“Never again,” I promised myself as the wheels touched down on a snowy tarmac in Prague’s Vaclav Havel Airport. “I will never fly again.”
I spent a good six months trying to find a way back to the States that didn’t involve an airplane. A bus across Europe, a train across Russia, a ferry to Japan, a cargo ship to the West Coast. It would have taken weeks and been tremendously expensive, but in my mind, it also would have been very, very worth it. I hate flying.
It isn’t just that it’s uncomfortable and strenuous. It’s that I will wake up mid-Atlantic in a minor panic attack, sobbing hysterically while some stranger snores next to me. It’s that I can feel the cabin pressure before I even board the plane and ascending and descending feels a little bit like losing my soul through my ears. It’s that I will have a headache for days afterwards and not be able to eat anything until the last of the jetlag completely wears off.
It’s that flying is literally the worst.
Why it didn’t occur to me that by going to Athens I would have to get back on a plane, I am still not wholly sure. But it didn’t and here I am, once again reliving the nightmarish experience that is flying in the 21st century.
A lot of glamour is associated with travel, perhaps unduly. We no longer live in the age of Pan Am stewardesses and steamer trunks. The Wright brothers may well have cringed if they could see the cattle drive our airports have become.
As a kid, I knew I wanted to fly. This was in part because of a book about two children who go to visit their grandparents. They are served delicious meals on the plane, they are taken to the cockpit, they get to pick their suitcases off the luggage carousal. Their teddy bear comes along for the whole adventure. What a time!
Let me tell you now, it’s all a lie.
The truth about airports is that it is much more of an ordeal than anyone will honestly tell you.
So let’s be honest.
Firstly, you need to know that trying to rush through an airport is the hardest, most awful experience you are likely to have in the first world. This is mostly because airports are created to slow everything down to a third their usual pace.
Want to check your bags? Let’s weigh everything you own and sticker it to death.
Want to get to your gate? Take off all your clothes and put them in a box so we can x-ray them. And it doesn’t matter how quickly you can strip off your belt, shoes, jackets, watches and remove liquids, laptops and cell phones from your baggage, we will take our sweet time getting you through that metal detector.
Want to board the plane? Wait for two hours in the terminal for no reason.
You cannot be late to the airport because there is no way to make up for lost time. You cannot speed up this process.
So when I got off the train at Union Station, Los Angeles, with the choice of taking an $8/1hour bus to LAX or getting a cab for half the time and three times the price, I chose the cab. I regret nothing.
We had a nice chat, the cabby and I. That is something I will say for travel – you meet nice people (Unless you end up in the Moscow airport, in which case, sucks to be you pal).
I practiced a little bit of my newly acquired Farsi on him, which he then helped me correct. He, in turn, told me the entire religious history of Armenia, Turkey and Persia. When we got to the LAX departing terminals, he groaned miserably and said, “I have airport tomorrow. I am to be here all day.”
I know how you feel, sir.
He pulled up to the curb, unloaded my bag from the back and shook my hand warmly. “God helps those who help others,” he said to me, a sparkle in his eyes. Thanks, cabby.
A slightly magical moment quickly dissolved into a half hour line to get through security. I was directly behind twenty Japanese high school marching band players who had come out for the Rose Bowl. They proudly wore their uniform hats and chattered loudly across the roped off lanes.
For some reason, they security guard held up the line on my passport and I sweated like crazy for 90 seconds thinking, “Am I a terrorist? What if I did something on accident that could be taken as a security threat? How will I explain to them that this is all just a huge mistake?” I do not enjoy having my patriotism questioned by people who make me walk around in socks in a public area.
The truth is that airports make communists of us all.
I once spent a night in the Zurich airport. The first thing I noticed was how unaffordable everything was. Walking through an airport can be a charming adventure as you hurry past duty free shops with perfumes, chocolates, fine liquors and an assortment of super fancy stuff you’d probably never buy. Being STUCK in an airport for an extended period of time is less fun because then you have time to meander around and look at all the things you will never be rich enough to purchase.
Don’t be fooled by the primly dressed girl stacking chocolate bars like some kind of ad from 1961. THAT CHOCOLATE WILL EAT YOU ALIVE. It is so EXPENSIVE even the Queen couldn’t manage. It’s a dream of mine to one day be able to afford something (anything) from one of those stores. More specifically, I’d like to be able to drop sixty bucks on those gourmet chocolate boxes that are listed as “buy 5, get 1 free.” I don’t know what I would do with six boxes of chocolate, but I’m sure I would figure something out during the flight.
The truth is, even if you can afford to get inside an airport, your pocket book still probably can’t handle the boutiques and specialty stores. Heck, mine can barely tackle the pre-packaged sandwiches and water bottles in the little corner shops where poor people try to find food so they don’t die of mal-nurishment before getting to their gate. Airports are expensive. Especially that one in Zurich.
I could feel the headache building before I even got on the plane to Moscow (this may have been early-onset dread at the thought of spending an 18 hour layover in the Moscow airport – without a visa they won’t let you leave).
After finding my seat and discovering that Russian airlines doesn’t really “do” English, I prepared myself for a long, long flight. Mentally buckling up is crucial to the flight survival process.
So is being careful what you eat. In-flight meals are a hit or miss. Anything with fish is automatically a miss – I don’t care how good it sounds when they give you the choice. Beef over pasta. Pasta over chicken. Avoid eggs.
Both meals I got on the Russian airliner were rough. The first one had a seafood salad. I am not entirely sure why I even bothered to eat it. At that elevation, your head will tell you to eat things your stomach knows you shouldn’t. Between the flakes of wilted lettuce and uncooked shrimp, there were pieces of smoked fish (unidentifiable) that resembled what I image dragon flanks must taste like.
Another meal had a salad (I think?) with both chicken slices and a hard boiled egg. I’m sorry, it’s bad enough that we’re going to kill a chicken in the prime of its life and serve it in a poorly composed salad, but to neighbor it with a chicken that wasn’t even given the chance to break out of the shell is just so morbid. I couldn’t. I was so close to tears it’s almost humiliating. To add to the sad irony, this death trip for them is the only time these flightless birds will ever get to fly.
Everything on the food tray comes in little packets or containers. I had finished clearing out each little compartment when I found a packet of mayonnaise. Those discoveries are stressful because suddenly you start wondering, “What was this supposed to go on and what the heck did I eat instead of it?”
The only thing you can really count on is the bread. The bread will always be bad. The butter is unspreadable and the roll is brick-like in both texture and taste. I used to feel bad not finishing mine. What a shame to put an uneaten portion back on the meal tray for the stewardesses to dump. Then again, if they had wanted you to finish it they should have served food and not stones.
The truth about airplane meals is that they will most likely cultivate a dislike for food in general which can last up to several days. At best, they are an opportunity for the person next to you to invade your personal space and judge you for the amount of butter (or mayonnaise) you put on your brick-roll.
What I dread most is falling asleep. Or rather, not falling asleep as is generally the case. It’s like the movie Rocket Man where the monkey steals the dude’s sleep machine thing and he has to stay awake in space by himself for like a really long time before they get to Mars and he goes nuts.
A day before I left, I ran down to the pharmacy section of Target (where I get all my cheap meds) and debated whether or not to get a sleep aid. You see, I’m slightly terrified of taking a sleep aid and not being able to fall asleep because I have the longest limbs in the universe and I simply do not fit comfortably in a plane seat, making rest an unattainable goal. Being exhausted but not being able to sleep because it is literally painful to curl into a position that might give one’s head a chance to rest against something would be my Rocket Man equivalent. I would go nuts. I have gone nuts. I’d rather not do it again.
I popped an Exedrin (I think?) right after we took off but it didn’t really help the headache. I took a ZzzQuil right after the evening meal. It didn’t work either.
By the time we landed in Moscow, I was a hundred percent over it. Somewhere past hour 10 I found myself folded into a mess on my seat asking myself things like, “What if I lose the tweezers I borrowed from mom?” and “Can babies get sucked out of plane windows? Should someone make sure the mom in 2B is not letting her kids get too close to the them?” All of these seem like rational concerns when your brain is literally melting out your eyes as you plummet through the atmosphere in a tin can.
The truth is, it’s going to take more than one heavy dose of over-the-counter druggage to get you through a flight, and it’s likely that at some point you will still look out your window to see a breathtaking stretch of Arctic ice laying flat across the horizon as far as the eye can see, glowing beneath the moonlight on top of a murky blue sea…Only to realize as the sun comes up that you’ve been looking at the tip of the wing all night and you are probably nowhere near to polar ice caps. Disappointment is unavoidable.
I arrived in Russia around 3:30 for the longest, most heinous layover of my life. The airport in Moscow is nice enough. It feels like walking around the inside of a snow globe, except that half of it is covered in white wrap, like how they cover things at Disneyland when they’re under construction. Also, no one looks happy to be there. So yeah, a Disneyland-esque Soviet snow globe.
If you visit enough places around the world, you come to realize that, while stereotypes are limiting and silly, they are also not entirely without basis. I did not meet a single friendly Russian in the airport (granted, they do work in an airport which is DMV equivalent, so we’ll extend a little grace before judgment). I was barked at to sit down in a restaurant, whistled at to get a check, and glared at while trying to pay my bill. It was like they were all part of a cool, exclusive grumpy club that I couldn’t be a part of because I don’t work in an airport in Russia.
And yet I loved them. Maybe it’s the middle school teacher in me, maybe it’s the masochist in me, but Russians are basically my favorites now and one day I will meet them when I am not brain-dead between flights.
Also, Dora the Explorer in Russian is the number one way to start a new day.
I spent most of the flight to Athens reading. Sleep was out of the question. I was headed into my third time zone change in 36 hours and didn’t want to throw my sleep schedule off anymore than necessary. And as we’ve discussed already, I don’t sleep well on planes.
We began our descent and I looked out the window. Beautiful blue water speckled with gorgeous islands lay below us, basking in a soft winter sunshine. What a welcome.
The islands struck me especially, given the stories we see about refugees fleeing to Greek islands on dangerous seas. This last week, dozens of bodes washed up on Greek and Turkish shores. It’s hard to imagine crossing those expanses of water at night, wondering whether you’ll get to land safely. How spoiled we are to have the promise of safe travels in the relative comfort of modern transport. And somewhere to go.
I think the journey by plane to Athens didn’t cross my mind when I decided to go because the destination was so important. For most of us, sending money and prayers is all we will ever be able to do for these people fleeing their homes (never to return?). So what an honor to be able to serve personally, even if it is doing no more than giving them hot cups of tea while they wait for their transports to the border.
The desire to help our fellow man is perhaps one of the greatest attributes of our innate humanity. As our plane landed in Athens and I reeled from the quick change in altitude, my steadying hope was that it would all be worth it. That coming here I can do good, even if in just a small way. That I can be one of the faces that greets people who have left horrific tragedy and be an ambassador for humanity and a glimmer of hope for the future. That they might see there is good in the world even if the road to get there is long and dark, and it is worth it to try.
The truth about flying is that it is beautiful simply to have somewhere to go and a way to get there.