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When I travel, one part of the trip I really look forward to is the airport.
By this I don't mean the actual flight: Airlines appear to operate under the assumption that though you've bought a service from them, they are in no way obligated to provide that service; anything close to an on-time departure is a miracle greater than the miracle of flight itself.
Nor do I mean the part in the air, where water and food are dispensed in the smallest possible increments (if at all), the person in front reclines his chair, intruding on what little space you've managed to seize for yourself, babies wail and a nearby passenger coughs wetly for three hours straight, sending plague-filled microbes into the communal air.
I am not too fond, either, of the beginning part of the airport experience: where you're shuffled, assembly-line style, between various squadrons of airport officials.
The nadir of this journey to the gate is always the security check, during which you're forced to remove far more clothing than seems necessary (sweaters, scarves, hats, belts, shoes – all come off) and stand barefoot on a disconcertingly moist floor while the security personnel – alternately bored or hostile – either glance fleetingly at the X-ray of your things and wave you away, without missing a beat of their conversation, or squint menacingly at their screen and bark at you for failing to disclose your lip gloss.
No, the part of flying I like most is after you've made it through the initial checkpoints, but before you've been marched onto the plane and into squabbles with fellow passengers over space in the overhead compartments.
The part where you're just in the airport, waiting.
This period can last anywhere from half an hour to multiple hours, depending on how diligently you have adhered to the airline's recommendation about preflight arrival time and how committed the airline is to on-time departures.
What I love about this period is that, unlike in the majority of my waking life, I feel no obligation to be in any way productive.
My default operating mode borrows heavily from the Protestant work ethic: Virtue comes from hard work and diligence, sloth is to be avoided.
Much as I often wish it weren't so, I tend to equate idleness with indolence. I do, of course, laze about from time to time, but I can never feel completely at ease while doing so. Underpinning any period of relaxation is the guilty feeling that I should be making better use of my time by exercising, maybe, or vacuuming. At the very least I should be sorting mail while watching television.
Waiting in airports provides a welcome reprieve. Even if there are activities I could be doing (catching up on e-mails, online banking), I feel absolutely no compulsion to do anything.
Maybe it's something in the recycled airport air, but I find waiting in airports very relaxing. The Germans probably have a very precise, polysyllabic word to describe what I mean, but to me it feels like a period of calm waiting, a pause between the chaos of daily life and the rigours of a vacation.
The closest substitute I have ever found for the airport lounge is the hangover, during which the pain of the previous night's excesses drives away the pretense of productivity and I can happily spend a Saturday on a friend's couch watching TV and rehashing our escapades.
Unfortunately (or fortunately) the other side effects of the hangover are such that it doesn't do to make it a regular occurrence.
Which leaves the airport.
I like to drift through the luxury shops imagining I'm the type of person who would normally shop there, perhaps in advance of a yachting excursion.
I go to the duty-free store and sample perfumes and talk myself out of buying a multilitre bottle of vodka. ("What a good price!" says one side of me. "Think of the hangover," growls the other.)
I wander around the terminal, narrowly avoiding being hit by airport golf-carts. There's a surprising amount of art in airports if you look for it. I suss out snack options and electric outlets. I read.
I also like to people-watch: roving bands of adolescents in matching school T-shirts who have escaped whatever tenuous hold their teachers had over them; businessmen, loud and red-faced from the bar; multigenerational families pushing elderly matriarchs in wheelchairs; long-haired youths in hemp pants, usually with musical instruments in tow; pasty-white couples en route to the Caribbean, already wearing flip-flops and straw hats; Amish families in gingham dresses and white button-up shirts.
I like to sit back in my bank of 10 attached chairs and watch them float by on the moving staircase.
No working, no studying, no worrying that I should be founding an NGO or training for a triathlon or learning some do-it-yourself plumbing (all the things that other, harder-working people seem to be doing).
Instead, I take a breath of the airport air and enjoy the pause.