Most weeks of the year I catch a plane from Birmingham to Amsterdam; and a lot of those weeks I come back again too. Yes this does result in a carbon footprint the size of a small 3rd world country and from an ethical viewpoint I struggle to justify the choice in terms of better career, more money, the fact that as a divorced father I don’t get to see my kids every night or simply the fact that this is the only life I have ever known. But the truth is if I have to stay in one place and live a ‘normal’ life I get bored rigid; so I keep traveling. What makes this all the more ironic is the fact that I suffer from motion sickness; I have barfed on boats and ships that were still tied to the dock; cars, coaches and buses on just about any kind of road and aeroplanes even before they doors have closed (though that may have had something to do with the vast amount of Guinness I had consumed the night before). And yet I still travel on the same flight every week.
You may think that I would be the only person on the plane making the journey on such a regular basis but there is probably somewhere between a dozen and twenty people all flying the same route and always the same flight-times. Over the weeks we start to recognise each other- not only the faces but the look on the faces. It is a world weary look, a look that has been through the check-in so many times, a look that knows exactly what to take out of a bag at security but mostly a look that simply wants to get onto the plane, open a book or close a pair of eyes and have the next few minutes of life pass as quickly and painlessly as possible. For those unable to sleep the look can be described as bored or possibly simply exhausted but it is a haunted look found on just about anyone who travels a lot, particularly those who travel for business.
My own personal routine, particularly on the 6am flight from Birmingham to Amsterdam involves a window seat, a sleep mask and a pair of Bose QuietComfort headphones (incidently I cannot rave highly enough about them- anyone who flies a lot, or even those who fly a little but like to hear the dialogue on an in-flight movie, should have something similar). On numerous occasions I have been able to fall asleep before we take off. Sure, I know I should listen to the safety announcement, but that means losing 10 minutes sleep and it is not as if there is going to be anything happen that I haven’t seen a hundred times before.
Except that every now and then some different does happen. And this is the point of this post: On my last flight of 2009 I was sat next to someone who so totally grasped life that it was just impossible, for me at least, not to get sucked into a wondrous experience for all of the 55 minutes of the flight from Amsterdam to Birmingham. Sure I tried to avoid getting involved- the Quiet Comfort headphones went straight onto my head and my laptop came out: I was going to inhabit my own world of peace and quiet and write a blog entry (the first part of this blog entry in fact). But then I allowed myself to open a little to the possibilities- for example it is just possible to gain a greater experience by interacting with people, rather than just writing about observing them. So I joined the conversation and the wonder began: we swapped silly stories and we laughed; we shared experiences and offered sympathy and understanding. I like to think that all three people sat in that row got off the plane with a slightly richer life. I know for sure that it is unusual to hear that amount of fun and laughter on a plane; we received several ‘looks’ from the passengers on the other side of the curtain in business class (to this day I do not know if the looks were of disapproval or envy, but I like to think the latter). And none of it would have happened had I remained closed to the possibility the world offers or if my fellow passengers had decided to just try to pass the time as painlessly as possible.
When I tell people about the journeys they I take they often look a little envious at a glamorous lifestyle of flying around the world, a notion I am often quick to dispels. The novelty and excitement of catching a flight soon pales; but it shouldn’t fade because even though it happens thousands of time every day the mechanical act of getting several hundred tonnes of twisted metal into the air is truly spectacular. Even more than that, and on a human level, if we are open to the wondrous possibilities out there, even if ‘out there’ is sat right next to us, then the world has the chance of being a brighter place, a better place, a place with more fun, laughter happiness and joy in it than we could ever have conceived.
And won’t it be a great thing if just a few more people open their ears, eyes and hearts as a new year beckons. There is beauty in the world. And fun and laughter. And sadness and sympathy. But it is the whole of the world that makes it the truly fantastic place it is: Sometimes we look around and become very complacent. We become inward looking. We lose the ability to grasp the world and see it for all that it is. Whatever the new year brings to you, I know that I will try to enjoy life more deeply and whatever it brings. And all because of a chance meeting with a stranger on a plane.