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Airports: Frontier Nations


Photo by J.C. Burns.

In the waiting area of the Málaga airport for departing flights, a flock of birds nests on the beams. They fly back and forth across the high ceiling. Whenever I fly to Málaga, I observe their fluttering from this side of the window, while on the other side, the planes are taking off. The birds resemble the passengers who observe them: They fly locked within a small world. Their home is the borderland between leaving and arriving.

In all airports, we embody a metaphor that perfectly defines our migratory experience: being in transit. When we’re about to leave, our sedentary half resists abandoning its quietude; and our nomadic half is in a constant state of anticipation for the coming departure. The clash of these forces provokes a sense of loss, of internal discomposure. This it seems is the secret purpose of airports, cathedrals of the present moment, temples of transit, where we, the passengers, begin the liturgy of changing our lives even before we change our location.

If – if only – it were possible, many people would prefer to abolish waiting. They’d much rather disintegrate and immediately reappear in the place they want to be. Today, all transitions seem like obstacles. Seen from that impatient point of view, there are places we find odious: bus and train stations, waiting rooms, airports. At the same time, speed has rendered these waiting spaces absolutely essential. While our anxieties bounce off their walls, these temporary homes make possible the contemplative mode we need to slip into just to keep on running. The introspective effect of airports fascinates me. Bizarre structures that combine haste and quietude, strength and thin air. Within them, the vertigo of our lives collides with a sublime contradiction: We’ve come here to fly, but once inside we barely move. We have the urgent need to leave, but the interior rhythm of the building, its ceremonies and its rules, oblige us to wait. We are that obligatory patience. An urgent future that somehow seems far off.
People try to buy things in airports, but their minds are elsewhere. They poke around, they look at things without seeing. Those who have a coffee or snack focus on an indefinite point that floats far away from their food. Others read books and wander in a fictitious space where there are characters who sit in corridors. But the readers themselves have become characters. Perhaps we simply don’t notice the enormity of the situation: We passengers fabricate time, and in doing so we suspend the immediate future. Just before take-off, the minutes stop altogether.

Saying goodbye is a way to practice dying, but it’s also a kind of resurrection. Airport farewells have two sides, one anguishing, the other liberating. We’re left with nothing, but now we can tackle a possible everything. A good part of our lives is made up of saying goodbye to others or having others say goodbye to us. It summarizes our apprenticeship: We greet things in the appropriate way, and we say farewell to them with the appropriate gratitude. In that succession of airport goodbyes, whose length resembles the path of our journey, we can see our own transformations. The ways in which we leave change as much as those who do the leaving.

It’s commonly thought that nostalgia is the spiritual state of the person who leaves, who remembers a place he or she is leaving behind. Probably the exact opposite is true. While we’re travelling, we have barely any time for memories. Our eyes are full. Our muscles, tired. And we only have enough strength to keep on moving. Time slides over the traveller’s skin. But for a sedentary person, time passes slowly and leaves tracks. Quietude is the central motor of memory. Nostalgia hits the person who stays behind. There is nothing that makes us more pensive than having to see someone off. There we stand, watching the plane become smaller and smaller until it disappears. Which of us, in reality, is disappearing? ■

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