Happy Halloween
Photo by Josh Duke / Unsplash

How an international flight can transform those next to you into scary creatures

Far be it for me to admit that I change from a reasonably-approachable human being into a fright for sore eyes. It's bad enough that after a ten- or fourteen-hour flight from some USA -based city to some distant land leaves me bleary-eyed, puffy- faced, messy-haired and stumbling in a fog. That's plenty insult enough, especially given what airlines today euphemistically refer to as "food," which leaves your body duly insulted and feeling awful.

You're expected to deplane, walk upright, manage to locate immigration, speak coherently, blink into the camera, slap fingers down on the sensor, all while smiling politely as you do your best to find the appropriate paperwork, the requirements for which likely changed overnight while you were in mid-air, attempting to sleep while various body parts were crammed into nooks, crannies and other people's armpits.

That's bad enough.

This was worse.

I had a four-hour layover in San Francisco, waiting for a flight to Frankfurt. It's ten hours, which means that no matter how good your seats in steerage (economy), it's going to be uncomfortable. These days if you want an aisle or window, you fork over between $217 and $240 EXTRA, for seats which might tip back about two inches. Maybe. I'd locked in a seat on the bulkhead which gives you more leg room.

Help me understand the thinking: planes cram more and MORE seats into the available space, seats which are barely enough for my small(ish) butt, and in no way shape or form adequate for the burgeoning butts of most Americans. Call me crazy, but that's pretty punishing to large folks, to say the least. But I digress.

As I set up shop, lurching around shoving my bits and pieces here and there overhead and into the bags mounted against the bulkhead, I was joined by a lively blond woman close my age, Yvonne, who bustled into the wing seat. She had also coughed up extra. We introduced ourselves, and celebrated the fact that at last check, we had an Empty Seat Between Us.

That really can be happy news, since there is no room to put your stuff to begin with other than the overhead compartments, into which people cram four times the allowed luggage,  mini-horses, food for twelve and small children they can't deal with any more.

And possibly hope to conveniently leave behind.

The open seat is breathing room. We grinned at each other. We could spread our shit out. We both had half a seat into which we could pour our reading materials and lose our glasses, passports, paperwork and anything else absolutely necessary for international travel.

Yvonne is from Portland, I'm from Eugene. Having established we were geographic neighbors, and delighted, we also discovered that we both read and posted on the same Facebook thread for solo women travelers over fifty.  She was off to Toulouse, I was off to Tanzania.

We both work on the road, neither of us fully retired, and both of us struggling to learn new languages. She and I both got up multiple times to do this and that. She tripped over my phone cord, an obstacle which I had managed to place right at ankle level apparently for that expressed purpose. Look, how else are you going to be entertained for hours unless you set up traps for others to do headers simply for your viewing pleasure?

I fell backwards into the middle seats tripping over Something Small that likely I'd also placed right where I would fall over it. Maybe Yvonne set that up.

Perhaps the best line was when, as we were organizing our stuff strategically for middle of the flight access, we were discussing how despite long years of travel, going on a flight for the first time after lockdown, WE HAD FORGOTTEN EVERYTHING.

We howled. So true. I had packed the kitchen sink and damned near everything else, most of which never got used. It was if I'd wiped out twelve years of experience and had to start all over again.

We were off to a great start.

The chatter was fun, the plane took off. We were both wearing masks. Meals appeared, I fidgeted and fussed, so did she, we located reading material, then the lights dimmed.

By this time I'd already setup for sleep. I use a Releaf neck support, which keeps my head from cranking way off to the side when I sleep, my mask, eyepads, a white noise machine and headphones. I didn't think anything of it. It's what keeps me comfortable, keeps the noise and light out, and with an Ambien, gives me a fighting chance to get a few hours rest.

I passed out, full of bad food and a good apple, while my glasses slowly sank into the crack in the seat between us.

I woke up a few hours later badly needing the toilet. I lifted my mask, looked towards the window, and nearly came out of my skin. Holy crap! My seatmate had turned into a mummy:

Yvonne, sleeping, used with permission Julia Hubbel

I nearly came out of my seat. Then, I thought, wait. Um....so I located my phone, turned on the camera, reversed it and snuck a peek:

The author, transformed to a mummy Julia Hubbel

I guffawed into my mask.

That's one for the books.

So I searched for my glasses, now that I was fully awake, intended to finish my latest Jack Reacher book. Only they were nowhere to be found. I rummaged around all the coats and extra blankets on the seat, making enough noise to wake Yvonne up. She lifted her eyecover and peered at my mummified face while I dug.

"Glasses." You can't find your glasses in the dark, on a dark seat, down inside a deep, dark crack, wait for it...without your glasses. She nodded, I think. Everything moved, at least generally up and down.

I had to locate my headlamp in the overhead compartment, shoving aside the mini horses, the extra annoying kids and what remained of the food for twelve. I finally located my peepers. Held them up. Yvonne nodded. I think she grinned but I couldn't tell.

Mummified. You get it.

We got over it. By the end of the flight, the crypt cracked open, the living returned from the dead, and we shed our wrappings and tried to shake off the jet lag. I wasn't successful. Yvonne disappeared, waving cheerily while I got the whole-body-minus-body-cavity-inspection from German TSA, who had determined that I was carrying a knife.

I wasn't. But I was tempted to drag him back to the crypt from which I had just emerged.


No, I'm not.

Photo by Agent J / Unsplash

Just a word of advice. Next time you take a very long trip, it's not a bad idea to poke your seatmate once in a while just to make sure they're really alive.

Just be sure to put your glasses on first and check your own image, just in case you're the not the scariest thing on the airplane.

Happy trails.