Airports in the middle of the night are strange. You stumble off this rumbling machine into a pile of glass and metal that looks an awful lot like the pile of glass and metal you left. Your mouth is dry and tastes off. You feel hazy, half in a dream, unsure of where you are. You're in a new place, but it doesn't feel like a new place. It doesn't feel like the old place either. It's an odd in-between.
It's especially strange if the airport is in Iceland at the end of the summer. It's 5:30 in the morning and bright like it's 10. You're surrounded by people whose chatter sounds like singing. Everything smells like herring. So you take your bag and wander through the halls to a bathroom, then make your way to a service desk to ask about changing from window to aisle.
A slight man with close-shaved head stands in front of you speaking with a familiar accent. He doesn't have a boarding pass and needs one to get to London for work. The clerk steps away from the desk for a moment and he asks you if you're going to London. No, you say: Berlin, then Spain.
He smiles. As his accent suggested, he is from Zaragoza. You brace for the obvious question and the pitying answer. Oh, Palencia? But why? I'm sorry. It will be interesting for you, but it's such a small city.
You are mentally putting on your "no, this year will be wonderful" armor. He asks the usual clarifying question. "Palencia! With a P? Not Valencia?"
No. Not Valencia. Except:
He breaks into a grin. His face lights up. "Now that is the real Spain! Palencia is beautiful! I mean, really. Have you ever wanted to live across from a Romanesque Cathedral? Now you can! Just make sure it's the kind that stops chiming between 12 am and 8 am... they usually do these days."
He takes a breath. "Oh, you're from Boston? I guess you're used to living near the sea. Well, this is different, but you still have the river. Very beautiful! Anyway, Zaragoza is inland, too. You'll see -- the people! They're so nice, so friendly. Maybe not as open as those in the south, but they are loyal, kind, and respectful. Good friends. My mother grew up in Soria, and I can tell you: inland people were wheat farmers for a long time. They are used to hard work, and they respect education."
The clerk returns. You listen to them discuss the boarding pass for a moment, then turn to leave. From the receding desk you hear him introduce himself.
"Good luck in Palencia! I am Jose Major Domo! E-mail me if you need anything." He gives his e-mail address.
A few minutes later, you board another plane, one step closer. A little bit less in a haze; a little bit more at ease. On the flight, the Icelandic women are wide awake, chattering, buying duty-free items, joking with the flight attendant. It's like a giant, strange party in the sky. It's like it's already mid-morning, instead of 3 am by your biological clock. It's like they don't know what you're heading toward.