Waiting and Watching at the Airport

If all the world’s a stage, then one of the best seats is at the arrivals gate at an international airport.

And if you’re like me, you’ve spent quite a bit of time waiting to pick up travelers, watching the cast of thousands walk by.

In 2009, British author Alain de Botton was selected to spend a week at London’s Heathrow Airport as its “writer-in-residence.” In the resulting book (appropriately titled A Week at the Airport), he says that “Entry into the vast space of the departures hall heralded the opportunity, characteristic in the transport nodes of the modern world, to observe people with discretion, to forget oneself in a sea of otherness and to let the imagination loose on the limitless supply of fragmentary stories provided by the eye and ear.”

The arrivals hall, I would contend, is no less filled with potential stories.

Your time at the airport may not produce a book, but you nonetheless can record in your mind the many vignettes playing out before you. As you witness the newly deplaned begin to pour into the arrival area, signaling that another flight has landed, as you catch glimpses backstage of pilgrims gathering their luggage, as you see the crowds readying themselves for whatever lies beyond the exit doors . . . as you watch and wait at the airport, do you recognize these travelers?

A businessman, head down, shouting into a Bluetooth earpiece, power walking past you to get to someplace very important before it’s too late to take care of a very important thing.

The foreign family with two small children, dazed and wide eyed, looking for someone who looks like them to reassure them that they’ve arrived at the right place. Is it you?

Another foreigner, but this one here to go it alone, planning to dive headfirst into cultural immersion. You nod to him in recognition, but he avoids any eye contact.

Tourists returning home, wrestling with their oversize souvenirs that don’t look quite as necessary in the bright light of the terminal.

The strikingly dressed lady with a neon-pink carry on and dark sunglasses. You’re pretty sure she was in that movie you saw with that guy from that other film, but you don’t let on that you recognize her. She deserves her privacy.

A weary looking refugee family of six carrying nothing more than four bright-yellow plastic bags containing what you assume to be all their belongings.

One toddler running into his grandfather’s arms. Another hanging back behind her mother’s legs, not sure she knows this man who’s asking for a hug.

Members of the military returning from their tour, wearing fatigues and carrying duffel bags. (How do you say “Thank you for your service” in the local language?)

Several passengers exiting the luggage area in a slow-motion race, struggling with trolleys stacked so high and heavy that turning a corner is a trial.

A tour group decked out with visors and fanny packs, fronted by a leader with an orange flag on a tall, swaying stick, barking directions in a vaguely familiar language.

A lady pushing a huge wooden crate. There must be something precious inside to warrant the extra fees.

A man and woman so excited to be reunited that she unembarrassedly jumps into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist.

And a college-age student, wearing a shirt bearing the name of his overseas university, greeted by his parents with nothing more than a slight bow.

A non-native stopping before the bank of waiting drivers, squinting at the patchwork of phonetically spelled signs—some handwritten, some digital—beckoning to him.

A visiting short-term group of nervous, laughing high schoolers—all in matching t-shirts—readying a barrage of questions.

An elderly woman in a wheelchair, seeing a group meeting her with bouquets of balloons, raising a quivering hand over her mouth, tears streaming from her eyes.

A flight crew dressed in their crisp uniforms and shiny black shoes, wheeling their practical, no-nonsense carry-ons.

Two stragglers wandering by, one recounting newly exchanged money and the other examining a claim tag for lost bags.

So many “fragmentary stories.”

And just when you’re thinking there’s no one left from that flight, the doors open once more and you recognize familiar faces. You greet your guests with an exaggerated wave, and when they see you, their wide smiles show that they’re oh-so-glad that you’re here.

“How was your flight? Was everything on schedule? Follow me. We’ll leave this way. Welcome!”

It’s time for an intermission.

Soon another plane lands, and the curtain rises again.

[photo: International Arrivals,” By HolidayExtras, used under a Creative Commons license]
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Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

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