MANCHÁN MAGAN'stales of a travel addict
MY NOTION OF an ideal flight is one in which, first, I don’t end up a soggy mass of mangled blood and bones in a twisted heap of hot metal, and second, the person in the seat next to me doesn’t make conversation.
Yet, whenever the second rule is violated I find that once my initial internal meltdown has abated I am frequently left enriched. The journey is made shorter. It’s hardly a new concept — the proverb Giorraíonn beirt bóthar (two people shorten a road) nailed the principle long ago.
It’s why storytellers accompanied caliphs and chiefs on their peregrinations and why still today airlines provide movies on the back-rests of seats. Hollywood is the new Seanchánlulling us through turbulence by spinning stories to lure our minds.
Native American culture had its own version in the form of “Storm Fools” who would tell stories and lark about to distract the tribe from the thunder crashing overhead and the snowflakes hurling themselves against the wigwam. Old Nokomis in the Hiawatha stories tells the tribe’s Storm Fool to, “Dance the Beggar’s Dance to please us, That the feast may be more joyous, That the time may pass more gayly, And our guests be more contented!”
The feelings of anxiety we experience when travelling are entirely understandable. It’s the disquiet of separation from our habitual environment. Every time I set foot in Heathrow, JFK or Indira Gandhi Airport, I still feel a twinge of apprehension, a gentle wish to retreat back into the familiar security of the aeroplane like a seal paddling back towards the crate when the rescue team releases it. Airline crews are trained to comfort us on the journey, to allay our concerns and help shorten the road, but when we arrive we need someone else to help orient us to our new bearings.
With this in mind, the pilots and air stewards of SAS Scandinavian Airlines have put together a guidebook of personal recommendations of their favourite restaurants, parks, hotels, and so on, around the world, under the headings Sleep, Eat, Play, See, Recover.
Their suggestions are noticeably quirky and idiosyncratic, chicaning one around the familiar sites to places most guidebooks rarely mention. The guide costs about €15, but much of the information is now on the free SAS Crew Guide App, which Apple named App of the Week last year.
In the Ryanair era air stewards may exude less glamour than before, but the recent Pan Am television series helped reignite the old allure. (I don’t have a television, but I convinced myself that my tenuous connection with the travel industry necessitated watching every episode of Christina Ricci’s engagingly pert performance).
In the jet-set age airline crews occupied a separate realm from mere mortals, free of the cultural confines of the societies into which they dropped. It was one reason homosexual men became stewards – they were able to create a separate existence on their own terms in the liminal sky world, similar, in ways, to the Storm Fool’s position beyond the norms of the tribe, satirising its conventions often by exaggerating or opposing them.
Storm Fools were contrarians, wearing clothes inside-out, washing in muck, complaining of heat when cold and riding horses back-to-front. I am not trying to claim any direct comparison between them and air stewards, although some indeed were homosexual and were termed “Two Spirits” or “Third Gender.” As if unconsciously tapping into this link, SAS Airlines has chosen to emphasise the otherness of its aircrews, with online videos of strong-jawed pilots and pursers offering their tips on Scandinavia’s gay hot spots and lists on the website of gay-friendly locations in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. These finely suited and epauletted SAS pilots might be a typically Scandinavian contrarian take on Ryanair’s bikini-clad air-hostesses lounging against the shining bodies of sleek Boeings.