Sunday, August 23, 2015

Up up and away - tales of flying

While I love to travel, I don't enjoy flying. The truth is it terrifies me. Despite having a (very) basic understanding of the laws of physics I still cannot quite wrap my head around how such a massive and heavy machine manages to get up into the air in the first place, and then stay up there. And I worry even more when I see people checking in with a lot of luggage which is going to further weight the plane - why do you need that much stuff, why? And don't even get me started on the amount of hand luggage people drag around with them. 

I've noticed that more recently I haven't been quite as frightened when flying which I'm convinced has something to do with a visit to Bodrum in Turkey - home to some of the worst driving I've ever encountered anywhere in the world. It was so terrifying that at the end of each journey I almost regressed to my early Catholic roots and made the sign of the cross. Since then few things are as frightening by comparison. I think BA or any other airline that has those programmes to help people get over their fear of flying, should send them to Bodrum for a couple of days and get them to catch a few taxis. Likewise the army should send young recruits there to toughen their resolve in preparation for their entry into conflict situations. 

People do strange things on aeroplanes. Depending on how long the flight is, they settle in and make themselves these little nests: put on their pyjamas or slippers, brush their hair, apply face creams, produce strange packages of food to snack on, or insist on waking up and eating a cooked breakfast at what amounts to 3am in the time zone they've just come from. How people eat at that time is a mystery to me and more so people that actually request to be woken up to eat breakfast is even more puzzling. I don't sleep much, and since I started travelling with my children I sleep even less - in the very early days worrying about some kind of Flight Plan situation. My husband assures me that were anyone to attempt to steal our son on a flight they'd bring him straight back.

I cannot get over my instinctive revulsion when people take off their shoes next to me on a flight. I can deal with socks, provided they don't happen to be smelly socks. But bare feet make my skin crawl. While there is the obvious odour one anticipates with feet that have just been liberated from enclosed shoes, this also has lot to do with grooming, or more so lack thereof. It's also a sad and unfair irony that despite their tremendously invaluable, sturdy and reliable service to us throughout our lives, almost all feet are ugly, a handful of them are OK and perhaps 0.1% of them are actually good looking. Although there was this one guy who had really knock out feet. At the start of the journey he took off his shoes and extended these lean tanned hairless extremities onto his foot rest and for the first time in my life the inward cringe thing didn't happen and instead I became transfixed with the beauty of what I was seeing. His brown toes were symmetrical and straight and stood side by side in very slight descending order of heights -  like children posing oldest to youngest in a family photograph. The nails were short and clean and nicely shaped, the undersides of his feet a heathy pink colour, and not a callus in sight. They were works of art, and he knew it. He kept them out for everyone to admire for the entire journey. 

My sister once sat on a long haul journey next to a very large man with excessive body odour. "He took over both arm rests and his body was touching mine," she told me shuddering at the memory of it. The flight was very full so she was unable to request a seat change, so she drank perhaps a bit more than she might ordinarily have in the hopes of numbing her sense of smell and surviving the journey. It reminded me of an overnight Greyhound bus journey I did years ago between my university town and home. I sat at the back in the smoking section amidst an assortment of colourful and depressed looking characters who chained smoked rollies, and ate pungent food from greasy packages. These were not people who wanted to engage in conversation. Instead they exhaled great plumes of blue smoke and looked out of the windows - the passing lights eerily reflected on their faces - as if contemplating revenge scenarios or simply wanting to forget. The entire experience felt never ending and Kafaesque - a journey of the lost souls.

Travel with children appears to be contentious subject these days, and I've even seen online articles suggesting that there be child free flights on offer. Recently I was on a flight to New York, sat close to a family with three children under four, including a baby. At every point in the seven hour flight at least one of those kids was kicking off. The guy next to me was trying to get some shut eye with his eye mask on, ear plugs in, and a blanket he'd kind of sausage rolled himself in. With a degree of sweat from all the fitful tossing and turning, he looked like someone doing a Native American cleansing ritual. I kept waiting for him to pull off the mask and ear plugs and shout out: "For the love of god, can you please keep those children quiet," in that way people who don't have kids think is even remotely possible. But he was one of those nice polite American guys so he kept it together until eventually he just gave up and turned on his screen with a truly miserable expression on his face. Not angry mind you, just a look of abject defeat like someone thinking: I hate my life right now but there's nothing I can do about it. Come to mention it an expression not that dissimilar to the parents of said three kids. 

On a recent flight back from Portugal I sat between my daughter and a well dressed woman in her early 50s. The family across the aisle from us consisted of a couple, their baby, a toddler and two small boys who talked loudly throughout the flight. Eventually I heard snoring and looked across to see the father passed out with the baby (also on its back) asleep across his chest. They looked like they had been wrestling and fell asleep mid manoeuvre. Later when I saw the father awake he looked like one of those people you see on TV being released from a hostage situation - wide eyed, crazy hair, and discombobulated.  The mother resembled someone who reared wild bears for a living: dishevelled, soiled clothes, a well entrenched frown and fixed grimace on her face. While their children took it in turns to have loud conversations, run off down the aisle, or shriek intermittently, the parents uttered regular 'shhs' and 'be quiets,' in an attempt to be considerate to other passengers.

These were good people just trying to get from A to Z with their brood and I felt sorry for them. Those of us with small children have all been in that situation and I always maintain that it's unfair to put a child into an environment like that and expect anything other than childlike behaviour, and people shouldn't judge it. While some parents shelf certain forms of respectable human activity like travel or restaurant visits until their children are more socialised, my husband and I have taken ours on our adventures from day one. And kids do adapt pretty quickly, and they get used to things and so their behaviour improves accordingly. But again you have to make some allowances and can't sweat the small stuff.

While this family were grappling with their small vertically challenged rugby team of boys, my two sat in zombified states staring fixedly at their iPads, wearing earphones and not uttering a peep. I looked up from my soduku, took a sip of my wine, smoothed my nicely pressed shirt, and said to the women next to me in in a manner I imagine sounded annoyingly superior: "Ah yes, I remember those days. It's tough, it's really tough." She nodded as if to say: 'Thank fuck that isn't me,' but instead managed a pained smile and said: "Yes me too, I remember those days," as if recounting a traumatic event she'd rather forget.

I once got into a row with a woman on a flight coming back from the USA. The flight had been delayed for an hour on the ground with us in it, and then we had a seven hour flight on top of that. So the children (who were six and just gone four at the time) had been in a confined space for roughly eight hours. As far as I was concerned, and I appreciate people with small kids have fairly low standards in this regard, it was a surprisingly good and easy flight apart from my daughter throwing up on my husband, or him losing his wedding ring within the machinery of my son's seat while doing a magic trick to amuse the children. But apart from that, the children had been amazing at keeping themselves busy and entertained by us, with no running around, screeching or crying. 

As we started the decent and the fasten seatbelt sign came on, my husband had packed away the children's earphones and so everyone in the immediate vicinity was tortured with the exceptionally annoying high pitched sounds of Princess Sophia the First. The woman in front of me leaned back and said in an icy pinched voice: "Could you please lower the volume on that thing." 
(I couldn't actually reach my son with my seatbelt on and he didn't know how to lower the volume himself)
Me: I'm really sorry, but it's either this or him crying. He's a little kid. He's had a long journey and he's done really well, and I'm sorry if we've ruined your flight. (I tend towards exaggeration and sarcasm in confrontational situations)
Her: You have ruined my flight

Me: Seriously? Wow!  Well, I don't really know what to say. I wish you a happy life
As we disembarked, each of the air stewards who'd been privy to this exchange (loudly) complimented us on how well behaved our children had been and I turned and gave the disgruntled passenger my broadest fuck you smile. 

I've since thought of other ways I could have handled that situation. Maybe taking the iPad from my son and shoving it up her arse, for example. But I'm also reminded of the fact that I've had plenty of practise sitting through screechy kids TV and I'm kind of used to it now, and not everyone else is. Where I'd seen seven and a half hours of happy quietly amused children as an enormous achievement, she saw those last 20 minutes of having to listen to Sophia and friends as having ruined her entire flight. She was definitely a glass half empty person I decided.

Travel does change significantly as your children get older. I remember the days when my daughter was on a goat's milk formula because she was reacting to cow's milk. We purchased it online via New Zealand, and whenever we travelled I'd pack a tin in my hand luggage and two tins in my bag and live in mortal fear of our luggage being lost or us getting stranded somewhere. Even the regular formulas in other countries are different and can result in a baby refusing to drink, never mind trying to find one made out of goats milk. Or getting into a state of panic if my daughter lost her pacifier on the floor of the airplane and I didn't have a backup. Or hoping I'd packed enough clothes and nappies for the flight in case one of my children's bowels began to act up. And then where to put the dirty nappies without totally stinking out the wash room and cabin? Or deciding which of us got to sit next to my son when he became mobile and wanted to crawl and climb into absolutely everything. And loudly protesting at his confinement when the seat belt sign was on. Or attempting a difficult manoeuvre of holding the children while they used the toilet so they wouldn't fall in, and listening to them natter away about a toy or TV programme as little kids tend to do when using the toilet. And while appreciating that it's not right to rush someone in these situations, finding the pretzel like pose necessitated to suspend a small child above an aeroplane toilet in a confined space while they poo excruciating and saying things like: "OK, OK, that's really interesting about Diego the Animal Rescuer, but are you done yet, can you hurry it up please, my leg has gone into cramp and my back is spasming."

And then there's sleep: I deeply envy people who can sleep on planes. My husband, a frequent traveller, can sleep standing up - or in the most discomforting positions. He'll simply turn his head to the side and he's out. I look at him and sometimes feel a sense of resentment knowing that I have several hours of bleary eyed cotton mouthed sleep deprivation ahead of me. Likewise my sister (perhaps in fear of a repeat malodorous journey) pops a sleeping tablet, which she chases with a large glass of red wine, and she surfaces again only when the plane is touching down. Given my fear of flying I don't want to take any kind of sleep medication. I worry that if there is an emergency situation, I will need to have my wits about me. The more I think about it though, perhaps being blissfully passed out if the shit hits the fan is the way to go, but I digress. So I read the shopping magazine and earmark a bunch of stuff I think I absolutely have to have, then I put it down, and watch about 3 movies back to back. Then I'l sit there with a painfully full bladder and ponder how in god's name I am going to climb over all these sleeping people to get to the toilet. I am always quietly pleased when I see another insomniac - his or her face faintly lit by their little TV screen. I feel a camaraderie with these people. If anything happens, it's up to us to sound the alert and help save everyone.

But I doubt I'd be that brave. A friend of mine was on a flight in Asia recently when the large man in the row in front of her started shouting and flailing around. "At first we thought he was some kind of terrorist or a lunatic trying to take the plane down, and people started screaming" she told me. It turns out he was epileptic, and soon after this episode he fell into a deep sleep almost on top of the small frightened Chinese lady that was sharing the row with him. He had a further fit later in the flight, and when they checked his person they found his medication and saw he'd skipped his dose most likely due to travelling and a change of time zones. My friend had been one of the two people to help secure and settle the man on the two occasions and I looked at her in awe admiring her calm attitude and bravery in what must have been a frightening situation. I'd probably have been one of the people screaming or maybe trying to rugby tackle the poor man to the floor shouting: "No you don't, you fuck, I have two small children at home." I made a mental note to ensure that should any kind of zombie infestation or Mad Max apocalypse occur to have Susie on my team.

I'm always surprised by how fussy people can be on aeroplanes, treating the air stewards like something between waiting staff and servants. I once overheard a middle aged American woman get seriously miffed because there wasn't champagne available in our coach section. I wondered if she made it her business to demand champagne at 11 in the morning in her regular life or if this was just something she deemed a life and death necessity when flying. Eventually the air steward gave in and got her a glass from business class. I'm just so thankful that I get to sit back and legitimately have any kind of alcoholic drink during the day, that I'll have pretty much anything on offer. And given my nervousness regarding the mechanical miracle I am seated in, it can sometimes be a life saver of sorts. And the air staff are a rare breed I have some affection for - people that must have to put up with all kinds of crazy and difficult situations in a very confined space, while maintaining their cheery disposition, enviable manners, and sense of calm. Talking to some of these people, as you do when you don't sleep, you hear about their children, or juggling life with boyfriends they hope aren't cheating, or the best places around the world to get good duty free shopping. 

There is only one occasion I saw a pissed off air steward, which was on an American Airlines flight my husband and I did years ago en route to Las Vegas. We were instructed to collect a 'bistro bag' while boarding the plane. This consisted of a bottle of water, a sandwich, a bag of crisps and a piece of fruit - I think. I'm not sure about the fruit. Anyway, the guy sitting next to my husband and I called the air steward over: "Excuse me, but I've just opened my sandwich and it has ham on it"
Air steward: Yes and?
Man: Well, I'm Jewish you see
A.S: Yeah but it looks like you ate the potato chips. So that bistro bag cannot be given to someone else now and I don't have spares
Man: But I didn't realise the sandwich had ham on it until I opened it up
A.S: Well you should have told someone you were kosher BEFORE taking the bistro bag

I believe American Airlines were having a salary dispute with their staff at the time, which might have explained why the air steward was so intolerant. And the sad truth of it is that that sandwich wasn't even very good, and certainly not worth fighting over. But that's the thing about airplane journeys - maybe it's the altitude? Perhaps it's the back stories of the staff and passengers - what they are leaving behind and what awaits them at their destination?  Or the fact that even with seasoned travellers, you're aware of the element of risk you are taking each time you fly. And these things make you a little bit anxious, and a little precious about something like a small bag of mixed nuts or an unappetising sandwich. And, I suppose, a little more in need of, well, a glass of champagne at 11am.

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