Notes From Midair (. . .and #6)

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

**

Leaving you without a post for a few days was not entirely by design, although it does seem that the nature of my last entry deserved at least a moment—if not a week—of silence. Thank you for your tender responses to the things I share from the heart.

Today’s post also comes from my heart,  though not from a car port filled with moving boxes.  It comes from 30,000 feet.

That’s my view.  It is made possible by Singapore Airlines, which is toward the top of my list of What I Will Really Miss About Singapore.  You’ve caught me flying from Europe back to the Asia, after having spent two whirlwind days finding a home near Geneva so our “stuff”, the stuff of the last post, has a place to land.

There’s a story there, and I’m eager to tell it.

But not without telling about the third day, which was spent dashing to and from Paris. . .

. . .doing something entirely unrelated to house-hunting. It was an annual ceremony that Randall and I have been invited to attend for five years running.

It involves Parker.

There’s a story there, too, of course, and I am more eager to tell it than to tell anything else. So please do keep coming back.

But first.

This big airplane and why I will really miss it.

When we told our world-traveler friend, Brent, that we were moving to Singapore, he threw his head back, closed his eyes, and let out a sigh of pain and rapture.

“Oooooohhhhh. You’ll fly Singapore Airlines,” he moaned.

“Is. . .that. . .is that good?” I looked at him sympathetically, stepping back sideways and extending one hand a bit in case he passed out.

“Good? It’s I-Never-Want-To-Get-Off-This-Plane good. It’s like, who needs a destination? My vacation is going to be right here,”  he patted an imaginary flip down tray table, “in the window seat, row 46. Bring me a little plate of chicken satay with spicy peanut sauce and I’ll eat it even with my eye mask on. Don’t make me move until you’ve circled the globe.”

“So. . . it’s a good thing?” Randall raised his eyebrows in hope, knowing he’d probably be doing what Brent had said: spending many a missed vacation in planes, circling the globe, eating Thanksgiving satay, probably, from a flip down tray table, eye mask on his forehead. All on Singapore Airlines.

“Never flown better,” Brent said. “I’ll come visit you guys, if only to take the flight.”

As I type these very words, I’m testing out just how right on the money Brent was.

I’m here to report: he was.

What makes Singapore Airlines better than, hummm, just about all other carriers? Let me tell you two stories. Compare for yourself.

This tale is just one of many from the countless transglobal flights I’ve done solo with children over these last 20+ years, the likes of which are material for a big sweaty chapter, “Survival Stories from 40,000 Feet”, a literal high point in my forthcoming book, The 21st Century Mother.

It is the early summer of 2001.  I am traveling on a major American carrier from France to the U.S. with my children, of whom Luc is the baby, just over a year old. We are lined up in our coach class seats, everyone with their carefully-packed backpacks filled with carefully-planned activities in a carefully-labeled plastic zippered bag each, everyone settled into a post pouch-of-salted-peanuts-and-lukewarm-Sprite reverie.

Behind me sits (I’ve noticed her—who on the plane could not notice her?) a middle-aged woman dressed more for the Christian Dior fall collection runway than for the runway-runway, if you know what I’m saying.  While most people are in their comfies for what will be a long flight, Runway Woman is in fancy leather pants, cashmere shawls and silk everything else.  Her big designer bag has high bling quotient and many fringes, as I remember.  It sits open on her lap.

I try not to make assumptions. But something about her coiffed presence fans the heat beneath that familiar low-grade self-consciousness I feel when roughly 150 pairs of eyeballs bore into the back of my head. I’m that mother, I read their thought bubbles, who instead of a cramped jet airplane should have taken a big, multi-storey theme park of a cruise liner. Or contraception.

Let’s just say that not every passenger I’ve encountered on my many flights with small children has been equally charmed by the sight of our entourage arriving. I’ve boarded a plane before carrying one child in a back pack, another in a chest pack, followed by the older two carrying enough gear to fill a whole side of overhead bins or outfit all the Boy Scout troops in Saskatchewan.

I do have to wonder if my less tolerant co-travelers know how tough it is to keep children happily occupied for every minute of, essentially, a full day spent confined within the dimensions of a phone booth.  My kids are doing remarkably well so far. I am peering out that window, thanking the roomy heavens out there.

But Luc is at that age. Oh, that age.  And at that age he cannot be contained so easily, be that in a phone booth or in a football stadium or anywhere. I have him on my lap, facing forward, facing sideways, facing backward, in the air, on his belly. We’re singing, clapping, chanting, doing tray table toddler yoga. I have the finger puppets out. Then the colorful bead toy.  Then the cardbooks. Then the family photos. I have given him raisins. Yogurt. Crackers. A small bottle of apple juice. Another bottle of apple juice.

My arsenal is waning.  I glance at my watch.  We have nine more hours to go.

Then he is standing on my lap, facing backward, charming (I am hoping) Runway Woman. Maybe she loves children, I try hard to convince myself, or misses her own.  But could this unruffled woman know anything about children? Or maybe she has a niece or nephew somewhere.  Maybe Luc reminds her of a child she once saw in a movie? I am trying on every single pleasant thought while bouncing his little body on my knees, patting his adorable back to burp him as he coos and murbbles over my shoulder. At Runway Woman. With her open handbag on her lap.

And this, dear reader, is the tipping point.  Because right then I feel, rising like a small hot air balloon against my own chest, something stealthy and bilious traveling up inside of Luc. I give one bounce too many.  One pat too firm.

A resonant belch from my little munchkin erupts almost simultaneously with Runway Woman’s gasp and hissed French curse.  And in an instant there is a wet sensation—spreading, oozing—over my left shoulder.

Next second, the other passengers behind me let out groans and various murmurs.

Next second, the smell.

I am up on my feet in a flash, apologizing (and sweating) the moment I see the crackery-yogurty-juicy-raisiny soup now filling Runway Woman’s designer handbag.

You’ve gotta hand it to Luc, though. For a tot, he had very good projectile aim.  There are only flecks of vomit on the rest of this woman, and luckily none on her face, which now stares at me in stony expectation.

Luc in arms, mini-geysers of after-shock baby vomit now drizzling down my own shoulder blades, I am scurrying to the back of the plane to its galley, trying to find a flight attendant to give me a hand.

(Take note.  It is here, in the galley, the airplane’s backstage, where you can best judge the caliber of an airline’s performance.)

I find her, the one who will attend to me. Because that is what she is: A flight attendant.  She sits there on one of those small fold-down seats reading a paperback and chewing her gum while bobbing her crossed leg up and down and twirling her ankle.  Two other passengers besides me stand in front of her, asking for help. This guy just wants water, this other one a toilet paper refill.  And I need, oh please, wet rags and spray disinfectant? If she has them?

Not flinching, (except the bobbing crossed leg, twirling ankle, and slow page turn), she answers through her gum-chawing:  “Know what my favorite saying is? Whoever throws up, cleans up.”

And goes right back to reading.

You are right.  We got two free domestic round trip tickets thanks to a letter of complaint we wrote to that airline’s HR department, and thanks to the fact that I had managed, while recruiting other passengers in my bucket brigade of damp paper towels and vials of hand disinfectant, to note the name of that (remarkably bookish) flight attendant.

It was an unforgettably—how shall I put this?— piquant flight. Yet Runway Woman was actually as gracious as could be.  She had children herself, turns out. And one of her three was even named Luc.

***

This next story comes from the early summer of 2012. June. Today.  I am traveling alone to Singapore from Paris where Randall and I were at yesterday’s special ceremony, about which I will return in depth in the next blog, as I’ve promised.

In order to attend not only yesterday evening’s ceremony but also this morning’s church meetings in our beloved former congregation a block from Notre Dame cathedral, I had to wear formal clothing—fancy clothing—and had it on when I had to leave my husband (on Father’s Day) in order to speed from the heart of the city to the north, to Charles de Gaulle airport.  Traffic and lines of waiting passengers tightened my already snug itinerary, and so I didn’t have a minute to dip into a public restroom, even, and change clothing.  So for this (13 hour) flight I am still wearing ceremony/church clothing.  Silk and heels and, may I repeat? Way too fancy. No comfies whatsoever. And am I ever feeling out of place.

I also have a largish handbag.

In front of me on this flight happens to be a mother traveling alone with a child, a boy, maybe one year old.  She is Asian and her child is a dumpling with black fuzzy hair that looks like it’s been vacuumed vertically, or like those funny educational toys that have metal shavings that, when you run a magnet over the top of them, stand end to end, defying gravity.

As you can imagine, this sweet child is literally all over the place. The mother has him on her lap, facing forward, facing sideways, facing backward, in the air, on his belly. She’s been singing, clapping, chanting, doing tray table toddler Tai Chi. She has an iPad (which didn’t exist in the days when I sure could have used one for these trips) from which she’s reading baby ebooks, doing finger art with Junior, and flipping through iPhoto.  He squeals with delight. She presses her cheek against his, making kissing sounds.  Why am I moved to tears?

I’m watching closely as the crew “attends”.  By law, I’m guessing, the Singapore Airline flight attendants are probably not allowed to touch the child. But I have been observing how they have done everything but.  They’ve stayed right next to this mother and her child, attending to them with little toys and favors, kneeling in the aisle, playing little finger games, laughing, doing everything that signals that they not only tolerate but they welcome this passenger and her child. They are so kind.

And refined.  I notice that when they address this woman, just as when they address me, they do so quietly, respectfully, and they bend low or kneel, to get to our eye level.  They smile, almost compulsively.  They look incredibly concentrated, and according to the attendant I just questioned who spontaneously brought me chamomile tea (“You are so busy writing, Madame, do you not need a break? Tea, maybe?”), they are indeed concentrated.

In fact, they are hyperconcentrated.  For instance, they are not allowed to congregate and chat with each other. Their focus is the passenger, whom they are to spoil.  They may not put food in their own mouth until everyone on the plane has been served, and when they finally do eat, under no circumstances should a passenger see them do so.  (I, for one, have never seen them eat.  And if you see the their outfits, the iconic creations from French designer, Pierre Balmain, you understand why.)

Their hair, which must be worn in a twist or cut short enough that it does not touch their shoulders, must be done in such a way as to not show a single hair pin or rubber band.  It must be lacquered  in place. Their makeup must be the approved colors and application.  They must have impeccable skin and manicures.  They must have fresh looking shoes, no worn down heels.  The men must be trim, too, and must also have perfectly groomed hair and hands.  They also smile and nod and attend with precise perfection.

And I have yet to see any one of them sit down.  They are not chewing gum. They are not reading books. And I’ll wager they are not getting letters of complaint.

Now an attendant is asking if the mother in front of me needs. . . more moist towlettes? A blanket? Another pillow? Does baby want these special custom-made baby toys? Can we help Ma’am unwrap her utensils when the dinner arrives so she can eat?

Does baby need more apple juice, Ma’am? Crackers? Yogurt, maybe?

My focus is on the teeny black eyes peering over the seat in front of me, that halo of gravity-defying hair. Mother is patting baby’s back.  Instinctively, I am zipping shut my handbag, sliding it safely under the seat. Then I am tucking an entire blanket into my neckline, draping it like a shield over these fancy clothes.

These fancy clothes that belong to a middle-aged woman who, the mother in front of me might assume, doesn’t know a thing about how tough it is to travel with infants. Doesn’t know a thing, maybe, about children at all.

I reach up to touch fingertips with the plump little hand pushed through the seats.

 

10 thoughts on “Notes From Midair (. . .and #6)

  1. Jack, good guess! It was, however, another carrier and not UA. I suppose it could have happened on just about any airline, and I might have just been unlucky. And flight attendants do have a tiring job, no doubt. (Do you hear me still trying to forgive her after all these years? 🙂

  2. Right back at ‘ya from 30,000 feet, friend. I was walking through the Las Vegas airport this morning at 5am. thinking about your wonderful post, wishing that I was heading to a Singapore airlines flight. ~sigh~ Instead, I strolled through two smoke filled Casinos (gag—literally), and felt saddened as I watched several of God’s obese, tattooed, chain-smoking children shove money into various multi-colored, blinking, beeping machines. Really a depressing way to start the day. None of these ‘creatures of the night; seemed to be aware that the dawn was breaking and a new day had arrived. They looked as if they would all be in an endless loop of the fabricated night-time that Casinos simulate. (I don’t know if there is a more vile locale on the planet than Las Vegas, Nevada, IMHO.) Anyway, I really kept thinking how nice it would be if the entire world adhered to the theme, tone and feel that you describe of Singapore Airlines—everything elegant, quiet, soft, polite, sophisticated, subtle, at its best…….I was imagining an airport where everyone dressed nicely, spoke in soft, polite tones, were curious to each other, etc.

    I’m glad that you got to fly in your ‘fancy cloths’ back from Paris (you were no doubt the crown jewel of that flight) and reflect on making a similar trip with young, vomiting children.  Aren’t flight attendants ‘with attitude’ the most infuriating??? I always want to remind them that THEY picked their job! I love these posts Melissa.

    I am on a Delta flight, heading back to Massachusetts after an insufferable 24 hour Conference. Should be home for Mutual! I have a seat upfront, wifi, power, meals, endless Diet Coke, and i even just Skyped with Robb and Abby. Life could be worse. 🙂

    One suggestion/idea: Every time you post, enter the link into your Facebook status. (I’ve seen this from several people). It will get many of your friends who forget to ‘stop by’ to click right from Facebook (where the world seems to live, lol) and hop over to this lovely Blog! Just an idea. Sending love your way.

  3. Singapore Airlines has, in my experience, the highest regard in terms of service. Tho’ my own airline strives to be service oriented, (and does a better job of it than most), I’m pretty certain Singapore Airlines is in a class of it’s own. There are a few contributing factors; culture, flight duration, economics, etc., but that doesn’t mean we can’t do our best to treat our customers with as much warm, professional, freely-offered service as possible. As a flight attendant I try to remember this and inspire my fellow crewmates when I’m the lead, because each customer provides us with an opportunity we’ll never recapture…to make the front or back end of their trip a positive or negative experience. Some people think I’m crazy, but for me, flying will never be routine. It’s something special and amazing, every time. I love it! And I loved your stories here! ♥

    • BLUE!! This is proof that telepathy lives. I’ve been hoping-hoping-hoping you would read and stop by. I’m so glad to hear your authoritative voice about the life of a flight attendant. Something tells me that you would make the dream attendant: generous and radiant with warmth, meticulous. And you are spot on about the cultural soil from which Sing Air’s service culture grows. There is an overall service culture in Asia I have never known before in the west. I’ll tell more stories soon about the comparison, I think, since I already sense I’m returning to a world where the customer is pretty much a nuisance. Sing Air doesn’t have to brow beat its employees, I don’t think, to bow—literally—to the clients, because it’s not seen as demoralizing to serve well.I, on the other hand, feel really uneasy being bowed to. But it is a sign of respect and sure feel dignified.

      (By the way, the carrier in question in my blog was not yours 🙂

  4. Jacque, I’m so tickled you would tune in here while still coughing up casino fumes and hanging by your fingernails to a couple of jet engines and flimsy metal wings. I do not envy your dip into Vegas, which I am sure is much more than the Strip, the fake Eiffel Tower and the reconstituted Venetian canals. (There is a splendid temple there, after all.) But the scene you paint of pre-dawn slot-machine junkies makes my soul bloat with an extra-crispy, deep fried feeling.

    And about flying with children: there is a definite twinge of envy and longing that gets me every time I see a parent with a strollered or a chest packed child ambling through an airport. For the sake of the blog narrative, I know I made that trip sound like drudgery — such self -sacrifice — but if given the chance to go back right there and replay it, I would do so in an instant, the indignity of bile and all. We’re glued to our children by body fluids, I think, all of which end up shared and smeared at some point! Blood, sweat, tears, vomit. . . whatever juices you might be able to think of. Like you, I make it a point to lean over to those traveling parents, tap them on the shoulder, and tell them they have a gorgeous child, that she/he did fabulously on the flight, and that , far-off as it might seem, one day they might long for that daughter or son to be back in that chest pack.

    Thanks for the FB tip. Done!

  5. you’re in my RSS feed, so i’ve been lurking along with your adventures. love the peek into your life. can’t wait for more! ♥

  6. Loved this so much. It’s very hard to be happy/grateful on American carriers after flying Singapore or Thai or another such airline :::sigh::: they are lovely. I am already dreading those looks that say “you know, there is a pill for that..” as I board the airplane bound for America with my four children and no husband (in just over a week). Even better is when you get on your connecting flight after having flown too many hours to count and by then it’s 3am in your brain and you’ve been awake for too many hours to count. Then no one knows where you just came from so they can’t understand why your kids can’t just get up and get on the plane, or get up and get off of the plane and out of their way without melting into a half-asleep pile of tears and soggy cereal. As you are one of the wisest people I know, I believe with all my heart that I will miss traveling with them as you say I will, but I’m dreading it all the same.

    • I’ve got a clot of humor and sympathy tears blocking my air passage right this minute over what you have written, Mary. Oh, oh, oh have you said it so well! And sweet friend, I have been where you are and I know the dread. I recall that grinding anxiety as I foresaw 24 hours in transit (love those 7 hour layovers, don’t you?, in Duluth or Bangor or Nairobi) without a chance to close my eyes, eat a bite, or got to the toilet. (Who can go to the toilet—an airplane, toilet, mind you—with an infant in arms? Or, as you and I and many have done, an infant at breast?) But one day. . .when you put on fnacy clothes and keep them on al flight long, you will miss it. I really think you will. I feel somehow so far less competent now. Less of an Olympian. Really.

      I recall telling a woman who was psychologically preparing for a 5 hour (only) flight with her newborn that the worst thing that could happen on that flight is that someone dies. (How terribly lightly I spoke of death in those days .. . .) But the point is, you will not die. But you might be mortified. Funny you should respond today because on my hike this morning I was thinking through all this and thought a very effective chapter in a book one day would be juxtaposing the journals of Mayflower passengers—where people really did die, and gave birth, and fell overboard, and got scurvy—with a coach flight from Amsterdam, let’s say, to New England.

      I will be thinking of you, Mary. You are one of my favorite people and a very devoted mother, indeed. And years from now, your children will say the very same things about you. Wait and see. All those airline seat belts you have to keep resnapping and resnapping around their bellies? They bind you to those young souls forever.

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