When the windows are open at night, we drift off to the sounds of flight.
It takes us a couple of days to realize that our new house sits along the flight path of our local airport. It’s mostly smaller, private planes that use this runway, but still, we regularly hear jets rev their engines or slow as they take off and approach from the East. At times there is an almost imperceptible down-draft—leaves move slightly, the air shudders—that one was close.
We can’t hear any car traffic from our neighborhood, but in the summer, when the windows are open at night, we drift off to the sounds of flight. When I can’t sleep, I imagine the people on the planes, heading home after a weekend at the beach, or to New York City for business, or to Philadelphia to catch a connecting flight to some exotic destination. I think about the people at the airports—either waiting in anticipation, checking the arrival board, longing for that first sight, first hug, first kiss. And I think about the people at the departure point—the ones who just said good bye. The ones who ache. The ones who move forward on the ground, tethered by gravity.
It’s the middle of the night when I land in Amsterdam. Well, it’s the middle of the night for my body and my brain.
But here—here everyone is awake. There are shiny stores and people who put on perfume and make-up this morning and packed bags and have flights to catch. There are planes getting ready to take off to Cyprus and Stockholm and Beijing. Others, like my plane, are slowly pulling up to gates after their long, overnight slog across the Atlantic.
There are fragrant cafes and the click-clack of heels on marble and the low-hum of rolling suitcases and children squealing for their mothers and for rest and men in business suits speaking French on fancy phones and women in saris and women in business suits or tight jeans and women with long, flowing hair.
It’s comforting to know that while I was trying to sleep in a flying metal tube, while I was in limbo across continents, over a large, dark body of water, all of this activity was going on somewhere in the world. People were awake and living and moving.
…Women in saris and women in business suits or tight jeans and women with long, flowing hair.
But here, in the in-between, there are yummy drinks in little bottles, and movies, and headphones, and a low engine hum to keep you numb.
We used to have this saying, this inside joke in my family. Instead of “no place like home” we’d say “no place like in-between.” It implied that we found comfort in the limbo, in being in transition between home and the “other” place.
Home is never the same after you left it, even if you’ve only been gone for a short while. And the place you’ve visited is not quite like home – it never will be.
But here, in the in-between, there are yummy drinks in little bottles, and movies, and headphones, and a low engine hum to keep you numb. There’s time to read the paper, or a book. Time to talk to strangers who are in the same in-between as you.
Your heart might ache for leaving home behind. Or your heart is full of excitement at the prospect of arriving someplace new, or someplace known and missed. There is possibility in the in-between, without the finality of arrival.
They say that people who live in foreign cities always have a hard time remembering street names; that they navigate mostly by landmarks—the big white church on the corner, the intersection where the bookstore is, the fork in the road where we made the wrong turn one time. I don’t know if it’s generally true, but it’s true for me. I still can’t remember the cross street running next to my office in Portland where I have worked for the past decade, or give directions without relying on landmarks.
Back home, in Budapest, I can easily do both: remember street names going back generations and political changes (this avenue used to be named after Lenin), as well as the landmarks: the building where my best friend from elementary school lived, the steps along the river where I got my first kiss, the bar where I had my first sip of wine.
…the building where my best friend from elementary school lived, the steps along the river where I got my first kiss, the bar where I had my first sip of wine.
Once you are on the plane, there’s nowhere to go.
When I was 11 and my brother was 8, we flew to China with our mom. Our dad was already waiting there for us. About halfway into our 14-plus-hour flight, my brother stood up and headed for the door. “I am getting off,” he said, determined. My mother and I leapt after him. It took us a couple of minutes to convince him to stay.
Once you are on the plane, there’s nowhere to go.
I am still in the haze of jetlag when I decide to go for a walk. Right outside my hotel I pick up a chestnut. There are dozens of them buried under fallen leaves and mud. I swipe my thumb across it to clean it and slide it into my pocket. I feel its smooth, hard skin, roll it in my hands as I walk on. It’s gray and cold, but I feel like I could walk all day.
I am not sure where I am going. I don’t know this city. I am just following the river and trying to stay out of the way of bikers and joggers. At a red light a woman with a stroller stops next to me—the scent of fresh laundry rolls off the baby blanket covering the stroller. I long for my own baby and then the chestnut in my palm reminds me of the cemetery where my grandmother’s ashes were scattered, and I long for her. And I long for familiar streets, or for these streets to become familiar.
I long for not longing.
My husband calls it “drive-and-dump”—the way my family handles airport drop-offs. We drive each other to the airport, but we will not park, not say a long good bye, not watch each other check in or head through security. We will not wait for the plane to take off. We pull up to the curb, the person traveling gets out, gets a quick hug—DONE.
I am not sure how this custom came to be—I assume it was because we all travel quite a bit and the emotional weight of so many good byes just became too much at one point. There’s no need to drag out the inevitable—the pain of those staying behind on the ground and the nerves of the one taking flight.
When you get on a plane, you are alone. You are heading for adventure. You are leaving behind just as much as you are hoping to find. Soon your in-between time will be lost, but for now the hours are yours.
You are leaving behind just as much as you are hoping to find.
Header photo, credit: Dee Ashley, “In Search of Home.”