British Airways pilot Mark Vanhoenacker has written a book that is equal parts guide, memoir and reflection on some of the world's great cities.
We're at an extraordinary point in travel as the summer high season begins. Though the COVID-19 pandemic is in its third year, low case counts and the relaxation of most lockdown restrictions have pushed air passenger numbers and hotel bookings to nearly 2019 levels. With the threat of other variants always looming it still doesn't quite feel "normal," but there's a sense of discovery that's possible again.
Mark Vanhoenacker, a Boeing 787 senior first officer for British Airways, has the perfect read for such turbulent times. His new book, Imagine a City: How a Pilot Sees the World, is equal parts guidebook, memoir and reflection on some of the world's great cities. Traveling is part of his job, and the reader gets to go with him everywhere from Brasilia, Brazil's starkly modernist planned capital, to the oldest parts of Delhi. Globetrotters, armchair travelers, historians and even urban planners will find something to like in this engaging and elegantly written book.
Imagine a City is also a departure from Vanhoenacker's previous two books. Neither Skyfaring, a deep and stimulating dive into the magic and beauty of flight, nor How to Land a Plane, an entertaining guide on how airplanes work, told us much about the man behind the controls. But Imagine a City reveals personal insights about Vanhoenacker's childhood and family, his marriage to his husband, longtime friendships and his emotional bond to his hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he first dreamed of the cities his career would eventually take him.
The intimate details are tightly woven into his larger narrative, with each chapter opening with reflections on his life in New England's Berkshire Hills both as a youth and an adult. By connecting those experiences to his visits to places like Tokyo, Cape Town, Sao Paulo and San Francisco, Vanhoenacker spins a seamless thread that connects the entire book. It's not that you can't go home again. Instead, he makes the case that no matter how far you go, you never totally leave it.
Readers familiar with Vanhoenacker's writing will pick up on details from his earlier works, such his affection for the Boeing 747, an aircraft he used to fly and that British Airways has since retired. He also returns to place lag, a term he coined to represent "the imaginative drag that results from our jet age displacements over every kind of distance; from the inability of our deep old sense of place to keep up with our airplanes."
To put it another way, place lag is similar to culture shock, a sense of bewilderment that results from being in London in the morning and Hong Kong a few hours later. It's not only time that's distorted but also our awareness of where we are. Your last meal was a full English breakfast under cold, gloomy skies, and now you're thousands of miles away slurping noodles in a subtropical summer while trying to navigate a different language.
That spirit of wondrous displacement is particularly invoked in one of the book's most fascinating chapters where Vanhoenacker has a layover in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's commercial center and the entry point for Mecca. The furnace-like heat doesn't dent his interest in venturing outside another lookalike hotel room to explore the city, explain its ancient history and interact with the locals. But it's not just own observations that bring the cities to life. The book is well-researched with frequent historical details and references to literary works.
After two years of hardly getting on an airplane, an excruciatingly long gap for a committed airline geek like myself, Imagine a City was a wonderful prologue to restarting my own wanderlust (my international travel will finally resume next month to Italy and London). And I admire Vanhoenacker's drive to seek out the roads less trodden, such as Malacca, Malaysia, to stand beside one of the world's most vital maritime chokepoints. But even if you're not ready to fly quite yet, the book will push you to dream of far off places and remind you the world is still worth discovering.
Published by Knopf Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, Imagine a City will be out in the UK on May 20 and the US on July 5.