Friday, June 11, 2010

Airport Culture

The difference between Germany and the US is nowhere so clear as in the airport terminal building. The German airport is quiet and calming. Video monitors are set to news channels, but without sound. At the Düsseldorf Flughafen, acoustics are set up to deaden sound with high ceilings that are painted black in the boarding lounges. While waiting for your flight, you can listen to the murmured conversations of people across the room. The only exceptions to the uniform dress-code of black alternating with gray, are blue jeans (which several Germans told me recently, don't count) and the Americans heading home in brightly colored T-shirts.

In American war films, the Germans were always shouting things like, "RAUS, RAUS!" to American POWs. But there's no shouting today at the German airport, not even in the usually intense security screening area. At American airports, the security screening crew always includes a few young men whose only job seems to be banging those gray tubs together while shouting "LAPTOPSOUTLAPTOPSOUT!" At the German airport, a well mannered employee asked me if I had any fluids in my bag, seeming to suggest that maybe my word would be enough to satisfy him.

On my arrival in Atlanta, I entered the large passport control room, prepared to navigate the maze of retractable belt stanchions. Huge signs in English gave conflicting instructions about which lines passengers should go into, but the signs were superfluous. An older woman who looked as though she was ready for a costume party dressed as a charwoman stood directly in front of the largest sign, waving her arms and repeatedly shouting,


The sound echoed in the cavernous space and I wondered how the non-native speakers could possibly understand her. I wondered, in fact, how the native speakers could understand her. I decided the waving arms were designed to encourage me to continue on past her and the big sign that read All Passengers with an arrow pointing to the right. Somehow we all managed to jump the hoops and continue on, into the pandemonium that reigns in the rest of the terminal.

During my four hour lay over in Atlanta, I decided to go into a restaurant where I could sit down. The cacophony was off the scale in this hole in the wall place of about 100 sq. meters. There were three huge TV screens, each tuned to a different channel. The one closest to me was less than eight feet away and an old guy was on, blaring at me about a new way to treat diabetes. But in spite of the volume, I couldn't hear a word he was saying. I was surrounded by single men in their early forties jabbering into their Blackberries. The wooden chairs in the restaurant were built with a sounding board Stradivarius would die for. Each time a customer pulled back away from the table, a deep rumble resonated from his or her chair, drowning out even the incessant beeping from those golf carts US airport employees drive around all day.

I ordered a beer from my waitress and she immediately responded with a counter offer: if I add a shot to that order, I can get it for only $3 more. I had already been up for twelve hours, but for the good people of Georgia, it wasn't yet noon: and they're already pushing boilermakers? I declined the bump, and then the waitress asked to see my ID. It seems Atlanta has a liquor control policy that rivals even the surreal code of the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. But maybe they know what they're doing. In a German airport, a beer is certainly enough to smooth over any anxiety or tension. But clearly, the American airport requires stronger stuff.

1 comment:

Em said...

hhaha! Here here.
If it is any consolation, many native Georgians speak, not yell, what they call "Country", and its completely unintelligible to me. Its one of my least favorite airports, even without knowledge of the German airport experience. I hear that in Japan, you can hear yourself think on a train, and the use of cell phones is disrespectful. I'd go just to see that.