There I was in my little JetBlue seat, winging back from Orlando and minding my own business when, without warning or prior negotiation, the young woman seated to my right plunked a large infant into my hands.
Well, well, I thought. How will I explain this souvenir of my trip?
Although the lady did not speak English, I was soon given to understand that she expected me to hold her baby while she changed its rather fecund diaper. It was a watershed moment, judgment day: all my lifelong attempts at maintaining impeccable manners were put to a cruel test.
What would you have done?
The woman covered my lap with a clean diaper; in my hands was the squishy infant.
I figured I had two options. One was to scream bloody hell at her. After all, a person gets to a certain age, and comfort becomes important. I don't mean cashmere-comfort, but courtesy, civility, respect for the boundaries between us—those qualities once considered "square."
Or I could try to channel my inner Cary Grant—find within me that everygentleman who is polite even under extreme duress. (Ladies might, in equivalent situations, channel their inner Hepburn—Audrey, not Katharine.) I'd always fancied the glamorous days of travel as they were portrayed in novels like The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and Around the World in 80 Days and movies like To Catch a Thief and The Last of Sheila. You know, try to act as if...you're one of the gentlemen of the Ale & Quail Club in The Palm Beach Story who come to the rescue of the damsel in distress, played by Claudette Colbert, during the train trip from New York to Florida. Or recall the days on such good ships as the Normandie, when a guidebook told passengers how to behave and dress. (Men were required to wear sports jackets and tweed caps while playing games on deck; after sunset, dinner jackets.)
People with real manners rise above troubling things, like dirty diapers.
So I held the baby. Its diaper was changed. I laughed. I gagged. I didn't die. Leakage was minimal.
And I resolved that I would comport myself as if I were the Last Gentleman of Travel. Why not?
Travel can be stressful enough, especially when it isn't for pure pleasure, when there's a mission, a job, a deadline. Congratulations! You've been upgraded to business class—and now you think you can sleep on the overnight flight and wake up refreshed and ready for work. Surprise! The entire Jones family from Keokuk, including their two-year-old triplet sons, have been upgraded, too, and you're surrounded! Waaa! Meanwhile, the captain of industry in the row ahead of you has been severely overserved from the vodka dispenser. Newspaper accounts of shockingly egregious passenger behavior—one incident a few years back involving a cart and some private bodily functions, was it?—twist in your head.
Miracle of miracles, the plane lands on time: 7:30 a.m., at Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport. But check-in at your hotel isn't until 3 p.m., you've got a lunchtime meeting, and you don't exactly look like a million bucks. This gentleperson thing does not come easy. Moreover, the vulgarians are at the gate, and at the baggage claim, and, later, in the hotel room next door.
But traveling is a privilege, a chance to—as soon as they find your lost luggage—get dressed and go out and see a new part of the world that might change how you think about life. How can we do our bit to stop the decline in the art of travel?
Try this: Get to the airport or train station early—the luxury of being unhurried feels very first-class. Speak softly, and hope the people around you respond in kind. Do not slap newspapers or periodicals when turning pages. Avoid using heavy scents, and hope that everyone else might, too. Leave "message" T-shirts at home, and opt for soothing apparel. If compelled to remove shoes, wear clean socks. If you must chew gum, don't pop. Do not strike up conversations with the people sitting next to you if they're reading or lost in thought.
Join one of the airline lounges, such as American's Admirals Club. For about $350 a year, you will have a place that you can retreat to in most major airports.
Resist the urge to seethe while experiencing the new security precautions, even when they include the removal of one's shoes (see above: clean socks) and the passing of a metal wand over places on your person that even your significant other might not have visited lately. Charm, charm, charm. Smile, and the world will be safer for democracy. (And you'll lower your blood pressure at the same time.)
Rethink schlepping bags on board. "It is hard to act like a lady or a gentleman amid chaos," observed my loving travel agent, Jody Bear, of Valerie Wilson Travel in Manhattan. "Check all carry-on suitcases. You cannot create the illusion of elegance if you're sweating from trying to maneuver luggage on the plane." Of course, you'll still need something to hold the essentials you want to keep with you—and why not something attractive and clean instead of that old unwashed book bag from the Whitney Museum circa 1967?On board, even in steerage, consider a pair of Bose QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones. (American distributes them in first class.) Create your own happy vacuum: Invest in a portable DVD player or an iPod and take along books on tape; the Bose earphones will work brilliantly. Up the silence ante with Flents Quiet! Please Foam Ear Plugs, which have a noise-reducing rating of 29 decibels. To sleep, add a Flents Light Shield to the equation. (The earplugs, headphones, and sleep mask may also come in handy later on at your hotel.) Of course, how well you rest always depends on your neighbors, and 99 bottles of beer and all that from here to there. Last, but not least, bring your own food and drink. On a recent flight I carried with me a box of tea sandwiches from William Poll, a gourmet shop on Lexington Avenue. Never mind the looks I got clutching the small white box—I felt great.