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The people I meet on planes

by Catherine Marshall

You never know who you might meet on a plane, says Catherine Marshall.


One day I will write a book on the people I’ve met on planes. They’ve introduced the world to me in ways a mere sighting of a new country isn’t able to adequately do. Most recently, I sat beside a woman on a flight from Toronto to Charlottetown. I was on the final leg of a 20-hour journey, and wasn’t keen to chat. But our polite hellos as we settled in soon blossomed into a rich conversation, one that wasn’t close to finished by the time we landed an hour later. She was visiting her mother and invited me to pop in to her house for tea if I found myself in the area; I was on an assignment and didn’t have time to seek out her mother’s house, but was thrilled when she called out my name at the airport a week later.

We were both on the same flight back to Toronto. I learned that she was a postal walker and a lover of animals – she had once insisted on taking home a German shepherd that she would pass each day, tethered in someone’s front yard in the heat of summer and the brutal cold of winter. The dog was pregnant, and the owner begrudgingly agreed to let her to care for it – back at her property, indoors, and with an abundance of the love and care she was surely missing out on under this man’s supervision. When the pups were born she kept a couple of them and found good homes for the others among the people she’d come to know on her postal routes. I could tell she loved these people whose mail she delivered each day, and that she loved their animals too – indeed, she would leave treats for them in their masters’ postboxes. I could tell, from her shining eyes and generous smile, that they must have all loved her straight back.

Another time, on a flight to Europe via Abu Dhabi, I sat next to a refugee, now settled in Australia and on his way back to Iraq for the first time since he’d fled to Australia on a leaky boat. His mother had taken ill, and he had to get to her. We spoke about his life in Iraq, the torture he had survived, his trepidation at returning, the journey to his new homeland and his job as a sports teacher. He showed me photos of his wife and two daughters, and praised Australia for the opportunities it had given him.

On a flight from LA to New York once I almost missed out on meeting my fellow travellers altogether, for our conversation didn’t start until just before we landed, as so often happens. It turned out that I was flanked on one side by a woman who worked in Latin America for a development bank (trying, in her own small way, to end poverty), and on the other by an opera singer, an African American man who had never believed he’d end up doing the job he always dreamed of.

I’ve had so many encounters like this that these days, when I’m tempted to ignore the people around me, to zone out and feign disinterest, I remind myself that everyone has a story – and that I might not have heard the best one yet. TTW

Photo © Catherine Marshall.

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