Books on planes

I really like conversations on planes. The small talk is a little bigger than usual - where are you going? What for? Excited? Busy work schedule? Seeing family or friends? You should try out this restaurant! Have you seen the latest at the theatre?

An awkward walk between the strip lighting that will, apparently, guide me to the nearest exist in case of emergency. A quick glance left, right, left, right to get to my seat, bumping into hand rails and getting caught in the traffic of others attempting to lift their oversized hand luggage into the overhead locker. Invariably, someone will keep pushing at their suitcase despite the physical impossibility of it fitting in with that particular configuration. My seat. Finally. Take out my book, but not my laptop, because that needs to be under the seat in front of me during take off and landing, and put it in the seat pocket. Smile at the person next to me. "Hi, I'm Brooke! Tight squeeze, isn't it?" I say, characteristic half-grin to match.

A few years ago, the man receiving my half-grin was in his late 60s, chatting with his wife before turning to say hello. They were travelling in a group. Good thing, I thought, it's a long flight from London to Kuala Lumpur, and I've got a nasty cold. Rest and reading would do me best. I carefully tucked my book into the seat pocket and it, being so large, had its title poking out, the whole thing threatening to capsize from its precarious position at any moment.  I managed to nod off before take off, exhausted. On waking, my seat buddy smiled and, "Bon matin, comment ├ža va?" flowed from his mouth in the strongest of British accents. For a moment, I wondered if I'd woken up in Fawlty Towers. Blinking rapidly in confusion, I oriented myself to time and space. And responded in English. "Pretty well," I said, "had a nice little nap." We got chatting about travels and, soon enough, had some topical conversation. Meal service. As we dug into our dinner, my companion grinned and exclaimed, "Bon appetit!" He continued on about his decades of work as a teacher in France, and how the students had often joked about his inability to pick up a French accent. So, I thought, that's why you keep speaking in French. "So what will you be doing in KL?" he asked. "Oh, just there in transit," I responded, "I have to fly back to Melbourne." "Oh! Are you on exchange? Moving to Australia?" he continued. By this time, my cold-ridden, tired mind was thoroughly baffled. "No, no," I said, "I'm going home." This time, it was his turn to look utterly perplexed - "But you're French!" Again, he received a blank face. And he returned rapid-fire with "but your book is in French!" Oh, I thought. Yes it is. But I'm not French. He turned around to his wife and shouted above the airplane's low thrum. "The French girl's not French!"

A few years before this incident, I'd been quietly reading my pocket anatomy text book (I can guarantee you it wouldn't fit in any of my pockets) nex to a man who appeared to be in his 70s and thoroughly engrossed in his own book. Oh good, I'd thought, I'll be able to get some work done. Just as I was settling in, he looked up from his paper and glanced at me, and then down at my book. "Oh, what are you reading there?" he asked. It was the sort of curious question that sounded exactly like it would disturb my planned one-hour-flight-revision-session. "Just Netter's," I responded. "We've got exams coming up." That was a subtle hint that I had to focus. I don't think he heard it. "An anatomy textbook, is it?" he enquired, peering closer at the images sprayed across the pages. And yes, indeed, it was. "Have you seen arthritis before?" he continued. Well, no, not really. "You should feel mine." It sounds a little inappropriate on paper but mostly feels a little awkward when a gnarly hand is proffered towards you. I thought that would all be rather odd. He was very insistent. Mostly, I was scared I would hurt him. Hesitant, feeling a little pressured and somewhat curious, I felt the bony, hard knobs around all the joints in his hands. As I examined a condition I would only come to understand several years later, he told me about his frequent visits to the doctor, his care team, difficulty handling small objects and frequent surgeries to improve mobility. It might've been a little odd, but it was certainly a more meaningful conversation than most. And he was right, it was something I wouldn't learn out of my textbook.

The other day, I was on the plane, quiety studying endocrinology for my upcoming exams. Textbook and notebook precariously spread across my tiny tray table, my fingers were wrapped tightly around my Staedtler Stick 430 F Blue (the only pen I buy) and running across the page in a script only slightly slower than the dots connecting in my mind. My seat buddy had been pretty silent, something for which I'd been quietly grateful as all of this time with my nose in books has made me entirely socially inept. As a friend had said earlier that day, exam revision is the art of social devolution. Towards the end of the flight, my neighbour pipped up. "So you're studying medicine." It was a statement not a question. "Well... yeah, I am. You guessed from the book? You know, I could be a researcher too!" I said, not wanting every other study to do with endocrinology to feel upset when they read books on planes. "Although," I conceded, "it does say 'Property of Medical Library' on the front. That's probably a giveaway." He saw the sticker and smiled broadly. "I was a patient there!" he said, before launching into an enthusiastic appraisal of his own treatment there. And then it twigged. I probably have some sort of patient-student confidentiality to uphold here. Even on a plane, many miles above ground, with someone I've never treated or seen in a clinical setting. There are responsibilities I must uphold. At the same time, I was just some person on a plane and it'd be inappropriate to ask specifics about his treatment. And I found myself in a bit of a quandary. How do I balance knowing a little bit about his condition and treatment (and potentially some of the people who treated him) with just being a nice person with whom to chat while on a plane? It was a struggle to resist the inner medical student calling to practice hand hygiene, take a history and do an exam. Instead, I shifted the conversation along to less perilous waters. We talked about healthcare and studies, careers and young people.

And when the flight was over, we waited for the seatbelt sign to turn off, got our luggage out of the overhead compartment and made our way onto the aerobridge. As he rushed towards the exit, he waved enthusiastically. "Good luck! So long!" he yelled, lifting his hand in a half-wave.

And thanks for all the fish, I thought. But that would be a different sort of aircraft. And a different story altogether.


Lance Abel said…
Great blog Brooke! Sorry me and Mel couldn't make it this w/e, hope to see you soon !

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