Monday, May 3, 2010

Airport Opera

Good evening, please take a red plush seat, the show is about to begin. This is a tragedy and a love story and a story that (I warn you) spans 30 hours. Please sit back and relax, the opera is about to begin.

Among the places that inspire melancholic lust, for me, the airport is at the top. Yesterday I experienced the longest span of travel in my life. I crossed 6,000 miles in three airplanes. The thoughts and emotions I experienced in the spaces between were intense and of the utmost blogworthyness in nature. So, I want to share with you, my reader friend. I want to take you on a journey of the Airport Opera.

Make sure you remember your itinerary, because I didn't. I don't want you to have to open your laptop while waiting in a sweaty check-in line. And so... we begin.

ACT I: Duty Free

Dimitri the taxi driver was at the Russian Radisson at 4:45 AM. He was there to pick up the two American girls, Susan and Emily. Emily was ready, but Susan was not. I was shaking out an unpackable camera backpack screaming, "Mother Fucker, Mother Fucker, Mother Fucker!!!" as I was unable to get all my items contained in my baggage for 20 days and two opposite climates.

Emerging the hotel at 5:15 AM, I slumped into the front seat of Dimitri's mini van and cooed my gratefulness at his loyal patience. Dimitri had diligently driven me and my research team around the chaotic streets of Moscow and waited while I sat for 2-hour spans in tiny Russian apartments, interviewing people about their acne.

Once we were off, I exhaled a ragged breath and started the process of saying goodbye to Emily. Together for eight incredible days, I was having a hard time letting go of my beautiful co-worker and friend. She was off to JFK and then onto Minnesota, while I was on my way to far off Brazil.

At the airport, the separation was swift. They would not let Emily stay with me as her flight was at a later time. A hasty hug and a meaningful, "I love you, be safe, kid" and then I was off through the grey customs lines and security check points.

Once inside, I found Gate 14. Air France to Paris, easy enough. I had an excruciating hour to waste. As is common when embarking on mind-boggling travel, I was feeling emotional. I decided to do the natural feminine solution and try a bit of shopping.

The Duty Free shop had the same allure as they do round the world. Bright lights, soft perfume, and delicate women dressed in suits. I had the silly idea that it was time I initiate myself into the Chanel brand by purchasing myself a tube of lipstick. Somehow, I intuitively knew that a fresh shade of lip color would hold me up through this exhausted state of endless transit. 

I walked over to the wall of Chanel cosmetics. There were at least half a dozen shades of creamy pink lipstick. I at least knew that I wanted something pink.

A platinum blond elderly saleswoman walks by.

"Pajal-sta (please), could you help me select the right shade of lipstick?"

She looks at me and assesses my grey North Face fleece and backpack. Her eyes brush over a crusty zit on my chin. A drop of sweat rolls down my eyebrow and into my eyelashes. I am hoping that the experienced shop woman can give me this much needed girly moment, as I am already deeply missing Emily and feeling deliriously alone. Please, Shop Woman, let's do some retail therapy together?

"NO. I cannot do dis. You Chooz ALONE."


Perhaps she could see the neediness in my face and did not want to be a part of helping an American girl at 6:00 AM in the morning. Alright, push forward, just do it, just pick a color. Rouge Coco creme hydratant is no less than 25 Euros. So, the color better be right.

I start drawing small lines of pink on the top of my hand... Gardenia, Soft Mink, Sugar... they all look relatively the same to me. Sweat is dripping down my face and I practically feel like I am shop lifting, but I am buying this Chanel lipstick, dammit. I don't care what Olga thinks of me.

Gardenia, No. 13 gets the final pick. I am hoping this lipstick will change my life. At the cash register, the woman seals it in a plastic bag and purses her lips, almost as though saying to herself, "Dis alone will not help your unkempt American looks." 


I walk into the dingy bathroom and rip open the plastic bag that, because it's duty free, I'm pretty sure you are supposed to keep shut for the duration of your travel. I don't care, I need this. 

Perhaps it's sleep-deprived delirium, or maybe just decades of genius branding, but I swear that the moment that over-priced Chanel lipstick hits my lips, it is the sexiest, most luxurious sensation ever. The shade is perfect. It is creamy and slightly luminous. I instantly look ten times more put together. Ten times more believable as a world business traveler. Ten times more affluent. 

Thank you, Coco Chanel, you saved my dignity as a woman.

ACT II: Smoker's Machine

I quit smoking on 09/19/09. On 04/24/10, the day I landed on Russian soil, I started again. Don't ask me why, because it is personal, but I do not regret the decision. It's a temporary habit that I allowed back into my list of hobbies, like an ex-boyfriend who you decide it's OK to take out for dinner and a movie. 

Thank God I started smoking again in Russia. Act II brings us to the tragedy of this piece. After the hype of the lipstick had ended, a deep loneliness set in. 

U free?

I text Steve in Canada. Steve is out for dinner with friends. Next I call Mom, and receive her cell phone voicemail. I try brother Paul in Portland, still, no go. I call Aunt Susan, and even she is unavailable. What gives, I thought I would maybe wake her up. It is about 9:00 PM back home, but I am getting confused and thinking that it is their morning as well as it is mine. I'm dizzy and a little panicky as I continue to reach answering machines. In my second voicemail to my mother, I begin to cry unexpectedly.

"It's just that, I have 20 hours of flying time, Mom, and I'm like, SO TIRED, and my bags are all packed wrong, and my head hurts."

During this phoning frenzy, I am standing next to an eye sore that I call a "Smokers Machine." They are all over the Moscow airport, and completely offensive, yet a beacon for any smoker. They are these metal structures that you stand around and the vents suck up your cigarette smoke. Russian ladies stand next to me with Boris and Natasha raised eyebrow expressions. They suck on their skinny little Kent cigarettes as I cradle my fat Camel Lights. I look at the Camel Lights box and smile at the familiar happy desert animal. He is my only friend in this little corner.

No one from my family has answered my $3.99 calls. Steve has his own social events in Canada. Emily is stuck behind security lines at the entrance. There is no one else I really want to search for in cellular land besides these people. So I shuffle over to Gate 14 to check on things.

There is a group of the most distinctive looking business gentlemen I have ever seen. About five of them. All wearing three-piece suits with pocket watches and tie leather shoes. One man looks into my eyes, squints, and cocks his head.

"Bonjour?" I offer.

"Bonjour, Madamoiselle. Ça va?"

"Oui! Ça va bien, merci! (liar. I am shitty as ever.)

I walk back to the smokers machine and the business man follows. "FatiGUE" he offers with a sigh. 

"Oui, moi aussi, moi" 

After a bit of confusion, I learn that he and his colleagues are from Chad, Africa. After this four-hour flight to Paris, he will have a five-hour flight home to Chad. I, on the other hand, will have a 12-hour flight to my non-home in Brazil and then one more four-hour flight to the coastal town of Recife. 

He smiles and it appears that he has at least 72 small white teeth. His face crinkles and I realize that I have found a temporary friend. I wonder if he watched me cry earlier? I say a quiet prayer of thanks to my Jr. High French teachers, my French Uncle, my time spent in Paris, and all that helped me be able to converse with that man. 

Perhaps it was fate, perhaps it was just an early morning, but no one spoke to me in English that morning. I felt like an untouchable, and the anonymity of waiting for that flight was absolutely agony for a social gal like me.

ACT III: Texting Manifesto

If there is one business traveler faux pas I am guilty of, it is of having a touch of the dramatic, cautious nature that gets one the nickname "Danger Patrol" (or, D.P.) in the office with the other researchers. Every flight I board, I say my Sunday school prayer upon take-off and landing. I also have some superstitions. 

After being in an engine failure situation as a child (no big deal in the end, the pilot just turned around after take off and landed back at LAX), I have these little rituals I HAVE to do before flying. I have to call my mom. I have to tell her that I love her and that I will see her soon. 

I have to text my favorite people and give them something funny or random. I just have to connect in some way, so that if something were to happen on my flight, my last moments would not be cursing AT&T while trying to get service on my iPhone while plummeting 35,000 feet. It's as though I have to write my final manifesto via text, so that my smartest friends will carry on my legacy while talking at my funeral... "She texted me that it was the loneliest day of travel in her life. She said it was like an Airport Opera."

Other safety rituals: I have to STOP reading and SIT UP straight during take off. I am always prepared to jump a burning airplane, or to assist the fat lady next to me. I am not afraid of flying – I adore it, in fact – but I have this immense, over-indulged respect for it. It's ridiculous. I mean, your chances of dying in a plane crash are one in sixty million. Still, I have my habits...

The sweetest delight of any flight (besides speeding down a runway and taking off) is when the wheels touch the ground and I get to reconnect with my world. I get to turn on my phone and see if anyone has responded to my dramatic, prose-filled texts. After four hours of tossing and turning in my seat, we land in Paris and my phone blinks to life.

I hear the happy "ba da bing!" sound of an iPhone text and I see that indeed, it is from the number one person I wanted to hear from. Just that one text gives me the energy I needs to run to the flight for Sao Paulo. I slap on a little more Rouge Coco and clip my backpack across my hips and chest.

It's a rush through Charles de Gaulle, and I am disappointed because I so wanted to buy myself a white Swatch. I weave and bob through the alluring French folk and board the bus to the Brazilian flight.

I am smacked in the face by a new language and a dozen stares as I stand on the bus waiting to drive us across the tarmac to our towering Airbus A330-300. I smile (the universal language that gets you by) and quietly reapply just a touch more pink lipstick, ready to be whisked off to my next career adventure.


I flew Air France like a true superstar. I spoke French with the lovely flight attendant all 12 hours. I ate salmon, fois gras, drank champagne, and cried artistic tears while viewing Michael Jackson's This is it.

The final flight on TAM airlines was turbulent but I did not give a shit. I was sleeping away in seat 3F, having consecutive dreams about the handsome gentleman in seat 2A with the brown sport coat and the salt & pepper wavy hair.

By the time I landed in Brazil, the culture shock was intense. I sweated through my fleece flight suit in about 20 seconds flat. I did not even know how to say "Hello" (I still don't properly) in Portuguese, but everyone was all smiles at the hotel as I raved about the ocean view. No one understood me, so I used a lot of gestures to explain that I had not seen waves like this for a long time. I gestured to ask about sharks. They are notorious here. That was a funny "conversation" but it was helpful to learn that there is a barrier wall that keeps sharks out from the beach. Somehow I caught that only the men get eaten by the sharks because they are the only ones stupid enough to swim past the wall.

In my room, I strip naked immediately and say goodbye to Russian fleece clothing. I pull out my shorts and shake them out as if they are covered in cobwebs. I walk into the living room part of my suite. There is a refrigerator. 

I open it up, and cold air blasts my drenched face. "HEY!" I say loudly to myself. My voice echos in the empty tiled room. 


Of course they do. But this icy cold Coke is like the bond that seals the 30-hour cycle of lonely travel. I crack open the ice-cold Coke, lean back on the leather couch, and shut my eyes. 

Finally, in my mind, I am home.

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