Strangers on a Plane to Porto

Today I took off to Vigo, Spain for the second time.

This trip was much easier than the last one considering I was able to bypass the Swedish detour and head directly to Spain (of course by directly to Spain I mean I flew into Porto and took a bus to Vigo where I met up with my host family). This was an extremely easy trip considering the drive to Newark airport was such a breeze it allowed me to check in, jump to the next terminal to get my last Pumpkin Spice Latte from the only Starbucks in the airport, jump back to my terminal and hang out with my parents at Chili’s over Pomegranate Margaritas and bottomless tortilla chips before boarding my flight. In case this travel experience couldn’t get any better I boarded my flight to land myself in my very own personal 4-seat row all to myself. Now for those who know me and are aware of my vertical challenged-ness you will understand how epic this was. I could not only lie down but I could lie down comfortably! This was definitely a Snapchat worthy moment! I attempted to angle my camera to get my beautiful four seats without getting the strange ladies across the aisle from me on the other side in the shot when the guy sitting across the aisle closest to me asked if I wanted him to take a picture for me. Mortified that I had officially become that ridiculous looking person trying to get the right photo angle I explained I was simply just trying to show off my seats.I never did get that picture.

And thus began my THREE hour conversation with the guy sitting across the aisle from me. We started talking about times we’ve flown before and gotten lucky to times we’ve gotten not so lucky to then discuss where we were headed. I said Vigo and whether it was because I was finally on my flight to Porto (aprx. Two hour bus ride from Vigo) or this man was just well traveled he actually knew where Vigo was. Amazing! This then lead us to discuss our perspective trips. I talked about how I was going back to Vigo to teach English and how he was going to visit family.

We continued this conversation and jumped from current events to recent life experiences through travel and other experimental learning. Turns out though he lives in Michigan half of his family lives in Connecticut (the half that doesn’t live in Portugal) at which point I mentioned I am a UCONN graduate. Thus began the Huskies conversation spanning from sports to the effect the NCAA has on athletes and schools and whether the way athletes are pushed through university is really acceptable, also mentioning my personal experience with athletic stereotypes as I was a UCONN athlete my four years there.

The conversation wound itself back to current events somehow and continued to discuss the trouble brewing between Scotland and England and the impact this will have on the trouble brewing in the Middle East. Of course we were referring to the recent ISIS video and proceeded to debate whether someone who had grown up living and breathing the ISIS mentally is more of less of a threat than someone that has chosen to adopt the ISIS mentality. (Luckily, while the flight was boarding, I had been able to read a few key articles in my free International New York Times paper on these very events.)

This somehow brought us about to Putin and Eastern Europe comparing what is happening now to what was happening many moons ago with Hitler and the beginning of WWII. Discussing the persecution of Jews, that is still present today not only in Germany but also in the United States. This of course led to institutionalized racism and Spain and Portugal’s blind eye to racism compared to the United States’ and Brazil’s racism levels (he had spent some time living in Brazil). We were talking about how the United States does still seem racist, and is still racist, but how our melting-pot background is going to give us key advantages in the future.

This then led me to discuss South Africa and my internship at an HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention focused nonprofit that allowed me to point out key failures within the organization from a ground level all the way up without fear of stepping on people’s toes nor worrying about overstepping my bounds. He then proceeded to tell me this is an American trait that is being actively recruited by companies these days because up and coming companies do not want the European one-track-mindset nor the Chinese or Latin American do-not-question-mindset but rather the American question-everything-mindset.

We found ourselves discussing issues a little closer to home at this point when he divulged two key doses of perspective: 1) You don’t know what you don’t know and 2) you MUST live in the now.

The first key point was referring to how I saw things as an easy fix in the company I was working for in South Africa but ultimately did not know all the key factors such as funding restricts, though this was the first time this came up he mentioned this line a few more times over the three hours.

The next was because his younger brother had recently been diagnosed with a rare frontal lobe brain disorder that has taken away his personality along with his ability to spell his name and recognize those he had had strong relationships with.

Though this conversation escalated quickly we were able to keep up for quit some more time discussing linguistics of languages since he’s fluent in English and Portuguese and I had spent some time studying Spanish over my previous time in Vigo. Which of course brought us back to the Spain v. Portugal conversation and the institutionalized racism issues that are embedded in their languages.

This continued until we were halfway through our flight he decided to try and nap and I decided sleep was not nearly as important as finally being able to watch HBO’s The Normal Heart since I had been trying to watch it since I had finished the play over a month earlier. I don’t know why I did this because time after time I tell myself that since I have read the book/play I will be immune to the typical emotional turmoil of said heavy book/play such as The Normal Heart. (Side note: The Normal Heart was originally written as a play by Larry Kramer spanning the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1981 to 1985 from a gay activist’s perspective in NY. It was recently adapted by HBO and made into a movie starring Matt Bomer, Mark Ruffalo, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, and Julia Roberts just to name a few. Amazing play and movie, I highly recommend both!)

So, as I should have well known, the movie made me cry like a baby only moments before the entire plane lit up like a Christmas tree telling everyone to wake up breakfast was about to be served. I was in no shape to be seen, as tears were still streaming down my face, so I hid under my sweatshirt and blanket and curdled up in my row of seats. I placed my tray table down to receive the breakfast of which I only ate the mini Twix bar and continued to hide under my sweatshirt. Finally, I was able to pull myself together and pretended the redness in my eyes was just a testament to the aptly named red-eye flight I was on. My talkative friend next to me tapped me on the shoulder to see if I had slept well and thankfully ignored the redness in my eyes. We bantered for a bit before I actually fell asleep for the first time on the flight. As we disembarked we stayed close to each other and he decided to use his American passport to go through customs rather than his Portuguese passport. (Must’ve been because of my brights and shining personality.)

We both made it through customs and he asked if I would watch his bags while he went to the bathroom and he returned the favor upon returning from the restroom. Once I received my bag (for once I wasn’t the last bag out of the plane!) we shook hands and said our goodbyes.

I walked out into the Portuguese sun to wait for my bus to Vigo. We never saw each other again.

***

He was 68. He is an international business professor at a university in Michigan and was flying to Portugal to meet up with his wife and half of his family. Before heading out on his flight to Portugal to meet up with his wife he had stopped by to take care of his 61 year old brother with extensive frontal lobe damage and bring his 6 year old granddaughter to see the Connecticut beaches. He had hopped his son would have attended Norte Dame but unfortunately he was diagnosed Bi Polar and was unable to do so due to medical issues. He had lived in Brazil for 19 years and had faced numerous ups and downs in his life. He shared all of this with me, a complete stranger, over a 3-hour conversation on a plane. He told me about how his and his sister’s lives had changed after their younger brother was diagnosed with this frontal lobe disorder at 61 years old, for it could happen to either of them or both of them too, at any time.

And with that I embark on my next adventure: teaching and au pairing in Vigo, Spain. Remember to live in the now everyone and you don’t know what you don’t know!

Thanks for reading!

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