Dispatches from the Hamburg Airport


My travel day began at 3:25 am in Kiel, Germany, where I pulled myself out of bed, tucked my toothbrush into a pouch before shouldering my pack, and snatched a few last-minute kisses from a sleeping grandchild. The bus to the airport pulled out of the nearby terminal at 3:58, and 4 am saw us rumbling onto the highway bound for the Hamburg Flughafen.

I next saw a bed some 26 hours later, highlighting one of the less glamorous aspects of international travel. But let me return to the question of 4 am. I’ve outlined before why it’s not a good time, and this recent trip had me pondering on a few other reasons for this conclusion.

When it comes right down to it, getting up in what feels like the middle of the night in order to make a flight is rough in a number of ways. For one thing, you can’t just count backwards from the time you’ve set on your alarm to a time eight hours before and then will yourself to fall quickly into a restful sleep—or at least I can’t.

That night I was relatively lucky in falling asleep earlier than I normally would, but then followed another problem. The stakes were high—if I missed the 4 am bus, I couldn’t risk waiting for the 5 am bus, and dragging new mama and new baby out to drive me didn’t appeal to any of us. This meant that my body and mind were vigilant about making sure I awoke when necessary.

I’ve heard that ducks sleep with one eye open to stay safe from predators, and I felt like I was doing the same, wary of the predator of oversleeping. Awaking in the dark, I would weigh the value of checking the time against the disruption of turning on a light and trying to pry my eyes open to focus on the clock. Needless to say, I did not greet my wakeup call with luxurious stretches and an “all is right with the world” sigh.

There’s plenty of research on ways that lack of quality sleep compromises mental sharpness, but even without reading abstracts, your own experience probably informs you about the topic. And I can offer up some fresh data, generated at Hamburg airport security. Having wended my way to the front of the very long line* and feeling confident that I didn’t have any contraband toiletries, I bundled my jacket, scarf, e-reader, phone, etc. into some bins, hoisted the carryon, patted my pockets, assumed the arms-up posture in the body scanner, and then noticed that my backpack had been pulled aside.

Though I felt like I was fully (if temporarily) awake by that point, even given my vigilant half-night of sleep, I was clearly not firing on all cylinders—I had left my laptop in the bag. Rookie mistake! I’ll just tuck that memory someplace handy to use as a counterbalance next time I’m feeling overly competent.

After Hamburg I spent a bit of time at London Heathrow, where I very much wanted to see an amazing tapestry by Portugal-based artist Vanessa Barragão, but when I asked about where to find it, I was told that I wouldn’t have time. I had almost two hours, but my guide knew better than I that finding the place to catch the bus to take me to the next terminal followed by another bout of airport security (I didn’t forget the laptop this time) would not leave time for catching a different bus to check out the art in a third terminal. Alas. I can share the pictures that interested me, though. If you’ll be at Heathrow sometime soon, go for both of us.





You can read more about the tapestry here, and can see other works by the artist at vanessabarragao.com.

The next airport after Heathrow was Phoenix, where I spent several more hours than seemed necessary. I finally touched down in Salt Lake City, and about 90 minutes later I crawled into bed. It was wonderful to be able to make the trip, very appealing to postpone airport encounters for the near future.


*It’s probably time to name the ritual of the slow, serpentine progression that takes place at airport security and passport control lines. Sometimes you’re nudging a bag forward with your foot while you try to remember if you’ve got any other liquids shoved down in a bag, or you’re rolling your carryon a few inches at a time while fishing around for other things that this particular airport wants placed in its own bin. Rather than moving in increments of inches every 30 seconds, you might be tempted to rebel, and stay where you are for a full minute, then take a few larger steps. But you risk making the people behind you restive. Do you have a name you call this experience? I’m currently inclined to call it the Stanchion Shuffle.

[Images: Indianapublicmedia.org, indiamart, dailymail.co.uk, colossal x 4, flickr]

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