Dear people at Transavia, I am sorry that I am only replying now. “We miss you Arie Willem, unfortunately we don’t hear from you anymore”, you emailed me recently, “despite the fact that we do our best for you every week with the sweetest emails. It’s up to us!”
It’s not up to you. You really did your best. “Good morning Arie Willem, embrace your sense of adventure!” you wrote. “Arie Willem, have a wonderful time in Iceland! Put yourself in flight mode!” And then dozens of prayers with the same meaning: fly with us to the rainbow.
I let all that love go unrequited. And now you recently asked me in despair: “Maybe we contact you too often or you don’t find the topics interesting enough.” And I realized I owe you an explanation.
Well, I don’t fly anymore. Not running away from shame – we cannot save the world on a regime of shame, the song of the new age must be joyful, otherwise no one will sing. Not even from fear of flying – I had just given it up. Not for lack of money either – you recently offered me tickets to Prague or Copenhagen for 29 euros, the same as a return train to Amsterdam, 2nd class.
The thing is, I don’t want to let my body flail anymore. In the later years I will be where I am already.
For fifteen years I was a flying man. I started relatively late, I only lost my virginity when I was twenty-one: a low-cost flight from Amsterdam to Venice. The first time I was scared and curious. My last flight was more than five years ago, from Dallas to Schiphol. Then I was tired and bored.
Since then I have belonged to the hidden giant society of people who stay on earth. No big deal, an estimated 80 percent of the world’s population has never flown. In an average year, only 4 percent of the world’s population takes an international flight, according to recent Swedish research. Even in a rich country like Germany, only a minority of 35 percent ever take a plane.
My love of flying took off in sock feet, more like a friendship that fades and fades. But if I had to name a rift, it would be the pandemic.
It was the same with me as with the spider scientist from Germany that someone recently told me about. She normally flew to the Amazon to research big scary spiders, but during the pandemic, she was forced to study the little spiders in the backyard. And then they made the most wonderful discoveries, such as that spiders seem to dream.
Recognizable: the realization that you’ve never really looked around.
Just before the pandemic, I booked another flight with you. Then I went to Athens with a video artist to visit the Moria refugee camp in Greece. So that trip didn’t go through, I’ve been going through Rotterdam ever since. And the street offers so much legroom.
I saw a kingfisher flying in the city. I talked to neighbors I hadn’t seen in years. And eventually everyone knows that you can also go to the Netherlands because of the terrible conditions in refugee camps.
“Arie Willem, fly to the sun! The sun is waiting for you!” you wrote in the meantime. But that sun also shone in Rotterdam. “Arie Willem, go find the island feeling!” – I did exactly that: I paddled to uninhabited islands in the city. “Go offline and fully recharge,” you wrote. But I just don’t feel a dead battery anymore. My life is now a city trip. And I haven’t stumbled into this town yet. So many trees I have yet to touch, so many human heads I have yet to loot, so many universes to unpack.
But doesn’t flying broaden horizons? Don’t we cultivate an understanding of the Other by traveling? On the contrary, I would say. I certainly would not have lived in Suriname or the United States myself if there were no airplanes. But there are more Surinamese living in the Netherlands than in Suriname itself. And my current city is more American, I’m afraid, than America. Here in Rotjeknor, I also saw street riots in recent years. My Own Neighborhood is a Netflix series full of street drama and the occasional shootout. Those who want to get to know completely different cultures do not have to fly away, but can also cycle to a farm or community center.
You must first understand each other at home.
Many people today choose the train instead of the plane, I understand the romance. The Orient Express, the legendary elite train that connects Paris to Constantinople, is running again. But if you take the train instead of the plane, you only replace the catapult with a slightly slower whip.
Recently I tried it: took a train to Koblenz, the lovely city on the Rhine. My traveling companion and I took seven hours instead of the promised four. The Rhine meandered beautifully. But next time we go to Nijmegen. There you also have the Rhine, although they call it the Waal, there are also castles and river beaches. And then we go cycling. It is only a six-hour flight from Rotterdam.
Or we stay here, the water is the same. The whole idea of transportation is starting to annoy me. Also the regular train, by the way: too expensive, stops too often, breaks down too often. Marketed in pieces.
Raincoat and folding chair
Maybe I’ll take the metro again, from Hoek van Holland metro station. There is a plaque there: ‘From here the international trains went to Berlin, Copenhagen, Geneva and Moscow.’ But I then take metro line B to Nesselande. There, at the terminus, is also a beach, on Zevenhuizerplas, almost as deep as the North Sea, with a boulevard full of palm trees, where young people on hot days slurp from water pipes because they understand that flying away is in your head .
Once I left Earth recently: in a helicopter. That flight lasted eight minutes. It doesn’t count, it wasn’t a catapult: we arrived where we left, and then we stayed home.
I don’t rule out the hot air balloon. I have nothing else against heaven. But I exchanged the voucher you sent me for money. I bought a raincoat and a folding chair. Because if you don’t fly, you have to be smart. Choose your moments. If you go at night, for example, even parks are fairytale forests. Or go outside when the rain has wiped out the world (hence the raincoat, buy one that breathes).
I like people, but there are often too many of us. With a light folding chair – foldable as small as a thermos – you always have a terrace.
Also, by staying here all the time, I put down roots. In the wild. I feel the consequences tingling with curiosity. Very occasionally I miss the clouds from above with the sun on it. Until I realize they’re the same underneath, but you rarely look because in your normal life you’re not strapped into a window seat.
Hang on to the window, it’s free.
Sometimes I miss overseas friends, maybe I will never see them again. That’s the hidden price of flying: that you lose friendships that you can’t maintain. Maybe one day I’ll take the boat to them. Or even the plane, you know, I’m not a man of principles; but in the meantime I live by the wisdom of proverbs, like the one about the good neighbor.
Flying made me more otherworldly. Flying gave me lower expectations of what life has to offer. On planes I settled for bad seats, cried over bad movies, craved bad food. The sleeping masks are symbolic: we put on blinders. While life is so short and wonderful; who wants to expand his horizons must stop and look around.
But you already knew that yourself. The best email you ever wrote was during the pandemic when flying wasn’t possible. “Arie Willem”, you wrote to me. “With Transavia Close you will find inspiration and useful tips from our travel experts for a wonderful holiday close to home. In this way, you really go out together, and you immediately choose a more sustainable holiday.”
Since then I have followed your tips. Or, in fact, according to American essayist Annie Dillard’s life advice. “I’m not a scientist,” she wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). “I explore the neighborhood”. She lived in a cabin in a forest by a stream. And she studied that forest like a baby. “A baby who has just learned to hold his head up looks around in an honest and free way, confused,” she wrote. “He has no idea where he is and he’s trying to figure it out.” But already a few years later, the same kid has learned to fake it: according to Dillard, he walks around “with the cocky look of a squatter who has come to believe he owns the property.”
Isn’t that the problem with flying? That we have come to believe that we own the property, that we can invade anywhere on Earth as if we were the owners?
“Arie Willem, do you also want to go away for a while?”, you asked me. None. I want to explore my neighborhood. Again Dillard: “What we have been cast down for we may never know, but we can try to find out where.”