It begins at the gate.
I’m at Gate 39 in Frankfurt airport, sitting amongst other passengers, glancing occasionally at the newspaper on my lap, and staring, at other times, through the glass panel at the dull-colored airplane blending into a backdrop of grey sky. An announcement over the loudspeaker instantly triggers some people to stand up and walk towards the entrance; it turns out not to be a boarding announcement, but the people – all Asians, it seems to me at this distance – do not return to their seats. A few minutes later another announcement requests everyone to be seated: the boarding will not begin for at least another ten minutes. No one budges. After fifteen minutes or so we are asked to board in the order of our seat numbers; the rear of the aircraft is to be filled first. A long queue gathers behind this crowd already standing there. There is no room for those holding the appropriate seat numbers as the ones in front do not make way. The next section of the aircraft is now asked to board; more people queue up, but since the entrance is blocked few can make it into the aircraft. I find my irritation growing, but the Europeans around me are calm and polite: they simply wait. The situation lasts for a while. It takes much longer than usual to board the plane.
Inside the aircraft, just as we are about to settle into our seats next to the window, a lady from the middle section asks if we could let her have the window seat; it would help her baby, she says, else the baby would disturb everyone around. My wife, who loves the window seat and requests one for each flight, is upset. After a bit of indecision she agrees to the exchange, and we move into the middle section. We talk about it for a while, and both of us cannot understand what problems the baby would’ve had sitting where we were now. We should not give in so easily, wife tells me. I tell her that she would be feeling worse if she had refused the seat.
After the take-off entertainment channels are turned on. There are movies in the several languages, a few TV serials and documentaries. I choose a channel and push my seat back.
Hey! Hey! What are you doing?!! Move your seat up – I cannot see anything on my screen!!
It is a lady behind me, with a thick Bengali accent. Her assault has me dumbstruck – without thinking, I pull up my seat. It takes me a few seconds to realize that she can push back her seat as well, to maintain her distance from the screen. Before I can decide on how to tell her this, she taps me on my shoulder and asks me to move over to the empty seat a little away where there is no-one sitting behind. I can stand it no longer – I push my seat back and tell her that if she wants to look at the screen she should do the same.
I think back to Gate 39, and muse over how things changed after that. Europe – in its essence, attitude and behavior – ends at the gate; the India experience starts well before you cross its physical boundaries.
This is just the beginning, I tell myself.