Up in the air: my life in airports
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Where are you based? A simple question that’s tied me up in knots for the past 18 months.
My home office, in the corporate sense, is the FT’s imposing headquarters on the banks of the Thames, a mecca for business leaders, tourists and alarmingly brave mice.
My actual home office is a converted bedroom in my recently purchased house 20km outside Dublin, where the tree-lined view of my back garden creates an oasis of calm while the ceaseless soundtrack of lawnmowers and bin collections does the opposite.
A lot of the time, you won’t find me in either “base”. Since I began the life of a nomadic cross-border commuter, I’ve worked from Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Dubai, Zurich, Paris, Frankfurt, Madrid, Brussels and New York.
Where am I based? I’m based on a plane.
It’s a strange thing, this life of living everywhere and nowhere, of pining for the Christmas markets of Frankfurt because you’re “stuck” in balmy Singapore and missing team drinks in London because it’s a New York week.
The markers of “normal” life — weekly tennis matches, shopping for food you’ll be around to eat, impromptu meals and occasions with friends and family — are traded for career progression, adventure and necessity.
I’m luckier than many living this life because I love airports, aeroplanes and all that goes with them (despite my frequent Twitter rants on delays, cancellations and grave crimes against travelling etiquette).
Dublin airport holds a particular allure born of my early career as an aviation correspondent in Ireland. I remember walking through the curved pathway to Pier D, the “new” part of the old terminal, in hard-hat and high-vis jacket and learning that it was being built with then the world’s largest single slab of poured concrete.
Terminal 2 holds similar ghosts. I remember it when it was a vast empty space that critics said was far too big for Ireland’s needs. Less than 15 years later, with Ireland’s economy booming again, critics say it is far too small.
My favourite Dublin airport spot is the upper deck of Aer Lingus’s lounge for business and frequent flyers with its reclined leather swivel chairs and matching footrests, which I re-position each time so mine faces the bustling airfield instead of their inexplicable default view of the condiment bar and shower room doors.
A cup of Bewley’s Gold Blend tea in hand, my laptop perched on my outstretched legs, I gaze through the glass plate windows towards a runway filled with planes and possibilities. More recently, I’ve taken to gazing around the lounge as well, observing the rising numbers of suited professionals in town on pre-Brexit reccies, given away by the “private and confidential” documents they openly read.
My love of Dublin airport doesn’t blind me to the attractions of others.
Singapore’s has a gym and an outdoor pool open to anyone who’ll pay the S$17 (£9.40) entry or is staying at the Airport Transit Hotel. The gym is tiny — just one treadmill and a few other machines, in a stiflingly hot room — but you’re likely to have it to yourself, and a pre-flight workout of even half an hour makes a long night’s travelling infinitely more bearable. The lounge also has heated massage chairs. Better still, it’s free for me to enter no matter what airline I’m flying with or what class I’m in, thanks to the best investment of my year — a €399 a year Priority Pass that gives me unlimited access to more than 1,200 lounges worldwide.
Qatar’s capital Doha, a regular pre-Asia stop-off thanks to super-cheap flights and Ireland’s paucity of direct Asian routes, has a far better (air-conditioned) gym and an indoor pool. An ideal way to break up a 12-hour stopover for QR175 (around £36). Frankfurt’s Terminal 2 Sky lounge, accessible to Aer Lingus’s frequent flyers and holders of Priority Pass lounge cards, stole my heart with its pick-and-mix bar of jellies.
Much as I love my airports, the cities I’ll leave behind are the real wrench of my upcoming move to New York.
There’s London, where I lived full-time for four years before moving home to Dublin last January.
My departure was so gentle, my returns so frequent, that I never grieved for the flat on Shad Thames with its exposed brick walls where I almost learned to cook, or for my glorious commute along the Thames past Tower Bridge to the FT’s head office.
I never grieved for the glory of Greenwich Park on a summer’s day, for the breadmaking course I never got around to taking at Borough Market, for the tubes and buses that appear every few minutes or for the City’s architectural masterpieces. I never grieved for the people I met there, the friends who helped me discover this limitless city through our shared love of burgers, pizzas, parks, running, news and Irishness.
Moving continents seems more final and leaves no room for the luxury of not noticing. Every time I run on Dublin’s Sandymount strand or along its northern coast, I’m reminded that I don’t have many of these runs left. Every time a new flower sprouts in my still-unfamiliar garden, I’m reminded that by next year I’ll be lucky to have a balcony.
Every time I pick up my nephew for a sleepover, I’m reminded that this magical time we’ve shared will soon be cut short for reasons impossible to explain to a six-year-old. It’s then that I wonder how I can bear to leave this city of rogues and dreamers, of €5 doughnuts and €2 pints, of playgrounds and beaches, that has been home to me on and off since I was 17.
Then there’s Frankfurt. The city’s parks, rich now in their summer splendour, brim with memories of Christmas markets past. The square by Alte Opera with those open-air restaurants where my long nights drifted towards early mornings debating first the collapse of the eurozone, and later the merits of Frankfurt versus Paris for post-Brexit bolt-holes, all to the thrum of the nearby fountains and buskers.
The Main, a river so wide and vast that a young Irish journalist could sit by its banks and see an opening to the whole of Europe. I would return there for countless runs over the coming years, passing kindergarteners towed in bicycle carts, locals picnicking on the grass verges, majestic boats and locals running with the quiet efficiency that Germans apply to life’s pursuits.
I never lived in Frankfurt in the normal sense of the term. I never rented a flat there, I never opened a bank account with Sparkasse, I never paid German taxes. I simply reported from there on irregular trips for durations from one night to three weeks over a period of six years. But when I left there after my last FT trip two weeks ago, I felt the goodbye more than when I “moved home” from London.
Then there’s Zurich, where Credit Suisse, UBS and FT staff shortages conspired for regular and sometimes lengthy stints of up to a month at a time The Alpine city is home to the most expensive cup of Starbucks tea I’ve found anywhere in the world and the most stunning lakeside runs. It’s also home to Sprungli, a chain of chocolate emporiums cum cafés where dogs of all sizes are welcome to sit quietly at their owners’ feet and where bankers can sometimes be persuaded to meet FT journalists.
Not making it back to Asia for a final trip is my biggest regret as I leave Europe.
Already, I yearn for the sticky heat that glues your clothes to you as soon as you step on to the chaotic streets of Hong Kong or the manicured orderly ones of Singapore.
I’ll miss nights spent running around Happy Valley’s racecourse, the towers of Hong Kong shining overhead. I’ll miss days spent exploring Singapore’s network of treetop walkways. I’ll miss our Hong Kong office with easily the best views of any FT bureau. I’ll miss my colleagues there.
There’s plenty I won’t miss. The endless packing that still often leaves me in the wrong city with the wrong things; the endless shopping to fill in those wardrobe and toiletries gaps; the 5am airport starts; airport food; airport security queues; airport taxi queues. That app on my phone that asks me my location twice every day for the benefit of the taxman. That sense of rootlessness, of missing out.
And, possibly the most irksome of all — spending 10 minutes of every first-time meeting explaining where I’m based.
Happy Valley Racecourse, Hong Kong
Ideal for late-night running for jet-lagged cowards, The Racecourse offers a floodlit running track until midnight on nights when the racing isn’t on. It’s busy, and so feels totally safe. The surroundings are also stunning.
London’s Thames Path from Greenwich to Richmond
The southern side of London’s Thames river is a runner’s delight with more than 30km of riverside runs and paths mostly free of both road crossings and hills. As long as you don’t attempt the central London section from London Bridge to Westminster at peak tourism time, when it turns into a runner’s hell.
Laura has picked up some invaluable tips for frequent flyers. Share your own airport hacks in the Comments section below.
#1: “Next time you’re flying out of Gatwick’s South Terminal: after security, follow the signs for lounges, even if you’re not going to one. That way you’ll bypass the circuitous route through the Duty Free downstairs.”
#2: “When connecting at Singapore, don’t buy drinks for the plane after security – there’s a second round of liquids checks where they’ll make you bin your Diet Coke.”
#3: When leaving Hong Kong, check in your bags at a metro station in the city centre. They’ll make their way right to the plane, free of charge.
Laura Noonan is the FT’s Investment Banking Correspondent and co-author of the FT’s bi-weekly Fit Hacks column
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