Will Self : PsychoGeography

Flight of the condor

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We didn't notice that the Iberian flight from Heathrow was late getting into Madrid. We were too busy eating Serano ham, blue cheese and salad, dipping bread in olive oil - and farting. Funny, how air travel provokes such dreadful flatus; almost as if the pressurisation of the cabin were forcing your colon to push back.

I had also coined a neologism: the correct term for the shallow, circular depression in your tray table, that while intended as a cup holder none the less inevitably ends up full of almonds or cashews: "a nuticule".

It was only as the plane bumped down through the rumpled air on its final descent that I tuned into the conversation between the earnest, rather too loud, man across the aisle, and the air stewardess who was sitting opposite him:

"It's going to be a universal language!" he proclaimed, and she, concurring, added:

"You know, I don't have a kid, but if I did, I would seriously think of taking her to live there ..."

"In China?"

"Right, in China."

On the one hand I quite liked this spirited embrace of the future by an English businessman and a Spanish flight attendant; but on the other, there were too many hypotheticals involved: Mandarin as the inevitable global lingua franca, her yet-to-be conceived child, her serious think.

We landed. My companion Marc had justifiably high expectations of the retail opportunities at Madrid Airport. He wanted still more Serano ham - but he needed nougat, that very hard, brittle kind of nougat the Spanish so excel in compressing. I felt his nougat urge, I had my own: to smoke a cigarette. Trouble was, no matter how fabulous the Madrid terminals are - and they are beautiful, designed by that great environmentalist Richard Rogers, great rectilinear egg boxes full of light and shops - there are no Smoking Zones anywhere in them. If you want a puff, you have to cross the frontier and then leave the country again.

The frowsty cavalcade of disembarkation was well underway, when the buffo businessman collared us:

"If you go that way there's a 30-minute walk to the terminal for our onward flights, but she says," he indicated the stewardess, "there's a bus coming that'll get us there in 10 minutes."

For a moment we thought of bucking the trend, but the Santiago plane was leaving in 40 minutes and we wanted to be on it. On the bus we engaged with the businessman and his companion. They were on their way to Buenos Aires to organise a conference of airports.

Nice, psychogeographic image this: every year all the airports fly into another airport and discuss, well, I suppose they discuss flying into each other, like a humungous Spaghetti Junction, a Gordian knot of runways that no environmentalist could ever hack apart.

I quite like the businessman, who's gung-ho about his trip. His companion seems a little downtrodden - a Pringle sweater is tied around his waist, a limp smile around his face - but brightens up when I tell him we're going to Chile.

"Santiago," he smiles, "brilliant place; you can ski in the morning and be on the beach by the afternoon."

"Can you," Marc asks, "actually ski on to the beach?" He isn't being facetious; he spends his working life fabricating such strange contraptions. I, however, am being facetious when I ask:

"How about skiing on to the beach while eating and making love?" The companion looks remorsefully at me, and soon after this we are parted by the contrary flows of international travel.

Marc and I stride through the empty terminal. It's almost midnight on a Sunday and his chances of scoring some nougat are no better than my hopes of having time for a cigarette. We reach the gate just as the flight is closing and march on board. For the first time in a long while, I have recourse to a nicotine lozenge, I'm so jumpy. Marc looks ruefully at this self-medication:

"Pity they don't make Nougarette," he says, "I'd be their top customer."

Ten hours later we're flying over the Andes and Marc is feeling a ham deficiency:

"Not much snow down there; if we crashed now it wouldn't be cold enough to preserve you, like those Chilean rugby players did with their dead team-mates before eating them..."

"I'm not sure they were Chileans."

"Whatever, the point is that I'd have to wind-dry your flesh into something like biltong, if I was going to survive for any length of time."

Marc's given me cause for thought: why's he so certain that it'll be him who survives the crash anyway? He may have a lust for ham, but that isn't necessarily a lust for life. I hugged my elbows - then stopped. I didn't want to draw Marc's attention to anything hard and brittle.

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