Ellie Levenson: There are worse places than an airport terminal

There is a kind of democratic discomfort in having to sit on the same type of bench
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The Independent Online

It is possible that an article in a serious newspaper should never begin with the words "I am looking forward to the Tom Hanks film released next week..." However, bear with me. Because I am looking forward to the Tom Hanks film released next week.

It is possible that an article in a serious newspaper should never begin with the words "I am looking forward to the Tom Hanks film released next week..." However, bear with me. Because I am looking forward to the Tom Hanks film released next week.

In The Terminal, Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a man from the fictional Eastern European country of Krakozhia, who finds himself on a plane on the way to America when his country experiences a violent coup. Without authorisation to enter the US but unable to return to Krakozhia, he is stranded in New York's Kennedy Airport and has to make it his home. This is based, albeit loosely, on the true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian exile who has lived in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris since 1988.

Though I've never been tempted to set up home in one, I do enjoy spending time in airports, even at times of chaos such as the current mass of British Airways cancellations and threatened strikes. However fraught the passengers are, and however bustling and noisy the place is, airports all over the world are recognisable, regimented and very controlled, with a set route through check-in, security, passport control and the departure gates that gives a sense of purpose and calm.

Airports also have a sense of adventure. First, you are about to cheat gravity by flying. Second, it is likely that you are either going somewhere new and exciting, or returning home, both holding their own pleasures and excitements. Third, you have the chance not just to people-watch, but to see all kinds of national dress and customs as people from all over the world go to all other bits of the world.

And fourth, airports are the only place where I am ever tempted to buy a Toblerone. These triangular chocolate bars from Switzerland have for me become synonymous with airport travel. The appearance of mountains of Toblerone bars on sale at the Duty Free shop is as certain as the fact that whatever airport in the world you have arrived at, you will always be in the wrong terminal for your onward train, bus or flight.

Airports are also strangely egalitarian. That is if you leave aside the first-class travellers in their executive lounges with their free muffins and internet access. But for everyone else, whether they have purchased a cheap flight for 99p or a long-distance flight costing several hundred pounds, airports are equally uncomfortable for everyone. There is a kind of democratic discomfort in having to sit on the same type of bench, have your peace punctuated by the same announcements and buy your food from the same shops.

Our James Bond fantasies also come alive at airports, where we all become security guards, alert for unattended packages. However, even post 11 September, the "be aware" message hasn't reached all parts of the globe. Recently I was waiting by my departure gate, Toblerone in hand, when a man asked me whether I could keep an eye on his luggage while he nipped to the loo.

"I'm not sure that's very appropriate in the current political climate," I replied primly. Another passenger agreed to his request, however, and we both sat there as he found the toilets, her with an eye on his baggage, me assiduously ignoring it, wondering whether I should tell security. He was back before I had made my decision.

At times I have also been the cause of security scares. I once spent the night at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. I had run out of money and was exhausted after a couple of nights sleeping on the beach. A little dishevelled, possibly a bit smelly, I decided to spend my last night on an airport bench. Sleeping in airports, you always find yourself in a rather odd position, having to ensure a bit of your body touches every piece of your luggage, so that you are woken if someone attempts to steal your bag of dirty underwear and half a Swiss chocolate bar.

Throughout the night I was watched by a succession of (not very) secret police. Each time I stretched my legs or went to the toilet, I arrived back to my bench to find that the area had been searched and any papers I had deposited in the rubbish bin had been taken away for scrutiny. Mossad must have had a field day interpreting my tired scrawlings - lists such as "excuses for forgetting to send postcards" and "presents - remember to pick up chocolates at Heathrow".

On a flight back from America recently, my plane was held up for quite some time because there were more passengers than boarding cards. A thorough check of the plane was undertaken by men in dark glasses and gun-shaped bulges. When the excitement was over, the pilot came over the radio: "We have a saying here that it's better to be on the ground wanting to be in the air than in the air wanting to be on the ground." He was right, of course, but it would have been even better to be inside the terminal.

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