Wednesday, August 15th, 2007 http://adamkhan.net/rambles/a-ride-to-gatwick-airport
e lifted up our eyes this weekend, Klement and I, and rode our bikes the 46km from Brighton to Gatwick Airport. Took three hours. It was great indeed to careen down damp paths feted by British flora, so familar and so distant. There are a lot of ferns around these parts. The closest thing to ferns in Israel is willows, their leaves also flat, but ferns are straighter, flatter, sharper.
It was a low cloudy day and gradually we saw signs of the airport. A BAA (British Airports Authority) office campus on the south side of Crawley. Then a Virgin Atlantic building, and down that street, glimpses of aircraft tails. We found a road where a handful of anoraks and a threesome of teens stood around enjoying the aircraft land and take off. The rhythm of it was so impressive: no sooner had one airplane taken off another huge lumbering machine jolted into existence slightly behind and above us. Nothing and everything, thrilling and boring both.
Further along that street in front of the runway began the airport building and a familiar yellow/orange Gatwick sign up stairs to the terminal. I’ve been seeing those Gatwick signs and fonts for over twenty years, since I was a teenager, and it was both nothing and everything to see them from a different approach, this time not arriving off an airplane and herded to passport control and the baggage carousels, but arriving free from my own back yard, carrying my vehicle up the stairs on my shoulder straight into the terminal, which after the quiet ride was an explosion of bright flourescent lighting and milling crowds of hundreds of active people.
Gatwick is my airport now. Largely unchanged since 1986, it now looks tawdry. For a while Rome’s Fiumicino was my airport, and I tried to like it, but despite the positive associations — my first trip to America back in 1987 was on Alitalia and I had an overnight stop here — it just never penetrated. Perhaps because the ride to the airport is so flat, dull and bereft. Airports. They are so charged, so symbolic — and so empty once you’re at one. I dream of them often. My feelings for Fiumicino are a microcosm of my feeling for Italy: there was nothing wrong with it, but it seemed somehow too thin, too insubstantial.
Gatwick is ugly. There is no airport I love more than Israel’s Ben-Gurion/Lod, which though awkward was also beautiful and evocative and friendly and lush. (I’m speaking of the original building, not the new Jerusalem stone setup that you can’t really get your head around beyond the impressive criss-cross corridors and the oval-shaped concourse.) Ah, the many times an Israeli goes there, the country’s only international airport, whether travelling themselves or not, at various times of day, at various times of year, and always there’s a smell not only of airline fuel but also of vegetation, trees, perfume. Like the crystal brightness of the air, the richness of the smells in Israel is something you can both take for granted and dearly love, and it’s all there at the airport. Slightly sadly though I think the new airport loses just a bit of that. it’s cut off from its surroundings by the parking lot building, now directly in front of the terminal, like so many other airports in the world. And if you’re taking the new train you don’t even need to step outdoors, so that your first smells and inhalations of Israel are when you arrive at your town. Gone too are the days of stepping off the airplane into the Israeli air and onto the wide flat buses.
And Gatwick, ugly Gatwick. The area does have its verdancy; on the ride up whenever we stopped there were blackberries aplenty to be picked and eaten. So Britain too has its wild fruit — and blackberries are much less of a pain in the fingers, head, neck cheek and breast than sabres.
Britain seems to express a unique mix of smooth new and obstinately stupid old. I bought our train tickets back to Brighton at an electronic booth with an excellent clear obvious user interface and touchscreen, with a discount for my network travelcard. Great. But to get down to the platform you have to take a flight of stairs, and this can get mighty awkward when carrying a number of suitcases. It’s the airport, and this is a main way out — why no escalator or elevators?!? And then the train itself — so new, fresh, smooth and quiet, with a strap to hold the bikes in place outside the carriage’s toilet. And the arrival back in Brighton, to its magnificent cavernous Victorian train station, still the same as it was from the days when train stations were newfangled glories and this was one of the first.
Lunch was at Wetherspoon’s at the airport, with no view out to the tarmac. But we’d witnessed airplane spectacles outside anyway among the anoraks.
It’s all part of that funny feeling of airports: that you can’t get enough and there’s nothing to have.