Things you can learn at an airport

By Gabriel Palmer

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Airports are fascinating places. I suppose it would probably be more accurate to say that airports are strange places, or maybe frustrating places, but I’m going to go with fascinating since with an open mind we can learn something from almost any situation, except maybe from watching Nascar. Perhaps it is a bit unfair to discuss airports as one large category – it would sort of be like comparing a carnival to Disney World. The former is a place where fun goes to die (literally) and the latter is the most wonderful place on Earth (no irony intended).

I have traveled through airports that range from the modern luxury and efficiency of Changi airport in Singapore to the Kafkaesque soul destroying gloom of terminal B at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. But in this instance I am not so much concerned with the structure and facilities, as varied as they may be (the squat toilets in the old Delhi airport were always particularly charming), as with the phenomenal encounter thereof. Or in actual English, what’s really fascinating about airports is the curious range of behaviors people tend to exhibit while they are there.

I’m not quite sure who in the film industry decided that they would create the cliché about airports being romantic or the trope about long separated couples running into each other’s arms, but whoever it was clearly never spent much time in real airports. For every tearful goodbye between lovers there are 97 families looking haggard and confused, with some kid who just wet his pants, and a teenage daughter yelling at her mom about how much she hates her and how she doesn’t understand her life, as they run to get to their gate.

Similarly, for every one joyful reunion, you have 57 disheveled half asleep limo drivers with upside down signs, 27 frustrated parents who are waiting for their kid to come home for college for a visit but missed her flight because she was hung over, 14 angry wives waiting desperately for their husbands to return from an all-expense paid business trip to the Bahamas so that maybe just maybe she can get five minutes of sleep, 6 pissed off teenagers whose parents told them to go pick up their grandparents even though they always smell like mothballs, and 1 partridge in a pear tree since someone probably left it once they realized they couldn’t bring it on the plane.

Hollywood images of airports aside, the truly intriguing thing about them, particularly large international airports, is that they are a kind of no-mans-land in which people from distinct cultures around the world are forced to interact under duress. This mix of frustration, dislocation, and cultural interaction in a small space, creates a range of unique interactions that in many ways demonstrate exactly how different cultures really are. Humans at their best have the capacity for self-transcendence, altruism, and love, but after a 2 hour check in line, 3 hour security line and 7 hour delay, we are seldom at our best. It is at these moments they we are most likely to revert to our most basic culturally ingrained behaviors.

Allow me to offer an example. Perhaps the single greatest exhibit of cultural conflict does not arise through the discussion of religion, politics, or economics, but from the need to stand on lines. I was recently in the Vienna airport flying on what I will leave as an unnamed low cost carrier. The line, as tends to be the case with discount airlines, was longer than that of Space Mountain in Disney World during Christmas vacation. After around an hour I finally reached the front of the line which split into one of three check in desks, and just as I did a man and his wife decide to skip the entire line and place themselves next. I being a self righteous American by birth could not tolerate this outrage.

“Sir, there is quite a long line that many of us have been very patiently waiting on. Could you please go to the back of the line.”

He, not being a native speaker of English, gave me a rather curt reply in an unrecognized language along with a hand gesture that I am quite sure was not meant to be polite.

“Excuse me, but you really just can’t cut in front of everyone like this.”

This time he looked over at me, lowered his sunglasses, made a sort of snorting sound  and then said something to his wife and laughed. I was not amused.

“You seem to have misunderstood me. I was trying to be polite. You, your over styled hair, bad attitude, and garish overpriced clothes will be moving to the back of the line now, or I will find the nearest security officer and inform them that I saw someone hand you what looked like a package filled with cocaine.”

The woman, who clearly had a bit more sense than her husband, quickly relocated, while the rest of the people in line applauded. Luckily, they weren’t on my flight.

What is the lesson here? Well other than the fact that threating people with fake charges at airports can get them to move to the back of the line it teaches us 3 important things: 1. What we see in movies is seldom real 2. We should always avoid airports whenever possible 3. Cultures may vary dramatically, but there is always a way to get people to understand.


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