WHEN THE THINGS GO WRONG…
When the things go wrong people start to be really creative. I don’t know if there already exists a saying such as this one, but if not, it should. I’ve noticed that on myself so many times. As if there was an emergency switch that turns on every time the situation looks desperate and it forces one to come up with solutions that they would otherwise never think of.
Let me tell you a story of how I ended up living at the London Heathrow Airport for precisely 31 days and how this turned up to be the most valuable experience of my PhD ‘career’ so far. Let me tell you about the strategies I’ve deployed in order to not only survive at the airport but to eventually live quite a comfortable life, about building a home in a place with a complete lack of privacy, about how to stay invisible, about how to become a frequent flyer without a single departure. Let me invite you to the world of homeless people sleeping on the benches as well as to the parallel universe hidden behind the secret doors of the VIP business class lounges. Let’s walk together along the airport corridors following the paths of arriving passengers … and by doing all of that, let me tell you about my observations of what kind of place an airport can be.
WELCOME TO THE LONDON HEATHROW AIRPORT! This is a first piece from the series of blog posts about my life at the airport – a sort of introduction, which I devoted to the evolution of the idea to pack my things and move to the airport as well as to the reason of writing a blog about it. So…sit back and enjoy the journey of a novice ethnographer!
Let me begin by introducing myself: I am a PhD student based in Czech Republic where I am doing my research on frequent flyers focusing on how they perceive and give meanings to the places they visit by air. These frequent flyers became a subject of my interest while I was working for Lufthansa and talking to them over the phone every day. It was there when I’ve noticed for the first time that a meaning of what is near and what is far, and how a particular city/place is experienced is very much connected to the way one moves around in space. Building upon the ideas of the mobility turn (Sheller and Urry, 2006) and the aeromobilities literature, I’ve started to research the place perception of frequent flyers, which directly addresses the question of what is the role that airports play in all this. The representation of an airport as it is depicted in academic literature (as well as in novels, movies and commercials) has one common and very interesting feature – the fascination. Weather it is in positive or negative way, airports are often being seen as unique, extraordinary, (super)modern, emblematic, sometimes as new urban forms, cities of the future, non-places…there are many of these metaphors to be found. When thinking about where does this fascination come from, the issue of interpretation came to my mind as the first – one always tends to base the interpretation of things on their own experience. Therefore, the experience of an occasional passenger or even a more experienced passenger, as was I, naturally leads to the fascination with spaces and logic of the airports where everything is so different from the ‘normal’ everyday life, and herein it even enhances the excitement arising from the journey. But how to get closer to an experience of a frequent flyer for whom an airport could be a very familiar place, this “home-away-from-home” (2004:39) that Fuller and Harley describe? Being inspired by ethnography as a research method and paraphrasing Geertz (1973) claiming that every big concept becomes surprisingly simple once learned in homely circumstances, I’ve decided to gain this ‘other’ experience by inhabiting an airport for a period of time.
When I speak about my experience of living at the airport with my senior colleagues, or when I present it in front of an academic audience, I’m being very often given credit for an extremely courageous and ambitious student project. Well, to be completely honest, the origin of the idea of moving to the airport was far more pragmatic – I had no money to pay the rent. I came to London as a visiting PhD researcher and at the end of my stay, by the fault of my own, I got cut off of my funding. Thus I had to consider whether to return back home earlier than I planned or to somehow find another way to stay. The homelessness at the airports is not uncommon. Tim Cresswell (2006) mentions it very nicely in his book On The Move by pointing out the tendencies of homeless people to stay at the airport because it is a relatively warm and safe place also offering facilities such as free-of-charge toilets, and above all, at many major airports one can easily disappear in the masses of travellers. According to one of the articles in DailyMail magazine, which I came across once I travelled by the London Tube, at the London Heathrow Airport in particular there are about 100 homeless people currently calling it their home, which until recently also included a middle-aged couple that had been staying there for almost a year. So I thought that if they can do it, I can certainly do it too. And since I already had many years of experience in punk-style backpack travelling while sleeping under bridges, in parks and who knows where, I thought it would be just fine, and eventually even a source of fun. … Well, it wasn’t really. In fact, it was much more mentally challenging than I expected, but we’ll get to that later. So on the 1st of May 2015 I packed my things, I cancelled the rental contract for my room and moved to the LHR airport. Let the ethnographic adventure begin!
Before I go on with the story, I think I need to explain why I’ve decided to blog about it now. When I came back from the LHR airport I thought it was an interesting experiment as well as a valuable experience for me in terms of changing my viewpoint as a researcher. I started abandoning this fascinated image of an airport as being something extraordinary, and instead I got the homey sort of feeling of understanding how the life at the (LHR) airport looks like from the everyday perspective. Only after talking to some of my senior colleagues and advisors I realized how rich the empirical material I possess actually is. But still, as much as I have problems explaining why on earth did I do that and what kind of research and science is that to my family and friends; similarly I struggled to present my initial observations to the well-established academic audience at the recent AAG conference in San Francisco. One of the reasons is that I realized that I am not quite there yet and thus my interpretations still tend to be very simple. Interestingly, later on after talking to other fellow PhD students in the pub, some of them novice ethnographers themselves, I realized I could talk for hours and people were still amazed. That brought me to the idea of writing a blog in order to capture the flow of everything I have to say and I would very much like to say. Not being bonded by the academic style of writing that is required for papers, yet still writing for geographers and ethnographers, I believe this could maybe shed some light not only on how the life at the airport looks like and what kind of place an airport can be but also on the struggles of an ethnographer in process. After all, I do this because I strongly believe that writing is an essential part of ethnography and that the act of writing my thoughts down just as they are in my mind at this moment will help me analyse the data I have in my diary, field notes, photos, videos, and above all the fascinating, adventurous and life-changing experience of my life at the LHR airport.
Cresswell, T. (2006). On The Move. Mobility in the Modern Western World. London: Routledge. 327 p. ISBN 0-415-95256-5.
Fuller, G. and R. Harley (2004). Aviopolis: A Book about Airports. London: Routledge. 249 p. ISBN 0-203-93056-8.
Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. 480 p.
Sheller, M. and J. Urry (2006). “The new mobilities paradigm”. Environment and Planning A 38 (2): 207-226. doi:10.1068/a37268.