It came as a shock to read that a prominent world leader catches flies in the aircraft on long-haul trips. I had never heard of this technique before. And I wondered if it was a euphemism for something else. Like sleeping with the mouth open. Then it turned out I had read it wrong. He catches up with his files. That is at the other end of the spectrum from catching flies.
That sentence has been playing around in my mind on this flight to London. It has been two years since I have gone beyond my gate at home, and now here I am going to another continent altogether. Again, the two ends of the spectrum.
Should I catch flies? Should I catch up with files? What is accepted behaviour in these circumstances? Two years is sufficient time to forget something. And then they served breakfast, and memory came flooding back in the manner it did for Proust when he bit into a madeleine. He wrote a book about it. In my case, memory preceded acid reflux.
The breakfast – underdone, sad – reminded me of earlier trips. It felt like getting back on a bicycle (or a horse) after taking a fall. You never really forgot. You had merely banished the bad memory into regions of your mind you never visited.
There is nothing like aircraft food high up in the sky to remind ourselves how lucky we are down on earth. I heard one passenger ask hesitantly after taking a long sip from a cup, "Is this coffee or tea?" Another asked a steward after finishing his meal, "Was that a vegetarian meal or a non-vegetarian one?" Aircraft food is inclusive.
Travel, not part of our plans for two years now, would have been difficult to take had the food been unexpectedly good or if the pilot didn’t cut into your sleep with banalities. ("Those of you on the left of the aircraft can see the sea; those on the right can also see the sea…")
It is part of the human condition that we cannot travel without feeling guilty; without the nagging thought that we are taking something away from our grandchildren and theirs too. I speak of our carbon footprint, of course. When I get back home (we always tell ourselves), I must make amends. Plant trees. Walk everywhere, or cycle. Or stay at home – something we’ve got used to in recent months.
But all that is for the future. This column is being written 36,000 feet above men and time, and a certain lack of coherence is to be expected. If I forget where I am, there will always be another meal to remind me.