Flying Economy Class

I, like every expatriate who flies thousands of miles a year both domestically and internationally, read the article Paying a Price for 8 Days of Flying in America, in the New York Times on June 9, by Sarah Lyall, about the gross indignities of air travel. 8 days, 12 flights, 1 journalist. All domestic flights.

It was a well written, funny article and I enjoyed reading it.

She seemed a bit whiny. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here, a lot of people seem a bit whiny about air travel.

Yes, there are indignities involved when traveling and I do think it is ridiculous to see people, myself included, shuffling over filthy airport tiles in bare feet because our flimsy sandals are on a conveyer belt just in case we tucked a weapon between those Old Navy plastic pieces of junk. It is truly awkward to have a stranger give me a groin pat and quick feel under the wire of my bra, in public.

Yes, I wish I could fly while lying on a bed of rose petals, sipping champagne, while a private masseuse rubs violet essential oils into my now germ-ridden feet.

Sure, it would be awesome to have a steak dinner and handmade hot fudge sundae while zooming above the clouds.

We all want to walk on fairy dust and ride unicorns.

We all want to be treated like kings and queens and be first in line and get overhead space for our over-packed roller bags.

We can’t always get what we want.

I get it, air travel is no longer the realm of the exotic and the regal, sometimes it is barely the realm of the dignified. I get it, planes aren’t on time and luggage gets lost.

I have been in a seat with the person behind me wedging their knees into my back so I couldn’t recline. I’ve sat beneath overhead panels that dripped water on me incessantly throughout the flight. I have been in seats with broken entertainment systems on flights lasting more than thirteen hours. I have been delayed so that I missed my connecting international flight which meant a 2-day journey through three continents turned into a 5-day journey, including lost luggage. I have been thirsty and my stomach, dear God, my stomach has growled.

I would not call any of these things suffering.

I didn’t recline. Okay, it made a little crabby but no one died. No one even got cramps. I asked the flight attendant, who was empathetic about the dripping but unable to move me on the full flight, for a napkin and draped it over my lap and shoved another into the crack above me. I read a book and listened to music instead of watching a movie. I, and my two children, turned our epic 5-day trek into a memorable adventure that we now laugh about. I ignored my thirst and didn’t cry because I couldn’t meet my stomach’s needs in this exact instant with organic free-range gluten free paleo something. In other words, I put patience and perspective to work.

Traveling by plane is now for the masses, at least for more of the masses than it used to be. We aren’t treated like kings and queens while traveling and despite what our parents may have told us, we are not all kings and queens.

We pay to get across the country or the globe in a matter of hours and those of us in economy class paid less. So we get less but we still get to our destination. There are many people who have never flown in an airplane. Many people who can’t afford to soar above the earth, duck through clouds, watch lightening from above it, stare down at golden wheat fields and glittering cloverleaf freeway exits, and disembark in a totally new location. Many people never get to feel the surge of power forcing them back into their seat upon takeoff or the drop of their stomach during turbulence.

This is a privilege. Air travel is a privilege.

And, dare I say it, it is a privilege to sit in economy. To know that I have saved hundreds, thousands of dollars, and that I and the person in business class will both get off at the same place but I saved money and, if it is money I actually have, I can donate it to a friend in need, to my child’s college fund, or to a just cause – I find that satisfying. If it is money I don’t have, what have I lost, compared to the person in first class? I have lost ten minutes of time while boarding. I have lost a fancy meal. No problem. I packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and, again, I’m satisfied.

It is hard for me to justify paying for a seat that reclines to a bed or a monogrammed pillow on a three-hour flight when Syrian refugee families live in less space (more or less). It isn’t so bad, back here in economy. I’m flying. I’m seeing the world. I’m typing this while I sit here in my seat at the back of the plane. Here, where I have electricity, a movie, running water in the toilet, temperature controls, smiling flight attendants who ask if I want Coke, juice, water, coffee, milk? Almonds? Pretzels? Cookies? They only get crabby when we treat them poorly (don’t be an ass to flight attendants, flying tip #1). In other words, this seat has more amenities than the homes of some people I know in Djibouti.

In saying this, I’m not judging the person in Business Class. I have no idea what they do with their money or how they make their choices and I can feel legitimately happy for their comfort, or I can just ignore them and not let envy or judgment ruin the incredible experience of flight and of my own life. I’m simply saying I can find fulfillment in the lifestyle I can afford.

I realize this makes it all sound hopelessly dramatic, to make these kinds of comparison. But by looking up, toward people who have more and who will always have more, only stirs discontent and Americans, myself included, have become far too good at this. Don’t look ahead, don’t look behind. Look at your own self, your own seat, your own life.

Your brown-haired daughter snuggled on your lap, her head so heavy your legs fell asleep sometime over Chicago. Be glad you are sitting so close together, there aren’t many more years before she won’t want to lean on you anymore. Look at your husband, on the other side, his elbow poking into your ribs as he crosses waaay over his share of the arm rest. He keeps choosing you and your life together, over and over, even when you are mean or selfish or try to shove his elbow back over to his own side of the arm rest. Look across the aisle at those teenagers. They are going to college in a year and they are the best thing you have ever made, the best thing you have ever given to the world. Swallow the lump in your throat. That isn’t from turbulence, that is from contentment.

Yup, that can happen. Even back here, in economy class, boarding zone 3, last row of seats. It is enough.

Actually? We are kings and queens.

4 Ways to Stay Content as an Expat Mom

I believe contentment has a lot more to do with our responses to circumstances than with those actual circumstances. I have seen families living without electricity or running water who ooze contentment and joy and I’ve seen families living in ostentatious wealth who seem paralyzed by a lack of gratitude and contentment.

And, I’ve seen in my own heart that I could go either way.

For thirteen years now, I’ve been raising my kids in the Horn of Africa. It hasn’t always been easy and there have been many days when all I wanted were five one-way airplane tickets out (and on the worst days? One ticket would have sufficed). But on far more days, I’ve experienced a deep and abiding contentment, a peace with our choice and life here.

4 Ways to Stay Content as an Expat Mom

Here are four things that help me make the choice to be content:

Don’t Focus on the Limitations

There is no English education (except it is coming – check out the International School of Djibouti!) There is no lush, green park. There is no playground (except for a few hours two nights a week). There are no grandparents. There are few extracurricular options. If I let myself sit in these realities, I quickly grow discouraged and feel like I’m failing my children.

But, when I focus on the opportunities, I realize what an incredible childhood they are having. Swimming with whale sharks, hiking inside active volcanoes, floating in the Salt Lake, the lowest point in Africa, speaking several languages. There is a tennis club, no it isn’t fancy, but it exists. There is a soccer team, yes my girls are often the only girls who play and they play on cement, but they are welcomed. No, there aren’t any relatives but there are local people who love my kids.

Don’t Put Fear in Charge

Health care here is pretty atrocious. There are armed guards at school, grocery stores, church, and on random corners throughout the city. There have been robberies, terror attacks, diseases, evacuations, sexual harassment.

Terrible things could happen anywhere, they do happen anywhere. There is also very little petty crime, people who stand up for us, a wonderful amount of freedom and space for kids to play and bike and walk to the corner store. There is diversity and community and exploration and discovery, there is a rich cross-cultural life.

Don’t Forget Their Roots

Living abroad, it could be easy to feel that my kids are disconnected, untethered to their history. But my kids come from somewhere, from someone. They have grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles. Their roots include farmers and medical professionals and business people, people of faith and character. Teaching the kids where they come from, even if they don’t live close to these people currently, gives us all a sense of being connected. And being connected, knowing that you belong somewhere can provide a strong sense of contentment and meaning no matter where you currently reside.

Don’t Refuse to Engage

Some days it is hard to engage with the local community and it can be easier to close the door, to speak English, to not be curious. It is exhausting to always be learning how to live, how to do things that come with instinct in my native Minnesota.

But engaging with the local community is what makes living abroad ultimately worthwhile. Taking the risk to make friends, to become part of that community even as outsiders, and watching my kids develop friendships and the ability to navigate cultures with ease, are some of the highlights of living here.

Contentment comes down to the choices we make, in response to the situations we face. Sometimes it is easier for me to focus on the garbage dump but the far better choice, when I think about raising my kids in the Horn of Africa, is to lift my eyes up the mountains.

How do you hold onto contentment?


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