Book review: A Week at the Airport

By happy coincidence, I had Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport on my reading stand at the same time April Manning posted on her blog a fantastic musing on how she loves the airport.

I love airports too.

My ears pricked up when I first heard about de Botton’s book because I once spent 24 hours in the San Francisco airport. That was circa 1980 and I had just missed the one SuperSaver flight a day back to Madison. It was about 5:00 in the afternoon. On finding out the next flight I could afford left late the next day, I went to the book kiosk and purchased the two thickest books I could find: The World According to Garp and the Manual of the Occult.

Over the next 24 hours, punctuated only by stolen sleep on a settee in the ladies’ restroom, I alternated between the two. I filled the margins of the Occult with illegible scribbles. (I was studying Tarot at the time.) Garp remained unmarked and I recommend it as the best book of all time to read start-to-finish in 24 hours.

But back to de Botton and April.

April’s been writing “Aye Chihuahua! Our Mexican Adventure” since January 2011, about the consequences of her choice to start a family with a Mexican national and to build a house on his family’s property in Santa Ana, Oahaca. The little family heads south of the border to check on progress and generally introduce April to her in-laws. Cultural immersion (and confusion) follow. She flies back to the U.S. and blogs a mix of sentiments about airports and leaving the story-in-progress in Mexico to step into another one back here… (I almost typed “home” but where is April’s home now, really?)

Check out April’s blog! You couldn’t make this stuff up!

Alian de Botton’s A Week at the Airport is another kind of musing about a strange immersion in travel experience. Invited to spend a week as a “writer in residence” at one of the world’s busiest airports, he dispenses gems.  On watching a man scream and bang his fits on the counter after learning he had missed a flight, he says, “I was reminded of the Roman philosopher Seneca’s treatise On Anger, in particular of its thesis that the root cause of anger is hope. We are angry because we are overly optimistic, insufficiently prepared for the frustrations endemic to existence.”

He doesn’t just observe the airport’s transient inhabitants, he interviews them–the travelers, the service workers, the pilots and staff right up to the CEO. He delivers deft sketches of individuals’ ambitions and experiences, the capsule lives they become as they pass through the airport. Of a little family boarding a 4-hour flight to Greece, he imagines, “As David lifted a suitcase onto the conveyor belt, he came to an unexpected and troubling realisaiton: that he was bringing himself with him on this holiday.”

On the efficiency of airport luggage handling, he writes, “Nevertheless, in the end, there was something irremediably melancholic about the business of being reunited with one’s luggage. After hours in the air free of encumbrance, spurred on to formulate hopeful plans for the future by the views of coasts and forests below, passers were reminded, on standing at the carousel, of all that was material and burdensome in existence.”

As the little book draws to a close at just over 100 pages, he concludes, “We may ask of our destinations, ‘Help me feel more generous, less afraid, always curious. Put a gap between me and my confusion; the whole Atlantic between me and my shame.’ Travel agents would be wiser to ask us what we hope to change about our lives rather than simply where we wish to go.”

There’s some really cool interplay between April’s musings on Mexico and de Botton’s musings on Heathrow. For paired reading, these two definitely beat Garp and the Occult.

I love travel–don’t get to do it as much as I’d like–so I indulge in writing travel memoir, instead. I extend the pleasure of trips long past by thinking along the same paths that de Botton takes, dipping into the lives of others, seeking insights. Like April on her Mexican Adventure, I grow when I open myself to new experience, and grow more when I attempt to write about it.

I’ve published a little book of my own, no bigger than de Botton’s: Write Your Travel Memoir: 5 steps to transform your travel experiences into compelling essays. Shameless plug here.


About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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