Airports are a special kind of space. Architecturally they may be, like churches and fire stations, iconoclastic, singular, without reference to their context. Which is good because a context is one of the things that they are, by definition, lacking.
There is a very small margin between this special space—the soaring, heavenly kind—and the space we experience there as absence, non-space, space without time, loss.
Airports offer architects an exciting opportunity to move people, physically and emotionally—yet the experience of these sites seems best described, for most passengers, as a sense of being lost in the most active sense—as in “they lost my luggage again” rather than in the passive sense—“I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.” There are reality shows about this idea, and comedy shows sending up the reality shows, so it must contain cultural significance if not necessarily any really significant truth.
This space which cannot be called “void” but rather which is rather the experience of a voluntary loosing of identity whilst in transit between places where existence is actually permitted is also usually situated at the closest point to a “real place” that could possibly be described as truly inconvenient to get to.
Airports are, by their noisesome nature, by their very condition of specialty absence always, necessarily, functionally difficult to get to.
Of course in the US, “difficulty” is expressed as a financial burden: the taxi driver’s lobby has seen to that in almost every major city. This has lead to the terrifying veracity of the very politically incorrect attribution of Atlanta’s high-speed rail link (the only way to get to the airport without taking a cab). The transit system is called MARTA (officially, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) known to locals to mean “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.” Despite being a really good way to get to the airport, very few white people ever actually find this out and so it receives no funding whatsoever from the state or from most (white) counties within the city. Because getting to airports is not just tricky, it is downright political.
In NYC they finally built a light rail solution to connect you to Manhattan from La Guardia but you might be surprised just how hard it is to actually buy a ticket to make this ride legal. Do not be misled by the packaging. The card marked “metrocard” that functions on all forms of transport in NYC is not the same as the identical card marked “metrocard” that will allow you to take this ride, nor can these two seemingly similar types of ticket be purchased from the same machine although a short sprint across an aerial concrete intersection will allow you to make both purchases within a short period of time once you have understood what needs to happen—which may take longer since there is no information posted and no actual people are available to help. If anyone would like to purchase the ten trips I accidentally purchased to and from the airport when I was trying to fill my card with enough juice to get around the city for a long weekend last time I was there, you know where to find me.
In the UK, where public transport defines most experiences of urban space, you might think everything would be clear but actually I recently found myself writing a three page email reply to a simple enquiry from an American colleague about the transport options that can bring a person from, crickey help the ill-informed, Gatwick to South Kensington.
Again, this seemingly innocent difficulty is caused by a political reality represented this time not in an acronym or a ticket machine but in this case by a map, or to be precise, by the absence of the very useful map formerly known as the London Connections map which let a person know how to use overground trains to connect to the underground system. Since Thatcher abolished the notion of integrated public transport with unified ticketing and trans-metropolitan service maps back in 1993, solutions have become obscured between competing companies travelling to the same locations by parallel means and the overarching vision required to weigh the options of time vs. ease vs. cost now belong to the alchemical workings of minds of an age privileged to have travelled extensively before capitalism replaced reason in areas previously thought of as belonging to public life.
Instead of being told the cheapest quickest route to the city, we are encouraged instead to remain at the airport, graze upon bad food and duty-free fashions as though this might help us in some way to become more fully realized, rather than just queasy and oddly dressed. Somewhere there is an advertizing agency trying to sell us the idea that the airport is a shopping destination. Clearly, bankruptcy is key to the future wellbeing all their employees.
Why, you may reasonably ask, do people permit this seemingly inhuman treatment? Why do we not engage in meaningful conversation with people who work for airlines? Why do we not write helpful comments upon the little cards restaurateurs leave with our tab for the very purpose? Why do we not lobby local government and insist upon changes to the way transit systems link us to these hard-to-reach places? Why, perhaps most pertinently, are we permitting airports to charge us more for these “services” than it now costs to actually fly transatlantic?
It has long seemed to me that this extraordinary acceptance of the terrible condition of being at the airport is possible because we, the passengers, are complicit with the passivity of being lost actively by someone else and because, although we do not enjoy this experience of loss, it is very helpful to us in our quest to evade responsibility for the real loss we create each time we part ourselves from our chosen places in the world and go to or return from our friends and families.
It is widely understood that “travel” is different from “tourism”; the former is understood to be authentic, experiential, about growth, while the later is looked down upon by the intelligentsia as a form of indulgent specularity or shallow physical pleasure. As an ex-pat who flies regularly between the UK and the US, between Cambridgeshire and Louisiana, from London via Houston or Atlanta to New Orleans, my experience cannot be described as either travel or tourism but might best be covered by the surprisingly open phrase “going home”—complicated by the reality that this verbiage applies, for me, equally in both directions.
One place is where I am from, where my oldest friends live, where I went to school, where my family home is and where my mother still resides. The other place is where I live, where I work, where my colleagues and neighbors live, where I own property, where I garden, where my two cats and my greyhound frolic in the breathtaking humidity. I have now lived in this place I wasn’t born for almost exactly half my adult life so as I say, both places can best be described as “home.”
The space in between these two places is unthinkable (try looking it up on Google Earth, asking for directions and then clicking the “pedestrian” tab for a convincing representation of the problem) and airports are the terrifying location of my experience of loss (my own separation from people and places and memories) as well as of being lost (actively by the airport, with my full complicity).
Understanding the second portion of this is important to full participation in this being lost and participation is absolutely necessary to me, at least, as a strategy for the monumental mental evasion required in order not to think about the very real distance between all the very real places, things, people and memories that exist for me in these two, dislocated but actual places.
In my own case I have found that the condition I seek is so fragile that having a loved one see it off at an airport causes too much psychic damage and I have been obliged to exclude this possibility from my life—often at great personal inconvenience and/or expense.
The problem is that to have an aging relative see you off inside the non-space of being lost is to forfeit the hard-won illusion of passivity and be confronted, as it were in situ, with the loss itself.
I am talking about the impossibility of collusion with a nameless system in the company of relatives.
I am talking about the problem of explaining to the folks at check-in that the flamethrower in your suitcase is in fact a tool for finishing crème brulée and not a weapon and, further, that you had to pack it because it was a Christmas present from your mother and she would want to be seeing it in photographs of your kitchen renovation in the days to come in front of the giver of the well intentioned gift during a heightened security alert.
I am talking about relatives forcing smiles at the security line entrance and then turning sharply away—their eyes filled with tears.
I have one rule about airports and one rule only. Always go to them without your family—whatever the cost.
To help Americans understand this cost I should say that the going rate for a car service from rural Cambridgeshire to Gatwick is 120 GBP (about $183 at today’s exchange). For those raised in the European tradition, the walk/train/underground/train option is much cheaper with advanced online tickets at a mere 40.80 GBP (about $62.26) and a very similar journey time of about 3 hours plus a half-hour walk across ploughed fields and two changes (with luggage and of course, on arrival, following a 14 hour journey and a sneaky 6 hour time change).
Don’t get me wrong. The passive loss may be voluntary but this is no mere suspension of disbelief. The loss I am describing, complicit or otherwise, is always experienced as trauma.
I am talking about relatives forcing smiles at the security line entrance and then turning sharply away—their eyes filled with tears. A sister and a niece who reside in South Australia and who I hadn’t seen in a decade and a mother whose illness has not progressed so far as to prevent me—thank all the relevant gods—greeting her when I return next week.
This time I am going to stay with a friend who happens to live near Heathrow the night before I travel back so none of this will be repeated.
I wonder what other people do in order to avoid being taken to the airport and seen off by their loving families?