Reporting From Toronto: lessons from an airport in the midst of a pandemic

Toronto – As I sat waiting for my connecting flight in Reykjavik just three weeks ago – rushing from my makeshift home in Amsterdam to my hometown in Canada – I looked around at the collective rhyme of Canadians. I thought about how life ‘before’ had rolled to a near-standstill: in line for flight check-in, a man told me he had been pursuing his dream of biking around Europe on his motorcycle. At customs, an architect shared he had gone to visit his daughter who, having fallen love with a Dane, now lives abroad with her boyfriend in Copenhagen. As luck would have it, in the plane I sat down next to two philosophers, one a PhD candidate and the other an expatriate university professor. ‘Ah, what field is your specialty?’ asked the younger of the two. ‘Principally, the phenomenology of vision.’ The professor turned to looks at me, as if to explain, ‘Somehow, we don’t all see in the same way.’

What are the roles of airports in culture? They are of course, transit hubs – incredible tools of commerce; part of the reason my Amazon Prime order arrives before six on a Friday, ensuring I have a gift for an eight o’clock birthday dinner that same night. They are the reason the husband of a former colleague – a banker by profession – can fly out of Pearson into JFK airport on a Monday morning, work a 40-hour week in New York, and be back in Toronto for dinner that same Friday. Every week. An airport’s size and its roster of destinations is the weight of its global economic worth.

Of course, sitting in Reykjavik last month I was hardly reflecting on the airport’s economic power. I had been in Amsterdam as part of a capstone internship at Frame to finish my architecture degree at the University of Waterloo, which is located just outside of Toronto in Canada. Exactly four months prior to that, I was wandering the streets of Trastevere. Barrelling in front of me was my architectural history professor Rick Haldenby, an archaeologist and former university director. He had stopped at a gate, the entrance to a garden the government of Portugal had erected for the poets of Rome. ‘There are things in Rome that just wouldn’t happen anywhere else,’ he said. Four months prior to that, I was producing web copy for an architectural office in New York. And another four months back, I had backpacked through Mexico, trading butchered Spanish for street food and ocean-side hostels.  For me, the airport has been an ultimate tool to enact my desires.

It must seem, at this point, that what I wanted most of all was to travel. And yet, despite what I may claim on a superficial level, travel isn’t really a desire, is it? It’s a verb that’s been reinterpreted to stand for all that movement encompasses – literally, from the Collins dictionary: to ‘go from one place to another’. Treat travel as a sieve for desires, however, and it will filter out tangible rationale: escapism is desire. Curiosity, I think, is closer to a motive – I have craved excitement, freedom and tranquility to various extents.

Rubbing elbows with other Canadians at the airport that day and hearing their stories, I saw possible versions of myself in their lives: the man who wanted, for a few weeks, to live without a care in the world. The father who sought friendship with his daughter. The woman who would move halfway around the world for her partner. And the philosophers? No doubt sitting back in their chairs, post-rationalizing it all. I had before me at the airport that day a novel inventory, a country’s people rushing home after pursuing their desires abroad – sort of litmus test of the privileges a nation could offer its citizens; a snapshot of what the world meant to my Canadian peers, and how they wanted to be remembered when the world stood still.

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