The Things you learn on planes

Aug 9, 2008Archive

I wrote this after one of our many flights in Europe when we lived in Nice.

I met a man from Lithuania today on the plane. It’s an odd thing, really, in terms of first and second impressions. The man stood before me in a longish line at the Nice airport. He allowed his colleagues to cut in, leaving me three spaces back in line. I was miffed. Patrick said, “They’re Russians,” and I nodded. That was it.

Then he sat by me on the small plane. His accent slurred his English and for a moment, I had to adjust to understand him—a bit like how I’ve learned these past six months to listen to the beautiful lilt of the French tongue when it lilts English.

We chatted. “I am from Lithuania,” he said. “It is a miracle that today I ride on an airplane. Ten years ago, it wasn’t so.”

I asked him about Lithuania’s history. At one time, it had been the most powerful state in Europe. Then it combined with other sovereignties, eventually coming under the auspices of the Soviets during the turn of the last century. Lithuania, though, wanted to be independent. After World War Two, they asserted that independence, only to be absconded again by the Russians during World War Two. 700,000 people of the small country were sent to Siberia to the Gulag where half of them died. Then, in 1989, winds of freedom began to sweep through Eastern Europe. For a year, Lithuania had two governments—the imposed Soviet one and the independent Lithuanian one. In the early 90’s they gained their independence, eventually becoming part of NATO and then the EU.

“It’s a funny thing,” he said. “My father used to be a part of the resistance. Used to vie for independence. He cringed when I would come home from school and share my allegiance to the communist party.

“I cannot talk to you,” the father said to the son. “You may betray me.”

Now this man is reveling in what his father internally fought for. He’s an investment counselor, successful, with two children 20 and 9.

“There is such a wide span in age because for many years in my country no one was having children. Only when it was safe again did we have our son.”

He didn’t speak kindly of the Russians. It reminded me of Patrick’s quick comment. Here we assumed this man and his friends were Russian, when in fact, they were far from it. We’d called them by their enemy’s name and it made me sad. It made me wonder how often I jump to silly or serious judgments about people—judgments that are painful and unfair and untrue.

When I told the man I was a writer and that my first book was out, he smiled. “I am so glad,” he said. “There are few people who really follow their dreams. There are few who really serve. I am proud of you,” he said. Then he pulled out a piece of paper from his overcoat along with a pen. “You write me what that book is. I love to read books. I promise you I will order the book on Amazon and have it shipped to me. Please, write your title here.”

So, to a middle-aged Lithuanian businessman, I scrawled Ordinary Mom Extraordinary God, praying that somehow the Lord of the Universe, the One who watched the pain of Lithuania, would use the words of that book to bless this dear man.