Airports are Emotional Places

By Emma Pearson

May 25, 2024

Main photo credit Sarah Treanor (

1st November 2018 – All Saints’ Day.

(Where have all the saints gone? Can someone send a few my way please?)

I feel like I am rapidly becoming some version of Tom Hanks in “The Terminal”, stuck in the “airport system”, being shunted around from Boarding Gate to Transfer/Service Desk to Coffee Place. My immediate future up in the air, uncertain. As is so often the case. For all of us, in truth, but I feel I get an extra dose of the uncertain piece at the moment. Or perhaps I had better support systems in place in the past to deal with much of life’s unpredictability.

My tummy is pounding hard with tension. My shoulders are hunched with apprehension. And my laptop battery is already down below 60% from having been used to charge my phone so much. Which is only at 25%. My main charger is in my checked luggage.

It’s still well before noon CET time. I have been up since before 5 am, and I am stuck in Frankfurt Airport. I should be somewhere over the Atlantic by now, headed to Toronto, for the Soaring Spirits Camp Widow Conference. Which really truly is the only place I want to be headed right now.

Of the people I told about the conference, quite a few displayed shock and horror that I might go to such a gathering. “Widows’ conference??! Why?!” My more in-tune friends struggled a little to find the right words, but then said, “Hmm… Sounds like it could be really interesting. ‘Enjoy it’ doesn’t quite sound right; but I truly hope it’s nurturing and comforting”. 

Yes indeed – that’s why I am going. It’s been a highlight in my diary, something for me to look forward to, for a couple of months now, since I made the decision, totally on a whim, to go. To make some new flesh and blood friends who “get me and this new foreign life”; new friendships to sustain me through the cold, dark, winter months. To be able to physically hold and squeeze four widow(er)s I know from my writing group who are attending. To meet the woman whose gorgeous photos I sometimes use on my blogsite. To learn more about multiple and sequential griefs and (omg) wtf the potential world of on-line dating might be like. Whenifever. To share and cry. To do Yoga and Art. And to laugh and dance at the widows’ ball (yes – really, that too).

Not to mention the add-ons I planned to squeeze in after the conference in Toronto and Montreal (because I am still an extrovert at heart) – to see one of my grown up nieces, albeit fleetingly; to have breakfast and a morning with an old colleague Paul whose hugs I swear I remember the feeling of, even though it’s been close to a decade since I last saw him; perhaps to meet another Griefling from my writing group who holds the pain and devastation of losing a child, not a partner; to meet the glorious and beautiful Nana from my OD cohort; and to be warmly hugged by Sarah from Brussels school days, travelling from Ottawa to Montreal just to meet up for dinner.

All of these treats are up in the air now. I can’t bear to let the disappointment take over. I am holding on by my fingernails, short as they are, that it will all work out. Before the last flight of the day leaves Frankfurt. Even if I will have been up for well over 24 hours by the time I arrive.

Somehow I missed that I needed to get a visa waiver for my flight to Toronto. Last time I flew to Canada, to visit Don in Vancouver, I went online to see what I needed to travel. Nothing for British citizens. Two years ago, Megan travelled with family friends to an Island off Vancouver Island, and still didn’t need anything. For this trip, I didn’t check. I actually think a Canadian friend said I didn’t need anything. But when I showed up for my connecting flight from Frankfurt I was stopped at the gate.

  • Air Canada check in person: “Do you have an ‘ETA’?”
  • Me, thinking, surely they know when the plane lands? “Yes – we land about 13h30, don’t we?”
  • Air Canada person: “No – I mean a visa waiver”
  • Me: “No – I didn’t know I needed one. I have a valid ESTA but I know that’s for the US. I also have French citizenship…”
  • Air Canada: “…ah – so you may not…”
  • Me: “…but it’s only recent and I don’t have any paperwork proof with me or passport yet”
  • Air Canada: “You need the ETA. You can buy it now online if you have internet access. Just stand here and do it”.

On a normal day, I would have had enough time to buy my ETA online, standing there at the gate. But the Canadian ETA systems were down. (The staff actually said, “Canada is down” but I assume they mean the Government systems). But I don’t seem to have normal days any more. 

Aside from feeling fleetingly embarrassed that I would have missed such a thing – Why should Canada let me in anyway? – and looking around at all the other competent and capable travellers who all clearly knew their travel shit and etiquette, I quickly went into a flat slump. Deflated balloon. No fight in me. Huge but vague desperation and sadness, and just wanting to curl up into a ball and cry. If I weren’t already in Frankfurt but had been at Geneva airport, I might have collected my luggage and got on the bus to go home.

Next instinct was desperately wanting to call Mike. Even knowing there would be nothing he could do. But just call him, hear his voice, his empathy, his soothing, his warmth. To feel, to sense, to hear someone echo back the impact of yet another handful of shit hitting my life/fan.

As I write this, I still have no idea whether or not I will get to Toronto today. And if I can’t get there today I don’t know if I want to go. The conference is only 2 days long, and I would miss the best part of a day. I have no idea if the ETA that I have since bought on my mobile phone via a site that claimed to be “the official Canada ETA service” (but wasn’t because I paid $59 instead of $7, and my application has gone into cyberspace) will go through.

The chap at Air Canada transfer services said to me, “You’re best off leaving this part of the airport and rebooking onto a flight tomorrow – there are still seats”.  But I am doggedly determined to get the 17h10 flight tonight. Surely Canada will wake up and fix their systems?

The amount of emotion at airports is huge. Especially unexpressed emotion. I wanted to thump my fist on the boarding check-in lady’s desk. I wanted to sob and cry and say, “my husband died last year and I need to get to the widows’ conference – I have to be there today”.  I said all the words inside instead, felt the tears well, and later let out more than a tiny sob

I’ve always loved airports – frustrating as travel experiences can be.

I love waiting for visitors or family coming through arrivals. I love watching others’ faces as they meet up with friends and family. I love watching people shyly holding a bunch of flowers, perhaps hastily bought at the airport shop. I love watching the range of expressions on the faces of those who suddenly are not sure if they are being met, not immediately seeing their person, looking around anxiously, then catching the eye of their loved one. I also enjoy watching the bored taxi drivers/chauffeurs waiting to collect someone they don’t know except for by name – because even there there’s a satisfied, warm welcome when the two people finally connect. And I even like to watch those people like I so often have been (and am), walking quickly and determinedly straight through the hovering crowds to the bus or train or car park, knowing for sure they are not being met. Perhaps a moment of sadness at that, but just then getting on with whatever’s next.

I love (and hate) watching people say goodbye to loved ones as they go through security for departures. I love (and hate) standing watching Megan or Ben or Julia go through, straining to catch their eye just one more time (it rarely worked – they’d pick up their stuff and head off). I love watching lucky couples who hold on to each other in a clinging embrace for what seems like minutes before they unstick themselves. And I sometimes wonder which are the people who might be saying goodbye for a long time, or even for a last time, because of illness, emigration, or just who knows what. Because that’s always happening too at airports. Every day.

Airports are emotional places. Hellos & Goodbyes. Happiness, Sadness, Sorrow & Longing. Frustration, Distress & Anguish. Hopes, Wishes & Regrets. Today I’ve had a number of ‘What ifs’ and ‘If onlys’ on my lips. And of course the endless patience and extreme skill exhibited by airport personnel as they deal with sad and frustrated and disappointed and despairing people like me. Or worse.

I have no idea if I will get to Toronto today. Or tomorrow.

For now, I am just grateful for small treats:

** I have a credit card and cash at the ready

** Quality frothy coffee served with a big heart in it

** Reading matter to last several trips around the globe

** Cashmere granny shawl to keep me warm in draughty places

** Noticing the genuine sadness of the Air Canada check-in woman when she saw me realise and accept that I was not boarding that flight


At the end of the day, no-one died. I just missed a flight. And spent lots of extra time in an airport that I would rather have left much sooner.

But missing a flight is nothing like missing Mike. I miss Mike more, so much more, each day more. More and more and more and more and more and more and more….

If he hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be flying to Canada. But since he died, I just want to be there. Get there. Be held. Among my tribe.

I shall continue to sit tight until Canada wakes up.

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