Mother-son road trip. It’s mid-summer and I’m on a jam-packed Condor Airlines flight, headed to Pittsburgh (my hometown) with my twenty-six-year old son. Just when I thought my days of traveling with kids had come to a grinding halt, here I am, in Economy Premium—the poor woman’s business class—sipping champagne from a paper cup (sneaked to us by a lovely flight attendant who’s a fan of my music) and toasting the promise of a perfect holiday.
Summer fun! Once again, we have convinced ourselves that it’s a wise idea to stuff our long bodies into a gravity-defying metal tube, breathe the spit-back air of three hundred tired passengers, and fly into the flailing arms of a country that seems more akin to the dream of home, less like the real deal.
“Isn’t a condor a type of vulture?” says Curtis.
“Don’t ask me,” I say. “My knowledge of vultures is limited to Tarzan movies and one ill-fated trip on a golf cart in the Bahamas; the cart got stuck on a rock and we were surrounded by vultures that turned out to be wild turkeys. But they looked like vultures. Not pretty. Thought I was gonna get my eyes pecked out.”
“Condor, the Vulture of Airlines. Imagine the marketing guy who decided to name an airline after a bird of prey.” says Curtis. “He had one job.”
“Cheers,” I say. “Look at this. Enough legroom!” Curtis is six feet, six inches tall. He needs a lot of legroom.
“It’s a miracle,” he says. “Score one for the vultures.”
Our friendly music fan/flight attendant slips some Belgian chocolate to us from Business Class. We receive extra blankets, extra pillows, extra champagne and a Condor swag bag. I’m a little concerned we might cause an uprising in Economy Premium (who’s the bitch in row six with the free truffles?), but as my dad says, “if you’ve got the cards, play ‘em.”
Twenty-five years ago, I flew across the Atlantic with my son for the first time. We were moving to Germany to begin a new life. Full of nervous energy, apprehension, and an all-American spirit of adventure, I boarded the plane in Pittsburgh with an eighteen-month-old toddler, a diaper bag, and a purse that contained exactly one Chanel lipstick, a copy of Peter Rabbit, nine matchbox cars, and Scruffy the stuffed bear. In 1994 non-passengers could still walk to the gate of the airplane to wave goodbye to their loved ones. My dad—known as “Pap” to his grandchildren—sweet-talked a flight attendant into letting him accompany us onto the plane so he could spend more time with Curtis, the world’s tallest toddler, and help us get settled onboard. I always made it a point to buy a ticket for the baby—he might have been young enough to share my seat for free, but he was way too lanky and active for the lap option.
Dad hugged us both, then said to Curtis:
“If you need anything, anything at all, remember—don’t call me!”
Curtis laughed, opened a package of crackers, and yelled, “Pap!”
“That’s right,” my dad said. “I’m your Pap.”
Curtis and I had stayed with my parents for a month while John—my hard-working bass-player husband—recorded a couple of albums in New York City and supervised the movers packing up our apartment. Curtis and I were scheduled to fly from Pittsburgh to JFK airport, meet John, and board the plane for Germany.
I had flown out of JFK a hundred times but forgot that each airline had its own terminal. I assumed John would enthusiastically meet us at the gate and help me get the stroller, the baby, and the luggage to the next flight. Curtis and I disembarked, but John wasn’t there. We didn’t have cell phones back then, so I had no way to reach him. Our bags were not checked through to Germany, so I needed to collect them and find my way to the Lufthansa terminal.
We stood curbside for twenty minutes, waiting, waiting, waiting for John. I had been jilted before, but didn’t expect to be stood up by my husband on the very day we were moving to a foreign country.
“What should we do?” I asked Curtis, who, at the age of one was already exhibiting managerial skills. “Where’s your daddy?”
“Call Pap!” he said.
“Gotta take the bus, lady,” said the man at the info counter. “The Terminal Express—it’s the fastest way to get from here to there.”
Terminal Express. Is there any two-word combination in the English language that I dread more? With the help of a kind, muscle-bound stranger, I piled our luggage and stroller on the Terminal Express, a jalopy with peeling paint, no seats, and a snarly, stout man at the wheel. We drove around in potholed circles for fifteen minutes until we arrived at Lufthansa.
“Hurry up, lady,” the driver shouted as I struggled to drag my belongings and the baby down the steps of the bus. “We ain’t got all day.”
“Call Pap!” Curtis shouted. Aside from throwing a cracker at the Terminal Express driver, my son was surprisingly good-natured about the way our day was proceeding. He had missed his afternoon nap and it was now early evening—the time when toddlers are most likely to exhibit honey badger traits. I was feeling a little testy, myself.
I spotted John pacing in the Lufthansa terminal, looking at his watch.
“Daddy!” yelled Curtis.
“Where have you been?” John said to me. “I’ve been waiting here for an hour.”
“We were waiting at the US Air terminal for you. We had to take the Terminal Express. With all this stuff. I thought you would meet us when we got off the first flight.”
“Yeah, but we’re flying out from this terminal Why would I meet you there?”
“I have the baby!”
“I have the bass!”
“Call Pap!” said Curtis.
I spied the bass—in its refrigerator-sized fiberglass case—hulking in the corner, waiting to be carted off to the plane. John had a point; the case was huge; it would not have fared well on the Terminal Express.
“We’re checked in,” he said. “But the woman at the counter said we don’t need a seat for the baby. He’s under two and the flight is not full. We’ll have plenty of room.”
“What? You didn’t buy the seat for the baby? We always buy a seat for the baby. Plus, we’re not even paying for this flight; it’s not like it’s costing us anything.”
“Relax. Why should the employer spend more money than necessary? It’s business class—lots of room. We’ll be fine. The check-in clerk said there was an empty seat next to us.”
I did not trust this. Not one bit. The waiting area looked like we were about to fight for the last chopper out of Saigon.
“Book!” yelled Curtis. I read the Tale of Peter Rabbit to him for the 15thtime that day. He was very suspicious of Mr. McGregor.
We boarded, and the plane was completely full. Obviously, the Lufthansa clerk had been anxious to sell our seat to a disgruntled business-class passenger.
Curtis, for the first time in his life, would be a lap baby, another dreaded two-word combination, right up there with terminal bus.
If you’re a career musician, chances are you’ve flown around the world a few times. You’ve logged miles you’ll never be allowed to use; you’ve pigged out on excessively salted food, sipped canned tomato juice, and guzzled wine even though you swore you would avoid alcohol while in the air. You’ve probably experienced lost suitcases, damaged instruments, and the stomach-drop thud of realizing you’ve left your Kindle in the seat pocket. You may well have become adept at dealing with jet lag, flooded toilet facilities, dry-air induced nosebleeds, digestive disorders, missed flights, and overly-chatty borderline-perv neighbors who fall asleep and drool on your shoulder. It’s part of the devil’s deal a musician makes when she signs up to travel the world.
These things do not, however, prepare you for flying with a toddler.
Back to our story.
In 1994, a nine-hour flight with a non-sleeping lap baby meant 540 minutes of close-quartered Romper Room. In-seat entertainment systems and noise cancelling headphones were five years in the future. Unless I wanted to crane my child’s neck so he could watch an airplane-censored version of Natural Born Killers on the Business Class shared movie screen, there was little to do than read him repeated versions of Peter Rabbit and hope that he didn’t take out the eyeball of a business class passenger by flinging Matchbox cars across the aisle. We walked a lot, possibly fifty laps of the plane. Up, down. Up, down.
Note: The active toddler deemed adorable by other passengers at the beginning of a nine-hour journey loses his appeal about two hours in, even if he is wearing a very cute sailor hat and carrying Scruffy the bear.
“When’s our little friend going to sleep?” asked a stressed flight attendant.
“Call Pap!” shouted Curtis.
Maybe there was hidden sugar in his crackers. Maybe there was speed in the airplane food. The kid was cranked and ready for action.
By the time we flew over Greenland we were all starting to crack. The business class passengers had paid for a seat that promised a tranquil flying experience. Instead, they were ducking flung toys and brushing cracker crumbs off their shoulders.
“GET OFF MY PROPERTY!” shouted Mr. McGregor.
I was booted from business class and perp-walked, with my son and Scruffy the bear, to sit in a flight attendant’s jump-seat, back by the toilet.
“I’m so sorry,” John said when he came back to check on us. “Guess we should have kept that extra seat.”
I glared at him, strapped myself in, vowed to stay calm, ordered another Bloody Mary, and cracked open the Peter Rabbit book. I was really starting to hate that frigging rabbit.
One more time, with feeling.
My dear, squirmimg child never slept that night—not one wink. The nine-hour flight lasted approximately three weeks. By the time we retrieved our bags, he was a whack-a-toddler version of Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear, running in loops and popping up everywhere I looked. At one point he jumped on the luggage belt, intent on discovering what was hidden behind the rubber fringe. Maybe he thought Mr. McGregor was back there.
We collected our bags, the bass, the baby, and Scruffy the bear—we were now in full Slovenian traveling circus mode—and wheeled ourselves into the reception area where two drivers were waiting for us.
One of the drivers pointed at the fiberglass bass trunk and said: “What’s that supposed to be?”
We climbed into a Mercedes van and sped into Germany’s dawn.
“Please,” I said to our driver. “Please slow down.”
“Fast!” yelled Curtis. “Go fast!”
Bing, bang, boom. The night that lasted three weeks transitioned seamlessly into two and a half decades that flew by in double time, triple time, tempo tantrum. And here I am with my son again, on the long-haul trip from Frankfurt to Pittsburgh—sipping champagne in a paper cup and waxing nostalgic about that first flight, the one that delivered us to a new life in a new land.
John and I have raised two children in Europe, benefitted from excellent health care, and reaped the rewards of the education system available to Germany’s residents. Curtis is now twenty-six, and his fabulous sister, Julia (who has always been very good at sleeping on planes) is twenty-three. John and I have been privileged to create rewarding careers for ourselves in a country that respects the arts. We didn’t know any of this in 1994 when we packed up our lives and leapt across the pond. We were young, ready for a change, and 100 percent sure that love would see us through. It has, and it will.
And now there’s this on the airplane: After dinner, our favorite flight attendant halts the inflight entertainment. In German she says: “Condor Airlines is pleased to welcome renowned pianist Robin Meloy Goldsby onboard today’s flight to Pittsburgh . . .” She speaks about my albums, my streaming platforms, and highlights of my career. It’s extremely flattering—this has never happened to me before—but I’m a little concerned about a passenger revolt. It’s one thing for her to give us free truffles, another to interrupt their enjoyment of Mary Poppins Returns or the entire fourth season of Friends.
What a difference a couple of decades can make. The first time I flew this route with my son we almost ended up in airport jail for disturbing the peace. This time, they’re glad we’re onboard.
“Seriously?” Curtis says. “They’re announcing you on the plane?”
Just when we think her speech is over, the flight attendant begins again, this time in English. We slink down in our seats to avoid the judgmental stares of our fellow passengers, even though a small part of me wants to jump up and shout, “Hey! I’m the piano player! She’s talking about me!”
Then, at the end, she says this: “Robin lives in Germany, but today, she’s headed home. To Pittsburgh.”
My heart swells. Happiness, pride, relief, confusion—I don’t know what.
We land, thank the flight attendant for her kindness, and go through immigration. I look at my strong adult son and recall the hot-mess mama drama of the day we left Pittsburgh—exactly twenty-five years ago this month—and get a little choked up.
Truth be told, I kind of miss Scruffy the bear.
“We should call Pap,” Curtis says as he pulls my heavy suitcase off the belt. “I want to let him know I’m in town.”
Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; Rhythm: A Novel. New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip.
Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Listen to the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.
Personal note from RMG: Here’s a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.