Test of patience: Waiting in Tokyo

Test of patience

  • TEXT THILO MISCHKE
  • ILLUSTRATION ALEXANDER WELLS

Waiting – whether in a traffic jam, at the checkout, or at the airport – makes many people nervous and drives other people absolutely crazy. Our author takes a very different view: For him, waiting is one of the best things in the world.

How I hated it! Standing in line at passport control after a long flight, my hair styled by weariness and the grease from my skin, the smell of the person ahead of me in my nose; being so close to people I didn’t know and never wanted to know; my only occupation, chewing on my bottom lip. I was an unpleasant person when I had to stay in one spot – at the gate, at the checkout, outside a club. I was one of those people who push their way to the front of the line with dumb excuses, like “My mom, she’s there up front,” as I pointed to some middle-aged woman. I was one of those people who tut impatiently in the firm conviction that their tutting and nervous foot tapping could make time go faster. They never could. Instead the minutes passed even more slowly, more sluggishly. Waiting in line, I would morph into a total son of a bitch, and people waiting with me would begin to feel embarrassed.

But I learned my lesson. It was more by coincidence, really, and in Japan, the land of waiting, the kingdom of time meticulously divided up in the interests of properness, courtesy and tradition, of patience and optimism. It was a hot summer’s day and I had joined a line of at least 100 people in Tokyo, my favorite city. I didn’t know what they were waiting for and I didn’t know how long the wait would take, either. All I knew was that if the line was that long, there had to be something good at the end of it. Or as Leo Tolstoy put it: “Everything comes in time to him who knows how to wait.”

Two hours and forty-seven minutes I stood there, patiently, keeping my place in the line along with everyone else. “O-namae wa?” “What’s your name?” I asked – it was all I could remember of what I had learned of the language. And then I had a conversation without understanding a word. It was fantastic. I got to know new people and understand the merits of the folding stool. The Japanese are a smart bunch and almost always have a one-legged folding stool with them.

Test of patience: Waiting in Airport

  We have figures for everything in life. We sleep for more than 24 years, the statistics tell us. We watch television for 12 years, sit in cars for two years, and six months on the lavatory. The time we spend waiting has also been measured: 156 hours at the computer waiting for the loading bar, restarts and installations to be completed. Every year, we spend 38 hours stuck in traffic. We stand in line at the supermarket checkout for six hours, and sit in waiting rooms for almost seven hours, to say nothing of traffic lights, subways and customer hotlines.

Waiting takes on a new dimension when we travel. At the time of writing, I had already covered 150 000 kilometers in the air, had flown for more than 120 hours. I flew to Somalia, North Korea, across Mexico to the USA. I visited every continent, waited my way around the world. Waited for my plane to land, to start, for food to be served, to see the film or go to the bathroom. Once it would have driven me insane. Today it makes me happy.

You see, not only do we get waiting for free; waiting is also the final freedom we humans have. It’s a space in which we can withdraw completely into ourselves, that we can shape as we wish. All we have to do to feel free is take our place in a line. Odd, isn’t it?

I discovered that waiting on an airplane is the best activity of the modern age. When I take a look around and see people typing on their laptops, I know they are still beginners at the waiting game; they’re trying to divert their attention away from themselves by working. But that’s nonsense. Nothing needs to be achieved here because we are already achieving something special: Without having to do anything for it ourselves, we are covering incredible distances, so the quarterly report can wait. Waiting is meditation. We have to learn how to bear the restlessness that sets in after the first ten minutes, and the aching emptiness after 30 minutes. “A sure way to enrage people and put evil thoughts in their head is to make them wait for a long time,” says Friedrich Nietzsche. But Nietzsche didn’t always get everything right, either. Emptiness can indeed be therapeutic. Idleness, boredom, standstill – all of these ultimately let our thoughts run free.

Test of patience: Waiting at Bus stop

  Before almost every takeoff, I decide to give a certain topic all my attention. Sometimes I think about multiverses, the possibility of endlessly different universes. Sometimes about what my grandma is doing right now. Or I imagine my way into the private world of the people sitting near me, taking their appearance and manner as clues on which to build their lives. Why does the man next to me have mighty colts adorning his belt buckle? Why is the businesswoman over there wearing Hello Kitty socks? Ever since I stopped passing my time with series and films, I have reopened the door to an almost forgotten amusement park, opened the rusty gates of habit and rediscovered my imagination. All of this may sound like dumb hippy crap, but I am no dreamer, no babbling idiot. I have both feet firmly planted in reality. And still I get the feeling I have found something that I had lost.

When I was a child, waiting was more than passing time; it was jittery anticipation

As a child, I did a lot of waiting. In the winter, I would long for summer, when I could wear shorts and ride through fields on my folding bicycle. In the summer, I would wait impatiently for winter so that I could go sledding. The adventures always happened tomorrow, the next day or the next month. Waiting, that was more than merely passing time, it was jittery anticipation. And as adults, we should stop making supposedly “good use” of that time. Let’s just let ourselves go. Let’s count the leaves on the trees outside the window. Let’s dream ourselves away to places we plan to visit someday. Let’s think of winter, let’s think of summer, whenever we wait.

I learned all of this on that hot day in Tokyo while I was standing in line – for two hours and forty-seven minutes. In the end, I fell silent, became calm, relaxed. Because there was nothing for me to miss and nothing for me to do. My only task was to hold out. I actually only found out what I was waiting for shortly before the wait was over: crêpes, served by women in fairy-tale costumes. I didn’t even giggle. With the Japanese man behind me, who had offered me his folding stool every half-hour, I shared a crêpe with vanilla ice cream. It was the best I had ever tasted.


 This story first appeared in Lufthansa Exclusive, the frequent traveller magazine. For more information about Lufthansa Miles & More offers, please click hier.