We trickled in, group by group, to get a look at the lass. Chaperoned by two guards, and looking suitably beguiling yet storybook standoffish, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring elicited the oohs one might expect of her first North American visit in 30 years. Yet for some, even a private viewing of a masterpiece, held last fall at the Frick, in New York, was just one more opportunity to vent about a recent air adventure.
“It was the flight from the hell,” the princess was sotto voce–ing to a new friend, all while the “Dutch Mona Lisa,” as she’s been called, looked on with knowing eyes and parted lips.
Call it an epidemic. With the rise in airport muddles, and travel travails, it’s become the customary thing, I’ve noticed, to kvetch—at length, and often to mere acquaintances—about one’s aisle-or-window woes. Not only is it a part of the conversational glue at social functions, but it is also the singularly accepted thing to be a Debbie Downer about, even among people who know better than to catalogue complaints ad nauseam. Me, I almost feel that it is the new-century equivalent of holding people hostage with your children’s photos. To carry the analogy further? One’s air travel woes are generally only interesting if they’re your own.
Do I really want to hear about how you, dear sir, were on the tarmac for two hours at Heathrow? Or that you, poor thing, missed your connection in LAX (after that stupendous trip you had in French Polynesia)? Or that you, honey, didn’t like your sandwich on JetBlue? Not really. Not unless I was there. And not really, even then.
As far as party discourse goes, it’s the equivalent of being on the tarmac for two hours.
From the shindig circuit at the Cannes Film Festival to the fashion week rigmaroles in Paris to the PTA mixer at a school near you, it’s a conversational virus, all right. And the reasons are evident enough. Here’s one: human beings have long enjoyed making narratives out of their common suffering. And airport hopping these days is akin to exchanging war stories and adventure one-upmanship—that JFK–BKK voyage can become your Saving Private Ryan.
Another reason for the consta-moaning is one that is even more plane-plain: we live in a world where oversharing happens as a matter of course. The urge to disclose freely, as a recent article in The Wall Street Journal mused, is a result of not only the erosion of private life through the proliferation of me-tweets and status updates but also the absorption, even if just at a psychological level, of reality television. We are all, ostensibly—save the likes of Madonna and Roman Abramovich—the stars of a long-running serial called The Real Air Passengers of Open Skies.
Oscar Wilde diagnosed it eons ago: “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” But surely we can at least aspire toward the better angels of our natures. The thing about narcissism—as exemplified by those endless flying anecdotes—is that it defies proportion. Unless Lucifer himself was your seatmate, best, perhaps, to save your grumbles.