Monday, February 14, 2011

Connecting At 30,000 Feet

I knew that it was going to be an interesting flight. The line was long and slow moving while waiting to get into the plane. I had spent the previous 30 or so minutes being frisked by a disgruntled Greek security official. I guess the government frowns upon flying one-way into the country via Turkey. So now, I have a nice neon yellow souvenere sticker on the back of my passport, which notified the ticket takers that I was to undergo an in-depth, near strip search in some back room of the Athens International airport. Thanks, hundreds of years of passive aggression!

I never have good luck when it comes to sitting next to someone on an airplane. "Good luck" in the sense of serendipity stepping in and sitting me next to a hot, talkative blond like in the movies. Usually, I get an empty seat next to me, which is kind of nice, actually. It could be a lot worse. I had one friend who was in the early leg of a cross-country flight, quietly reading The Da Vinci Code when her isle-mate quietly asked her if she had been "saved." It turned out, the lady next to her was reading the Bible and felt the need to scorn her for reading such a blasphemous piece of fiction. You think crying babies are bad on flights? There isn't enough Xanax in the word that allow me to put up with a preachy Bible beater with no escape.

But I digress. Back to boarding.

I noticed while waiting in that line that the somewhat attractive girl in front of me was crying. Sobbing, actually. Like the kind of crying that makes your whole body shake. She had her ticket sticking out of her back pocket. I looked at it. Then at mine. Then back to hers. For the next 12+ hours, this was going to be my closest friend and neighbor. Athens straight to New York City is a long flight, so then and there I made it my mission to find out what she was crying about before getting to LaGuadria.

It could have been anything: Saying goodbye to a loved one, saying goodbye to the city, or her time there. Thinking about going home to work, bills and responsibility was nearly enough to make me cry too. Maybe she was just felt up by the same hairy Greek I was and she felt violated. At least now, my mind had been distracted from my own issues. Truth be told, I'm not a good flier. It's easily my biggest fear. In order to go somewhere, my love for the destination has to greatly outweigh my fear of the flight to get there. And I need to be heavily sedated. This time though, thanks to my time spent in the secret pat-down room, I didn't have the time to make friends with the airport Chili's Express bar. All I had left was one, magic pill. Powerful enough to knock me out for a few good hours and help me forget the horrible thoughts that swim around my head about the wings falling off, or the landing gear getting stuck.

We made our way to the 3-seat center isle. I was on the outside, she was in the middle. We gave one of those John Locke to Jack Shepard half smile nods as we took our seats. (Of course, that flight broke up in mid air. I've really got to stop doing that.) Her eyes were still wet. She grabbed a box of generic sleeping pills and said "I'm not a good flyer." This was my in! I pointed to the overhead cabin.
I've got a Xanax up there that may work better for you.
That wasn't a line. It was here that I realized that I was so engrossed with her plight, that I totally forgot about my own. I normally don't take medication of any sort. Not even headache medicine if I can help it. But this was different. I was about to fly over an entire continent and a large body of water. I needed that pill. Yet here I was, offering it to a complete stranger. And that brings me to the point I wanted to make. The people we meet while traveling, especially solo, as was the case with me and her, tend to build more valued, stronger relationships (if only for a few hours) than some of the friends we've had in our lives for years. It's hard to explain, or put into words. But the connections made while on the road (or in the air) are very real and surprisingly meaningful. Maybe it's because you're in the same situation and that creates an immediate common bond. Maybe it's because you know your time together is finite. Maybe it's exactly like a quote I once read: intensifies every interaction. There's more urgency to become close and to create the familiar. This urgency is the most natural, exciting feeling in the world.
The girl in seat D, as she will forever be known, talked for a long while about her home in New York, about the week she had just spent in Israel, about her having to say goodbye to her boyfriend in Athens (ah ha!) Once her sleeping pills kicked in, I put on my headphones and watched 3 episodes of The Office, 4 episodes of 30 Rock, Men Who Stare At Goats, A Serious Man, and Avatar. Yes, I watched one of the top grossing movies of all time on a 4 inch screen on the back of an airplane seat. I'm over it. At one point, there was a tap on my shoulder. The girl in seat D wanted to get my take on A Serious Man, a black and white Coen brothers film dripping in Jewish history and symbolism. I enjoyed it, but was confused by it. So, for the next hour or so, she explained the connection between the movie and the story of Job from....the Bible. Go figure. You can learn a lot when you're stuck in a pressurized aluminum can, miles above the Earth for half a day.

Thanks to a total stranger, I can appreciate this movie. Rent it.

The last time I saw her was in the line at customs. We waved goodbye from across the room as she went to collect her bags and catch a train, while I hurried to make my connecting flight to Orlando. It was nothing more than a good conversation with an interesting person. Yet I regret not asking her for her contact information. Facebook, email...something. When traveling, and staying in hostels as I have, it's funny how many new Facebook friends you can get over a week in a new city. I don't communicate with them regularly, but they're there. And who knows...they're great connections to have in case I ever make it to their city for whatever reason. As for the girl in seat D, I probably wouldn't even recognize her if we passed on the street. But for 12 hours, we diverted each others attention long enough to make it an enjoyable flight, without the usual fear and anxiety.

I never did end up taking that Xanax. 

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