Sunday, December 4, 2011

Berlin to Brussels to Brooklyn and Back--I

March 24, 2009

First flight with Brussels Airlines, Berlin to Brussels.  Whenever I fly via Paris, the plane is always crowded with ebullient French businessmen in immaculate suits with pastel shirts and shiny leather shoes.  This plane to Brussels is more gender-mixed but all in dour black suits and red ties and wool overcoats: the quieter, stiffly formal diplomatic class.  Somehow foregoing the warm purring of Dutch, stuttering Flemish sounds like an English cassette tape played backwards.  The plane starts with the dry noises of the diplomats snapping open their newspapers.  A broadly curving rainbow stretches from the wing of our plane down toward the flat farmlands of Belgium. 

The Brussels airport is dull, but efficient.  Terminal B seems populated almost exclusively by Indians, the women swishing around in sherbet-colored saris, and Chassidim, with one older gentleman with his boxy black hat wrapped in protective plastic wrap, other young men wearing their dangling beards and baggy black-and-white duds with a dash of hip-hop swagger.  Some of the saried women have draped their diaphanous garb over bulky acrylic sweaters and yanked stocking caps smurf-style over their long black braids.  Several are wearing wool socks stuffed into plastic sandals, with silver bell-wreathed anklets jingling over their thick legs.  A shrivelled, dark-skinned woman in a rustically embroidered skirt and bright red ski cap clashing with her sparkly bubble-gum pink sweater squats deep on her haunches in the middle of the boarding line and looks how I feel: tired, and slightly irritated.  

A surprising discovery at the Brussels Airport

Flying to New York City with the amusingly obviously named Jet Airlines, on the plane, the “PUSH” signs on the bathroom doors and all other instructions are in English and Hindi.  I am undoubtedly an ethnic minority on this plane, and it feels good.  Even the few pale-blond Belgian families are a touch too exotic.  Only the Chassidim look something like me.  My desperation for sensory stimulus, for cultural color, is being gradually fulfilled.  The wine-red upholstery has a soothing effect, my mind eases out of the steel-and-glass austerity of Germany.  I take hot towels and candy from the flight attendant dressed in an elegant sunflower-yellow tunic.  The candy is a gummy brown ball, and my western pallet, attuned to the bland salt-and-pepper-parsley flavours of Europe struggles to process the blast of sweet-sour-spicy seeping from the tarry lump.
Instructions on Jet Airways plane

The large, rustically dressed group sits in the middle of the plane.  As I squeeze by their seats, an elderly woman looks up, her face dripping with bits of gold: a large stud on the side of her nose, and a beaded pendant hanging from an additional golden septum ring.  Hours later, there, to the right of the plane is the northeast coast of the US, looking pale and grey on the horizon and stretching form the sea in a long line familiar from countless maps, now real—the US looking dry and barren at the end of winter.  I stare out at the land: even the most barren islands inexplicably have wide grids etched into their muddy-looking surfaces.  The East Coast, the most populated region of the country, shows no signs of city centers, monumental plazas, or organic development.  The houses are all neatly spaced around straight lanes and cul-de-sacs.

The immigration officers at JFK Airport, cold and efficient with societal authority represented in a rainbow of Americanized nationalities: a young Puerto Rican woman, middle-aged Asian man, dark-skinned descendants of Africa, their orders all tinged with the East Coast twang.  I wonder how much was intentional and how much was a product of the natural hiring process.  Keepers of the guard, watchdogs to these gates of paradise.  Where is this cold-hearted, money-hungry America that the Europeans are always telling me about?  Waiting in line, the news blathers on in the background: more panic and outrage about teen pregnancy and the morning after pill.  The report could’ve been straight out of my high school days.  Ach, puritan America.  Some things never change. 

The airport is buzzing with Jewish families, and for some reason it makes me incredibly happy.  Some in Quaker-like hats and corkscrew Yeshiva-locks, others sporting just a subtle kippah, all these signs of orthodoxy and exclusion that cheer me with their very defiance of fate.  I’ve sometimes heard awkward comments in Germany along the lines of, “But there are no Jews anymore,” and the next time I will think of this moment, being a minority among minorities, bonded to them by our equally pale skin and chestnut-colored hair and my understanding of their Yiddish.  In contrast to the men’s snappy two-toned suites, the Orthodox women look dowdy, most of them wearing ankle-length skirts with tennis shoes.  The Muslims do it better, I find myself thinking.  All the Turkish and Lebanese fashionistas strutting around Europe should fly over to the US for some workshops on the East Coast, before moving on to help the Pentecostals in the Midwest.

Some guys I met in New York