Am I the only one who views sitting next to a stranger on an airplane for hours as awkward? How strange to be randomly thrust into such close proximity to an unknown person for the duration of a flight, be it one hour, five hours, or whatever. Maybe it’s my inner autistic reclusive introvert self talking, but this situation disturbs me. Plus I have to consider the etiquette protocol. I believe that one should introduce oneself, and then leave the stranger in the next seat in peace. That’s what I appreciate. Acknowledge and retreat. I definitely will not be that old lady who takes photographs dating back to the Woodstock Era out of her wallet, produces smelly cheese with crackers from a travel cooler and offers it to everyone within sniffing distance, and gives extended commentary on the book my travel comrade is reading on their e-reader. Nor do I wish to be that woman who glares disapprovingly at the e-reader while I produce my library book from my backpack. (On my flights to and from the East Coast last month, I suspect that I was the ONLY person on the plane reading an actual book that had been checked out of a library.) I don’t want to be rude, but I also don’t want to intrude. It’s a balance.
On our return flight from Philadelphia two weeks ago, we sat next to a 30-something Englishman traveling to San Francisco to represent his employer’s company at a conference. He was an electrical engineer who worked for an innovative audio equipment manufacturer. He engaged us in conversation, and disclosed that he was anxious because he suffers from terrible stage fright and he was going to have to make a presentation at the conference. Ron, who has spent considerable time onstage, suggested that he imagine himself naked at the podium as a way to relax. Wait. I think I got that backwards. I think he was supposed to imagine the audience naked. Yes, that’s it. Although, wouldn’t that destroy his concentration? We made other helpful suggestions, such as dyeing his hair blue the night before as a distraction, doing yoga relaxation exercises on the floor backstage, delivering his speech through ventriloquism while drinking a glass of water, speaking with his back to the audience, hiring Stephen Colbert to deliver his speech instead of him, using a silly voice, and presenting his speech in American Sign Language (unfortunately he doesn’t know ASL). We were full of ideas. He was tolerant. He liked my suggestion that he simply inform his audience at the beginning that he suffers from stage fright, and then ask them to pardon him for reading from prepared remarks and forgoing a more animated and spontaneous delivery. Before we de-planed, he gave us his card, in case we ever need a speech delivered.
I have had many interesting airplane encounters. Once, when I was in my twenties (in the 1970s), I sat next to an Israeli soldier who, after he ascertained that I am Jewish, spent the better part of a flight from New York to London berating Barbara Streisand for making the film Funny Girl with an Arab co-star (Omar Sharif). I never imagined that anyone could get so much material out of that simple grudge, but this soldier had done his research. (“How could she kiss a Muslim?” If this guy is still around, he might have a future on Trump’s campaign team.) I finally had to ask the flight attendant to separate us so I could get some sleep.
During a recent trip to SoCal, a young woman approached me at the baggage claim carousel to tell me that she had enjoyed the scent of my patchouli perfume during our flight. Every time I went down the aisle to the bathroom, she said, she got a whiff of that wonderful patchouli. This tickled me because she was too young to comprehend the full zeitgeist association with patchouli of my generation. I often have people my own age tell me that the scent “takes them back.” I figure this is a euphemism for something like “I am remembering my first orgy” or “I am having a tripping flashback from going to see Fantasia on blotter acid” or “I never remembered where I put my Birkenstocks when I sat down to eat that bowl of bulgur at the Grateful Dead concert.” I’m glad the young woman on the plane went into raptures at my history-dipped patchouli fragrance. Taking patchouli to a new generation.
In 1981, Ron and I flew from London to New York on the day of the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Di, while all the British airport staff were watching the wedding on closed circuit TV, which grossly distracted them from their jobs. When we boarded our plane, we discovered that the seat assignments appeared to have been arranged by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. People traveling together were seated at opposite ends of the plane. The captain asked us to take the crazy seats assigned and buckle up so we could take off, promising that the flight attendants would sort it all out once we got into the air. A toddler seated near me had been separated from his mother, who shockingly did not complain about this. (I would have thrown a tantrum if asked to sit without my child.) A woman sitting next to the toddler attempted to buckle up his seat belt and the child bit her. That probably explains why the mother agreed to the arrangement for take-off. Meanwhile, I was seated back in coach while Ron somehow snagged a seat in first class. Sheesh.
On that same flight, Ron arrived at the plane dripping in sweat after the long trek through the airport to get to the gate. That gate was so far from the entrance of the airport that we should have hired Sherpas to carry us. When he sat down in his unexpected first class seat, he found himself next to a very white, very middle-aged couple from the American Midwest. They were so Midwestern that they still smelled vaguely of barbecued beef even after three weeks vacationing in London. The woman asked him if he was a basketball player. (Obviously he was since he was black and covered in sweat.) Oy. Ron is about as athletic as a bowl of spaghetti. He should have told her he was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and signed an autograph. Fortunately, after the plane took off, he was moved into coach next to Mrs. Bowl-of-Spaghetti (me).
Traveling with young children is mostly a topic for another format; in fact another genre of writing. Like an epic memoir. But I can’t resist sharing a few snippets of that potential memoir here: one about each of my three offspring. When my daughter was two years old, a businessman appeared to take the third seat in our row on a flight. My daughter gave him her most ingratiating smile and announced, “I’m full of beans.” He immediately asked the flight attendant to move him to another seat (so we got three to ourselves).
The following year I flew with her and her younger brother, who was about four months old. While helping her get settled with a coloring book on her seat tray, I held her brother over my left arm, aimed, unfortunately, at the woman seated to my left, who was sound asleep. When I returned my attention to the baby, I discovered to my horror that he had barfed up a wad of breast milk the size of Rhode Island on the thigh of the woman next to me; a thigh encased in a fire-engine-red pantsuit. I had to think fast. Since she was sleeping, I figured I could mop up the gob before she would see it, but of course this would wake her. I took my chances, aimed a clean diaper at her leg, and scrubbed vigorously. By the time she startled awake and looked at her leg, all that remained of my baby’s lunch was a damp smear. I apologized profusely, explaining what had happened, and hoping she wouldn’t press charges for sanitation harassment. Luckily, the woman took it all in stride. She reassured me, “Oh honey, don’t worry about it, I’m a grandma, I have been spit up on by professionals.”
My last traveling-with-children story is about my youngest son, who was about four years old at the time of this travel incident. On an ill-fated flight from San Francisco to Chicago in the 1990s, United Airlines kept us trapped inside a hot airplane on the tarmac for about two hours before clearing us for take-off. They would not allow the plane to return to the gate or the passengers to get off while we waited. Ron and I were traveling with three young children. Fortunately, I had my big-mom-travel-bag full of food and entertainment so my children fared better than others on that plane. One poor, harried mother at the back of the plane had a baby that would not stop crying. Eventually, after we listened to that baby howl for at least thirty minutes, our youngest son stood up in his seat, turned around, and shouted at the back of the plane, “Baby, don’t make me come back there!” He instantly became the most popular passenger on that plane. (By the way, in over twenty years we have never flown United Airlines again. They permanently lost our business with those shenanigans.)
One of my favorite travel comrade stories is not my own, and it is not humorous. I love it so much I will conclude with it. Naomi Shihab Nye, in her book Honeybee, tells about how she went to the aid of an older Palestinian woman dressed in traditional Arabic garb who was in a panic when her flight was delayed. The woman spoke no English and she could not communicate with the staff in the Albuquerque airport to ascertain what was going on. (Here is the link to Nye’s story printed in Reader’s Digest if you want to read her full account.) Nye translated for the woman and helped her understand the situation. When the woman calmed down, she produced a bag of homemade mamool cookies and offered them to others at her gate; none of whom spoke her language, all of whom accepted a cookie gratefully with a smile and the good-natured camaraderie of stranded travelers who are all-in-this-together. Nye writes, “I looked around that gate and thought, This is the world I want to live in. One with no apprehension. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.”