When Pigs Fly

Last week I returned from a trip to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast that included an overnight stay in Accra, Ghana. I went through four airports in four different countries: New York, Istanbul, Abidjan, and Accra. That gave me a lot of time to watch people, which is a hobby of mine, along with taking photos of them surreptitiously. My daughter worries that I will get caught someday, but so far I have managed to avoid detection. The secret is to act as if what you are doing is not a secret at all. Maybe I’ll write a manual about that.

Let me put my observations on the table so that you can examine them and draw your own conclusion. Mine is reflected in the title of this post, but I ask you to decide for yourself. Business people, flight crew, or anyone who flies regularly should have no problem confirming what I am talking about.

Here is what I observed people doing publicly in airports. As my grandfather used to say, hang onto your hat: toe cleaning, nose picking, mucous inspecting, phlegm sucking, testicle massaging, nail clipping, hair teasing, teeth flossing, ear wax extracting, eye wax gazing, ass scratching, and finger sniffing. People also did the usual coughing, sneezing, yawning, belching, and farting that accompany this kind of behavior without anyone feeling the need to cover their mouth or excuse themselves. What I find interesting is that people either think no one can see them (a variant of the baby game “peek-a-boo”), or they just don’t care.

Then there were the men at the airport in Istanbul who came out of the bathroom stall, bypassed the sink, and went straight for the exit. I imagined the airport police arresting them with sanitized handcuffs. Believe me when I tell you that I am not a personal hygiene, clean freak. I used to teach Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which Teresa, the love interest, “can’t reconcile herself to the idea that the human body pisses and farts.” This is said by Teresa’s mother, who then farts loudly and laughs.

While it’s true that my refrigerator is immaculate and I take my shoes off when entering my apartment, I am not Teresa. The Macedonian couple downstairs does the same thing. I do not even object to dirty feet. If someone wants to have dirty feet, that’s their business. I just don’t want to sit next to them. What do you call people who display them as if it were the most natural thing in the world? You have to wonder about their rearing. You also have to wonder about people who eat, make a mess, and then leave their trash behind. Is this intentional? Do they think someone ought to pick up after them, or do they simply not think?

This is about more than people being slobs. It’s about public spaces and the kind of actions that are appropriate there. In an age not of informality but anti-formality, it has become customary to act as if other people do not exist. To wit, the guy who took up an entire row of seats on my flight, because he needed to stretch out. He acted as if it were his inalienable right. He never offered a seat to one of the three, big men packed together in the row across from him. He also chased others away looking for an unoccupied seat. People assume rights without responsibilities.

You might think that traveling first class is better. On certain airlines, that’s true. With more space, people tend to act more civilly, but even that has limits. These behaviors have become universal. I also recognize that when people wax nostalgic for the days of courtesy, manners, and stewardesses serving gourmet meals on china, they usually do not take into account airfare. Thanks to deregulation and discount airlines, you can fly from San Francisco to New York for a fraction of what it cost in the early days. It’s just that with lower prices come, well, lower people.

It’s time for me to join the Delta Sky Club. At least the feet there will be in gold-toed socks.

This is the second of a three-part series on my trip to Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Eventually, I will get out of the airport. Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Note to self: Start work on my new invention that allows you to pee in your seat while traveling on the plane (i.e., the “Urinator”). 


  1. so youre not insane, we should probably have a greater sensibility about these things. you are american however, and although there are asian countries where our manners in general are appalling, there are certainly countries where they are more relaxed about these things than we are. (were?)

    i dont want to paint too broad a brush, i believe there are people who share your sensibilities in every country. i knew a girl from ivory coast who would probably side with you on this– but her closest friend was also connected to royalty, so much for examples.

    i for one, cannot tolerate a bit of earwax that has dutifully protected my inner ear from dust and debris, suddenly becoming loose and making itself known by tickling the inside of my earlobe. it must get removed immediately. the proper thing to do would be to move all luggage to a bathroom, flick said earwax out, then wash hands. thats the appropriate thing to do. but you forget, that in airports we are all cattle. one does not simply walk backwards through the chute and return to their place in line.

    somehow you have retained enough dignity to do things properly even in a gulag, and my hat is off to you. at least youre setting an example. that said, i was head over heels for a girl from portugal once, and though i wont hold a country to her standards (i mean, she was in the circus after all) i saw her probably more than once (while working in a restaurant) stick her finger into her nose and wiggle it around like she was the only person in the world.

    please, she went to the bathroom after and washed her hands, right? in the version that allows me to sleep at night, she did. but the truth is, i have no way of knowing. its no behavior for a server of any gender (i still prefer “waiter” and “waitress,” so perhaps im just as bad really) but she was truly one of the kindest people i ever knew. she didnt have to, but she looked like a supermodel. that moment was a perfect balance of amusing and horrific. if it makes you feel better, (tongue in cheek, dont worry) she was deported months later. i presume it wasnt for that– but if immigration was around that day, it had to be a factor, right? especially if they were eating.

      1. we did not date, we were friends. we even confessed love for each other, though it was not exactly matched. she was very kind, gave wonderful hugs (she looked feminine but she was quite strong for any person of her size) and when i asked her to marry me and travel the world with me she said “ill think about it.” we both knew what she meant, but it was very sweet.

        she was no longer in the circus when i knew her. she was however able to ride an ordinary bicycle with a number of other passengers that likely exceeded the capacity, i kid you not.

        1. Thank you for this. It got me thinking about a future post about those women I have asked to marry over the years. It might be great to hear from readers about their experiences. Have a great week!

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