When I travel these days, all I care about is getting where I’m going with a minimum of hassle, lugging as little gear as possible. With my bionic hip, I know that I will set off all the security systems and will be felt up and pawed and prodded and poked ad nauseum. I wear clothes that make that easier on all the parties involved. I wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off. I do this dissociation thing and last week, with sequestration already making a difference in airport staffing, tried to put myself into a trance state to get through the misery of airports and flights where the flight attendants are overworked, under paid and cop royal attitudes. I hate it.
It wasn’t always like this. My family travelled a lot from the time I was a baby. In the very early years of my life, the airline we flew out of Colombia on was Panagra.
I remember flying on DC-4’s a lot. And the excitement when DC8 and 720’s began flying into Colombia. Eventually, Braniff International took over Panagra. When we’d go to Panama to spend summers with my grandmother, Braniff was the airline that got us there. Braniff was so. cool. Their planes were painted in these far out colors, some of them had an Alexander Calder design. My brothers and I crossed our fingers when we were flying to Panama that we’d be on a Calder.
For a few years, their flight attendants wore these incredibly beautiful Pucci uniforms:
And when it was time to go with a new designer, they went to the total opposite extreme, turning to Halston to design their next ‘look’.
I was a little girl seeing all these wonderfully sophisticated fashions evolve and I was entranced. My brothers always wore coats and little clip-on ties. I had to wear socks with lace and it was one occasion my mom would allow me to skip the orthopedic shoes in favor of white patent leather mary jane shoes, even though it meant I limped more. I wore gloves and a hat and when I was 8, I even got to carry a purse. In the regular coach section, we were served 3 course meals and occasionally, if we were traveling with my grandmother and we were in first class, it was four or five courses. There was real china and real crystal and cloth napkins regardless of section. What we liked most was we got to keep these itty bitty little salt and pepper shakers. And regularly, we were invited into cockpits because we were such well behaved little children.
There was a darker part to all this travel that came to me in a flash on Saturday. I got an aisle seat one row behind the bulkhead in coach. As I came through the business class section, I noticed a youngish woman with a cute little toddler on her lap. I didn’t really notice the people in the bulkhead row. For some reason the mom and her baby had to move from one seat to another and like a shot, a young woman in jeans and blouse stood up from the row right in front of me and rushed over to help move mother and child from one seat to the other across the aisle. One look at the mom’s rings and I realized the young woman who’d rushed to help her was the child’s nanny.
I had forgotten that until my little brother was 8 or 9, our nanny usually came along too. And we sat in one part of the plane and she in another. All my mom’s household staff had uniforms of different degrees of formality and when we travelled, Noehmi, our nanny, had to wear one of her more formal uniforms. Unlike the young woman who was on my flight this Saturday, there was no room for doubt about the fact that Noehmi was a servant. This is another part of my life that I took for granted and now makes me terribly, horribly uncomfortable when I remember.
When it came time for me to go to college, Braniff kept going in and out of bankruptcy and Eastern Airlines took over their routes. To get to college, I’d fly to Miami, then to Atlanta on Eastern. There I’d catch a flight on Piedmont Airlines to Lynchburg, Virginia. By then, there was added incentive to dress up to travel–coming in on a student visa, I always had to pass muster with the immigration officer in Miami. It was terrifying to think that I might be mistaken for a Colombian drug mule (the drug routes from Colombia were opening with ferocity). Probably it was wishful thinking to believe that if I dressed up, I’d look clean and innocent enough. But there was still something about traveling in style that mattered–I remember what care I took choosing my luggage, one of the graduation gifts I got from my parents.
Whatever, it took me long into adulthood before I quit caring. There was a lot about travel in those days that was pretentious and silly. The way our family treated Noehmi was some of the worst of the colonial ethos I was shaped by. And recognizing all that, I also realize what an incredibly lucky little girl I was…