I’m sat at Frankfurt airport, on one of those chair-partitioned metal benches that seemed designed to inflict maximum discomfort and etch interesting patterns deep into your backside. A few strides away my laptop is charging at one of the airport’s impressively free charge-points, and I could stand against it to continue to tap out this post…but I have something better to do. I’m looking at everything in sight.
What is it about this place that’s so…un-fun?
I’m travelling, and for the past year I’ve regarded a life of travel as my ultimate destination, the home I aspire to inhabit. And hey, this is an airport. So why don’t I feel at home here?
Our homes do not have to offer us permanent occupancy or store our clothes to merit the name. To speak of home in relation to a building is simply to recognise its harmony with our own prized internal song. Home can be an airport or a library, a garden or a motorway diner.
Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness.
Get out of Frankfurt airport and, according to Chris Guillebeau, you’ll find a city ripe with fascinating details. Inside the airport….not so much. That’s how I feel right now, and it’s confusing the hell out of me because my brain knows that airports are extraordinary places: peripheral yet central, efficient yet bureaucratic, ugly and beautiful, cramped and sprawling, all jumbled up in such a complicated way that it instantly browns out your ability to understand them. Airports are rivers of force, and there’s a terrifying thrill in relinquishing your autonomy to get swept down various corridors and hosed onto a plane at the other end. Pan back, and the water analogy holds. Airports have currents & tides of people and services designed to flush you through them. It’s only when you’re “lucky” enough to be beached between connecting flights that you have the chance to look around, to really feel the inside of airports.
That’s what I’m doing right now. Wanting the thrill of fascination at the intertwined lives weaving around me in this strange, artificial human landscape. Wanting to sink into that weirdness.
My brain is telling me all these things.
My heart is saying “bullshit”.
I’m not having much fun here.
In the hunt for what gives, I attempt to pick out my personal biases. I’m still somewhat sleep-deprived. I have a fear of flying I’m still dealing with, and I regard every flight as an overland adventure I didn’t have. The chairs are horrible, as already mentioned (there are much better ones elsewhere in the airport – see the above photo). I’m narked that the official Frankfurt WiFi service isn’t free (Fraser of FloatingSpheres found free WiFi here back in February, but I’m twitchy about clicking through the various available nodes after hearing a This Week In Travel podcast on the subject of airport hotspots set up to hack into your gadgets). I’ve just discovered a banana that has migrated to the bottom of my rucksack and exploded over my laptop power pack (which thankfully still works, emitting a strong smell of burnt banana). I’ve had a really terrific half-week in Austria. I won’t be back in York until tomorrow (at 4am), and I’m meeting a good friend for dinner in London.
So why am I not having fun here?
I’m struggling to decide. I don’t think it’s me. I’m not entirely happy right now, but then, when am I? I’ve felt comfortable and at home in profounder funks than this one – and hell, I’m not in a bad mood. Take me out of this airport and I’d happily dance a jig for you. So – is it the people? Am I traumatised into misanthropy by being pushed around? Nope. The people-watching is keeping me sane right now. And it’s not the food, although those Mozartkugeln were probably a mistake.
What is it?
I still don’t know four hours later when I leave Frankfurt for Heathrow – which feels even more un-fun (especially when Lost Property confirm they haven’t recovered my lost Kindle).
Since returning to York I’ve read and read and scribbled and tapped and pushed questions around Facebook and Twitter – because I want to get a handle on this. I want to know if it’s just me here, or if it’s something that some airports are failing to address. Something important and human. Something that is often making airports Bad Places when they don’t really need to be.
I’ve had some really good suggestions come my way (more on those another time) but for now, I’ll leave you with two questions.
1. What’s your idea of an airport that is – or would be – fun?