Saturday, November 14, 2015

The violence of airports

Airports are not innocent. That's a misunderstanding. They change everything.

Airports are supposed to be the symbols of freedom. After all, they are the gate to the heavens, a heaven that transports us to far-away utopian places. Islands, conferences, families. They stand for mobility, networking, vacations, human contact across continents, the wonders of the universe. But this is a lie. While airports pretend to provide us with vehicles to advance our personal freedom, they corrode everything of value. They destroy the fabric of civilisation, although saying that implies that there is such a fabric and that this fabric, whatever that is, is something valuable. Maybe that's the mistake, right there.

First, airports increase the ecological footprint of a well-meaning ecologically conscious person by a factor of a billion. Even if you don't eat meat, if you don't drive a car, and if you share your energy-neutral home with five other eco hipsters, one flight makes all these efforts futile. You become an eco-monster. A fucking pig. Worse, you become an eco-monster while thinking that you are really not. Flying around the world in a metal box for some weird reason while turning tons of ancient hydrocarbons into greenhouse gases is not a forgivable sin. It's more like an elephant running through a maze of really delicate flowers.

Second,  while pretending that they help you achieve freedom, they take it away, if only temporarily. They force you to stand in line, to undress, to take out toothpaste and put it in bags, to raise your arms while a machine scans your body, to take off your shoes, to confirm your identity over and over again, to walk through a labyrinthe of stinking duty-free perfume, to sit on cheerless plastic seats, to park in rows, to dry your hands after peeing in urinals. This is not freedom. This is tyranny.

Third, and, to be clear, this is the main point. The third is always the main point. Airports don't connect people. They separate. The airport are the dots on the map that mark the transition from one culture to another. It used to be lines, but now we have dots. I can pass through these dots, unhindered, mostly, because I have the right face, the right nationality, the right passport. For me, the world is without borders. The last time I really felt a border was in 1989 at a train station between East and West Germany. After that, borders ceased to exist for me.

But of course that's because I'm a Chosen One. For the record, I'm not proud of this. It's a historical accident. Airports are not. They are built with purpose, by a violent and inhumane system. Airports intentionally separate the Chosen Ones from the rest of the world. They let us through, more or less unimpeded, after just a few hours of standing in various lines. We can go, wherever we want to go. Others are blocked entirely. Airports are selective filters that impede migration and free movement. Like mountains. Like oceans. Except that airports are manmade. They keep randomly selected people in a randomly selected part of the world, usually a part where people are desperately unhappy. And the cruel thing is that we should have known it all along. Just look at the damn things. Do airports look like the harbingers of progress and freedom? Or do they look like giant monsters that eat the chickens and feel good about it?

This is the violence of airports. They facilitate the destruction of the world and the destruction of our sense of freedom. And they draw lines where no lines exist. Random, arbitrary lines. Lines that kill. Airport are political places. Here is it where processes happen that do not seem to have any place at all. Globalisation, commercialisation, secularisation, mass stupidity, disengagement, boredom, racism. Here is it where terrorism happens, a violent reaction against the violence of airports. A child lashing out against the stupidity of adulthood. And here is it where airport hiking happens. Airport hiking, the benign, peaceful protest against basically everything that's wrong in the world.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Deadend: Palermo

Oh, the games we play. Mostly variations of ‘Where is Waldo’, the role of Waldo played either by some parking garage. Or the Travelodge. Or, here, by the sea. For geographical reasons, many airports are located at the sea, but they try to pretend that they are not. Getting from the airport to the sea is akin to getting from the Earth to Xanadu or to Atlantis or to the Disc World or to some other fantasy land.

When arriving in Palermo, the first thing I tried is to walk out of the airport and towards the sea, ignoring the convenient shuttle bus to the city centre. But I didn’t get very far. The feeder road is short and ends at a busy motorway. On the other side of the motorway: the sea, protected by death, death, death. And barbed wire. People park at the point where the feeder road meets the motorway, to pick up their relatives. Why the hell not. Garbage is everywhere. The Sun is merciless. I give up, for now.

Four days later. Upon departure I’m more or less acclimatised. Or the temperatures have dropped. Or I don’t care anymore. My objective is the backend of the airport. From the terminal, via the car rental chaos, further and further I push. On the way some tall pyramid structures with several floors and piles of, well, dirt on each floor. Whatever, Palermo. And after only ten minutes of exploration I reach not the sea, but the end of the world. And empty space, empty not literally, but empty of purpose, parking lots without parked cars, some buildings without walls, a street lamp, and a broken sign that says ‘Q ICK’. A long row of brandnew bollards is parked here, still wrapped in plastic.

Qick, the land of nobody, is right at the sea, but separated from the sea by a four foot fence plus barbed wire at the top. Beyond that the sea is unprotected and inviting, although probably disastrously polluted. A long bridge stretches far out into the Mediterranean. The area is CCTV free and unsupervised. In the dark, perhaps with a helpful companion, it would be quite easy to get across. Interesting, as well.

These are the places we are looking for. Undetermined, undervalued, underused. Empty spaces, frequented by nobody, ignored by everybody. In many ways this is wilderness, spots that do not properly exist, if existence is defined in a certain way and doesn’t include, you know, concrete, plastic and atoms. A space that nobody is paying attention to, is it really a space? This is an area the airport hiker can fill with meaning. Here, the airport hiker can create his own wonderland. Here he can feel completely at home.

A huge fire truck appears on a dirt road on the other side of a fence, beyond my neverland. Apparently there is life beyond the end of the world.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Perhaps Travelodging is just a short-lived trend, perhaps it is a proper subdiscipline of airport hiking. Perhaps it is a new hobby in its own right. But it is starting to feel all right. Get off a plane in darkness, check quickly on Google Maps in which direction the Travelodge is, and then navigate there without any help. Travelodges are too cheap and too recent to be located directly at the terminal. Instead, they are often just outside the airport boundary. One has to leave the airport in some way, with all the usual challenges.

This time: Travelodge Gatwick-Central, not to be confused with Travelodge Gatwick Airport. Gatwick Central is not central, but at the northern fringe of the airport. Gatwick Airport on the other hand is in the south. Whatever. In any case, by a stroke of luck I land at the North Terminal. I know that I have to negotiate first a parking area, second a river (yes!) and third, well, that's it. Outside the terminal, I turn left, follow the feeder road, then around the aforementioned parking space towards the north. I'm saying towards north, but there were no stars out and the only reason why I'm saying this is because I could already see the bright lights of the Travelodge. So it has to be north.

The only thing between me and my destination is the River Mole, surrounded by thick plants. I hit the northern periphery road of the airport, which runs parallel to the river on its south side. From my glimpse of Google Maps I seem to remember that there is a bridge, somewhere to the west. The periphery road is quiet. I'm passing some water treatment areas, probably the plumbing of the airport.

It's a pleasant walk, in the dark, on the grass, completely anonymous. There is nothing better than leaving the airport on foot, in the dark. It's a silent protest against this monster which tries to keep you in its mouth the entire time. Of course there are shuttle buses from the airport to the Travelodge. But the shuttles are part of the monster. Here, alone on the North Perimeter Road, I'm free. Not in the sense that I can do whatever I want. I'm bound by various constraints here, one being the barbed wire to my left, the other one being my tired legs. But all decisions are mine. Making autonomous decisions to negotiate a world full with limits and boundaries, that's as good as it gets.

And after half a mile the bridge. The River Mole is barely visible in the darkness, it's a black, smooth mass. The poor thing has been modified many times to make way for the airport. I turn east on the other side of the bridge, now walking straight towards the Travelodge. Apparently people live here. It's the Povey Cross Road and I meet a few of these strange airport almost-inhabitants. We don't exchange any words. We have nothing to say to each other. I treat them as wildlife, they treat me as nuisance. Okay.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Civil protest at 7am

Airport hiker do not really intend to break the law. They are law-abiding citizens, which clearly separates them from their brethren in mind, the terrorists. But in a zone where the number of laws per square meter reaches one million (rough guess), it is sometimes not easy to follow the law. The airport hiker constantly operates in a grey zone, one step away from being stopped by the police, another step from being thrown in jail. But often it is hard to notice these things. The law is invisible.

The new Travelodge at the airport in Glasgow is really just outside the terminal, not more than fivehundred meters away. Distance is not the issue here. The issue is the motorway that runs between the terminal and the hotel. A convenient tunnel leads from one side to the other, but the walkways end on the terminal side of the tunnel. But does it matter? There is muddy grass next to the road, I'm quite competent in crossing roads without getting killed, it is dark and rainy, so what. Five minutes of precarious balancing around puddles later I've arrived. The Travelodge is slightly difficult to access, so I thought. In my mind, I was Scott and the hotel the south pole.

It's only on the next morning when my problem became obvious. When trying to reverse my route, back to civilisation, a gigantic sign blocks my way, only readable from the hotel side. "According to bylaws", does it say, and "strictly no pedestrian access". But why, this is my go to response to everything right now, but why, the airport is right there. Just hundred meters from the sign is the tunnel, hundred meters further the walkway. But why?

It is one of these cases where it is hard not to break the law. The alternative is going back to the hotel and calling a taxi. But here the ridicule is too much. I cannot possibly accept this sign. And the other one just a few meters away which says the same things in an even harsher tone. Scott didn't have to deal with signs. I don't have to take this, is the murmur in my mind, something I rarely say to myself, and for two or three precious minutes I turn into an outlaw. I feel dirty. The roads are peaceful, the tunnel quiet. I cross the road that feeds the motorway and step onto the walkway that leads straight to the terminal. I'm back in my country.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The emerald airport

You can laugh as much as you want about the CamelCase in FitzGerald, but it is still one of the oldest and most famed Irish families, tracing back to Maurice FitzGerald, Lord of Lanstephan, whose son Gerald settled in Ireland in 1169 as part of the first Norman invasion. From this event and the Siege of Dublin in 1171 leads a direct line to the foundation of Dublin Airport, which is kind of hard to believe, but there it is: Desmond FitzGerald, brother of the former Irish head of government Garret, was the architect who designed the original terminal of Dublin Airport. It opened in 1941, a year in which other people opened concentration camps. It is likely that most of the design was actually done by Desmond's minions, but who cares.

The old terminal in Dublin is, to make it clear, a must-see for any serious airport hiker. It is one of not so many airport buildings that is actually of architectural relevance. I know almost nothing about architecture and I don't care about relevance, but look at the building and you'll understand what's going on:

Now, this is a terminal. The idea was to make it look like an ocean liner, which might become more obvious if you see the backside towards the runways. Today the walkway to pier D, finished in 2007, curves around the old terminal. In the satellite image this reinforces the impression that the old terminal is in fact the secret focal point of the airport - although it is mostly used for weather forecasts and other boring stuff. Yes, weather forecast is boring in Ireland, because the weather changes so quickly that the only relevant information is the weather report in real time.

I know Dublin airport since 2004 when pier D, now the starting point for trillions of Ryanair flights for 10 Euros plus fees, was non-existent. Instead we had to walk miles to some sort of gigantic shed. I've watched in agony as terminal 2, finally opened in 2010, was growing slowly over the years. Dublin airport has so many cheap flights to other European cities that it is a prime location to go for a walk on a rainy Sunday, even if you live in Croatia or Finland. It's not extreme and doesn't offer really ambitious hiking trips like Heathrow or JFK, but it's not too small to run out of options in less than one hour. With other words, it is perfect. With the quick Air Lingus connections to Boston or Chicago, it might even make sense for a daytrip from the US. Dublin might be the best airport hiking destination in Europe. Seriously.

The classic walk at Dublin airport is the famous Three-Terminal-Trip. Starting in front of the spectacularly ugly terminal 1, which was the main terminal for more than 3 decades but looks more like a malformed parking garage, you walk straight up the road to the brandnew terminal 2. This brings you to the first sensation - walking through the road tunnel underneath the bulging bridge that connects the two parts of the terminal. The blue illumination of the tunnel is a little bit creepy, but nothing an adult with some experience with blue lights can't handle in dignity:

At the end of the tunnel a flight of stairs leads up to the front of terminal 2 from which you can go on vast excursions through parking lots, hotels, and utility buildings until you ultimately reach the big roundabout at the East end of the airport, which leads directly to the M1, one of the two-and-a-half motorways on the island. If you like that sort of thing. The shorter and more scenic hike leads from the bus station a few hundred meters to the north, then to the west and in a straight line towards the old terminal. The whole way you have a good view on the strange trias of terminals: the classic old building, the desastrous terminal 1, and terminal 2 which looks like it could have happened in a cheesy SF movie from the 1990s. One wouldn't be able to guess that these three radically different buildings are siblings. Wait, they aren't, so, anyway.

When your reach the old terminal it's important to imagine being a Red Army tank or a horde of Mongolians on wild horses swinging spears or your preferred scene from an old-fashioned Chinese martial arts movie. It just makes more sense if you are trying to conquer the building, a long homerun to the promised land where you will raise your kids and all that. In reality, of course, you can't conquer the old terminal because it's locked most of the time. A lock is the ultimate deterrent against the Mongolian invasion. And you wouldn't want to give birth there either. Once you have realised that it's time to stroll back to terminal 1.

This whole trip through colours, spaces, and stories takes only about half an hour, even if you include the time to take pictures. Now you can invite yourself to a Strawberry Sunrise at the juice bar and head to, whatever, Rome or Moscow or wherever you came from. Don't go to Dublin. It's entirely unnecessary.

Because the jewel of Dublin is its airport.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

London Lethargy

I wanted to write about the London airports, but there was so little to write about. I postponed and postponed, a year went by, weed was growing everywhere on this blog, and there is still little to write about. London has five airports; to be fair, I only know four of them, but it seems unlikely that the little city thingy can save London's airport face. London is a gigantic airport hiking fail.

But it wasn't easy to accept this. I don't have an exact record of my visits to London airports, but I certainly spent more time on London airports than in London itself. This sounds sad, but it's not, really, because initially, in the early London years, I had high hopes, particularly for Heathrow. Such a big, massive, complex thing, there must be lots of potential. Must. Be. Originally, as you can see here, the plan was clearly to build an airport shaped like the Star of David, but nowadays it looks more like the inside of an octopus womb, plus Terminals 4 and 5 placed inconviently somewhere way off. Do octopuses actually have wombs?

But then reality hits. Terminals 1-3 are just too much stuff at the same place, it's not even funny. Good for a few quick minutes to get the circulation going in the legs and maybe a peaceful moment in front of St. Georges chapel, but that's it, as far as I can see. 4 and 5 are too far away for most stopovers. If you really want to walk from the new terminals to 1-3, it must be more than 10 miles. Still, this is an option for extreme airport hiking and someone will do it, some day, it might even be me. If there is one thing I learned over the last years, there is always someone out there doing the things I consider to be too extreme for the moment.

I'm not going to say anything about Gatwick and Luton, other than 'been there, done that'. The thing with these smallish airports in the UK: They look so similar that you really need a clear, distinctive feature to remember them, like the tower in Edinburgh. Gatwick and Luton have nothing like that. I wouldn't even buy a T shirt there.

The consolation price then is Stansted. It's the Ryanair airport, so you expect exactly nothing, but this is slightly too little. Stansted is in fact an okay hiking airport. This year alone I spent about 20 hours there and it wasn't boring, which means a lot. The terminal building itself is charmingly unoriginal, just a large, transparent block. I imagine it was 4pm on a Friday afternoon, the architect has spent the whole week playing Angry Birds, and he still has to come up with this airport design, and at some point he goes 'fuck it' and 'block'. It's the perfect way to save the weekend.

The other good thing about it is its size. Big is good. Spring nights, like all nights, can be fairly unpleasant in England, and it's always good to be able to do long rounds in the warm, dry terminal, watching the sleepers, marvelling at the imagination these people use to find vaguely comfortable sleeping positions on an airport bench. Or, conversely, at the fuck-it-all mentality of those people just lying flat on the ground somewhere in the middle of the huge hall.

Spring days, on the other hand, like all days, can be quite pleasant in England. From the terminal building it's just a short walk past the Radisson or across the parking lot to reach open land. With this type of airport (Edinburgh or Stockholm Skavsta are other examples) it's not easy to define what airport hiking is all about. Because they merge with the countryside, ordinary airport hiking quickly becomes ordinary rambling. Is the cow meadow ten minutes down the road still the airport? Can I claim the next village, too? The airport becomes bigger and bigger and ultimately the world is an airport.

Another fun game: Catching the wireless internet while walking around the Stansted bus station in front of the terminal. Since the internet is driving around with the buses, this requires to watch buses and switch between various wifi stations which all have the same name, while checking emails. With other words, it's a nightmare.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Feels like YYZ

I'm watching “Up in the Air” on the return flight from Toronto. The protagonist apparently likes flying. In the seat next to me is a boy, maybe 10 years old; he stares out of the window and enjoys every single minute of a long-distance flight. Finally, at least two people, one fictional, one real, who actually have their minds where they are.

See, airports are like zombie land. Nobody really wants to be there, nobody actually is there. Either they are still with the people they have just left, in their minds. Or they are already with the business they are going to do the next day. In their minds. What matters is what's going on in the mind. Airports leave them as soulless corpses. Their souls are somewhere else. Empty shells populate the parking garages, the elevators, the gates, the security checks. Well, you know. Whoever manages to actually be at the airport, will experience the most lonely moments in his life, moments of precious, beautiful isolation. These moments are worth living for.

Fuck, that's nonsense. I've just spent one hour walking through an eight level parking garage without seeing anything worth living for (not counting rental cars). Terminal 1 at Pearson International in Toronto, the airport with the enigmatic shorthand name YYZ, does not seem particularly interesting, which bothers me because I really like Toronto. The top floor of the parking garage is walled and fenced, and there is no point from which you can get an overview. The bottom floor (note: top and bottom floor are the most essential floors in parking garages) only leads back to the road. This is going nowhere and I don't have much time left until boarding.

I give up. I give up and walk again through the zombies in the terminal. Lower level, arrivals. The mid level is meaningless. Upper level, departures. Here you can watch the airtrain. It seems glued to the parking garage and then takes off towards Terminal 3. For the time being, Toronto doesn't have a Terminal 2, which is confusing for the amateur. But wait. From the west end of the terminal you can actually see a path to the other terminal. It's right there, maybe ten, fifteen minutes away. I don't have fifteen minutes, but at least I've figured it out. I spent my last five minutes in Toronto with a fantastic sunset and a stone man. My shadow is longer than his. But he has more muscles.

Sunsets at airports are the best. So many moving lights. For your information, Terminal 1 has incredible express walkways, which make you walk with about 20 km/h. I usually ignore walkways, but this one is a definite proof that the future is here. A future Made in Germany, of course.