(16) The flight from Paris to São Paolo takes slightly more than eleven hours. One day such a length of time will seem incredible. Rather like the adventure of Count Lesdain now seems to us. According to Hanzelka and Zikmund. It took him 37 days. To drive his car from Rio to São Paolo in 1908.
Hanzelka and Zikmund write in the same book that. If the road is dry, a good car can now complete the same journey in just eight hours.
In 1993 when Szoborkay flew across the Atlantic for the first time – to New York – he felt like he was dreaming. Eight or nine hours in the air? In the huge torso of a jumbo jet? He couldn’t believe it was possible even after an hour and a half sitting there with his seatbelt fastened. He had to pinch himself. At that time he had no doubts about the limits of reality: he knew that walking across his home town was a reality but to sit in a jumbo jet heading for America was nothing less than madness. It simply should never have happened. Only God knew where it would all end up.
In the two decades that followed, however, Szoborkay’s perceptions greatly changed and now what for others is just everyday routine has become for him a muffled and blurred film in which he feels like a stranger. And what is an unreal, unattainable or dangerous event for others – a flight to São Paolo, for example – has become something quite mundane. He wishes he could go back, so that the everyday could feel that way again and the exotic regain its old stamp of adventure!
It occurs to Szoborkay that he thinks that way because his senses have become dulled. Only now does it dawn on him that journeys to far-off destinations may have lost their glamour not just to him but also to the whole world. Just think how many more airline connections there are now than in 1977, for example, when he flew to Karlovy Vary, or in 1993. Since then everything has proliferated and become available to so many more people and thus the glamour of many things has now disappeared. To fly from one place to another doesn’t really impress anybody anymore. Instead the world has started to admire people who choose to cycle to some distant country or go on foot. To walk two thousand kilometres, wear out several pairs of sports shoes and then have your photo taken with a hermit at the foot of a rocky mountain – now that is something. Or even better: to simply remain sitting on your ass. The world will come to you and take your photo.
Szoborkay has no need for other people’s admiration. Though, nor even their interest. All he wants is peace. Hence this long journey, hence this long, slow, drawn out escape. Everyday wisdom says that you can’t run away from yourself. With the right will, though – and some skill – there are still many things. You can run away from. So why not give it a try?
The plane starts to descend and lights can be seen far below. In less than an hour, the plane will land at Guarulhos international airport. There is still time, however, for it to fall from the sky and crash on to that endless carpet of skyscrapers that gave Szoborkay such a sense of euphoria when he saw it for the first time a year ago.
Szoborkay wonders how he would divide the passengers into different groups. According to how they react to flying. He quickly comes up with four categories: 1. People who are afraid of flying; 2. people who are not and therefore act with total assurance; 3. people who are in a constant state of indecision and are not sure whether to enjoy the flight or be frightened; and 4. people who enjoy flying.
He then divides the first group into subcategories: a) those who are afraid from the start of the flight to the end; b) those who are only afraid of take-off and landing; c) those who are only afraid of turbulence; d) those who are afraid of stomach problems caused by the cabin food; e) those who are afraid of a lack of air and subsequent panic attack when a long, motionless queue of heavily breathing and sweaty bodies builds up in the aisle; f) those who are afraid that they will have noisy passengers or parents with naughty children sitting either next to them, in front of them or behind them.
The following types belong to the second group: a) those who act with assurance because flying has become merely routine and events going on around are of no interest to them; b) those who behave nonchalantly in the hope that everyone will see them; c) those who are very self-confident, whistle to themselves and then suddenly stumble or bang into a seated passenger with their carry-on luggage; d) those who keep getting up during a flight to see if they don’t have any acquaintances on board.
Members of this group include robust American women flying with a children’s choir to a festival in some remote place with a name impossible to memorize. There is no question they will have reserved their seats in advance and had a choice of where to sit so heaven only knows why they haven’t been placed next to one another but instead behind each other, diagonally where possible. And so over their shoulders and the heads of the people next to them. They converse with one another, their expert. Piercing voices occasionally ticking off one of their charges. Then they order a glass of champagne with a wink at their co-passengers and a coy smile. Perhaps they realize how loud they are but they go on gesticulating and make no effort to turn down the volume.
The third category is made up of the most unpredictable passengers. Who could be divided into so many different subcategories that Szoborkay decides not even to attempt it. Instead he draws up some very roughly defined sub-groups: a) those who remain vaguely unsure of themselves throughout the whole flight; b) those who are edgy only during the commotion of take-off and landing; c) those whose behaviour reflects their moods: from convulsions of laughter to noisy remarks and comments right through to anxious, heaving silences.
Although members of this third category are, in Szoborkay’s eyes, distinguished by a high level of unpredictability, the very worst passengers are still those who belong to category number four. Because these (i.e. the ones who enjoy flying) love to behave theatrically, pathetically, assertively, arrogantly. They recline their seats as far back as they can, endlessly call the air hostess, rustle their newspapers, holler, guffaw and consume as much as their bodies can ingest. Szorbokay has never understood the behaviour of such nuisances and is not convinced by the explanation that this is how they cope with their fear, insecurity and anxiety when in the close company of a multitude of strangers.
And which category would he, Szoborkay, put himself in? Or would he create a special category exclusively for himself? Or could he belong to each of the four categories depending on where he was flying, for what purpose and under what conditions? Or depending on the length of the flight and his state of mind when boarding the plane and when leaving it?
No, he is no incomprehensible law unto himself; he doesn’t oscillate between categories. Szoborkay belongs to a special subcategory: the rather weak and heterogeneous group of passengers who can remain silent even during turbulence.
Turbulence does not bother him. The only thing which does bother him about flying are his fellow passengers. He is bothered by their fear. Because fear. Their deep, underlying, collective fear. Is the trigger of all the childish acts which passengers commit regardless of whether the flight takes forty-five minutes or eleven hours and of whether the planes is flying over inhabited regions, forests, mountains or the ocean.
The more Szoborkay flies – whether as tourist, visitor, spiritual explorer, academic or pedagogue – the more he feels he would be happy to die in an air crash: it would be a quick, comfortable and rather noble death. If he was travelling to a conference, for instance, and his plane was to plummet into the endless Atlantic or into the orange clay of the equally endless Brazilian bush, the academic community would see his death as a sacrifice at the altar of science. And if he was to perish during one of those journeys he took out of spiritual, anthropological or merely intellectual curiosity, nothing could detract from the beauty of his death: he would have died en route somewhere, in action, during transit from one meaningless place to another. Each of the flights he has taken could have been his last! And each of those he takes in the future – whether he wants to take them or not –could prove fatal. A whole plethora of lethal opportunities stretches out behind and in front of him! He cannot complain.
Nor does he. Everything begins and ends with the body. It is their bodies, after all, which the passengers are worried most of all about. When the plane hits a patch of turbulence, some of them start fervently blessing themselves. Throwing the sign of the cross on to their bodies. With their hand, also part of their body. Others merely break out into a humble sweat. Or pretend to be sleeping. Others move their lips quickly. As if they were afraid that their guardian angels. Or their boss, were about to slip away to attend to more pressing matters. The godless, meanwhile, dope themselves up on sleeping tablets. That´s all!
Translated by Jonathan Gresty