In mid-February 2005, I was seventeen years old and headed home to Bangkok, Thailand after a ten-day school trip split between Finnish Lapland and Helsinki. Our party—roughly 25 international high school students and our two teacher-chaperones—had run afoul of the airline scheduling fates, and was stranded overnight midway between origin and destination.
There was nothing wrong with Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport. In fact, one duty-free store was selling Swiss Christmas chocolates at a steep discount (75% off, if memory serves), which endeared this particular American teenager to Turkey on the spot. I spent all my remaining euros there, and I would gladly do so again. But all the airport stores closed about an hour after we landed, steel roller-doors down, unnecessary lights flickering off, and we were left with no diversions but each other.
As the lights dimmed, the sweeping exterior windows turned to mirrors, with the city darkened beyond the tarmac lights. We could have been anywhere, in any airport in the world, our distorted reflections moving over the glass like ghosts. Other than the custodians and occasional disembarking red-eye arrivals, we were alone in the dreamlike liminal expanse of the terminal.
Well. We were third-culture kids, the lot of us, and had all run afoul of the airline scheduling fates at some point in the past. We’d come prepared. Once the lights started shutting down, we gathered at our gate, got comfortable, and turned out our pockets. Somebody had an iPod and portable speakers, so we had music. We had snacks of all kinds, including the afore-mentioned Christmas chocolate. And by coincidence, I and two others had packed Uno.
Best layover ever.
Those of us who knew the rules determined that there was no reason Uno shouldn’t scale, so we mixed the decks together, got in a huge circle, settled on house rules, and dealt. Those who shared a native tongue explained the game to those who’d never played—by-laws and exceptions detailed in Thai, in Japanese, in English, all at once—and soon enough, we’d turned what ought to have been a miserable night into a cobbled-together slumber party, Reverse, Reverse, shy kids cackling as they inflicted Draw Fours on those next in line, Australian kids cursing in Thai as their hands filled with cards, merriment echoing through the abandoned terminal.
I glanced around for our teachers once during the long wait between turns, and found them watching from a nearby corner. They looked relieved, and hazy-eyed from the long trip, slumped in their minimal steel-and-leather seats.
I kept thinking how nice it was, everyone playing together. I’d never seen an Uno game this big before, let alone participated in one. I thought it was really something, how well the game scaled up, and how quick the gameplay was, even with such a crowd.
And somewhere too, I thought how strange it was that I should be an American expatriate living in Thailand, stranded in a Turkish terminal in the middle of the night wearing snowboots and a coat, eating fine Christmas chocolate in February, playing a three-deck game of Uno with two dozen other teenagers, many of whom were neither in my grade nor my social group, most of whom were speaking languages I couldn’t understand. Strange. But we were all laughing, slapping cards down, red four, blue four, blue eight, blue nine, yellow nine, yellow Reverse, blue Reverse, blue Skip, Draw Four!
A flight landed at our gate, and the terminal busied around us for a moment as the passengers deplaned, business suits rumpled from long stillness, hair disarranged, bleary-eyed faces drawn between fatigue and relief. Green seven, Wild, blue Draw Two, blue zero, blue five, yellow five. People shuffled around us, half-dazed. Yellow Skip, yellow nine, red nine, Wild, blue seven, green seven, green Reverse.
But not everyone passed. Maybe they thought, what with the time, they were in no hurry—rushing to baggage claim doesn’t make your bag come through any faster, and most anything is more enjoyable than standing in line for customs. Maybe they were curious about the strange party on the terminal floor. Maybe they were perplexed by the cultural hodge-podge before them, twenty-five teenagers from everywhere but Turkey, the disparate languages spoken all at once as the game progressed. Well. Whatever the reasons, we now had an audience of perhaps fifteen Turks, carry-on bags still in hand, necks craned, travel-weary eyes brightening.
The game continued, round and round. Red four, red three, red Skip, Wild, blue Draw Two, Draw Four. Someone was speaking quickly, quietly, in what I assume was Turkish—one of the newcomers, gesturing as he explained the rules of play to his neighbor, who was nodding along, his eyes flickering round the circle as we went. Another passenger was listening in, also nodding, understanding.
Several kids to my left, someone dropped a Draw Four. The girl beside him laughed, smirked at her neighbor, and dropped another—passing the drawing along, and adding another four cards besides. The next kid grinned at the girl beside me and said something wicked-sounding in Japanese, and dropped another Draw Four.
“Draw twelve!” I said, laughing.
She shook her head, and dropped yet another Draw Four. “Draw sixteen.”
And everyone was laughing—my peers and our audience all together, both delighted and sympathetic. I gasped, and spluttered out some helpless protestation, but there was nothing for it. I leaned forward, all melodramatic despair, and began counting out cards. Midway through, I had to shuffle the discard pile, which took some doing, what with the three decks. The Turkish man who’d been explaining the rules was now recounting what had happened to me, his voice full of amusement, and those who’d missed it laughed as I struggled to organize my new cards. A woman behind me said something commiserative as I played my next card, and I smiled uncertainly up at her, unsure what the social mores were here in Turkey, but wanting to acknowledge that I’d heard and understood the sentiment, if not the words. She smiled back.
And so the game continued, the one man narrating as we went, yellow Skip, red Skip, red one, blue one, yellow one, yellow nine, yellow Draw Two. Someone called Uno, and then someone else did, too. Round and round.
Until at last, one of the Thai kids dropped her final card, triumphant. Red six. Our Turkish audience cheered, clapping, and the rest of us teenagers groaned in defeat. The sound rang through the empty terminal, echoes on echoes of mirth. For an instant longer, the circle remained, cards still in hand—but the game was over, the spell broken. Our audience stepped away towards baggage claim, trading jokes and laughing, leaving us behind. We decided not to play again, and sorted the decks, then separated out into smaller groups, chatting softly, entertaining ourselves with books and the sorts of quiet activities we usually used when stranded in an airport. I built castles with my cards, knocked them down, began again.
And that was it.
Next morning, our flight boarded as promised, and we slept all the way back to Bangkok.
Here’s where the telling always stalls. Anything more sounds mawkish. Childish, seeing the universality of the human experience in such a moment: a random convergence of unlikely variables arranging themselves just so. Nothing can ever be so easy, particularly not cultural incompatibilities the world over. I knew then, and I know now. Nothing in the real world is so easy and so universal as Uno.
But the image sticks. More than any Finnish wonders I experienced in February 2005, what I remember best is midnight laughter in the Istanbul Atatürk Airport: laughter crossing and blending language and culture to fill a dark empty space with something fresh, joyful, and wonderful. The memory makes me fond of the world, fond of the universe, fond of humanity. And fond of Uno, too.