I had never been in an aeroplane until my late twenties, when I finally took a flight across the Irish sea to London. I'd assumed that the experience would frighten me, since I've always been scared of heights. I'd actually had several nightmares in which I was on an aeroplane about to take off and I was stricken with panic. I always woke up before the plane left the runway.
But when it came to it, I didn't feel the least bit nervous. The fact that everybody else seemed completely calm reassured me it wasn't a big deal.
I remember how strange it felt, as a lifelong anglophile, to see England come into view beneath us, like an enormous scale model. I remember the feeling of wonderment that I was actually standing in a foreign country, for the first time ever.
I first flew to America in 2011, to visit my American now-fianceé. We had met on a Catholic dating site, Catholic Match. I had been looking for a woman who took her faith seriously but the last thing on my mind was to embark on a transatlantic romance. It just happened that way. We had already met up once before, in London at the end of 2010.
I expected the long-haul flight to be gruelling, and it was. The first time was the worst. I'd chosen a bad book to take onto the plane-- The Lord of the Rings. I am not a Tolkien nut by any means and it's not my idea of easy reading. After that, I made sure that the only books I brought aboard a long-haul flight were familiar books that I found a straightforward pleasure to read (like The Rage Against God by Peter Hitchens or Mary, Mother of the Son by Mark Shea).
The flight seemed to last forever. I didn't get dinner, when the trolleys came round, because I didn't realize it was complementary. I felt absurdly embarrassed at all the beverages and snacks that the air hostesses (too lovely a term to replace with "flight attendants") were pressing on me, until I reflected that I had paid hundreds of euro for the ticket and the cost of the food and drink would be trifling in comparison.
I've been back and forth across the Atlantic a few times since then, and it gets a lot easier. In fact, I've come to enjoy it. I enjoy the anticipation of waiting in the terminal, looking at the huge aircraft poised outside. I love the sense of adventure, the sense of bustle and excitement around me. What stories, I wonder, are unfolding or beginning in that very place, at that very moment?
I came to be such a fan of my favoured airline, US Airways, that I now have a little model US Airways plane on my desk at work. I love their corporate colours, the livery of their planes, the in-flight videos, their whole aesthetic.
On the last scheduled day of one of my trips to America-- in fact, the very trip on which I proposed to Michelle-- I found out that my flight had been cancelled due to weather conditions. The lady at the boarding gate, trying to find me a flight for the next day, told me she thought I would like the seat she'd found me. "Is it an aisle seat?", I asked. "No, but I think you'll like it", she said. Densely, I persisted: "As long as it's an aisle seat". She showed me the ticket she had printed, and even an unseasoned flyer like me recognized that the words "Zone 1" meant a first-class flight. "I'll take that", I said quickly. "I thought you would", she smiled.
I was ridiculously excited at, not only an extra evening to spend with Michelle, but also a first class flight home. I thought it was very likely that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so I was determined I would enjoy every second of it and say "yes" to everything.
When the moment came, I felt strangely self-conscious when the "Zone 1" passengers were invited to board the plane first (although, in America, members of the military wearing uniform go ahead even of the first class passengers).
Inside, I quickly realized that the question of an aisle seat didn't matter at all, since first class passengers have all the room they need. I could actually stretch my legs as far ahead of me as I wanted (and I did, frequently).
I was surprised to be handed a little pencil-case-sized bag of US Airways freebies, along with various toiletries. I still have it.
A little later, an air hostess came around and asked me what I would like as a pre-flight tipple: water, orange juice, or sparkling white wine? This seemed like a stupid question to me. But it obviously wasn't, since the gentleman sitting next to me, actually asked for water. He was a thirty-something fellow with something of a go-getting look about him. No doubt first class travel was the norm for him, and no doubt he recognized from my general excitement and eagerness that I was a blow-in.
The revelations continued; a menu for dinner, proper plates, proper cutlery, a choice of wines, a personal computer screen for watching the in-flight movies. My neighbour availed of the computer screen, but I didn't. Somehow, reading seemed more suited to the august occasion than having my attention fixed on a screen.
The only thing that disappointed me was the bathroom. It was just the same as the bathroom used by the plebs in economy class. I don't know what I was expecting. Tiles and cloth towels and Imperial Leisure soap on a soap-dish, perhaps. Or maybe even a shower. Still, you can't have everything.
I had red wine with dinner (which came with an appetizer and a dessert, and not all on the same plastic tray like in economy class) and afterward, the hostess kept filling my glass-- which was a real glass, and not a plastic beaker. So I was pretty merry by the time we hit the ground.
Only recently did the significance of the whole experience sink in. There I was, determined to make the most of the opportunity, not to miss any of it, to drink it all in, because it was a freebie that came out of nowhere, one that I hadn't even paid for and that I would probably never experience again. But isn't all that true of every blessed moment of our lives?