I think it was Douglas Adams who said that there’s no language on Earth with the expression “as beautiful as an airport.”
Not all airports are bad, I guess. Belfast Airport used to have a nice little breakfast place. Vancouver Airport seemed OK the one time I was there. Heathrow is awful and soul-crushing, but makes up for that by being full of stores selling expensive shit that you’d never want, so I guess it’s kind of like it meets you half-way. But who am I kidding: airports suck, and Beijing Airport has earned itself special distinction in the field of sucking.
The arrivals hall is designed so that it’s impossible to get a taxi without waiting in line for a half-hour in a taxi pen that smells of secondhand smoke, car exhaust, and despair. Coupled with the airport’s convenient location in the ass-end of nowhere, this leads one to suspect that the entire enterprise was designed according to the specifications of the powerful illegal cab lobby. The architects designing the departures area apparently engaged in serious study of crowd flow dynamics and anti-congestion measures, and then did exactly the opposite of what their research said. The stores buy their stock from the Zhengzhou #3 Cheap Shit Factory, and retail it at a 1500% markup. It’s staffed by well-meaning incompetents and lit with the standard airport and interrogation room fluorescents, the kind that make people look like recently exhumed corpses. One time, a year and a half ago, I woke up badly hung-over at Beijing Airport one morning on my way home to the States and was momentarily convinced that I had died and gone to hell.
The best way of dealing with the hassles attendant to air travel is to queue up a playlist on your MP3 player of the loudest, angriest, most violent music you can find. I figured this out recently: the music must be loud, so that it can play to the exclusion of all external stimuli; the violent part is for helping you deal with things in a healthy manner: you don’t have to choke a bitch, because Ice Cube has already done it for you.
This helped a lot on this year’s trip home. I was on a budget itinerary that took me from Beijing at 8:30 AM to Tokyo, left me at Narita Airport for six hours, and then gave me a stopover in Dallas-Fort Worth before taking me back to Philadelphia. Total travel time, including layovers, was approximately 30 hours, and the early-morning flight out of Beijing spooked me into staying up all night the night before, for fear of oversleeping and missing my plane. I wasn’t able to sleep for more than five minutes on any of the flights, and so by the last leg of the trip, from Dallas to Philadelphia, I had been awake for about 50 hours straight, and was feeling more than a little cracked-out, and when the plane took off from DFW airport, a place that I had decided within five minutes of arrival was the anus of the known universe, and I looked down at the city beneath us, all I could think of was how much it looked like jewels.
I chatted a bit with the woman sitting next to me, a largish bottle blonde with intricately painted fingernails who removed a portable DVD player from her bag and sat it on her lap the instant she entered the plane. I asked did those work well, and she replied that hers did, that she’d bought it because she got “tension” on flights. Did that work, I asked. Mostly, she said. She was a boring woman, and it was a boring conversation, but so what; it was in English, and Philadelphia English at that.
I never learned the Philadelphia accent growing up. Part of it was environment, I guess – my dad has a northwestern Irish accent; my mother, though from Philly, has a neutral east-coast accent. I thought the Philadelphia accent, with its nasalized vowels, muted ts, and added syllables (“‘Ja see the Iggles game last night? Aw, it was beeyoodeeful.”) was ugly, grating, not the kind of thing I’d ever want coming out of my mouth. To this day, I can’t even really do a proper imitation of a Philadelphia accent, beyond a few obvious words — “wooder ice.” The thing is that I started missing the sound of it after a while.
After you spend too much time in China, you find yourself talking, as Pete Hessler points out in Oracle Bones, in Special English, which takes its name from a Voice of America program rather than from the Special Bus, but is really the same thing. You e-nun-ci-ate. You use small words to discuss big things. Your sentences shrink to single clauses. You regain all of the consonants that natural speech elides, and you never, ever use words like “hoosegow” or “kiester” or “uxorious.” The speech of the plane’s occupants seemed to be evenly split between slurring Texan drawls and half-swallowed Philadelphian mumbles, and it was beeyoodeeful to listen to.
After a few hours, the plane banked to the left, and the pilot (whose accent may or may not have been Texan, but at any rate was certainly not Philadelphian) told us that we would be arriving in Philadelphia in a half-hour. I looked out the window next to me to try to get a glimpse of the city as it approached, but it was overcast, like the day I left, and I couldn’t see anything below except the odd glimpse through small clearings — until suddenly the plane cleared the clouds and there, glinting up at us in a constellation of yellow light, like fragments of a beer bottle in dirty lamplight, was Philadelphia.