Pretzel Class

Settling into my 43E seat for the 14-hour Cathay Pacific flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong at bleary one a.m., already 17-hours and two domestic flights into the journey, I folded my legs beneath me in lotus and stashed my water bottle in the seat pocket in front of me. Twenty years of practicing yoga has found a practical application in surviving international economy air travel.  As a result, instead of boorish “economy,” I propose renaming the back of the plane “pretzel class.”

Business class is an elusive pleasure for my family.  You would think with seven years of overseas travel we would have accumulated a flight status that would enable us to upgrade, but alas, no.  About the only thing my Marco Polo Club membership has ever gotten me is early boarding, the pleasure of settling into my pretzel class seat for an even longer period of time.  Many families in HK get annual business class tickets for home leave as part of their expat packages.  On several occasions I have walked past families of six snuggled in their supine splendor in business class, sheepishly wishing me a good flight as I trudge past the curtain to a land unbeknownst to them.

I figure that once you fly business class you can never go back, so I take comfort in knowing I’ve protected our family from that traumatic experience of having to fly a post-business-class economy flight in their young adult lives.   So, instead of bemoaning first world problems, I will instead offer some constructive tips and advice for managing pretzel class with children with as much comfort and style as any of us can muster in the back of the plane.

If you have a few children to choose from, always opt to sit next to the six-year-old. Younger children require attention and entertainment throughout the flight, and older children have long enough legs that they need the foot space, but six-year-olds are the sweet spot of travel companions.  That is, provided you have rules in your household that limit electronics use like we do.  Assuming they’re thirsty for as much electronic entertainment as you will allow, this is the perfect time to indulge their wildest dreams of hours of uninterrupted TV, movies and video games.  You take the aisle and give them the dreaded middle seat (this protects their sleeping head from beverage cart bonks anyway).  Once they’re settled, headphones in place and legs cutely dangling, you are free to turn sideways, luxuriously stretching your legs across their allotted leg space and hook your toe on the magazine pocket in front of their seat.  Tuck the standard issue pillow by the aisle armrest behind your back and you are good to go for a half an hour of straight leg bliss.  Your first yogo pose of the flight.

When your toe falls asleep, gather your inside leg beneath you, tuck your other leg in your own magazine pocket and raise the arm between you and your child, but not all the way.  There’s a sweet spot where you can rest your pillow on the end of that arm and lay your cheek upon it, your forehead bolstered by their seat (still in the upright position, while yours is reclined; for their viewing pleasure of course.).  Perfection of sleep yogo pose number two.

Eventually your leg will fall asleep, so you’ll have to shift to the third pose, classic upright.  Shift your carry on bag to the space in front of your six-year-old, thus leaving your foot space free and clear.  With the standard issue pillow supporting your back, grab a neck pillow, recline your seat as far as it will go and stretch out.  Savasana! …well, almost.  The neck pillow gives just enough lift to allow your head to fall gently side to side as you take a few deep breaths, elbows resting on both armrests without competition.  Yogo pose number three.

Repeat these three poses in half-hour segments, throw in a few lotus interims, crossed leg traditional seated positions and double magazine pocket toe tucks and you’ll find the time passing without requisite stiffness and claustrophobawigglyitis – that condition where you just can’t sit still.

If you don’t have the luxury of traveling with a six-year-old, here’s some advice for traveling with older and younger children.

Older children are no worries on a flight provided you have some control over their viewing choices.  On Cathay Pacific, individualized viewing content is extensive and indiscriminate.  I made the mistake of choosing the seat in front of my young teenager once, rather than behind, so I couldn’t easily monitor his choices and he made some poor ones.  I learned to always choose the seat behind, and regularly pop in for random content checks.  My 10-year-old prefers to hibernate on airplanes, refusing all nourishment and libation.  We had to make a deal that she will drink water, but I do not force her to eat airplane food and she chooses not to bring other snacks.  A stop at the smoothie place right outside arrivals usually does the trick for her.  She manages a strange circadian cycle of cat naps and TV episodes, but is entirely self sufficient and it works for her.

Infant travel in pretzel class is just “plane hard.”  I had one flight to London with a sixteen-month-old who threw up on me the entire six-hour flight, and then we circled for an hour and sat on the ground at Heathrow for another six hours because of a freak snowstorm.  Thirteen hours of aviation captivity of the worst sort.  The flight attendants refused to even get me paper towels, much less sympathy or support, but we survived.  As I tell my friends who are afraid to fly with children, “Time passes at the same rate whether it is the best moment of your life or the worst.  This too will pass.”   Take more diapers than you could ever possibly need.

Toddler travel in pretzel class is a little tricky, but do-able with some forward preparation.  If you’re feeling Martha Stewarty, wrap up a bunch of tiny items, one for each hour of the flight, and dole them out accordingly.  It doesn’t matter too much what is inside the packages.  The unwrapping process and the surprise of the new is what you’re going for.  Stickers, crayons, a matchbox car, all of these things will keep them busy for a long time.  When you run out of gifts, the barf bag makes a great puppet, band-aids stick lightly to everything, and walks up and down the aisles are a necessity.  Go to the back of the plane and play “head, shoulders, knees and toes” a few hundred times and they’ll be all right.  Lollypops, goldfish… all the otherwise limited snacks work wonders to amuse and delight little ones too.  The biggest advice I can offer is to be gracious to fellow passengers from the get go.  If you demonstrate that you’re engaged with your child on the flight they will feel sympathy, not annoyance, at the inevitable meltdown moments.  This is NOT the flight for you to chill out with People magazine and watch a movie.

So, what to bring on your flight?  While Gwyneth Paltrow recommends atomized silver and Lypo-Spheric Vitamin C to survive air travel, I don’t think she’s ever even seen pretzel class.  I can honestly say I get the most mileage out of good headphones, a neck pillow, thick socks, raw almonds, good dark chocolate and a big bottle of water.   The smartest thing I did several years ago was to fill out the on-line Cathay meal preference form.  I now regularly receive a special Indian vegetarian meal.  I always feel slightly guilty when the flight attendants approach my seat to confirm my special meal and realize pretty quickly that the blond isn’t actually Indian, but that was not stipulated as a requirement on the preferences list, so I can live with it.   The special meal is hand delivered an hour earlier than everyone else’s meal, is spicy and tasty and avoids any questionable “meat” in the regular food choices.

Some may be tempted to confuse the origin of the new name with the paltry alternative served on some flights now due to a strange explosion of peanut allergies, but after reading this you know the truth.  Pretzel class finds its origins in the long standing traditions of the East; yoga and Indian vegetarian food.

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