These days you’re never more at home than when you’re stuck in a strange place.
It’s sad that my greatest moment of existential authenticity occurred in a hotel on the outskirts of Frankfurt. This was due to no effort of my own. I found myself one of 245 passengers of Delta Flight 58 stranded overnight because of a burned-out engine on a Boeing 747. Upon showing up for my afternoon flight to Atlanta at Flughafen Frankfurt-Hahn, a sour, slate-eyed gate agent issued me a letter of apology and a hotel key.
This was the culminating event of a six-week European vacation my father took me on when I was in my early twenties. It had been filled with second-class train rides, hazelnut gelato, and mineral water gulped down in resignation because wine was too heady a drink for summer afternoons in Vienna. Mostly my father and I walked around, avoiding anything that charged admission, and split plates of whatever was on special. He talked about money — the money we were saving, the money we weren’t spending, by shunning the fancier hotels, by splitting entrees, by walking instead of cabbing, by remaining resolutely out-of-doors. He said this made our vacation more fun.
When I wasn’t obliged to partake of my father’s en plein air version of fun, I took the Unterbahn to euro-clubs named after planes that had dropped bombs on London. I entertained thoughts of entering into romantic affairs with perfumed, pomaded Eurotrash — men painfully short both in stature and career prospects. I visited museums and sat in front of Klimt’s nudes, willing my cheeks not to burn. I got drunk on absinthe and fell asleep in a pensioner’s garden.
It was a nice vacation on the whole, so I wasn’t terribly distraught at its being unexpectedly extended. A bus shuttled us from the airport to an impressive hotel immediately adjacent. Upon arriving, I noticed that my room was four stories above my father’s. This filled me with joy.
Somehow that night in a Frankfurt airport hotel suspends some sort of significance in my postmodern brain, as though I had accidentally stepped into some holy rite of a religion previous unknown to me.
I quickly found an excuse to rush to my room. In anticipation of the passengers arrival the hotel staff had set out plates upon plates of cream-filled croissants for dinner in a dining hall set aside for the passengers of Flight 58 to Atlanta, USA. Without hesitation a large tour group of Southern elementary-school teachers in elastic-waist jeans descended on them, oblivious to the smirking hoteliers and the general oddness of being served French pastry for dinner. They brought overloaded plates to card tables hastily set up for the occasion and cheerfully satiated themselves and chatted about European adventures, their thighs drooping forlornly over their folding chairs. My appetite blunted, I told my father I was tired and returned to my room.
I had a view of the eastern runway. I threw open my curtains and 747 after 747 bathed my room in landing lights and jet noise. I turned on the television and switched between the four available channels until I came across an episode of Night Flight, a German television show on techno music. Between the rumble of jet engines and the rhythmic clatter of German machines making German music, I found myself entranced. Never before had I felt so … authentic. The anonymity of the hotel, the blinding lights and deafening roar of airplanes off to transcontinental locales, the forlorn bed bathed in the blue glow of the TV screen — together these things exhilarated me beyond rational thought.
And that kinda sucks. I don’t remember my high school graduation. The memory of my first kiss is a distasteful blur. But somehow that night in a Frankfurt airport hotel suspends some sort of significance in my postmodern brain, as though I had accidentally stepped into some holy rite of a religion previous unknown to me. I spent my entire trip that summer visiting churches and purchasing votive candles for the souls of my grandparents and hiking along pilgrimage paths and ogling great art and getting smashed with unshowered club kids — all in the hope of feeling something transcendent. Little did I know that that feeling was hiding in a hotel room outside of a German airport.
I don’t want to think I’m incapable of being moved by all the great things that moved people in ages past. I’d like to be able to cry when listening to Beethoven’s fifth symphony (or sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, or tenth, for that matter). I’d love to catch sight of an eclipse or find my brain made dizzy by dreams of distant frozen planets and nova-hot stars. I’d delight in a spiritual vision or two, or even a faint feeling of that thing called “purpose.”
Perhaps I need to dig a few trenches, as the disciples of Gurdjieff were required to. Or maybe I should cleanse the doors of my perception with a few grams of psilocybin. I’ve heard that a few weeks alone in the woods of Washington state can work wonders, or a month with a troop of UN peacekeepers. It’s probable, however, that I’ve been made terminally, spiritually stupid by a bumper crop of late-stage capitalism’s blighted fruits. This saddens me immensely.
Americans young and old have sold their souls for a bill of dubious goods — and services.
And I’m not alone in lamenting my existential condition: Time recently reported that suicide rates for Baby Boomers are on the rise as a result of “unrealistic life expectations.” Though the article doesn’t really dwell on what these unrealistic expectations might be (it mentions things like “dashed expectations” and “chronic medical problems”) one perhaps can imagine they might also have something to do with finding life a bit more fulfilling. Americans young and old have sold their souls for a bill of dubious goods — and services. But at least the baby boomers were alive and kicking during decades that saw real revolutionary spirit in play; many of them got to participate in protests that were more than just excuses to don organic-fiber keffiyehs and declare a universal right to equity realization (all while shaking ineffectual fists at Wall Street). That’s got to count for something, right? That’s fodder for man’s (or woman’s) search for meaning, yes?
Those who have only known the revolutionary potential of Reaganomics, the derivatives market, and for-profit universities can’t claim such existential ballast. And, with the stock market continuing to rocket to the moon, it seems more and more apparent that nothing will ever change. Fueled by credit on the cheap, factories across China will continue to spit out the baubles and trinkets that junk up hearts and minds, leaving precious little room for anything that might give lives the semblance of meaning. Even libraries aren’t safe.
But I’m not going to pull a Marilyn Monroe. I still hope to live during the “interesting times” of ancient Chinese imprecation. So, I’ll continue to make airplanes my gods and hotel rooms their churches. And I’ll make sure to let Facebook know I “like” them.
Ylajali would love to hear from you. Drop her a line at hansengenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.