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It’s funny what happens on planes.

Monday, April 21st, 2008

Don’t you dread sharing space with a stranger? You might even be the type to have nightmares about a persistent cougher or snorter seated behind your back or screeching kids running amok while you’rew cooped up on board….

Still, it doesn’t put you off traveling, and next thing, there you are, being herded onto a plane, going some place.

Sometimes, shuffling along with the crowds studying the carpet as you go, looking anywhere other than making eye contact with anyone else, you invisibly slip into your seat and spend the next 12 hours locked in your own world. You’ve done that?

There are other times when the combination is just right, suddenly you’re all smiles, and everyone is smiling at you. You’re conversing with a stranger. Before you know it you’ve give each other a condensed version of your lives.

I kept myself to myself on the first long leg of my flight from New Zealand to London (via LA). But travel is boring, and a smile never hurt anyone. So it was, I smiled at Catherine, over from Scotland to help her daughter with wedding plans. Marrying a nice Kiwi boy. She had me laughing, and the young couple behind us on their OE (NZ expression for overseas experience – something most of us Kiwis do at some stage) joined in. We were sleeping in those pod thingies, seats that become a flat bed at the push of a button. I like flying Air New Zealand because everything on the planes works. You push the button and down it goes or up it pops. The wines are exceptional. And the food’s pretty darn good, too. You might strike a dish from Peter Gordon, or Geoff Scott, or one of NZ’s other culinary stars. I really know why Sam Twining the tea man used to bang on about the type of cup tea is served in can make it taste better, or not. Air New Zealand serve tea in elegant china cups with a fine rim – it makes a world of difference. And the button-shaped ceramic salt and pepper shakers…well, let’s just say, I have to contain myself not to accidentally let them slip into my bag! But the best is the crew – good Kiwi girls or lads never short of a smile.

So Catherine. I noticed she filled in and screwed up more customs and immigration forms than me…we got talking. She told me about her dyslexia, how it passed down through the generations in her family. I’d never really considered how complicated a complicated form must be to fill in. Another glass of Pinot helped her. She told me whisky is the devil’s drink – it makes men aggressive. She’d never touch it. She rattled on in her matter-of-fact way- too bad now if I wanted peace and quiet because she was wound up and going for it. She told me that she and her brother certainly suffered at school because of their inability to learn. They were considered stupid. But that was then and this is now, and here she is traveling the world alone, screwing up as many forms as it takes her to get it right, and not giving a hoot and talking about dyslexia as if it were no more debilitating than wearing a hearing aid.

She ordered vegetarian, which looked a tad uninspiring, more of a cold compilation of tapas than a meal, so I urged her to change it for my chicken dish which had great vegetables, and just to leave the chicken. Quite delicious, we both agreed. The Pinot was tasting better, too.

The big question was, what about Haggis? How could a true Scots’ not eat haggis? Ah, well, she revealed, twinkle in the eye, as if it was TNBT (the next big thing!) there’s a vegetarian version made with toasted oats mixed with fried onion and spices and maybe an egg thrown in for good measure. It’s all cooked up inside a plastic bag. Sounds ghastly, but who am I to judge being neither Scottish nor vegetarian? Ten hours flew by, full of little gems, more recipes using oats than I can imagine ever eating in a lifetime, and much chortling. At some stage the young Kiwi woman put on pyjamas to sleep in her pod bed opposite her 6 foot 5” husband, who like a trooper, didn’t complain about his feet dangling over the edge (guess he is used to it).. It’s weird though, isn’t it, how complete strangers are sleeping in their pyjamas just a few feet away from you!

Back to Catherine. I reckon her best expression of the night was ‘as thick as mince’. That’s what her teachers had called her. Can’t you just imagine it? Thick, lifeless, dense meat! Well, American readers, it doesn’t quite work for you though does it, because mince is our word for ground beef. As thick as ground topside doesn’t quite cut the mustard does it? But the expression, coming from a dyslexic vegetarian, is surely worthy of a chuckle!

Then London. Much to tell about the Gourmand Awards and my day demonstrating at The London Book Fair, and Chef Ramzi from Lebanon and Chef Wan from Malaysia and the gorgeous Chakall from Portugal (he’s hot!). But I’m on a roll about traveling at the moment, so I’ll get back to that.

Flying London to Fort Worth, Dallas. Big blonde woman sitting opposite me. Travelling British Airways this time, same deal with flat beds, but you wouldn’t want to be large or too long, because the space to squeeze into is pretty tight. Like a pea in a pod. Good crew, though, and a piece of beef cooked to the specifications of Michel Roux, holder of 3 Michelin Stars, which tasted pretty fine with a drop of Spanish tempranillo. But back to the blonde woman. She kept fanning herself, and didn’t sit down until she had to. I thought she was having a nervous spell. I was freezing, and had to robe up, but she continued fanning herself. Something wrong here, I thought. I asked her if she was nervous. No, not at all, she replied. Ah, well, that was that, I had tried to converse. But then, how did it happen? Suddenly we started nattering. She’d just been in Spain, lives in New Mexico, tra la la and so on. 9 hours, with a wee sleep in my tight little cradle, flashed by. Her name is Andrea. I showed her my book Sizzle, which I just happened to be reading (be fair, I wasn’t showing off ‘Oh, I’m an author’, but re-reading it to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything since I wrote it, preparing for my American media onslaught). I gave her my card and she said she’d look me up on the web. I warned her I write a blog. We said goodbye. Usually when you say goodbye to someone you’ve sat next to on a plane, you don’t see them again. Fort Worth airport is HUGE, like a mini city with trains running through the middle of it. We saw each other at Customs. We saw each other at Security, so we walked together. We were both headed to the same part of the terminal, and as it happened, our flight gates were right next to each other. We were old friends by now (or maybe, just old!!!). She suggested we go to the Club lounge, which I couldn’t do as I’m not a member. She wasn’t sure if she was a member either, but said, let’s give it a try. Into the lounge we walk, she produces her documents for the lounge manager, he flicks through something on the computer, looks up at her, asks if we’ll be wanting a drink (have they heard about me in America?), to which she replies no, and he says fine, and in we waddle, me expecting any minute to be tapped on the shoulder and asked to show my credentials and to be barred from entering. So there we sat, complete strangers 10 hours ago, chuckling at our luck. She only had 15 minutes before her flight was called but I had 4 hours to fill in, which passed by much more comfortably in the lounge. Thanks Andrea. America, I like you!!!