nternational flights can leave you sitting next to anyone from anywhere. Suspended above the earth, lives overlap in the strangest of ways. Your path can cross that of someone whose existence is strange and different and whose journey you can only guess at.
My flight from Naples to Istanbul lasted two hours. I’d barely put my bag under the seat when the man seated by the window tapped me on my arm.
What does he want? I wondered.
With a nod of his head he looked at me and motioned toward his lap. There he held the buckle of the seatbelt in his hands and flipped the release dumbfounded. He didn’t know how to use it.
How could a 21st-century adult not know how to buckle a seatbelt?
I showed him how to take the strap and slip the latch into the buckle and tighten. I felt like a flight attendant during the safety announcements I routinely ignored.
His bewilderment at something so basic set my mind to wondering. Who was this novice flyer and why was he headed to Turkey? He was about 30, swarthy, and had the uncomfortable look of someone out of his depth in a place he didn’t belong.
“È la prima volta su un aereo?” I asked. Is this your first time?
He nodded shyly. I smiled back trying to reassure him.
I pulled out the in-flight magazine with the world map and asked about his origins. He gestured to landlocked Pakistan.
Odd I thought. He’s a long way from home. How’d he get to Naples without flying?
On the map I pointed to New York City. “American,” he said, looking at me closely, measuring me against some preconceived notion that I could tell wasn’t pleasant. I just smiled.
As the plane taxied and the engines roared for takeoff, terror covered his face. He stared anxiously out the window as the plane took off. He seemed somehow in disbelief.
He craned his neck and stared out the window as the toy-like buildings along the Bay of Naples receded and Mt. Vesuvius became a tiny bump. Clouds approached and we moved through them.
I demonstrated how to yawn to release the pressure in his ears. I showed him how to insert the dangly wires of the complementary headset and how the button on his armrest made his seat recline. Pleased, he closed his eyes and slept.
But an hour later, approaching Istanbul, the plane began trembling as we hit bad weather. He awoke terrified at the unfamiliar shake and bump of turbulence as the wind blew the plane to and fro. I too was unnerved.
He reached into the seat pocket for the emergency card and frantically tried to make sense of the images of oxygen masks, life vests and inflatable ramps. He looked at me white and drawn, then doubled over and put his head in his hands.
The plane danced unsteadily over the landing strip, then hit the ground evenly and skidded to a stop. The passengers released a communal deep breath and applauded. The man watched me clap and joined in with a sigh of relief.
Then, strangely, before the plane came to a complete stop, he grabbed his bag, stepped over me, and dashed to the front of the plane to exit. There was no thank you or goodbye.
As I watched him leave, I tried to fathom the contents of his life. I had seen only a sliver, one that included curiosity, wonder, terror and relief. In a few short hours this passenger, this man, had shared my life at the intersection of an international flight, and then he was gone.