Thursday, March 10, 2011

A week at the Airport by Alain be Botton

"The stock market could never put an accurate price on thousands of moments of beauty and interest that occurred around the world every day under an airline's banner:  it could not describe the site of Nova Scotia from the air, it had no room in its optics for the camaraderie enjoyed by employees in the Hong Kong ticket office, it had no means of quantifying the adrenalin thrill of take-off."  from A Week at the Airport by Alain be Botton.

Veteran writer Alain de Botton, who has written prolifically on questions of home, life, travel and friendship, was asked to be the writer-in-residence at Heathrow International Airport for one week.  The airport paid to put him up and put no restrictions on what he could write.  They only asked that he spend the whole week within the confines of the airport.  They even gave him a desk in a public space near terminal 5 where he could sit and write and talk to people.

He produced a really fabulous essay, almost a work of prose poetry, on all aspects of the airport:  departure, arrival, food (from the elite lounges to the food courts), baggage claim, ticket desk, shopping.  He met pilots and employees and baggage handlers and many many travelers and stopped to ask them their stories.

This little book was filled with pictures of the variety of scenes one encounters at the airport like the beauty of the engineering of the airport terminal, the airplanes lined up on the tarmac in the breaking morning sun, meals bring prepared en masse by hairnetted Filipino women, businessmen working in the airport lounge and bags rolling off the conveyer belt.

His stay at the airport produced a love letter to Heathrow, a wide-eyed wondering of the marvels of modern day travel and the people that live the stories under the fabric of the terminal.  It made me wonder about possible companion positions like writer-in-residence at the mall, Disney or the hospital.   It is not a learn-everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-inner-workings-of-the-airport piece, it was just a lazy stroll and a week of ideas about how the terminal--much hated, little noticed is a profound place in our modern age.  Less than 100 pages and chock full of pictures, it reads like a long poem.  Think Virgil for the airport.

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