It’s been a wonderful morning. Today is a stat holiday so I’ve stayed in bed with coffee and a book, basking in sunlight. Last week, rather serendipitously, I wandered past the University of Calgary’s sidewalk book sale and found a copy of A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton, a book I was assigned to read for class and that is everything the Daily Mail claims of it: “Funny, charming, and slender enough to pack in your carry-on.” I have to say, I’m quite taken by this book.
I would consider myself a regular traveller and though I’ve not travelled nearly as much as I’d like, I can at least say that my experiences in airports are numbered and varied. For this reason, I was immediately drawn in by de Botton’s first sentence:
While punctuality lies at the heart of what we typically understand by a good trip, I have often longed for my plane to be delayed- so that I might be forced to spend a bit more time at the airport.
I, too, love airports. They are strange places. Places where connections are made… perhaps a human connection… two readers exchange a glance as they wait, their flight delayed by a snow storm in Toronto or perhaps a traveller is forced to dash from one end of the airport to the other in an attempt to catch a connecting flight.
I will begin by detailing what I loved most about this book. When we consider stories, whether a story is reflected through film, writing or music, we so often pair our understanding of stories with our understanding of conclusions. In writing, for example, we consider denouement, the importance of resolution, conclusion, the finale that bursts into existence as a result of certain cumulative events. To witness the tidy ending of a love story in a Hollywood film rarely shocks us. Instead, we are trained to expect it. But this is not life. Not really. Rather, we are more commonly exposed to what, in film or writing or song, would be considered a “cliff hanger.” In everyday life, however, we don’t consider the people at bus stops who step onto buses only to disappear as “cliff hangers.” This is because we so rarely stop to consider other people’s stories. A woman, carrying a bunch of white tulips, hair slightly astray, missing, perhaps, the top button on her coat, steps onto the bus and stares silently out the window. She gets off near a dentist’s office, enters the building, a smiling tooth pasted to the door and she disappears. The bus carries on. Perhaps she is an employee, a dental assistant. Perhaps she has developed a cavity, or maybe her daughter, a teenager in the throes of puberty, is having a tooth removed after falling from her skateboard only to meet, with a loud crunch, a paved ramp near the local skatepark. Such mundane questions and yet when given proper thought, these questions become about more than cavities or skateboarding, they become essential to human life. We exist together, share a planet, share dreams and hopes, all the while existing in our own, private spheres.
A Week at the Airport reminds us of these stories. de Botton leaves us with cliff hangers. I want to know, desperately, why the couple he so eloquently describes, stood in the airport sobbing together until, at the last moment, the woman he claims was a beautiful brunette, checked her watch and left, careening through the airport until de Botton lost her in a shuffle near SunHut. What happened to the woman? The man? Did she cry as she stepped onto the plane? I’m forced to fill these gaps as I read. Thus, de Botton provides a work that both engages and challenges the reader, infuses every story with truthfulness.
Taking a poetic but also conversationalist approach, de Botton reveals the turbulence and restlessness of Heathrow Airport through his own observations, detailed vignettes and the stories of airport staff. Whether you love to travel, dream of travel or simply enjoy considering how people interact, A Week at the Airport is a must read, a careful collection of stories woven together through one commonality: the airport.
About the author:
Born in Zurich in 1969, Alain de Botton, now a Londoner, is a renowned writer. As a prominent essayist, he offers his readers what has been described as “philosophy of everyday life” and has written on topics ranging from love and architecture to travel and literature. He started “The School of Life,” which is “devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture.” Meanwhile, de Botton’s works have been bestsellers in some 30 countries.