There is something very strange about an airport departure lounge.
Sitting on a Tuesday night, surrounded by tired people and tired sandwiches in Toulouse airport, everything feels distinctly flat. The bright lights and neon fronted duty free may be designed to keep us all interested, but no one bites.
The age of glamorous travel has been over for a long time, unless of course you have the spare capital to enjoy the luxuries of a first class lounge. I’m told the free food, liquor and massages are excellent, but such decadence is firmly beyond the means of most normal people. Although in a creepy form on capitalist entertainment, if one so desires there is a large bank of first person videos shot my philanthropic first class travelers keen to share their experiences available online. They even rate the free caviar and bubbly.
But for most, modern air travel is less glamour, more grist to the mill. We line up, are scanned, frisked and probed. Then we line up again. After that we sit, watching time move like molten lead, waiting for the departures board to tick over and our gate to be called. Then we stand in line again. Despite this tedium, the death of air travel as an exclusive mode of transport has had one great advantage. Almost everyone can do it. Budget airlines have made Europe more homogeneous than ever before. If you’ve got a nose for a bargain you can glide from a grey British winter to a warm Mediterranean one in two hours or less, all for the price of a few tanks of petrol (although this comparison will look awfully dated in a few months time if oil prices keep sliding). One can be a snob about the habits of British tourists and their reputation for debauchery, but more people seeing more of the world is not a bad thing.
There is a physical imprint of all this travel as well, in the shape of dozens and dozens of city airports, dotted across Europe. Small in comparison to the great, glass and concrete sprawl of hubs likes Heathrow and Schipol, they’re still messy, soulless places to spend time. Everything costs more (and duty free does not live up to its name) and you’ll spend more time trying to find free WiFi than you ever thought possible. The urban landscape around them is full of cheap hotels, parking lots and car rentals. In the golden age of rail travel, architects build towering arches and wide concourses to carry passengers to their seats. The Victorian’s build railway stations for majestic that most people build temples. Now we get concrete and faux leather, identikit coffee shops and 24 hour bars.
Not that this should put you off travel. In seventy two hours in Toulouse I had a wealth of fresh experiences. I played at being a sophisticated continental European and drank coffee out of unfeasibly small cups. I tried to remember how to speak French, haunted by the memory of my primary school language teacher. I saw some old friends and got too little sleep. I drank and ate a lot. I stood on the roof of a department store and saw the sun setting over the city. But in the end, like everyone else, I had to go home.
So we sit, waiting and wondering if we have enough change for the vending machine. Then the flight is delayed and everyone rolls their eyes and sighs. The nervous queuing starts shortly afterwards and soon we’re all standing in line again. There is something uniquely hopeless about being stuck in an airport. In a traffic jam there is always the hope of cutting down some alternative route. But, short of a pilot’s license and a light aircraft, there is nothing to be done here. Just wait and keep looking for free WiFi.
Traveling isn’t what it used to be. Although maybe that’s is a good thing. In this case, the destinations seems more important than the journey.