“Hi, I’m Ayan! I’ll be sitting next to you for the next 10 hours,” I said in my characteristically peppy American way. “I’m very excited to be flying next to you today.”
I had never seen someone look so utterly bemused in my life. I looked at the red boarding pass stub she had placed on her lap while searching for her seat belt buckle.
“Are you excited to be going to Russia?” I asked her.
“No,” she said. “Not really.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling my face fall somewhat. “Why not?”
She gave me a look chillier than a midwinter Siberian breeze. Not telling, it said all-too-clearly. I continued making conversation with her for a while, laughing at her jokes (until I realized they weren’t jokes–all too often, she asked me if I was alright) until finally she said, “Look I’m going to sleep, okay? No more talking.”
And as she closed her eyes determinedly, I felt bad–for interrupting the rest she had been looking forward to getting on the flight. It had been a long drive to the airport for her, she had told me reluctantly. Her husband was off at a symposium for math professors, and this would be her first time making the 18-plus hour journey to Russia alone.
Then, I fell asleep, nose first onto my copy of The Prince (also tres Americaine). Next to me, the 70 year old matriarch of two children and three grandchildren had woken up, and was leafing through a dense Russian-language volume on Chinese history. It was four times as thick as The Prince, and the font was half the size. She prodded me awake when the flight attendants began walking up the aisles for dinner. “Eat,” she commanded.
With my belly full of food, all I wanted was to put on my squishy American neck pillow and roll over for a nap.
But: “So what did you say you were going to study in Italy, anyway?”
I could hardly believe my ears. But as Machiavelli writes in The Prince, “for wise men, fortune provides nothing but an opportunity”. So we talked. About everything from Russian engineers to her two sons to the irrational fears we have about turbulence on planes. We commiserated over the difficulty of growing old for immigrants in the United States. She told me she was lonely, now that her sons were both working, and that she wanted to move to Russia in her old age.
I realized something very important on the plane ride to Berlin: Americans and Europeans may be accustomed to radically different cultural paradigms, but the desire to reach out and communicate, to find common ground–these are universal.
As the pilot announced that we were beginning our descent–that we should fasten our seat belts and exit the lavatories now–my seatmate said the unthinkable. “We are friends now. You will stay in touch with me, yes?” She handed me a slip of paper with her email address.
“Yes,” I said, choking up slightly. I wanted to say more, but I couldn’t find the right words.
She got up, lowered her duffle bag from the overhead compartment, turned swiftly, and left.
For the full ten hours of the flight, she had not smiled at me once. And yet–we were friends.