The stewardess had the kind of face that a smile would seem out of place on. Her hair was pulled back into a sloppy pony tail, sort of how mine looked when I was nineteen and I’d tie it back blindly with a rubber band; her face glowed the way sweaty faces do, with too much makeup around her eyes, making it look like her eyelids were drawn in ink while the rest of her face was sketched in pencil. The nametag on her uniform said ‘Svetlana,’ just the sort of name one would expect on a Russian airline. I thought how her parents must’ve lacked creativity the same way American parents do when they name their kids ‘Joe’ or ‘Christina.’ Certain names hang on their owners with the stale air of a dead metaphor; I doubt a clever parent would name their child ‘Joe’ any more than they’d stoop so low as to say something like ‘scared as a deer in the headlights’ or ‘free as a bird.’
Speaking of birds, airplanes aren’t like them. Not at all. Birds are mobile, while airplanes are static, big and metal and inflexible. An airplane can’t swirl its head around or shit corrective fluid down on people crossing the street below. Remember when you were a kid and you’d hold your arms out and make engine noises and run around, pretending you were a plane? Well, you did a good job. That’s about how a plane moves, stiff and upright, with arms forever stuck out as though the plane has been crucified. Having the ability to fly is about all a plane has in common with a bird; the latter flies fluidly and gracefully while a plane can’t even flap its wings.
The Chinese woman sitting next to me kept snapping pictures of Svetlana. I have no idea why. Every time Svetlana came out with her cart – fish or chicken, miss? fish or chicken, sir? – the lady next to me would snap away like crazy, some sort of mile-high paparazzi. Finally the other stewardess had enough, she turned to the Chinese woman and demanded that she stop taking pictures. The stewardess seemed upset, speaking tersely in a strong Russian accent as though she was Svetlana’s older protective brother. Svetlana herself didn’t seem to notice, or at least didn’t let on that she did. Her face still hung heavy, expressionless, her eyelashes still drooped with too much makeup, and I still felt nervous when she’d ask me something. Fish or chicken? Whichever would make you happy, Svet.
She was the way I think Russian women look. In contrast, there were pictures on the seat in front of me, pictures of Russia, that weren’t anything like how I had envisioned it. In these dubious photographs, Russia was not covered in ice, frozen over like Jack Nicolson at the end of The Shinning, but was instead green and wonderful, with brilliant red and orange trees in the autumn. A movie set designer could not have created a more beautiful landscape, nor could a painter, and I stared at it, reading the words below – Discover the Beauty of Russia – and I asked myself, “Is this real?” Could years and years of books, jokes, political cartoons, and James Bond films have created within my mind a false image of Russia?
I’m not sure what I expected – certainly not trees straight out of a Pierre Renoir painting. Maybe a long line of people with slumping shoulders and thick black coats, waiting outside in the cold to collect a single loaf of bread. That was more the Russia I knew. I certainly couldn’t picture Vladamir Putin running through a field, twirling around, the hills around him alive with the sound of Pussy Riot. Borris Yeltsin alone, wearing a big fuzzy hat, drinking vodka in a dark basement seemed more appropriate. And “Discover the Beauty of Russia”? Not the slogan I expected. I would have anticipated something more along the lines of, “Russia: We Must Break You.”
It was all too much, being on the Russian plane. But the real doozy, the shot of tequila that puts you over the edge, the most annoying kid in the classroom, was the nightmare vision I found on the screen in front of me during the take off and landing. In an instance of technological TMI, the plane had a camera that broadcasted nifty views from below, so the passengers could watch themselves separate from the Earth and then come back to it. A bird’s eye view nobody asked for, right there in front of me and impossible to turn off or look away from. Perhaps it’s my slight fear of flying; the bird camera did not sit well with me. It was horrifying to watch, worse than any Wes Craven movie. I kept expecting to see something go wrong (There’s smoke coming from the engine! Oh no! The runway isn’t there anymore! It’s covered with a bread line!).
The upside of the bird camera didn’t seem worth it (that.was.so.cool.). Albeit small, there was a chance I could watch my death, the big END, and that creeped me out. I don’t need a camera to show the plane descend just as I don’t need a camera projecting an image of the inside of my throat while I eat, so I can see a huge lump of fish (Svet was out of chicken) stuck in my esophagus as I gag and choke to death. It would be like fitting your pit-bull with a camera on his head, hooked up to your flatscreen, so you can watch it in full detail when he finally flips and tears you open like a bag of doggie treats.
There’s something intrinsically special about a bird’s eye view that a stupid camera on the underbelly of a jet plane can’t capture. Think about it this way: in Russia, the people expect to see the autumn trees. Women like Svetlana are everywhere and, thus, nervous guys like me aren’t intimidated by them and nobody has to be told to stop taking their picture. Svetlana, the autumn trees…it’s the norm. And so, for a bird, is looking at the world from up above. It isn’t astonishing. I could watch the shot from that camera all day, and it wouldn’t look normal, look natural.
The abnormality of the whole thing made me uncomfortable. All I could imagine was the plane suddenly going silent, the engine dying, the green land below coming at my screen, at me, warp speed, the plane crashing down into those beautiful green Russian hills, and the birds flying around the wreckage, looking down on the fire and the smoke, thanking their bird God that they don’t explode upon impact, then landing easily in the arms of a magnificent autumn tree like they were posing for a tourist brochure.