Flies in a cathedral, or: once I was in the middle of nowhere


Once, I found myself in the middle of nowhere. There was darkness around me, there were stars above me, and there was a very big airplane in front of me. Actually, the plane may not have been very big, it probably just seemed so because it was standing in the middle of nowhere.

The airplane reminded me of a big whale marooned on a beach. Of course it was not lying on its belly, choking to death under its own weight, like the imagined whale. It stood perkily on its undercarriage, but that just made it look all the more foolish and forlorn. It was not surrendering to the fate that brought it here, like wise and big old mammals do, it stood there paralysed, perplexed, trapped by some inexplicable cataclysm that had suddenly befallen it, unable to scream out.


And I was standing there looking at the airplane, feeling sorry for it, strangely relaxed, smoking a cigarette and chatting with a colleague from the Los Angeles Times. He was a heavily-built, clever man with a kind demeanor, whose name I’m sorry to have forgotten. What I do remember is that he often concluded a sentence with: “That’s interesting,” or: “Isn’t that interesting?” It sounded almost childish, endearing, as if the heavily-built middle-aged man was still a curious little boy. So as we stood there, savouring our short but exclusive experience of being in the middle of nowhere, he may have said something to me like: “Mind you, this is an international airport. Isn’t that interesting?”

I nodded in agreement. It was. It was even a bit baffling.

As far as we could see in the darkness, the international airport consisted of a diminutive, two-storied air traffic control tower, and a shack that passed for a passenger terminal. We had walked through it after having given our passports to a small, frizzy-haired, dark-skinned man in a simple uniform, who in turn gave us wordless permission to walk on in what appeared to be an almost pitchdark and dead silent country side. All we could see was a small stretch of road and the shadow of a palm tree.

We walked back, collected our passports, and had another smoke in front of our poor bewildered airplane, until it was time to board again. We suspected we were the only passengers left, because we had seen an elderly, small built, frizzy-haired, dark-skinned couple get off the plane with us, carrying big, bulging plastic bags.

They were gone now. They had disappeared into the pitch dark country side, where they belonged. They were probably the only reason the plane had landed on this international airport.


How did I get here? It didn’t feel like it mattered. Suffice it to say that a week before, I was still in the Netherlands, my home country, more than 15.000 kilometers away, and I had not expected to be travelling, let alone travelling this far. Chance and one phone call made it happen.

Where was I? I must have known it at the time, but to tell you the truth: I forgot. It was one of two small islands: Wallis or Futuna. Together they form a French ‘overseas collectivity’ in the Pacific Ocean. Although on the map they look as if they’re quite close to each other, they are 250 kilometers apart. Historically and geographically they do not have a lot in common, but I suppose that in the enormous expanse of the Pacific, grouping them together was a sensible thing to do. So in a way, it was like being inside an atom, the particles of which are, comparatively, as distant from each other ‘as flies in a cathedral’.

Anyway, I was either on Wallis or on Futuna. Of course, I could easily find out now, but I prefer to leave it a mystery. I prefer to keep the memory of my short stop in the middle of nowhere as it is: an utterly senseless, utterly empty, but nevertheless strangely exhilarating and singular moment in my life. It was the sense of being in the middle of nowhere – and everywhere.


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