Stripped Down and Personal

In an age of technology and terrorism, wanderlust comes controlled and unadventurous, but connections can still happen

When was the last time air travel was truly sexy? Not lately, that’s for sure. In fact, the last time probably predates most people’s memories; but that doesn’t mean the today’s frustrations of flying have to deflate your mood.

Time was when the family would dress in their Sunday best to climb aboard some long-vanished airline with stewardesses waiting in stylish, perky uniforms, in white smile and red lipstick to greet the passengers. These days are long gone, as passé as the cave paintings in Lascaux, with all those bulls and horses on an exhilarating romp across an eternal meadow – the same sense of freedom and wonder air travel once inspired.

But now, it’s hard to imagine a situation more controlled, tamed and domesticated than filing through the lines of a packed airport, the droves of people in a cattle-call, following the roped off labyrinth of a stock yard, beasts born in a barn and slated for slaughter. This grim waiting game is designed to herd the helpless into the hands of a uniformed-molester in rubber gloves, waiting to ogle at our innocence, to inspect our most intimate parts.

A bright side may seem hidden at this point, but human solidarity is a powerful thing; Out of such suffering can blossom bonds of friendship that transcend the dirty dealings of sadistic security guards and metal detectors.

The last bus from Bratislava to the Vienna International Airport in Schwechat leaves at about 8 p.m. each night, the first at about 7 a.m. in the morning. Things get complicated when you have to get an early flight: That first bus is too late, so if you can’t afford a cab, the only option is to wait all night in the airport. And you can be fairly certain of a long, boring night on a bench, or a patch of floor so cold and unforgiving that fantasies of some flea-infested flophouse have the feel of fairy tale…

What you certainly do not expect, though, is to run in to one of the most beautiful women you have ever seen, sitting in the same area where you plan to post up for the evening. With a quick, ever witty and charming, “Do you speak English?” and “That power outlet seems to be the only one around, mind if we share?” – the 21st century Casanova’s equivalent of, “Need a light?” – the deed is done, all miraculously accepted with a smile, and a warm, welcoming acceptance. Then introductions and handshakes, and the night suddenly doesn’t seem so dark and dreary after all. The beauty of the encounter isn’t only in the company though: It was the solace of our shared lament of the horrors of being trapped in the airport, of not being able to get any sleep on that nasty floor, and of not even being able find a late-night bar to have a damn cocktail…

The conversation flowed, with hardly a moment of silence; the social lubricant of alcohol wasn’t even necessary. It was just enough to talk her ridiculous, daylong layover on her way home for Christmas and how, due to escalating ticket prices, this was the only feasible way to go.

When the time finally comes to go our separate ways, a handshake turns into a hug, and complaints about the agonies of travel have miraculously morphed into plans to meet again. How did this ever happen?

Stories of congenial encounters are surprisingly common. Mine include sitting next to a well-known Brazilian DJ while standing in the check-in line, or sharing a sub-par shrimp salad to Tiger Woods’ then father in-law because the airline had overbooked and upgraded me to first-class. Both true stories.

The point is, with the latest TSA security enhancements stripping travelers of both clothing and dignity, most of us need to work hard to find positive aspects of traveling. The simple answer is to have an open mind. If people are put through their paces with blinders on, muttering under their breath about the next security insult, they could miss out on some extremely interesting people who might just become lifelong friends, or at least a companion in conversation for the next ten hours on an international flight.

Relationships can blossom out of abuse, and since airports now seem to offer little else, it’s time we restore the wonderment and mystery of the journey, taking the time to meet someone new and turn travel from a trial into an unlikely story of friendship on an international scale. An airport can make your dreams come true, and can make a man who promotes himself as average-looking at best feel like the most charming fellow on the planet, if only for one night, while waiting for a flight on a European airport floor.

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