I’ve Been to Heathrow but I’ve Never Been to London

Cities have a spirit to them.

You can feel the energy, or zeitgeist of a city when you’re there.

I’ll never forget descending into New Orleans for the first time through heavy clouds. The spirit of the place was palpable.

But not in the airport.

Airports have no spirit. They are not a part of the cities where they have a footprint. When you’re in one, you’re in some kind of portal dimension between worlds. Like the wood in The Magician’s Nephew, except more sterile.

When you step out of an airport you step into the city for the first time. You leave an undefined suspended animation to something with a pulse and personality.

Train stations aren’t like this. They’re a part of the city. Step into Grand Central Station and you’re in New York. They often have structural, architectural elements like the cities they’re in. They share its spirit.

Airports are carve-outs. They’re nearly literal prisons in many ways too. You can hop from airport to airport with ease once you’re in one. As if they’re one contiguous tunnel system. But you can’t pop in or out of them casually. You’re either in the between world or you’re in the worlds outside of them. They dress themselves up with art and knickknacks from their host cities, but it’s superficial and even a bit embarrassing.

I’ve often found that ideas and experiences I have in airports, and by extension airplanes, have a harder time sticking with me than experiences outside of these travel tunnels. But when I step back into one, they come back. As if certain thoughts and feelings are just hanging around there awaiting my return like shoes in a personal locker at a gym. Only accessible on the inside.

I’ve wondered if airports have this quality in part because the speed of air travel is hard for humans to process. Ground travel takes you through each city in sequence, experiencing the subtly changing spirit of the land through each. By the time you arrive on the West coast, for example, you’ve been changed and prepared for its radical differences from the East along the route.

But air travel literally hops over the process. You even outrun the rising or setting sun, putting your mind into a confused place outside of space and time. Until you step foot out of the airport, see the color of the sky, and breathe in the spirit of the city, you don’t really know where you are, or even when you are.

I sometimes fantasize about airports and an air travel experience that felt more real and human. (It never involves the TSA and only sometimes involves zeppelins). What would it look like to maintain the spirit of the city in an airport?

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