Saturday, March 15, 2008

Non-place about Frankfurt

I’m not sure how much Marc Augé had in mind discourses of advertising when he wrote in 1995 about the “non-places” of airport lobbies, train stations, and other generic spaces of transit, "Frequentation of non-places today provides an experience - without real historical precedent - of solitary individuality with non-human mediation (all it takes is a notice or a screen) between the individual and the public authority" (p. 117).

But there it is. My napkin and my snack box on this United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt inviting me (imploring me?) to enjoy my mini-meal and thanking me for choosing to fly with them. The monitors on the screens that dot the back of chairs and are installed so thoughtfully in front of us on the bulkheads move seamlessly, soundlessly (Were they giving away headphones on this flight? Or did they cost $5?) between mainstream U.S. television programming, important corporate partners, and the UAL maps showing our red line of progress across Greenland, over Iceland, and down towards the continent. And, of course, even at 35,000 feet above the earth, we can rest assured to know that we’re never far away from Starbucks: the familiar circular green logo greets me on the United (?) coffee cup, replete with a warning no doubt the outcome of the McDonalds coffee spill lawsuits: CAUTION: CONTENTS MAY BE HOT! This last remnant of language from the “public authorities” Augé mentions, written in the United font on a Starbucks cup, seems to suggest that even this authority may have passed from the hands of the government to the corporations that now hold our best international travel experiences and coffee-drinking safety at heart.

Wait, did someone say “international”? Yeah, right, this is an international flight. The couple sitting next to me—an Irish woman and a Scottish man and their lovely 21 month-old daughter—seemed real enough, and she had actually stayed in Lyon (where I’m going, I think) through a homestay exchange with a French university student several years ago. “It’s beautiful,” she tells me, “and the food is great.” I am enthused and pull out my French textbook, Chez Nous, to Chapitre 4. We are greeted by the title of “Métro, boulot, dodo”: this emblematic descriptor of the French workday and a photo of a crowd of commuters boarding the metro, itself a non-place par excellance, stares back at us. Sitting in row 32, she going home and I going away, we somehow seem very far away from the chapter subtitle, “La routine de la journéethe daily routine.

Later, after descending on a cool (at least that’s what the pilot told me—the only ‘real’ air I’ve touched is the weak cross-draft in the tunnel leading to the gate) and overcast (below the cloud cover, that is) morning, I struggle to see what around me might be German, or at very least, different from the airport I left from 12 hours ago. Where might one look to find something of a ‘real place’ in a location that is so prototypically non?

Or is the very task of capturing something of the ‘place’ in a photo, taken while jetlagged, transient, waiting for a connecting flight, conscious of the ‘security risks’ of pointing a digital SLR in an airport (in the clime I come from, at least), and familiar only with the contours but almost none of the meanings of the German language and rhythms of life, false from the very start?

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