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Citizen of the World

Bon Appetit on Air France

Bon Appetit on Air France

By Paula Erskine

When I was a little girl on a plane ride to Croatia, for yet another privileged summer of bathing in the Adriatic Sea, a stewardess put a meal tray on my table top. Delighted at seeing all the mini compartments of food served neatly on a tray seemed like such a treat! “Mom! This is the life!” I exclaimed. A defining moment that was to shape my future in travel as a flight attendant.

Bororo Nomadic Tribe, Cameroon

Bororo Nomadic Tribe, Cameroon

For six months, I was stationed in the west-African country Cameroon. I had the privilege of interacting with gentle, humorous people that nurtured my quest to communicate in French. I drew on all the bilingual labels I had ever seen in the grocery stores living in Canada and racked my brain for remnants of grade eight French. I made notes and practiced talking with Cameroonians and ex-patriots. By month two I started to feel the francais flow. What struck me most was that the Cameroonian population, comprised of Muslims, Christians, ex-patriots and many tribes (speaking over 56 different languages) lived in relative harmony.

Getting over that French hurdle was key to landing a long-term career that pays me to travel. Fortunately, I have the opportunity to practice my French speaking skills with my Quebecois passengers who, gratefully, nudge me in the right grammatical direction. The more I integrate myself into authentic travel experiences, the more I see the common threads that bind everyone to each other. I feel very much as Socrates did when he claimed to be neither Athenian nor Greek, but rather belonging to a more universal identity. I too, am not only Canadian or Croatian, but also “a citizen of the world.”

Art, Vatican Museum, Rome, Italy

Art, Vatican Museum, Rome, Italy

Twenty-eight countries and counting, time really flies when you’re having fun! I have accumulated 1000 words of Russian since meeting my husband backpacking. I am nurturing international friendships. I have adopted many neighborhoods around the world to connect with as my home away from home. I choose my desired destinations on a monthly basis and my schedule is determined by seniority. My curiosity fuels my desire to boldly explore new territory and revisit favorite destinations. The quest for healthy, comfort food away from home, relaxing cappuccino corners abroad, discovering remarkable natural wonders, participating in historic excursions and shopping are just a snapshot of the perks.

Resolving conflicts, first aid, ensuring flight safety, improvisation, public relations, and serving coffee are all part of my job. Through the grapevine, I have heard of a study which claims that for every 3 months of flying overseas, a flight attendant loses up to one month of sleep. Based on my own experience and that of my colleagues, this is true. If I work a night flight and arrive in Europe by mid-morning, I will immediately recharge with a 4-5 hour deep sleep. This window of rest is sometimes shortened if shops, tours or restaurants are closing by late afternoon. Sleeping daylight hours away is not the solution for jetlag. A good dose of sleep shortly after arriving in Europe followed by a healthy walk, a lovely meal and aiming to go to bed at a more local time helps to get back on track. For those unpredictable sleepless nights, I pack a book, my computer, music and an occasional magazine left behind in a seat pocket.

Plitvice Park, Croatia

Plitvice Park, Croatia

Balancing travel with a healthy dose of family time and a sense of humour is the best medicine. Outside of work, I recharge by hiking halton and Hamilton trails, zumba dance aerobic classes, swimming and Sahaja Yoga Meditation which keeps me grounded and happy. On the subject of “seizing the day” of your vacation, I will be sharing the highlights of “my favourite things, places, people, experiences.” I hope that it inspires you to put your life on pause and enjoy the treasures that the worlds’ neighborhoods have to offer.

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Cameroon to Canada-Flight Attendant FAQs-Interviews

Logbikoy, Cameroon

Logbikoy, Cameroon


When I returned from living for 6 months in Cameroon, a west African french colony, I was somewhat versed in French after many years of struggling and mixing my English/Croatian background up with every other language I tried to absorb. I booked a tutor at a french language school in Ontario, Canada and asked to have my french assessed to see where I was at. The teacher pulled out a book and pointed at pictures as I rattled off the objects en francais, then answered questions. She concluded that although my French vocabulary was very good, I was stuck in the present tense. In retrospect, it was very kind of everybody not to correct my tenses as they saw me struggle to communicate day by day. A year or two after getting into the airline business, I picked up a book on African culture and discovered a very interesting fact. That many Africans have no words to refer to the future because for all of us, it just doesn’t exist. It’s not even in their vocabulary. They speak of what has already happened, and seem to live in the present because they have no concept of the future. That would explain why every flight we ever had departed late. Pourquois, why, we asked, is Cameroon Airlines late? Unless it was 10-20 minutes after the time of departure, the staff could not conceive that the plane would leave late. So we learned to factor this in to our schedules and not run around in the blazing equatorial heat trying to westernize their ways.

Back in Canada, I brainstormed all the airline terms I could muster and all the questions I imagined I would encounter on a plane. Then I asked the tutor to help me speak about my experience in Cameroon in the past tense so I would be ready for the interview. The airline interview began in English and after a few questions, I was asked if I speak French. I took control of the interview and recited my memorized experiences that had happened to me in Cameroon. It worked, and no more random questions were asked of me in French.

I was passed on to the second interview, where I was asked to choose one of 5 announcements to make in French. I think I had to choose between making an announcement to the passengers that someone has lost a pair of glasses or inform the passengers not to smoke in the lavatory.

When I was done, the second interviewer congratulated me on my French. My advice is talk about what you have to offer and perhaps a customer service incident that you handled very well to sell yourself. If I am honest, the third airline interview did not go so well. I was asked to rent a car in French, and since I had never rented one in Cameroon, I was totally lost and explained that I only knew the airline terminology as this was my direct experience in French. Renting a car might be a question, but it shouldn’t be, in my opinion, since it has nothing to do with the airline industry. But of course, I didn’t say that. I asked if they could ask me another question. Fortunately, they could see my potential. They also asked me what would I do if a particular passenger constantly rang his button with special requests all flight long. What I didn’t understand then, was that larger airlines had standard services and timelines to complete and such a person would distract the whole team from attending to the flight as a whole. I had worked on a Dash-7 aircraft, 48 seats, with 3 flight attendants and a security agent. There were no trolleys, just a tray of drinks and sandwiches in no particular order. So I answered that I would probably invite the passenger to sit in the cockpit, as was our custom pre-911 at the time, and settle them down with an amazing view of take-off and landing. At this answer, I got my appointment for my medical and uniform fitting. The rest, as they say is an ongoing history of flying the friendly skies.

A Chance Meeting in Cameroon

Photo and article by Paula Erskine.

I met an Irish priest on one of my flights who invited me to visit his mission in Ngoundere, Cameroon. There was no way to send word as internet and phones were not available at that time. So one day I flew into Ngoundere airport and asked someone to drive me to the mission. It was a bold move on my part, but I did receive that broad invitation, so I grabbed it and dropped in. They seemed glad and the touring began with a trip to Berem village down a dirt road into the bush. It was just my fate to arrive when I did and discover these beautiful people resting after a long journey. I was told they were from the Bororo Tribe (nomads). They were travelling with their children, grandmother, cow and no men in sight. Some of them had very light eyes and lighter complection. Their clothes were very colourful, almost Indian especially the tops they were wearing. Their faces were tatooed for decoration with plant extracts, although this did not apply to the children or the one teen-ager that travelled with them.

I tried to ask for permission to take their photos as best I could. This woman was the only one who smiled at me. But why should they? It was west Africa. They were tired from their journey. I asked and pointed at the flat, beaded covers on the bowls. They moved one cover and showed me the butter. I wanted them to know that I admired them for being so strong, so beautiful and incredibly resilient. On the way home, we picked up a hitchhiking woman from a different tribe on her way to market to sell some silver jewellry to raise money for a wedding. The driving, translating priest helped me to negotiate for some exotic bracelets. The woman said I could bite it, it was solid silver. It was coiled over and over delicately and attached with chains to rings that formed daisies made from more coils. That was a fateful trip where I invested in handmade, priceless adornments and bought most of her collection that would be sold at the market we were taking her to. I was amazed that the priest could communicate, joke with both of us and drive a roughed-in road at the same time. Shopping in a pick up truck with a personal translator in Africa was one of the best experiences I had in Cameroon. It was a long, perfect day with much more to tell.