Some of My Best Friends Are Strangers.


Some of My Best Friends Are Strangers

Slot me into an airline seat next to an interesting-looking neighbor, with a gin and tonic and a back-up copy of War and Peace, and I'll surrender to serendipity. After all these years, and goodness knows how many expense-account miles, my think-bubble still fills with anticipatory asterisks and exclamation marks at the prospect of meeting someone new. I remain an unreconstructed Walter Mitty who has not accepted that the most interesting person on the plane is sure to be sitting two rows in front of me. Human contact -- however inhuman -- is probably the last adventure left in air travel.

Not that Fate has always given me an even hand. Sartre knew what he was talking about when he said: "Hell is other people." There was the man who spent six excruciating hours trying to sell me a corporate jet; the woman I spent six delightful hours trying to seduce, only to have the cool dry handshake after touchdown. "No, I'm OK, thanks, my husband's meeting me." And the long-distance life story: "You're a writer! My life has been so interesting. I'll tell you my story, you write it up and we'll split the proceeds."

(Even worse was boasting about being a writer, only to meet a real novelist on a promotion tour for his new book -- the kind where the author's name is three times as big as the title.)

But why do people have this urge to tell you their life story? And why are instant friendships forgotten as soon as the wheels touch down? The truth is that nobody wants to remember. As Groucho said: "I never forget a face; but in your case I'll make an exception."

My theory is that the relationship between passengers sitting next to one another in a plane has a confessional element to it. Relaxed by food and drink and the prospect of never meeting your captive companion again, you can unburden your soul without trepidation.

In the old days, before seats were assigned, you had to target a seatmate in the departure lounge, follow him or her up the steps into the plane, and fling your briefcase on to the adjacent seat with a disingenuous smile.

Nowadays, you're left to the mercy of the check-in clerk. On long flights I ask for an aisle seat so that I can escape from my seatmate or adopt a custodial stance as circumstances demand. "Shall we share a central table?" or perhaps a more risquE "Your armrest or mine?" are useful gambits when the drinks come round.

People who complain about getting shanghaied by inflight bores often...

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