As I struggled under the overbearing weight of my four rolling suitcases, each one filled to the brim and tipping the scales at their 25 kg limit, I felt the anxiety racing through my body. Not about the 6 hour flight ahead of me, or about the 4 month European sojourn I was embarking upon. I was scared to death that I would have to pay the extra fee for each of my overweight bags.
I had done the best I could, weighing the suitcase several time throughout packing, but when you’re leaving the country for over 4 months and packing for cold European weather, 25 kilograms,-roughly 50 pounds- is hardly enough to contain all necessities. As I approached the ticket counter at Logan International Airport, I tried my best to ignore the jumpy and nervous feelings and be as gracious as possible. I was relieved to see a young man who looked to be in a good mood at the counter. I pulled out my passport and smiled. “Oh, you’re going to Paris, how exciting!” he chatted while he checked my flight information. As he heaved my stuffed suitcases onto the scale, I did my best to distract him from the blinking “Overweight!” indicator that must have been going crazy on his screen. “Yes, I’m going for a whole semester- 4 months!” I tried to emphasize the incredible length of my stay so he would maybe understand the reason behind the excessively packed bag currently crushing the airport scale. He smiled at me with his deep dark brown eyes and rarely even looked at the computer screen. My heart rate returned to normal when I saw the luggage tag he had printed out –it wasn’t the telltale orange tag screaming “Heavy!” He asked me if I spoke French, and I whipped out my favorite little phrase “Juste un peu”- meaning “just a little”, and he smiled at me with the most genuinely kind eyes I had ever encountered in an airport setting. He continued to chatter on about how he was new to the United States from Morocco, and he loved Paris, and he spoke four languages, and he was excited about his new job. We continued to chat during the process of loading my bags, and when he was done he handed me my passport and wished me Adieu and Bonne Chance, with no mention of ever charging me for my overweight luggage. As I walked away, breathing a sigh of relief, I realized that this sweet Moroccan ticket agent had not only saved me hundreds of dollars in charges, but he had given me the best send-off I could have hoped for: a delightful, worry-free attitude.
I think sometimes people underestimate the power that interactions with other humans have on our own experiences. Every day during Catholic grammar school, all I heard was “Treat people the way you would want to be treated”- but I countered with arguments pointing out the facts that if you let everyone go in traffic ahead of you, you’d never get anywhere, and if you gave away allyour money to everyone who needed it, you’d be homeless! It took me a long time to learn that it’s not necessarily what you do for people, but how you treat them and how you make them feel.
Yes, when someone lets you go in a long line of traffic, you wave gratefully and mouth “Thank you!” to them as you merge, and yes you’re more likely to let someone else go in front of you after having received this act of kindness. This “Pay-It-Forward” mentality certainly has merit in several areas of daily life, but is impossible to institute all the time, or in every facet of interactions with others. You do have to look out for yourself in this world, and sometimes that’s difficult to do without turning off others in the process.
Especially in the travel process, when emotions and tensions are high, niceness is of the utmost importance. Everyone has too much luggage, or they can’t find their ticket, or their flight is delayed. Families are worried about finding seats together; everyone is worried about losing their luggage in the airline checking process. It is not surprising that people who wield tremendous power over travellers’ states of being, and thereby the complete atmosphere of an airport, are the ticket and baggage agents.
I experienced the other extreme of the power held over my emotions by airline representatives not 8 hours after my wonderful Moroccan man experience. He had calmed my fears so much, and put me in such a good mood, that I was able to overlook the fact that the stewardesses on Swiss Air completely skipped over my aisle when serving dinner- “It’s ok, I have my Cheesecake Factory cheesecake, and who wants to eat airplane food anyway?” and also roll with the punches when the individualized TV sets for each seat decided to stop working one hour into the flight-“It’s okay, I should sleep anyway to beat the jet lag.” So when I landed in Zurich, I was a bit tired but in fully gracious and happy spirits, ready to await my flight into Paris.
I was still okay even after realizing that, according to our tickets, my mom and I were not sitting next to each other on this next flight. My mom and I had enjoyed our apple-and-hot chocolate snack in the airport, and were sitting at the gate waiting to board our little plane to Paris when I decided to talk to the ticket agent before boarding to see if there were any available seats together, to avoid the hassle of asking people to switch once on board. I thought a ticket agent might appreciate this thoughtfulness, since it would certainly speed up the boarding process and make everyone’s lives easier. I stood in line in front of the Swiss Air counter for over 5 minutes, watching the agent talk on the phone in Swiss, staring at the computer screen. I was patiently waiting my turn, until I realized that people were starting to line up to board the plane. “Oh well, I guess this will have to wait until we are on board. I’m sure it will work out.” My mood was slightly deflated now after being so rudely ignored, but I was excited to get on the plane and get to Paris.
I stood next to my mom in the not-so-well-organized line, amidst people pushing and shoving and inching closer to the gate. There was no reason or order to anything. But I was still in a perfectly fine mood. When I finally reached the boarding gate to board the bus that would take us to the plane, I handed my boarding pass to the agent with all the positive energy in the world. She looked at me. She looked at the orange Longchamp bag hanging from my shoulder. She looked at the larger yellow Longchamp tote I was clutching on my forearm. She shook her head, muttering something. My heart started to pound and I could feel my face getting hotter each second. She viciously whipped around to the computer and printed a “Check Bag” tag and attempted to yank my large yellow bag away from me. No words. She just started to move her hands toward my bag, which contained my two pairs of Christian Louboutin shoes, one pair of Ferrgamo shoes, one pair of Bruno Magli shoes, all my jewellery, all my medicine and contact lenses, my laptop computer and my boyfriend’s sweatshirt that I had used as a pillow on my flight from Boston. There was no way in the world I was letting this woman take this bag away from me. She clearly did not know who she was trying to mess with.
I resisted, stepping back to prevent her from touching my priceless piece of luggage. “You’re only allowed one carry-on in Economy” was all she kept repeating to me, holding up the number one like I was an infant. My face got progressively hotter with each revolting syllable she uttered, and each revolting gesture that she dared to make toward the bag which contained the most valuable possessions I owned, and that I had carried all the way from Boston. I attempted to remain calm and in control, because I knew I was sure to get detained for punching this Swiss woman in the face, and that’s hardly the way to start off a study abroad experience. Her response to my polite inquiry? She just continued spitting the word “Economy!” at me. I looked around for my mom, who had become separated from me in the chaos of the line set-up. I knew there was about to be a problem.
My mom, new to the dilemma and also carrying two carry-ons, offered “Well, I’ll take your little bag inside my big bag,” but the woman just barked the word “Economy!” again. Then, she dared to spew “It’s not like you have valuables in there” at me as she started to wrap the tag around the handle. My hands were shaking. I could feel my heart pounding in my throat. My ears were about to explode off the eruptive volcano that my head had become. I removed her hands from my bag and stepped five feet away, shaking my head and holding up my hands in defense against this hateful creature. “No. I am not checking this bag.” I kept thinking in my head that the contents of this bag were worth more than this heartless villian’s life, but the only words I heard coming out of my mouth were “No. No. No!”
By this time, people behind me in line were becoming exasperated by the “ugly American” scene I was causing, but my mind couldn’t even process that or begin to care. “Mom, this is problem. There are other ways to get to Paris. I will take the train. I will walk to Paris. I am not checking this bag.” I kept my hand protectively between the bag and the ticket agent, who I now only saw as a figure of all that was evil and wrong with the world. It was like I was possessed- I knew I was coming off as snobby and unattractive and difficult, but all that mattered in that moment was keeping my bag clutched to me like a life preserver.
Finally, she admitted defeat. “Well, the tag is on there. My job is done. They will make you check it on the plane” she muttered as she waved her hands off to the gate. “No they won’t.” I hissed back at her, daring to counter with me one more time. Still stewing in my rage and defensiveness, I boarded the shuttle. Having traveled from Boston to Puerto Rico, and then on a smaller jet from Puerto Rico to St. Thomas several times a year since I can remember, I was very familiar with the “small plane” phenomenon. But when I saw the plane, it was full-sized- the same size as the jet I took from Boston. When I boarded, I saw that there was plentiful bin space, and the flight wasn’t even full! Why on earth would that woman try to deny me my “extra” bag? There was no logical reasoning behind her “Economy” rule.
I sat in my seat and then promptly dealt with the seat dispute, not smiling or coaxing but just curtly achieving my goal. The easygoing, happy-go-lucky attitude of my first flight was a mere memory. I was now in “defense” mode, looking out for myself and my possessions, and not really bothering whose feelings may have been bristled in the process. That horrid woman had pushed all my buttons-first ignoring me in line, then touching my belongings for no reason, then spitting at me about my class of travel, implying that it was my own financial fault that I couldn’t have both bags. There was no way around my reaction. She had awakened every hard, cold, defensive, “when push comes to shove” bulldog bone in my Boston Irish body, and she had awakened quite the beast. Looking back, I am embarrassed by how the scene must have looked, but I can’t say that I would have done a single thing differently.
The two flights that brought me to Paris show complete book-end examples of the effect that a stranger’s actions can have on our emotional states: kindness breeds kindness and a “go with the flow” attitude, while contempt breeds defensiveness and stubborn firmness. A smile goes a long way. Would I have been more agreeable if she had smiled and apologized, or perhaps explained the rule of one item per passenger and wished me luck in finding room on the plane for it? Maybe if she hadn’t ignored me prior to our interaction, my immediate reaction would not have been one of hostility. There is no way to know. Maybe I’m just difficult and short tempered to begin with. Maybe I’m just a high-stress traveler. Maybe some people are okay with that kind of treatment from strangers in a customer service position. But one thing is certain: the two astronomically different attitudes of the two ticket agents I encountered on my way to Paris each aroused a polar opposite reaction within me.
It’s so easy to be nice. Smile. Don’t always be in such a rush to get everywhere. Not only is it better for your internal body chemistry to “chill” sometimes, but you never know whose day you might brighten just by letting them go before you in the grocery aisle or letting them have the last chocolate chip cookie at Starbucks. It’s like that “good deed” ad campaign ads for Liberty Mutual, where people do small, human tasks for one another. If you pick up someone’s keys when they didn’t realize they dropped them, it is so much more likely that they will hold the door for the person coming out of the building behind them, and so on and so on. Even just saying “sorry” when you accidentally bump into someone, or say “It’s okay” when someone accidentally bumps into you goes a long way. It can be so hard to rise above the pettiness and competition in this world- yes, everyone is looking out for themselves- but it can be so easy to do little things that might not even register to you or take much effort, but could start a whole ripple effect of niceness.
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