Memorable seatmates, I’ve had a few. But the heavy man alongside me on this Polish flight was peerless. A chunk of flesh the size of a two-zloty coin had been freshly gouged out under his left eye. After I offered up my preflight warm towelette, he dismissed the gesture with a gruesome cackle, revealing that his front teeth had also been knocked out. Aware of my curiosity, the man curled his fingers into a feral claw, gestured toward the injury, and whispered “pussycat” in the Balkan-soaked English favored by 007 villains.
His menace was the least of my concerns on this LOT Polish Airlines adventure. In my imagination, Eastern European airlines excel in flying from airport of origin directly into the ground. A sweeping generalization, perhaps, but one seared in memory by Aeroflot 593, which plunged into a Siberian mountain after the pilot let his 15-year-old son take the stick. On this particular voyage from Warsaw to Newark, my anxiety had been stoked by a four-hour delay owing to an unspecified “mechanical” failure. All efforts to procure information only fueled my fear—airline employees were cryptic, a desk clerk cited a broken wing. The true predicament remained unknown, but by consensus it seemed fundamental. Travelers in the U.S. would have morphed into an apoplectic fugue state, but my fellow Polish voyagers barely shrugged. Rushing a mechanic at an Eastern European airport rarely ends well.
Once onboard, I discovered that LOT keeps business class intimate. The section, which ran two rows deep, was an entirely American and Russian affair, with any hints of the Polish tongue banished to coach. When the overloaded, loosely jointed drinks trolley materialized, my wounded companion pawed a wheat bun and demanded vodka, then a second, then a third, washing it down with a flute of “champansky.” Sipping with dignity, he became entranced by a Polish kids’ cartoon beamed against the cabin’s main screen. I excused myself to seek refuge in the bathroom, but getting there was no easy task. A food trolley rolled over an array of scattered hand luggage. Clothing spewed out of an open bag. A pair of broken spectacles was twisted into the carpet. The breadbasket from which we had been served lay half full against the stall. I tiptoed over it and locked the door.
Returning to my seat, I was confronted by a stewardess who looked unnervingly like a pre-rehab Diego Maradona. Evidently hard of hearing, she communicated by lowering her lips into the vicinity of my ear and barking random bursts of airplane English: “Drink! Foods! Nuts!” Response was futile as she proudly offered a second round from the breadbasket. I politely declined, but Maradona was not to be deterred. She scurried away, quickly returning with an official LOT Polish Airlines portable movie system. The bulky box, clearly developed in the heyday of the Sputnik program, came with headphones she claimed to be noise-canceling, if only because the words “noise-canceling” were etched on them. I plugged in to watch Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston yuck it up in Just Go With It. Watching in English, I barely cracked a smile, but after flipping soundtracks, the movie killed. Late-career Sandler is funnier, and Aniston almost tolerable, when dubbed in Polish.
Then I glanced at my seatmate, sleeping, mouth agape. Blood from his cheek had trickled down, speckling my cuff. I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of well-being. LOT conjured memories of my freshman dorm, a shambolic swampland of festering laundry, unwashed plates, cigarette stubs, compact discs, and biodegrading newspapers—a joyous filth that represented a sense of discovery. Calmly ripping open a moist towelette, I began to dab happily at the bloodstain and decided that LOT was now my carrier of choice.