Take-Off

I’ve just returned home to England after a long vacation (UK: holiday) in the US that took in Kentucky, where I grew up, and the San Francisco Bay Area, where I lived for 20 years.  What with changing planes in Chicago a couple of times, I’ve seen a fair few airports recently, and it occurred to me that the definition of “the airport”—that is, the specific place I mean when I say “I’ve got to get to the airport by 6:30” or “Can you pick me up at the airport at 11:00?”—is a kind of shorthand for the major stages of life so far.

When I was a kid, “the airport” meant Blue Grass Field  (now Blue Grass Airport) in Lexington, Kentucky.  Going to watch the planes fly in and out was a novelty, and some people took their kids there as an alternative to John Wayne movies at the drive-in.  Once in a great while my sister and I would be given a dime each, the price of going up onto the observation deck on top of the terminal building—which was only the flat roof, spread with dusty gravel.

Back then, my father was the only person I knew who had actually been on an airplane.  Taking him to the airport meant watching him walk out the gate and across the tarmac, up the movable stairway into the plane, and off into some other life.  He went to Washington DC occasionally, and once to Germany, such an unheard-of event that the Sunday School class he taught spread out a 30-foot long “Welcome Home” banner in the airport when he came back.  I wanted to go places like that, too.  My father said I was like him when he was a kid: I didn’t get homesick, I got sick of home.

At 21, I flew for the first time.  With a one-way air ticket—and a pair of daringly straight-legged jeans; we were still wearing bellbottoms in Kentucky in 1979—I set out for San Francisco, the Big Wide World, and My Future.  I hugged my mother in the departure lounge of the new terminal at Blue Grass Field (no Department of Homeland Security then) and strode off through the gate, but all the nonchalance I’d managed to muster dropped away when I realized I was already on the plane.  I’d planned an insouciant wave from the top of the stairs.  Nobody’d ever told me about jetways.

The next 20 years brought a couple of degrees from Stanford, a career writing software in Silicon Valley (which had nothing to do with either degree subject), and a husband whose parents lived 2000 miles away.  In Kentucky.  In a neighborhood not four miles from where I’d grown up, though we’d never met.  He’d lived all over the world, taken his first flight at the age of 6 weeks.  I learned from him that travel agents’ services are free—I’d figured they were for rich people, and cost bazillions—and that there were actually air routes across the US that didn’t go through Atlanta.  A common joke from back then was that even on your way to heaven you had to change planes in Atlanta—Delta’s hub, and Delta practically had a monopoly in the south.

In this second stage, “the airport” meant San Francisco International, though nobody called it by the long name.  By the time I’d graduated to driving my own car instead of taking the 7F bus from airport to campus, I could toss off the three-letter airport code SFO like everybody else.  (A British woman at a party the other day said that her niece “lives in SFO”.  I joked “she lives in the airport, then?” The lady looked at me as if I were nuts.  So I told her that “SFO” means the airport, not the city, but she clearly didn’t believe me.)

By 1999, when I got my next one-way (UK: single) ticket, I’d done quite a bit of traveling.  I’d been up as far as Estonia and down as far as Egypt, done business in Japan and lived for six months in Belgium, but I’d forgotten the thrill of going someplace without a booking for the trip back.  With a one-way ticket, you’re going for keeps.  When I left Kentucky, I launched myself into the future from the cheapest economy seat, but leaving California for England, luxuriating in business class courtesy of a frequent-flyer-miles upgrade, I recognized the same what-am-I-getting-myself-into feeling.  At least on the move to Britain, there were two of us in it together, and I’d been to England lots of times before.  Going to San Francisco had really been a shot in the dark.

So “the airport”, now and for the foreseeable future, means Heathrow, sometimes called the world’s busiest airport (which it is, at least in terms of international passengers; Atlanta still rules as the busiest airport if you count all passengers).  In the Heathrow aerotropolis, more people owe their jobs to air travel than live in the Lexington KY urban-county area, and five times Lexington’s population passes through Heathrow every day—not that bigger is necessarily better.  Every time I visit San Francisco, with the plane coming in over the Bay, it feels like home, and every time I visit Lexington, with the plane coming in over the fields, barns and fences of thoroughbred country, that feels like home, too.

England is home now, too.  We planned to have a little British adventure, stay a couple or three years, get the Anglophilia out of our systems and go back, but it didn’t work that way. We’ve been here almost thirteen years.  We’ve bought a house, started businesses, and taken British citizenship (but not given up our US citizenship; we have dual nationality).  And I’ve been blogging about life in the United Kingdom from an American point of view for a couple of years (http://mefoley.wordpress.com), which has led me to Vie Hebdomadaires, and to you.

This is my point of departure for the week’s adventure.  I usually write long-ish posts every week or two, so writing every day will be a challenge.  Hope you’ll come along and we’ll see how far we get.

Advertisements