A long flight across the night. You know why late flights are good? Because we cease to be earthbound and burdened with practicality. Ask the impertinent question. Talk about the idea that nobody has thought about yet… Be poets.” From The West Wing
It’s a long time since I flew across the night. This trip was making me anxious. A rushed, last-minute work trip to a far away, cold place. Until I got to the airport. The minute I walk into the airport, I remember the thrill of travel. I still haven’t overcome my anxiety about leaving, being away, coping with admin and visas and borders. Somewhere deeper is the thrill of movement and flight and the anticipation of wonder. I hope one day the thrill will overcome the anxiety. For now, I need to get better at anticipating to calm the nerves. It all disappears at the airport. I grab dinner, drop off my bags and head through security.
I’ve checked in early and have a window-seat. The plane beside ours is British Airways. I watch them load the luggage. We taxi slowly towards the runway and lift into the air. The lift is slow and gentle, steady. It’s a while since I’ve flown in a big plane – this one is a B373-800. The ride is smooth and steady. I have an empty seat beside me. I sleep on and off.
Somewhere above the coast of Libya, I lift my window shade. Below, settlements glow with light. They’re spread in all directions, along what look like roads. Like drops of water on a spider’s web. Bright lights against the dark ground. At the coastline, the lights stop abruptly and pitch dark laps against the line between dark and light.
Above, the sky is filled with a million bright stars. I see constellations that are familiar and some which are different, nothern stars. Orion fills the centre of the sky. It’s a breath-taking sight.
The next time I wake, we are over the pitch black hollow of the Mediterranean Sea. I try to spot boats in the Mediterranean or lights on the land in Europe. I sleep on and off and the world outside remains dark. Just that one glimpse of magical geography for the night.
We land in the early morning cold in Frankfurt. Stepping from the plane onto the sky-walk, our breathe is visible in the morning air. It’s just below freezing.
Second leg of the trip – Frankfurt to Brussels. We board in the dark. It’s minus 3 degrees and raising. We sit on the plane, waiting. Raindrops roll slowly, sadly down the window pane beside me. A short delay and an interminable taxi. Why is it that Frankfurt’s runways seem so far from the airport itself?
Finally we take off. The rain turns to cold misty cloud as we rise. Suddenly we break through the misty ceiling and we’re above the clouds. I catch my breathe. A rippling, fluffy-looking expanse of white stretches into the distance on all sides. Like virgin snow. It stretches to the horizon, where white and blue and purple fade to the gentle warm pick-orange-peach of dawn. In the distance, contrails pick out the pink against the blue-blue sky. Dawn at cruising altitude is as beautiful as ever – and universal.
After a while, through gaps in the clouds, I glimpse what looks like water. Lakes? A little later and I see it more clearly: it’s not water, it’s snow. Below the clouds, below us, we’re passing over snow-capped mountains. Above the clouds, a gorgeous sunrise; below a European winter.
All too soon, the brief announcement and a quick descent into Brussels, leaving behind the magic of the night flight and the sunrise sky for the grey, grim mistiness of early morning Belgium.