This past July a friend mentioned Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport (2009) when I texted him from Heathrow Terminal 5 waiting for my connection to Chicago. A couple of days later, after unpacking was done and I was settled back home again, I ordered the book but then I didn’t read it until last week, when I took another airplane – coincidentally to Chicago.
Tonight, while planning new adventures that will involve being in airports again, I decided it was time to resuscitate this blog with a post on Alain de Botton’s book, as a tribute to my nomadic spirit and, hopefully, as a trigger to rekindle my love affair with writing (both creative and academic), which, alas, has been dormant for too long.
This ramble through airports and books has a prerequisite: Marc Augé’s Non-Places: An Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. The anonymous spaces of transience that punctuate our modern lives…
In the ‘non-place’ of an airport, specifically Heathrow Terminal 5, Swiss-born author Alain de Botton spent a week analyzing the ‘philosophy’ of departures/goodbyes, transition-to-the-airplane, and arrivals/welcomes of international passengers. He was hired by a company that owns airports to be a writer-in-residence, “in full view of passengers and staff, draw together material for a book at a specially positioned desk in the departures hall between zones D and E” (20).
“It seemed astonishing and touching that in our distracted age, literature could have retained sufficient prestige to inspire a multinational enterprise, otherwise focused on the management of landing fees and effluents, to underwrite a venture invested with such elevated artistic ambitions” (10-11), points out de Botton.
How do writers write? Many authors have written about their methods and their habits. My favorite book on writing remains Stephen King’s On Writing.
De Botton at his desk in Terminal 5 had a notebook that “grew thick with anecdotes of loss, desire and expectation, snapshots of travellers’ souls on their way to the skies – though it was hard to dismiss a worry about what a modest and static thing a book would always be next to the chaotic, living entity that was terminal” (45).
De Botton’s style is often lyrical/philosophical but it can also be subtly humorous and ironic.
“Despite the many achievements of aeronautical engineers over the last few decades, the period before boarding an aircraft is still statistically more likely to be the prelude to a catastrophe than a quiet day in front of the television at home. It therefore tends to raise questions about how we might best spend the last moment before our disintegration, in what frame of mind we might wish to fall back down to earth – and the extent to which we would like to meet eternity surrounded by an array of duty-free bags” (61).
Perhaps, this would make a good visual in one of those airplane crashes of Hollywood movies.
Although not throughout engaging, with some dull/naive moments here and there, overall A Week at the Airport was an enjoyable reading – with a noteworthy ending on traveling and memory.
“Travellers would soon start to forget their journey. They would be back in the office, where they would have to compress a continent into a few sentences. They would have their first arguments with spouses and children. […] They would forget the cicadas and the hopes they had conceived together on their last day in the Peloponnese.” (107). (Traveler, have you noticed that cicadas sing differently in other parts of the world?)
“But before long, they would start to grow curious once more about Dubrovnik and Prague. […] They would have fresh thoughts about renting a villa somewhere next year. We forget everything: the books we read, the temples of Japan, the tombs of Luxor, the airlines queues, our own foolishness. And so we gradually return to identifying happiness with elsewhere […]” (107).
(Has de Botton read Calvino’s Invisible Cities? He must have to…)
In Le città invisibili / Invisible Cities (1972), Italian writer Italo Calvino imagines Marco Polo describing to the Tartar emperor, Kublai Khan, the multitude of towns he encountered while traveling across the Great Khan’s immense empire. Significantly, the first category Calvino introduces to comprise all the imagined cities he will outline is “Cities and Memory.” The first city that Polo reaches is Diomira,
“a city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a golden cock that crows each morning on a tower. All these beauties will already be familiar to a visitor, who has seen them also in other cities. But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when days are growing shorter and the multicolored lamps are lighted all at once at the doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman’s voice cries ooh!, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time.”
(Diomira as seen by Giuseppe Lo Bocchiaro)
Soon, the visitor of Diomira will forget that September evening and that feeling of happiness, ready to pack for a new adventure, where the profiles of cities, the smell of trees, the conversations with a stranger, the taste of coffee, the colors of birds, the unfamiliar languages will all melt and mix but will nonetheless retain their unique and specific identity in the traveler’s memory.
While you’re waiting to board your aircraft, relax and read this.
Safe and happy travels, my nomadic fellows!
(Tulum, Mexico, Nov. 2016 – Copyright RT)