Hell on Wings — from New York to Paris

Middle Seat It turns out that your neighbor on the plane/bus/train (or the person sitting at the next table at the coffee shop) is a very, very chatty tourist. Do you try to switch seats, go for a non-committal brief small talk, or make this person your new best friend?

The plane is packed. It isn’t even “my” plane. It’s a plane I am put on because snow in St. Louis made my connecting flight late. By the time I reach JFK, my plane to Milan has left and I’m on this one, this helllsh flight to Charles de Gaulle from which I should get an Alitalia flight to Milan. Well, I’m glad to have a seat. In front of me is a family with a baby. The baby is in a carrier and in front of them is the movie screen. My row, six seats across, and I’m in the middle. To my right is a thirty-something French woman. To my left a twenty-something JAP, Jewish American Princess. I wouldn’t know this, or mention it now, but they become defining elements of their characters as we push our way through 10 hours of air space and, for me, ten hours of hell. The two women had begun talking in the terminal and had brought their strident argument onto the plane.

“Would one of you like to trade seats with me,” I ask, hoping to to get out from the middle of their discussion.

“No,” they both say.

“You could continue your conversation more easily if you were sitting together,” I say, pointing out the good points of my plan.

“I don’t want to be in the middle.”

“Neither do I.”

“Ze average Jewish woman in New York is a beetch. I know zis. I work at the cosmetic counter at Bloomingdales and every day zey come in and complain about something. Zey even complain zey cannot understand my English.”

The air conditioner doesn’t seem to be working and the cabin is hot.

“If you knew what we went through in the war,” says the young woman who did NOT go through any war or through anything, “you would be a little more understanding. You French are the most intolerant people in Europe.” In fact, she was flying on her mother’s frequent flyer rewards to Paris where she would go shopping.

The JAP’s French was decent and at a certain point their exchange of insults slipped into French and back again to English.

The cabin is even hotter.

The stewardesses pass through, grumbling, passing out whatever it was they passed out. Not dinner. The plane took off too late for dinner, but a snack, I suppose. The move is “Armageddon.” I put in the earphones and yet? All the noise in the film does not drown out the ranting harpies beside me. Movie over, I decide to sleep, but the cabin is so hot and I’m so thirsty.

“Excuse me,” I say to the girl  on my left who seems somewhat less hostile than the woman on my right.

“What do you want?” she says.

“I want out. I want to get some water.”

She pulls her legs in slightly as do the people to her left. I go to the stewardess’ station and ask for water. The two stewardesses are engrossed in a conversation about something in their private lives and are clearly annoyed.

“Here,” says one, filling a small glass.

“Could I have a bottle?”

“No,” she says. “Our instructions are two passengers/bottle. We’ll be through the cabin in a few hours with drinks.”

“Can you do anything about the heat? It’s incredibly hot in the cabin.”

“No,” she says. “Our cabin is climate controlled.”

“Could I have some more?” I proffer my now empty plastic glass. The stewardess more than a little begrudgingly fills it.

“Please return to your seat,” she says when I’ve finished. I return to my row and try to return to my seat without disturbing anyone. When I sit down beside the French girl, I hear a frustrated, “Mon dieu!

In spite of the heat, I scrunch down in my seat with a blanket and try to sleep. There’s a lull in the shit-flinging between my neighbors and I think for a moment they’ve exhausted themselves, but no.

“Look what you Jews are doing in Palestine! How can you complain about Hitler when zat is what you are doing to ze Palestinians!”

Merde,” I think. “Ze merde is going to hit ze fan now!” And so it did. For the next two or three hours they harangued at each other and then, finally, they went to sleep. After a while the dawn of a European morning began to push its way into the cabin. The loudspeaker crackled into life and I heard — in French as we were not in Kansas any more — “Nous viendrons dans la cabine avec un petit déjeuner de yaourt, une brioche, et café.” I tapped the women on the shoulder and said, “They are going to serve breakfast.”

The French woman said, “How do you know? Ze announcement was in French.”

Less than two hours and this ordeal would end. Well, this leg of this ordeal would end. What happened next is also a good story, but for another day.