Ships That Pass in the Night

December 3, 2010

by Anne Campbell

“Mom, you might consider rescheduling. For $800 extra you can get more direct flights,” my daughter says.

She’s being sensible, if not frugal. The itinerary she has booked for me—Tbilisi, Georgia to Minneapolis-St. Paul—looks like a killer; ten-plus hours of flying on four separate flights, plus a total of ten hours of layovers (not including the two hours waiting to board the 4:00 a.m. flight in Tbilisi).

“Oh I don’t mind short flights and hanging around in airports. It can be quite interesting,” I tell her, unaware of how true that will turn out to be.

On my first flight, Tbilisi to Istanbul, my seat mate is a youngish man, dark-haired and pale, lean and wiry. Dressed in well-cut black pants and jacket and a black turtleneck, he could be a member of a local mafia, but for the sensitive face and sweet smile.

“May I ask where you are from Madam?” he asks (I love the ‘Madam’, but am getting used to it after England and Turkey).

“From the U.S. And you?”

“I am from Iran,” he says.

“What brought you to Georgia?”

“I have been visiting Tbilisi to talk to a Georgian film company about some work as a movie stunt man.”

I’m stuck, what do you say to a movie stunt man? “Wow, that must be dangerous/exciting/boring after a while”? Everyone he meets must say that.

I settle on, “What was the hardest thing you’ve had to do?”

He thinks for a second, then replies, “Falling from a thirty story building.”

He pulls out a cell-phone; there are pictures of him, face up, spread-eagled, about half way down a skyscraper canyon. Then he flips to photos of spectacularly faked car-crashes. Part of his current work is setting up stunts and training other stunt-men “all over the Middle East.”

“So, how did you become a stunt man, and why?”

He replies that he’d been a mechanical engineer originally, but likes excitement. It makes sense, in a way, although not a complete explanation. He also likes Tbilisi, where he has a rented apartment, and thinks of moving there. Hints of a checkered past emerge. He has spent a few weeks in an Iranian prison and time in the Iranian military (I never find out why he was in jail—or maybe the brig). He doesn’t like today’s Iran, but doesn’t look old enough to have known any other regime. When I say that we hear through the U.S. media that a lot of people still support the regime (admittedly mostly the poorer people, often members of the Basij and their families, who like the well-paid jobs as government thugs) he demurs. He is sure that most Iranians are opposed, and hopes that the U.S. will intervene with regime change. I say that I don’t think that’s likely, after Iraq & Afghanistan.

When we land he hauls down my wheeled backpack (I always travel light) from the overhead bins, looking a little surprised that I don’t have more elegant luggage.

At Ataturk Airport in Istanbul I am faced with several coffee shops. I opt for the one that is nearly empty (it looks expensive) but has big upholstered armchairs at the tables. After getting up at 2:00 a.m. for a 4:00 a.m. flight, I badly need the comfortable seating.

The café latte I order turns up as a tiny cup of black coffee. “Is this café latte?”  I ask, and am told that it is. Wondering if ‘café latte’ means something different than ‘coffee with milk’ in Turkey, I drink it up and pay the bill. A few minutes later the waitress returns, looking sheepish, with a large cup of milky café latte and apologies. I’ve already drunk the black coffee, so I get two coffees for the price of one.

On the next flight—Istanbul to London—the young man sitting in my aisle seat hastily gathers up his belongings.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” he says, as he moves one seat over. He seems lost in thought, distracted. Later, he starts up a conversation cheerfully enough, but I sense an underlying sadness and anxiety.

He has lived and traveled in South America for the past year or two but has just been in Tbilisi teaching English as a second language, under contract to the public school system. His was an inner city school, and he says that while some students and parents value the education, some think it a waste of time. He bemoans authoritarian Georgian teaching methods but feels optimistic that given exposure to U.S. educational practices this will change. The school system plans to hire a thousand English teachers in a move to replace Russian with English as a second language, he says.

“They want to join the European Union and think this will help,” he explains.

We go through the usual “What brings you to the states?” routine and he says he is going home to Arizona for a family emergency; he isn’t sure he’ll be able to return to Georgia to finish his year there. It’s only a couple of weeks into the school year, in Georgia as well as in the states, and quitting that early may mean he’ll have to pay back the cost of his air fares.

“Though the school system is trying to waive that requirement, given the circumstances.”

I must have been looked questioning.

“My younger brother died yesterday.”

His brother was 21-years-old. I mention that my brother died ten years ago and it still saddens me, “though, of course he was a lot older than your brother,” I tell him.

He doesn’t seem to know whether he wants to talk about his brother or not, so we go back to discussing school systems and his love of South America, where he has spent time teaching, and scuba diving.

On impulse, I volunteer that my brother committed suicide. His brother committed suicide too, he says. He’d talked to him on the phone a couple of days before and everything had seemed fine.

“He’d been talking of going fishing. My mom called me last night. She found him.”

He doesn’t know how long he’ll need to be in the States to support his mother emotionally.

“Is your mother pretty good at talking about things?” I ask.

He answers hesitantly— it’s clear that he doubts she will be, at least about this.

“So she probably will need you, to help talk about it.” I offer.

He nods, then we talk of this and that and he ends by saying that although he likes Georgia, he may not go back to Tbilisi. Instead, he is considering returning to South America to teach scuba for a while, “when this is all over.” I don’t tell him it will never be completely over.

“Take care of yourself,” I tell him as we part, hoping he’ll go back to South America if that’s what he wants—and if it will do him the most good.

By the time I reach Heathrow I’m dopy and dazed with air-travel and lack of sleep. I’m still enjoying that feeling of being overseas, of being a traveler, brought on by big international airports, but after several hours of rattling around Terminal One trying to find English toffees for my daughter and Sudafeds for me in the duty free shops, I’m even sleepier.

I lie down on a corrugation of adjoining seats to doze. When I open my eyes, somewhat refreshed, a black-haired, olive-skinned man of decidedly middle-eastern appearance opposite me is smiling at me. I think he winks, which is odd—perhaps he has something in his eye. Disconcerted, I get up and leave. Then I remember the repeated warnings not to allow anyone access to one’s baggage; I’ve been dangling open Duty Free bags from my wrist as I dozed and anything could have been slipped into, or stuck on to, them. Semtex? Anthrax? (This is before the latest scare so I don’t think of ink cartridges). Feeling foolish, and uncomfortably aware that I might not have been so concerned if the smiling man had been more northern looking (but in a ‘better-safe-than-sorry’ frame of mind) I check carefully. Nothing. The man was probably benevolently amused to see a white-haired woman stretched out across the seats out like a teenager.

Still with two hours to kill, I wander aimlessly around the blocs of seats, almost all occupied, and in brightly lit areas, until desperate to sit down I aim for another coffee shop. I get the coffee I need to wake me up enough to find my gate and look around. There are empty seats but no empty tables. Too dopy to stand, I ask a fortyish man with a pleasantly open, broad, face if I may sit at his table. He welcomes me, beyond what politeness demands, and I explain my sleepiness, and the long trip. He says he’s lucky, he’s only going to Portugal— something to do with a car (delivering or picking one up?). The noise level is high at this point and I miss the details. We end up discussing global warming, current weather trends, the economy of India— Bangalore as the Indian Silicon Valley— and my view that out-sourcing by U.S. companies has benefited the world economy by providing jobs for educated young Indians, among others.

“The biggest problem I see with the Indian economy is the attitude toward manual workers, they are still looked down on and treated like dirt,” he says.

Indian businesses, he adds, don’t realize that they have to show some respect for factory workers if they want to make and sell good products. I mention the Hawthorne Project, the U.S. study that found that the one factor contributing to improved production is not better lighting or desk height, but that someone is paying attention to the employees. He doesn’t recognize the name but knows of the experiment.

A short, plump, motherly-looking, South-Asian lady cleaning off tables and tidying up, points out a chair to him, more comfortable than the backless stool he is sitting on and urges him to take it. I’m so sleepy I don’t register whether he takes it or not.

Somewhere in there my companion mentions, in passing, that his mother was Indian, which I couldn’t have guessed from his very European appearance. I wish later that I’d asked if his mother was from Goa, and if he spoke Portuguese, and if this was why he was going to Portugal.

He seems to enjoy passing the time conversing as much as I do and says he’s sorry to have to leave for his flight.

After he leaves, with my coffee cup empty and more customers coming in, I ask the motherly lady, “Do you need my table?”

“No, no,” she says. “You can be staying there as long as you like. Be comfortable. I am clearing things away only to make it look nice.”

When I leave she calls out cheerily, “Goodbye, have a good flight.”

My seatmate on the last flight, seven hours over the Atlantic, is a middle-aged lady from China, somewhat unstylish compared with the women I’ve seen in overseas cities and airports. She stashes away what looks like a representative’s sample case in the overhead bin, keeping a shiny white plastic-looking handbag, all gathers and metal studs, on her lap. We don’t start a conversation, perhaps both reluctant to risk seven hours with a possibly incompatible stranger. I just want to sleep, anyway. I doze and read and she reads some papers and what looks like a bible or prayer book. We finally chat near the end of the flight when the flight attendants bring round breakfast.

My housewifely-looking seatmate turns out to have a doctorate in mechanical engineering. She now works for a firm in Chicago where she lives with her husband, also a PhD mechanical engineer, and two teenage sons. She came to the U.S. for graduate school, she says, after completing a bachelor’s degree in China, and then stayed. Her English is still imperfect, and I’d noticed that her reading material was all in Chinese characters. When I ask about this, she brightens and says that it is about a regimen she and her husband follow.

“It is wonderful,” she says. “My husband began to follow it and it completely cured his diarrhea in only two weeks, so I began to follow it too.”

The booklet was part of a Falun Gong library, the equivalent of a Christian bible-study course. She urges me to try it out, and gives me a card with website information and telephone numbers. The last I see of her she’s wrestling her case out of the overhead rack and tucking away the Falun Gong pamphlets in her big handbag.

I’ll never see any of my fellow travelers again. None of us even exchanged names, but I doubt if I’ll forget them—or the killer trip that wasn’t.

Born and raised in London, Anne Campbell worked as a fashion sketcher before immigrating to the States in her early twenties. She lived in California and New York before settling in Minnesota, where she has worked as a university lecturer and psychotherapist.  

She has written a memoir and two novels. Her latest work, Ssylka; Exiled to Siberia is published through Amazon’s Createspace. Set between 1898-1905, it’s the story of a family of privileged political exiles coping with life in an isolated Siberian village.

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