Monday, December 19, 2011


I know a lot of people complain about air travel. Everyone sighs and mutters mutinously when talking about it. You're supposed to hate it. You're supposed to hate the security checks and the cramped airplane seats and the bad food. And sometimes I play along, because well, like I said it's expected. Saying you love air travel is like saying you love to pay taxes. It's just not a thing people admit in polite company.

But after flying to Atlanta last week, I just have to come out and admit it. I whole heartedly, enthusiastically  love to fly. I don't find the experience perfect by any means. My butt gets tired like everyone else's, and I think flight attendants (usually only the American ones) can sometimes be the meanest, and I always get that brief moment of panic when the plane first takes off and I realize, "Holy shit, I am in a giant metal coffin hurtling through space!"

But I love it. I think it's exciting and romantic. I think airports are swell-all of those places to eat and shop and clean bathrooms with everything automatic. I like knowing there are uniformed adults around me who are professional and competent and who will taser a person if they get out of line.

But mostly I am hopelessly nostalgic about my past travels, and from that first moment in an airport and especially in an airplane, I'm just whoosed right back through time and space into all of those moments. Sense is the strongest tie us to memory, and those sights and smells and sounds are always the same, no matter where you're flying. And so even though I was just making a two hour flight to Atlanta, as soon as I heard the engine roar and smelled the pressurized cabin air, I was hurtled back to my first international flight, when I was 20 and going to study abroad in Paris without knowing a single soul, all of that terror and exhilaration.

To the 14.5 hour flight to India after college graduation, when I was bumped up to business class and got to spend those hours in style, with champagne and warm towels and warm nuts (they like things warm in business class), to chatting with the friendly, whiskey swilling Texan man beside me, to watching movie after movie and relishing the comfort and luxury of being able to fully recline and sleep, to knowing that the next two weeks in Asia would be unlike anything I'd ever experienced in my pampered life.

To the (many) flights it took to Thailand. I held it together until I got to Chicago and then for some reason on the flight from Chicago to Los Angeles I lost it. Maybe it was because it was the farthest West I'd ever been, because there was no turning back and I really was going to spend the next six months living and teaching in Thailand. All of my fear and anxiety and worry were released and I cried silently as I watched out the window. And then when I got to Los Angeles it was like the worst had passed. I was still scared shitless, but being that far away released something. Instead I felt that prickling, hairs on end excitement that comes when you're going somewhere completely and totally new.

To the flight back from Thailand, and the tears I shed that time, only now tears of grief for the life changing experience I was leaving behind.

To all of those layovers on various travels, being dirty and sleep deprived and red-eyed. To running through the airport at Tokyo to catch my flight back to Chicago, loaded down with bags and my giant tube carrying a painting from Bali. To brushing my teeth in airplane and airport bathrooms. To the layover after Haiti, when everything I had seen pressed on me like a giant weight that wouldn't release.

To the hours I spent at the airport bar in Kuala Lumpur with a random Australian man who asked if he could share my booth. We were both waiting for delayed flights and so we drank and we chatted about a million random things, and even though we knew we'd never see each other again, it was still this wonderful, unlikely, tiny little connection.

To the goodbyes and hellos I've experienced at airports-trying not to cry when I left for Paris and then Thailand, keeping my legs steady as I walked away from my parents into the complete unknown. To coming home and seeing my family at the arrivals area, their big smiles mirroring my own, the strange rush of suddenly being back home after all that time away.

The thing is, people complain about airports, but the memories I have from airports and airplanes are some of the most vivid and electric in my life. They are the bookends to these incredible experiences I've had while traveling, and whenever I'm in an airport I feel all of that, all of that color and life and happiness and fear and sadness and excitement and acute awareness of being young and alive just exploding in my memory.

And I just love it all, good and bad. All of those details are so intrinsically tied to my memories of some the best experiences of my life and so I love it all- the newsstands with all of their glossy magazines, the bars (especially in the Chicago airport, for some reason I always connect there and I've spent many happy layovers with a large beer and a stack of tabloids), snuggling up with my favorite wool scarf on planes, the drink carts and the in-flight food (yes I'm serious), the calm PA announcements made in a soothing voice. I love being in a terminal at some God forsaken hour, going on almost no sleep, waiting to board a plane. To me that is life at its fullest volume.

I've been beyond lucky to be able to go to all of the places I've been to so far.

But every time I fly, I feel myself itching to do it again, to head to an airport, board a plane, and fly off into something radically new.

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