Airports – Spaces Between Goodbye & Hello

Airport Happy Place

I love airports. Whether they are small regional airports in the middle of Pakistan or large, metropolitan mega centers of the world – I love them.

I find that airports are contemplative places. They provide a place of quiet watching in the middle of chaos; they allow me to stare out at nothing in particular without interruption; they offer me cinnamon buns, with gorgeous thick icing and gooey middles.

Today I’m sitting at JFK airport in the Jet Blue terminal. It’s a relatively quiet Thursday morning with few family travelers. As I was settling in for a long layover, I suddenly heard my name paged over the loudspeaker. Because I am who I am, in 30 seconds I had gone through a list of catastrophes. By the end of the list, most of the people I love more than life itself had died.

And then I mentally kicked myself and told myself that God doesn’t give us grace for our imagined tragedies. It’s amazing how quickly the brain can go from slow contemplation to imagination induced funerals to relief. I headed to the Jet Blue “Just Ask” spot, and I “just asked” why they had paged me. It was my license. It must have slipped out as I was walking between gates.

The kindness of strangers always amazes me in airports. Just a small incident of a misplaced license is an example — the anonymous person who found the license and turned it in; the person who paged me; and then the person who met me halfway between gates just to make it easier.

I see other acts of kindness – the person who gave up their seat for an older woman who looked like she needed rest; employees who work day in and day out seeing anonymous people and still smile when they serve you; the mother/daughter duo who stop to help a young mom struggling with a toddler and a baby.

Airports are liminal spaces, spaces between hello and goodbye. They are spaces where little is required and much is anticipated. Airports are bridges between places and the people who travel through them are the bridge-builders. Airports are also non-places and though I love them, most people don’t.

The Terminal, a 2004 Spielberg film, tells the story of an Eastern European man trapped in the same airport where I now sit. He is caught between worlds in “diplomatic limbo” as his fictitious country experiences a coup rendering his visa and passport useless. The country he comes from no longer exists, so he is not allowed to set foot on U.S soil. Instead, he makes his home in the international departure lounge.

The main character (Victor Navorski played by Tom Hanks) is sympathetic and pure. He doesn’t lie or try to take advantage of the situation, instead he gets to know the people in the airport as human beings. He intervenes in what could have been a tragedy and he drives the customs and immigration official, Dixon played by Stanley Tucci, crazy.

I love this film.  I love the pace. I love the characters. But most of all, I love the story. It’s a story of people stuck in the space between who end up opening up to each other and becoming friends.

My friend, Mariuca, says that my life is like The Terminal. I laugh when she says it, because in recent months I’ve done little traveling, but I’m also the only person I know who wouldn’t mind if my life was The Terminal. The idea of befriending airport employees and driving immigration officials crazy sounds incredibly appealing.

But I don’t live in the terminal. I live in real life where this morning I said goodbye to my husband and in a bit I will say hello to my mom. And that’s the thing that every person in this airport has in common, no matter their age or nationality; no matter if they are airport employees or travelers; no matter what their occupations. Every single person is between goodbye and hello. Every single person left wherever they left this morning saying goodbye. It could have been a painful, poignant, or relieved goodbye and it will end with a painful, poignant, or a relieved – perhaps ecstatic – hello.

We’re fellow life-travelers between goodbye and hello. Some of us know to make the moments count, others haven’t seen enough of life to know that moments matter.

Living between worlds in the liminal space of an airport may not be what many would enjoy, but I sit in happy contemplation.

I am content in the terminal, content between goodbye and hello. 

Here’s to the Lonely Ones 

Here’s to the lonely ones, sitting at airports on Sunday nights.

Here’s to the tired ones, weary of travel and goodbyes, idly eating granola bars and sipping coffee from styrofoam cups.

Here’s to the mom, traveling with kids, weary of meeting the needs of little ones who are out of their habitat.

Here’s to the students, in that weird space between childhood and adulthood, carrying Apple computers purchased from graduation money.

Here’s to the immigrant family,  a long way from home, juggling as much hand luggage as possible as they wearily look at an airport monitor flickering out their flight delay in white digital letters.

Here’s to the grandparents heading home after visiting with a future generation of sweet and soft baby smell. A new generation who doesn’t yet know they exist, but will miss them long after they are gone.

Here’s to the third culure kid – who has said far too many goodbyes. Here’s to the refugee who carries their pain in their body. Here’s to the expat who is moving on to their next post with the fresh memories of their last home like an open grave receiving a coffin.

Here’s to Arabic and Hindi; Swahili and French; German and English; Chinese and Spanish; Portuguese and Farsi – and every other language of the heart that at times must be hidden in new places and spaces, but in the airport is completely at home.

Here’s to the singles and the couples; the black and the white; the discouraged and the lonely; the arguing one and the laughing one —  with more in common in life’s journey than any of us can possibly know.

Here’s to my fellow travelers, sitting under the glare of fluorescent lights in the chaos of modern day travel. May you have safe journeys and traveling mercies.  May God keep you in the palm of his hand and may you know his grace.

Travel Advisory: Tips for families traveling with their TCK children and adolescents

Here is the continuation of Jenni’s post on Airports I’ve Known. This is both a practical and humorous post. Once you read this you’ll never, ever want to travel with meat…..just sayin’.


Tips for families traveling with their TCK children and adolescents by Jenni Gate


Jenni Gate - luggage

  • Airport air-conditioning can be freezing, especially in the middle of the night when the whole family is sprawled out on the floor or huddled on uncomfortable, hard plastic seats. Always bring a sweater or at least a light jacket and wear trousers, not shorts.
  • When you need to rest between flights. Sleeping in an airport beats paying for a hotel with a three-hour layover in the middle of the night. It is a good idea to have your passport and ticket within easy reach, and any valuables in a bag under your head.
  • Look for lockers. Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam provides wonderful, roomy lockers where you may lock your bags if you want to explore the city. But make sure to bring your bags with you through the exit and lock them up near the airport entrance. Once you have locked a bag behind a security checkpoint, it may be nearly impossible to get access to it again.

Jenni Gate - Schiphol

  • Look out for airport taxes. I spent my last dollar in Hong Kong and had no money for the airport tax. I sobbed until someone took pity on me and paid my tax.
  • Weather. Expect delays in ice storms, snow storms and hurricanes. Even if the airport you’re stuck in is in another part of the world, if a connecting flight is delayed due to weather, there is a very good chance flights all down the line in other parts of the country or the world will also be delayed.
  • Lost bags are a fact of travel life. Pack light, if you can, so that you have no checked luggage. If that’s not possible, pack a toothbrush and a change of clothes in your carry-on bag.
  • Don’t fly with meat. Flying to Dulles from Oregon one year, my grandfather, a farmer, packed meat in his luggage, expecting to surprise us with Christmas dinner. It was his first experience with lost luggage. By the time his suitcase was found, it had to be thrown away. Dulles baggage handlers were not amused. People ship fish from Alaska sometimes with similar results. Use dried ice and realize that if the container is lost, no amount of dried ice will preserve it after so many hours.
  • Security is security is security. Always present, always intrusive. Try not to become separated at either side of the checkpoint. Realize that your 5th grader probably did not listen to your warnings about pocket knives.
  • About the kids…. Keep small children occupied with coloring books, movies, and lots of games. Travel boredom is easier to handle today with electronic readers and mp3 players. Snacks help. Naps help. Sometimes there is just nothing you can do to stop a tantrum. At those times, at least try to walk your child away from other travelers to keep the tension down.

Jenni Gate - Waiting

  • And about the adolescents…. Keep adolescents from killing each other by keeping them at opposite ends of a row of seating while you wait for your flight. They have as much energy to burn off as a toddler. If there is an open space near your gate, let them show off their pushups or sit-ups, dance steps, or stretches. Ignore the looks from fellow travelers.
  • Actually don’t even travel with teenagers.  It is just not wise. It is an extreme stressor that could lead to ugly faces, angry words, exasperated shouting and threats of violence. And not just by the teens. Seriously. If there is a way to avoid traveling with teenagers, do it.

What about you? What airports do you know? What tips can you share?

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A Guest Post – Airports I’ve Known

Jenni Gate has guest posted for Communicating Across Boundaries before and today I’m delighted to welcome her back with this post that will resonate with travelers world-wide – Airports I’ve Known. Enjoy and feel free to tell us your stories through the comments!


Jenni Gate - birthday“Happy birthday!” Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I looked up from my nest of flight bags on the airport floor to see Mom holding a cupcake out to me with a lit candle, my sisters belting out the birthday song loud and clear. Heads turned as other passengers looked on, and an Arab man nodded behind Mom, a smile broadening his face as he took in my growing excitement. I don’t remember where we were going or where we were coming from. I don’t remember the particular airport. It was not my first birthday in an airport and it would not be my last.

Whether moving, going on home leave, or on vacation, my family traveled a lot. Mom always said she could write a Mother’s Guide to the Restrooms of Europe, and that includes airports. Every few years, Heathrow, Rome, JFK, Dulles, and National sprouted new terminals. By the mid-1960s, we could choose flights routed through any of these major hubs, and we grew up knowing airports better than my parents’ home towns.

Jenni Gate - Lagos

Moving from Libya to Nigeria, we became well-acquainted with Lagos and Kaduna Airports. I was little more than a toddler when we landed there, but my older sister still talks about the smell, the muggy heat, and the press of humanity as we got off the plane. In 1966, the first eruptions of violence signaled the Biafran War. In 1967, my family was evacuated. I still recall the fighting in the months before our evacuation and the dead and injured on the tarmac as we boarded the plane in Kaduna.

It took days to travel from Washington DC to Kinshasa, Congo. At least one of us got locked in a bathroom while a flight was called. Between gates from JFK to Athens, we ran to keep up with Dad’s long legs. In Athens, I stared dumbly at the heavily armed soldiers who boarded the plane. Landing at the small, dusty terminal in Kinshasa, we were exhausted. We were dirty and sweating in the equatorial heat. Our apartment was on the fourth floor of the UN building in the center of Kinshasa, and the thick odors of the Congo River wafted up to us in the heat. We were too jet lagged to pay attention to the cockroaches skittering across the floor in the night. The next morning we awoke to learn there had been an uprising against Mobutu and thousands of people lay dead and injured in the streets below us.

Jenni Gate - Passport

In my teen years, we moved to Pakistan via Heathrow, then Karachi International Airport, finally arriving in Islamabad. During the years flying in and out of Pakistan, I had a flight canceled because rats ate through the wiring. One flight was delayed while the airline attendants tried to convince a family they could not start a fire in the aisle to cook their dinner. Inevitably, we were strip searched by Pakistani officials when entering or leaving the country.

As a senior, my class took a trip to the pristine Swat territory of Pakistan a week before graduation. We all got giardia from contaminated water. On the way back to the US after graduation, I left Islamabad for Karachi and went through a full strip-search in Karachi Airport. Landing in Heathrow looking like a hippie, I was searched again. Flying out of Heathrow on a British Airways flight, the wheels fell off the plane on take-off. We flew out over the English Channel, dumped our fuel, and turned back for a belly landing. The airline put us up overnight, and we flew out the next day. I spent the following week in Ocean City, Maryland, with friends from Virginia who just graduated. Still on giardia medication, I stayed sober while my friends partied on. They knew little of life in the wider world. It was an epiphany for me.

My travel bug drives me to take the ups and downs in stride. Excitement builds with the smell of jet fuel and the revving of jet engines as I anticipate arrival at the next destination. I love the sound of my bag’s wheels clicking along behind me as I walk to my gate, off to the next adventure.

What are some of your stories? What airports have you known that have made lasting impressions on your life story? 


About the author: With a childhood enriched by travel and diverse experiences, Jenni learned early that the only constant in life is change, and she developed skills to manage each change as it happens. She has worked as a paralegal, a mediator, a small business consultant, and a writer. Her published work includes several articles for a monthly business magazine in Alaska and a local interest magazine in Idaho. She has written several award-winning memoir pieces for writing contests. Jenni currently writes fiction, drawing upon her global experiences. She blogs at


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