Caught in transit, our columnist stops pretending he’s in a movie to discover a world of real life drama.
I had missed my flight from Amsterdam to Vienna and had several ghastly hours to spend hanging around in Schiphol.
Airports can be melancholy places, great comfortless supermarkets of anxiety and loneliness. There are so many people funnelled together, all wanting to be somewhere else, all for their own private reasons, all so guarded and inward that it’s quite easy to forget that you are all there being human together.
At first I felt sorry for myself, drifting like a half-sunken plastic packet down the green cold canals of the food courts and duty-free shops. There are only so many samples of expensive cologne you can spritz on yourself before the assistants start recognising you, and there were still five hours to go. I didn’t have any conscious plan to wander along to the arrivals hall, but I drifted and I bobbed and the next thing I knew I was standing at the metal barrier in front of those sliding glass doors, amid a throng of people waiting for their loved ones.
There are different categories of arriving passengers. Some come striding out of the doors as though they’re the only ones there, scowling at their phones as though engaged in weighty business and not in fact just checking to see who liked their last Facebook post. Some emerge blinking and startled at the waiting crowd, as though they’ve just stumbled into a surprise party and it’s not even their birthday. Some stand there a little sadly just for a moment, scanning the faces for one that’s familiar even though they know no one’s waiting for them. There were even a few people who seemed to be performing what I consider my signature arrival move: striding smoothly through, neither too fast nor too slow, with a soundtrack playing in their heads, silently pretending to themselves that they’re James Bond arriving in Jamaica or Kyoto, on the lookout for agents of Spectre.
It was unexpectedly moving to be there amid the small joys and dramas of arrival. A girl burst into tears as she hugged her boyfriend; a young man blushed in embarrassment as his parents hollered and made a fuss; an elderly woman met another elderly woman and they both stood there wordlessly, trembling a little and looking at each other. How had it taken me so long to realise that this is how I should spend every spare minute at an airport: in the arrivals hall, where emotions are the strongest, where people are looking outward to other people, where love is most visible.
The people around me had a special excitement. They were gathered in small groups, holding elaborate hand-made banners saying ‘Welcome home, we’re proud of you’ and ‘Our hero is back!’ It puzzled me until the tall, muscular men carrying army kitbags started emerging and being submerged in love from their families. ‘I have been waiting three months for you to kiss me’ read one woman’s sign. Her husband was a burly soldier with a red beard, and when he came through and saw her he didn’t make her wait a moment longer. I wanted to applaud.
But there was one woman, all alone, carrying a very young baby. She didn’t have a sign but stood very intently watching the glass doors. The other soldiers gradually emerged and the crowd dissipated, but still she stood there. Soon it felt like it was just her watching the doors, and me watching her. When it was clear there was no one else coming off that flight she turned with her baby and walked slowly away. Maybe I shouldn’t spend too much time at the arrivals hall. I don’t think my heart would stand it.
Read this story and others in the July issue out on sale now.
This story first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.
Our March issue features a self-catering trip to the Seychelles that you can afford, a karoo secret retreat, learning to fly-fish in Rhodes and a joburg road trip for beer lovers.