If you are the kind of person who likes to fly undisturbed from one place to the next, maybe listening to music on your earphones or watching a movie on that tiny screen, not making new friends, preferably not saying a single word for 12 hours straight, then I’m not the fellow you want next to you on the flight, because I am that most dreaded of fellow travellers – I’m the guy who tries to make conversation.
I know this is not a popular personality trait. My friends who know that I do this have told me frankly that I am one of the worst people in the world, but I don’t care – it seems unnatural to me to be forced into such close proximity with another person for such a long period of time, and to not even find out their name. Long-haul in economy class is one of the worst tortures that modern society can legally inflict on its citizens when a state of war hasn’t been declared, and it just seems to me as though it doesn’t make it any easier for the victims to pretend they’re alone in this predicament. Share some humanity, that’s what I say.
Not all my experiences of trying to chat to my neighbours on a plane have ended happily. Sometimes I am met with coldness and silence; even worse, every so often I run into someone who actually wants to chat and doesn’t shut up for the next eleven hours. It’s tempting sometimes to give up and join the rest of the world in its policy of inwardness and silence and disconnection, but recently I had an experience that gave me renewed faith.
I was flying home from London on one of the late-night flights. It had been a long week in London, seeing friends, getting rained on, taking meetings which seemed to mainly happen in pubs where the only way of trying to make yourself forget how much you were paying for each pint was by having another.
London can be a hard city to visit and move around, especially in winter when the rains and storms seem to baffle the locals so much you’d swear it’s the first time they’ve ever even heard of bad weather. On the day before I left to come home there were weather predictions that Storm Doris might reach London, so trains were shut down and tube stations were closed. The ranks of scowling miserable Brits thronging the few unclosed stations looked like Soviet citizens during the siege of Leningrad, pushing a jostling for a bite of horsemeat.
“But there’s no storm,” I said to the official at Euston station, pointing to the blue skies.
“Weather report says there is,” he shrugged.
So I was tired and worn out when it came time to fly home. I would be landing at 11am in Cape Town and I had a meeting at 1pm. All I wanted to do was put on my eye-mask and take my sleeping pill and try get in as many miserable hours of half-dozing as possible before the back spasms wake me, but I was also hungry, and there’s no point skipping your meal and staying up all night silently gnawing the headrest of the seat in front of you.
The guy beside me was about my age and wore a yarmulke. I introduced myself and he said his name was Jared and he had just been visiting his girlfriend in London. We discussed long-distance relationships for a while, and whether it’s harder to leave or to be left behind, and then I sighed and said I wished they would hurry up with the dinner service. We’d been in the air nearly an hour already and they hadn’t even brought around our drinks. On the way in it had taken two-and-a-half hours before dinner was finished.
I explained how tired I was, and how I just needed to sleep, and while he was listening thoughtfully, the steward brought him his kosher meal. “Kosher meal always comes first,” Jared said.
“Lucky,” I said.
“Hey,” he said, “five thousand years of anti-Semitism, it’s about time we got something back.”
Then he said, “Here”, and handed me his tray. I didn’t understand at first, but then he offered again. “You have this,” he said, “then you can go to sleep.”
“I can’t eat your kosher meal,” I said.
“Of course you can,” he said. “Gentiles don’t go to hell if they eat kosher.”
“No, I mean, you’ll have nothing to eat.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I ate at the airport with my girlfriend. Eat it. Go to sleep. I don’t have a meeting tomorrow afternoon.”
I protested, of course, but he insisted.
“It would make me happy,” he said.
That’s why I always talk to my neighbor on a flight: you never know which new friend you’re going to make.
That’s also why from now on I will always order the kosher meal: because it comes early, and it’s tasty, and you never know who you’ll be able to help.
Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer, author - follow him on Twitter - Comments are open on this article if you'd like to chat to Darrel and share any similar experiences...
What to read next on Traveller24
- PICS: Headphone batteries explode on flight to Australia
- Real SNAKE on a plane grounds Emirates flight
- Every flight query you've ever had - answered