Most people who travel in the skies will probably remark the tedium of America’s airports. The same squat buildings dumped in a location that most of the state’s population must drive 3 hours to, or find their long lost third cousin twice removed to house them the night before and (most importantly) take their cars back, thus saving you the extravagant bills of airline parking lot fees. To be fair, there are a lot of nice buildings in America that serve as airports, but the people passing through probably don’t stop to appreciate the fountains or nice glass structures because they are too busy waiting in security lines, arguing about the feasibility of bringing their 3.2 oz container of nasal spray with the impatient people in official government uniforms or shuffling to the supposed radiation-blasting x-ray body scanners that have been newly instituted as I write this. (Apparently we will get cancer from this, but as they also say that I can probably get cancer just by sitting on a park bench according to studies, I’m not sure how scared I should be. Although much has been made about the ability to see you without your clothes off, I’m sure that the TSA official scanning that obese man’s body didn’t apply to the job with this technology and the resulting images in mind either.) From the security lines, any good American who travels should know that you should get to the airport 3 hours early – just in case. This often results in either 2 hours and 45 minutes of trying to appreciate the airport architecture, although you’re just irritated that your dad insisted you get here so early and there were 2 people in the line, or 5 minutes of running through the airport while trying to look “unsuspicious” because the line was so damn long you can’t believe Dad didn’t suggest getting here the day before.
Despite these factors, there will always be some subtle (or not so subtle) hints about just where you are in America – or indeed, the world – when you traverse the airport. Detroit, my hometown’s airport, is not always the most exciting I’m afraid to say. Although a new terminal was built which does make it a better experience for all, and the old terminal was renovated so that all the poor saps like me who can’t afford Delta/Northwest prices every time can brood comfortably – I’m afraid thtat the most noticeable landmarks the airport offers about its location are the postcards, Coney Island restaurant, and “automobile memorabilia” shop.
Atlanta’s airport doesn’t necessarily have more “character”, but one of the striking features is its size. I’m fairly confident that they must have hosted a few 1996 Olympics events in its subterranean chambers, as all 7-10 buildings that consist of terminals shuttle you along points A-Z in elongated, massive tunnels. If the apocalypse does happen in 2012, you can rest assured that there will be thousands of Atlanta airport patrons who won’t realize it until they reemerge to surface level. But my favorite part about Atlanta’s airport is the smoking rooms that are set to the side every so often. These small, crowded rooms afford a nostalgic view to what I’m sure was the state of airports in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Sliding glass doors allow such nonsmokers as myself to gawk with amazement at the 40-50 people who cluster together in a haze of cigarette smoke, quenching their nicotine thirst and perhaps reveling that there is one last “public place” left for them to engage in their vice. Nothing says the South, to me, like that. Of course, there are so many people in Atlanta’s airport that the more you stand, the more likely you are to end up getting trampled (usually by a contingent of Marines or other military personnel rushing to the plane that will get them deployed ASAP), so I’ve only paused appreciatively to reminisce at what an asthmatic time America’s public places must have been before the enlightened era of MY generation came along.
I haven’t spent too much time at all the other airports in America, but I can note the striking features of some other ones that I’ve passed through. North Carolina’s airport, for instance, was a busy, clustered place when I rushed through there for a connecting flight, but the designers obviously wanted to add a touch of Southern charm to the place, and so there are lines of rocking chairs placed in locations throughout the airport (mainly by the walkway, so visitors who are too busy to sit down can appreciatively glance at the chairs as they whizz by), some even with plaques commemorating soldiers and other important people. Philadelphia, on the other hand, doesn’t offer even a hint of charm. I’ve only been there through connections, but it was a memorable 3 hour experience to hunt for an outlet throughout the terminal after walking 15 miles to the other end of an ugly, squat structure, passing the nondescript stores and people selling you a “free” Visa that apparently guarantees you 20 million frequent flier miles as long as you pay their annual fees of three thousand dollars. I managed to find an outlet from the 1950s, got a good shock when I plugged in my computer, and after realizing they didn’t have free internet spent a lot of time staring at the cement walls. Once I connected to Boston, however, I was afforded the luxury of a large, modern airport that obviously made good use of those Massachusetts tax dollars. The Boston charm was evident when I asked politely for directions from an official-looking person and was greeted by a suspicious stare and gruff, barking response with lots of pointing in the general direction of the bus stop. My only West Coast airport experiences were from Eugene, Oregon – one of those charmingly small, outrageously expensive places where the officials don’t mind giving you directions, although there are about 2 gates so it’s not likely you need to ask – and an overnight in Seattle, of which I vaguely recall soft illumination and an abundance of coffee smells. There was also the Tuscon airport, which smelled of Mexican food and senior citizens and had a haze of dirt surrounding it, but was very nice anyway because Arizona is much nicer than Detroit in the middle of February.
My international travels have included trips to Puerto Rico (no matter the fact it’s an American territory, it’s still vastly different from any of the States) – where you’re greeted by nice, white marble walls with those small light-up billboards that are advertising for the place you’re already at – and a brief stint in high school to Italy where I was connected through Frankfurt. Frankfurt was, by all accounts and purposes, rather scary to me because I knew nothing of German yet had to show my passport to uniformed Germans who spoke that harsh language (usually reserved in America for World War II movies, and only because it was the language the “bad guys” spoke) – but I managed to make it through, only to get in a rickety little plane to Milan, touch down on a hazy landing strip about twice the size of my suburban driveway, and promptly sit in a 1950s-era building filled with Italians on a smoke break for 6 hours while Lufthansa located our group’s misplaced luggage. (I have to note here that the Italians’ smoke breaks lasted about the same amount of time as our luggage retrieval.) The return flight home, our group had a layover in New York City, which I hope will be the only time I will ever have to go through there. I remember nothing from the jetlag except long lines at customs, and the post-9/11 officials being very suspicious of my Indian-by-heritage, American-by-voluntary-citizenship friend, who they were convinced for some reason was going to bring in many illegal fruits from far foreign places. I’m not sure what exotic fruits there are to have in Italy other than delicious grapes, but she barely escaped from being detained for a time. (I have to note right here that she is now a medical student and always has been an all-around standup young woman). Still, after a night of sleep and a feast of New York bagels, I have to admit being a bit charmed when I re-entered the airport the following day, got inundated with the “I <3 New York” merchandise, and heard a quintessential New York accent on a phone who told her phone buddy to “cwall her fo’ a cwup of cwoffee” next time they were in town. /p>
My favorite airport experience, however, must have been a recent foray back from Florida. By all accounts, the airport we were in was pretty nondescript, one of those nice places with white marble and lots of other Midwesterners who were grimacing at the thoughts of returning from their spring breaks to another 3 months of slush and sleet. But as we sat next to our gate, one of those Florida thunderstorms rolled in, opening the faucets and, more importantly, throwing lightning all over the runways thus shutting them down for a few minutes. The next thing to happen after the announcement of delays was that the airplane in the gate next to us, which we could see via a large, glass window, suddenly lit up for a brief second with an accompanying crack that announced that it had been struck by the lightning. There’s nothing like the weather to tell you about where you are in the world.
Hope everyone has safe travels this year!! :)