At the airport arrival area

We live on a wandering planet.
—Saint-Exupéry

Feeling sad? Worried about the human race? There’s plenty of good reasons to feel this way: climate change, the ill tempered, feces throwing orangutang in the White House, a growing world wide oligarchy, yet another digital privacy indignity.

A place of solace can be found in an airport arrival area. It’s an unexpected source of relief, a place for the care of the soul, and these days, our souls need all the help they can get.

A Thursday afternoon in August, all the world is on the move. I’m early to Terminal 1 in Zurich, where Annie and Catherine, after first flying Montreal to Paris, are now on a Swiss Air flight from Paris. The restricted arrival area inside the secure zone is behind frosted, opaque glass, although one end the glass is clear and you can see passengers getting their luggage off carousel #15. I’m having a hard time remembering how it all was before metal detectors, 9/11, the rise of the TSA, and similar events began the era of necessary indignities for air travel.

My first memory of waiting at an airport is in the mid- to late- 1960’s, when my father returned from Viet-Nam, late at night or early in the morning. I recall going out to the recently completed Dulles Airport, built at what was then out in the middle of nowhere. Leaving the 495 beltway and driving our west, there was a lot of nothing, until suddenly the dark was broken by a distant, brilliant white apparition, white like the best monuments in the nearby city, surely one of the most beautiful airport terminals, buildings really, ever: the curved concrete roof, the chess piece airport tower.

My mother captured the moment in one of her many articles for Army Magazine; from the April, 1965 column title “Warrior’s Return”:

Meeting husband at the airport as he returns from the wars presents some comlications. You can expect the arrival time of his plane to be somewhere between 0100 and 0300 hours, no matter where you live or where he embarked. That is, the plane is scheduled to arrive at that hour; at the airport you are informed that it will be at least one and a half hours late. You wonder what possessed you to bring the children in the first place.

Some years later, sister Courtenay has been backpacking through Europe with college friend Mollie, to Spain, to Greece, to places in between, back in the days when the book to buy was Europe on $5 a Day. We may have been at National Airport. Courtenay eventually emerges, burden like a Himalayan sherpa: backpack full, each arm carries a bag. One bag contains pottery bought someplace and some how intact, and in the other she carries a two man raft she bought for me and my brother. You read that correctly: a raft, with two folding paddles. It was olive green, trimmed with orange or red, and later that summer we rode the waves in it at Bethany Beach.

There is, of course, archived commercial media, either in my mind or on servers, about how it used to be: a funny Alaska Airlines commercial, maybe from the early 1990’s, where a frustrated traveler repeatedly fails the metal detector test, and is reduced to wearing only his black leather shoes with black socks, halfway up his pale, hairy calves, boxers shorts, and a wife-beater t-shirt; or a Tom Hanks Meg Ryan movie, when Hank can walk all the way to the departure gate to see off an annoying girlfriend at the airport lounge jetway; a moment later, after her departure, he notices the lovely Meg Ryan deplaning from the next gate; I think that was all late 1980’s.

These days everyone waiting for friends and family stays back behind the lines and away from the baggage claim exit doors. When the doors open, just inside there are some non-papal Swiss airport guards, in their dark blue and black uniforms, not gold, blue, and red, and they carry sidearms instead of halberds. Unlike the papal guard, there are women in the Swiss police force.

Locals and regulars are the most obvious and least interesting: not being met by anyone, and with an eye on the train time table displayed on the overhead screen, they burst through the exit doors, immediately turn left, weave through the crowd, walk as they ride the down escalator to the levels of the train station, hoping to catch the train that leaves in five minutes for the Zurich Hauptbahnhof.

Standing near me is a chauffeur; he’s big, balding, a bit pale, in a black suit he looks uncomfortable in. He is talking on his cell phone. On his tablet the name Rajev, which he holds landscape oriented, held up with his palm and leaning against his belly. After a while two Indian women walk out, see him, and approach him. Still talking on his phone, he nods to the women, looks over their paperwork, gestures them to follow him, and walks outside to his waiting car…still on his phone.

Elsewhere is a man holding up a sign indicating his is with the Zurich Playhouse and Stage. He is tall, in bell bottom jeans, a burgundy t-shirt, and a driving cap. A young woman in a mustard yellow one piece dress, who just came through the doors, approaches him and introduces herself. Speaking English, she apologizes for not being able to call him once she landed, as her roaming does not work here.

Several times there are young people who seem to be traveling alone. It’s often boys, twelve years old, met by men who seem to be their dads. They emerge tentatively from the baggage area, wearing a Burton backpack and pulling rolling luggage. Waiting dad is in shorts and an untucked, short sleeve summer shirt, slip-on leather shoes. Sometimes there’s a handshake, other times an abbreviated hug. Summer with him per the divorce agreement? I flew alone once as a kid, several million years ago: a Braniff Airlines flight, probably from National Airport, as it must always be called, to Waco, Texas, where my grandparents were waiting for me.

Babies and young children, upon arrival, are quickly detached from their parents by those waiting, then thoroughly smothered in kisses and hugs and affection. This is as it should be.

There are several groups of yopros: young professionals, late twenties and early thirties, out of university a few years, but not yet with kids, meeting other yopros. What’s on the agenda? A bit of hash and hiking in the mountains? Talking about books and Ubuntu, then a sail on the lake? An art exhibit followed by binging on a Netflix series? I feel better about the future when I see them: they seem optimistic. Perhaps one reason is they live under a system they don’t need to fear.

A couple in their early thirties are holding a large ‘Happy Birthday’ banner. In time the victim, a young man, comes out. A few more people have joined the group. Staying in the arrival area, they pull cans of beer out of their pockets, and hand him one. The beers are opened (drinking in public is generally tolerated), and they all sing the Happy Birthday song, in English with Swiss German accents. Gifts are opened, one of them being a really ugly Sherlock Holmes wool hat. Later an older woman arrives with a German Shepherd, suffering from a bit of hip dysplasia (the dog, not the woman), who immediately begins a happy rur-rurring sound at the sight of birthday man. I think if the gang had brought enough beers, they would have been handing them out to everyone in the arrival area.

For the past ten hours I had followed the progress of Annie and Catherine’s flight across the Atlantic, using Flight Aware or Flight Radar. It’s a new ritual, a suspect variation on a theme from Fear Of Missing Out, but I’m not sure it has advantages. Other than knowing their actual landing time, available from the airline’s web site, what is the value of seeing their plane over Montreal, New Brunswick, the north Atlantic, and so on? We have insight, but no control.

About the time they board the plane from Paris to Zurich, I am already on the train from Chur.

They arrive. They’re a bit a fried: travelling west to east is always harder. It doesn’t matter. I like the press of my wife’s body against mine. My lovely daughter is taller, every day less a girl and more a women.

We head downstairs to catch the train back to Zurich, then Chur.

2 Responses to At the airport arrival area

  1. One of life’s unique pleasures occurs the moment you step out of the jetway and into the terminal. The flight is officially over: you are released from the tin can and all its restrictions; you are free.

    • Agreed, especially if you are of a certain height—you understand what I mean. Mostly I fly steerage, so it’s a relief to finally deplane.

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