Welcome Back: Part I

I thought twice as I left my Herschel pack in the opening foyer of the Airbnb out of which I was checking myself, paranoid that something would happen to the precious cargo inside. And yet, at the same time, I wasn’t about to waste time sitting on the steps of the foyer copying all my writing to my flash drive, either. I was torn between two degrees of laziness: the immediate, in-your-face sort of sloth that could result in all my hard-earned words—my version of bleeding, in a sense—could, in theory, vanish because they’re trapped in a shiny silver box that’s worth a pretty penny and the laziness with a little more longevity: the fact that I just didn’t want to lug my backpack and laptop around Porto with me.

And so, in the end, I left it in the locked foyer, pressed innocuously against the stone wall, peeking into the wheel of the bicycle left there by someone else (the host perhaps). I mentally examined all the possibilities and took the risk. It seemed more important to me to walk around on my last morning in Porto without the monkey of all my things on my back than to know, definitively, that my writing was safe. What can I say? I’m dumb at times.

And besides, my host emailed me to tell me it was okay that I leave bags in the foyer until I make my way to the airport. In my tawny-soaked dementia of sorts, I took a screenshot of the message for proof, should any harm be inflicted on my storage system of what makes me happier and more whole than anything else in the world. And then I headed, bare-shouldered, into the Portuguese morning.

I made my way to Café Majestic. There was a man on the street during the walk there was was shouting what sounded like, “Enough is enough!” in English, but I knew better than to wipe everything down with my own native language. He was holding up a sign and just kept yelling the same thing over and over in a tone that sounded like a protest, like a calling-out of bad behavior; causing me to wonder whether my jeans were too tight or perhaps my bra strap was playing peek-a-boo out of the inner corners of my Zara tank. I turned a corner swiftly, distancing myself from the man with a stark accusations in a foreign language to see a woman entrenched in her seventies outside with a radio playing “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield. She was swaying with her eyes closed, clearly drowning in the memory of 1981. I headed onward to the café, the brilliant feat of architecture and history rolled into an aesthetically pleasing outlet for caffeine, pushing my way past tourists keeping their distance and too involved in their cameras to realize that there were other living, breathing people wanting to live their own lives instead of cater to the all-important needs of an amateur photographer wanting to enhance their instagram feed. I found that, despite the clot of DSLR-wiedling tourists on the outside stoop, there were many tables available inside, waiting to be occupied. I slipped inside and situated myself at a table along the wall in the middle of the restaurant’s plane, securing the most perfect vantage point available and ordering my standard espresso doppio from a server whose eye I was able to catch.

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I sat there, sipping espresso in the most American of ways, watching the people—how they hold their cups, whether they take bite-sized pieces of croissants apart in their hands or shove the whole thing in their mouths and bite from there, the way mother’s faces contort in frustration when the strollers they insist on pushing through the narrow walkways snag on some person just trying to enjoy breakfast, little things like that–and flinching at the random shrieks from babies, waiting until I felt like it was time to leave. Only I could know when. And then, all the seconds were spent and it felt only right, so I paid my bill and was on my merry way, both underwhelmed by the café and somehow infatuated all at once.

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I had to buy a suitcase, I knew that much. It seemed like a cruel joke set in motion by the universe that I flew Ryanair to the port wine capital of the world. Ryanair, “the low-budget airline” of hard-hitting stabs to the wallet, what with their €40 baggage check fee for anything over 10kgs. And yet, it was a price I had to pay, because sometimes in life, you just need some real-deal port wine, okay?

I dropped my big teal badboy of a suitcase at FRA in preparation to come to Portugal and skate out with only a €7/day fee vice the aforementioned €40 (that, I believe, racks up even higher with more weight accumulated. I didn’t look into it because I wasn’t having it). And so, after purchasing authentic port from Cálem as well as grabbing some random reds and rosés from the little produce market beneath the apartment, I was finding myself in need of a bag to check. I was paying oodles of money in fees to bring home cheap, delicious wine. I know, I know. But it makes for a good story and an inside look at the whirring mechanism that is my constant Catch-22 of a mind.

Along the walk to the Majestic, I did some half-hearted window shopping and managed to spot some places with little hand luggage rollerbags on display for sale. I popped into the first one I saw on the way back to discover that it was a Samsonite retailer, and a carry-on regulation sized bag was going to cost me upwards of €80. No thanks. I kept walking back through the cobblestone streets, past local men in their sixties standing outside smoking their cigars, past the man yelling at the top of his lungs in Portuguese but sounded like the English phrase, “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH,” past shopkeepers trying to peddle their goods and beggars pleading in gummy Portuguese. Finally, I found the China Zen shop: a hole-in-the-wall souvenir stop specializing in subpar bootleg goods.

Rolled in, grabbed a bag from the top-shelf display (black and cream, because apparently that’s my subconscious go-to color scheme) and looked around for the shop owner, who eventually made his way to the register. The Portuguese, I’ve noticed, operate on a time schedule that is unlike any other nationality I’ve ever seen: slower than the French and slower than the Italians. Everyone does everything not only like time isn’t a factor, but that it just plain doesn’t exist. I paid up, €35 for this little cream bag with black trim, my only (listless) solace resting in the fact that now I have a carry-on to match my handbag and wallet.

Half an hour later, I was en route to the airport. I was early, four or so hours before my flight, but I would rather be early and bored than late and miss the flight, having to hemorrhage even more money than I had already had to fork over in the wake of all my international mishaps. I took the metro at the stop near the apartment to the main station, where I transferred lines to what I believed was the purple line to the airport. All the stops were the same on the map as we moved along, but I kept a weather eye out just in case I did get on the wrong line. The train lurched forward at an almost painful pace and I began to feel that familiar feeling of homeward-bound misery that infiltrates my body every time I leave Europe: a bloated, sweating sensation throughout my extremities and a sullen, silent sadness that takes over my mind. I felt, standing in the metro and holding onto the yellow plastic railing like I might lose consciousness. Dehydration, too much bread, and the underlying anguish that my time in a place where I feel like I actually belong is coming to an end made me feel like my backpack weighed fifty pounds, and like breathing in the stale air of inside the metro car was something not innate, but a chore that I had to learn to complete.

Finally, the train rolled to a stop at a station that wasn’t on the way to the airport. Sighing, I lugged myself and my bags out, onto the platform, and tapped my Andante Card against the reader (as one is required to do for each and every ride, regardless of whether they have to change lines). “COMPRAR TITULOS” read the little black segments on the outdated digital green screen of the meter. My face felt like it was already so round, so bloated with port wine and baguettes and sangria that to make any sort of facial expression would only aid to me looking like even more of a mess than I already felt, so I simply blinked, stone-faced, and let out a breath of air that I’d held in for the duration of the test of whether my Andante Card still had credits on it. I fed the meter five euros—I might as well get rid of them, whatever, I thought—and re-tapped the card, satisfying the meter and slogging over to a bench to take some of the weight off my shoulders. I halfheartedly looked over at the arrivals screen as I tried to sit in a way that didn’t make me look so much like Jabba the Hutt (to no avail) and noticed that the line to Aeropuerto was eleven minutes away. The heat was crawling in through the dense air of the Portuguese morning as it fades lazily into afternoon and I felt, at that point, resigned to misery. I had to return not only to Germany, but then to the United States. And I was fat.

Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime of waiting for the axe to drop, I arrived at the airport. I got out, wandered through the metro station connected to the terminal, and found a WC. My bloodstream was basically turned to port wine during my time in Porto, so I decided to slam water like it’s job (although seeing as how I am currently saving jobs for those who need them and funemployed, I guess that slamming water WAS my job) in a measly attempt to restore order to my body and wake me up inside, as well as prepare for the journey across the globe it was due to make. The effect was more painfully annoying rather than fruitful and life-preserving; my absolute need to run to the restroom every few minutes not taken account during the development and execution of this plan. I was haunted for many hours by the lack of foresight in this area, and my stomach only seemed to swell further.

I arrived at the airport four hours before my flight. It was one of those European airports with the revolving ticket agent counters; the kind where you and every single other person flying that day are confined to the open, often-times minimalist expanse of the departures hall with usually one or two food options and hard, airport-style rows of chairs just waiting, just glaring at a screen for your flight information, cattle-herded all together with towers of luggage, the ricochets of thousands of voices throughout the terrible acoustics, and the utter hell of other people. I took a seat near a screen so that I, too, could glue my eyes to it, to let them glaze over with a reluctant patience, to burn out everything around me except that one digital display of when I could go drop my bag with an agent and go through security to the shopping and eating wonderland that was the terminal. And yet, ticket counters were just starting to open up for flights two hours in advance. I had some time to kill.

Someone Please Save Me From This Glass and Chrome Hell.

Someone Please Save Me From This Glass and Chrome Hell.

I wrote, getting myself lost in the words and making myself wonder subconsciously which world was reality: the stirring kaleidoscope of people milling about all around me in tones of quintessential chrome and stereotypical silver of the airport, or the places and faces and dreams and dialogues I’d invented and woven into words in my computer screen. Hunger began to knock on the door of my mind, tapping lightly at first, and was ignored. Then, it became more of a scratch on a screen door: a threat of sorts as its fingernails scraped the rigid surface of my brain, letting me know that it could make its way in if it wanted to. Eventually, Hunger tore through my concentration like a caged dog itching for hours to get out, and I reluctantly sighed, shut my laptop, and corralled my luggage (handbag, backpack, and new knock-off Chinese Samsonite roller bag) together, heading toward the stations of people all huddled together under backlit neon blurred by my lack of glasses (my argument with myself on my personal objection to wear them, the symbolism that my body is, inevitably, in need of extra help from an outside variable, that I’m not as young and spry as I once was).

All the food was a parade of the same European airport fare: a coffee and pastry spot with all sorts of espresso and milk-based drinks, accented with croissants and tarts that will never make a European fat, a bar with Super Bock bubbling topaz in its marketing posters, enticing customers with this liquid gemstone rather than its actual urine-reminiscent appearance, a Relay shop with Kinder bars and potato chips next to the rack of Portuguese magazines. They all had the same wrapped food items in the cold cases: the ham and cheese baguettes, the three-meat wraps, the salads topped with a generous serving of mozzarella shredded to pieces too small and too abundant to extract. There were, however, sad-looking pineapple circles pinned down to a plate by a thin layer of saran wrap, and just as I reached for the color-drained fruit that looked more like a sun-faded pool noodle than something edible, I decided to use the WC first. I can’t eat when I have to pee.

Around the other side of the departures waiting hell (hell, hall…same thing, really) was a hidden WC, not bustling with a million suitcases and strollers haphazardly rolling every which way. I spotted, as well, a hidden alcove in a white wall, which was a rarity in itself as the hall was constructed nearly entirely of glass. The white wall was indicative to me of some sort of structure within the hall, another WC maybe? It was square and could certainly house two rooms of stalls and sinks. And after walking the perimeter of the walls to the alcove, I found a no-frills restaurant with a public school cafeteria setup…with wine off to the side for sale. I rolled up to the counter and looked at the offerings: chicken, beef, fish. And then, my eyes scanning the silver vats of food behind the glare of the glass that separated it from the general public, my stomach growled with a hungry happiness: plain white rice and steamed broccoli.

I immediately grabbed a tray off to the side, as well as two kinds of bread because I couldn’t decide which I wanted. The fruit at this place wasn’t devoid of nutrients and life, so I threw some pineapple on my tray, too. “Hello, may I please just have rice and vegetables?” I said, articulating clearly and concisely, using my mother’s on-air voice, the one I grew to pick up after spending my childhood playing quietly on the floors of radio stations. I didn’t want to point at the food. Everyone points at the food. The woman serving me was more than some robot responding to the petty pointing of foreign travelers.

She didn’t understand. She asked, “Which?”

Hesitantly, I pointed anyway to the side items that I wanted to combine to make a meal. “What meat?” she asked.

“No meat. Just that, please.”

Still skeptical, she asked something of her manager over her shoulder, then made her way over to the register. €11.20 later, I was at a table nearby and charging my laptop. I’d misplaced one of my USB-to-outlet connecters somewhere in my trek across Europe, and the other one simply stopped working, so my Macbook Pro had been my charging station for my iPhone and Mophie case (in the wake of me being absolutely too cheap to go get a new connecter for too many Euros, and allowing me to save one of my US-to-Europe adapters for my computer, charging three things at once). From the cart of seasonings and salts nearby, I grabbed black pepper, salt, and a plastic cup. I poured a little bit of olive oil in the cup, peppering it lightly. Then, I doused my plain, steamed plate of airport vegan food in seasoning. It looked like a sad meal (and comparatively, it was), but in the moment, it was delicious.

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I lingered for a while, looking up ever so often at the screen mounted above my table for my ticket counter information. I bought internet (I have become the person that purchases internet and I hate myself for it, but I’ve found, unfortunately, that it’s worth it in this world of wailing children and having a father that is waiting–worriedly–for one of my wide-eyed wanderings to bring about my own demise). Finally, I saw my flight information glowing, pixellated on the screen. There was some sort of disconnect in my brain at that point; some fatigue-frayed wire in my mind left me confused, wondering where the time went, why I hadn’t noticed it before. I went to the ticket counter, the only passenger on my flight, and the agent was, thankfully still there. I handed over my phone, employing the same boarding pass protocol as I did on the way to Portugal from Hahn, and she frowned.

“You don’t have the paper pass?” she asked, and I knew I would be hit with fees. She had a computer right in front of her and I would be charged, right then and there.

“No, I didn’t have access to a printer,” I said, truthfully, my voice fortified by the realization that I did this once before without a problem, and that I am obviously on the flight (having paid for two seats, even!), and for them to charge me for essentially just being on-the-go is Ryanair just being a jerk. She sighed, her nails rapidly clicking on the keyboard in a way that satisfied me, a way that spoke to my girlhood idolatry of women with long nails and jobs where they type all day and look pretty; a mental snapshot of the glass ceiling in full, disheartening effect. She printed me a paper boarding pass and told me I was good to go.

“I need to check this bag,” I quipped, showing her my black-and-cream knockoff.

“That can fit in the overhead compartment. It’s free,” she said quickly, wanting me to go away.

“I wish,” I said with a genuine bit of dejection, “but I’ve got liquids.”

I weighed the bag, and was told to take it with me to the airport’s customer service counter around the corner, pay for it there, then bring her the receipt. In a busy international airport, “around the corner” often means at least a five-minute walk. Factor in the village of people aimlessly walking to iron out some of the creases of their boredom, their sense peripheral vision and spatial awareness totally powered down, and you’ve got yourself a few extra minutes to get to where you need to go. Once I made my way down the endless stretch of homeward travel-tinted malaise, I approached another counter with a line of three people in front of me. Portugal was a study in patience, that’s for sure. And for someone with an mindset of ambition that is almost always mistaken for abrasion, the waiting was killing me. My soul was dwindling, losing color with every passing sixty seconds that someone wasted by living slowly.

Finally, €50 and a steady stream of happiness flowing out of my wallet later, I was en route through security. My gate was closing in five minutes. Where did the time go? My head felt like a bowling ball, still, despite the fact that I had been downing water almost non-stop. I ate vegetables. I had been sitting down, not carrying anything. Why did I still feel so weak? Why didn’t I notice the clock before, only making the connection to proceed to the ticket counter when all the other passengers were proceeding to the gate?

What I previously loathed about Ryanair as I was huddled in the minimalist terminal of HHN with two hundred other people was what saved me in the open-air, comfortable OPO: my gate was technically already “closed,” but as I made my way through the medieval crusade of security, I could see a snake of people in the distance and, finally reaching for my tortoiseshell Warby Parkers, they were all lined up for Ryanair flight FR4172 to HHN. I joined the back of the line, and sighed, relieved: despite the ridiculous fee, my bag was checked. I had an actual boarding pass. I was getting on this plane and going for a ride. All was well.

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A couple of hours later, we were all walking along the airstrip in Germany, freezing. It was an unexpectedly brisk 11° C, a far cry from the sunny summer sweetness of Porto. Welcome back to Germany: land of cold. I bought a ticket for the next bus to FRA for €14 and waited 45 minutes in this joke of an airport, writing but keeping an eye out for lights and the commanding wall of charter bus outside the glass double-doors.

Within time, the bus arrived. I didn’t miss it. All was well. I got on, opened my laptop again, and became enraptured by my own world that I created within the computer. I was listening to music; soft music to fit the mood of traveling hours through the blackness of the German night on a bus to Frankfurt, the city that I couldn’t decide whether I liked or hated. I was glaring into the glow of my screen, unable to really see anything else around me, when I felt a presence to my left. I took a headphone out and looked up, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. A man stood there, asking something in German. “Mein Deutsche ist nicht gut,” I replied, the perfection in my execution of the phrase (a perfection acquired by saying it constantly) betraying the actual meaning.

He replied, accented, in English, “Is it okay if I sit here?” In the darkness, I could see the outlines of his face, the stubble of facial hair that grew in what looked to be holiday rebellion against the razors of real life, I could see in his eyes a youthful sparkle rather than the dull of haze of a weary business traveler.

“Of course,” I said, moving my bag from the seat next to me.

“I hope it doesn’t bother you,” he said as he got settled in his seat to me, caught in a web of words and trying to wrangle my way out in the most perfectly eloquent way possible, “but I need to call a friend. Will that disturb you?”

“Not at all,” I replied, noting the considerate nature in him asking me, as Americans talk on their phones anywhere, anytime, regardless of who is around. “Does my screen bother you?” I asked in the spirit of reciprocity and common courtesy.

He ended up not calling his friend and I ended up not writing. As the bus shuttled us across German countrysides obscured by he blackness of the bitter night, we chatted idly about travel, about life goals, about differences between cultures, about linguistics, about Southeastern Italian architecture and about Maya Angelou. He let me know that we were making a stop in Mainz when the driver slurred the announcement over the intercom in a strained tone indicative of being thoroughly fed up with driving back and forth all day, every day. It was the kind of conversation I live to have, the sort of interaction I had been craving the entire time I was by myself: someone with an intelligence that matches mine but in a different way, someone who can add a different splash of color to the rainbow I have watched documentaries, paid attention in school, and read dictionaries to build in my mind. I usually have no trouble striking up conversations with strangers abroad, but Split and Porto were different. Couples were hooked together and draped all along the stonewalled cities and friends traveled in clots in the streets. No one was there alone. But there, on the bus from HHN to FRA between the hours of 22:00 and 0:00, I was there and he was there; two people who just wanted to feel a connection with another human being after a long day of traveling.

I got off the bus at FRA and headed inside of the departures hall, the same hall that had been infested with travelers flowing through the terminal like water from a leaky roofs few days prior in my waiting period for the bus to take me to HHN. Except now, the same hall had an eerie stillness as all the ticket counters that lined the perimeter were left unmanned, as weary travelers propped their feet on their suitcases and slouched their heads back in a makeshift air of comfort in the quintessential rows of black airport chairs, no doubt cursing the armrests that separated the seats and prevented a full recline. Cleaning crews that looked more like ghosts shuffled through, emptying trash cans that had only a few items inside and sweeping invisible dust into dustpans. I already made the executive decision earlier in the night not to book a hotel room, what with Delta having a 24-hour SkyClub within Terminal 2 of FRA, and also having already spent far more money than I had planned to spend when I first stepped foot into the bright German morning two weeks prior en route with Patrick to his house in what seemed like another lifetime. I failed to recall, however, that I was returning with a suitcase full of liquids, and that the left luggage counter where I dropped off my large suitcase on the way out was closed until 06:00. I found a small space behind a standalone ticket counter next to a Smarte Carte drop off area with a power outlet and sat down on the floor; deciding just to wait the six hours until I could take this little black-and-cream bag full of Portuguese wine to join its teal traveling companion full of almost all the clothes I own. It wasn’t worth it to me to rent a room at an airport hotel…although the place I stayed the night I came back from Croatia with its modern décor, free apples in the lobby and running trails did cross my mind at that point, but was soon banished away by the reminder from the rational side of my brain that the reason I purchased a SkyClub membership was a situation like this: me stuck on some awful layover somewhere in the world and needing a shower and a place to relax in peace. Six hours didn’t seem like such a hurdle.

Five-Star Accommodations.

Five-Star Accommodations.

Frankfurt’s airport has free WiFi for 24 hours that can span across multiple devices, so I took advantage of the situation and read the internet, as I am wont to do. After feeling thoroughly bored with the latest articles on all the webpages I used to scan for entertainment in my days of waiting in a uniform and boots for a life spent adventurously sleeping in airports and gallivanting to new countries at the drop of a hat, I bought and watched a movie from iTunes that I’d read about on some site, somewhere, sometime: Afternoon Delight. It wasn’t on Netflix or Hulu when I found out about it, but I never really forgot it, as it spoke to my penchant for highlighting the lackluster in life and dressing it up into something entertaining (as I watched the movie and realized that it matched up with my style of writing I remembered walking through Mainz with Patrick, stopping to lie down in the grass along the Rhine and finding the heart in the cement, talking about that very subject, causing a sort of rippling repercussion of pain; a stinging reminder that I had lost one of my best friends). The biting beginnings of continuous cold air were permeating the airport’s glass walls, making me grateful for the thin sweater I threw into my bag two weeks before in muggy Mississippi, just on the off-chance that the weather would freak out or the very real possibility that I will be cold somewhere.

After the movie concluded, the sun was just starting to make its demure debut across the horizon of Frankfurt, and I watched it come forward into view, splashing Frankfurt with an indigo that swirled into the sort of sapphire that rich men spend tens of thousands of dollars procuring for their women. And then, in a wardrobe change that seemed to pass a little too quickly, the sun offered up a robust orange, bathing the city and the airport with the inevitable yet nevertheless comforting sentiment that we all lived to see another day. I sat in a row of chairs on the top floor of the departures hall where the rail shuttle between the two terminals picked up and dropped off, alone save for the ever-so-often stream of passengers either catching the train or departing it. I sat sideways, with one leg extended underneath the restricting armrest and the other pulled up to my chest, my laptop balanced on my flat leg and displaying the glow of a webpage that I was too bleary-eyed and sunrise-smitten to read.

Continue Reading…Part II.

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