Once, before our second date, a future boyfriend of mine suggested that I choose a place. I was clearly being tested; he had decided where to go on our first date and now he wanted to know where I would take him. Nonetheless, I took his suggestion seriously, thought about where we could go, and eventually, without knowing why, I said: “Let’s go to the airport.” And so we did. We had a coffee and lovely conversation in the food court of Calgary’s International Airport while also enjoying a view of the incoming and outgoing planes on the tarmac. (If this was a test, I clearly won. He took me to a coffee shop, but I took him to the airport.) At one point during our date, he asked me what I thought airports meant. I took a moment to think about it and then said: “Escapism, maybe.” That was 1997, I was 22, and, by that time, airports were already a frequent feature of my life.
My very first “trip” was to the airport. When my mom was discharged from the hospital just a few days after my birth, she went straight to the airport with an aunt, my grandfather, and a tiny me in her arms. My dad was at work and couldn’t go to the hospital to pick us up, and it just so happened that, on that day, my aunt’s husband was scheduled to arrive in Calgary from Italy. Instead of bringing my mom home first, my aunt brought everyone to the airport to greet her husband. My mom has since admitted that, on reflection, it was absurd to go to the airport from the hospital with a newborn. The story brought a big smile to my face. I loved learning that my first exposure to the world outside of the hospital was an airport. The story stoked my fantasy of being a citizen of the world, destined to travel far and wide, and foretold of my future relationship with doorways to places other than home.
Indeed, airports became a normal part of my childhood. Having emigrated to Canada from Italy, my parents left behind family members and often flew to Italy with my brother and me to visit them over the summer. Trips to the airport were thus habitual in my family, and I am genuinely surprised now every time my students, typically aged 18 to 24, tell me that they do not have a passport or have never been on a plane. How did they spend their summers as children if not by travelling by plane to foreign countries? Trips to Italy widened my scope of experience and my heart’s range of love. I could love two countries and I could love people both near and far from me. Onerous travel arrangements were a worthy inconvenience in exchange for happy memories and deep, satisfying bonds with both loved ones and loved places.
Airports changed in their function after I left Calgary in 2001, on my way to graduate school in Montreal and later Toronto. In my post-Calgary life, airports were part of a routine of spending time with my family. For more than ten years, I flew at least once, and sometimes twice, or three times a year, between two cities: first Montreal-Calgary-Montreal, then Toronto-Calgary-Toronto, and finally Norfolk-Calgary-Norfolk. In between, there were some less routine flights to European or other North American destinations; now, once again, I am back to flying between Toronto and Calgary. Over those years, my routine became so entrenched that I stopped caring about arriving to airports early. I learned to evade travel rules, though, sadly, I have never learned to travel lightly. I had little patience for security checks, airline agents, and inexperienced travellers, and, except for magazine and newspaper shops, I didn’t care for airport retail shopping. When I flew, my mission was simple: to get to my destination as quickly and smoothly as possible. In that regard, I have been fortunate. In the many years that I have been flying, my flights have been mostly free of inconveniences and unpleasant experiences. And despite my impatience with travellers and travel regulations and procedures, I mostly feel comfortable and relaxed at airports.
Once I moved from Calgary, airports accentuated my isolated lifestyle. While my parents always picked me up from, or dropped me off at the Calgary airport, there was rarely anyone waiting for me at the arrival gates in Montreal, Toronto, or Norfolk (where I moved for a job after completing my Ph.D. in Toronto). While some friends did not have cars, the general lack of ride offers to and from the airport and the frequent sight of unfamiliar faces on arrival were things that I couldn’t help but notice and get discouraged about over the years. I began to attach a lot of meaning to such offers, sometimes using them to gauge a person’s affection for me. When a boy I had a crush on in Toronto offered to drive me to the airport, his offer made me instantaneously happy and I became hopeful about his feelings for me. When a boy in Calgary offered to do the same, I was likewise pleased and knew that he liked me (as it happened, I liked him too). Airports are not usually easily accessible and they require a time commitment, so the gesture and effort involved was, in my view, a positive sign in relationships.
Airports also facilitated the growth of my individual autonomy. Airports were my equivalents of Superman’s telephone booths: places I go to shed old skin and grow without restrictions. On the other side of their doors, I was free to explore new people and places, and to reflect on how the world shapes me at a healthy distance from the place that first formed me. Airports enabled emotional and physical separations for me. In my post-Calgary life, my eyes were always fixed on departures and moving steadfastly onward, along a path that I had chosen for myself. For years, I believed myself lucky to be able to do so and remember telling myself once that leaving was always better than staying. Now that I am 40, I understand that the path of continuous departures is simply one among many others that people choose in order to grow in self-knowledge, character, and life experiences.
A year has now passed since my return to Toronto, and I now know that my choice to leave Norfolk to return to this city was triggered by a desire to begin looking back. As I turn my gaze backwards, towards my starting point, I wonder about my younger association about airports with escapism. If airports were a place through which I escaped, they were necessary and served their purpose for me. Each airport of my life – YYC-YUL-YYZ-ORF – harks back to that initial choice, made in 2001, to leave a place – my place – and embark on a journey that would bring me closer to me. Each represents a bridge that I have since crossed to go to yet another place and give myself the time and space to build a life based on my needs, values, and strengths.
As I turn my gaze backwards, towards my starting point, I wonder what role airports will play in my life now. Escapism can exhaust its purpose with time; unbridled, it can have the tragic effect of taking you further from yourself, from the people you love, and from the values you want to nurture in your life. Airports are now forcing me to pay attention to returns. I am accustomed to avoiding them and want to continue using airports for departures. It is easier after all, and it is thanks to airports that I have been able to embark on a journey in the direction of departures. Can airports be as effective for my journey in the direction of returns? Can they be a part of the same process that brings me closer to me? Closer to “home”?
*YYC-Calgary, Alberta; YUL-Montreal, Quebec; YYZ-Toronto, Ontario; ORF-Norfolk, Virginia
Written and photographed by Filomena Calabrese. Edited by Agnieszka Polakowska.