How middle seat led to best ever flight
"I'M SORRY but the only seats left are the middle ones."
It was the worst sentence to be uttered in the history of mankind. I was going to be stuck for the next 23 hours, over two flights, in a middle. Friggin. Seat.
Going through customs at Melbourne Airport I wondered: how could this flight get worse? Babies? A smelly neighbour?
The answer struck me. The '70s. Back when in-flight entertainment didn't exist. When there were no movies or TV shows to help time go by, no Wi-Fi, laptops or music to entertain. The only things to do were smoke, talk to your neighbour and get drunk.
For someone who has two mobiles, a laptop and an iPad within reach at all times, it sounded like mental homicide. Would I have survived air travel in the '70s?
Given that my flight was going to suck because of the double-middle-seat-status from hell, I decided to go all in and commit to the "23-hour experiment": no screen time, Wi-Fi or audio. Just straight up '70s (minus the smoking).
I board, and squish between 18D wearing bluetooth headphones and 18F who is already asleep (how?). The blank screen before me beckons. I really want to turn it on.
Things I notice:
It's very warm when you first board a plane
Passengers put on headphones immediately
Not one single person pays attention to the emergency procedures
They have cots for babies now (when did this happen?)
People cough a lot during the first hour of a flight.
I ask for wine but am rejected as we were still on the tarmac. I pick up the in-flight magazine and read every page including the plots for movies I wouldn't be watching.
I get lost in a train of thought where I accidentally marry twin brothers in India. The three go to Australia and we decide not to tell my parents I have two husbands. There is a whole scene at Christmas that involves the boys switching outfits and … What the hell we still haven't left the runway.
People are talking loudly over the top of the movies they're watching. 18C has stopped playing on his iPhone, finished with his iPad and is watching a movie on his laptop. I am jealous. I need something to occupy my mind. I start biting my nails and counting the seconds between 18F's snores.
18C goes to the toilet and I take chance to get up too. I stretch my legs and observe that people are either asleep (how?) or glued to a screen. I head into the loo and try to make a paper plane out of a toilet square. I notice that Etihad toilets are the most exciting places to be as there is wallpaper. Like a prisoner, I count the colourful squares lengthwise (there are 114).
I read the back of all my snacks and wonder if E590ii is something people should eat. I accidentally turn on the screen and then off again. On, off. On, off. Gah! I read the safety manual for the third time.
Everyone in front of me is watching a screen. I can see Jennifer Lawrence, Chloe Sevigny, Tom Hanks … My eyes flick around between them all as I try to work out the plots, but the only thing I notice is how bad extras mime in movies. Also 95 per cent of people are white and Hollywood is racist.
My feet ache. Shoes come off. Such satisfaction. I wiggle my toes for a stupid amount of time. 17D is watching Games Night. I really like Jason Bateman. I could just stop this experiment right now but am committed to That '70s Flight. I bite the hairs off my arms and stare at the seat in front of me.
Dinner arrives and there is so much to do with the food wrappers, it's like Luna Park on a tray. I hold the knife aloft, marvelling at the metal cutlery. I tuck the serviette under my chin and plan my banquet. I chew every mouthful 60 times relishing in all this flavour. The food is so good - I can distinguish individual herbs. Plane meals are tasty! Why haven't I ever noticed this before?
I celebrate with a red wine. Then another. And another.
I am pumped and want to do some laps of the plane, but both neighbours are sleeping. How does a drunk, middle-seater living That '70s Flight survive? I can't get up without waking one of them, half of my space is taken up by their stupid knees and I have to share both armrests. There is nowhere to put my head, no one to talk to and I have literally nothing to do.
I see the flight path on someone's screen. OMG we are only in South Australia. I try to remember the names of all the teachers I've ever had.
17D pulls out a box of Roses like she is at a dinner party in 1994. Mad respect. I try to recall all the flavours, then think about how good After Dinner Mints are, then imagine being in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. After much contemplation I decide that a snozzberry would taste like a mix of banana and cherry.
The lights turn off. We are somewhere near Broome. Passengers have completely stopped interacting, and I have stopped trying to peek at screens. Am not craving entertainment. My mind is chill.
More things I notice:
The air gets colder and drier the longer we are in the air
Barely anyone is going to the toilet anymore (do they drug us?)
People smell like salami
You can see shapes and colours when you close your eyes and make movies out of them.
So I do, and start nodding off to sleep.
I am shook awake by 18F who is suddenly wide-eyed. He has jimmy legs. They bounce up and down, fast and inconsistently. This is worse than sitting next to a baby. I twist to get away from him, but he is taking up half my legroom. There is no escape.
We do the middle-seat-jimmy-jive: I nod off, he jimmy legs, I change positions, he stops, I snooze, jimmy legs, change positions. Repeat.
For some illogical reason I don't want to pull out his fingernails. I just go back to the movies in my mind. This no-screen life has sent me into some kind of meditative state.
Meals come and go. The jimmy legs do not cease. I get no sleep, but I'm in a state of peace, love and mungbeans. My mind is a calm blue ocean. I'm a Zen master. I try to leave my body. No success.
Suddenly the plane lands. The last seven hours have felt like 45 minutes. Time is a state of mind.
Waiting in transit for the next leg, I walk around the terminus like a lady-monk (I don't mean Sophie), barely a thought in my head, just a feeling of calm.
The next trip is seven hours long but goes in a flash and I land in Europe a fully-woke, plane travelling Zen master who can control time. I am not tired, and I don't feel jet-lagged.
I try The 23-Hour Experiment again on the way back to Australia, and the results are the same.
The 23-Hour Experiment has shown me how to jump in and out of the existential wormhole of plane travel-time. With no milestones (movies/shows/albums), long-haul flights become a journey of inner-peace, tranquillity and arm hair removal. International travel is No Big Deal. Nor, for that matter, is a middle seat.
Have you survived a travel experience you dreaded? Share your story and go in the running to win Escape's monthly reader prize. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more travel news and inspiration sign up to Escape's newsletter.