We were at Schipol Airport, Amsterdam the other day with a few moments to kill. Unlike most of the world’s airports, there is still a public viewing area at Schipol, which anyone can access; you don’t need to be a passenger; you don’t even have to have the excuse of waving someone off.
We remarked on how civilised it felt to be able to wander around the terrace, watching planes departing or pulling onto their arrival stands. If other airports claim that they have closed their viewing areas out of security risks, then either the airport authorities in Amsterdam are massive risk takers, or they decided to take a more pragmatic line.
In either case, we appreciated the opportunity. And someone even had the idea to have an entire aircraft lifted on to the terrace, thereby giving those who are not destined to fly, the chance to step on board anyway: the stuff of dreams for many a flight attendant-to-be.
My brief time on the terrace reminded me of happy afternoons as a child spent at Heathrow Airport with my Dad. He would drive us up to the airport, where we would climb to the top of the (now demolished) Queen’s Building and simply watch planes coming and going.
I was never one of the ‘serious’ plane spotters; they scribbled aircraft registrations in little notebooks and listened in on conversations between pilots and air traffic control with short wave radios . My interest was, as I see it now, more romantic: I liked to imagine being on those planes, jetting off to some far-flung destination; or I tried to picture the people who were doing so, what they looked like, how they were feeling. Clearly, given my career of choice in adulthood, those afternoons had a rather long-term effect on me.
Having exhausted the possibilities of the Queen’s Building terrace (I doubt the catering facilities ever matched those on offer at Schipol – full service restaurant and bar if you please), we would round off our afternoon with a brief, but wonderfully exciting, walk through Terminal 3.
This for me was the highlight of our visits. As much as watching the planes themselves was thrilling, to be able to put actual faces to the lucky people who would be flying away was so exciting. I remember most of all the emotion on those faces: excitement, apprehension, fear, joy, sadness. Walking past the departure point, which must surely have been devoid of the high stress of today’s full body scanning and liquids-in-freezer-bag chaos, I loved to watch the tearful goodbyes and good luck send-offs. This was a place infused with hope and optimism on the one hand, and loss and grief on the other.
I marveled at the towering trollies of cases and bags in the check-in area: how, I wondered, could a person have so many possessions? My own eight year old belongings could have fitted into a single small case. I would crane my neck to see where the agent was tagging the bag to: JFK, CPT, SYD, KUL. I didn’t know what most of them meant, but it didn’t stop me imagining.
Later, before leaving, we would pass by Arrivals. Being Terminal 3, the passengers here had mostly come from long haul destinations, which meant the reunions were all the more intense affairs. Tears of joy, emotional embraces, sad homecomings, first encounters with a new baby: all of life, and death, was here on public view. The feeling here was one of relief; of a safe arrival; of a friend returned. That sense of adventure, of the unknown, which was apparent in Departures, was missing, but it was no less thrilling to witness.
I wouldn’t say I longed to be one of those lucky passengers; I think even then I had a sense that my time would come. Neither did I long to know more about them. For me, the thrill was in imagining what they might be doing; what they might have done. Where they might be going; from where they could have come.
In the car, on the way home, I would begin to make up stories for the travelers I had seen, assigning them bag tags, (LAX perhaps, or GIG – imagine my excitement when my Dad told me that was Rio!), placing them on a Jumbo Jet (it had to be a Jumbo Jet), and sending them on weird and wonderful adventures, or to far-off family reunions. By the time I arrived home, sleepy and hungry for tea, I’d created whole life stories for people I’d never see again.
People, places, planes: a winning combination for story-making. They are three things which, these days, form a permanent part of my life. Standing on the viewing terrace at Schipol airport, watching relatives wave goodbye to loved ones and children stare in wonder at planes as they soared away into the sky, reminded me of a time when it all seemed more exotic; when the possibilities appeared more endless.
Like most people who regularly pass through airports, I do so blinkered by familiarity; but the possibilities they offer the writer are still as endless, and productive. It is time, I think, to look more closely again. To wonder. To dream. To imagine.
And, of course, to write.