16 October 2011

A Sunday traveler's tale

On Thursday morning, I boarded an American Airlines 737 in San Francisco and I was bound for Dallas and then later, Tampa. The same plane was going to complete the journey after a one-hour layover in Dallas. I didn't have an assigned seat until I got to the gate and I begged the truly helpful gate agent for an aisle seat for the entire length of my journey home.

She found one, seat 7C in the first row after first class. I knew I was in for a long day (3-1/2 hours to Dallas and then another two hours to Tampa) but all I cared about was that I had an aisle seat and ready access to the bathroom.

When I boarded the plane, the first of my two row mates was immediately behind me. She had a heavy carry on and I put it in the overhead for her. She thanked me and we took our seats. A moment later, our third row mate arrived and she took her seat at the window. There we were, seats 7A, 7B and 7C; complete strangers.

It was a clear day when we left San Francisco, the San Joachin Valley and the Sierra Nevada seemed close enough to touch. No where else in the Unites States is more beautiful from the air than Northern California, though Utah gives it a real run for its money. Anyhow, from three seats away, I couldn't help but to crane my neck to look out the window to watch California's golden hills unfold.

I started gasping about the scenery and my row mates noticed my responses and the three of us started to talk. The two women, one an aromatherapist from Melbourne and the other a microbiologist at Stanford, listened as I prattled on about the majesty of California and how much I love the sight of the Sierras.

Before too long, the three of us introduced ourselves and we started talking about where we were from and where we were headed. It turned out that all three of us were bound for St. Pete, almost three thousand miles away.

Though none of planned to do so, we ended up talking the whole way to Dallas. We talked about books and science and art and more than anything we talked about our shared love of travel. We professed our mutual love for Bologna and London and talked about places one of us had been but the other two hadn't. As a result of that conversation, Peru and Ecuador are now on my list.

By the time we landed in Dallas we'd struck up one of those wonderful but rare situational friendships that crop up when you're tired and far from home. We were looking out for each other and helping one another get bags out of overheads and giving pointers about how to navigate various airports.

When we reboarded in Dallas and assumed our seats again, we started talking about the center seat holder's native land of Australia. She pulled out the airline magazine, turned to a map of Australia and told us about her grandmother who started out in Wellington, New Zealand, and ended up marrying a Swiss man and moving to Perth. She told us about her years as a medical volunteer in East Timor and how much she loves Jakarta and the South of France. The microbiologist talked about her Italian heritage and her love for dance. The three of us lamented the US's refusal to adopt the metric system and we talked about getting used to driving on various sides of the road depending on where we are.

It was beyond cool to bond with three strangers like that. We had so much in common despite our varied backgrounds and career paths.

I've been traveling a lot this year and though I'll never pass up the opportunity to talk to a stranger, I've never felt the momentary bond I felt with those women on Thursday.

We shook hands and exchanged cards when we landed in Tampa and part of me wants to keep in touch. Another part of me however, wants to keep Thursday what it was, the most anomalous of anomalies. The Australian called it a rare synchronicity.

I've been all over in the course of my life and without a doubt the 5-1/2 hour conversation I had on Thursday was an absolute stand out.

Experiences like that are a lot of what I'm looking for when I travel. I'm forever looking to find common ground with people whose lives are wildly different than mine. I want to find that common ground but at the same time, I want to savor the differences.

Now that I'm back and reacclimated to my native time zone, I have lots of stuff to write about from Bologna, London, Toronto and San Francisco. Stay tuned, I've seen some pretty amazing stuff int he last few weeks.


  1. It is always amazing the people we meet along the way. I sometimes wonder if these random meetings aren't so random after all.

  2. I've met some great people along the way over the years, but those two were a real stand out. I wonder about the random thing sometimes too Todd.

  3. Paul - I read this while sitting in the airport and sooo wanted to comment. What I think you are missing in this wonderful and warm story is that people are responding to YOUR warmth and openness. Having spent a bit of time with you over the last few weeks, I have to say that I am only surprised that you don't have more of these wonderful encounters. I don't want to get all gooey - but i do believe you get back what you put out -- just sayin!

  4. Aww thanks Joce. Spending time with you in my various ports of call over the last few weeks has been great. I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to see a familiar face when I get to a strange city and it's nothing short of a bonus when that face is yours. Where are we headed next?

  5. HA! You are incorrigible! And clearly you have more energy than me. having just returned - I am looking forward to at least a week in my office. Then...who knows...NYC perhaps??

  6. ooh! Give me an excuse to go back to New York! I'm forever looking for excuses to head back there. Man, how I love that town.

  7. I love this, Paul- I fully believe that people are put in our path for a reason. If we act crabbily and negative, we'll be stuck on planes with crying babies and well... you know. Karma(or whatever one wishes to call it) is real.

    Pays to be a nice guy!

  8. Thanks Nick! Something was definitely at work, that's for sure.

  9. What most interests me about that sort of thing is this: We are so convinced that we are so different, especially when talking about different races, but really we're not. It's been some years now, but my wife and I hosted a Neighborhood Watch meeting one very rainy night. Because of the rain, only one guy showed up. He was a big black guy; I'm a big white guy. My wife is Mexican-American. We talked for a good solid two hours, and at the end of that time he said, "Well, I'll be damned. I didn't think we had ANYTHING in common, and it turns out we've got all kinds of things in common."

  10. finding the common threads and learning about the different ways people get to them is why I travel so much. Thanks for the comment Joseph!


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