The Kindness of Strangers

And so it seems the key to travelling solo with a small baby is relying on the kindness of strangers. Luckily, babies are kindness magnets. People smile at them and touch their little hands, or stroke their chubby cheeks, as if quite unable to stop themselves. Sometimes a quick smooch is even thrown in, and almost always a clicking or kissy noise like we make to get the attention of animals. There is such goodwill where babies are involved – should, naturally, the baby not be shrieking nonstop from Sydney to London, there the goodwill well runs particularly dry – and while packing light and baby-wearing goes some way towards easing the pain of a long haul flight, an offer to hold the baby while you eat, or clamber over people to get to the bathroom, or stretch your legs, almost completely erases it.

I was mildly apprehensive about flying to Asia by myself with the baby, if only because there would be no one to pass her off to in the event of a meltdown or a meal, or both occurring simultaneously. Fortune can always smile down and mealtime can coincide with the baby napping, or being happy enough to entertain herself in the bassinet affixed to the wall … but that kind of fortune so rarely smiles, and mealtimes seem to happily coincide with rattiness and firm refusals to hop in the bassinet and lie quietly with Sophie the Giraffe. (Thankfully, I had eaten a cheese pretzel filled with brie at Hamburg airport, so theoretically could have survived several weeks on the fat content alone, should I have needed to.) Eat with the baby on your lap, I hear some of you say. Eating on a plane as an adult, alone, is a task unto itself, with the slippery cutlery packet, burning hot aluminium lids and postage stamp sized trays to balance it all on. One is reduced to feeling like a baby oneself, covered in splatter from temperamental yoghurt pots and catching the cube of soft cheese before it peels off its packet and onto your lap via the sleeve of your top.

On the flight from Hamburg to Dubai, die Lüdde and I found ourselves between two lovely men; one German bear of a man, himself the father of two children, and one mysterious, bearded Brit with a sense of humour so dry it left me parched. The former took on the role of stand-in Dad, while the latter assisted with retrieving spat out dummies every four minutes, and hauling the nappy bag out of the overhead locker just after he had buckled himself back in and all was calm. Stand-in Dad (wherever you are, thank you, really. Thank you.) started out with some hand stroking and before long had progressed to holding die Lüdde while she enjoyed some apple and banana, only to re-gift it half an hour later all over my shoulder. He gave her an iPad to smear her hands all over and whisked my dinner tray away as I lunged over it to retrieve her, as she hollered at the horror of being put in her bassinet while I ate two forkfuls of lamb biryani ie: the two bay leaves that garnished it and none of the actual dish itself. Every single time I went to accomplish something from my less than mobile position in a plane seat, hemmed in by two sizeable men and holding a squirming five month old, he whipped off his headphones and said ‘soll ich dir helfen?’. The sweetest, sweetest words. I always said yes and it always ended in him gleefully taking die Lüdde and letting her eat part of his jumper.

There was another stand out of the trip, apart from the woman who approached at Dubai airport and sort of co-rocked the baby to sleep with me in a physically awkward but emotionally well intended few moments, and it was on the bus down to Hamburg airport. She sat on the other side of the aisle to me for the journey, on her mobile the whole time chattering in a mixture of German and Arabic. Earlier she had chastised her husband for standing in front of me in the queue to get on the bus, ushering me ahead because I had a baby. So I picked her as my target and, when we pulled into the airport, asked her to hold die Lüdde while I wrestled myself into the carrier. Not only did she hold the baby, but she helped me into my backpack, then went ahead and got my 26kg suitcase from bowels of the bus, and wheeled it for me all the way to my check-in desk despite it being not at all in the direction of hers.

On the way to the check-in, we chatted auf Deutsch, our common language. She was Algerian, on her way to visit her mother. She had lived in Germany – a country she loves – for eight years, and had four children. (‘I have four children,’ she said, as she wrestled our luggage into an elevator, not letting me help, ‘I can do everything.’) I asked if she had left her kids with their Dad and she said, ‘yes,’ and then somewhat mischievously, ‘but I have many girlfriends … they help a lot.’ Like I always do when I hear foreigners speak German, I listened to what words and phrases she repeated, because I am fascinated by what people pick up on in a language. She said ‘sowieso’ all the time, and I made a note to ask SG why.

Well look at us, I thought, as we trotted along side by side, painting the picture that led us to this very moment. The Algerian and the Australian, living in and enamoured of Germany, both on our way to visit our parents. One mother, a veteran traveller with kids (‘complete chaos,’ she said, ‘everybody looks at me when I travel with all four’), helping another, a newbie. We said our goodbyes at the Emirates desk and she kissed me three times.

People can really be very, very good.

A Lufthansa bird puppet due Lüdde got back in December, which ended up being a snot receptacle, as most things seem to.
A Lufthansa bird puppet due Lüdde got back in December, which ended up being a snot receptacle, as most things seem to.

19 Replies to “The Kindness of Strangers”

  1. Great story Liv! and so true in most cases. I always help older people and people with babies too! Enjoy your stay at home and don’t think about the return trip, I know for sure you’ll find help again. xox

  2. Liebe Liv, VIELEN DANK für diesen Artikel. You just confirmed my belief in humanity.
    Viel Spaß in Asian
    Liebe Grüße von Brigitte
    (Eine Oldenburgerin in Cambridge, USA)

    1. Liebe Brigitte, it’s so wonderful to have you here in the USA! However, if “Cambridge” happens to be the one near Boston, you’ve had to endure some horrendous winter weather lately. If it starts to get you down, fly out here to California! The sun is shining brightly right now. Cheers, Jim

  3. Thank you for your great story. I love all your observations, so true and poignant. Wonderful that you make time to entertain us. Have a happy time with your parents.
    Cheers from Verena ,German-New Zealander living in Dubai

  4. That takes me back over 30 years, flying with a toddler and infant from Frankfurt to Denver. We were bumped up to business due to a cancelled flight to Chicago, ended up in Denver with no connecting flight for 10 hours to Portland. I thought it would be the trip from hell, but I found so many wonderful adult helpers on the plane and in the airport. I sometimes forget that people are really wonderful, and I’m glad to hear they still are! I love this post and want to share it to my 2 grown-up now girls.

    1. People really are good – sometimes it takes things like flying alone with a baby to be reminded of that. In fact, most things baby related brings out the goodness in people!

  5. What a lovely woman! That’s something my mum would do (she is great with kids). And the German man! You are so lucky to have had such a positive experience, but I bet die Ludde just wowed them too. I think the baby’s temperament and the parents themselves make such a difference to whether or not people approach.

    1. Very true. A smiling, quiet baby is more likely to be on the receiving end of smiling strangers than a baby/parent in distress. Even though the distressed parent probably needs more help!

  6. Oh yeah. Kudos to you for flying alone with her! I may have to do this in the summer. I haven’t booked or even looked at flights yet but I want to visit the USA for a few months while I’m still on maternity leave. My husband will likely not want to stay the whole time. It is very encouraging that most people tend to be very gracious toward babies on flights. We were lucky when we went back home for Christmas: when my 7-month-old was not sleeping, he was flirting with everyone else on the plane. Ha!

    You described the whole eating fiasco oh so perfectly. It was hard enough when there were two of us to manage the baby. Not looking forward to doing that on my own!

    1. I was really, really relieved when I realised just how lovely people were about flying solo with babies. When we flew to Aus and Singapore the first time, I was with my husband and die Lüdde was so well behaved – so it was a completely perfect experience, and I just thought … can she do it again? Or will she be horrid and I will be alone! Even at the airport, the cafe lady at the gate came running over to show me the changing room, and got my coffee started while I divested myself of bags and the carrier. Everyone was just wonderful.

      All of that being said … it isn’t a picnic and after the flight back to Germany from Singapore, I think I shall err on the side of travelling with an adult companion if I fly internationally with an infant again – if I can!

What do you think?