I spent time in four airports yesterday(s): Rome (2 hours), Frankfurt (1 hour), Singapore (1 hour), Sydney (2 hours). I kept a journal of my travels (30+ hours), but I will spare you the details of the trip except that every flight was delayed and one was cancelled.
The most striking thing about my trip was the airports. It struck me that airports, in general, are incredibly homogeneous and yet substantially different from any other space in our society. Is their homogeneity an effort to create recognizable experiences in an airport -- with the promenades of shops with familiar designs and fast food eateries? They nevertheless come across (to me) as profoundly foreign perhaps because we anticipate some kind of differences between geographically locations as different as Singapore and Rome.
Edward Soja developed the idea of Third Space as the distinct experiential space of the post-modern city (particularly places like Los Angeles). It seems that airports is another form of this kind of space. The homogeneity of "airport space" largely deprives them of the distinctiveness that allows us to orient ourselves within a society and negotiate meaning. This is compounded by the reality that travel is disorientating physically for the body. The indistinct space of airports compounds the feeling of disorientation derived from changes in time zone, long hours in the air, and the anxiety so typical of travelling.
[As I think about it more, it may well be that "airport space" is not necessarily indistinct, but that they are abstractly western in prototype and design irrespective of their geographical location, and therefore indistinct to my well-conditioned western perspective. And there are of course efforts to make airports unique and culturally specific -- like the small museum installations at places like the Amsterdam airport or the showers and beds found in Asian hubs like Tokyo or Hong Kong.]
I found that the disorientation was particularly intense in the Singapore airport (after about three flights a total of about 20 hours). Christmas carols played on the P.A. system as I walked by retailers that I have only ever seen in airports (stores like Hugo Boss) interspersed between decoration festooned the palm trees in planters. The arrivals boards were the only place where I could find something distinctive -- they listed airlines and flights to places that I simply could not place (apparently Port Moresby is in Papua New Guinea) -- in some cases, I could not even place the destinations on the proper continent much less the country!).
Finally, the disorientation is further aggravated by the diversity of individuals present in these spaces. Travellers at major international airports tend to appear in a such wide variety of dress that it is virtually impossible to discern the social codes instrumental in establishing social class or status rank in a particular society. The airport community like "airport space" lacks cues to orient us socially and to establish the basis for behaviour. They might be seen as producing the sense of "communitas" Victor Turner associated with the experience of pilgrimage -- that is a temporary suspension of class and status boundaries typical of member of a pilgrimage community. While individuals are distinct in appearance, dress, and behaviour, the social context for these differences is suspended making the distinctions meaningless.
Enough ramblings (I was tempted to post my journal entries, but that was too much even for me). I'll likely post only occasionally over the next few weeks, but I will be back regularly after the first of the year. Happy holidays!