Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A Week At The Airport by Alain de Botton

Category: Travel - Essays & Travelogues; Philosophy; Social Science - Popular Culture
Format: Trade Paperback, 112 pages
Publisher: Emblem Editions
Pub Date: September 21, 2010
Price: $18.99

As I write this I am at London Heathrow's  Terminal 5 on a transit stop between Toronto and Bangalore.  I have 6 hours before my flight to Bangalore and under normal circumstances such a long wait would have sent me over the edge but today I am actually looking forward to it as I get to explore Terminal 5 with none other than Alain de Botton.

Taken from British Airways Lounge at LHR's Term 5 (photo credit Lotus Reads)

In the summer of 2009, at the invitation of the airport’s owner, BAA, which wanted to showcase its new terminal, Alain de Botton spent a week at Term 5. He was told he could write about anything in the four-football-field-long terminal. Infact, he was even given “explicit permission to be rude about the airport’s activities.’’ The result is a slim volume titled simply, "A Week At The Airport: A Heathrow Diary"

So, book in hand I set out to discover Term 5 along with de Botton. The book begins with a brief introduction, called Approach, which describes de Botton’s decision to accept BAA’s offer to be the “writer-in-residence,’’ and the remainder of the book is divided into three larger sections: Departures, Airside, and Arrivals. Since I can't access "Departures" and "Arrivals" I am going to have to stick with "Airside".

But fortunately De Botton's book touches very little on the physical geography of the airport and instead  devotes a lot of ink to passengers at the airport.  Being in an airport, he writes, is an opportunity to observe people, "to forget onself in a sea of  otherness and to let the imagination loose on the limitless supply of fragmentary stories provided by the eye and ear"

Meeting passengers posed no problem  for de Botton as most travellers thought he was an airline employee and therefore a potentially useful source of information on where to find the customs desk or the ATM machine. However, those that took the trouble to read his name badge came to regard the desk as a confessional. Each new day brought a density of stores and soon his little notebook was entirely full with anecdotes of loss, desire, expectattion, "snapshots of travellers' souls on their way to the skies."

Passengers "Airside" at Term 5 (photo credit Lotus Reads)

One particularly poignant story was of a man embarking on what he (the passenger) wryly referred to as a "holiday of a lifetime" to Bali with his wife who was just months away from succumbing to incurable brain cancer. She was only 49 years old.  Another traveller that de Botton encountered revealed that he had two families, one in the UK and the other in Los Angeles and that neither knew about the existence of the other!  De Botton muses that the reason he managed to get such personal and moving stories out of passengers is because when we (essentially land creatures) are about to defy gravity and take to the sky it makes us particularly anxious, thoughtful and prepared to share stories about ourselves we may, under normal circumstances, not discuss with a stranger.

De Botton rues that most passengers rush through an airport, their only intent and focus being to complete formalities and to catch their flight. He thinks it's a pity that more travellers do not stop to enjoy the architecture of the airport building and more importantly, the potential and possibilities that being in an airport can evoke.  For instance, take the departurescreens with their long lists of destinations.  These screens imply a feeling of infinite possibilities and longing.  Where should we travel to?  Casablanca in Morocco?  Phnom Penh in Cambodia? Anchorage in Alaska? The ticket desk is only a few short steps away and they suggest an ease with which we might buy a ticket for a destination "where the call to prayer rang out over shuttered whitewashed houses and where no one knew our identities". There is such potential for dreaming and for our imaginations to take flight (pardon the pun) when we're at an airport but most of us are so frazzled from all the airport formalities that we barely have time to relax and ruminate, or so the author concludes.

Departure Screens LHR Term 5 (photo credit Getty Images)
I loved de Botton's musings on Airline Security. The training of security personnel is so arduous - they are trained to look at every human being as though he or she might want to blow up an aircraft!   They have been trained to overcome all prejudices as to what an enemy might look like: the enemy could be a six-year old with a cute smocked frock and with a juice box in her hand or an eighty-year old grandma with a bunch of Christmas stockings for her grandkids. The levels of alertness that security guards need to maintain is so grueling that they were granted more frequent tea-breaks than any of the other airport employees.

Security at London Heathrow's Term 5 (credit Lotus Reads)

And then no book about an airport could be complete without mentioning the shops and goodness knows, Heathrow's Terminal 5 has an abundance of them...infact, many people initially complained that Term 5 was more like a mall than an airport.  De Botton muses that those people that objected to too many shops had probably considered that in the event of a catastrophe, they wouldn't have liked to have spent their last few moments on earth indulging in a vice like consumerism! :)

Shopping at Term 5 (photo credit Lotus Reads)

Duty Free at Term 5 (photo credit Lotus Reads)

The book is dotted with many philosophical musings and makes for a truly enjoyable read.  Let me leave you with one last thought of a passenger named David who was taking his family to Greece on a vacation.  David had confided in de Botton that his wife was upset at him for putting work over his family.  But in David's mind, he worked hard so that he could give his family vacations abroad and other good things.  De Botton then observes the very true Jewish saying "Wherever you go, there you are" order words,  David will be bringing himself with him on this vacation, would he be able to leave his irritation with his wife behind and enjoy the holiday?  Unlikely.  One's surroundings might change but unless we change the way we think and feel nothing truly changes. This is an important truth of travel.

Christmas Tree in Term 5 Departure Lounge (photo credit Lotus Reads)


Happy Reader said...

Very Interesting book, Lotus. Loved your review as always. I agree many of the travelers just get through the airports not glancing up once to admire the architecture. I am probably one of them too, but I always spend my time in the company of good books. or these days, running around the terminals trying to catch my almost 4 year old before she causes any havoc!

Birdy said...

Very nice review! And what an interesting book. It's such a different concept. I am sure reading the book would have brought Term 5 alive for you!

Too bad we couldn't meet this time... I hope you come again this side sometime ... :)

Megan said...

I think this is definitely a book I need to read. Airports have got to be about the best place to people watch and to wonder where everyone is going and coming from. I've never minded a few hours' worth of layover for exploring and observing. Thanks for your great review!

Lotus Reads said...

Happy Reader, you have no idea how happy it makes me to see you here!!! And as for you not taking note of an airport's design, you are forgiven! With a 4-year old child in tow, that's all you have eyes for...I remember my days of travel when the kids were young, it wasn't easy! But coming back to the airports, yes, I think most of us forget that it can be a valuable sensory experience, if we let it. Terminal 5, I found, used an epic amount of glass and was pretty but in a futuristic fortress kind of way! lol

I really love Vancouver airport's a standout for its use of wood, water and displays of aboriginal art!

Lotus Reads said...


I know, I really,really missed seeing you! Sad that it was such a short trip and that we were both so busy! Next time I'll tell you way in advance, so we can plan a nice bookshop date! :)

A six-hour transit stop can be the most boring thing in the world, but luckily for me, the stop was at Term 5 which is a beehive of activity, and yes, having the book to read made it that much more interesting! You've got to grab a copy before your next trip...and it doesn't have to be via Term 5 either...this is a great book for any airport really!

Lotus Reads said...

Megan, you're welcome and thank you for writing in. I would agree with you...few places are better for people watching! Do you play that "guess the nationality" game? :) When my sister and I travel together we have so much fun doing that. Sometimes I'll even go over and ask the person his or her nationality and we usually end up having a really nice conversation! :)

Leela Soma said...

Writer in residence in an airport sounds a very unusual and intriguing placement for a writer/philospher. Your review gave us an insight into the book and the photos enhanced it. I've not used Terminal 5 yet, tend to fly from Glasgow direct but maybe I should have a go. 'People watching' whether in a cafe or airport offers valueable material for any writer and your quote from the book reflected it. People sharing their stories to Alain was touching. The airport is a veritable global village even if it is only for a fleeting moment in all our lives now.Wonderful review Angie.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar said...

Great cover, Angelique. And a promising premise too :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Leela and thank you!!! I was dreading the longish layover but, looking back, I see how much it enriched me!

You are so right about airports being a veritable global village - I must have encountered atleast a 100 different nationalities that day. Thank you for mentioning the photos...I took those on my way back to Toronto. I should also mention that De Botton's book is also choc-o-bloc with lovely photos.

Lotus Reads said...

Thank you Hansda!!!!!!

Dave said...

Your blog site gets better and better. Your love of a good story is so inspiring. I’m proud of you and I’m proud to have known you.
Merry Christmas 2010

Sanjay said...

Thank you for a most enjoyable review Lotus. Enjoyed reading it and your excellent photos made the read more fun.
Good point about travelers not noticing the architecture and other things in their surroundings.
I try to notice those if time permits and esp the destinations then I do let my imagination fly.
I do think that not every one always feel "confession like" due to the anxiety factor. Maybe it also take a certain personality type to want to talk? Dunno I could be wrong.
I do want to ask you though, once a book of this kind is written, would another one add much to the genre(assuming it qualifies as one)?
Was there anything you did not like about this book?

Sai said...

THanks for such an enjoyable review. I love Terminal 5. I had a 3 hour layover there on my trip from Mumbai to Newark.

You know I absolutely love people watching. I wonder about their lives...where they might be headed to.

Brajesh Chandra Pandey said...

Quite interesting book .good work lotus..

jamesreegan said...

With a 4-year old child in tow, that's all you have eyes for...I remember my days of travel when the kids were young, it wasn't easy! But coming back to the airports

jamesreegan said...

'People watching' whether in a cafe or airport offers valuable material for any writer and your quote from the book reflected it. People sharing their stories to Alain was touching.