As I write this, I am sitting in a reclining chair in a small lounge in the Munich airport as I await my flight to Cairo. Munich’s airport is much like most other airports I have traveled through. Lots of shopping, overpriced chain restaurants and a number of amenities designed specifically to attempt to mitigate some of the unpleasantness that is the modern security state’s iron hand in dealing with travellers, sans velvet or otherwise.
Sitting here looking at a small garden of non-descript plants that can be found in any office in the world. I am not even sure if they are real or plastic, I hope they are real in order to provide even just a modicum of nature in an otherwise stile environment. This little oasis reminds me how much as changed in the airports over the past few years.
I when I fly to Bordeaux in 2000, I had a layover in Detroit. All I had to pass the time was an endless loop of a CNN feed made specifically for airports. The loop would last about an hour before it repeated again. By time I was ready to board my flight, I truly understood what purgatory meant. Of course, back then I didn’t even have a laptop to occupy myself or even more to the point, there were no smart phones to use as my own personal entertainment system. The internet existed, of course, but it was still very much in its infancy. If I wanted to pass the time, I had to bring my own material or allow myself to be lulled into a state of stupor watching the CNN talking head natter on over and over and over.
The idea of airports, train and bus stations standing in for a concept of purgatory where souls of travellers become lost as they move from destination to destination, where the human condition is played out in a micro cosmos, a Pilgrim’s Progress for the package tour set, is not a new one. The comparison is easy to see. Whatever our destinations, we travel often to escape our current reality. Even if it is something as enjoyable and exiting as seeing new places and meeting new people or old friends. We are leaving point A for a better point B. And I think it is in that process that we expose souls t0 a kind of mortality. Going through the indignities of security, the tedious waiting, the long lines and jostling with strangers who are almost all in a state of exhaustion, frustration, and stress, especially if they are travelling with children of any age, is a sure way to, if not lose faith in humanity, then certainly question our value as a species.
Technology has played a major role in providing new ways to entertain ourselves as we wait. And yet, though we no longer prisoners of contracted newsfeeds or to no choice of in flight entertainment, these distractions have not reduced the purgatory that is the airport. Our efforts are driven to stave the boredom of waiting, the discomfort of having to being too hot or too cold, of dealing with tired and hungry children, of the anxieties we may be feeling about where we are heading. No matter what we do, we leave a part of our souls here. It surprises me that there are not more ghost stories set in the airport waiting lounge. But this is a trade off millions of us are willing to make because the alternative could be just as soul crushing – seeing no more than our little plot unaware and untouched by a vibrant and beautiful world.