Sleeping With Strangers

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An entirely false representation of the joys of airport security. Everyone is smiling and the passenger is wearing shoes.

I have often thought that undertaking air today is like being a contestant on some mad, and quite sadistic, tv game show.  Think ‘Amazing Race’ but with bite. From the moment you arrive at the airport, the whole affair is designed to test your patience, sanity and ability to perform under pressure (or extreme exhaustion).  You want to go on holiday? See your family? Get somewhere for business? How. Bad. Do. You. Want. It?! Just how much of your own dignity are you willing to give up in order to pass the hurdles and tests that are involved?

 

There are the obvious pit-falls of flying. The airport security gets ever more trying and ridiculous. No liquids over 100ml in case you try to hijack the plane with 120ml bottle of moisturiser, remove your shoes, place your hands behind your head and step into this scanner where we’ll take a picture of what is underneath your clothes (see TSA’s new scanners ).  Going through the immigration checks invariable makes me feel like a criminal. The only unfriendly Canadian I meet whilst visiting Canada was the immigration woman, who- when I told her I was visiting a friend- asked me how I could possibly have any friends at all, let alone friends in Canada.  I’ve luckily not had any problems with customs, but a friend of mine had an alarming incident when he entered Norway. He was asked if he had anything to declare, and being a culturally sensitive chap, he attempted to speak Norwegian and said what he believed to be the Norwegian word for ‘chocolate.’ The response: ‘Turtles! Turtles! You’re trying to bring in TURTLES! Where are these turtles?’ What followed was a full body and cavity search, from which my friend is still recovering.

But what is often overlooked in the madness of airports and flying are your fellow passengers. Public transport creates a unique situation in our modern, increasingly detached and unconnected lives, where we are forced to share physical personal space with strangers- the good, the bad, the crazy and the cute. Air travel is the most distilled way of experiencing this crush of humanity; there is no escape from the people you are with.  On long haul flights especially, a strange kind of false intimacy is created. The social guises of being ‘in public’ drop away as people go about doing things usually reserved for their private lives: sleeping, wearing pyjamas, eating breakfast, watching TV and carrying out various acts of personal hygiene.  I’ve seen people clip their nails, empty their hairbrushes (yes really) and paint their nails (small space, limited air circulation, noxious fumes- nice). The airplane cabin becomes lounge, kitchen and bedroom for the duration of the flight, so that is seems perfectly natural for me to be eating my cornflakes next to, or nodding off in the presence of, complete strangers. What’s more, such conditions breakdown the ‘smiley, happy, I’m a functioning member of society’ masks we often wear. Eight hours into a flight, with little leg room and not much to do, and none of us look good or are at our best. I admire those who toddle off to the bathrooms after each meal to brush, floss, or who take whole bags full of creams to the washrooms. Airplane washrooms just make me feel even less clean, and I accept I won’t be clean clean until after arriving at somewhere where the toilets actually flush, and the washroom is bigger than a closest.  Films and TV often have characters meeting a love interest whilst on a plane. Flights don’t seem a very obvious place to meet a potential partner, but then why not. They’ve seen you at your worse; it can only go up from there!

The thing about this intimacy amongst strangers is that it’s over as quickly as it has begun. As soon as the plane touches down, 100 buckles unclick en masse, the bubble is burst and our ‘public’ faces are back on. Half the plane will do that ‘crouch/huddle’ where they stand up in their seat and make it clear that as soon as it’s humanly possible, they’ll be getting off the plane. Perhaps this is like the unwritten rule that pushing the elevator button multiple times makes it come faster? Standing up makes the plane’s doors open sooner? Quite frankly, as much as I love my fellow man, I always deeply relieved to be off the plane, in my personal ‘bubble’ again and on to the next great air travel event: the sprint to the luggage carrousel.

 

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