Have you ever flown internationally? Something strange happens when you pack two hundred people together in a confined space for nine to twelve hours. We lose all sense of propriety; really, it takes a strong individual to stand on formality past the second hour. First shoes come off, before you know it we’re telling deepest secrets to total strangers, and drooling on their shoulders in the wee hours of the morning.
You get to see people in all their glory. There’s the sweet old guy at the front who hasn’t figured out the call-button system, so waves his arm in the air at the flight attendants like a child waiting two be called on by the teacher. Oh, wait, no–he’s waving to the grandkid five rows ahead of him. Even cuter still. And the two girls a few rows ahead. One has a pink sleep mask like something out of Angry Birds. The other one has pink headphones that match her seat companion’s sweatshirt. There’s a lot of pink happening over in row 34.
Why is it that the airline can’t seat people together? There’s families scattered all over this plane. People wander by on their way to the bathroom, checking in on loved ones, comparing notes about the in-flight meal, trading pieces of luggage over the heads of their fellow passengers.
The flight attendants: glorified babysitters or in-flight security technicians? Here to protect us in the case of an emergency, get us safely down the lighted path and to the fluffy inflatable life rafts, or more just safeguards to get us our mealtimes and keep us reasonably entertained so that we don’t take our boredom out on our bunkmates? There’s always that one that ad-libs his way through the emergency landing instructions and who plays pranks on all the passengers. Was he always this way? Did his super-extrovert find it’s calling, or did one day he just snap at the routine of it all and decide that the world needed some extra zing? There’s always the perfectly coiffed stewardess who makes me wonder if she and I actually inhabit the same gender, and likewise there’s always at least one flight attendant who is a consistent hot mess of makeup and crumpled uniforms which in some ways secretly reassures me that our culture has moved enough that there’s room for darling ugly ducklings in the service industry. I always wonder how it’s possible that both groups shop at the same company store?
How will they handle the mix of languages on the flight? I always find this an interesting study in cultural dominance. Will they have bilingual flight attendants–all of them or just a token one who serves as interpreter for everyone? Will they subtitle the in-flight instructions? Or will they just insist you follow along in English because it’s an American-owned airline? I watch as passengers team up with their neighbors to help explain beverage preferences to the crew and fill out customs forms. The same is true of the food. American cuisine or Brazilian? Do we get cafe do mananha with cafe com leite or an egg on a muffin? Which culture wins out over the other? I sit, mentally tallying the scorecard for entertainment.
We awake together in the morning, faces smushed, wrinkled, makeup smudged. It’s like a slumber-party, except you didn’t know these people before a ticketing agent put them on your guest-list. You don’t look so put together anymore, not after sleeping in an arm-chair all night. Not even these perfectly coiffed Brazilians, god love ’em. The humanity is heart-warming. Some women rush for the bathroom before the plane lands to reapply the veneer. The rest of us just stretch and yawn, hoping our morning breath is tending more towards “kitten” than “dragon.”
We exit the plane, calling loved ones to tell them we’ve landed, checking for connections, heading our separate ways. You might see some of these same people, people you’ve slept with, in line for your next flight. Like one-night stands crossing paths later in the grocery check-out aisle, only the bravest of souls pause to say “hi.”
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