I always say I’ve technically been to a country if I’ve transferred there before. I do this because most people think transferring at an airport doesn’t count as visiting a country. “Yes I’ve transferred at Tokyo” “But you didn’t leave the airport!” “Well I’ve been to the US… I transferred at Detroit” “That doesn’t even count as the US!”
Sure, airports might not give you the authentic experience that passing out in a shisha bar in Budapest would (that’s another story). But in a way they’re the essence of how a city or a country wants to be seen by the average traveller.
Apart from that, the airport terminal is a heaven for people watching— put a large number of tired and bored strangers together in a claustrophobic box where you can get charged for your mere existence, someone’s going to crack. Which is why yours truly doesn’t mind the 8 hour stopover, as long as it’s in a major airport with a healthy flow of fidgety people; I’ll be content to perch in a secluded corner and judge every one of them while I’m pretending to be asleep, which, incidentally, is really easy if you have Asian eyes.
You can always count on a certain type of people to be at the airport— the kind that would not only complain, but actually do something about their complaint. I’m not that kind of person. Shoot at me and I’ll probably complain about the caliber of the bullet and remain standing. Tackling you to the ground won’t even come up on my mental to-do list.
These people would write a strongly worded email to a cooking show if they thought the host got the idea of al dente wrong. These people, unlike me, aren’t scared shitless about publicizing their opinions. And that makes me jealous, which is enough reason for me to hate them.
Case in point, when I was going through luggage control in Frankfurt, I noticed a commotion at the other end of the room. I couldn’t resist the urge to eavesdrop, so I shuffled towards the surface counter, pretending that I had problems with putting on my belt.
I could tell at first glance that the man was one of those people. Clean shaven, slightly pudgy, middle aged, with slick tufts of greying hair sprouting from his head as if someone decided to use weeds in an avant garde flower arrangement and— the most telling feature— trousers that didn’t really reach his shoes, exposing his checkered socks.
Judging from the expressions of people working at the service counter, they hadn’t marked him out as one of those people yet. Inexperience killed many a career. They were deceived by his ostensibly harmless look, the triviality of his complaint, the calm tone of his voice and his soft English accent.
“I specifically told the luggage handler not the open this bag, but he ignored me!” He gestured at a slim, black Agnes B. travel bag. Some would call it ‘man bag’. An imaginary gavel sounded in my head.
“I’m sorry sir, but what can we do for you now?” Funny how German sounds harsh, but English spoken in a German accent sounds like finely strained milk tea and almost has a placating effect. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to work on the man.
“I don’t think you understand, I specifically told him not to open this bag! I demand he be made responsible!”
That’s how they complain. They insist that no, you can never understand their plight, and in virtue of that, you should just shut up and do as they say.
The woman at the service counter did not do this. Worse, she looked slightly bemused, which was all the man needed.
“Do you think this is amusing? I want to speak to the manager! This won’t go unnoticed…”
I moved away, not wanting to attract too much attention by lingering around for too long. In my mind I was already fantasizing about what could possibly be in this mysterious bag of his. Since I already made up my mind to hate him, I let my imagination roam free as to what kind of incriminating demon he could have stored up inside that slim, Agnes B. travel bag.
Maybe it was the ashes of his late mistress; maybe it was an embarrassing latex costume; maybe it was the severed hand of a Starbucks barista who put too much chocolate powder in his morning latte. The possibilities were endless.
It was at this point that I knew I had to find out what was in that bag, or else I wouldn’t be able to put my mind to rest on the 11 hour flight back to Hong Kong.
So I started to search for him. I tried to look as innocuous as possible, stopping at a bookstore and pretending to flip through that week’s Foreign Affairs— if I had to be a farce, I might as well be a sophisticated one.
I couldn’t find him anywhere, and since he couldn’t possibly have gone to another terminal in the last 5 minutes, I concluded that he must be in one of the four toilets in that part of the terminal.
And so I went into every one of them. Toilets say a lot about a country— at the very least, it shows how they want to be perceived. The average tourist might not bat an eyelid at the plethora of souvenir shops packed in the terminal like a cheap bazar, but there’s a good chance that they’ll use one of the toilets.
The toilets in Frankfurt felt clinical. Everything from the urinals to the walls had a dull matte steel finish; the mirror was the only reflective surface there and it made me feel extraordinarily self-conscious. I was about to leave the second toilet when I noticed a small sign that read Komfortkabine. The English translation was etched right beneath it— Comfort Cabin.
Since I’ve seen vending machines selling condoms and sex toys in other German toilets (see Munich airport), I wondered if the Komfortkabine was a tongue-in-cheek euphemism. I didn’t want to be seen going into it just in case it was for that kind of purpose, which was why I checked to see if the toilet was empty before going into said ‘cabin’.
It was no different from any other toilet, except that it had about twice the amount of free space. Maybe ‘comfort’ just meant a bit of breathing space in a cramped terminal.
When I left the toilet I saw a crouched figure on the ground outside— it was the man squatted over the Agnes b. bag, scribbling furiously on something. As I came closer I saw that he was writing on a complaint form, his thin, cursive doctor-esque handwriting snaking over the small piece of paper like his silent temper. The words flowed out of the allocated box, and onto the other side of the paper. I edged closer, craning my neck to see what was inside the bag.
I guess I could have asked him bluntly about the contents of his bag, but how do you start such a conversation? “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help noticing that you don’t want people to know what’s inside that bag of yours. Would you mind telling me what’s inside?” He might be the kind of person to do that, but I wasn’t— so there I was, circling him like a hyena stalking a larger prey for the first time.
He shifted his stance, and for a brief moment, I caught a glimpse of the contents of the bag— stacks of paper. Just stacks of paper.
He must have smelt my disappointment. His pen stopped scratching and he looked up, noticing me for the first time.
“What do you want?” It sounded more like a bark than a question.
“Nothing” I said it almost like an accusation. He looked slightly taken aback. I turned and left in a huff.
He had failed my expectations. Nothing, no matter how dishonourable or disgusting it was, that is written on paper could be incriminating enough, could justify my hatred towards the man, because both the written word and pictures are reflections, mere echoes of what had happened. Neither can provide the immediacy to justify my increasing hatred towards this man. And without that, I can only turn my hate towards myself; according to my watch, I had four more hours to do just that.
I stormed back into one of the toilets, and gratefully entered the Komfortkabin, relishing the extra empty space, gladly filling it with the scent of my spite.