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I touched down at London Gatwick a couple of weeks ago, having returned from a brief sojourn in Germany. It was the first time I have landed at this airport. I usually arrive at Stansted or Heathrow, which are considerably more convenient for me, but on this occasion only Gatwick was available.
While (like most sane people) I rarely enjoy visiting airports anywhere in the world, I have to say this most recent experience must rank with the worst of them.
Getting off the plane, lightly saddled with a bag of books, clothes and e-cigarette paraphernalia, I entered the main concourse from its Western limitation, already feeling stressed, tired and slightly hungover from a weekend of little sleep.
No sooner had I entered the airport than my mobile phone starting vibrating and beeping furiously. My lift, I learned, would be delayed by at least an hour. Its provider advised me to spend some time in a cafe or bar to make it go by quickly. So, disorientated and annoyed, I began looking around for somewhere to rest.
On the face of it, Gatwick is no more run-down than any other UK airport; the smooth, slip-proof shine of the floors is as sanitary as any maternity ward, and the ubiquitous cafes and eateries are tidy, modern and welcoming. But what you’ll struggle to get over, what’ll shock you more than anything else, is that the country you have landed in will seem more like a third-world layover than a first-world destination.
I am a fairly well-travelled guy and have visited Muslim countries before. Two years ago I went to Turkey, for example, where I spent a long, pleasureless period waiting for a flight in the main airport in Istanbul. It is no exaggeration to say that by comparison with Gatwick today, Istanbul was/is almost Danish in its secularity.
In Turkey, olive women with blonde highlights giggled in packs with a comforting licence. Till-tenders at the duty-free stores were bright and bubbly, their hair billowing freely around their shoulders. Glamour magazines were for sale barely elevated above the newspapers.
By grim contrast, everywhere I looked in Gatwick I saw a headscarf, a black robe, a prayer cap, a wiry black beard or a pair of wrinkled brown feet in sandals. The female staff members were dull and beaten in appearance, their eyes hollowed out by time and dead esteem. The only bar selling alcohol was hidden away from the spread of the main concourse by folding corners. Apart from a few posters advertising quick transport into London, there were no obvious identifiers of civilisation let alone country.
Not having eaten for a while, I went to a burger joint, purchased a tray of cholesterol and took it to the seating area of a Café (I’m aware you shouldn’t do that. I was feeling wild). Having sat down, I quickly noted a couple of Mid-Western American men (mid-twenties to early thirties) eating on the table adjacent to mine. As far as I could gather from my eavesdropping, they hailed from North or South Dakota and were in Europe on holiday (vacation) for the first time. I couldn’t help but reflect on what their impressions of Europe were at this early stage; how disappointed they must be; how surprised they must be etc… While no country is exactly like the brochure, most have more or less the expected character. Here in this sub-continentalised nightmare, the Americans would surely be within their rights to seek a refund.
You know, I’ve long nurtured a paranoid fantasy that in the not-too-distant future, Americans will come to regard Europe as a third-world, half-Islamic basket case, and will set up charities for it alike those set up for Africa today. In this dystopia, the brotherhood between Europe and America will collapse. Many Americans of English ancestry will deny or seek to disprove their heritage, and those who do not will nevertheless live with an itching sadness, a helpless shame, much like the Persians in America feel about contemporary Iran, or the Cubans about Castro’s Havana.
Perhaps I’m exaggerating. Perhaps my fears are unfounded. But perhaps they’re not. Have a nice day.