04 August 2014

What I Remembered about International Travel

On Friday night, I got on a plane in Chicago, bound for Dublin. It's been three years since I've taken an international flight. Oh, wait, I went to Canada. Several times. Canada, I know you're a different country, but I can fly to you in an hour, and that feels like cheating.

It's like when I came back in July from my trip to Stratford, Ontario, to visit my parents' new condo {and to see four shows in three days at the Stratford Festival}. It was, technically, an international flight: I needed a passport, there were forms to fill out, the announcements on the plane were made in English and Funny French. But it was on a regional jet, one of those tiny planes you think could double as your nephew's toy plane.

When we pulled into the international terminal at O'Hare, we were parked in between two double-decker British Airways planes. I imagined them maliciously laughing down at us, Goliaths against our David, as we got off the plane by stairs onto the tarmac. {Yes, the plane was that small that even a jetbridge would've overpowered it.}

When I say "international flight," then, what I mean is "transatlantic flight." It has indeed been three years since I've taken one of those, and Friday night, I remembered a few things about international travel.

{These are in no particular order.}

Delays are the end of the world as we know it, and no one feels fine. We all know that air travel is a risk—I mean, there's the obvious risk of zooming through the air at 35,000 feet, but also the general risk of logistics. Given the tight scheduling of most airlines today, it takes one thing to go wrong in one airport to throw off the whole schedule, particularly if that airport is a hub. I think this is the modern version of a butterfly flapping its wings in California and causing a tsunami in Japan: one plane has mechanical difficulties in Chicago, and suddenly, no one can get out of Denver.

Given the possibility for all that can go wrong, we should be applauding every time we are able to make it anywhere by plane. We should applaud humanity that we got our acts together enough to be able to put all the right people in all the right places—and then got those people to a new place.

But no one thinks about humanity when they hear the words: "We're so sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but the flight has been delayed. We're now showing a two hour delay."

When those words are uttered in an airport, the reaction is disproportionate to the cause. It's the equivalent of getting your hand amputated when you've scratched a finger.

When a delay is announced, there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. There is anger and indignation as everyone seethes that this could happen to them, as if they had fairies weave a magic spell around them in the crib that they'd never be delayed. On Friday night, my plane was delayed because the pilot wasn't there yet. One guy—with a walrus mustache and high-waisted jeans with a t-shirt tucked into them—told the gate agent, "Heck, how hard can it be to fly a plane? Give me a manual and 20 minutes, and I'll get us to Dublin in no time. The computers do all the work anyway."

I'm sorry, sir, we are not in the world of HAL or Star Trek just yet, and I'm sorry for saying this, but I don't trust you or your mustache. I'd rather wait here in the gate, patient and trusting that the pilot will arrive—and we'll make it to Dublin safely.

And we did. We ended up being 3 1/2 hours late, but in the scheme of life, is it worth getting worked up over 3 1/2 hours? As my mother very wisely pointed out: my first day in Ireland was shorter, then, so I didn't have to try to push as hard to make it through the day and to a reasonable hour before I could go to bed.

You can indeed sleep in the craziest positions. I thank my years of gymnastics for my flexibility every time I sleep in coach.

We demand so much from air travel. This should go up closer to the first one about delays, I guess—but it's that my plane was old and sad. The TVs were the small, grainy monitors spaced every few rows or so, and the buttons on my armrest for the lights had been ripped off. I once flew Aeroflot out of Russia, and this plane felt like it might've belonged in their fleet. Everything about it seemed to sigh with resignation, and I spent some time on the flight thinking once again about how far we've come in our expectations of what we "deserve" on a flight. I thought longingly of the one time I flew Air France: care packages, hot towels, in-seat entertainment, and china—in coach.

That flight has been my standard for transatlantic travel for more than 10 years now, but even without that ridiculously high bar, we have a belief that while travelling, we deserve to be pampered. In some ways, it's like we think that when we pay for the privilege of flight, we should get treated like dukes and duchesses on board. Only the finest food, the best movies, and the most overhead luggage space will placate us, but you know what? We should just be happy that we can cross an ocean in the equivalent of a workday. That is amazing, so I'm sorry if the TV wasn't nice or if you thought the chicken was chewy. You were in the air. Above an ocean. On your way to Ireland. Take a moment and revel in how lucky you are.

{This part of the tirade owes much to Louis CK, who has such funny things to say on how we approach air travel now.}

As much as I love speaking French, there is something to be said for not having to speak it as soon as I get off the plane. And that something to be said is: C'est si bon. Most times when I go abroad, I'm going to France. Just off the plane, jet lagged and confused about what day it is, it takes all the brain power I have left to make sure I collect all my bags, let alone trying to conjugate verbs and give addresses to taxi drivers. Here, though, when I got off the plane, I understood everything! And they understood me! The taxi driver and I bonded over his desire to see Chicago, and I was able to clearly communicate concepts and even be funny without needing to pause and say, "Wait, wait, I know the word. Just give me a minute and the French will come back up from the deep recesses of my brain. Wait for it..."

I love it. This isn't actually something I needed to remember about international travel; it's an idea that's always with me. I love that one day, I can be at work, concerned about office gossip and finishing that project, and the next morning, I can unwind myself in coach, eat a quick breakfast, and step off the plane into a whole new country where possibilities await.

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