Was there really a time when I loved airports? When was it? Because this distant memory is getting more and more faded, without the charm of an old sepia photograph. Forget the cattle call of checking in, undressing for security, being scanned down to our inner organs – all obstacles that require fortitude of mind or, at least, an ability to insulate oneself from what’s happening around us.
There used to be a glamour attached to international travel that has endured since the times of Columbus, until hopping from one continent to the next became even too easy. This easiness has now turned into hassle, or maybe I am growing old and Ottie’s pleading expression is enough to want me to unpack and stay home.
Sitting at the gate, waiting to board my flight to Italy, I am inflicted a series of platitudes from the elderly Italian woman who just took a tour of the National Parks and is sharing her conclusions that, in America, the population survives on beef, nobody walks and there is nothing worth buying. “It’s all jungle”, she shrieks, meaning junk. On the other hand, in Italy, according to her, nobody dies of hunger, everyone gets by with their vegetable garden, the chickens in the yard and the social pension of 500 euros a month. In Milan everybody is too focussed on working and Rome is too congested but in Campo Basso the air is clean.
At the risk of sounding elitist, the problem with mass travel is that too high a percentage of those who trudge through National Parks, the Orinoco river or Piazza Navona, do not even attempt to understand what is behind a pretty sight, let alone getting it. It feels as if people travel for the sake of saying they have done it, because it’s now required of anyone living in the developed world. Travelling doesn’t stem any longer from a genuine curiosity, from a willingness to be opened and transformed. To be changed.
We carry around our prejudices, our attachments, our habits wherever we go, maybe because distances have shrunk and it’s possible to be dropped in a different culture in a matter of hours, without the adjustment of physically crossing time zones, battling sea-sickness and long days of contemplative inertia.
“I would never live in Los Angeles”, the harpy carries on behind me, “there are too many coloured people”, by which she means anyone from Asia to Africa. “Japanese are very polite”, she generalizes, undeterred. Overwhelmed by shame at my fellow citizen, I toy with the idea of either clubbing her with my laptop or just chiming into the conversation and putting her in her place. I do neither – pretending not to speak Italian and continue in my reading.
It’s going to be a long, long flight.
A few days later, to prove my point, an exchange with an American girl trying to find her way to the Rialto Market in Venice, leaves me baffled. After asking me for directions and still riding on the vaporetto next to me, she feels like she should share with a fellow American that it’s too hot: “The locals are used to it but I can’t wait to get back to Miami where everything is air-conditioned and I don’t have to be outside” (never mind that Miami in July is ten times hotter). She also shares she is a lawyer (which might explain her attitude) and that she is staying at the Danieli, the grande dame of Venice hotels, probably costing her upward of $500 a night (and with plenty of air conditioning). There she is, riding along the Grand Canal and whining – she should have definitely googled the pictures.