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.
When you arrive, have a car and driver waiting. "Economize on something else," suggested agent Bear. "This little luxury will help you avoid the long taxi lines and any mass confusion. It will save you time and frustration, especially in a foreign country." And (unless it's New York City) "the driver will know where to take you."
If I don't know the hotel or motel I'm going to any better than the town, I bring my own sheets. I learned to do this after an unfortunate experience in east Texas. (Need I say more?Blood on the walls. Hairs in the bed. And I was staying in the motel's deluxe $64-a-night business suite.)
"Rearrange your hotel room to suit your likes and comfort," is the advice Hal Rubenstein, the author of Paisley Goes with Nothing: A Man's Guide to Style, gave me years ago. "Make yourself at home."
Except in certain motels in east Texas.
And why don't you also send yourself some flowers to cozy up the room?
One of the best tips comes from Calvin Klein. He suggests that no matter how brief your stay might be, look for at least one gallery, one museum, one statue, garden, historic or architecturally significant house or building you can visit, even if it's only for 30 minutes or an hour. Something of cultural interest or local color will redeem the corporate nature of almost all business travel.
Even if you don't speak the language, learn to say "Please" and "Thank you" in the mother tongue of the land. If you find yourself in a restaurant where monkey brains is the dish of the day, do not complain, laugh, titter, or faint. Say "No, thank you." Especially when anyone is within earshot, avoid comparing where you are with things back home. Be here now; there will be plenty of opportunity later for comparisons. Try to accept the fact that the hamburger you order in Prague may not resemble the burger you are used to at your local coffeeshop.
Also: Whatever you say, say it quietly. Avoid cell-phone yell. It is none of my business what you ate last night for dinner. Silence is not just golden, it's chic. Unfortunately, Americans measure their status by how much space they take up. This includes noise. We would do well to remember that we are just passing through as guests, not as conquering heroes.
Last, but not least: fashion is destiny on the road.
Old etiquette books are loaded with advice about this. "Nothing is nicer than a neat tailor-made for travelling in," states Manners for Women, a guide first published in England in the 1890's and reprinted in the 1990's. "It ought to be part of our patriotic feeling to endeavor to convey as agreeable an idea as possible of ourselves to those countries which we honour with our distinguished presence in our little trips. And we should find it to our advantage too. For the world reflects back upon us, as a rule, the sort of face we turn to it. If we scowl at large—and some of us really do—we shall find ourselves treated with scant courtesy."
It is the preponderance of Americans in sneakers that gets the goat of the publisher John Fairchild. About 90 percent of all travelers, he has observed, wear sneakers. As a result, they look "like Minnie and Mickey Mouse. The few men and women in leather shoes really have some style—simply because they are not following the crowd."
These days, I dress up, just as my mother wanted me to umpteen years ago. Now it's no more polo shirts with unruly collars, T-shirts, or sneakers. I wear a dark blue suit. I travel with a portable steamer and groom my clothes the way some people do their pets. If I wear jeans, they are pressed and accompanied by a blue blazer and white shirt. Dress up like this on the streets of Paris, or anywhere else really, especially these days. Nothing is more subversive coming from an American. It is about going against type.
Meanwhile, back in airplane steerage, it can be lonely dressed like that.
But worth it.
Last summer I was on an Alitalia flight from New York to Milan, wearing my blue Michael Kors suit. Row 43, seat A—the last seat in the last row on my side of a packed plane. We were probably past Newfoundland by the time the drinks cart got to our Siberian row. The couple next to me, wearing some sort of blue jeans-track suit ensemble, asked for a soda and, as is the habit too often in coach, were given a splash—two to three persons served from one lousy can. I, on the other hand, was offered a whole vessel of ginger ale.
As I was falling asleep, well, sort of asleep, I heard the husband ask his wife several times, obviously annoyed: "How'd he get a whole goddamned can?"
The wife couldn't explain it.
I smiled to myself. Hoping that visions of first-class travel—especially, please, the Ritz in Paris—would dance on my pillow, I dozed off feeling I had scored a point on this flight tonight. How, sir, did I get the whole can?It was the suit, nothing but the suit.