It was a beautiful day. A few clouds drifted past the sun, the temperature invited a lounge outside in the soft breeze, and all seemed right in the world. Except that somewhere, high overhead, invisible to the naked eye, particles were swirling around that would silence a jet engine and send a cocoon of contained speed coasting down to the ground, helpless in the face of invisible forces.
The volcano-with-the-unpronounceable-name from the country that had helped precipitate the financial meltdown (although, to be fair, they also gave us Sigur Rós) was doing its thing, and I was marooned at Amsterdam’s Airport Schiphol, unable to go anywhere except back and forth to the water fountain and coffee machine. Disconnected from physical connectivity, I could only surf the internet for news and keep trying to reach the airlines, hoping for a way out. For 10 hours, I found none. I remained in limbo space.
An airport where nothing happens is a strange place. It is amazing to see all those airplanes, usually being loaded and unloaded, taxing around, revving up and showing off their sleek aerodynamics, just sit there, hour after empty hour. That sense of inaction is especially evident in an airport that calls itself Airport City (as opposed to city airport), a transfer and processing machine much bigger than the hinterland it serves.
At Airport Schiphol, the orthogonality of the airport’s lines, so different from the curves and swerves that have become the default style of most major motion machines, makes emptiness all the more evident. Where the throngs should be thronging, only silent travelators, correctly designed but useless signage, and plate glass windows showing machines of flight silent and waiting, like birds right before dawn.
I was one of the foolish ones who, despite the warnings to just stay away, talked myself past barriers and bored border guards and into the lounge to try to make something happen. There, at least, I was not alone. At 7 a.m., I became number 100 waiting for assistance. By the time I finally talked myself onto a flight to Toronto (far from my destination, Cincinnati), at 3 p.m., they were trying to assuage number 73.
By then, the airport had filled up, as flights began their dance of arrival and departure, the long lines of piers stretching out in parallel planes of white, gray and black had begun to fill with longs of boarders and border crossers, and even the shops were busy selling their cigarettes and chocolate.
But for a few hours, between the moment when it sunk in that I was not going anywhere and the candidates for rebooking began arriving, I was there in limbo, in the quiet of places that were intended for many, but held few. I noticed how much space was waiting for waiting, in reserve for those who were passing time between moving. There is a particular quality to rooms that are built not for doing something like work, play, eating, or sleeping, but for not doing anything—for sitting around while you keep yourself occupied, with one eye on the monitor to make sure you do not miss your flight or your doctor’s appointment. The modular seats, the surfaces for reading material or computers, the space to place luggage without obstructing traffic, the room to accommodate the masses, they all have the quality of not having any particular quality at all except accommodation.
The lighting, like the surfaces, is flat and featureless, as is the temperature. Default modernism that it is, carried out in synthetic materials and closely matched colors. Only the noise stands out by irritating: ambient music and cellphone calls, not to mention unruly babies and drunken oil rig employees, are what slice through the caress of well-designed space, making you realize that perhaps the lull of limbo space is better than the reality of human imperfection. It is safe beneath the volcano; to soar like Icarus would be fatal. But at least it would get you away from the salesman sharing his price point with you across the expanse of lounge chair and newspaper stack.