U.S.A. I used to find it rather annoying when romantic comedies would try to sell the image of airports as prime venues for grandiose romantic gestures and reunions. Think about all the movies you’ve seen that include a desperate lover sprinting through a departure hall, a trail of security officials and overturned garbage bins in his wake. Note that it’s usually a “he” deciding that he has actually made a mistake for letting the lost damsel drift away through the metal detector and on to seat number 25B, but that’s another blog post for another day.

Airports are a literal and metaphorical limbo. They are large emotionless grey areas where holiday dreams and longing for home are suspended in the air just above the uncomfortable metal seats and overpriced souvenirs. Beneath the tired neon letters flashing: ”Flight connection cancelled”, with an equally tired drawl announcing gate openings and missing passengers in the background, you can find the exhausted travelers dragging backpacks and duty free bags stuffed with last minute purchases. It almost becomes an exercise in ecology; if you count the number of rings under the eye of the traveler, you can determine how long the layover has been.

For people like myself whose imaginations move faster than fingers can type, airports are also havens for people-watching. What better time than an endless transit to invent colorful back-stories about strangers? Young families with a veritable school of toddlers and a plethora of miniature luggage emblazoned with the faces of cartoon characters take on a totally new life. The couples are more than disgruntled passengers balancing multiple connecting flights and baby bottles, they are unwilling lovers thrust together by wicked fate, or by even more wicked parents who were adamant that they should marry each other instead of their respective childhood sweethearts; maybe in the name of religion or class. The brief glances they exchange are not pleas for help with changing diapers, they are daggers of resentment: “Why aren’t you who I want you to be?”

At this point, I probably sound slightly deranged and very intrusive, prying secretly into the lives of people I don’t know at all. Your judgment doesn’t do much to alter the turbulent relationship I have with airport terminals. From the low-ceilings and marketplace vibe of Kotoka, to the miles of jewelers and perfume vendors in Dubai, I’ve spent hours on end shuffling from queue to queue; be it for the bathroom for a quick teeth-brushing or to exchange one currency for another. Waiting in airports is hardly ever pleasant, reminiscent more of a stale taste in your mouth from too long a time spent on a plane without actual food, and aching limbs that have been crammed into inches of spaces in Economy.

Even with my attempts to conjure more exciting narratives from the overly sanitized air, it remains quite difficult to reconcile the big screen romance with the real life doldrums that is the airport. Or I should say, it was quite difficult, that is until my most recent terminal tryst, where there seemed to be a continuous stream of couples embracing and children giggling, just in time for the holidays. For some unknown reason, the airport appeared to be a hopeful incubator for incumbent happiness, a moment on the beach just a few hours away; long overdue bear hugs from mum and grandma.

Perhaps I’ve been hit by a particularly strong wave of nostalgia because of the impending end of my college career which also signals the end of the era of all expenses paid holidays at home courtesy of my mother, bringing in instead the age of “now you’re a real person time to make your own holiday plans”. Maybe my cynicism has been clouded by the feverish anticipation of the flocks of “returnees” that take part in the annual great migration of Africans abroad, or the “Exodus” as dubbed by an old classmate who I ran into, incidentally in Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport. Ultimately, airports are hotbeds of international germs and chaos, melting pots of frustration and impatience. But they can also be small windows into the human experience -for those who have the privilege to travel in the first place- a little inside scoop into the lives and loves of occupants of the terminal waiting room, perhaps on their way to much more exhilarating happenings, but perhaps not.