I love people watching. Where ever I go, observing others around me is my favorite way to pass the time. Whether on crowded public transportation, walking down the street, or shopping in the grocery store, observing the people around me always makes me wonder about them, their lives,and their stories. Of all the places to observe people, however, my favorite by far is in airports. Yes airports, those large (the bigger the better for people watching) impersonal places that bring people from all walks of life together by pure happenstance. Customs agents manning passport control tend to have the same bored, and often suspicious, looks regardless of the airport or the country but it is the passengers that make each experience unique. The physical contrasts between individual travelers, couples, or families always amazes me and makes me even more curious about who they are and where they are going.
I recently experienced an extended layover in Rome and therefore spent several hours observing the people around me. Because it was still early I saw the sleep deprived travellers arriving off of trans-Atlantic flights. Some people hobbled off of planes sleepy and rumpled while other were impeccably dressed and looked as though they had received a solid night's sleep. (Perhaps this can be attributed to the difference between flying economy and first class). Freshly made up faces bounce by along side those with day old mascara running down cheeks. Cranky babies and their equally harried parents walk alongside slouchy teenagers with ear buds doing everything they can to distance themselves from their un-cool families. Americans are easy to identify. All too often we can be spotted wearing baseball caps, sweatpants, and sloganed tee-shirts while toting too many over-stuffed bags. By contrast, Europeans, while still casual, look neater, more put together, and more comfortable in their surroundings. And they are never wearing athletic shoes. Travelers without easy access to quality consumer goods lug overfilled plastic bags from the duty-free shop. First time travelers toting too many bags carry looks of amazement and confusion on their faces as they take in their surroundings while business travelers pulling small wheeled carry-ons whisk through the airport with the efficiency that only comes with experience. And to think we are all sharing the same space with the only similarities being the common goal of travel.
I used to have a fantasy --and maybe I still do--of going to an airport and buying a ticket for whatever flight had availability. I never actually did this, but I always thought it would be spontaneous and fun to jet off to someplace new with no plans or agenda in mind. This makes me wonder about the destinations of my fellow travelers. People carrying laptops and wearing business suits on an early morning flight? They are most likely heading to a morning meeting. Families loaded down with luggage, cameras, and travel books? Without a doubt, vacation. Groups of fit young men dressed in matching jogging suits? Here in Europe that usually signals a football (American soccer) team on their way to an out of town match. Sometimes people are harder to place. I've wondered about the lone woman sitting quietly in the corner sipping coffee and reading a book. Is she traveling home to family or is she headed out on a much needed solo vacation? (Wait, that is another one of my fantasies). Or what about the forlorn looking man playing with his I-Phone and the young teenager looking both scared and excited? Perhaps their stories aren't exotic but my active mind has me wondering about the possibilities.
Another favorite people watching game to play while in public is to try to decide which people actually belong together. Often I can spot one half of a couple sitting and waiting and then pick out their partner as they make their way across the room to them. Sometimes people just look like they belong together. It might be matching or coordinated outfits (gag), similar mannerisms, or just something about them that says they are together. Smartly coifed couples sitting beside those with bedhead make it easy to see who belongs together. Parents trailed by their mini-mes are also too predictable as are the packs of the relatives traveling to their family reunions wearing matching tee shirts announcing their upcoming event. On the other hand I've seen my share of mismatched couples that just surprise me. Usually the mismatch involves impeccably groomed women who obviously care about their appearances paired with slovenly men who can only be described as walking disasters. I found myself sitting next to one such couple in Rome last week and just wondered what the attraction was. He was big, untucked, and had a stain on his shirt. She was tiny, dressed in black and animal print and had an identically outfitted pocketbook sized dog on her lap. As he shoveled a whole pastry into his mouth and she fed bits of hers to the dog, I just couldn't figure them out. My imagination worked in overtime on this one.
The possibilities for people watching are endless. Just when I think I've seen it all I notice something new and unprecedented. As much as I love traveling to new destinations half of the fun is who I see along the way. Kindle and laptop batteries may die but a long layover can be very bearable if you take the time to look at the people around you. You never know what you are going to see next.