Stuck in the Airport

Edited Jan 14, 2020

On August 28, 1998, Merhan Nasseri’s plane touched down at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, and the Iranian refugee strode into Terminal One. In the departure lounge he found a seat. And there he remained until July of 2006, when he took ill and had to be hospitalized. For 18 years, Nasseri was stuck in bureaucratic limbo. He’d been living in Britain, but lost the suitcase with his documentation papers in it. Unable to prove his citizenship, he found that no country would take him. So “Sir Alfred,” as he became known, set up a little beachhead in an alcove near a CD shop, and settled in for nearly two decades of browsing the newspapers, jotting down his thoughts and taking lengthy naps. “Like a character in an absurdist existential play, he lived out his apparent purpose in life: to wait.

The story popped to mind last Wednesday when I arrived at the Vancouver International Airport in the predawn to learn that my early-morning flight was delayed by a snowstorm. How delayed? The agent scrolled down the list of cancelled flights and furrowed her eyebrows — never a good sign. She could get me on the last flight out tonight, she said.

Fifteen hours from now.

Well then, I thought: so be it. Big Airport Day. Let’s check out what this tin-can Heathrow has to offer.

Actually, quite a lot. YVR is a pretty great airport. And the story of why it’s a pretty great airport, I learned, whilst surfing the Net (hey, I wasn’t busy), began with a stinging insult from Charles Lindberg nearly a century ago.

In 1927 the aviator had just returned to North America after his heroic transatlantic flight, and the mayor invited him to Vancouver. Lindberg declined. “There is no fit field to land on,” he said. He wasn’t wrong: all we had was a bumpy strip of grass. But the remark was a public embarrassment for the city, which promptly invested more than half a million dollars in a proper airport, and YVR was born.

Early-morning flights are often cheaper, but you pay in sleep debt. Since I couldn’t snooze on the plane as planned, I decided to go up instead of down.

Some airports have gyms. YVR doesn’t. But I remembered seeing people churning away on elliptical machines in a high window of the adjacent Fairmont hotel. Turns out that for a modest fee you can drop in. And you can then store your suitcase in a locker — which saves renting space elsewhere in the airport for a larcenous daily fee. I worked up a good sweat on the treadmill while listening to a Radiolab episode and emerged feeling like a million bucks. A day “stuck in the airport” was starting to feel like something else altogether: a day to luxuriate in.

Time to explore.

It is a soothing airport, YVR. All the water features make it feel almost like a spa. A lot of the design elements push “relax” buttons most visitors didn’t even realize they had. It’s very quiet. That’s partly because the place is more heavily carpeted than almost any other airport in North America. Noise from the overhead TVs is magically contained within the circular seating around them via some secret design hack I’ve never figured out. Throughout YVR, striking pieces of Northwest Coast art are placed around like wayfinding points. (The hope was that people would say, “Meet you at The Jade Canoe, rather than “Meet you at the international check-in.” And they do. The colour palette of the international terminal – the soft blues and greens and browns — comes from a Lawren Harris painting. The rows of florescent lighting overhead subconsciously echo the log booms on the nearby Fraser River. You can become entranced, just wandering around, even if you never find your way to Susan Point’s Spindle Whorl, or the hypnotic jellyfish tank behind security in the International Terminal.

Of course, there’s a more direct route to transcendence than exercise or art. At International arrivals, YVR has an interfaith chapel, right across from a Tim Horton’s (a more familiar Canadian place of worship).

“It’s possible that the most religious moments occur in airports rather than in churches,” writes the great Mike Paterniti. “This is not blasphemy but a fact of modern life. Apprehension, longing and the fear of complete disintegration—what palpably animates an airport full of passengers about to take to heaven at the speed of sound—is what drives us to our gods.”

YVR’s chapel is a modest space. The coolest thing about it may be this: every year, on October 14, the head chaplain, Rev. Dennis Kirkley, greets a short, dark-haired Polish woman named Zofia Cisowski, who has made a pilgrimage to YVR from her home in Kamloops. Together they go buy flowers, and then they visit a spot in the international arrivals wing where her son, Robert Dziekanski, confused and angry and unable to make himself understood in English, was fatally tasered by Mounties on Oct. 14, 2007 — a dark chapter in the city’s immigration history. Rev. Kirkley and Ms. Cisowski pray together, and then they go for lunch.

By this point I was starting to feel drowsy. There are people who make a hobby of sleuthing out the best places to sleep in airports around the world.

The most agreeable napping alcove I’ve found in a Canadian airport is a room at Calgary International Airport with yoga mats and chaise lounges. Here YVR comes up a bit short. The Fairmont has “nap rooms,” for which you pay by the hour. (Insert your own “you know you’re getting old when…” joke here.) In the end I made a little nest – coat for a blanket, carryon for a pillow — in the concavity around the Jade Canoe, and drifted off to the sound of the player piano tinkling out “As Time Goes By.” (“No matter what the future brings … .” Even a workplace environment where robots take the jobs of piano players.)

Woke up feeling recharged and hale.

What now?

“What would YOU do if you had a few hours to kill in this airport?” I asked a managerial-looking guy who was putting on his pants in the hotel locker room.

“Honestly?” he said. “If it were me? I’d work.”

Not a bad idea.

In the lavish hotel lobby there are plenty of sofas and comfy chairs – which, brandishing my day pass, I now felt entitled to use. I got a ton done there. Then I moved to what was possibly an even better work spot – the “observation deck” in the main terminal, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and telescope for you to track the plane flying into the sunset with your luggage on board by mistake. Nobody interrupts you when you’re working at the airport because nobody knows you. Gotta admit, I felt a little twinge of guilt. The snowstorm had shut down the schools. So while I was sliding into an altered state of pleasurable focus, poor Jen was trying to get her own work done from home while keeping the kids from each others’ throats.

I thought of my psychologist friend Ellen, in Boston, who is queen of the reframe. She maintains nothing that happens to you is inherently good or bad. “Ask yourself: Is this a tragedy or an inconvenience? Then go a step further: Might there be a way that this is actually a boon?”

She once told me the story of the day her house caught fire. On Christmas Eve, no less. It was shocking, and dispiriting — at first. But the insurance company put her up in a nice hotel. Her room, when she arrived, was full of gifts. They weren’t from the management of the hotel, or even the owner, she discovered. “They were from the people who parked my car, the chambermaids, the waiters,” who had heard her story and felt bad for her. “People are quite something, right?” Ellen stayed there while her home was being rebuilt. “I’ve already had this loss,” she decided. “So why pay twice? Why give it my soul, too?

“All these years later, I couldn’t tell you anything that I lost in the fire,” she mused. “But I will never forget what happened that day in that hotel, because of the fire.”

As I finally boarded my flight — one of the last airplanes to depart YVR that day — I took stock. I felt like the gods had taken a cosmic loofah sponge to my very spirit.

You know what? I might just “Sir Alfred” it again. Voluntarily this time. And soon.

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