Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Engaging in engaging conversation

Taking off. I was on a quick flight down to LA, sitting next to my friend and colleague, Linda, who was taking a nap. I had been sitting, peering out the window from seat 11F, at the clouds below. Finally, the sun crept above the layer of gray.

Sitting on a plane, while a robust conversation is going on, gives one an opportunity to eavesdrop. The guy on the other side of Linda talked on his cell phone before takeoff about being out of the country most of the next few months. “I’ll be out of the country more than I’ll be in it during the next semester,” he said. He flipped through a Lonely Planet travel guidebook on the Arabian Peninsula. It was a boring conversation to overhear.

Much more interesting, due to the star power, but almost as dull was the conversation that took place between the French couple seated in12E and 12F and the man seated next to them in seat 12D. The man was wearing a turquoise string tie and a fleece vest embroidered with an acronym I couldn’t figure out. He introduced himself to the French duo when he sat down, clearly annunciating his name as Brian Schweitzer, the Governor of Montana. He made a quick joke, “Schweitzer, not Schwarzenegger,” perhaps to emphasize to the couple that indeed they were having the honor of sitting next to the actual governor of Montana. They smiled and nodded.

He asked them about themselves and they responded that they own a French restaurant in Palm Desert. Governor Schweitzer talked about how his ancestors were originally from France, but moved to Ukraine to farm before escaping the pogroms and moving to Montana. Just listening to him interact, I could tell he was a very outgoing, affable guy. I would imagine those are the characteristics one should possess to be a governor. He asked the couple several questions about themselves, to which they provided answers. He suggested they market their restaurant to French-speaking Canadians, selling them on the fact that they could visit Palm Desert and speak their own language. He lamented the US Dollar’s demise and the favorable exchange rate that Canadians can now enjoy when they patronize US businesses.

What I found very weird is that the French couple didn’t ask him any questions. I mean, come on! He may not be Ben Affleck, Larry King or Liza Minnelli, but he’s still an important person and I wouldn’t mind having a conversation with him. Besides, he’s only the governor of Montana. That shouldn’t be terribly intimidating.

I suppose it could be intimidating if you crack a stupid joke, and I imagine a lot of people do. “They let you cross the state line? You chasing a moose that got away?” or “Is Montana having a state budget crisis? Is that why you’re flying in coach?” I mean, sure, say something stupid and then ask the guy a few questions. This dull couple didn’t ask him why he was going to LA. That’s a pretty basic question for anyone to ask the person sitting next to them on a plane, especially a person who seems outgoing and interested in engaging in a conversation. They didn’t ask him about Montana. Or what it’s like to be governor. Or if he would run for president. They didn’t ask him about his stand on Medicare benefits or harvesting National Forest timber. Nothing about abortion or same-sex marriage or retirement benefits, or any other issue that might possibly be of interest to them. They didn’t ask him about who he knows in the world of politics. Or if he knows Larry Craig. Or if he saw the movie Across the Universe. Instead, after a while, they let the conversation drop off and went to reading their magazines.

Maybe they were illegal immigrants. Or involved in weird covert French smuggling activities. Or maybe they were just dreary restaurant-owning French people without the ability to carry on a conversation. The governor said, “I’d love to visit your restaurant when I’m in Palm Desert next month!” They seemed rather uninterested, but the woman volunteered a business card. The governor talked about how Wolfgang Puck cooked him dinner recently and also went skiing with him (or something like that… a slight lapse in eavesdropping). They said, "Oh yes. Wolfgang Puck. He is Austrian.”

I don’t really know what I would have said if I were sitting next to him. Maybe tell him I could do a nice transit plan for the State of Montana if he wanted to hire me. Maybe ask him what it’s like to be governor. Maybe ask him where in Montana he would recommend I visit. I don’t know. Something.

Toward the end of the flight, after about 30 minutes of silence in row 12, the governor struck up another conversation with his uninteresting neighbors. Smartly, he started again on the topic of food. He said he was a rancher. He also said they have a lot of bears in Montana. He said he’d even eaten a bear: “If they’re not lying around on the ground with a disease, they’re safe to eat, but they’re very oily.” He talked about suggesting to his wife that they eat their lame mare on the ranch, an idea that insulted her and she flatly rejected (even though they send their old horses to Canada to be slaughtered for meat in France and Japan!). Now, of course, he explained he lives in the Governor’s Mansion in Helena. He makes less money as a governor than as a rancher.

Upon landing in LA, the Governor’s assistant approached and had a quick chat with him. Then he followed behind me as I got off the plane and headed up the jetway. One man, with a frazzled look, went running down the jetway back toward the plane and the governor remarked to him, “Forgot your cell phone, huh?” Then we all entered the gate area and Governor Schweitzer was greeted by two official-looking Latino men who welcomed him to Los Angeles. Their delegation walked toward the main terminal; Linda and I walked in the other direction in search of food to nourish us on a 2 ½ hour layover.

It was nice to overhear a politician who seemed to be a nice guy. I probably disagree with his politics, but it was good to eavesdrop and not be left with a bad taste in my mouth. Well, perhaps only boring French flavors.

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