Thursday, October 1, 2009


Charles De Gaulle Airport is like a maze of gray glass tubes sitting on the edge of Paris suburbs. Once gleaming modern and futuristic, it has aged at a time when modern was decades ago. After a night of flying from Utah, the plane disgorges us into the airport and we try to make sense of the signs that like a horde of gnat fly before us as we walk in a herd, joining other herds in a mass of people.

It all makes sense, once I look at the signs a bit while walking. There is a pattern to them and that seems to correspond to where I need to go. A monitor announces my flight to Berlin is in D Terminal, gate 63 and so I visually latch onto the signs that say “D”.
I am wondering where I go through immigration and customs, since I am now in a new country, the entry point to the European Behemouth. The mass snarls and comes to a standstill where I see arrows and a sign that say in French “if your flight leaves before 12:40 go here”. I think I somehow find myself in that line, though my flight to Berlin isn’t until 1:25. I see some people, Americans from my flight, lift the soft yellow ribbons that contain us and walk to another line. I know they are Americans because I had heard them speak English in an unremarkable American accent and they came from Salt Lake with me. An employee of Air France spouts an impressive flurry of French complaining about them breaking order and urging them back into our line. So I stay in the line unless they tell me otherwise.
The woman in front of me says, in English, “I do not think I am supposed to be in this line. It does not lead to “D” terminal. Still they herd us through, far faster than immigration in US Airports and soon our passports are stamped and we are in a long hall that opens on different terminals, where security awaits. No customs this time.
Confusion, disorientation, and yet sense if you just follow the mass. That seemed a good definition of modernity which broke with the established to make a new, now dowager establishment. The French just do it differently than in the world dominated by the American model. And I struggle to figure out the rules to fit in.
I board my plane to Berlin, an old 727-like Airbus. Somehow, though I was waiting near the gate, though my back was to it because of the orientation of the chairs, I had missed the call for the flight. I looked and the boarding line was long and moving. I placed myself in it, as if it were a moving sidewalk and it got me on the flight. But the back of the plane was full, where my seat was inside past two large blond women. I left my carryon in a bin near the front of the plane and hurried to the back where I belonged. Since all around me I heard French, I spoke in that language--nervously but in french--to tell the women that was my seat. Whether they understood me or not they got up and let me in. Just like the modernist rules, you do not need to understand the words, to know what the meaning is, because the situations and forms for content are fairly constant. They still can vary a bit.
It was hot on the plane. I wanted air and looked above me for the nozzles which experience tells me I should find above me. Everything up there looked strange. There were lights and probably nozzles, but I figured we were just not getting air, because they looked different from what I am used to and I could not figure out if there was a way to maybe open them. The woman next to me reached up, after I had pulled my hand down, in a small pique of frustration, and opened first her vent and then mine. “Merci”, I said “thank you”. “Bitteshön,” she responded in German. So I said “Danke”. Different, unsettling, but the same.
After deplaning in Berlin’s Tegel airport I walk up to the information booth and said in German “Do you speak English?” because I was tired from my flight and from not sleeping enough. After all for me it was late night when I sleep most deeply. He answered in German. “But you are speaking German.” Damn, I had to speak. I asked how to get to Alexanderplatz, and understood only a bit of what he said. But I found the bus and then got off on the wrong stop and so decided, after trying to ask for more directions and not understanding anything (I could ask fine; I just could not grasp the answer) to take a taxi. Fortunately he understood me and I him.
Now I am sitting in a cafe on Danzigerstraße, in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, passing time since I am early. I am sipping the universal Coke Light, soon to become the even more universal, Coke Zero, while waiting for the time to arrive when I am to meet the guy from whom I am renting a room. The sounds are different. Understanding comes and goes, but i know the situation, the way the street works, cash registers work and so on. I am not lost, just disoriented. The surface is different but the modern structure, like Charles DeGaulle Airport, is still there, though this world is long past modern. The wall has been down for a generation. I am in what was East Berlin, and my next two months have begun. It is now time.


  1. I like your applying the structural view in a practical manner. I'm used to the idea applied in parsing texts; it's cool to use it to get through airports.

    On a tangent, are you familiar with Brian Eno's Music for Airports? It's fun to hear him describe how he specially designed music for the typical airport space, environment.

  2. I am familiar with Brian Eno's music Jason. He does capture something of the airport experience. They are strange and yet typical spaces of modernity. Thanks for your comment. I look forward to a conversation some day in the not too distant future.

  3. I like big doors...and cobbles...reminds me of tracting in Italy... yikes.. so long ago.. and still is yesterday...