When the kid in 7A reached over and tapped me on the shoulder, I made the worst decision of that whole flight: I responded to him. Oh god, how I should’ve ignored him, pretended that I’d only thought his tap was that of a ghost’s, something I had imagined. But no, dumb old me turned to him, and, almost as if the fates had cruelly designed it, uttered that dreadful word that lets someone into your once calm, reasonable, ready-to-catch-up-on-some-sleep world: “Hello.”
“Have you ever shot a bear?”
I had not.
“I just did. Went out with my dad. My stepdad actually, but who’s counting? Anywho, have you flown before? I haven’t. First flight. Pretty excited. Pretty, pretty excited.”
Delivered with the speed and precision of The Flight of the Bumblebee, or, more relevantly, a machine gun, these questions weren’t actually all that surprising. I figured children in full camouflage tended to shoot bears more often than I did. And, as I later learned, he was only 11 years old, so not having flown before made sense.
“That’s nice,” I said.
“It was nice, thank you. Poor guy went down quick. Pretty quick. Pretty, pretty quick. Anyhow, I just went to Cabela’s, got this camo jacket. It was from my mom. Pretty cool, huh? Pretty, pretty cool.”
I turned back to my book, The Revolt of Angels by Anatole France. I was reading it for a class in an attempt to be productive on the airplane — a task I somehow always miserably fail to do. I wouldn’t be learning the intricacies of overthrowing god any time soon though. Nope, I had been tied up in a situation that can only be called an “airplane conversation.”
An “airplane conversation” sounds straightforward enough. A conversation one has on an airplane, right? But it’s not exactly that. No, it more implies either a glorious encounter with another fascinating human or a dreadful conversation that makes you question the fate of humanity. There’s no middle ground. You never step off of an airplane thinking, “Hmmm I might call her to grab lunch sometime. She seemed adequately interesting.” It’s either, “Wow this person is an endlessly successful genius.” or “How does this person exist in a world where humans must feed and shelter themselves to survive?”
Some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met were while traveling. I met Bronwyn on a train from London to Paris, who, at the time, seemed the epitome of loveliness and poshness, ever knowledgeable about secret restaurants in Berlin and the subtle technical differences between the Moscow and Paris ballets. Then of course there was Jacqueline, who said she was an heiress to the Jell-O corporation. I was curious why she was sitting in economy class, but supposedly she had booked the flight the morning of and couldn’t get a seat in first class. “I don’t mind sitting back here,” she said waving her arm. “You lot are loads more interesting anyway.” There was Alessandra too, an Italian model who was going back to school at the University of Milan and was inexplicably studying abroad in Salt Lake City. “It was an interesting semester. They all thought I was Spanish.” Yet for all of the beautiful, serendipitous encounters, there are a million outrageous ones.
In reality, more often you sit down next to an eleven-year-old hunting novice from Idaho.
“Anywho, where are you coming from?” my seatmate continued.
“Do they speak a different language there?”
“They do. It’s French.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Tu ne me crois pas?”
“That’s just gibberish. Anywho, do you believe in Santa?”
Not wanting to crush a child’s dreams, I said, “Sometimes. I’m conflicted.”
“Yeah, I’m a septic too.”
He meant skeptic.
Sometimes though, the loonies make traveling all the more fun. After all, these are people you would never meet in any other circumstance save for this instance where you randomly, unknowingly chose seats together. Even with a book in hand and headphones on — which is about as isolated as you can make yourself while locked into a flying aluminum tube with a hundred people — there are always those who simply want to talk. It might be a somewhat dim but hopelessly sweet person, the type who tells you just she doesn’t usually “get books,” but she’s making “a real exception” for the latest self-help manifesto from Joel Osteen. Or perhaps it’s a businessman who’s deluding himself about his life. He’ll tend to say something along the lines of, “I’m a wealth manager, but I do it to make a difference in people’s lives. I’m using this skill for good.”
I like traveling with friends and family, but there’s something incredibly exciting about going it alone. Every time you walk down the aisle to your seat it’s as if you’re spinning a roulette wheel. Click, click, click, goes the wheel, and tap, tap, tap go your feet, your seatmate coming into view as you march on to your fate. It’s a surprising thrill. Loony or lovely, loony or lovely, loony or lovely.
Even if the roulette ball falls on loony, it’s really best to take advantage of it. What a bizarre opportunity. The beauty of traveling is that you’ll meet people who are willing to offer up remarkable opinions, even personal life details. After all, the probability that you’ll ever see your seatmate from a flight or train trip ever again is incredibly unlikely.
Right before the flight with my newfound hunting buddy, I had been reading Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. Isabel Archer is one of the most beautifully crafted characters in all of literature, her every thought and reflection meticulously conveyed by James. At one point in the novel, James devotes a whole chapter to the few hours Isabel spends reflecting on her failed marriage. It’s a fascinating look into the human psyche, her every thought recorded, her mind offered up to the reader in transparent entirety.
Traveling though may be an even better look into the human condition. How do people react when they’re jammed together at 40,000 feet or speeding along a railway at 80 MPH? How do people from Salt Lake City or Paris or Milan act? What do they talk about? What makes them tick? What do they love? It’s a peculiar sort of education, but one can learn a lot being thrown within inches of two complete strangers who are willing to wile away the time by chatting.
As far as entertainment value, bending your ear towards your neighbor might be your best bet. Put your book away because lovely or loony, your seatmate is probably surprisingly interesting, perhaps even stranger than fiction. And, if you ever sit down next to a blond pre-teen from Idaho with a penchant for hunting and doubts about Santa Claus, say hello. Trust me, you’ll have a wonderfully amusing trip.