Thursday, December 23, 2010

Piano Jazz and Dry Erase Markers

Nelson airport: the fourth busiest airport in New Zealand. About half the size of the Ithaca airport and the "security checkpoint" consisted of scanning my boarding pass and telling me which direction my gate was. Somehow, though, it was the first place I actually felt a bit of the Christmas spirt. (A difficult thing for a northerner when your days are piled high with sunshine and beaches.) The decorated Christmas trees, the live jazz pianist playing Christmas carols, the enclosed space from which you couldn't really tell the weather outside, the families actually meeting travelers at the gate when they arrive; it was lovely. I felt like I was a bystander in the scene at Hethrow airport in Love Actually. And now I get to meet my family when they arrive! Unfortunately Christchurch is slightly bigger, so I can't wait right at the gate, but I will see them through the next door at baggage claim!

A 50 minute flight hardly gives you enough time to look through the in-flight magazine before you land again, but it turned out to be quite an enjoyable one for me. I sat in my assigned seat (though there were several people who moved to the empty seats up front) and an older genteleman motioned that he was supposed to sit in my row at the window. As I stood to let him in, I realized I had actually read his lips rather than listening to his voice when he talked. After we settled in I noticed he had a small whiteboard and a dry erase marker with him. I got excited, thinking perhaps he was deaf, but then realized I know AMERICAN Sign Language and even if he was a deaf Kiwi who did sign, he would most definitely not use ASL.

He seemed kind and I enjoy chatting with people I meet, so I sat there for a few moments deliberating about how to communicate with him. I finally turned toward him, made eye contact, pointed to my ear and shook my head with a quizzical look on my face, then pointed at him. He made a confused look, so I asked, again pointing at my ear, "are you deaf?" He leaned in as I spoke then responded with a head shake. He proceeded to explain through hand motions and some gutteral noises made through mouthing the words, that he had surgery to remove part of his throat after smoking for too many years (and hence, could no longer speak).

I made a few attempts at conversation and found out that the best part of New Zealand, in his opinion, is the mountains we were flying over (Nelson Lakes National Park), and that he lives in Nelson but was traveling to Christchurch. I was watching the changing landscape out the window over his shoulder when he offered to switch seats with me so I could see better. I was a bit startled (and he thought I didn't understand what he meant) but welcomed the opportunity, since I always prefer window seats in airplanes. He proceeded to explain (via gestures and his white board) that he had flown this route 17 times in the past year and a half and was quite familiar with the view! He was apparently going to see a doctor in Christchurch and flying back to Nelson again this evening.

Being in a small plane and not very high in terms of elevation, the landscap out my window was stunning. We flew over mountainous terrain and I watched the rivers snake through the valleys. Then the ground flattened out and I watched the patchwork quilt of farmland unfold beneath us. The captain mentioned some springs we were flying by, and the man sitting next to me pointed out exactly where they were.

We had a few more exchanges - he asked who I was meeting in Christchurch and if I was working or not, I asked his favorite thing to do since he isn't working (walking in Nelson Lakes) - and it was nice to have a bit of a communication challenge. I didn't give up and sit quietly, as I felt he expected (and I'm sure most people would do), and instead invested an interest in this man because he intrigued me. I eventually introduced myself, and he did the same, writing "ROBERT" on the whiteboard. I thanked him for an enjoyable flight, wished him luck with his doctor's appointment, and we departed ways at the gate where he had several people waiting to meet him.

I followed the signs and made my way to baggage claim and, while I was standing there waiting, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and Robert was walking to catch up with the people he had met at the gate but turned and waved goodbye to me as he left.

It was a simple exchange that left a smile on my face. How nice of a random stranger to switch seats with me so I could have the view! It was a lovely experience to chat with Robert and he seemed happy that I was so excited about the window. I also enjoyed that he sought me out to say goodbye. The whole thing was a brief interaction that left us both smiling in the end; I think he appreciated my attempts at communication, and I certainly appreciated his generosity in giving up his seat! I felt as if it was just one more push to try to put me into the Christmas spirit, and it was ceratinly in the right direction! There may not be snow on the ground, and it does not get dark soon enough to enjoy looking at Christmas lights, but - believe it or not - tomorrow is Christmas Eve and better yet, I get to celebrate with family!


  1. So beautiful. I'm glad he made your day. It's the simple things in life that matter most, no doubt.
    Crazy what smoking can do, eh? :(

    and um, I never NOT sit at the window. Especially if I paid for the ticket, good lord, THAT'S what I pay for, not just the transport. yea, window seats are bomb.

  2. Most definitely the simple things that matter most, Em! I LOVE window seats! I especially like it when I think far enough in advance to figure out which side of the plane to sit on depending on the direction and whether it will be sunrise or sunset time! :)


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