Now I’m on a plane, heading over cities further away from home than I’ve ever been, there really is no popping back home for a cup of tea. However, the whole plane travel bit is dreary – but we’re treated to flashes of beauty out the windows along the way
SOMEWHERE OVER THE MIDDLE EAST, Feb. 1 – Movies never really give you any sense of the time involved in getting places. There are the archetypal shots of young people being driven places looking out their car backseat window with the reflection of the trees glinting on the glass in a tangerine glow of the afternoon sunset. As far as getting people to the flicks is concerned, driving off into a sunset is the sort of stuff that is required.
International air travel is not like that. Only a fool of a traveller would measure time in minutes. Perhaps one could be excused for using hours. I have began to prefer to measure time in the number of movies viewed on the flickering screen on the back of the seat of the person in front of you. It’s a bit like having eyes in the back of your head, except the eyes aren’t yours: they’re someone else’s viewing the entertainment the back of your head has to offer; one can also measure time in the number of times the air hostesses brings around a cup of juice – although this has to be fairly regular as they’re piddly little cups.
And travel isn’t this glorious thing worth dreaming of, either. It’s a lot of waiting around. The travel business – international air carriers, cruise companies and coach tour establishments – would not survive if humanity suddenly lost all of its optimism. To travel, it seems, one has to be optimistic that the next five hours and sixteen minutes won’t actually take that long. But optimism isn’t such a good thing that it disposes of the need for fact.
Mum and Dad sent me off and the rather underwhelming gate at Sydney this morning. It looks no more exciting, grand or enticing than the service door that the morning’s bread, milk and newspapers were wheeled out of. (I was yet to know about the extensive duty free shopping, colourful posters and general lack of ugly people in display photographs beyond that point.) Then, heading up to the departure gate, I spotted Mum on the other side of a glass wall having coffee. Dad, so I’m told, was off getting something – or lost, or both. A bit more waving and then off I went, carrying a coat over my arm and an important kit bag of very, very important (borderline useless, as Dad’d say) stuff.
An older couple spotted my coat at Sydney airport earlier today – or this collection of disjointed hours that has to be called today for my purposes – and asked where I was off to. They worked out I wouldn’t be stopping in Singapore with a holiday with half a sheep’s worth of wool. I told them “the go” – the three months in Freiburg – and they had big smiles on their faces. The woman said, “We’re going to India, but I think you’ll have more fun.” “I wouldn’t say that,” I said. These were the first people I had enjoyed telling my plans to. I’ve told so many people recently that I would like it if everyone I came across just knew what I was up to. Heading off the plane she stopped me again with a wink and said, smiles lines deep around her mouth, “Good luck.”
I’ve been awake for twenty hours and fifty minutes. It has been an everlasting afternoon. It’s what would happen if Willy Wonka was able to mould time with the aid of some orange-faced little men into some magic creation of perfect Sunday afternoons. But there’s always a limit to perfection.
The first leg of the flight – an early morning departure from Sydney that arrived in Singapore around lunch time, but more like late afternoon Sydney time – was easily occupied. Between a breakfast that came in containers and a tray that looked like they belonged in a tessellation puzzle and a lunch on an identical tray, I read the papers: The Weekend Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The International New York Times, The Financial Times, and The Guardian Weekly. My travelling companions – there are five of us heading to Germany – thought it was a complete waste of time; I thought it was the perfect Saturday morning.
The second leg of the flight – Singapore to Frankfurt – has started to drag a little. Two hours of telly shows and two films in and there are still five hours to go of cruising at 30,000 feet in outside air temperatures of around -58C. It’s getting a little boring, so I’ve taken to observing the people around me.
Some people are up and down all the time: they’re going for little walks and heading to the loo, which whirlpools in the opposite direction to the one I’ve grown up with because we’ve crossed the equator. There’s one woman who’s been standing up for about an hour now reading a book. Perhaps she has a back problem and can’t sit down for a long time?
I finally got to watch Kill Your Darlings, a film about a murder and the dawn Beat Generation writers of America. I tried to go and see it at the flicks, but the kind people cancelled the session on me and the three other people who wanted to see it. Perhaps it came across as a niche film, but I thought it was good, perhaps because I fit into the niche? The second film I watched was The Fifth Estate about Mr Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and The Guardian – with Peter Capaldi as editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger – and the other media “partners”. If you ask WikiLeaks they’ll tell you in no uncertain terms that it’s a whole pack of lies, but it’s a good, entertaining story. That killed a darling four hours I had lying around.
I’ve given up on the viewing delights now and I found the music. Categorised in the New Releases was the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album. Which was certainly a new release: about fifty years ago. So their smooth harmonies are coming through the tinny Mylar speaker cones of my Singapore Airlines complimentary headphones.
As I write we’re travelling over a snowy plane with scarring dark ridges. On the horizon is a dusting of yellow-orange-purple haze with bisects the view out the window into the light blue of sky and the broken white below. It looks solid and stable. Unmoving, it looks eternal, but in reality it is liable – there are the steaks of elements dashing through it under the band of orange. We’ve come to what looks like a coast, but I’m not sure that’s what it is. It looks like the outline of land on a white treasure map: almost archetypal in its form. This high up we’re cursed to not being able to fully appreciate it, I suppose. There is no sign of life as we know it, but the landscape doesn’t look dead. Barren isn’t the word. A wasteland would be an inappropriate description. It looks like it – the land – is living down there: a moving, existing, developing, evolving entity. If it looked dead I’d tell you, but I don’t think any land looks dead. A perfect white tile looks dead; a jagged landscape does not.
Singapore airport feels like a distant memory already now. It genuinely could have been Australia – except for the different font the text on the road signs was set in and the trees. All the signage was in English and the airport didn’t feel foreign, it just felt big. Frankfurt, I’m hoping, with a dash of the necessity in travel: optimism, will be foreign-feeling. Otherwise, what was the point of coming?
At the moment – trying to keep the mind active and me asleep – I’ve begun to work out how many people are asleep by seeing if the amount of non-glowing screens, sans movies, music and games, corresponds to the snoring. Which brings me to a side note: sleeping on a plane isn’t glorious or dignified. There’s the snoring, the open mouths, the necks crooked at funny angles and, in some rarer cases, the rolling heads. The cabin’s fairly sparsely populated on this flight, so a lot of people have their feet up and are trying to lie down – capturing the “essence”, if not the material existence, of Business and First Class.
The light on the end of the wing is like an everlasting spark. A distant sun coming with us.
My screen has just issued a flash: “Time to FRA: 04:07.” Might be time to see if there are any more films here worth watching... but now I can see a city. “When I was very small I would sometimes dream of a city, which was strange because I didn’t know what a city was.” – John Wyndham’s novel The Chrysalids opens something like that and what I can see now is one of the ways I imagine a city without knowing what one is: a smattering of orange lights, distant on a living surface well below one’s vantage point. I don’t know what city it is, and it isn’t very big – beautiful things don’t always have to have to have names attached. Instinctively I reach out to touch the lights, but my hand meets the cold glass of the window, on the outside of which ice crystals have formed.
Another city passes by as the orange haze outlines the harsh jagged points of a mountain range I can’t name on the other side of the plane now. Sure, you need optimism to put up with the tedium of travel, but sometimes you treated to a dash of beauty as a reward.
The sun sets and darkness envelops our pressurised tin tube. Below us the golden-orange lights of the cities make them look like the conductor patterns on earthed integrated circuits. People move like current, but do they all look for the shortest route?
I’m writing these posts on the way to, in and coming home from Freiburg, Germany. I appreciate your comments below and your emails: email@example.com