Part 1: On Flying

I have been up since 3 am. Devin — bless him — is driving me to the airport; neither of us are really talking, but not in an unpleasant way. It’s perhaps the quietest moment I will have for the next 24 hours as I fly from Pittsburgh to Boston to New York to Berlin to Tel Aviv. The speed of the first two legs is a tease; reaching New York is when it will all begin to shift to travel.

JFK at ten in the morning seems to barely stir. I exit my flight from Boston, take a left into the labyrinth and come up near a help desk where a woman sits absorbed in the nylon lanyard around her neck. The knot just won’t unravel. Here, I should take a moment to say that I have officially lost patience with the recommendation to be there three hours early for a flight — especially an international flight. The woman behind the counter barely looks up as she barks out a laugh: “AirBerlin doesn’t open ’til two. You should come back later.” Come back from where, pray tell? The Dunkin Donuts? Perhaps the underpass near the parking lot? I settle for a wall with exactly one outlet and, looking around, am calmed to see that, like mathematics and music, irritation is a universal language.

Likewise, travel seems to share the power of traumatic events and reality television shows: creating quick, frantic alliances. For me, this comes in the shape of a petite blonde Southerner named Casey Jean, with whom I share a slice of cheese pizza no New Yorker would be proud of. She is on her way to Europe — Austria, Prague, Slovenia — for about two weeks and has two bags. One is the size of a fuel efficient car. “I wish I could pack like you,” she says. I look as though I am off for a weekend of living rough: a backpack and a TSA regulation carry-on roller suitcase for my six week stay in Israel. Over the ensuing eight or so hours, we manage to get our bags checked and make quick work of the security checkpoint before finding a bar. “Do you drink tequila?” She has ordered two for us before I can respond. “Well, if you don’t have a sleeping pill, you might as well have a margarita, hun.”

I don’t mess with sleeping pills. Ambien commercials made me quite certain that at 35,000 feet, I do not want anything to do with gophers or Abraham Lincoln, lest I have my own private episode of Twilight Zone. I will have nothing on the wing of the plane, thanks so much. And so, somewhere over the Atlantic, I am cursing Casey Jean for her kindness. I have not been able to fall asleep and the pleasant buzz has become a twinge between my eyebrows.

Some people can fall asleep anywhere — my grandfather could: sofas, the kitchen table, a particularly comfortable stool at the shoe store; it was all fair game. Such is the man beside me. He has decided that his legs have dibs on half of my own seat on the plane, apologizing brusquely in German once before silently jostling me for the next eight hours. The only thing I will say for European planes: wine or beer with dinner and during beverage service are free. But after, it’s every person for themselves. Two seats ahead a child is screaming every half hour so. “Awwww, wittle baby, youse do-wing soooooooooo weeellll!” says a woman to the mother’s left. Glassy-eyed she smiles back politely and I can hear her thoughts. Liar.

***

If you can help it, avoid having a layover in Berlin. The building itself is a brutalist nightmare, more like a stone ship that was marooned in the middle of a city. The main building, that is. Before you can get to the “Flughafen,” you have to go through a security checkpoint: just in case during the ten minutes it takes to get off the plane, into an airport bus, and to the customs line, you hatch a plot to take over the world and procure the means to do so. I see at least two people make air quotes as they talk about German “efficiency” and look around at the hangar that houses customs. Corrugated metal partitions and curt instructions left me questioning: couldn’t they spruce it up a little? Perhaps a security guard in lederhosen? Or schnitzel-scented air freshener?

In line, I meet another traveler named Jacob, also on his way to Israel for his sister’s wedding. Within twenty minutes, we are talking at length, leaving customs behind, and entering the stone ship of the Great Flughafen. It looks like the pictures of every foreign language textbook I’d ever seen: late 70s to early 80s metal and tile that creep up the walls, pastels on grey backgrounds. We are basically on the set for a special vacation episode of Das Golden Girls. Luckily the wait is shorter, only four hours this time. Boarding the plane, I am surrounded by Israelis. The flight attendants are not the smooth, assuaging type from the first flight. Frankly they seem pissed for no reason, until the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign goes off about forty-five minutes later. Like a flash mob, entire rows of people stand up and begin to move about the cabin, heedless of requests to stay seated. Within an hour, the two flight attendants seem to accept defeat, simply squeezing by the Israelis that walk about chatting. One of the few left in my seat, I can’t help but smirk when I hear a flight attendant mutter under her breath, “Welcome to Israel.”

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