How I learned to love the airport

Nicholas Lezard, after a magical experience in Nice, offers his rules for enjoying the long wait for

I should admit that, some months ago, the deputy editor of this magazine first suggested that I write a piece contra the prevailing wisdom, and say that airports are not wretched places. I am afraid my reply was both immediate and to the point. I said that I had never heard such a preposterous idea in my life, and slammed the phone down.

I had recently returned from a draining trip to the United States, where I had been forced, by the combined incompetence and inflexibility of American Airlines, to miss my connecting flight in Washington and so to endure a nine-hour stopover in Dulles airport. You do not want to hang about any airport, let alone Dulles airport (which, 25 minutes into my stay, I rechristened "Dullest", and I don't think I'm the first to have done that), for nine hours.

American airports are terrible, doubly terrible if you are a smoker. There is a smoking room in Dullest, and although there is an atmosphere of anguished camaraderie in American smoking rooms, there is also an atmosphere of the hundreds of anguished cigarettes that have been sucked at in the windowless glass cubicle, not to mention the cloud of paranoia and resentment that wafts off the cowed smoker in an American public building.

At one point, I sneaked outside the building, into what I assumed was the open air by the common understanding of the term - there was only one wall, behind me, with a light breeze playing, and a bus stop in front of me, for Christ's sake. I still got shrieked at by some Nazi in a uniform before I had managed three puffs.

Time has now mellowed me. Or, to be more accurate, time hardened my heart, and then, rather later, mellowed me again. For, as a child, there was no more magical place on earth than an airport. To begin with, it was only barely on earth. The airport was where you said goodbye to the ground; and, while you were waiting, you could watch all the other planes sailing off into the beyond as well. Can you recall those moments spent on the observation deck, that jet roar, the wind in your hair, the wind in the windsock, the mighty, whirling vigilance of the radar, the Thunderbirds majesty of the control tower?

Children were well looked after by airlines in the 1960s and early 1970s. Boy, did they know how to nab us. The stewardesses all looked like Tippi Hedren and awoke strange new yearnings in the breasts of both boys and girls. After several relocations since 1966, I still hold on to my trophies of youthful flight: one still-shiny Western Airlines Junior Pilot badge and two (for some reason) Pan Am Junior Clipper Stewardess badges. Maybe I snatched them from the breasts of the passing uniformed Hitchcock blondes.

We always flew on American planes when we could, for they invented flight, didn't they? And around the time we're talking about, it seemed that they would colonise space, too, for had not the shuttle that took Dr So-and-so to the moon in 2001: A Space Odyssey carried its own discreet Pan Am colours?

I made my grandmother take me to that film eight times, which probably hastened her end, but the main impression it made on me was the hope - no, the certainty - that in 30 brief years, I, too, would be travelling to the moon on a Pan Am rocket. To do that, I would have to get to a Stanley Kubrick spaceport first; until then, an airport would do. And airports, then, had no tacky chain stores selling teddy bears with goggles; no predatory salespeople hanging around Duty Free asking if you'd like to buy another whisky to the one you actually prefer; no acres of human flotsam, propped in a precarious state between hibernation and anxiety. There was no boredom then; just a frenzy of anticipation of the flight to come. We were too young to have learnt fear of flying for ourselves; terrorism and its attendant phobias were still to come. The phrase "jet set" was used without irony.

You cannot really blame anyone for what has happened since. In those days, a flight to America cost three weeks' wages (or, in my case, 20 years' pocket money). Now it is considerably less, and no wonder the airports are clogged. The dispiriting experiences pile up in a permanent stacking pattern over your consciousness. Typical stuff: moving walkways that do not move, luggage-handling machines that shred your luggage, searches for loos that make you think of The Odyssey - but these are routine, a kind of common-or-garden insult that one could not take as personally intended. Then there is that standard train of emotions which, like the Gatwick shuttle, has only two stops: exhaustion and fear (that one will not only miss the plane, but also die when one gets on it).

My mind was changed by a recent trip from Nice airport. This time, my plane was delayed again by nearly three hours. I had been travelling for hours to get there, too, with my luggage still in strips from its brutal handling on the journey out.

I was wandering about completely cashless, alone, and clutching a laptop with two years of work on it, which I was terrified would be lifted off me by some salaud Nicoise. As is my regrettable habit, I was dressed in such a fashion that they wouldn't have upgraded me, unless it was from the cargo hold, even if the plane were completely empty. To cap it all, my airport reading was one of those Paul Bowles novels that ends with the main character going comprehensively bonkers while alone and in a strange place. And I had just finished it.

Then something rather wonderful happened. I discovered that the airport bar accepted credit cards. I am old enough to find this a civilised novelty, and young enough not to count paying by Visa as at all the same thing as paying with cash. I sat down with enough brandies to keep me occupied for three hours and thought about this article again. I looked about me. I was in what was notionally the worst place in the world, with nothing but boredom and anxiety for company. And, you know what? It wasn't so bad. When things reach what you think is rock bottom, there is always something to cling on to, such as that you are at least not suffering toothache, or being tortured for your political beliefs.

Then the bar closed.

But there was another one. If you're in a big enough airport, there's always another one. And this time, I found someone with whom I could have a conversation.

I chatted to an attractive unattached woman a bit younger than me. As someone who has never managed successfully to speak to a woman in the places where you are meant to speak to them - parties, discos, Radio 4 arts programmes - my ability to chat to complete strangers at airports, without driving them away, is something I find rather mystifying.

But it happens. There is something about the desperation of the airport situation that tunes the radar more finely, hones the vocabulary, and frees the spirit from the boundary that normally encloses it. I found myself talking, in a surprisingly competent mixture of German, French, Italian and English, to this delightful Austrian woman about everything from the works of Thomas Bernhard to her fear of flying.

We arranged to sit next to each other on the flight and, after we landed at Heathrow, I managed to get a lift from her waiting company car to my door.

As I stepped into my home, I reflected on this success. How did it happen? What fairy airport dust had been sprinkled over me? (The surname of my Austrian airport saviour was, with glorious improbability, Angel.) Is this something that is mentioned in James S Kohn's Favourite New England Airports: a guide to aviation activities and entertainments (Portsmouth, NH, 1998), or any of the six editions of the magisterial Alan J Wright's British Airports (Shepperton, 1999)? I doubt it, though these writers have obviously been inspired in some way. My favourite airport title is Ivan Kershner's poetry collection, Airports Full of People a Long Time Dead, not a word of which I have read, but which must be at least good-ish with a title like that.

Kershner's title may even be better than he knows. In life, we are all in transit. But we are never exactly in limbo. Limbo is where you are in an airport when your plane has been delayed. If you remember your Dante, Limbo is technically in Hell, but contains the virtuous heathen, people who unfortunately died before they could hear the message of Christ and so are ineligible for Paradise, but who are good enough eggs not to have to endure any punishment on that count. And the nice thing about Limbo, once you've got away from all those unbaptised babies flying about, is that you can chat.

That is what it is like to be in an airport: being sort of punished, but as it is not your fault, you can make of the experience what you will, or can. In this respect, it is a good test of your own resources, the kind of experience that made Nietzsche come up with his best T-shirt motto: "That which does not destroy me makes me stronger."

For they are incredibly memorable places, in spite of themselves. So, too, you could argue, are intensive-care wards, but an airport etches itself into your brain not only in spite, but perhaps because of, its lack of character, its transience. I remember being very horribly delayed at Moscow airport during the time of the coup; we fancied we could hear tanks firing. My fellows in limbo put a brave face on the recollection that airports tend to be among the first places seized in coups.

I recall an airport in Nepal that had more goats than ground staff; or, at Heathrow, my first boggle-eyed sight of British bobbies with sub-machine guns. At Luton, a bored cargo pilot showed a friend and me to the hangar where a spanking new 737 waited to be taken on its first run; he even showed us into the cockpit, the first fully computerised cockpit in civil aviation.

The rules for enjoying airports are relatively simple.

1) Try to avoid Heathrow, or any airport with too many people about. Airports are places of potentiality, pregnant with the possibility of reinvention, but this should mean more than buying a new tie, or a surprising pair of knickers.

2) In airports, you should feel as though you have nothing left to lose, in a spiritual sense. It is all right to enter them extravagantly exhausted or with a hangover.

3) It helps to steer clear of those areas where you see entire families stretched out, uneasily asleep on uncomfortable chairs. Avoid children with portable computer games. Avoid children full stop.

4) Have a few drinks and look charmingly battered. But stop short of looking actually diseased or mad.

5) Read a book, not a newspaper. Books give you ideas. Newspapers suck them out of you. At a pinch, you may buy a copy of this magazine.

6) Take up smoking, then find someone else who is smoking, too. Achieve solidarity.

7) Avoid American airports. It's a great country, sure, but the airports just aren't worth it.

8) Remember: everyone else is as bored and anxious as you are. It is within your power to cause a little magic to fall into other people's boring, anxious lives.