Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Strangers On Airplanes

           I had finally finished shuffling down the aisle of our crowded international flight, and turned to shimmy into my seat, my carry on catching onto arm rests and other passengers in the process. It was my University Concert Choir’s third flight in the past twenty four hours, and also my third time that day with a window seat. I sighed, staring at the wing outside the tiny smeared glass, and shoved my grey floral bag under the seat in front of me with my feet. Our tickets had been bought in bulk, but also at random, so I had been sitting next to strangers all day. I had the privilege of being by an elderly couple that were making floor plans of how they theoretically wanted to reorganize their house, and a younger athletic woman that was tapping her smart phone with her acrylic nails all through the flight.
            I hoped that the seat next to me would be empty. After we left New York, the journey would take around five hours, and I was not sure that I could handle any more awkward new friends. I also hated the window seat. Flying generally makes me nervous, and the constant reminder of just how high in the air we were barely helped. A middle aged man with fair skin and wisps of red hair paused by my seat and moved in to sit beside me. His eyes were a grey blue, sitting in his face that looked like it had not received proper rest in days.
            I stared at him, figuring I should introduce myself if we were going to be in close proximity for the next few hours.
            “Hello,” I began—casually, I thought. “How’re you?”
            “Good.” He sighed back, “You?”
            “I’m doing fine!” I smiled, embarrassingly. The man was Irish, with a thick accent. I was ecstatic and could barely keep myself from smiling. It was the first Irish accent that I had heard besides Gerard Butler’s character in P.S. I Love You. I was suddenly very nervous. This would be my first time spent with an actual Irish person, and I had no idea what to say. I wanted him to like me, to think What a lovely young woman. I am so glad that she is coming to visit my country. She is a representation of everything charming and good.
            “Where are you going?” I continued the conversation. I wanted to seem interested, and I also waited in anticipation for him to speak again.
            “Dublin for my niece’s wedding” he replied, with a hint of resentment. “I have lived in New York for twelve years and hardly ever go home.”
            I was taken aback. Of course people still immigrated to America to Ireland. But why would he choose New York over Dublin? I hadn’t yet been to Ireland—but it seemed so green and calm. The essence of serenity and beauty sprinkled with sheep. I enjoyed New York on a basic level, but—
            “New York is a fun place” I decided to say. “Do you like it?”
            “Busy, but I love it” he finally smiled, his eyes creasing around the corners. I could sense his adoration of the city, for it reflected mine for Columbus. Fine, perhaps he was crazy for wanting to leave Ireland for America’s busiest city, but at least he was happy and had made a home. I realized that I was weirdly dissecting this man, and was going to make things uncomfortable if I seemed too interested. I didn’t want to ruin my first interaction with an Irish person by being creepy, so I turned back to look out of my window while we were still standing on the runway.
            I soon heard another male Irish voice in a close proximity. I turned my head to the right to see an older gentleman passing out small chocolates wrapped in pink and blue foil. He gave a handful to my new partner in flight, who turned and offered me some. How sweet, I smiled cherubically, I would never be so kind as to buy chocolate and give it away. I would definitely eat it all because I have a problem.
            I wondered if this was an example of the Irish hospitality and friendliness that I had heard about. If it was an American man in tube socks, jean shorts, and a button-up tee shirt with hibiscus flowers on it, I probably would have been freaked out and declined even the most delicious of candies. I unwrapped the chocolate and set it on my tongue, letting it melt slowly in my mouth. I suddenly had the fear that the gesture could have been a fa├žade. What if the chocolate was poisoned and the man used his Irish charm to get away with mass murder? Oh God, I contemplated spitting the chocolate out. I turned to look at the man next to me wondering if he would notice, only to decide that I was being insane and the chocolate was already in my system anyway. If it was foul play, I was already done for, and might as well eat the other piece to make sure that the job was done right.
            “Why are you going to Dublin?” my seat partner asked me. I felt a shock move through my abdomen. He spoke to me without being provoked! He didn’t sense my paranoia and alarming fascination with his accent.      
            “I am traveling with my University’s Concert Choir,” I started, hoping that it sounded impressive and not juvenile because I was still a college student. “We are touring the country to give multiple performances over our winter break.” I then realized that it perhaps sounded pretentious. He probably wondered if there was a need to spend thousands of dollars and fly across an ocean to sing to strangers. I wanted to tell him that it was more than that. That we wanted to build a cultural bridge with our music, and bare our souls to a whole group of people that we hope would be touched by our art. We wanted to change lives, even if for an instant, and maybe change our own as well. I decided that the background explanation was a little too deep for plane talk, so I bit my tongue and hoped that he would get it. He looked unaffected—perhaps he didn’t.
            The plane started to move and we took off, quickly reaching the point in the sky where we were free to walk around and utilize electronics. The backs of the seats in front of us had small, individual screens where we could watch television shows, movies, read books, or play games. I fumbled in my pocket for my headphones and decided that I would distract myself with a movie. I shifted through the selections, suddenly very conscious of what the man next to me would think. Would he scoff at me for watching Tommy Boy twice in a row? I knew he wasn’t paying attention, but I worried that he would shift his eyes to see which movie I selected, or would nonchalantly turn to see Chris Farley ripping David Spade’s coat in a motel room. I slyly turned my eyeballs to look at his screen, while keeping my head forward. He had a small map of the world showing, with a tiny plane flying over the Atlantic Ocean, headed towards Ireland. How did he know how to find that? No movies for the flight? This guy meant business.
            I decided to watch the movie anyway, hoping that any thoughts from the man regarding the film would be in appreciation of my timeless sense of humor. A little while later, a flight attendant came by to give us complimentary drinks. I hesitantly asked for an apple juice, knowing that I would have to use the restroom a short while later. Inevitably by the end of the movie, I definitely had to go, but realized that the man next to me was fast asleep with his head tilted back, slightly snoring. I did not want to wake him, and decided to try to hold off going to the bathroom for a little while longer. On a normal day, I tend to use the restroom about every hour because I hydrate incessantly, as a singer. I knew that I would drive this guy crazy if I actually used the bathroom five times.
            I decided to wait until he woke up to use the restroom, and then I would get out too. I did not have to inconvenience him. He would think, How thoughtful of her. She waited until I had to go instead of climbing over my lap to get to the aisle. It was a decent plan. Although the pain started to swell in my bladder, I decided to wait.
            The man woke up not too long afterwards to utilize the facilities, and I eagerly followed. I struggled to retain my balance in the cramped bathroom stall, and was equally challenged to find out how to flush the toilet. I found a grey button and pushed it, only to hear the loudest flush that I could ever imagine. I jumped backwards, hitting the locked restroom door, covering my ears. My faces reddened with hints of tears in my eyes, for I have always had an irrational fear of loud noises and often cry on the spot if I am not prepared for them. I looked at myself in the mirror, realizing that I looked ridiculous. I couldn’t go back down the aisle looking like I had been crying in the restroom. I wiped my eyes and ran my fingers through my tangled hair, while giving my reflection a few exaggerated smiles. Good. No one would notice that the toilet almost gave me a heart attack.
            I got back to my seat before the man next to me did, and I decided not to drink any more beverages for the remainder of the flight. I glanced at his screen and realized that we were practically halfway there. Feeling sleepy, for my whole choir group had hardly slept in a day’s time, I decided to lean against the window and try to sleep. I positioned myself as close to the wall of the airplane that I could, terrified that I would wake up on the guy next to me’s shoulder. And he would probably have just let me sleep there. He seemed like the type, too nice and Irish.
            When I woke, the flight attendants were busy handing out meals that resembled breakfast food. Because of my Celiac Disease, I was given a special gluten free meal that consisted of a rice cake with honey, and an apple. I turned to see the man next to me eating eggs and a biscuit voraciously. I dipped a piece of the clumped dried rice into the honey packet and stuck it in my mouth, trying to convince myself that it couldn’t be that bad or else they wouldn’t serve it. It was.
            The attendants quickly came back to gather our trash, and I faced my fears to use the restroom once more before we landed. I nervously asked the gentleman if I could get out, and he let me through without any embarrassing complications. I plugged my ears before I pushed the grey button this time, and glided back to my seat optimistically. We were almost in Ireland!
            The plane landed roughly, bouncing all of its passengers from side to side when the wheels hit the pavement. We raced down the runway as I finally willingly looked out of my window to see grey sky and green grasses surrounding the terminal. We were here. I was about to breath Irish air.
            The plane finished taxiing and we all stood up to stretch and grab our belongings. We began to form a line in the aisle to get off of the plane, and I watched the man next to me move up through the aisle while the other passengers in front of us took their time to organize their bags. I had said nothing to him, or he to me as he left. I knew that I would never see this man again. I contemplated yelling for him, telling him to have fun at the wedding but decided against it.

            I held the handles of my carry on in my hand as I made my way into the airport to go through customs. I was finally in Ireland, and had successfully had multiple conversations with an Irish person. He had given me the little bit of confidence that I needed to walk the Dublin streets and converse with locals, and I was thankful for that. I smiled to myself, moving slowly through the plane, realizing that I never even asked his name. 


Go raibh maith agaibh (Irish for Thank You),