R650 is a lot of money to pay to sit on a chair. That’s what I thought earlier this month, sitting in the PrimeClass Lounge in Istanbul airport.
PrimeClass is what’s called a third-party lounge: it’s not affiliated to any airline or to any financial institution or premier brand. Anyone can enter the PrimeClass Lounge if they have forty euro to spare, so whoever runs it doesn’t have a great deal of incentive to make it fancy. All it has to be is better than out there.I arrived feeling optimistic. You have to be optimistic when you travel or you’ll never leave home. I approached the guy at reception and presented the ticket I’d bought online. The guy was doing something on his phone. I stood frowning at him. I tapped my foot. I sighed theatrically. At last he looked at me, and I knew what he was thinking. He was thinking: “Don’t try that attitude with me, pal. If you were anyone you’d be at a real lounge right now. You know what you are? You’re just an economy class passenger with pretensions.”
He curled his lip and said, “You can stay four hours. After four hours you must leave.”
“How will you know when I’ve been here four hours?” I said.
“I’ll know,” said the guy.
“How long has he been here?” I asked, pointing to some random shlub stretching his hamstrings near the coffee station.
“I don’t know,” said the guy.
“Aha! So you don’t actually keep track?” I said triumphantly.
“It depends,” said the guy at the reception desk. “I’ll make a point to remember you.”
If you’ve ever been to a real business class lounge, you’ll have a certain picture in your head of what a lounge looks like: tasteful shrubbery; oxygenation; the sounds of a distant water; enough seats; a plentiful and varied selection of eats; clean, sanitary showers. This was not quite like that.
I inspected the shower cubicles. There was nothing overtly wrong with them, but have you ever been house-hunting and walked into a home that instantly gave you the creeps, and while there’s no hard evidence that a terrible crime has been committed there, still you’re convinced that the restless spirits of the victims hang eternally around, suffusing the general area with a vibe of misery and dread? The showers were a bit like that.
I inspected the food. It seemed sort of edible, in the way that food at my Aunty Rae’s house is hypotehtically edible. If the PrimeClass Lounge were to crash in the mountains and some of us survived and there was nothing to eat but each other and that food, I would probably eat the food, but luckily it hadn’t come to that yet.
I walked up and down, looking for a spare chair. Eventually I stood in front of a chair where someone had placed their carry-on bag and coughed meaningfully until they grudgingly moved their bag. There was a couch in the corner, but someone was stretched out on it, asleep. We all glared at the guy on the couch, wanting to forcefully wake him up, and we tried to act as though we thought he was being rude and inconsiderate but the truth is none of us wanted him to get up so we could sit on it with three of our fellow passengers; we each wanted him to go so that we ourselves could stretch out in his place.
I was in the lounge for five hours. I became nervy at the four-hour mark, but it turns out the guy at reception was bluffing. I knew it! I sat in my chair for most of those five hours, staring at the silent CNN coverage on the TV screen, too tired even to really use the free WiFi. That was when I started thinking that R650 was a lot to pay to sit on a chair
Was it worth it? The next time I’m in a long transit, will I pay a goodly amount of my precious foreign currency to sit uncomfortably in a slightly shoddy lounge? Of course I will.
As I walked out to find my gate, into the teeming wilds of the general transit area, I knew I’d made the right choice. Even though it wasn’t great in there, I was calmer, more peaceful and rested than if I’d been out there. I definitely felt at least 50% less likely to murder someone or have a heart attack. I think it’s some reaction of deep biology, a genetic memory from the days when our hominid ancestors had just descended from the trees and were hanging out on the wide open savannah, feeling a little exposed. When you’re out on the savannah you’re on high alert, your nerves are jangling, one eye open for sabre-toothed tigers or for other hominids trying to steal your luggage.
The PrimeClass lounge isn’t the safety of your own private cave but it’s a kind of communal shared overhang with a fire burning, and those other people in the overhang with you aren’t the same as the people outside – they’re your tribe now, you’re bonded against against the wildlings on the other side of the reception desk. It’s completely irrational, but it’s true.
I walked past the guy at the reception desk.
“The coffee is terrible,” I said.
“You’ll be back,” he said.
Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer, author - follow him on Twitter.
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