Last summer the British philosopher Alain de Botton spent a week at Heathrow. He wasn’t stranded between flights, or forced off Eurostar after the temporary closure of the Channel Tunnel, rather the lucky fellow had been appointed the airport’s temporary writer-in residence.
Alain spent his week at Terminal Five, sitting at a desk in the departures hall, wandering down to arrivals, inspecting the shops and lounges, calling by the food-preparation kitchens and security lines, talking to just about everyone who crossed his path. His book ‘A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary’ is wry, funny and intelligent. But his greatest achievement – as The Economist observed -- is the way he forces readers to rethink the mundane.
In the book Alain writes about the universal hope of a greeting from ‘someone significant’ as well as the everyday, emotional reunion of family, friends and lovers at the arrivals hall. Earlier this week I was at Berlin’s Tegel, for me the most cozy big city European airport, waiting for my brother and family to arrive from Canada for the Christmas holiday. Their Lufthansa ‘feeder’ flight from Frankfurt had swept up travelers from half a dozen international Star Alliance destinations – Toronto, Houston, Bangkok, Tokyo and Sydney – to deposit them in Berlin.
I waited beside a young Australian. Behind us stood a Brazilian. Together we shifted from right to left, gazing around pillars into the baggage reclaim area, trying to catch sight of a familiar face. We saw the first bleary-eyed passengers walk through the gate and into waiting arms. A young, tanned arrival – who’d obviously been away from home for many months -- fell into her father’s arms. They held onto each other for over a minute. A young man wearing a Stetson was greeted with happy cries and a bed-sheet-banner. ‘Klaus! Wilkommen! Du bist zu Hause!’ He embraced his friends and family one by one, tears in his eyes. Back inside the baggage hall a Japanese mother held her new-born baby in her arms, waving his small hand at her own mother waiting on our side of the barrier.
At that same moment Lufthansa ‘feeder’ flights were touching down in Munich, Hamburg, Leipzig and a dozen other German cities, delivering travelers into the arms of their loved ones, facilitating the enactment of similar scenes thousands of times across the rest of Europe. It was a ‘mundane’, everyday event, and it moved me deeply.
A few minutes later my brother, his wife and children strode through the gate. We too fell into each others’ arms. Only Valery, my seven-year-old niece, didn’t say a word. Her silence wasn’t a surprise. Not only was this her first visit to Germany, it was her first trip outside of Ontario. She had never experienced a place where English wasn’t the dominant language. With brown eyes open wide she stared around us at the strangers shaking hands, kissing, holding a wailing baby, weeping on parental shoulders.
Valery sat beside me in the taxi ride to our apartment, listening to me talk to my brother and then to the driver. She stared out at the passing, foreign scene. After ten minutes or so she looked up at me and said, ‘Germans speak German.’
‘That’s right,’ I replied.
‘French speak French. I heard them on the plane,’ she went on. ‘Japanese speak Japanese. Canadians speak Canadian. Africans speak African.’
I nodded. No need to correct her quite yet. I wasn’t going to dampen her enthusiasm.
‘But you know what? They are all like us. And we’re like them. We’re the same people.’ She paused. ‘Although some of them wear very strange hats.’
Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Eid mabarak*. Diwali wishes*. Happy holidays.
* I know that Hanukkah was two weeks ago, and that Diwali and Eid Al-Adha were way back in November. Please excuse my tardiness.
Donnerstag, 24. Dezember 2009
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