the kindness of older british gentlemen.

March 26, 2015

So, I realize that the title of this post might sound a bit seedy, to the brain wired to instinctively swerve that way. (And I can’t deny that I’m often in that group.) But hear me out. It’s not that kind of thing.

Entire books could be written about traveling with a toddler. But really, there’s only one thing you need: luck. And that luck comes in the form of fellow travelers who are understanding, and if you’re really fortunate, helpful. Although I prefer to avoid generalizations when possible, I have to say that from my experience based on my recent travels, I’m now convinced that older British gentlemen are highly likely to be among this population.

But aside from the luck element, being able to breastfeed or otherwise drug your toddler into submission via excessive sustenance is also essential for a reasonably smooth travel experience. I had tossed around the idea of attempting to wean Lavender before I traveled to the States, since the logistics of breastfeeding a squirmy toddler in an airplane seemed overwhelming; a very wise friend of mine, who has logged many hours traveling alone with her two little ones from Riyadh to the States and back, advised me, “Don’t, especially since it’s your first time flying alone with her. The boob is a powerful weapon to have.”

Truer words were never spoken.

Lavender and I left Riyadh in the middle of the night, on a 1 a.m. flight to London. Mr. Mostafa waved sorrowfully to us from his perch in the family lounge at King Khaled Airport, where he could see us waiting to board at our gate. We waved goodbye, blew him kisses, and we were on our way.

As you may have guessed, on this flight, we sat next to an older British gentleman, who was in the aisle seat next to my window seat. When I approached my seat, he immediately stood up to help me load my backpack, laptop bag, and baby carrier into the overhead bin (because I was sitting in a bulkhead seat with no seat in front of me, I had more legroom, but I also had to stow most of my things in the overhead bin). After this, we got settled into our seats as he and I exchanged formal pleasantries and he attempted to make friends with Lavender. She wasn’t having it, which he was good-natured about. In fact, he was wholly good-natured about being stuck next to a baby for a flight that was over six hours long.

By the time the flight took off, I had built a makeshift tent around me with my nursing cover and the airline-provided blanket, under which Lavender was nursing and sleeping. The older British gentleman played Sudoku and did not act disgusted or titillated, nor did he otherwise indicate that he in any way noticed that I was breastfeeding a toddler in my lap.

Once I had Lavender soundly asleep, I repositioned her and myself and we both slept for a good chunk of the flight. When we woke up, it was time for breakfast. After the flight attendants gave us our food, I discovered that I hadn’t been given utensils. I had no fork or knife with which to eat my (yummy-looking) omelet.

I pressed the flight attendant call button, but they were all busy with serving meals to the rest of the passengers, so I settled in for a bit of a wait. I was okay with that; I mean, I’m sure that if a flight attendant could choose to strangle someone without consequences, it would be a person who presses the flight attendant call button during a meal serving time.

But within a minute or so, Older British Gentleman noticed that I wasn’t eating because I had no utensils. Wordlessly, he hopped up, moved down the aisle, and ever-so-politely plucked a napkin-wrapped utensil bundle from the serving cart. He brought it back to me. I thanked him profusely. He said I was welcome.

At the end of the flight, when we were parked at the jetway and the seat belt sign was turned off, Older British Gentleman stood up, got my luggage out of the overhead bin for me, and asked if I needed any help carrying anything. I assured him that I didn’t, but thanked him for all the ways he had been helpful throughout the flight. He wished me and Lavender a pleasant journey, and went on his way.

In Heathrow Airport, I had to catch a train in Terminal 5 to our connecting gate for our flight to Dallas. I hiked through the terminal with Lavender strapped to my front, my backpack on my back, and my laptop bag slung over one shoulder. I’m sure I looked like a pack mule, because when I boarded the train, a second older British gentleman immediately stood up and insisted that I take his seat.

“No, no, I’m fine. Thank you!” I objected.

“No, no, I insist!” he said. “You’ve just arrived, eh? Welcome to the UK!”

I mean, seriously. Could people be any nicer?

Lavender and I spent the next few hours strolling around the terminal, giddily buying up snacks and Peppa Pig trinkets (she loves Peppa Pig, and not unsurprisingly, we’ve yet to see any Peppa Pig merchandise make its way to stores in Riyadh). By the time it was almost time to leave London, Lavender had settled in with her iPod and a bag of potato chips (excuse me, we were in the UK, so it’s crisps, right, Brits?).

 She was totally into British life.

On our flight from London to Dallas, we sat in the middle row, next to yet another older British gentleman. Third Older British Gentleman, like First Older British Gentleman, had a thing for Sudoku. Also like First Older British Gentleman, Third Older British Gentleman had little to say beyond formal pleasantries and helped me get my bags into and out of the overhead bin without a question, both while boarding and leaving the plane. He also politely pretended not to notice when, a few minutes into the flight, Lavender began to get fussy and I once again wrapped myself up to settle in to breastfeed her to sleep—I say pretended, because there was no way he genuinely didn’t notice. As much as I tried to corral the adorable beast, her feet managed to kick their way out of their tent a time or two, landing squarely on Third Older British Gentleman’s arm.

A few hours later, it was lunch time. I got my silverware along with my meal this time, but eating was slow going, as eating tends to be with a toddler on one’s lap, especially when you’re sharing  your meal with said toddler. At one point, Third Older British Gentleman spoke up and said, “Excuse me, I know this may be…a bit awkward, but I feel I must ask—would it be helpful if I cut your meat for you?”

Dude. Third Older British Gentleman offered to cut my meat. I was impressed but embarrassed that I was apparently in such a state of in-over-my-head-ness that it appeared that I needed to employ someone else to wield my utensils for me. I thanked him but assured him I was okay.

A few more hours passed, and a visit to the restroom became necessary for both me and Lavender. Third Older British Gentleman stood up to let me out, and when he saw me reaching for the overhead bin to retrieve my backpack for a diaper and wipes, he got the bag down for me. When I got back, I put the wipes back into the backpack and Third Older British Gentleman wordlessly replaced the backpack in the overhead bin.

As I mentioned, just like First Older British Gentleman, Third Older British Gentleman wasn’t talkative. However, he did clear up some British lingo for me. As the flight prepared to land, we were served tea with scones and sandwiches. I tore open the scone package and handed a piece to Lavender, then took a bite.

“Oh!” I exclaimed, as though I’d just discovered alchemy. “So in Britain, a scone is a biscuit! Or, I mean, in America, we call it a biscuit.”

Third Older British Gentleman nodded and said, “Yes.”

“But in Britain, a biscuit is a cookie, right?”

He nodded again. “Yes. Usually. But, you know, sometimes, it’s just a cookie.”

Words of wisdom, Third Older British Gentleman. It may seem like a biscuit, but sometimes, it’s just a cookie.

As the plane began its descent, I thanked Third Older British Gentleman for being so understanding about having to sit next to a parent traveling alone with a little one. He waved his hand and said, “Oh, it’s nothing, really. I had children. This”—he waved his hand toward Lavender, who was engrossed in an episode of Bubble Guppies, her little head encased by headphones that swallowed up her ears—“can’t be easy.”

Boy, was he right. But several hours later, when I walked off my final flight of the journey (from Dallas to Springfield, Missouri) to see my mom and my cousin waving gleefully at me and Lavender, it was impossible to deny that it was all so worth it. We’re now digging into our time in the States, and we can’t wait for Mr. Mostafa to arrive in a few weeks…and to be with us when we return to Riyadh in May. We won’t have to employ the help of Older British Gentlemen on the way back, but it sure is nice to know that such kindness is out there when we need it.

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