Our man in Europe, Nitin Chaudhary, on traveling to the new normal

I love airports. I particularly admire the neat efficiency with which they operate. Everyone has a purpose: whether it’s the flight crew, the travelers or the vendors. There’s no one hanging around here. Despite the culture of the country in which they are placed, airports around the world seem to follow the same format – luxury outlets line the aisles, which are also well punctuated with restaurants and cafes. Invariably, there is a solitary bookstore in a less frequented corner.

The clockwork precision with which these man-made mini-cities operate (except for delayed flights, of course) reminds us that, when put to the test, we can organize ourselves in a perfectly managed world. A poorly managed airport is more of an exception than a rule.

After more than a year, I took a flight for the first time. I started at my favorite airport, Kastrup, in Copenhagen. It’s a small airport, but it offers a range of options for everyone – from budget shopping to big name brands. I prefer this airport mainly for the efficiency with which it operates and the cafes that serve great coffee and Danish pastries.

My eyes were keen to feel the changes that had happened during the pandemic as I stayed out of airports. The most obvious were clearly observable first – goggles in front of counters facing customers, hand sanitizer stations and everyone wearing masks while keeping a safe distance in queues. What I felt, in addition, was the hesitation that showed up in people avoiding conversations, both in the queue waiting for their coffee and in the flight where, although sat next to each other, there was a reluctance to make eye contact. Face masks were not helping the cause, as they hid expressions. You couldn’t tell if the other person was smiling or frowning.

It was as if my favorite airport had lost its verve. Without the exchange of smiles and unnecessary impromptu conversations, the airport felt like a transit hub – a joyless but much needed layover.

Doha airport wore a contrasting hue to Copenhagen. It is huge and, despite its size, seemed to be overflowing with travellers. Here, the conversations flowed more easily and the smiles were easy to decipher when the masks slid often and with great will on the faces. A little more chaotic than its well-run Danish counterpart, Doha Airport looks almost back on its feet, both in terms of passenger numbers and regaining its pre-COVID liveliness.

As I waited at the airport for my connecting flight, hesitantly taking off my mask to sip a coffee, I saw a neat line of travelers covered from head to toe, except for their eyes, in white overalls. These are the unfortunate ones who had failed their RT-PCR tests and were destined for isolation. A fear arose in me, and I wondered if I was sitting too close to this faction in white. I left my coffee unfinished as I wrapped my face again and made my way to safety. I realized that fear had become an unwelcome companion on these journeys; I wished it wasn’t like this for too long.

Finally, I landed at Delhi airport. It was after two years that I came to India and to this airport. I was full of expectations and couldn’t wait to get out in the city I grew up in. It shouldn’t have been so fast, so I was called back, while queuing for another test at the airport. As I waited for test results, I saw two individuals in white coveralls being spotted in an isolation area. My mind raced to wonder if they had been on the same flight as me. I couldn’t be sure, because I couldn’t make out their faces behind the masks. Fear, dreaded companion of this trip, resurfaces. But I couldn’t have done much more than wait for him to calm down.

I was there, around midnight, my eyes downcast, while I waited for the results of my tests. These test results were the new visa, the ticket to normal life. As I waited, a thought crossed my mind: what if this new normal was here to stay? What if I always traveled with my face covered, and if the journeys of the future became as messy as this one? Would I still look forward to travelling? Would I still gladly explore new destinations, overcoming the anxiety and challenges of traveling to the destination?

In short, would I become, after the pandemic, less of a traveler than I would have imagined until now?

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