A long time ago Pico Iyer wrote a wonderful essay about what it is like to “live in the transit lounge” of life. Today, as I am sitting at the gate waiting for my flight in the Lisbon airport, I am reminded of that essay. For those of us who do travel with some regularity, especially abroad, life can take on a waiting room-like existence. Although Iyer’s thesis concentrates on the life of the traveler, there is also the lasting impression one receives from all other travelers. This has the ability to either depress us or enrich our lives, sometimes one or the other, sometimes both.
First, the traveler assumes anonymity when traveling alone. He or she walks the corridors of the airports in a hurried or relaxed pace, depending upon the time before flight. Most of the travelers I have encountered in the last few years are plugged into their music or talking endlessly on mobile phones. Occasionally I will find a traveler who sits down beside me and wants to talk. I find this very tiring. Normally I like to sit or walk silently and watch how other people interact and behave while waiting for their flights. Therefore, I have come to resent the intrusion when someone sits next to me and wants to strike up a conversation– even when I see someone I know I always try to rush through the conversation so I can get back to watching and listening. Seeing someone I know does happen occasionally and in the strangest places. I do enjoy seeing people I know, but I really have no desire to begin a long conversation. I find the entire thought of this exhausting and distracting.
A few years ago I read a dreadful little book titled “We Are All the Same.” That book recounts an American journalist’s friendship with a South African boy who has contracted AIDS. The dreadful part is implicated in the title, not to mention its reduction of humanity to a common denominator. I’ve always thought that we are NOT all the same, yet when I sit in airport lounges and gates I find that we are disturbingly similar, but not in the ways that the book suggests. I am actually not sure if I find comfort in this or annoyance. I travel to learn something about other people and myself once I encounter those other people. The fact that people in Lisbon or Marrakech eat Big Macs is one of the worst things I can imagine. Traveling should be our attempt at absorption of other cultures and peoples. The presence of a Hard Rock Cafe in Madagascar should be seen as imperialistic. I was horrified to find a line of people waiting to get into a TGIF in Paris. Paris! Yet despite this, I understand the need for the American traveler to visit familiar places and eat familiar food. We need to feel that we belong to something, and when we are traveling (especially alone) we exist in a state of ghostliness. That is, we are here, but we are not here. Eating familiar food can cure that feeling of ghostliness for those who are crippled by the anxiety of being in that state.
For those of us who like to watch and listen, this ghostliness can be en invigorating experience. I enjoy hearing the different languages floating around all at once and bordering on the chaotic. Not understanding the language someone or a group of people next to you is using can actually be a very positive thing. By not understanding the language we are forced to interpret body language and tone. Occasionally we all hear a word or a phrase here or there that we can understand and this helps us to build some kind of meaning out of the conversation one is overhearing.
I love it when I hear small children speaking in a language I do not understand. These children all sound quite intelligent to me and I envy them their confidence in language. I fear that as I get older I have come to distrust my own grasp of language, even English, more and more. At times language fails all of us, but hearing these children running and talking a mile a minute in French or Arabic is inspiring.
Some travelers, especially the elderly, look lost. They have that near panic look on their faces that warns one that if approached, they will stick to one until they find their flight, and sometimes, even their seat on the plane. I try to look busy all of the time so that I am not approached, and most of the time this has worked. At other times I find that I am usually approached for directions to gates or restrooms. Sometimes these encounters can be quite positive. When I traveled to Spain in 1999 I had dinner one night in my hotel. I was alone, and seated next to me was an elderly woman who initiated a conversation. She informed me that her traveling companion, a young woman, had become ill and had to leave. We started talking and she invited me to move to her table. We enjoyed a long, wonderful dinner and then went our separate ways. Now, over ten years later I still remember that elderly American woman with fondness.
Going through security can be incredibly slow and annoying. Now that passengers are required to remove belts and shoes at most airports, the time it takes to get to one’s gate can take longer than it takes to drive to the airport itself. For the most part people seem to take the hassle of security in stride. I am sure that many people gladly trade convenience for that feeling that a would-be terrorist is weeded through the security process. But the truth is traveling has never really carried a high degree of security with it. For me, that is part of the adventure, of leaving the known for the unknown. The whole point of travel, be it for pleasure of business, is to leave home. Once we leave our homes we are exposing ourselves to a certain degree of insecurity. Nothing is ever really secure, and no one is ever completely safe. But one does not have to leave home to figure that out. We have a greater chance of coming to harm on the highways of our hometowns on the way to the airport than we do once we are traveling.
Traveling is really a series of layovers. By this I mean to say that we spend the greatest amount of our traveling time waiting. Whether we are waiting for our next flight, a taxi, in line at some museum or other attraction, or at a metro stop, I am willing to bet that if we added up all of the time we spend waiting to move we would realize that we spend almost as much time waiting as we do being on the move. Nevertheless, I find it all worth it in the end. As bothersome as waiting is, it is a major part of the experience.
Traveling to foreign countries, especially alone, can show us what we are made off. The transit lounges and gates of airports across the world show us the multiple sides of our humanity. We are human beings, so we talk, we laugh, we shout, we smell, we consume, and we sleep, to name just a few.
I would like to go on, but my flight has just been called.