If a truly horrendous entity ever wished to escape back into our reality from another chaotic dimension, it would almost certainly manifest itself at an international airport.
This is not because airports are particularly monstrous places, but because they’re places where reality is already slightly warped. They’re the locations where we ourselves pass into a subtly different reality, absorbing the myriad minor differences between one culture and another.
It was brought home to me the other week, when I travelled back up to SFO to meet Emma from her plane. You can feel the otherworldliness of airports even before you reach them, but something was different as I drove up 101 this time. San Francisco airport wasn’t what it had been when I stayed here for two weeks last July, or when I arrived in January.
Then, it was a gateway which allowed me to reach here from (and return back to) my home – London, England. But now, two months after arrival, I was driving towards a gateway which led from my new home in the Bay to Other Places.
I could see it in Emma’s face when I met her. A combination of 14 hours’ travel weariness, and that slightly spooked look that I think we all get when we arrive somewhere different. For her, this was arrival in the Foreign (and this despite that fact that she’s spent some time in America in the past).
It brought me back to all the subtle things which made America seem so… American when I first landed:
- The pervasive smell of Air Conditioning.
- The overwhelming beige colourschemes of official US institutions.
- The weird, oversized cars.
- The pointier, more abrasive typeface on official signs.
- The sheer amount of light – signs, traffic, intersections
These are all silly, insignificant things, but they’re the things that have always jumped out at my brain after hours on an Aeroplane, and together they become that silent sense of “welcome to America!”
That air-conditioning thing, for example. That one definitely stems from childhood. I first visited America aged 5, on a family holiday to Disney World in Florida. It was the first time, in shops, hotel rooms and cars, that I’d ever experienced air conditioning. Wherever I’ve been anywhere air-conditioned since, that slightly mechanical chill, and the particular smell take me right back to Florida again.
But that’s changing, and the change is a weird, deeply unexpected feeling.
Driving home from Palo Alto tonight, the roadside neon, the purr of the air conditioning in my car; even that old chilled-air scent, they were all things which have become familiar.
I guess that when you visit places temporarily, they’re always a kind of resort in some particular way. In effect, my few trips to America before this move had not been to everyday America, even as I’d spent time with people who lived there. All that time, I’d been caught inside the Theme Park of America.
But you can’t live in a Theme Park, you can only visit. So by necessity, the familiarity of day-to-day existence, even after only two months, has turned the Theme Park into a real place.
A place where I have Official ID, A social security number, monthly credit payments… A place where I know that it’s better to cut across from Mathilda to Fair Oaks via California than bother going further south to El Camino. A place where Tuesday night is Pub Quiz night in Palo Alto.
It’s sad, in a way, to lose that old Theme Park feeling about this place, and settle into a gentler rhythm. But in another sense it’s an achievement. I came here to live for a while, and here I am living.
What I don’t know yet is whether, once the spell is broken, it’s always broken. My first test of that will come when I next get back to England. Perhaps my 26 years resident there will have bred an immunity to any cognitive dissonance. Or maybe I’ll find myself in a slightly disorienting “Theme Park UK” which I never even knew existed.