"The English couple in Row 30 wants some tea."

"Okay, I'll take care of them."

Janet Pierce and Donna Stapleton moved smoothly around each other in the forward galley of the 747. Lunch had been served and cleared away, and most of the passengers on the Christmas Eve afternoon flight from Brussels to New York were dozing, reading, or watching a movie.

The flight attendants, friends since meeting during their airline training two years ago, now shared an apartment on New York's West Side, but sometimes didn't see each other for weeks. Because seniority determines flight assignments and vacations, both women knew they would be working the holidays, so they had bid for the same December schedule.

Janet delivered the English couple's tea. On her way back up the aisle, she noticed an old man sitting alone in Row 22, looking out the window, lost in thought.

Janet continued up the aisle, then glanced back again before stepping into the galley.

"Donna," Janet said, her voice low, "did you notice the man in 22A?"

Donna leaned out of the galley and counted rows. "White hair, white moustache, expensive suit? What about him?"

"Well, he can't be flying because of work - he's too old," Janet said. "And he doesn't act like someone on vacation, either. There's something more, something else. You can see it in his face."

"Then why don't you walk back there and tell him you're curious and you've just got to know why he's on this flight?"

Janet pulled out a small tray, put some sugar packets and creams on it, and picked up the coffeepot. "Maybe he'd like some more coffee."

"Same thing," Donna said. "See you in an hour."

Janet filled three other cups on her way back to Row 22. The cup in front of the old man was empty.

"Would you care for more coffee, sir?"

He was still gazing out the window and hesitated before releasing his thought. He turned to her. "Pardon?"

"Would you like another cup of coffee?"

"Yes," he said, "that would be nice. Thank you."

His words, slightly accented, were in the rhythm of another language. Janet held out the small tray and he put his cup on it. "Were you visiting in Brussels?" she asked.

"No," he said, "I own a small piece of land on the coast of Belgium. There is one spot, beneath an old tree, that looks out over the water. Every year, at this time, I go there."

"Will you be celebrating Christmas with family?"

"Yes. Tonight there will be five generations at one table."

His accent was almost Russian, she thought, but gentler, and she noticed that in each letter "t," there was the hint of a "d."

She filled his cup. "And the children can't wait for tomorrow, I'm sure."

"They are excited," he said, "but they'll open their presents tonight, on Christmas Eve, after the big dinner." He took his coffee off the tray. "That is the Polish tradition."

"Is that where you're from? Poland?"

"Yes, from Nizkowice, in eastern Poland. Well, now it is. When I was born, the town was part of Russia. It belonged to Poland again when I left."

"When was that?"

"In 1920."

Janet had already placed his age at about 80. "You must have been just a baby."
"No," he said, "I was 14."

Janet did the mental arithmetic, then failed to hide her surprise.

"Yes," he nodded. "I'm 94."

"And you're ..." she looked at the empty seats next to him.

"Traveling alone? I am. My body's slower, but not my mind, not yet."

"Did you leave Poland to come to the United States?"

"Back then, we called it 'America,' but yes, we did."

"We?"

"My father and I."

"How long did it take?"

"Three and a half months."

"I didn't know it took that long to cross the ocean."

"The ship only took two weeks. It took us three months to walk across Europe."

"You ..." Janet faltered, "you walked across Europe?"

"We didn't have enough money for the railroad; we had no choice. Then there was the ship across the English Channel, and another from Liverpool to New York City."

"To Ellis Island?" she asked.

"Yes. Past the Statue of Liberty."

A passenger three rows back held up an empty coffee cup.

"Excuse me," Janet said, tilting her head toward the waiting passenger, "but may I come back and talk to you?"

(End of excerpt)