There was once a time when people actually talked to their seatmates on airline flights, perhaps because there was little else to do. Airlines then didn’t offer the smorgasbord of in-flight entertainment they do today, business class seats were still configured for congeniality rather than privacy, and notebooks—the paper kind—were the standard carry-ons. Socializing was the other activity travelers looked forward to, as an acceptable way of relieving the long flight’s ennui.
On a trip to London via Hong Kong in my first year out of college, I met Alastair, a proper Englishman who called himself a wine broker and who worked for one of London's centuries-old wine merchants. We were seated next to each other in business class and the airline had just announced a special treat of fine wines tbe served. I was never much of a tippler, but the prospect of a 14-hour flight with not much else to do induced me to indulge in a glass or two. I noticed that Alastair asked only for sparkling water.
“You’re not drinking,” I began. “Is this a health thing?”
“Certainly not,” he replied. “I actually like wines. It’s just that I never
drink anything young.”
We could not be more different, but we became fast friends and still occasionally meet for dinner in Tokyo or London. Even now, when I have a question on wine, he’s happy to advise and act as a sounding board.
On another flight to Europe, I met a Frenchman originally from Senegal, who was a marketing executive for one of France’s famous cheese companies. We started talking because the in-flight supper was just awful.
“I can’t eat this,” he said. “This isn’t food.” He pushed away his tray table. I nodded at him sympathetically. He then looked at me with a conspiratorial smile. “All is not lost,” he whispered. He then took out a leather attaché case from the overhead compartment and opened it on the rack between us. It was a specially made case with spaces for six round tin containers and six knives. Each tin container held a sampling of delectable cheese.
“Our very best cheeses,” he said, like a proud father showing off photographs of his children. “Now all we need are crackers, and I think the airline can manage that.” By the time we reached Paris, the tins were empty and we were laughing like old friends. This was most fortunate for me, as a transportation strike had crippled Paris and nothing was moving out of Charles de Gaulle airport, and he was able to give me a lift to my hotel in the company car.
The best story, however, deserves to be told last. On a flight from Tokyo to New York one day, I was seated next to an American couple who had just visited Tokyo and Kyoto for their honeymoon. When I reached my seat, they were the picture of marital bliss, holding hands and smiling at everyone. Prior to cocktails, they showed me trinkets they had bought at a Kyoto shrine and Polaroid shots of schoolgirls in Goth attire walking down Harajuku in Tokyo. Over dinner, unfortunately, they began arguing; and by the time I was enjoying dessert, this had escalated into a full-blown battle that culminated with the wife throwing her raspberry cake at her husband.
The husband was just about to retaliate with a half-eaten garlic roll when the wife suddenly turned to me and said: “Can you do us a big favor?”
I was almost afraid to respond, after what I had just witnessed. But the wife continued, “Would you be kind enough to sit in between us? I don’t think I want to sit next to him anymore.”
Without waiting for a response, she stood up expectantly and so I was forced to stand up as well and let her have my seat. I blame this instance of being unable to say ‘no’ on my youth; and spent the remainder of the very long flight playing Switzerland to a warring couple.
They never made up and I remained quiet for the flight’s duration, fearing that my being nice to one would provoke the other. To top it all, my headphone system conked out and without any spares, I could only ponder my unhappy fate as the buffer between two tempests. When we finally landed at JFK Airport in New York, they left by separate aisles without even a word of thanks. Yet when I finally cleared immigrations and was heading for the luggage carousel, I spied them sharing a trolley and pushing it with arms linked together, smiling sweetly at each other like newlyweds are supposed to do.
Now that’s what I call real in-flight entertainment.
This originally appeared in the Frequent Flier column of the June-July 2010 issue of Travelife Magazine.
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