Introvert’s Nightmare in Row 8
In the early days of Ezra Adventures, I flew standby, A LOT. Flying standby is not the most reliable option. When seats are available, employee family and friends can fly for a nominal fee, sometimes even first class. If there’s no availability, you don’t fly. Feast or famine, it’s the risk you take for flying standby.
On one particular flight, the seats were getting tight, but my photographer and I would both get on the plane...with one small catch. One seat was in first class, one was a few rows back in economy. One spacious seat would have fancy catered meals with real plates and the ability to lay flat on an 11-hour flight, the other a cramped seat with microwaved plane food, a plastic fork, and a limited recline. After some discussion, the photographer (the one with the standby hook up) took the first-class seat as a hard-earned “thank you” for her excellent work through 3 intense trips for the last 2 months. I was depending on my recently polished and effective Middle Eastern negotiating skills to put me in a favorable position for the next 11 hours. I was so wrong.
As we boarded, she turned left to the glorious life of first-class ease, and I turned right to scrap with the masses in economy. Her seat was in the last row of first-class beside the curtain. My seat was 3 rows back from the galley and first-class divider. When the curtain was open, I could see her settling into the lap of luxury for the long flight. Yet being the optimist, I pushed aside my jealousies. I was ready to make the best of a challenging seating arrangement.
As I arrived at my row, my seatmates were already there and found an introvert’s worst nightmare for an overseas flight- the middle seat of 3. My slim glimmer of hope in escaping was that the aisle and window seat were occupied by a husband and wife. They were an older Russian couple, probably in their 70s, still with a harsh and stoic communist demeanor engraved on their faces. She had an odd light purple colored hair and too much makeup and his weathered face showed the deep lines of a difficult life. Although they were married, they didn’t appear to like each other. At all. As I arrived, they were both leaning into the middle seat, bickering at one another in Russian and not a smile to be found.
With the help of a Russian speaking flight attendant, I politely asked if, since they were married, if one of them could take the middle seat and sit together, leaving me either the window or the aisle. I didn’t think that was a strange request given the relationship. However, my polite and smiling question was met with irritated expressions and cold-eyed stares that were more at home in Siberia. “No.” Apparently, that was an utterly ridiculous request. With no English, their body language said, “I would rather be skinned alive than to sit by him [or her].” I had no choice but to take my place in the middle seat, between what felt like an ongoing family feud.
Still looking for the positives, I had hoped for a quiet but tight flight and my usual noise-canceling headphones, movies, and a few cat naps throughout. However, that would only be feasible with the help of this old grumpy Russian couple abiding by some certain unspoken rules. Like consideration of people around them, namely the American man sitting between them, for starters. Except I’m pretty sure they didn't get that memo or read anything like it. Ever. The Russian bickering continued, and we hadn’t even taken off yet. Like a scene from a movie, I happened to look up to get a glimpse into first-class with their over-sized recliners, feather pillows, and comforters. Two seconds later, the flight attendant whisked the curtain shut with extreme prejudice, separating the two classes. I suddenly remembered one of Jesus’s parables when the rich man is in hell, longingly looking across a vast chasm at Lazarus, who is in heaven. Although I could see the other side, there was clear separation, and there was no way I could improve my unpleasant situation.
As we took off, the Russian “lovebirds” continued to talk rather curtly to each other, just leaning forward and talking across me as if I was just an object in the way of their exchanges. Then dinner began. As I leaned forward to take a bite of my mediocre plane entree, a roll was passed to the other in front of me, bumping my arm. Becoming exasperated, I put my plastic fork down, leaned back in my seat with my arms at my sides, with body language that said, “Seriously. Just pass your dry roll. Don’t mind me or my dignity. Please be my guest.” This conjured up a mildly condescending hand gesture from Mrs. Lavender Hair, that said: “settle down, Sonny, you’ll be fine.” There was no apology, smile, or recognition of a shred of personal space. After about 30 mins, Mr. Communist fell asleep, and the obnoxious snoring began. I had to put my movie volume up to an uncomfortable level just to drown him out. He wasn’t a small man, so he often dominated the armrest, leaving me to bear hug myself if I didn’t want his arm on me. That still rarely worked. Later in the flight, I somehow just started to fall asleep, only to be gruffly tapped awake by the newly awakened snorer, so he could get out to the bathroom. This was beginning to feel like that sleep deprivation style of torture I once read in a spy novel. My only reprieve was to aimlessly walk the narrow aisles to pass the time. There was nothing I could do but chuckle to myself and pray: “Dear God, I’m so sorry for whatever I did wrong. Please get me off this flight…” Like an inmate’s final day in prison, I was counting the minutes till we landed. FINALLY.
In all of my many flights before or since, that ranked as the longest and worst flight ever. I would have gladly paid full price for a seat with ordinary people. As I got off the plane more exhausted than when I got on, my colleague was waiting for me, bright and smiley from her first-class experience. She was quick to tell me of stretching out for several hours, personalized ice cream sundaes, and multiple choices for her 4-course meal. I then related MY experience in the Russian gulag found in the middle seat of row 8. She snickered and wondered if I was exaggerating… I assured her I was not. I think my wearied appearance confirmed that.
That was a lesson well learned that I’ve been sure never to repeat. For the travel schedule I keep, and as much as I fly for work, it’s worth spending a little extra to be comfortable on a long flight. Trust me, spend the cash. In fact, I’ve been writing this story from somewhere over the Atlantic, sitting behind the bulkhead with my feet up on the wall. It’s not first-class, but it’s a welcome haven compared to past experiences like this one. With the Chocolate Fish budgetary stamp of approval, it’s been worth every penny. What’s your worst flight ever? Let me know in the comments below.
Doug Hershey is the author of Israel Rising, conference speaker and founder of Ezra Adventures, an Israel focused travel and education company. From years of hands-on experience, cultivating unique relationships in Israel and a love for history, Doug provides a rare perspective on the connection between the Jewish Scriptures and present day Israel. When he is not in Israel, he is speaking in churches and synagogues about the prophesied restoration of Israel.