How Not to Be Stuck at the Airport

Heathrow Terminal Five, Gates from Above

Destination: Heathrow, Terminal Five, England

Book: NEW 9/2010, A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton quoted in The Telegraph (Britain):

“I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.”

The Telegraph goes on:

The outburst followed a poor review of de Botton’s book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Caleb Crain in The New York Times.

Sort of gives this humble blog reviewer pause when faced with that kind of enthusiastic reaction from an author. Don’t you agree?

However, the articles also reports:

“He (Botton) also posted a message on Twitter, saying: ‘i was so wrong, so unself-controlled. Now I am so sorry and ashamed of myself.’”

Okay, now that I’ve set the stage to show that  Botton is at the very least  passionate and unpredictable, let’s talk about this slim new book, A Week at the Airport, classified by the publisher (who supplied a review copy) as Travel/Philosophy.

I am not sure exactly what I was expecting when I first heard that Alain de Botton, praised for his work The Art of Travel, would sit at a desk at Heathrow, outside London, for a week and write about the experience. But this book surprised me on almost every page.

Commissioned by the airport owners to write from the new Heathrow Terminal Five, he gets acquainted with airport workers, passengers, and even the CEO of British Airways, the chief occupant of Terminal Five.

I suspect that this was a PR move to counter some of the bad publicity that Terminal Five got after its huge build-up and subsequently disappointing opening in 2008.  Ken and I  flew British Air and stopped off at Terminal Five when we traveled to London, shortly after the new terminal opened.  I loved the architecture, the exposed steel pipes, the endlessly interesting geometry of window braces and the soaring ceilings that made you feel you could fly right inside the terminal. We also loved the Giraffe restaurant, which is a British chain.

Giraffe Cafe at Heathrow Terminal Five

Frequent travelers who spend resentful hours stuck  in airports, tend to try to escape via laptop or cell phone rather than spending time thinking.   Botton thinks. That’s his thing. So rather than descriptions of stuff, he ponders the relationships of people, the emotions aroused by travel, partings, reunions. He starts out to talk about an airplane departing, and winds up in the ktichen of one of the passengers as she prepares for the flight. Or he talks to an airport employee and we get a mini biography of that person, learning about his deteriorating family life.What he calls, “Snapshots of traveler’s souls on the way to the skies.”

An example, when he discusses how airplane food is produced:

How strange and terrifying, then, that we should take our fruit and vegetables up into the sky with us, when we used to sit more humbly at nature’s feet, hosting harvest festivals to honour the year’s wheat crop and sacrificing animals to ensure the continued fecundity of the earth.

There is no need for such prostration now.  A batch of twenty thousand cutlets, which had once, if only briefly, been attached to lambs born and nursed on Welsh hillsides, was driven into the depot. within hours, with the addition of a breadcrumb topping, a portion of those would metamorphose into meals that would be eaten over Nigeria–with no thought or thanks given to their author, twenty-six-year-old Ruta from Lithuania.

In other words, Alain de Botton is not stuck at the airport, because his mind wanders freely to the source and then to the ultimate destination of various passengers and workers. And always, always, he is considering deeper mysteries of human behavior.

Most of the time, I enjoyed these poetic exercises. Occasionally I wondered how much he had recreated from actual conversations with people and how much was simply created from his imagination. At the end, in the section titled Arrivals, though, he talks about people by name, and the photographer catches pictures of welcome signs of those same names.  And an endnote explains that some peoples” names were changed, implying that most were real.

And sometimes the language seems overdone, perhaps calling for Virginia Woolfe’s admonition to clean up your writing: “Kill your darlings.”

But of course I loved the section about the airport bookstore that organized novels by destination–regardless of genre, something we’re very in tune with at  A Traveler’s Library.  But I also liked this section because I think Alain de Botton slipped in a description of his own writing, when he said,

..I was looking for the sort of books in which a genial voice expresses emotions that the reader has long felt but never before really understood; those that convey the secret, everyday things that society at large prefers to leave unsaid; those that make one feel somehow less alone and strange.

Book Cover: A Week at the Airport

The next time you are looking for a book to read on the plane, pick up A Week at the Airport. Just the right size to carry with you, and you may breeze through it on a cross country flight, or re-read and ponder along with the author on a round-the-world jaunt.  At any rate, I recommend it for any traveler’s library.

I really liked Heathrow’s Terminal Five, but in September, when we departed Europe from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, I quickly converted. It is absolutely amazing, with touches like a lending library in the center of the commercial concourse. What is your favorite airport? And how much to you see and think when you are hanging out at an airport?

Vera Marie Badertscher

Travel and lifestyle writer, wife, mother and grandmother. Publisher of A Traveler’s Library and Ancestors in Aprons>. Also co-authored a biography of Navajo artist Quincy Tahoma.

Vera Marie Badertscher – who has written posts on A Traveler's Library.

10 thoughts on “How Not to Be Stuck at the Airport

  1. I thought it was interesting that someone mentioned likely Chicago O’Hare. My only recollections of that particular airport is running through. Always running because the planes are late getting into the airport.

    My favorite has to be Akron, Ohio–friendliest airport ever.

  2. So interesting. It’s true, some airports are much better than others. We were at Denver’s airport on a layover and could not believe the selection of eateries. LAX is lacking in that arena, but I’ve heard they are working with concessioners to change that (yay!).

  3. What a fascinating book. And a fun assignment: sitting at an airport for a week and musing about people and their travels. This book is definitely something that I would read.

  4. Airports are a perfect place for people-watching; no wonder a talented writer was able to use what he observed to write so many compelling words. What an interesting concept for a book.

  5. Thanks for this recommendation. I spent two hours at Logan recently and it did occur to me how fascinating the airport is, a world unto itself, and I was not even in the international terminal!

  6. This is a beautiful description of this book. I am going to put Alain de Botton’s “A Week at the Airport” into the que.

  7. Although it’s always a crowded pain to navigate, I have a soft spot for Chicago’s O’Hare airport – I remember the excitement of picking up my boyfriend (now husband) there 10 years ago on his first trip out to visit me, and every subsequent visit means we’ll have another amazing weekend in the city. Plus, direct connection to the El!

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