Interview with Alain de Botton: ‘A Week at the Airport’

Travel Interviews: Frank Bures asks Heathrow's first writer-in-residence about non-places, taking time to arrive and what airports tell us about ourselves

01.06.10 | 11:33 AM ET

If you happened to pass though Heathrow airport late in the summer of 2009, you may have seen a bald man sitting at a desk in the middle of the departures area of Terminal 5. He wasn’t there to register complaints. He wasn’t giving out travel information. And he wasn’t taking boarding passes.

His name is Alain de Botton. He had written about many things—architecture, love, literature, travel—when he got a strange call with an offer to be Heathrow’s first ever writer-in-residence. The result of his time there is a slim book called A Week at the Airport, full of de Botton’s musings on the airport and its place in society and in our lives (and with accompanying photos by Richard Baker).

It is a curious document: a meandering, looping, speculating account that uses Heathrow as a means of probing the human condition. De Botton examines the security, the food, the airport priests, the bookstores and the people passing through this porthole. “My notebooks grew thick with the anecdotes of loss and desire, snapshots of travelers’ souls on their way to the skies.” He also shows us that the place that now represents tedium and annoyance for many travelers can still be full of wonder, because, as he says, “to refuse to be awed at all might in the end be merely another kind of foolishness.” I asked him about the project via email.

World Hum: In your introduction, you say you sometimes fantasize about being delayed because you love airports so much. Most people will find that hard to understand. Can you explain?

Alain de Botton: The real problem with airports is that we tend to go there when we need to catch a plane—and because it’s so difficult to find the way to the gate, we tend not to look around at our surroundings. And yet airports reward a second look—they are the imaginative centers of the modern world. It’s here you should go to find, in a concrete form, all the themes of modernity that one otherwise finds only in an abstract forms in the media. Here you see globalization, environmental destruction, runaway consumerism, family breakdown, the modern sublime, etc. in action.

What do you think about the idea of airports as non-places, or places that are essentially nowhere?

They stand outside of our normal experiences, and also, stand outside of the normal geography and sociology of places. Wherever you are in the world, airports look similar: They belong to this odd place: airport land. This is marked by an anonymous, modernist air—a kind of terrible ugliness.

You talk about this disconnect between the effort that goes into distracting and entertaining travelers, versus that which goes into educating them about the massive machinery behind their journeys. Were you one of those happily distracted people before you wrote this?

No, I have pretty much always been fascinated by the mechanics of airports. I longed to be a pilot when I was younger. I haven’t entirely given up hoping that I might work for British Airways one day.

What do you think our airports tell us about ourselves?

They reflect back to us our fundamental loneliness and alienation. We feel ourselves “at home” in our own homes, but the airport shows us to be wandering creatures, pilgrims on earth at the best of times.

You say in the book that “there used to be time to arrive.” What do you mean by that?

Time to get used to the idea of being in a place. Nowadays, people constantly get to their destinations too quickly. The Arabs say, “The soul arrives at the speed of a camel.”

Near the end of the book, you write that, “Travel Agents would be wiser to ask us what we hope to change about our lives, rather than simply where we want to go.” I like that idea.

Yes, the desire to go traveling is not always about wanting to reach place X or Y. It’s about making a particular change in ourselves. The journey we really require is inner. Therefore, it would be good if people in the travel industry gave a little more recognition to this.

Did your week at the airport change the way you see or feel about these places? Do you still want to be delayed?

I’m afraid yes, I continue to be fascinated by airports. Tragically, I’d love to go back there for an extended stay again.


Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.


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