I wish that my first time flying had been special, romantic, the kind of first time that makes you fall in love. Instead, my first was a bumpy ride on Aeroflot in the only country on earth where an 11 hour flight can still be domestic. I was four and my mom and I were flying from Moscow to Vladivostok to reunite with my dad who was serving in the Soviet Air Force. At the time I was dealing with an ear infection, which made the ear popping that goes along with flying that much more excrutiating for me, my mom, and I imagine all of the passengers within hearing distance. I was also nauseous most of the flight. My clearest memory from the flight, in a general haze of despair, was being sick in the black paper bag that was in the seat pocket in front of me. My destination was not one to make me swoon with love for travel either. If you look carefully, you’ll see that Vladivostok is beyond even Siberia- a place many consider to be as far away from joy as you can get on a map. In the end, after living in a communal house, sharing a toilet and a kitchen with a dozen people, a brutal winter and a terrible bowl cut for me, my mom and I decided to love dad from afar and headed back West.
I became smitten with travel only four years later, on a flight that would make the perfect first time for anyone, let alone a Soviet kid who wore out the pages filled with toys and stylish little girl’s clothing of a department store’s catalogue from London, trying to imagine what the life revealed in those pages must be like.
A year of studies, exams and rounds of eliminations led my dad to a job with the United Nations in their New York headquarters. The flight to America was a far cry from the tin can Aeroflot experience. Not only were we floating above the clouds in a sleek, double-decker Pan Am Boeing, but we were in First Class. I got free toys, colored pencils and a blue eraser in the shape of an airplane. We got little blue bags, stamped with the Pan Am logo filled with socks, and a comb and mini toothpaste– this was a big deal as I had spent the last few years brushing my teeth with a soap-tasting powder. I had arrived. That life that I imagined as I flipped the pages of the British catalogue was somehow now mine. After years of looking at photographs of Mr. and Mrs. Smith in their satin robes smiling, watching little Suzy play with her plush rocking pony, I was going to live it. If I was nauseous on that flight, I was too overwhelmed with joy and bewilderment to notice.
Things only got better. After sharing a two-bedroom apartment with six family members, I was now living it up at the Beverly Hotel on Lexington Avenue in a suite on the 16th floor with pink velvet chairs, a separate bedroom, and a mirrored dining area (it was the 80s). In the two months that we spent at the hotel I drank orange soda until I was sick, ate bananas to the same end and fell in love with Pink Panther, Alvin and the Chipmunks and reruns of Bewitched. I became quite taken with FAO Schwartz, the Lipstick building on 3rd Avenue, pizza, the Cloisters, Fruity Pebbles, Halloween and of course travel.
Within another couple of years I got to see Paris and London. Then Amsterdam, Brussels, Luxemburg, Athens and eventually most of Europe. That first transatlantic flight not only made me curious about what lies beyond my immediate reach but it also made me think that my wildest dreams are just shy of what’s possible. After all, if I could end up in First Class, flying to a life I thought I’d never touch, where couldn’t I go?