I used to describe Heathrow Airport as ‘the worst place in the world’. That was when I travelled a bit for work and I’d often be sent through Heathrow. That was the time when you had to walk over two roads and into another county to get to the specific far-away-as-possible little terminal (that we christened Paddyland) to get to flights home. I wasn’t comfortable in airports generally that time, it wasn’t just Heathrow.
I don’t feel that way anymore. For one thing airports are no longer associated with work – get in, get out, get to the hotel, get to the meeting, do some shit, get back to the hotel, get back to the airport, get to Paddyland, get home. For another, I mainly fly from Cork or Dublin now, and it’s mainly for pleasure. And going through Dublin airport the other morning was a painless experience. Even through the US immigration bit. The American official butchered my name but that’s okay, he was personable and confident (always a good thing), and we had pinned him as the best guy to get in the queue – he was smiling at people, for God’s sake.
An airport is a system. It works, otherwise we wouldn’t be passing through it. Systems have rules, good and bad, and faults, but they have a purpose and smart people design and run them. Airports are orderly, mostly. It can be painless. It can be shit, too of course.
Now there are a few musts with airports, for me.
I always try to be early, I hate rushing – rushing causes so many difficulties in all forms of life. I try to be ready. I try not to put pints of whiskey or sun cream into my carryon. I don’t have heavy carryon – the kindle is a godsend. I don’t cram cases – were you EVER on a trip where you didn’t have enough clothes? Ever? I wear light clothes and have layers of them. I try not to be hungover. I try to breathe.
I remind myself to pay attention, look around me. I like to know the time, know where I am. I try to smile and chat to the officials – they’re just doing their jobs. They don’t want to be putting their gloved hands inside bags – they have no idea what’s in there. They’d love to be in my position: heading across an ocean to a sunny place on holiday.
I don’t always succeed in all of these aspirations, but I do try. And sometimes, mostly these days, it pays off.
First Impressions of DC
Flat land, typical around airports (except Cork of course). Bare, open land. An Indian taxi driver, quelle surprise. Not too hot, maybe pushing 20 degrees, sorry, I mean 68 degrees.
Motorway. A long motorway, Dulles Airport is 26 miles west of the city. Two lanes heading east, and another three parallel to it, with turnoffs. The same going west. Quiet, on a Sunday but able for the big drifts of commuters in and out of the city, too. That thrumming, hammering sound you get on US roadways, where the squares of concrete don’t meet. We’d get to know that sound very well in a few days when we drive down to Georgia, all
The big trees on both sides of the road are in leaf. A bit ahead of our own big trees (except for horse chestnuts, they’re the early birds). Those floppy, light, young leaves. When they still don’t know what they are for, like pups or calves, just there, coming into their own. That soft, light green colour – it’s looks so fine under a blue sky. Before it darkens and enriches itself with purpose and vigour as the summer proceeds.
The day is cloudy, threatening rain – that was the forecast. Some very dark clouds in the distance. The buildings are low rise, some of them are almost colonial. The streets are wide, organised. Young people walk or cycle, doing their Sunday afternoon thing. The taxi driver doesn’t scam us, it’s even cheaper than it said in the book. What’s the correct tip rate, again? Julie said to double the tax so we do.
The hotel is very comfortable, a mix of business people and tourists – American tourists mostly I’d say, on pilgrimage as much as vacation. We walk around and get our bearings and take it all in.
Du Pont Circle has a small park at its centre, with a fountain and some trees. And there’s a CVS around the corner, always a good thing. Two Starbucks right beside the hotel, and an independent book store down the block. Something to look forward to in the morning.
There’s something wonderful about being in a new city, figuring it out, the senses sharp, acute, heightened but comfortable. Listening, looking, smelling, tasting, feeling it with your skin, being amidst it. Its flows, morning, day and night.
The newness of it, but the familiarity too, having been drifting in the stream of so many cities before.
We opt for Greek food, it’s been ages and Cork doesn’t have any. Mezzes and some small plates. It’s kind of a ‘fast food’ version and there are a lot of young people there, on dates or with friends. Confident, beautiful, happy young people. Healthy, with shining eyes and teeth and hair. Optimistic for themselves and their world, assured of their place in it. Glowing with the radiant shine of their hopes and dreams in the world.
America. Or at least one version thereof.
More on that later.