Sunrise over the North Atlantic
"Excuse me, sir, are you going to London?" The old man who had been sitting next to me at Gate 60 for the past hour looked up from his small computer, and peered at me with bright blue eyes that were far more awake than mine.
"They've just announced a gate change. We're moving from here to Gate 54."
He glanced over his shoulder; most of the other passengers in the airport departure lounge had already gathered their bags and were moving slowly down the hall, shoulders slumped in resignation, travel pillows around their necks. It was past 11:00 pm on a perfectly clear early summer night, but for no apparent reason our flight had already been delayed for more than an hour. The Qatar Airlines flight to Dubai scheduled for the same time as ours, across the hall, had boarded and left long before; since I had arrived, two Air Canada flights had left from Gate 60 for Vancouver and Dublin. Except for our sold-out flight to Heathrow, the lounge was now deserted, and in the darkness beyond the sloping windows, I could see no British Airways jets waiting for us to board. "Gate 54..." my neighbor repeated the number, as if to himself, and thanked me.
"I'll walk over with you," I said, checking to see how much he had to carry. "Do you need any help?"
"No, no, I'm fine," he said, stowing his computer in a small backpack and getting to his feet without difficulty. He pulled out the handle of his rolling carry-on and snapped it into place. We rolled our bags around the ends of the rows of seating, and moved out into the central aisle, walking side by side. I looked at him from the corner of my eye, hoping I hadn't insulted him. "Are you going to London as well?" he asked: a predictable, polite response from someone who didn't really want to talk.
"Berlin," I said. "Do you live in England?"
He shook his head. "No, I'm going on from there." A hesitation. Then: "To Poland. And you?"
"I live here in Montreal -- I'm going to Berlin to visit friends. It will be my first time in that city." He smiled but made no response. "Do you have family in Poland?"
His eyes ran over my face like quick fingers. "No, I am alone," he said after a moment. "I live all over the world. I've been here in Montreal for a while -- an interesting city -- before that I was in Brazil, before that, Italy..."
He was a small man, shorter than me, wearing nondescript khaki trousers, a white shirt, running shoes, and a plain khaki baseball cap. He had bypassed the moving walkway, and seemed happy to stretch his legs after the long wait, pulling his carry-on without any apparent effort. I guessed his age to be at least 85, though it was hard to tell. His eyes were his most distinctive feature: awake, clear, very alive. When we arrived at the gate he chose a seat and removed his hat to reveal a nearly bald head with a few wisps of white hair. "What time did they announce for boarding?" he asked.
"I thought they said 11:35," I said, "but at this point, who knows."
He got up and looked at the lighted board at the departure gate, and then sat down again.
"11:35," he confirmed. "So...you live in Montreal. Do you speak French?"
I told him I did, but didn't consider myself fluent.
"C'est ma langue préferé, such a beautiful language to listen to and to speak!" he said, smiling, and so we switched and spoke in French. I asked him how many languages he spoke, and he named five or six. "It's a hobby," he said. "I go somewhere, learn the language, stay a while, and then move on. My favorite place is Portugal."
I nodded and smiled: "Much better than Montreal in the winter." He raised his eyebrows and smiled, and then reached over and pulled his computer out of his backpack: suddenly our conversation was over. "Merci," he said. "Enjoy your stay in Berlin." The last I saw of him, as I boarded the plane, he was engaged in an animated conversation at the desk with one of the flight attendants, pointing out something on a piece of paper.
(to be continued)