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I miss airports more than anything else in the pandemic

As most people prepare to queue outside clubs on 21 June, I'll be waiting outside an airport.

03 Mar

My next trip to the airport will begin during the quietest part of the night. When the only thing you can hear is the faint fuzz of lonely street lamps and suburban foxes rattling through the bins. 

Just hours before, I’ll set 17 different alarms to make sure I don’t miss my 5 o’clock taxi. A shrill alarm will nag me awake every few minutes, pulling me away from a nonsensical dream my mind has committed to. I’ll get dressed and triple check the flat so that it won’t spontaneously combust while I’m away and take a picture of the locked door (to remind myself I locked it later on the plane). Finally, I’ll lug my overpacked suitcases outside. The taxi driver will already be waiting for me. Why are they always ten minutes early?

Once in the car, the driver will ask me where I’m travelling to. I’ll answer and ask if he’s travelled lately in return. He’ll reply “not since I left my home country”, which is my cue to ask where ‘home’ is and nod enthusiastically as I listen to his migration story. I’ll tell him that I hope he gets to go home soon, when it’s safe to do so. The polite small talk will fade and I’ll lean my head against the window to watch the orange ball of fire birth its way through the soft, lavender sky. The London townhouses will blur out of view, and the jingling pine tree car freshener knocking against the Islamic car hanging will hypnotise me back to sleep.

“We’re here Miss,” the driver will announce as the car comes to an abrupt stop outside of Heathrow Terminal 5. I’ll widen my eyes, waking myself properly this time. I’ll have arrived at my favourite place in the whole world – the airport.

“I’ve been mourning the inability to pack my most essential liquids into a tiny plastic bag or buy three blocks of Toblerone for £12 in Duty Free”

Since the pandemic has largely stopped international travel, I’ve been replaying similar airport-related scenarios in my head. While most people have been grieving the loss of clubs and social events during the pandemic, I’ve been mourning the inability to pack my most essential liquids into a tiny plastic bag or buy three blocks of Toblerone for £12 in Duty Free.

I miss loading up on pretentious ‘health’ snacks filled with mostly air just before boarding, or picking up a complementary copy of the Financial Times I’ll never actually read. I miss the overlay journeys in Frankfurt when I skimp on direct flights. I even miss rolling my small suitcase out of a toilet cubicle and seeing the reflections of other people inspecting themselves in a giant mirror. I miss how insignificant I feel in those moments. Lost in the lives of others.

In an airport you’re always looking forward. Forward to seeing your family who lives on the other side of the world. Forward to the cheap European holiday which will only consist of a liquid diet. Forward to the three films you’ll binge on a long-haul flight while the plane shakes and you recite stats from Wikipedia about how flying is the safest mode of transport.

It seems like an odd thing to miss – being inside a large, usually ugly, building with infinite corridors leading nowhere. Prone to quick dilapidation, airports are plopped in the middle of the countryside and spill out like a sea of concrete, destroying any natural habitat around them. So many of them are stuck in the year they were erected, but I like their liminality. For two hours before boarding, airports offer a chance to live in the moment and take in everything that’s simultaneously happening around us. 

“Inside the place where air con whirs 24/7 and the lights never turn off, I am anyone and no one, I observe others and create new realities”

The blend of foreign tongues swirling the check-in desks. The desperate cries of a child who has never flown before. The lone businessman buying caviar and champagne at a fancy fish bar, but having no one to share it with. The frantic groups of people about to miss their flight. The patiently waiting toddlers lost in their iPads, sitting next to their teenage siblings equally lost in their phones. The young couples who are very clearly excited to go on their first holiday together. Likely it will be their last – perhaps not. 

For many immigrants like me, an airport is a familiar transient space, one that has to be navigated before going ‘home’. Airports hold the stories of migration, of movement, and keep us interconnected in an age of globalisation.

The airport can also be a terrifying experience because of immigration control. I can recall family members with foreign documentation sweating as soon as the pilot announced landing, as though they had done something wrong. When I’m flying, I’m aware of the privileges of my burgundy passport and the multiple tongues I hold within my mouth. And that it’s also a privilege to even fly in the first place.

In these grey buildings, I can reinvent myself. Think of the bits I want to leave behind as I travel towards the future. Inside the place where air con whirs 24/7 and the lights never turn off, I am anyone and no one, I observe others and create new realities. I lock my eyes with strangers I’ll never see again. I write down the numbers of people I chat to on the plane and never message them again. I hold the scared aunty’s hand during turbulence. I miss all the characters that make up the airport and I can’t wait to be reunited with them once travelling is safe again.