Monday, April 20, 2015

Fourteen Hours In Nowhere

I will tell you stories about my trip to Greece last week and the work I had the privilege to do with my friends John Yiannoudis, Daniela Kralli, Spyros Kasimatis, Angelos Patsias, and the Dorothy Snot Preschool community, but I'm still processing the trip and my jet lagged brain isn't ready to put my thoughts together in a cogent manner. For a flavor of what we did there, I've shared some of what others have posted on the Teacher Tom Facebook page, but today I wanted to share some thoughts about being nowhere.

I'd not really studied my itinerary, at least not the return part, and found myself on Saturday night landing at the Frankfurt am Main International Airport with a 14 hour layover. This is not just one of the biggest airports in Europe, but the world, a massive, modern facility, featuring restaurants, retail and other services that make it a city unto itself, with concourses instead of roads and travelers instead of residents. There's even a full service supermarket in there. I've passed through this crossroads village, and others like it, many times before. There's something both appalling and comforting about their clean-cut sameness: places where you can always find the latest edition of the New York Times, a colorful collection of Swatch wristwatches, giant bottles of perfume and bars of chocolate, and quiet places to sit, plug in, and snooze to the lullabies of conversations being spoken in languages and dialects from around the globe.

In his song "If Jesus Drove a Motor Home," Jim White wonders:

Now if we all drove motor homes, well maybe in the end,
With no country to die for, we could just be friends.
One world as our highway, ain't yours or my way.
We'd be cool wherever we roam if Jesus drove a motor home.

Replace motor homes with jets and highways with skyways and one can get a glimpse of this vision in places like Frankfurt am Main International, especially when laid over, not rushing to make a connecting flight. I always look forward to a few hours of peaceful anonymity in these places, walking slowly through the world's rainbow, it's business suits and turbans, it's crying babies and hobbling grandmas, it's families and loners and freaks. There is no official language or currency (or at least there's always a place to buy the currency you need), no national costume or custom or culture. These places are nowhere.

In the morning I'd been part of a panel discussion on education in downtown Athens before an enthusiastic, angry, frustrated and excited standing room only crowd of Greek parents and teachers. This had been somewhere. At the other end of my journey was home. That was also somewhere, but for 14 hours, I was here, nowhere.

I'd not made any plans for my 14 hours and as I slowly walked along the concourse upon deplaning my flight from Athens I contemplated just stopping. I would set myself up at one of the gates, spread out over a half dozen seats and just be amidst my fellow nationless people, my fellow travelers. Maybe some of them would stop with me in this world where there is no yours or my way, we would chat, cobbling together our own language, being cool wherever we roamed. Then I started getting to the restaurants and I considered grazing my way through them, one or two hours at a time, yo-yoing through the familiar routine of starting with a drink, perusing the menu, ordering, eating, whipping my mouth with a napkin, settling up, then doing it again and again all night long. 

When you're nowhere the only time is the one printed on your boarding pass and there is no one there to judge or question what you do in this timeless space.

I ground to a stop and sat with crossed legs to phone my wife for the first time in a week, having not wanted, until now, to incur international roaming charges. During her days as an executive with Volkswagen she had several times stayed at a hotel right there in the airport: that's what she thought I ought to do. Her argument about a good night's rest made sense.

When you're nowhere, there is no weather. On the tarmac, through tinted windows, it looked sunny and mild, perhaps a little breezy. 

I took my time. As I passed a Lufthansa frequent flyer lounge, I stopped to ask the hostess about the hotels. She said there were two, but quickly added that I could save money by taking a "hotel shuttle" to a place nearby, but not actually attached to, the airport. In any event, she directed me through a maze of hallways and escalators to the large "Fraport Information" counter where they would be able to tell me about my options. They are very helpful in nowhere, or at least they've set up systems that travelers might find helpful. For one thing, there are signs everywhere, there are announcements, there is cording set up to help us form those first-come, first-serve lines. There are golf carts and wheel chairs and car rental desks. There are train stations right there in the airport, moving walkways and escalators. Maybe all this systemic helpfulness is because this is nowhere and we need help finding our way.

It's impossible to get lost for more than a few minutes. As a traveler in nowhere, I find that comforting.

It turned out that one of the airport hotels was featuring rates that seemed fair. The friendly woman at the "Fraport Information" desk booked the room for me, making the call, locking in the rate, assuring me that if anything was amiss I could come back and she would handle it, taking care of me. She would have done the same for any hotel I chose or for any traveler. It really is very easy being in nowhere.

I walked in glass tunnels tinted against the roadways and parking lots of outdoors, and raised above them. I passed through the bahnhof, then continued into another raised tunnel toward the hotel. The farther I walked the quieter it got. I found the hotel behind a towering wall of glass. One would think the soaring ceilings and glass walls would make an echo chamber, but the effect was nevertheless hushed. There was a likewise hushed bar. I figured I'd come down and eat dinner there once I got settled in, which wouldn't take long because my life's possessions had been condensed into a backpack.

The glass elevator was smooth, noiseless. Doors opened automatically as I approached. No other guests were evident as if I had the place to myself. I really was nowhere. I imagined myself in a space station, tenuously connected, but essentially apart from the sound and fury of Earth. I have to admit, I liked it. 

There were two single beds in my room, a room business partners might share to spare a few bucks. The headboard was backlit.

At the bar, I talked to a Tesla engineer and ate from an "international tapas" menu, the official conversation and diet of nowhere.

In my room, before going to bed, I watched CNN International, the official news source of nowhere.

I found myself moving more efficiently than a normally do, not wasting motion, not hurrying. I still had 12 hours to get where I needed to be. Mostly what I did for 14 hours was wait for 14 hours to pass. And it was enough. That's what nowhere's all about.

I let myself wake up without an alarm. It didn't feel like I hurried, but I was out the door with several hours still to spare. I tried to maintain my pace from the day before. I had a nice, slow motion breakfast, chewing each bite completely, and read every article in the paper. I ate a small piece of chocolate. I thought about buying a new magazine, but didn't.

Then I queued up and boarded a plane back to somewhere. My section was full of giddy Italian teenagers in matching t-shirts, traveling to Seattle for a student exchange program, one that I'm sure has "international understanding" as part of its mission.

I'm happy to be home now, but, as always, I enjoyed my cool stay in nowhere.

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Rafer Nelsen said...

Tom, this post reminded me of an Iranian guy I would see interviewed on television from time to time in France in the early 90s when I lived there; Mehran Karimi Nasseri. He had been stuck in immigration limbo in a terminal at Charles de Gaulle Airport since the late 80s. Apparently, his arrival at the airport itself was deemed "legal", but he couldn't legally go anywhere else, so he truly was trapped in a sort of "nowhere" at the airport. I just Googled him, and apparently his stay at the airport ended in 2006 due to illness, and he has been living in a Paris shelter since then. I also just read that Spielberg bought the rights to his story and based "The Terminal" on it.

Here's a link to a short Vimeo except from a documentary (one of several) on him:


Tash Treveton said...

Love your writing Tom, miss you and your musings!!