Christmas at Heathrow: An airport connection to remember
December 24, 2019
During this time of year, we huddle by cozy fireplaces with loved ones and listen to soothing carols—but not always. I often tell people that my fondest Christmas Eve was spent in an airport coffee shop, whiling away the night with a stranger who passionately hated Christmas. How did I get there, you ask? Find out below...
I won’t be home for Christmas
In 2014, I was a graduate student in London. Instead of going back home to the States for winter break, for the first time ever, I resolved to spend my holidays in Armenia. Young, broke, and (mildly) adventurous, I booked a flight on Christmas Day. Hearing through the grapevine that traveling on that day would be a nightmare, I began my journey the night before. (I also heard that Santa visits airports, so that was reassuring.)
Airports are to modern travel what seaports were before the 20th century: an intense confluence of people, who all share one common desire—of getting from point A to point B. They are also a place where conventions fly out the window. Fancy a steak frites with whiskey sour at six in the morning? Go for it! (Just to clarify, I have a strict no-hard-liquor-before-sunrise rule.) At an airport, time is both crucial and meaningless. I don’t know if Einstein ever traveled by plane or not, but I reckon he would have been fascinated by this contradiction.
Yet, even amongst such a rich concentration of human diversity, one can feel completely alone, camouflaged in a sea of scurrying bodies. Most of us enjoy the prospect of air travel, but grudgingly accept airports as the necessary downside to the whole process. It’s one of the last places most people would elect to be on Christmas Eve. But I am not among that group.
I arrived at the coffee shop of my sleepy terminal eagerly, but without a plan (apart from perhaps ironically listening to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on repeat.) After ordering an aptly-named “Red Eye” shot (my young body was just getting introduced to the wondrous perils of caffeine), the barista, likely sensing my restlessness, suggested I meet Dave—an airport employee who arrived seven hours before his morning shift—and brought me to his table. Dave needed to stay awake through the night and I needed company to distract me from the increasingly unsettling realization that I would be spending this family holiday away from loved ones—and with a complete stranger—to boot. When I asked him why he was working on Christmas, he replied, “Ah, I don’t care for the holiday.” Needless to say, we were off to a great start.
Flitting from family and literature to politics and my studies, Dave set the pace of conversation and I trailed behind. Every so often, he’d pause, before brazenly saying, “I shouldn’t tell you this, but I will never see you again.” But, by far, his line of the night was, “Bah, humbug!” the catchphrase of Ebenezer Scrooge, the curmudgeon in A Christmas Carol. Fittingly, in his uniform, Dave did seem like something out of a Dickens novel—haggard, with sulky eyes framed by thin glasses (or spectacles, on this side of the pond)—an image from a Londontown that had long been eviscerated outside of these walls.
I told Dave that I was going to surprise my relatives in Armenia, where New Year’s Eve is a more elaborate affair than Christmas, which is celebrated on Jan. 6 in our calendar. To my surprise, he knew of Armenians (beyond the tropes). He asked me about the genocide and our troubled history with our neighbors. He then listened, intently; when I finished, he reciprocated, in kind, enlightening me on what he knew of Armenian geography (you may recall that I cannot read a map) and Armenia’s historical connections to various European countries. I was struck by how remarkably well-read, well-versed, and well-spoken he was—smarter than most anyone I had ever met, even in his sleep-deprived state. I wondered how his journey brought him here, but I suspected that story would take even more time than what we had.
The ghost of Christmas shame
Our barista friend brought over a stack of fresh pastries—on the house. English hospitality is notoriously cold, so between the good company and warm goodies, I felt as though I had already landed in Yerevan. But Dave was still here, distracted by the Christmas tunes blaring through the overhead speakers. He hated Christmas songs almost as much as the Norman invasion—"Perhaps more,” he said. He meant, of course, the 1066 A.D. conquest of England by, what was at the time, Norman France—a monumental date in British history and the pivotal marker that brought a wave of French words into the English lexicon, irreparably transforming the once-solidly Germanic language to a Germano-Romance hybrid.
I, of course, was clueless about all of this, and he could sense that. Like a Socratic instructor, Dave challenged me—a welcome departure from the timid style of my British professors. Between munches of a croissant (oh, the irony!), I sputtered, “uh, they were Germans, right?” “Bah, humbug!” he exclaimed. “Of course, you’d think that. Why would you know who the Normans were?” I recall the way he looked down at his uneaten scone, defeated and disappointed. It was not unlike my face when the word “Armenian” draws blank stares from acquaintances back home.
At that point, I had already been in the UK for three months to study, yet had not bothered to learn the most basic of their history. Barring that trip to Armenia, I was in England for nearly nine months, and save for two day trips to Oxford, never ventured outside of London. This man knew about Armenian history and culture beyond that of a newspaper headline...and he had never even been to Armenia or attended college. I felt a rush of shame come over me. In the opening lines of Dickens’ Christmas tale, we discover that “Marley [a character who would go on to become a ghost] was dead: to begin with.” My dignity was dead on arrival. Bah, humbug, indeed.
As the hours wound down, I managed to forget about the blunder. Even with the caffeine, it is pretty remarkable that our conversation never stopped—not once. When we parted, Dave wished me a safe, memorable trip. Never has the phrase, “It was great knowing you,” seemed so final.
When I returned, nine days later—from my safe and memorable trip—I saw Dave, assisting someone. For a brief moment, I considered tapping him on the shoulder. But then, I recalled our cardinal rule, and the sanctity of keeping that space there that night. I kept on walking, taking comfort in the fact that who you meet at Heathrow, stays in Heathrow.
To all the humbugs out there, Merry Christmas, and may we never meet again...
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