Airports are “non-places,” a nice bit of academic jargon that describes their ultimate interchangeability. This is what makes them so hospitable to brands. As far as passengers are concerned, airports have neither a real past nor a future, just a continual present that reliably offers a consistent set of choices -- flight schedules, duty free, fast food -- day after day after day. Airworld is, in a sense, a single, giant franchised operation.
Of course, airports’ human operators don’t like to see things this way. As the employees of local or regional governments (whether that be the city of Denver, or the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey, or BAA, Heathrow's parent), their duty is to keep the airport firmly tethered to home. It’s when an airport is about to achieve critical mass and escape –- to become what Rem Koolhaas has dubbed the “Generic City” –- that local establishments imported from the neighboring city begin to appear. They might be locally famous cantinas, museums, German beer halls and dives, not to mention the boutiques selling Native American jewelry and offerings by local artisans. Koolhaas likened these attempts at anchoring the airport to “a drastic perfume demonstration -- photomurals, vegetation, local costumes give a first concentrated blast of the local identity (sometimes it is also the last).”
As in any good branding exercise, the city’s attributes are boiled down to an essence that’s memorable, portable and can be consumed before the final boarding call. Detroit’s mall-like expanses include outlets of the Henry Ford Museum, the GM Experience, a store selling Motown Records nostalgia and enough University of Michigan and Michigan State clothing to outfit alumni for a lifetime. Here in Paris Charles de Gaulle, there is a branch of the famous Parisian restaurant Maxim’s, and if I were to have dinner there tonight, would I be able to say “I have dined at Maxim’s”?
|An integral part of the structure at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport, the Sheraton is a building shaped like a cruise ship.
Selling local culture
Even the most unique outpost is transformed, sooner or later, into a reliably franchised brand. While in Denver, I met the manager of a store named Colorado West. It sold the aforementioned Navajo jewelry alongside fringed jackets and vaguely Southwestern art objects. “We’re passengers' last shot to buy a piece of Colorado after they’ve come down from the mountains and before they leave,” he said. But Colorado West is just one link in the chain of airport retail assembled by Minneapolis-based CBR, which owns similar outpost concessions there, in Chicago, Cincinnati and New Jersey (the latter are simply called Jersey). While visiting Dallas-Ft. Worth’s new international Terminal D this summer, I spoke to the owner of La Duni, a local institution that had chosen to open its second branch here in the airport. “It’s the perfect opportunity to experiment with a more fast-casual concept,” he told me. “It’s a chance to expose our brand of food to an entirely new audience.”
But sometimes the real world does bleed into Airworld in organic, unintended ways. The hotels on the outskirts of Airworld all begin to blend together (some would say this is their charm), but there is a distinctly different character to the few hotels connected to the airports themselves. They are extensions of the terminal itself –- an air pocket perfect for sales meetings or board meetings or taking depositions, a neutral site adjacent to everyone and absent of distractions. At the Westin Detroit Metropolitan Airport, which has its own dedicated security gate to and from the terminal (and where I was a guest at a drastically reduced rate), I wasn’t surprised to see that Home Depot would be occupying the conference facilities in force the next Monday, but I was amused to find a Muslim wedding banquet in progress when I arrived. Women in ceremonial dress in streamed through the lobby, past the plasma departure information screens and the boarding pass printers, down into the ballroom.
On other occasions, I was told, couples have chosen to say their vows in the hotel’s atrium before adjourning to the basement, performing the ceremony before a copse of bamboo trees after the bride had made her entrance by riding the clear glass elevators down to the lobby in full view of the guests. It wasn’t that they were keen to be married at the airport (the Westin is the first luxury hotel to open in Detroit in years), but I wonder if the roar of takeoffs rattling through the ducts has ever disturbed anyone’s “I dos.” Just married in Airworld –- why not?
I spent this past Sunday at my desk in the Sheraton Charles de Gaulle (where I was the hotel's guest), writing and watching the ebb and flow of Air France 747s to and from the gates. Like the Westin, the hotel is an extension of Airworld, not an escape from it. It’s an essential piece of the infrastructure -– resting atop the train station that leads to Paris, and its oval-shaped mirrors the elliptical terminals on either side of it. It was designed by Charles de Gaulle’s master planner, the architect Paul Andreu. One of the definitions of a “non-place” is transience -– no one really belongs to the airport –- but as I watched the sun move across the sky on Sunday and listened to the dull rumble of takeoffs through the double-paned glass, at least for one afternoon Airworld felt like home.
Two weeks into my stay here (in Airworld, not the hotel), I have lost seven pounds (five of them water, I’m convinced), gained a persistent cough and switched from a diet of turkey sandwiches to a diet of brie. And I have a confession to make about why I’m here in Paris. It isn’t to visit outdoor media giant JCDecaux on its home turf. It’s to find him –- Mehran Karimi Nasseri, a.k.a Sir Alfred, a.k.a The Terminal Man, who’s been living here for 17 years.
The real 'Terminal Man'
Before I left, whenever I described my airport project -- that I would eat, read and even sleep in the terminals –- the person’s response was always along the lines of “Oh, you’ll be just like that guy in The Terminal," as if three weeks of sleeping on concrete (and, more often than not, in hotels) could compare to the good chunk of his lifetime spent on a red bench in the basement of Charles de Gaulle. If we are all subconsciously aware that airports are “non-places” not meant for human habitation, then he was the exception that commanded our attention. I had to meet him. And I knew where to find him.
My first night at the airport, I caught a shuttle bus to the concrete doughnut of Terminal 1, which sits more than a mile away from the more modern Terminal(s) 2. His red bench, salvaged from one of the terminal’s defunct restaurants, was easy enough to spot, as it was covered with more than a decade’s worth of FedEx boxes, McDonald’s paper cups, and salvaged luggage. He was reclining on that bench when I approached, as if perched on some luxurious divan.
“Sir Alfred?” I asked, careful to keep a respectful distance.
He nodded. “Yes,” he said, with a toothless smile.
I hadn’t known what I would say to him, and by default, I fell back on cliche.
“I’m an American journalist. I’ve come a long way to meet you ...”