A jet plane like the Orient Express

The nun was dressed in a light grey habit with white edges, and no overcoat; a mesh of greying hair showed from under her bonnet. On her feet she donned a pair of thick stockings and open sandals. It seemed rather light wear for a cold January night, but after all she was queuing in front of the check-in desk for a flight bound for Addis Ababa. It could have been her ordinary outfit, but she was more likely to be anticipating her arrival in the tropical climate, I thought. Her trolley was completely overloaded with parcels and suitcases, so she needed the assistance of two other sisters.

[Audiofile: my reading]

I was somewhat surprised when the nun, who had given me the impression of being reserved, wanted to chat while we stood waiting for our turn. Speaking in a gentle voice, she didn’t hold back information I had not elicited: that her trip would take her to their Djibouti mission, active in the educational field thanks to the work of Indian sisters. She complained that trying to find vocations in Europe is like looking for as a needle in a haystack.

When I was finally issued my boarding pass, I left the nun and moved to the gates, but less than 10 minutes had passed before she made an appearance again, this time chatting with another passenger coming down the escalator. She came to the row of seats where I had decided to spend my last hour before embarking, next to two men who were already talking with each other. Now she approached and slipped into their conversation. For all her soft-spoken voice, the last thing you could say about the nun is that she was shy – I chuckled to myself.

This jovial man, apparently in his sixties, was returning to his native country after 13 years of absence. Born of a biracial couple, he had fled the dark years of the ferocious Mengistu dictatorship, but was now ready to visit Ethiopia again, this time as a tourist.

We boarded the bus as the nun, predictably enough, had found a new conversation partner. The more time passed, the more I felt like being on the Orient Express, or another long-haul train of the past, when the journeys lasted days not hours and the passengers killed time by familiarising themselves with fellow travellers. It didn’t matter that a jet-plane would airlift us to a different country in just over six hours, all the components were there, with characters ready to stand out as eccentric as they possibly could.

Neither the effect of the hours of darkness nor the nerves caused by being airborne stopped my new neighbours from continuing the train compartment atmosphere. This time it was a couple who claimed one front row seat because of the husband’s allegedly long legs, which were in fact shorter than my own. An obliging passenger gave up his seat and came to sit next to me and his wife, making space for further conversations.

I heard the woman boasting in a loud enough voice for me to hear that she knew all the countries of Africa – excepting Togo, that was, by a fortuitous chance, where the man was travelling to. I felt deeply offended when she disclosed that her journey was for elephant  hunting, even before she went on to give hideous details about the slaughter of the animal and the villagers’ greed for a share of an inedible meat. This was how the couple had decided to meet the African continent: by perpetrating destruction and depredation that only a humanly fragile environment can cede to when money is tendered, and not in small amounts.

Nevertheless, it appeared that her experiences hadn’t made her any wiser to Africa. When I announced that we were about to touch down, she responded in glee that the plane not only had made up for the initial one-hour delay, but was going to land two hours ahead of time! I took the liberty to point out that Ethiopia lies in a time zone that’s two hours ahead of Italy.

I was no less flabbergasted at the man’s behaviour. This was a businessman travelling to Togo to sell, I believe, furniture. He was completely hopeless at English, so the air hostess’s question “Tea or coffee, Sir?” had to be interpreted by the willing lady’s African savvy. I sincerely hope his French was only slightly better than his English if he wanted to pursue any business opportunities. But when I saw his self-assured hand tear the pepper sachet and pour it straight into the coffee mistaking it for sugar, I started to doubt that probably more than linguistic competence was failing.