Of all the flights I have taken, few have been as unusual as the one last month, when I went to Luxembourg. It could not have been a more uneventful flight. The plane took off smoothly on schedule and made its journey over European clouds from London to Luxembourg within 90 minutes.
What was striking about the flight was the banal uniformity of the people with whom I travelled. Overwhelmingly white and male, the passengers were all dressed immaculately in their blue, charcoal or grey suits. Only the occasional man wore a suit with thin stripes. All shirts were plain, blue or white, the ties sober, with gleaming pins. Montblanc pens standing out of their pockets. Their clothes smelt of fresh dry cleaning.
There were a few women among the passengers. Blonde and smartly attired, all wore pantsuits, again grey or blue—a cheerful scarf being their sole nod to colour. All looked engrossed: either with their laptop screens, or their BlackBerrys. Their phones rang constantly while we were in the waiting lounge. The schedules they arranged on those phone calls would sound romantic to anyone with wanderlust; but it was easy to see that their next meetings—in Paris, in Milan, in Frankfurt, in Zurich—would be at a hotel near the airport. Then they’d board another aircraft, going to another city. It almost seemed like a caricature of that IBM ad in which two colleagues talk to one another on their cellphones and update presentations on the road, the landscape behind them changing while they remain focused on their screens, like teenagers playing on Playstation via the Internet, across continents.
Theirs is a journey around the world, but only just, and theirs is a life seen through the transit lounge, of gifts bought in duty-free stores, of brands known only by their availability in shopping areas at airports. Writer Pico Iyer finds some romance in this transitoriness: In his book, The Global Soul, he talks of the camaraderie that can develop between strangers caught in the time warp of jet lag in that “international convenience zone”, the airport lounge. In an essay in Prospect magazine, he elaborated that he was part of “a transcontinental tribe of wanderers that is multiplying as fast as international telephone lines and frequent flyer programmes. We are the transit loungers, forever heading to the departure gate. We buy our interests duty-free, we eat our food on plastic plates, we watch the world through borrowed headphones. We pass through countries as through revolving doors, resident aliens of the world, impermanent residents of nowhere. Nothing is strange to us, and nowhere is foreign. We are visitors even in our own homes.”
In reality, that life can be fairly numbing: Think of Bill Murray in that wonderful film, Lost in Translation, where he is unable to get off a rapidly speeding exercise machine; where he can't figure out what to do with the taps in his bath; where he lives in that twilight world of half shadows, uncertain if it is morning or night.
Business travellers, whose theme song must be “If it is Tuesday, this must be Belgium”, do travel light. They are alone— their aloofness makes it a point to remind us of that. There were no children on the flight from London to Luxembourg. Business was the only thing that interested my co-passengers. Nobody initiated a conversation with a second person. They were engrossed in their own conversations—on their BlackBerrys, their phones, in their atomized universes.
Looking at them, I thought of Golconde, that remarkable 1953 painting by the surreal Belgian painter, Rene Magritte. It shows dozens of identical men, all wearing business suits and bowler hats, descending from the sky, as if with invisible parachutes, on a suburban countryside. The picture is, of course, static—but you sense that dull, predictable movement, of a numbing, monotonous descent of anonymous, featureless, expressionless men. It is funny, but there is also an in-built sadness about it.
Magritte was born in a town called Lessines near Brussels, some 260km from Luxembourg. Its landscape comprised identical houses clubbed together, where men left for work at the precise hour daily, boarding their train for Brussels. Magritte died in 1967; had he been on my flight, he’d have felt his painting had come to life again.
There is a kind of small-town, rural European beauty around Luxembourg—of bridges, of quaint buildings, of markets, of winding cobblestoned streets. But my fellow travellers would experience none of that. As if emerging from an assembly line, they sat in cabs, were driven to glass-and-concrete office towers away from the countryside, where large banks and companies had their tax-sheltered headquarters. As if to punctuate the expressionlessness of this duchy, the tall sculpture outside a bank was of a thin, elongated man standing stiff and firm, like the dour Midwestern farmer in Grant Wood’s painting,American Gothic. But instead of a pitchfork, he holds a briefcase. At least his tie was a bright red.
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