Somwhere Between Sky and Sea, Suffering and Serendipity

It’s dawn somewhere over the North Atlantic.

The incessant roar of the jet engines echoes the dull ache in my left shoulder as I come awake after a scant hour or so of real, unconscious sleep. My legs are splayed to either side of the seat in front of me, which– as always– is reclined all the way back. I shift uncomfortably, to no avail, and extricate my 6’6″ frame from my prison for the past six hours to make my way to the back of the cabin to simply stand by the galley and stretch a bit, where the woman waiting for the lavatory remarks on my height.

“Yeah, it’s usually pretty cool to be so tall,” comes my rehearsed response, but with one added addendum: “This is not one of those times.” In my head, I’m starting to wonder why I decided to put myself through this again.

Once the circulation in my feet is sufficiently restored, I pick my way through the darkened cabin and return to my seat. Trying to fall asleep again is out of the question, so I attempt to give myself a one-handed massage as best I can while I try to gauge how much time we have left before touchdown. On the screens where the flight map should be, Midnight in Paris is almost over. That was a thoughtful selection on the part of American Airlines, but it still feels like midnight to my tense and aching body. As Carla Bruni appears onscreen, I can’t help but feel a little sad knowing that she will no longer be the first lady while I’m in France, and suddenly, I’m thinking back to the conversation I had with Phyllis, an older lady who shared my seat on the flight from Austin to Chicago earlier that day:

“That’s wonderful,” she says after learning about my internships with the State Department in Paris. “You know, I was one of the first Peace Corps volunteers back in the 60’s.” And thus begins the fascinating saga of a young Iowa girl’s adventures in revolutionary South America, facing everything from communists to former Nazis, starting with intensive training in Oklahoma and Puerto Rico before her arrival in Chile and then Bolivia. We share a laugh over one anecdote in particular in which she was escorting a gravely ill patient along a dirt road when they were beset by machine gun-toting guerrillas from the undergrowth: “And I said to him– and this was all in Spanish of course– ‘Does your mother know what you’re doing right now?'” To which he could only lower the muzzle sheepishly and let them pass.

We move on to the subject of family, and I learn that she is a mother of three adult children and a widow. She speaks fondly of her husband, an “integrity-ridden” man who “felt the urge to be a hero every two years,” including a daring rescue mission during the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria, which she caught on home video and donated to a documentary, asking only that they put Phil’s name in the credits since she thought “he’d get a kick out of that.” I tell her that I am touched by how highly she speaks of her husband; the art of a happy marriage is a dying one, and you don’t see many people like that anymore. “No, you really don’t,” she concedes wistfully.

Somehow, as with most of my conversations, the topic of politics comes up, and Phyllis admits to me that she is a “tree-hugging Obama fan.” I confess that I’m not such a fan, but thanks to the rapport we have built, we are able to retain a cordial level of mutual respect, directing our differences back to our common belief in maintaining an objective, listening mind and our shared lament that more people cannot meet on such civil terms.

Time flies (in this case, literally) when you’re having fun, and before either of us realise it, the three-hour flight has ended. We disembark, I wishing her a safe journey onward to Sioux City, she wishing me a “great rest of [my] life.” And with that, she disappears into the crowd flowing through the concourse of Chicago O’Hare.

Did I say that? Waiting in airports does strange things to you…

As the warm smell of coffee and bread wafts through the plane from the galley in the back where the stewardesses are preparing breakfast, my seatmate, Hannah, begins to stir. An attractive and intelligent blonde from Iowa, as well, she is the answer to a wish I texted to a friend while waiting for my flight in Chicago.

Initially, we are both reticent– I, because she appears to be resting while we wait for takeoff, she, because she thinks I am a French passenger returning home (a perception I find immensely flattering). Soon, though, the conversation is flowing like champagne as we discuss everything from our recent graduations (hers from high school, mine from university) to the possible psychological causes of homosexuality and the need for charity and respect on both sides of the national debate to the terrible state of music on the radio and our shared passion for talented composition.

Now, as the stewards pass by with their little cart, distributing trays of croissants, jam, and yogurt, we pick up where we left off before our futile attempts at sleep.

“So, will you be staying in Paris, too?” I ask, referring to the family she is visiting for three weeks before returning to America with their daughter for a similar exchange.

“Actually, I’ll be in Orléans,” she replies.

Naturally, I can’t help but remark on St. Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orléans, whose feast day is dawning as we begin our descent. “Well, if you happen to visit Paris during your time in France, you should look me up. Or Texas,” I add.

Now that we are only a few miles from Paris, we feel obligated to weigh in on our airplane breakfast:

“The croissant isn’t half bad,” Hannah comments.

“Yeah,” I reply, sawing unsuccessfully through mine, “But they’re nothing compared to the ones on the ground.”

Soon, the plane shudders, and we are officially in the City of Lights. After finally rolling up to the gate, I watch the group of high school students giddily disembark for their own first adventure in Europe, and I can’t help but smile as I recall being in their place only three years ago. As I make my way down the empty aisle, I stop and ask one of the church group missionaries, identifiable by their peach-colored polo shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Team Kenya,” whether they will get to see much of Paris before continuing to Africa; unfortunately, no, he responds, but they, too are all smiles and conviviality as they depart in a different direction.

I offer a hasty but heartfelt “merci” to the flight crew waiting by the door, and as I walk up the jetway and into the legendary Charles de Gaulle, I think I’ve found the answer to my question:

Why do I endure this modern Middle Passage time and time again? Because as easy as it is to focus on the invasive airport security, the interminable layovers, the mediocre airplane food, or the cramp-inducing accommodation onboard, it is so much more fulfilling to revel in the serendipity of these chance encounters. People are a fascinating lot even at home, but particularly so in the crossroads of the sky, where, no matter what our differences on the ground, we are all humans achieving the impossible together– the miracle of flight– even if it’s for but an instant before we are swept off to our various corners of the world once more.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to,” comes Bilbo’s sage warning to his nephew.

I might add that there’s no knowing who you might meet in the process, too, and that is precisely why I travel.