Book review: A week at the airport

After reading the first few lines of “A week at the airport” by Alain de Botton, I knew that it has hit my sweet spot.

“While punctuality lies at the heart of what we typically understand by a good trip, I have often longed for my plane to be delayed – so that I might be forced to spend a bit more time at the airport.”

Oh yes… such a thought has flashed through my mind countless times during my frantic scramble towards the boarding gate.

As the title spells it all out, this book is a documentation of author Alain de Botton’s week as a writer-in-residence where he ate, slept and worked all day long at Heathrow airport Terminal 5, stranded in a fashion like Viktor Navorski from “The Terminal.”

“In a world full of chaos and irregularity, the terminal seemed a worthy and intriguing refuge of elegance and logic,” De Botton wrote. “From our faith in technology to our destruction of nature, from our interconnectedness to our romanticising of travel…”

Through de Botton’s keen and astute observations, the airport becomes more than just a point for stopover but a storyboard of our complex humanity.

Between in the air and on the groundDe Botton argued that humans share a paradoxical relationship with the airport where on one hand, we treat it as a trophy to showcase our ‘technical intelligence and prodigious wealth,’ but on the other hand exist as an epicenter of risk, where we have a higher chance of dying from a plane flight than in front of our tellies.

Despite the danger, moments before we fly, the very last thing we typically do would be to shop at duty-free shops, an activity that seems so mundane and incongruous with the solemnity of our possible impending end.

“In what frame of mind we might wish to fall back down to earth,” De Botton questioned. “And the extent to which we would like to meet eternity surrounded by an array of duty-free bags.”

Also accompanying our secular act of flying are notions of the divine. Citing St. Augustine who said humans are only ‘pilgrims in the City of Earth until they can join the City of God,’ ascension into the skies, De Botton claimed, has been romanticized by images of angels and saints in heaven.

GroundworkOn the ground, human relations in T5 are portrayed as a perpetual cycle of banality and sublimity accompanying the arrival and departure of passengers and flights.

At the departure hall, a couple could be seen ‘shaking with sorrowful disbelief’ at their separation while at the arrival hall, company drivers holding signs nonchalantly could be standing right beside anxious family members peering past the automatic glass doors.

In one of the most memorable incidents from the book, the author saw an angry passenger banged his fists and screamed after missing his flight to Tokyo. His reactions, according to De Botton were ‘recklessly naïve,’ acting as if he lived in a world where travel plans are always assured.

Quoting Roman philosopher Seneca, the passenger’s root of such intense anger is hope.

“We are angry because we are overly optimistic, insufficiently prepared for the frustrations endemic to existence.”

My HeathrowThe author’s colorful experiences made me think back of my own where I spent eight hours lolling around alone in Heathrow Terminal 3 last summer, waiting for my transit flight back to Asia.

Honestly speaking, I could better recall the bits and bob of probably the most unexciting things to mention that I did at the airport than my subliminal experiences at the British museum or the Louvre.

Apart from shopping, where I bought a hand cream from Boots, a book from WHSmith and a sandwich from M&S, most of my time was spent slowly meandering down the bright spacious arrival and departure halls, harboring an inexplicable joy of watching the world go by on a foreign land

“A week at the airport” has certainly thrown alternative perspectives to how we view the airport, which is the first and last stops of our travels, however majestic or simple it may be.

And it sure reminds me of how much I love traveling.

“We may be reminded of one of the reasons we went traveling in the first place: to make sure that we would be better able to resist the mundane and angry moods in which daily life is so ready to embroil us.”


One thought on “Book review: A week at the airport

  1. Sounds interesting. I’ve been in airports a lot. I always like to arrive early so as not to feel rushed. Other than the noise aspect, I like my time at airports, and get caught up on a lot of reading, writing (on my netbook), sometimes knitting. I never mind (reasonable) delays as I have plenty to do. (Of course, unless the delay meant missing a connection).

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