This past weekend I got to get on a plane and get out of town for a few days. It was a nice luxury, neatly crammed in the middle of a hectic schedule, and it could not have come at a better time. It had been a while since I'd flown anywhere, and doing so this weekend reminded me of the key reasons why airports and flying are two of my most favorite things in the world.
Airports are my idea of adventure. If you've ever flown into or out of Atlanta, you'll know that it's one of the largest in the world - a self-contained city of sorts, with a kaleidoscopic range of businesses, people and gateways. I never really know which one excites me more: the unbounded opportunities for people-watching, or those flashing TV screens announcing myriad destinations with their connecting flights. It's almost like being caught up in my own distorted version of The Wood Between the Worlds*, and I've only to jump through the correct gate to be whisked off to an unheard-of adventure (hopefully without all that business about worlds ending and being plagued by wicked magicians). But if I had to be honest, I'd have to admit that people-watching is by far my favorite part of air travel.
People-watching is one of the best pastimes to be had for free. I like eavesdropping on snatches of phone conversations; watching travelers on the train or escalators, and try to patch together basic facts of their lives from details of clothing, baggage, phone use, hair cuts and accents. Sometimes I'll even strike up conversations with people on a whim, just to see if some of my guesses are correct. During my outbound trip I was so diverted in this way that I nearly missed my flight, and for no better reason than I was enjoying myself in the food court, watching rivers of people pour past me, and concocting my own assumptions about each one that caught my imagination.
People-watching has also taught me that you can discern a lot by just studying faces. I'm a lifelong believer that there is some truth in the old adage that if you make an expression often enough "your face will freeze like that." (I've got my reasons for saying this - but that's a whole other blog entry.) If you accept that as something of a truth, and know what to look for, you can tell a lot of things about your airport neighbors: who is a screamer, who holds grudges, who bottles their anger inward, who is somewhat high-strung and oughtn't be pushed too far out of their comfort zone. (These are the people you generally don't want to sit next to on an airplane, as for them air transportation is usually well out of their comfort zone.)
Sometimes I fancy that I've crossed paths with characters from one of my books, as they're sprinting their way to some unknown destination of their own. There's certainly much "scope for imagination" (as Anne Shirley** would say) in an airport, and great fodder for possible future characters, or at least ideas for how such-and-other person might look or behave or sound. One of these days I'm going to arrive at the airport about five hours early with my sketchbook and pencils tucked into my carry-on, and wander the concourses at leisure, sketching and taking note of the diversity I see there. But with my luck, as sure I do that I will lose track of time, and miss my flight entirely.
Though now that I think of it, that wouldn't be too bad. It would just give me more time for people watching.
* A reference to The Magician's Nephew, by C. S. Lewis.
** Title character from the Anne of Green Gables series