Long flights allow for mental warm-up time


Flying makes travel dreams come true - a fun game of backgammon with a new Greek friend can be your reality.

Rick Steves
Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 30, 2006 at 10:58 p.m.
RICK STEVES' EUROPE
As a student traveler, every summer, I used my long flights to and from Europe to get philosophical - thinking about how I hoped a trip would impact me, or how it had. As a travel writer, I've used the flight to switch gears and get into the "keen observer" frame of mind. It's a kind of mental warm-up time.
Gazing out the window and down at Greenland's icecap, I think how Europe has changed over the last 25 years. France and Britain now hold hands beneath the Channel. One-legged reminders of the Great War are forgotten. Old Nazis no longer spit, "Sieg heil!" at tourists in Munich beer halls. Mickey Mouse speaks French, and signs for McDonald's and sex shops share the same Copenhagen lamppost.
The acid that infiltrates Athens' air has chased the Parthenon statues indoors. There are cell phones, ATMs, euros, and essentially no more borders. Entire countries have gone smoke-free. Cigarette packs are little language lessons - sporting big, bold and terse warnings such as Il fumo uccide (Smoking kills). That doesn't mean the end of nicotine. Now, more and more, rather than cigarette butts littering urinals, men see packets of chewing tobacco.
But, thankfully, it's the same Europe as well. Dolphins playfully race Aegean ferries into the sunset. Oslo's fjord-weary fishermen still peddle tins of shrimp from their boats. Irish fiddlers stomp the paint off pub floors. And Italians still wave baby-style - seemingly at themselves - when they say ciao.
I often travel with noise-reduction headphones. I never realized how noisy planes were until I flew in silence. And, if I'm not in a social mood or if I just want to read or write uninterrupted, the headphones come with the added advantage that no one talks to you when they're on. When I take my headphones off, the conversation flows.
On one flight, my seatmate spent most of Greenland trying to convince me we're all going to get sick from breathing the plane's recycled air. Struggling to face me in her too-tight middle seat, she said, "It's a cocktail of germs." She rubbed a fingerful of Vaseline around the inside of her nostrils with one hand, and offered me the jar with the other. "Germs settle on the tender skin in here," she said. "This gel blocks 'em out."
All the way to Iceland, I wondered with each breath whose germs are becoming mine. Then I thought of a former travel partner who made it a point not to wash his fruit, saying, "I'm building up my immune system." We all have to decide what to worry about. A lot of risks are just worth taking.
Too tall for my seat, my head bent back like that of a wide-open Pez dispenser, I snooze through the movie. In the haze of sleep, my mind beats the plane to Europe. I'm surrounded by the happy clicking of backgammon boards and leathery locals picking through fruits of the sea. A woman wraps a steamy pita bread around my souvlaki. No, as I awaken, I realize it's the flight attendant with a tray of hot towels. Smothering my face in steamy cotton, I savor that Greek moment while stretching the kinks out of my neck. Finally, like the happy launch of a pinball, the "fasten seat belts" bell pings and the pilot announces that we're preparing to land.
Reaching delicately under the woman next to me for the end of my seat belt, I snug myself down. I used to say a prayer for safety and remove the potentially deadly pen from my shirt pocket before each landing. But flying no longer scares me. A particularly believable United Airlines pilot once told me he'd have to have bruises from his seat belt before turbulence would concern him. Offering further comfort, he explained that a plane doesn't land like a javelin. The pilot is still flying the plane even after touchdown. I told him I worried that a small skid or wiggle could cause the wing tip to graze the ground, sending this people-filled tube into a flaming tumble. "Not as long as the pilot is steady at the wheel," he assured me, explaining that, slowly and on his own terms, the pilot gives custody of the plane back to earth.
Minutes later, with my travel dreams raised and in their upright and locked positions, we rumble to a halt. The pilot, ever in control, takes the opportunity to say, "Welcome to London." I'm ready for another adventure.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com.

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