Winter is a great time to travel: to take part in a festive family gathering, return to one’s roots or get together with friends. Our author, a frequent flyer, describes what he loves most about flying
For my first flight, my father insisted I wear my confirmation suit – along with matching tie, a spotless white shirt and beautifully polished shoes. Roughly 1000 flights later, I never board a plane in anything but a jogging suit because it is roughly 1000 times more comfortable. But I have to agree with my father that for the first time, it was important for my clothes to fit the occasion. The first time, the airplane picked up speed, the wheels lifted off, and Hanover shrank to the size of a Lego town. For the first time, I suddenly found myself high above the clouds. To me, even a stroll on the moon could not have been more electrifying. Below me, an unbroken blanket of cotton candy stretched away into the distance, strange formations protruding from its surface, snow-white and dazzling. Above me was an endless expanse of blue sky, endless light and an endless visibility. The first time I flew, I was in heaven.
That was in the early 1960s, and I flew from Hanover to Berlin, in a turboprop plane, naturally. Turboprops still rattled and wobbled when the wind changed back then, and they were unable to ignore air pockets with the same panache as the jet airplanes that came later. Still, as hard as I try, I cannot find a vestige of negative emotion in my memory – nothing of the kind comes back to me. I was no more scared of flying than a kitten in the bosom of Abraham. For the first time, I was 10 000 meters above the earth, and for the first time, 10 000 meters away from the earth’s problems. At that distance, they all shrank to minute proportions – if not invisibility.
My first time, I was no more scared of flying than a kitten in the bosom
Radical changes of perspective frequently produce a phenomenon well known to extreme athletes, Formula 1 drivers, war correspondents and other adventurers. In psychology, it’s known as the “high peak,” in other words, the moment in which our attention is totally frozen in the present. You don’t have to be a mountain climber, hang glider, racing driver or cliff diver to experience the sensation because a first flight is high peak enough. Outside, the colors of the setting sun, inside the flight attendants’ catwalk. And best of all, the first time is repeated, again and again. The first crescent moon, the first half-moon, the first full moon over the Alps, the Andes or the Himalayas, when you feel you could reach out and touch the peaks beneath you. The first time you fly over the ocean with its tiny toy ships, the first time you pass Rio’s Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio, the first time you approach Hong Kong, which was so spectacular that for me, even the second, third and fourth time felt like the first.
A thousand times? Five thousand times? Have I really flown 10 000 times? I stopped counting at some point, or maybe I never even started. In the 1960s, I flew just that once; in the 1970s more frequently, and in the 1980s, air travel became second nature to me, like riding the subway. So it would be a miracle if this piece were entirely devoid of negative impressions. And yet it is. I cannot think of one. The things we take for granted are what do occur to me. Obviously no one enjoys sitting still for ten hours. And I cannot say that every stranger who sat beside me was a bundle of laughs, nor was I so much fun for my neighbors. That’s normal and anyone inclined to complain about that would be best advised never to walk out their door again. What’s more, we can also view our temporary, disagreeable airplane neighbors as partners in adversity. We are both victims of chance, and victims should identify with each other. I immediately identified with Africa, when dry-as-dust cookies were all we were served in Business Class (!) on Ethiopian Airlines, as I did with Cuba, when the only thing to drink on board Cubana was rum. And I didn’t even grumble when, on a runway skirting a deep abyss 2200 meters above sea level in Nepal, Shangri-La Air’s twin-engine turboprop airplane failed to pick up enough speed during takeoff and was forced to drop like a hang glider in order to gain enough impetus to keep us in the air. Instead, I simply affirmed my solidarity with my own lust for adventure and with the remarkable pilot.
As for the rest of the crew, I can only cite the old proverb: “Treat the stewardess as you would be treated by her.” The same applies to the stewards – or flight attendants, as they are all known today. Should one of them prove less than remarkably pleasant, very helpful or extremely attentive, it’s not the end of the world. You don’t have to marry him or her! Not that I have ever had such an experience with Lufthansa. And I’m not saying that to ingratiate myself. I would write the same in any magazine that didn’t have “Lufthansa” printed on the front. No matter how worn out, exhausted or at the end of my wits I emerged from some jungle, desert or truly awful city, I always felt better the moment I spotted a Lufthansa flight attendant. Her smile does not look painted on, but still it endures; her friendliness is professional and therefore not false, her helpfulness is competent. I don’t think it’s just a matter of character, but of training, too. Be neither subservient nor arrogant, neither flirtatious nor cool, neither bunny nor dragon. Just be a decent angel and wear your uniform with casual elegance.
My eulogy could easily degenerate into a continuous loop, but there’s one thing I haven’t touched on yet. Were things better in the past? Was flying more enjoyable, more exciting, more romantic? I’m a great one for romance, but only as long as it is painless. Did we arrive faster? Certainly not. Was flying more comfortable? No. Safer? No. Cheaper? Hah! More exclusive? Yes. When you walked into an airport, everyone knew you were wealthy. Today, everyone flies. Equal treatment above the clouds leads to crowding down on earth. But that doesn’t mean there’s more reason to complain about our unromantic times: Flying gets better all the time.
And if Lufthansa adds the moon to its route network in my lifetime, I can safely say that I am already looking forward to that next first time with childish delight.
Our columnist, Helge Timmerberg, is an irrepressible globetrotter since 1969, writes travel books and contributes monthly to our magazine.