There is a scene in Up in the Air in which George Clooney’s character identifies the skies as his habitat and airports as his home. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros define home as “wherever I am with you.” As I spend 38 hours in 5 different airports and 3 different continents on my own journey to a home of sorts, I share my observations on departing, arriving, airport coffees and altitude-induced cankles.
Hour 1: Wake up to a cloud of fog so dense that I cannot see my own luggage at the back of the pick-up truck…from the passenger seat. In Thessaloniki, Greece, fog means airport closures, protests and virtually a national holiday. In northern Kentucky, it only means a 15-minute flight delay (and that the Thessaloniki-born traveler gets mocked for the inferred primitiveness of her home country). The next forty-five minutes are spent praying that we do not hit a deer, squirrel, or tractor en route to the airport and that the books at the top layer of said luggage survive said blanket of fog without their pages turning into a humidity-induced accordion.
Hour 2: Chicago O’Hare calls this area the Kiss’n’Fly. Athens International goes for the more formal “The Farewell Lounge.” In Kentucky, it is a nameless curb. If I had a dollar for all the curbs at which I have kissed and cried, for every curbside check-in porter who has seen me clutching hands and reiterating love, I could actually afford to buy a ticket for a seat that does not neighbor with the bathroom, reclines, and is not part of an aircraft that departs at hours only suitable for coyotes and insomniacs. Wipe tears, lift bags, commence pangs of missing and nostalgia.
Hour 5: I wake up as the plane is taxiing at La Guardia, a family is making plans to visit the Statue of Liberty, everyone around me is checking an iPhone (also apparently known as an instrument with which to flirt while airborne, per a dear fellow traveler), and when I open the overhead bin “using caution because objects may have shifted during the flight”, I get hit with an origami flower that says “make the world a better place” on its stem, edged into my carry-on by a loved one’s little sister.
Hour 5.5: I await the LaGuardia-JFK shuttle next to a man who looks like Kofi Annan. I am pretty confident that a retired United Nations Secretary-General does not fly Delta Connection or attempt to close deals sounding an awful lot like the Mafia while smoking profusely outside Domestic Arrivals, but I continue to stare regardless.
Hour 6ish: Stieg Larsson has thrown up all over JFK. [Not literally, though while we are on the subject, I am 90% confident that my port of wireless connectivity of choice is conveniently located right next to a little boy with a case of the runs.] Everyone around me, feces-perfumed little boy notwithstanding, is reading the orange and green books on the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or the Leopard Earring or something — those books which, much like Justin Bieber and the show ‘ The Jersey Shore’, became popular while I was blissfully tucked away in communities of conflict without People.com’s daily round-up blaring at me from the back of a NYC taxi.
Hour 7: I have a front row seat to the lounge of tears. Lovers reach over the TSA rope before the passport and boarding pass cross-check to kiss, grandparents remind the youngsters to wear a sweater on the plane because it’s chilly and mothers bug college-bound students to not eat pizza past security. There is a sense of both interruption and possibility about the security line. Behind it lies the world everyone is leaving behind – regardless of whether they are propelled forward by anticipation, dread, or routine. Past it lies the world of expectations: a backpacking trip around the world, a weekly business trip, a return home, or the first time leaving it. The opening sequence of Love Actually, filming actual reunions of loved ones at airports, captured the joy of arrivals halls. At the departure line, the joy of the road is mixed with a latent sadness at what and whom we leave behind. In the face of every goodbye at JFK, I see a loved one I too have left behind.
Hour 9: Eat Everything You Cannot Find in Greece Extravaganza.
My dinner: Fried rice, bubble tea, a slice of carrot cake. And I am not even hungry. I am either hit by some sort of Perpetual Immigrant anxiety at leaving and not experiencing America again for a while, or by a deeply American need to eat it all because it’s on sale.
Hour 13: Finally aboard the transatlantic flight. Armed with an eye mask and determined to make sleep my crusade, I put away my book, close the window blinds and start to count sheep.
Hour 13 and 15 minutes: Up to 1,000 sheep and no sleep to be seen.
Hour 27: Plane touches down, knees are unfolded from the fetal position, and feet push up against the boundaries of my shoes. My ankles are the size of an elephant’s.
Hour 28: At the Istanbul airport, having cracked into a cafe wireless network whose password was – predictably – ‘Istanbul’. Ramadan is observed here and it is the time before the prayer that ends the day’s fast. There is a deeply festive sense lingering at the airport. Next to an Asian girl brushing her teeth and me attempting to splash some water on my tired face, there is a woman seeking to perform her ablutions. Call to prayer sounds from the mosques inside the airport, dates and other fruit are handed to those ending their fast, and the Duty Free shopping public and tan tourists returning from vacation mix with those steeped in their faith. Girls in barely-there shorts and tank tops zoom past women in hijabs, reminding me of Turkey’s unique and complex place at the crossroads of faith, secularism and diversity. I remember the Egypt days of last year, with the iftar dinners and the Friday prayers. A year ago, I could not bear my shoulders to the public in the way I am now – but a year ago, I felt alive and jarred and prodded to think and reflect. I watch a flight to Cairo board, and I wish I were on it.
Hour 36: I have yet to have a cup of coffee. Either Colombia taught me poorly, or I am taking the ‘flying healthily’ mantras to heart. Minus the Eating Extravaganza of, oh, fifteen or so hours ago.
Hour 38: Greek taxi-drivers. They love me. It is very much a mutual appreciation. Conversations with them reliably cycle through the following milestones:
“This country is going to hell.” “Coming from vacation? What do you mean ‘conflict zones’? What do Mum and Dad say about that?” “Mind if I smoke, sweetheart? Would you like one? Good. Don’t smoke. It kills.” “My son/nephew/third grandchild five times removed also studied History/Literature/something vaguely related to what you studied. Not in America though. Here. We do not want them to leave home.” “This country is going to hell, have I mentioned?”
It is past midnight when I enter this taxi, having arrived into an almost empty arrivals hall and a closed Metro at Athens International. We talk about what the driver considers the inevitability of war and how nobody deserves to witness the cruelty of conflict. My brother spots the decelerating vehicle from the balcony, grunts as he carries luggage up the stairs, we both nearly trip over the dog shaking her butt with joy, and I collapse into bed.
The road is delightfully infectious in the thoughts it triggers. Even when the possibility of such joy is only experienced through airport newsstands, gift shops with stuffed pandas and Manicure Express lounges, it becomes hard to forget what set us on the road in the first place. Exhausted and with an aching back, I find myself unable to sleep.
The sun rises over Athens, 42 hours after my journey began. I vow to get on the road again, as soon as possible.