News » Travel Feature

Strangely at Home

Sitting in another airport, wondering what it means to travel.



As I write this, I am, apparently, in Europe. I could just as well be in Chicago, but the accents are a little different. So are the chairs. And the electrical plugs. And instead of a chapel, there's a meditation center.

Otherwise, I seem to be in the generic world of airports, in this case with a luxurious twist. I just spent eight hours sitting in what felt very much like a room that barely seemed to move, a kind of earthquake simulation machine that occasionally twitched and hummed for effect, with a movie of clouds and ocean playing out the little windows. It almost seemed real, like we were actually going someplace.

It's a kind of magic, really. Virtually all the hassles, except expense, have been removed from modern travel -- along with any sense of where we are or where we're going. Flying into Amsterdam is much like flying into Birmingham: You see industry, some trees, some water, some apartment complexes, then a runway ... then you get up and leave your little magic room and you're back in a hallway filled with people who look like people anywhere else, only they sound different. I even saw somebody with an LSU sweatshirt on.

Or consider this: Before I left Memphis, I interviewed a person in California to help on a book about Oregon that is being written by someone who lives in Sri Lanka.

Part of me fights this. I demand that a certain sense of wonder remain in our experiences. When we were flying over England -- and watching Capote on our video monitors -- a map on an overhead screen showing the flight's path included Moscow and St. Petersburg. I wanted to elbow the lady sitting next to me and say, "Hey, check it out! We're, like, practically in Russia!" But she's English and uses this flight to work, and besides, English people have a better perspective on these things than Americans. They are perfectly aware of, and not entirely excited about, their proximity to the Russians. And saying Amsterdam is close to Moscow is like saying Memphis is close to Anchorage.

The comfort of flight is also more strange to me than ... well, more strange than comfortable, especially when my folks cash in frequent-flyer miles to put us in the Class Formerly Known as First. I wanted to elbow the same English lady and say, "Check it out! We've got our own video monitors and shit! We're already drinking before the plane even taxis! And I can, like, stretch my legs and not hit the seat in front of me -- watch!" But she had her laptop out and didn't seem too overwhelmed by the experience of "World Business Class."

When they handed out a menu, things got truly weird. There was an insert that read, "On today's flight, the Jamaican spicy Smoked Salmon will be replaced by Broiled Halibut topped with Toasted Parmesan and Piccata Sauce on a bed of Seasoned Pappardelle Noodles." I could have also had beef tenderloin or prosciutto-and-fontina-stuffed roasted chicken breast. When the fish showed up on my little fold-out tray, I cast a sideways glance at the English lady and considered elbowing her, but she was already working on her chicken, wine, and magazine.

So then we're walking through the airport, and my Inner Child is yelling, "Look -- people with turbans! And seats without backs! And a currency exchange! And a soccer team!" I kept this to myself.

And then we went through customs, which was about as intense as entering a concert, and I realized I had just entered Europe. I stood around for a second, like a fool, and took in my first details of the Continent: precisely more of the same as on the other side of customs. A cheesy version of a local pub, just like the barbecue joints at the Memphis airport. Another cheesy version of a cafe. A business center filled with suits on phones.

I guess I should be comforted by all this similarity, but mostly it just feels strange. For example, when I told the English lady I was going to Tuscany, she said she'd been there many times and that I'd love it. She also said we'd be missing "Brit Season," which is in August. Missing that, I admit, was fine by me, but it made me wonder: Does this mean everybody there speaks English? Certainly, it appears to be the official language of the Amsterdam airport. So, is the whole world becoming more like America? What does this mean about visiting Italy? Are we going to another country or to a place that dresses itself up as another country to entertain tourists? And how do those people feel about that?

I know I should be grateful that at least, in this century, the world speaks my language. It's just that somehow having a meal and taking a nap and waking up in a shopping mall which they tell me is another country leaves me feeling ... well, strangely at home.

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