flight (any delayed flight) for a couple hours.
I love being in transit. I don’t know if this is rare, or if people are just so used to complaining about airplanes and airport layovers that they fail to acknowledge how much they enjoy it. Trains most fully satisfy this addiction, as evidenced by the number of travel books focused on travel by train — or I could just drop the name Paul Theroux and you get the picture.
Airports have their own way of catering to the traveler’s soul. There’s nothing like a delayed flight to challenge your powers of self-entertainment and observation, not to mention patience. One of the most memorable days I’ve ever spent was an 8-hour delay in Frankfurt about 12 years ago. I was sitting by a gate after a failed attempt to get on an earlier flight, and was trying to decide between reading a novel or writing in my journal.
Frankfurt at that time was one of the more depressing airports of the Western world. I’d just flown out of Moscow Sheremetovo, which was everything you could imagine about an Eastern Bloc airport and more (or less), and Frankfurt was vying for an airport-most-like-the-Soviet-Union prize in its run-down, ill-lit state.
So there I was, barely 21, just loving being in this new place, and sinking happily into the special state found only in airports while waiting for your next flight: the feeling of being between worlds, something like being between major choices, or stages of your life. C.S. Lewis’s book The Magician’s Nephew (the 6th in the Narnia series) with its dead-quiet Wood Between the Worlds came to mind. I sat there watching the different people and peoples waiting patiently, shoving in line, berating the flight attendant, soothing children.
An elderly woman walked up to me and said in English, “Can I sit next to you?” Of course, I told her. She sat down and told me that she had a long layover for her flight back to Edmonton, Canada (I was heading back from Moscow to St. Andrews in Scotland), and had been looking for someone nice to sit next to. “Your aura looks very good,” she said, and she’d picked me.
We spent the next six hours chatting. I couldn’t place her accent, and she told me she was returning from visiting her family in Slovakia, where she was originally from. She showed me all the pictures of her trip, already placed in a little flip-album (in those far-off days before digital cameras and ubiquitous laptops), a beautiful little wooden home in the mountains and woods, not unlike where I grew up in Montana, coincidentally only about a 12-hour drive south of Edmonton.
It was a beautiful interlude, and defined for the rest of my life how I feel about airports, no matter how decrepit, and layovers, no matter how long. I actually look forward to a 3-hour delay, or more, and sitting in an airport by myself with a book, notebook, water bottle, and mocha pretty much smacks my yoga class on the head for Zen-like peacefulness.
It’s been a long time now, and I’m starting to feel like my college roommate did when she couldn’t find someone to have sex with for a couple weeks (the number of times I got sexiled over those four years …). Traveling enriches my life in more ways than I can count, but it’s not just about the new peoples and places. It’s the in-between places, too, the in-transit moments, when who knows what kind of looking glass will show up to put a new perspective on your life.