This is the second installment of a story chronicling my travels in 1994 as a college student. The six-month journey took me to 20 countries in Europe and Asia.
In February 1994 I waited at the international airport in Vancouver, Canada to board a plane bound for Frankfurt, Germany. Vancouver’s airport had a more international flavor than many airports in the United States, perhaps because its position as Canada’s gateway to Asia and francophonie influence gave it an aura de mystique. For the first time, I felt like a foreigner and an ignorant one to boot. I had trouble getting through immigration and customs because I didn’t know I had to fill out a customs declaration form when I first entered the country; I was lucky I wasn’t turned back by an overzealous official. Having lived most of my life near the U.S.-Canadian border, I always drove to Canada and had never experienced the rigor of flying to the Great White North. At the time, Canadian immigration officials at land border crossings merely asked you a few questions and waived you through without documentation.
Waiting in the airport terminal at the Lufthansa gate was a memorable experience for a novice traveler like me. Passengers waiting in the lounge spoke in German that I couldn’t understand, even though I had studied the language for more than three years. I wondered whether I was the only nonnative German speaker on the flight. The lounge was a small enclave of Germanity in a sea of English and French. Listening to German whetted my appetite for more, a desire I would fulfill soon enough after touching down in Europe.
I waited to board my first transoceanic flight to the Old World, trying to suppress my anxiety. There I was, stuck in limbo between the United States and my new home in Europe; a very lonely place. I did not know what to expect after I arrived in Frankfurt. It would have been easy for me to succumb to my fear of the unknown: the fear of having no one to meet me at the airport; of having to speak a foreign language to get around (of course, lots of Frankfurters–the people of Frankfurt, not hot dogs–spoke English, so that helped); of being alone in a strange new city; of searching for the main train station; and of getting settled in my new home in Austria. No textbook could have taught me what I needed to know en route to ease my trepidation. I was on my own.
Lufthansa finally put me out of my misery when they called passengers to board the flight. The aircraft gangway, where you submit your ticket and passport (and in later years, your carry-on luggage and body) for inspection, can leave you feeling as if you’re heading to the gallows. Add to that a fear of flying, and boarding a flight can be an ordeal. These thoughts crossed my mind as I handed the attendant my travel documents. She waved me through with a rushed smile, and I walked solemnly to the aircraft.
The flight from Vancouver to Frankfurt was as comfortable as a long-haul flight could have been. I enjoyed the experience of flying on my first twin-aisle 747 with its jumbo-sized cabin. I paced the aisles like a curious kid, testing the lavatories, gliding my hands across the smooth overhead storage bins, and checking out the snazzy controls built into the seat. That I felt like a country bumpkin was an understatement; I might as well have been raised in the wilderness the way this incredible feat of engineering dazzled me.
I met my seatmates, a friendly couple from Hannover, Germany named Rita and Ludwig. We spoke in a mixture of German and English, mostly German, which I enjoyed practicing after speaking English for most of my life. Returning from a two-week trip to “Havaii,” Rita and Ludwig recounted their visit to America and told me about their life in Germany. I have never seen anyone head-bang while listening to classical music, but Ludwig, a fortysomething fan of the opera, somehow managed bring out the purest essence of the music by gracefully bobbing his head. I wondered the airline had backmasked the Bach tracks! Rita and I chatted while Ludwig entertained himself. By the end of the trip, we were both ready to muzzle a three-year-old boy who had whined and screamed nonstop for over eight hours. Much to our chagrin, the angelic brat fell asleep during the final thirty minutes of the flight. I wanted to try out the Bill Cosby’s “Jeffrey” routine and wake the child up as we disembarked, but I was much too kind.
A novice traveler and poor college student unaccustomed to enjoying in-flight amenities, I took full advantage of it. I indulged in the “free” beer, wine, mineral water and in-flight entertainment is if I had never been treated to such luxury. There’s nothing like “free” movies and a pair of “free” headphones to excite a young guy. The all-too-familiar dinner was a choice of beef or chicken, salad, bread and rolls, shrimp, and a drink. I chose the chicken and beer. While the meal was forgettable, I enjoyed the beverages. Although I thought these amenities were “complimentary” at the time, I later realized that I had paid more than $1,000 for these bennies when I bought my ticket. At least the beer was wunderschön.
Click here to read the previous installment of Eurasia.