Welcome Back: Part II

(Continued from Part I.)

I don’t really know where the time went. I was willing time to speed up, to take me to 06:00 when I could just drop off my case full of wine and relax in the luxury of the SkyClub, cursing myself yet again for having the kind of brain that thinks that spending €85 in fees and a priceless amount of personal comfort in order to transport inexpensive wine that was shrouded in authenticity is a satisfactory idea. Although, I thought, going back and forth to myself in the exhaustion that felt palpable on my body at this point like a second skin, people will appreciate this wine. It will be all right. These bottles are going to people who are worth it.

I spent the night watching the clock in what felt like a suspended chamber of time in an infinite measure of space, and spent the early hours of morning watching the dead airport that had been my frigid home for the past few hours illuminate with activity; transform from an abandoned expanse of nighttime vacancy to a bustling mini-city of refreshed, bright-eyed travelers ready for their next adventures against the backdrop of the serenade of the morning sun, singing loudly now across the sky in vibratos of passion and color. And I, with my fingers brittled by dehydration and eyes drooping in fatigue behind my glasses, I just sat there, watching for 06:00 to roll around.

And then, just as promised by whatever force time actually is, it did. I picked up my body, stiffened by stillness in the row of chairs where I tried to forge comfort and lumbered downstairs to the information desk, now staffed by two women: a friendly-looking blonde who appeared to have had her coffee that morning and an older woman with Bettie Page bangs whose skin was pale and wrinkled, making her face look like a crumbled up piece of paper. I made my way toward the blonde, fully aware that I was judging a book by its cover but being too wrapped up in impatient exhaustion to really care. Someone that I didn’t see in my peripheral vision (shrouded by glasses and mental lethargy) swooped in front of me and arrived at the friendly-looking woman before me, forcing me to stop where I stood and sigh, then walk to the other side of the desk to the failed memo that missed the trashcan and sat balled up instead at the information counter of FRA.

“Hallo, guten tag, Englisch ist okay?” I croaked, not having uttered a word since speaking to my new friend on the bus from HHN.

“Yes,” the woman responded, thin-lipped and brusque.

“Okay, thank you,” I said, regaining a bit of my tone with the utilization of my vocal chords. “I have a bag at the left luggage counter that I dropped off a few days ago. My flight isn’t until 13:00—“

She interrupted me with a surly, “The left luggage counter is over there,” with a sharp finger in the direction that I walked less than a week prior and dropped off my bag.

“Yes ma’am, I know,” I replied, realizing a little too late that the nuanced charm of Southern-bred vocabulary had absolutely no meaning here in the frigid air and attitude of Germany, “I am asking whether I can go through security now and re-enter this area when it’s time to drop my bag for my flight,” I continued, somehow masking the strain placed on my psyche by spending the previous night and day cooped up in airports, feeling the grease and grime of extended air travel build up in my pores and the forest of follicles on my scalp. I was pleasant. I was acting.

“Yes, you can, of course,” she said as if I had asked her if 2 + 2 = 4. I could feel myself being labeled in her mind, branded with the iron stamp of German judgment: Stupid American.

“Okay, thank you,” I said quickly, and with a start, I headed to the luggage counter to drop by newly acquired black-and-cream wine carrier.

Within a few minutes, I was walking through the golden hallways of the terminal, pulling up my Delta app to find the location of the SkyClub and feeling the sort of accomplishment that you never expect to feel; the selfish sense of pride that creeps up when you do something that’s only difficult because it’s something that you don’t want to do. I wanted to crash in some plush bed and have a relaxing run through the forests of Frankfurt one last time, after which I would wash off the sweat and the night and the energy of yesterday in a warm shower. And yet, I didn’t. I sat in an airport all night. Sure, it was of my own volition, but I really wanted to see if I could, or if my uppity nature would seep through, grasp the situation, and drag the rugged adventurer in me to some hotel in the middle of the night.

I found the SkyClub, but it was owned by Korean Air. No big deal, I thought, making my way inside and pulling up my membership card from my iPhone’s passbook, this is a partner airline. I handed my phone to the representative at the desk and grabbed my passport from my handbag, only to have her shake her head and give my phone back.

“Only First and Business Class passengers on partner airlines can come in,” she said to my face that had involuntarily twisted itself into a swirl of confusion, disbelief, and a somber sort of sadness.

I didn’t argue. I might have tried to weasel my way in had I not been blanched by the bleakness of the night I spent waiting–holding on—just to be turned away when I thought that the waiting was over. But then again, I employed the meek demeanor that always hides behind me gumption on reserve for when I leave the US: the disposition that I can’t argue with people, that I am a guest in someone else’s country, that this is not The Land of the Free and I need to sit down, shut up, and be respectful of what I’m told. And so, with deep disappointment and frustration vibrating through my body, I turned around, walked out the door and back into the hallway of the terminal, whose walls at that point looked more like cheap foil or lamé than the gilded grandiosity of a few minutes prior.

Hours later, around 08:30, I had consumed a few espressos in a café overlooking the departures hall where I spent the night, and I looked down to see not a large room, but just a constant shuffle of people and suitcases, flowing and pulsating along the floor as the sun streamed in, now totally comfortable with its position on the world’s stage, casting glares and shadows and everything in between. I let out a sigh, cupping my hands to my forehead in exhaustion and felt a disgusting sheen of oil. I needed a shower. I banked on being able to bathe in the lounge. I closed my eyes in a blink extended by how beaten-down my body felt, wishing I could just lay down in a bathtub and wash the grit of going home and all it entails off me. Then, my phone illuminated.

Delta emailed me, alerting me to proceed to the nearest ticket counter. I took a look at my itineraries within the app, and like a magic trick from the joker that is reality, I was awash in muted merriment at the fact that I was placed on a standby list for a flight directly to Atlanta–my final destination—that left in two hours. I immediately grabbed my backpack and handbag and headed out of the café, making my way toward the first Ausgang sign I could see, lumbering past the baggage claim and packs of people just standing in the way of people trying to walk with an energy that I didn’t realize I could muster.

I picked up my bags. I paid the euros, handing the man behind the counter my card in an exhaustion that stemmed not only from the physical sensations I was feeling, but the constant stream of unexpected expenses I incurred throughout this journey. It’s just money, I told myself as he swiped the card, I’d rather use it for something like this than be buried with stacks of cash. I rolled the bags beside me through the crowd, my distribution of effort uneven as my left arm lugged the suitcase that came up to my waist and was close to the weight of two toddlers and the little clandestine carrier, cream and black, rolling to my right, almost weightlessly in the midst of its neighboring luggage. I arrived at the row of counters that Delta had occupied only to be skipped in line by a couple in their early thirties who were skinny, only moderately attractive, and both wore white sweaters that matched without matching and looked as though they were ordered from a catalogue. My face was a diluted snarl, but I didn’t say anything. I just let out a deep and silent sigh (sighing had, at that point, seemed to become my main method of breathing), remembering that this is not my country and that I don’t have the rights to rip into someone (tactfully, of course) because they were rude to me.

It turned out that the couple was American. They spoke to each other in shy and subdued tones, confused and intimidated by the hustle of a busy foreign airport that won’t stop and cater to them. I shook my head in a slight regret at not venting my frustration at them, at being the bigger person and letting these two people at least ten years my senior treat me like a doormat. But then, of course, I remembered that they’re the ones shuffling around like sheep, lost in the world like children who got separated from their parents in the mall, and I’m the one who can comfortably travel internationally without relying on another person to keep me company or hold my hand.

I finally made it to an agent at the counter after about fifteen minutes of waiting behind people asking question after question in German, causing my anxiety levels to spike as the clock ticked forward toward the departure time of the flight on which I didn’t even know if I was confirmed. The agent bore an almost identical resemblance to my mother, which filled me with a sort of eerie nostalgia and, blended with my heightened nerve activity in the wake of waiting for people who apparently have never heard of Google, a slight sense of jagged apprehension rocketing down my spine. She looked nearly exactly like the woman, save for one glaring detail: instead of my mom’s green eyes, faded like moss (the eyes that blended with the shamrock glint in my father’s eyes to create the intense lime of my sister’s eyes; a little club of verde from which the dice of genetics decided to exclude me), this woman had eyes of icy turquoise, screaming for attention just a few shades lighter than mine. As she spoke, I was finding myself seeing less of my mother in her face and more of myself; realizing that this woman was literally what I would look like in 25 years. I was okay with it.

There was a problem printing my boarding pass, but I was confirmed on the earlier flight to Atlanta, bypassing a layover at JFK and filling me with a satisfied relief as I made my way back through passport control. I was given a seat request card in lieu of a new boarding pass, but my baggage claim tags matched the flight number of the earlier, direct flight. It’s all coming together, I thought, making my way to the “All Other Passports” line, my passport closed around fingers marking the identification page as well as the page where the stamp was to go, the page where I had previously passed through security that morning in naive hopes of relaxation.

“How long have you been here?” the passport control policeman asked skeptically with a curt disposition.

Rolling through the catalogue of words and memories and coherence in my mind, I sputtered, “In this airport? Since midnight. I came from Hahn at 22:00 last night. I flew there from Portugal.”

He continued to study my stamps, trying to make sense of the zigzag of clearance that I had been granted to and from Frankfurt over the past few days. My apprehension stacked on itself as I stood there at the counter feeling like I had been beaten like a rug on a balcony and he sat in his chair slightly above me, eyes cast downward in the tense silence between us, the realization creeping in that I didn’t have a stamp from Hahn or Portugal. I could picture myself being escorted to the nearby office bathed in the garishness of high-wattage fluorescent bulbs and marked POLEZEI, my own personal Room 101.

He scoffed and tossed my passport across the counter with a flippant hand that was indicative of my clearance. I didn’t ask questions or say anything, for that matter; I grabbed my passport and made my way back through the terminal to my gate, breezing through inter-terminal security and checking in with an agent airside. I explained the situation as passengers pooled in behind me, children retaliating crabbily, adults just wanting to get this show on the road, teenagers in sweatshirts and spandex with headphones and attitude.

“Well, there is a problem getting you a boarding pass,” the airside ticket agent, a woman who looked like the quintessential German mother in a childhood fable (short and plump with blonde hair and rosy cheeks) said, clicking away at her keyboard. “I want to put you in Economy Comfort due to your medallion status, but it’s saying that as of right now, you don’t have a seat even in coach on the this flight.”

I stood there, silently steaming but publicly polite, smiling and lighthearted in the face of the most extreme exhaustion I had ever known, just trying to get out of Frankfurt. I said nothing, just waited as her eyes narrowed on her screen, darting around as her fingers whirred in clickety-clack oblivion. Finally, I was told to just wait there in the gate area. I would be called up to the ticket counter again. I would be taken care of.

And so off I shuffled, feeling deflated overall but infused with the tiniest glimmer of hope. My bags were being sent on this flight. I was (sort of) confirmed. I would be in Atlanta earlier than expected and I could snarl at people and let out my frustrations in plain sight and eat peanut butter because I would be in The United States of America again. I took a seat in an empty corner which quickly began to populate with passengers. A mother with a toddler and a baby rolled a stroller past me, accidentally snagging my backpack’s strap. I hate strollers. I have always hated strollers. They are needlessly bulky, awkward to maneuver, and a consistent cause of frustration in my life as a single, efficient-minded person on the go. Whenever I see a stroller in a public place–some worn-out mother bumping and knocking into things, lumbering behind this gargantuan tower of plastic that looks more like a grocery cart than a carrier for something that, not too long beforehand, fit inside her body–I turn on my heel and seek an alternate route. And yet, at that moment in my life, I wasn’t the same embittered wench as per usual. She apologized in English, saturated in sincerity, and dragged her toddler forward by one hand, pushing her stroller with the other. I smiled, I told her it was all right. Her baby began to cry as they made their way to a couple of seats next to me, and her toddler incessantly asked if he could walk on the roof of the airport. Rather than carrying out my usual protocol of gritting my teeth behind a tightly-sealed pair of lips when someone else’s child is near me and further reinforcing my decision to wait until 35 to spawn (if at all), I had somehow become one with the frustration. I looked over and smiled at the kid, who—entrenched in confusion as to why, exactly, he couldn’t walk on the roof of Frankfurt am Main International Airport—saw my smile and raised me a moment of silence. It was, in essence, a strange miracle of sorts.

In this silence, my mind (coming up on its 27th hour of continued wakefulness) began to drift to the little family as people, not harbingers of irritation. How amazing it must be to be three or four years old in another country, on another continent, and have stories of “That time in 2014 when we were in Frankfurt,” told to you by your mother ten and fifteen years down the line at dinners or events. My childhood lacked that spark of adventure, that mystique of exploration. While the kid in me wished that I could have traveled often and early, the adult inside my mind couldn’t help but wonder about the mother; why? Why were they across the Atlantic by themselves? Was this just some leisure trip? Why would she lug two small children around a foreign airport if not absolutely necessary? Her hair was pulled back haphazardly into a bun and her clothes hung on her body in sloppy ways indicative of stress, of urgency, of being a mother instead of a woman. I began to feel a sort of connection to her, like she might need help as the intercom blared in unfeeling Deutsche ringing in our ears and the sun hung proudly in the sky casting shadows throughout the glassed-in terminal. And then, after a solid twelve or so minutes of studying, of watching her gesticulations and her interaction with her toddler, I desisted in making her my subject of my inevitable people-watching when she pulled a breast out of her scoop neck shirt and began to feed her baby, turning away and closing my eyes, trying to drift off to a light sleep with my bags in my lap, arms securely braced around them.

The plane began to board. I was never assigned a seat. I felt deflated and stretched out at the same time; a strange feeling of such fervent disappointment that I was too tired to even process the emotion. I walked out of the terminal area and to a noodle bar that I saw around breakfast time, enticing in its after-hours darkness. Now, it was illuminated, waiting for me. I sat at the wall corner of a long banquet table and was greeted by a smiling waitress in German with a Japanese accent. At first, I thought it was a dream, crowding through the reality by my broken brain. And yet, there she stood, grinning, waiting for me to order. “I’ll have a large bottle of Apollinaris,” I slurred in English, forgetting to throw out the disclaimer that I don’t speak German and really, hardly caring. “Please,” I added as she walked away, only vaguely aware of my rudeness.

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“Thank you,” I said with a forced enthusiasm as she returned with a 1.5L bottle of gorgeous, bubbly hydration and an empty cup with a lime wedge in the bottom. She began to pour it in front of me, for me, and it was, at that point, the highlight of my day. I ordered vegetable gyozas and some sort of noodle dish with tofu instead of chicken that tasted like I was in a trendy restaurant where I would go on a Thursday night in some city when I wanted to feel alive. It was a far cry from the pre-packaged, food-grade plastic that’s become the monster of standard in airports, and it breathed new life into me as I got out my laptop to check on all my connecting flights to my final destination: San Francisco. I was still a world away, greasy, and missing sleep more than I missed peanut butter but at least I could see how the dots all connected; I could see the routes take form in front of my eyes and I knew that as time flew, so would I. And eventually—I would be picked up at the airport by someone who loved me; a stark contrast from the shuffle of taxis and metros and busses that I had been utilizing for the past few weeks.

Later, in a little pocket of the airport known as the Leisure Zone, I reclined in a padded chair and resigned myself to the hour or so left of waiting until my flight began to board. My eyes were up to the ceiling and my mind—characterized by its constant whipping and thrashing—was beginning to fall silent. This comforted me and horrified me all at once, as Asian businessmen talked on cell phones beside me, as kids played on iPads across from me, as twenty somethings flanked out across empty chairs asleep and oblivious to the energy of the terminal, I was feeling my brain dull into something unrecognizable: my normally unquiet mind was finally shutting down as my body remained awake. It was a surreal feeling, almost like the worst hangover of your life blended with losing a significant amount of IQ points. I felt terrified that this was it, that I would never regain my brainpower. It was, in hindsight, the final plea from my brain to get some sleep, but in the moment, I thought that everything I had ever learned was melting away into grey goop inside my skull.

I checked the time of my boarding in the Delta app for the fourteenth time that hour to discover that something was different about the image I saw pixelated on my screen. I sat there, bloated from my meal and covered in grime from the day before, just blinking profusely. What I saw on the screen simply HAD to be some swirl of sweet dreaming, and I would jolt up from the chair in the Leisure Zone at any second with a genuine concern about where on the globe I was located. And yet, as many times as I blinked, as many times as I willed myself to wake up, I was not roused from my dream. This was reality. On my boarding pass, my seat was no longer in the bowels of the plane. I was reseated squarely in 8D, in the nestling comfort of the plush Business Elite cabin. My head hit the back of the chair in a satisfaction that was so intense that I felt like crying. It felt like the greatest miracle I had ever known at that point, and I spent twenty minutes dreaming of the flatbed seating and actual pillow and duvet that awaited me on board.

The agent that scanned my boarding pass was the same agent as before, the agent who said she would take care of me. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get you on the direct flight earlier,” she said, checking my passport with a knowing smile and a glint of discreet giddiness in her eye, “but you see, it all worked out in the end, didn’t it?”

“Yes, yes it did,” I said, taking back my items and looking at her, taking in her face and programming it into my mind as my literal favorite person in the world at that point, “I can’t thank you enough,” I said in a hushed tone, trying to continue our volley of discretion while also hinting to her that I know what she did, and I hope she wins the lottery for it.

I boarded and was immediately offered champagne by a flight attendant who, while perky, didn’t seem to hate her job. I was gracious, overflowing with appreciation as only a disgusting woman socked by over a full day of air travel can be. We took off, and I listened to “Recycled Air” by the Postal Service as Germany became brown and green squares of farms and fields, fulfilling a prophecy I made up when I was a lonely, lovestruck teenager daydreaming about departing this country back to my own for the first time. It seemed right, even all these years and variables later. I’m older than I thought I would be, visiting Germany for the first time, hearing “Recycled Air” piped through my ears and feeling the numbness of saying goodbye again. And yet, the hours prior to boarding this plane weren’t dampened with heart-wrenching goodbyes, as I always pictured. And I wasn’t in some cramped economy seat. And I hadn’t listen to the Postal Service in years. I paid my respects to the girl I used to be, listening to the song in its full duration, and allowed her to take over for a minute and feel the things that she always thought would be felt when this event took place in her life.

As the song played and my emotions drifted backward, and I looked out the window to see a lake so blue that it looked manmade in the shape of a heart. I didn’t know how to feel about it.

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New York was a blur of baggage and crowds and yelling and a migraine. I slept through the flight, which only seemed to drain my internal battery further, as I needed calibration. I waited in security line after security line, my entire life at that point being a cattle-herded animal through a zoo when all I wanted to do was graze the grasses of a farm. The US Border Patrol agent studied my passport up and down, he glared at my face, his own face betraying any emotion. I was too tired and bloated and grimy to care. Finally, with a jolt, he stamped my passport, handed it to me, and said in a rich baritone that still rings through my ears and made me feel ethereal like Natalie Portman in Closer, “Welcome back.”

I was flying to my next connection from Terminal C, but I already knew that the SkyClub there was under renovation, so I popped into the Terminal B SkyClub to regain a little bit of my dignity. “You realize this is not your terminal,” said the Delta agent as he scanned my membership card and checked my ID.

“Yes, but I need a shower, and this club location is nicer,” I sighed.

“Okay, as long as you’re aware,” he strained, judging me. “Your flight boards in an hour.”

I popped around the corner to the hallway of showers to find two people waiting in line with no one at the desk. We all waited in silence for eight minutes until a fourth person moseyed in behind me. Two more minutes and still no attendant. We were suspended in our confusion of the situation and what to do, and I decided that it was not my place to worry about such things. I was too busy standing in my own filth to have the brain capacity to do anything. Finally, a man sauntered to the desk from the back and let us into shower rooms, shuffling on his own schedule and answering questions in a thick Southern accent that were posed to him by a Chinese man, their rapport built on confusion and clashing of cultures. I grew more and more antsy as the man kept asking questions; questions that could be easily answered with common sense or perhaps just looking behind the door rather than pestering the man that held the key.

Finally, I was underneath a steady stream of hot water, and I never felt more grateful for a shower in my life. I don’t know how long I stood there, just letting the water breathe into me, revitalizing me, but it was the most in-tune I have felt with the universe in years, possibly ever. There was more zen in that shower as I lathered away the dirt and the grease and the agitation of the day before than any time I’ve ever made a human pretzel of myself on some rubber mat on the floor.

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I was upgraded to first class again on my next flight and I immediately relaxed with a gin and tonic, declining the in-flight dinner as my only options were a pastrami and cheese baguette or two enormous fried chicken patties. I sipped my drink and felt, for the first time, a sense of comfort in being back in the United States. I knew I had been transformed, and I knew that I would never be the same after the events that unfolded in Europe. But sitting there, sipping gin and tonic in clean clothes jetting over the country that raised me, the country I served, and the country that will now serve me for the rest of my life…there was something so apropos about the picture.

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The words of the Border Patrol agent rang in my head, bouncing off the walls of my brain.

Welcome Back.

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.

No Filter: Reflections on the Weirdest Two Weeks of My Life

Someone wise once said, “Always keep a journal. That way, you’ll have something interesting to read on the train.”

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His name is carved into my brain. It’s not simply a schoolgirl’s nostalgia. It’s years of my mind involuntarily repeating that name, folding it into little tiny creases on the papers of my memory until there’s no other way to think it, say it, remember it other than the way a favorite old pair of jeans fits or how the sentences written in the best book you’ve ever read realign in your brain and you can only go, “Oh yes, this again.”

I immortalized him. Eight years ago, we were children yet also on the cusp of adulthood. I knew, though, that we were closer to being kids than adults. I felt like a fraud, I felt like I was playing a grown-up’s game and foraying into feelings that I didn’t need to have just yet, feelings that I didn’t have to feel if I just walked backwards out of the room in which I had so relentlessly tried to enter, nearly breaking down the door.

before.

before.

Reading it now, it’s more like the paragraphs of some book that I l found squirreled away in my iCloud notes than something that came from my own brain, my own heart, a mere two weeks ago. I’m on the plane back to Frankfurt, another inadvertent layover caused by booking trips within trips between airlines. And tomorrow, I’ll stand on American soil again for the first time since feeling like I was writing the dénouement of a story eight years in the making.

I forget that people are their own inventions, not the fantastical figures conjured up by my own boisterous brainwaves. Hiding behind high expectations and a drive to succeed was the perfectly valid possibility that it could all crash in front of me; that he not only wasn’t the person I’d invented mentally, but that maybe–horrifyingly–he had grown into a person in the near-decade since we breathed in the same air that I would not enjoy. Social media, video chatting, and text messages can only take you so far into a person’s essence. To be around them, to tolerate their little idiosyncrasies and explore the minutiae of what makes them, exponentially, their own person is a different story, and it’s a story I paved over in my mind with the asphalt of my own imagined version of him. But secretly, in hushed moments of mental seclusion, I wondered, “What if we hate who we’ve each become?”

Because fifteen days is a long time. This could be heaven or this could be hell. I was willing to risk it, though. But was he?

And reading the words now, the words I wrote two weeks ago in a swirl of anticipation and disbelief that it was all actually happening, I’m astounded. In all my nail-biting and nervousness, I never pictured things to occur the way they did. I didn’t expect the reality of what fate actually had planned in my wildest dreams. In the moment, it felt like a nightmare, but looking back, it feels like I’m living a scripted life unbeknownst to me, a Truman Show, if you will. It all seems so bizarre, so over-the-top-terrible. And after the hurricane of horror passed, the eerie remnants of what was left of my time abroad felt ethereal and cleansing in a way that, in stark contrast, seemed too good to be true.

I am not the same person that I was the last time I stepped foot on American soil. This trip changed me, hardened me through and through in the way a squishy-centered baguette with a rigid exterior transforms into a food-grade baseball bat when not eaten in time. And also, simultaneously, I was softened like a thick block of chocolate–bulky and impenetrable–melts into a creamy paste when left out in the sun. I was the bread in Germany, left to stiffen as much on the inside as I always attempt to outwardly propel in the wake of abandonment. And in Croatia and Portugal, I was the chocolate: basking in the sunshine, feeling again the whisper of wonder that life has the potential to sing into your ears if you listen up.

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I didn’t expect to be transformed so personally. All visits to new places have, of course, the possibility to flip you around and make you a different person entirely. Heck, every day of your life, whether you’re out exploring territories uncharted to the you of yesterday or sitting mundanely in your pajamas all day eating cereal in front of a screen (and every type of day in between) have the ability to turn your life upside down. But this sort of personal exploration, this calibre of soul-searching was thoroughly unexpected. I just thought I was going to Europe to see an old friend; have some laughs, some good times, some memories shrouded with a prosaic hue stemming from the fact that it was orchestrated so heavily on my part–insured down to every last detail that everything was to be absolutely perfect. And we all know that anytime a proposed perfection is brought into the equation, things are sure to go downhill. That’s where, I expected (though apparently not enough to redirect my thoughts to a more reality-centered state of mind) things to be lightly lackluster: all fun and smiles with just a hint of longing for something more.

And instead, I got a true whirlwind, world-tour of feeling. I was, at different points throughout this time in Europe, drowning in an anguish deeper than I’ve ever felt: a sadness that sprung itself from the affairs that actually transpired and attached itself to torments of events past, snowballing into a heartache of, essentially, every horrible event that’s ever befallen me, shooting me by mental firing squad all at once. Sometimes in moments dotting the landscape of the past two weeks, I was so soul-crushingly lonely that I felt like pretending to have a good time–writing my own story not as a true account but more like the novel of how I wanted to feel–was the only way to hold on and make it through. And there were times, of course, when I didn’t have to pretend; that I felt, naturally, an elation more vivid and pulsing than my own mind could think, beforehand, to produce. There was nothing mundane about this adventure. It was all tidal waves and tornadoes, not at all the sequence of breezy banality that I expected to encounter.

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All I can do is shake my head and smile incredulously. All I expected was something glossy, something sepia-toned, something enhanced to make it more spectacular than it actually was. This adventure, however, needed no filter.

after.

after.

“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”

-Agatha Christie

Tourist to Traveler

I made my way up to main house attached to my modest yet perfectly comfortable apartment, where my host lived with her family. The door was open in preparation for my arrival and there was a child in underwear shrieking with joy about something; whatever brand-new beautiful thing his mind dreamed up, not yet crushed by the callousness of reality. A friendly woman approached the door when I came into view and smiled warmly, then was accompanied by my elderly host. I handed over the keys and then a man came to the door as well, a man with a face nearly identical to my host’s. He introduced himself as Boris, the man with whom I had been communicating for the past few days. We had a friendly exchange during which he translated for his mother, the host, about how polite and well-mannered I am, and he asked me about my further travel plans. “Portugal is beautiful,” he said with a drag of a hand-rolled cigarette. “The good thing about Europe is the division, you don’t get it in the States.” An exaggerated exhale. “Here in Europe, we all want to be the best. We want to be better than our neighbors. It makes for a beautiful travel experience.”

After a gracious goodbye, I grabbed my bags and set off down the broken cobblestone streets to the bus station, about a mile away. I could have taken a cab, but I needed the exercise. Cliff-jumping didn’t burn nearly as many calories as all the wine, bread and pasta consumed in the previous four days equaled. The sun was beating down on me in the eight o’clock light; a side of the sun I hadn’t seen in Croatia, a type of heat and humidity through which I had always slept. I was, though an ultrarunner, finding myself losing my breath.

Finally, I made my way to the bus station where people were all clotted every which way and suitcases served as roadblocks to foot traffic. It felt almost like the end of the world, or the end of the world as I always imagine: everyone trying their hardest to remain calm but at the same time frantically dash out of town. Everyone was sweating. Skinny girls wore “I LOVE SPLIT” tank tops sold by the vendors at kiosks all over town. Women wore sun hats and fanned themselves with their bus tickets. Men had scruffy, tan faces indicative of a holiday in the sun; far from the oppressive blades of the required razors of their work worlds. And I had on jeans, a long-sleeved popover, and glasses, hair in a topknot. I always dress for where I’m going, not from where I’ve been. And yet, feeling the heat infiltrate my clothes and begin to soak them through, I wondered if perhaps, today, I should have amended my adherence to my own personal protocol. I bought a ticket to the local airport for 33 kunas and waited, silently, among all the other passengers, just trying to evacuate.

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I finally got on the bus, air-conditioned and cushy, and sat next to an Australian. I asked him if I could sit down in the next seat, and he responded, “Yeh, of course,” with a strong accent, yet I knew he was Australian as soon as I saw him. Either Australian, or an American going to great lengths not to be recognized; he had the quintessential Aussie appearance. Shoulder-length blonde hair matted in mussed-up curls, a thick beard to match. A sun-faded red snapback and a dirty white tank top. Cargo shorts. It was everything that the movies depicted of an Australian twenty something. We didn’t speak on the way to the airport. He was too enraptured with the Croatian countryside for conversation, and I took a nap, feeling like I had been tossed in a saltwater brine and laid out to dry (which–I suppose–I was, for all intents and purposes).

I was headed back to Frankfurt for the night before departing for Porto in the morning. The snag here was that my flight to Porto is a Ryanair flight, and they’re too cheap to operate out of the whale that is Frankfurt International Airport (FRA). Instead, they use a smaller airport (HHN) that, despite having “Frankfurt” in the name, is closer to Belgium than Frankfurt. My original plan was to just stay in FRA overnight, utilizing the luxury of a 24-hour Delta Sky Club, and take a bus to HHN in the morning. And yet, my fatigue and general weariness was winning the battle against my brain. The Sky Club was in the opposite terminal, and I wouldn’t be able to get there without going through security. I conceded to hotels.com and looked at the silver lining: at least I could get a reward night and some extra reward points on my credit card. I booked this random airport hotel with a €7 unlimited shuttle, which, in the jam-packed departures terminal of Split’s airport, took me about thirty minutes on the spotty wifi.

Soon enough, I was Copenhagen. I’ve had an unrequited love affair with Denmark for the past few years, ever since I read that it’s the happiest country on earth. I’ve wanted to move there, to start anew, to cultivate this happiness that seems to flow through the airwaves and innately affect the Danish people, for a while now. Just being in the airport made me feel lighter, more ethereal. I had a nearly four-hour layover, and I didn’t mind at all. I came to a sort of mental clarity while I waited for my flight to Frankfurt. I did the thing I swore vehemently that I would never do: I contacted all the people that I had deleted from my life in hasty attempts to improve my mood at the time. I can hold a grudge until I die and I’m stubborn to a fault. But I realized in the airport in Copenhagen that holding all that negative energy doesn’t translate to me cutting people out of my life like cancer; it becomes a cancer in itself. And so, I made amends. And while some of the people didn’t want to hear it, the fact that I did my part to improve the social climate made me feel better. The ball of humility was no longer in my court.

And then I locked eyes with Daniel Radcliffe.

I saw him and he saw me. My brain registered, “Oh, Daniel Radcliffe, okay,” as he walked by with two men. And then, I made an immediate U-turn in my steps, following the trio in a manner that I hoped was subtle but was, more than likely, humiliatingly obvious. He pointed outside and they exited through a door to the sunny smoking patio. I went to the door and decided to ask him if I could bum a cigarette. Then I remembered that I don’t smoke. I thought that it might be worth it, just for a picture, just for the story. Then I realized that that was 100% crazy. I backed away from the door, bought a pack of Malboro Reds (my sister’s brand) labeled with a government-ordained “SMOKING KILLS” label, and a hot pink lighter, heading out to the patio.

The wind was whipping around me, a perfect excuse to stick my face in a corner and pretend to light the cigarette. I lit it, refusing to inhale, then turned around to this posse of people to whom I couldn’t relate, an outsider wondering if her behavior was utterly distinguishable as that of an imposter. I walked up the stairs to the second level, wondering what to say, how to mingle. And yet…there was no Daniel Radcliffe. No two men. There was a separate stair on the other side of the upper level that led directly down to the airstrip. Sighing, I realized that I was not going to be able to talk to Daniel Radcliffe. Oh well, he looked into my eyes. I stamped out the cigarette and put it in the disposal bin, tucking the cigarettes and lighter in a zipper-compartment of my purse.

Hours later, I was checked into my hotel in Frankfurt and headed back to the airport. I didn’t want to sit in the room. I wanted to go out, I wanted to walk in the lights and the night. I bought a subway ticket and waited for a train underground, studying the daunting map of Frankfurt’s metro system. I took the metro before, but I was led around by Patrick. I didn’t know where to go or what to do, but I referenced the catalogue of my memory to a street in the city center where we went a week prior and got off there. The scene was drastically different from the society-soaked street I was shown seven days beforehand. It was about 22:30, and the sidewalks were scant, inhabited, it seemed, only by those under the age of thirty in search of a good time. I made my way up to the panoramic viewing platform to get a view of Frankfurt by night. It was chilly outside, and my stomach was growling. After a quick survey of this city and all its illumination, I headed back down to Hauptwache in search of food.

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blind me baby with your neon lights

 

The street was damp and in its wetness, it gleamed under the golden lights of the street lamps. It was picturesque in a cinematic sort of way: a woman walking alone in a different country, on a different continent than where she was born, just trying to breathe it all in. That’s really what I was doing. Even if I hadn’t found anything to do, even if every business establishment had shut its doors for the evening, all I really wanted to do was walk and feel the city streets beneath my velveteen French bulldog flats. Walking gets me back to what’s important in life, walking is primal, it’s the best way to get to know the unfamiliar; be it a new city or a new person. Go take a walk and learn something new.

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I found a Thai restaurant on a side street and despite the kitchen closing in fifteen minutes, the owner graciously welcomed me. He turned away a potential four-top, but I was ushered inside. I ordered some sort of vegetable/tofu/noodle dish and sipped lychee wine, talking and laughing with the owner as the clock ticked along to midnight. There are no pictures, because this was the kind of meal and company that transcends petty images captured with an iPhone, only cheapened by the pause for documentation. As I made my tipsy departure into the black Frankfurt night–a far cry from the last time I ventured into the night alone in Germany–the rain began to fall. The owner of the Thai place popped out and gave me a newspaper to hold over my head until I could get to the dry, underground train station a block or so away. In that moment, Frankfurt was transformed in my mind from a place of unceremonious discord to a place where a near-stranger cared enough to run out into the rain to give me a makeshift umbrella for a 100 meter walk. The kindness of man will always prevail, if you let it.

Within the dry and welcoming arms of the Kornstablerwache subway stop, I studied the map of the local railway; how it branched out in different colors and directions like Frankfurt itself had veins. I didn’t know the different between S-Bahn and U-Bahn, and I didn’t know what the colors of the subway lines meant. Everything was, of course, in German. But the thing with subways is that, regardless of country or language, they’re all the same. They follow the map, and you just have to crack their own individual codes. Find where you are, find where you want to go, and follow the lines. I looked at the digital arrivals screen and located the end destination on the map, noting the code next to the German town name and realizing, all at once like a bump on the head, that the code denoted the color of the subway line on the map. Using this information, I was able to unlock the mystery of which train I needed to take and waited eleven minutes, getting on and sitting down, careful to subdue my satisfaction with my late-night critical thinking skills. It may not mean anything to some, but I spent my formative years in rural Alabama. The first time I rode a subway was in 2011 when, in a swirl of trepidation, I had my eyes glued to my routing app as I rocketed underneath Boston on a day that was simply too icy to complete my usual MO of just walking wherever I needed to go. Now I’ve navigated my way through Prague and Frankfurt, two countries where the landscape and language escape me, and to me, that means the world. Literally. It means being able to see a city in a different way; the way locals see it.

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“You can’t understand a city without using its public transportation system.” -Erol Ozan

 

And then, sitting in my seat and looking as entrenched in existential malaise as all the Germans with whom I was sharing the train, a couple got on and sat in the two seats opposite of me in the four-person pod. They were blond and gorgeous, each of them. They looked so typically German and yet, as they looked around them, their expressions were shrouded in confusion. Maybe they were tourists in their own country. The husband spoke English in a thick Southern accent and I felt a blast of nostalgia for my hometown. Not that I wanted to return, per se, but a reminder that it exists. That I used to be there, under the Alabamian sun, and now I’m here, on a German train in the middle of the night at twenty-three years old.

They were lost. I kept my distance, wanting to help but fearing that I would come up unsuccessful, just as confused as they were. Finally, the wife asked me if I spoke English. I smiled a knowing smile and said, “Yeah, I’m American too. Where are you trying to go? I might not be of much help, but I can try.”

They were going to the airport as well, so I told them to stick with me. I explained the color key on the map, and their graciousness was on par with how I felt when the restaurant owner gave me his newspaper. And me, feeling like I could help someone else find their way around a place that’s just as foreign to me; I felt, in that moment, like I had really and truly graduated from tourist to traveler.

We talked the entire ride about traveling; the wife used to live in Frankfurt when she was very young, and the husband was enjoying his first trip across the pond. As we got more deep into out conversation (as the airport was a good few stops into the black and rainy distance), they asked where I’ve been. I started listing countries and their eyes widened. “You’re really a traveler, aren’t you?” the husband said. I chuckled, laughed it off, but the truth is that it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard it. In Montréal, sitting on the terrace of a bar in the company of two strangers with whom I struck up a conversation (one Canadian, one Lebanese), I was told that I was really “well-traveled for an American.” The truth is that while I have traveled, I have seen different pieces and parts of the world we all share, I don’t consider myself well-traveled by any means. I still feel like there’s so much more to explore, so much more to uncover; that I’ve only scratched the surface. But, unfortunately, for most Americans, I would be considered well-traveled. And yet, in my mind’s eye, I’m still the dreaming kid from Alabama, poring over maps and planning vacations that I knew, as a teenager, I’d never have the chance to take.

IMG_2768.JPG We said our goodbyes and I slinked back to my hotel, awash in the energy of the night and feeling a new relationship to Germany and life as a whole. My, how things can change. Also, Daniel Radcliffe looked into my eyes.