Thinking about the stranger on the plane

Palermo, lampsThe plane hits the tarmac, and the Italian lady beside me smiles. I worry for her. She’s in London now, and not so many people here speak Italian. Her English is non-existent. How’s she going to know where the way out is, or baggage reclaim? How’s she going to manage the train, or the tube? How is she going to find her hotel?

It is a stupid concern. I barely know her. I’ve spent the three-hour flight and the twenty-minute delay sleeping. I know she’s not my responsibility. And yet, as I watch her shift uncomfortably beside me, I feel a sense of concern on her behalf.

She will of course be fine. Her phone works, she has access to the Internet. She can translate as she goes, check out the train times and if in doubt loudly wave her arms at whomever is working in the ticket office. Even if success requires carefully pronouncing the place where she wants to travel five times, taking a deep breath and then resorting to writing the name down on paper to get a ticket, she’ll be fine. There will be moments of frustration when communication seems impossible. And there will be wonderful moments of relief when understanding miraculously appears. But she’s going to be fine and one day she’ll be like me, sitting on the plane home.

On a normal everyday basis, I live in this same communication whirlwind. But now I’m home.

Do you find it surprising that, for me, it feel like abroad I am fluent and here I am lost for words.

I can make a friend anywhere, but home forces me to think about how to be a good friend. Relationships involve work, more so than chatting with someone who has no expectation of seeing you again. Being invested in someone in the long run is more complex. For me it’s hard work. I’m more uncertain about my words. I care about what I say and I wish I could say something meaningful and intelligent but most of the time I find myself lost. Sometimes I really screw up.

When I travel, people ask, what and where next. I shrug, smile and explain that I’ll think about that properly in January. To them this seems perfectly reasonable. They don’t care. In January, we won’t be part of each others lives.

But at home, so much uncertainty is less of a satisfactory an answer. Here there are people in my life who are rather more invested in my future. Love, blood and history matters. I’m interacting not with some delightful stranger, but friends and family who I deeply love. It terrifies me.

I wonder who the Italian lady has waiting back home for her.