Eurasia: Vancouver to Frankfurt


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.

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Eurasia: Leaving America


This is the first 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.

Those who travel overseas know how challenging it can be. Not only do you have to do a gazillion things to get ready for your trip, but you also have to prepare yourself psychologically for the paradigm shift that happens whenever you immerse yourself in a new and different culture. It can be emotionally draining to move overseas and be away from home. This is particularly true when you travel abroad for the first time. Sometimes it’s downright frightening to leave behind familiar surroundings, family, and friends for a strange new place where you know hardly anyone.

I faced these challenges and more when I moved overseas for the first time in 1994. I lived in Graz, Austria as an exchange student from February to June; toured Western Europe in March and April; and visited Eastern Europe, the Russian Federation, and the People’s Republic of China in July and August. An International Studies (IS) major, I enjoyed traveling and learning about foreign cultures, although my international experience outside the United States at that time was limited to brief trips to Canada and Mexico. I assumed that as a fourth-year IS student I was prepared to live abroad; however, I soon realized that academic exercises were no substitute for firsthand experience.

My journey from the United States to Graz was filled with fun, excitement, pain, and frustration. As a proverbially starving college student, I decided that the most economical way to get to Austria’s second largest city was to fly to Frankfurt, Germany, and then take the train to Graz. A rail pass cost at that time cost much less than paying for a connecting flight to Graz, so it seemed logical in theory. In reality, it would have been much less of a headache to fly.

I kicked off my trip from my then-home in Idaho. Driving home from college in February 1994, I stashed most of my belongings at my parents’ house and stuffed the rest of my life into one suitcase and two large duffle bags. These were my constant and burdensome companions all the way to Graz.

My parents drove me to the airport early on a Sunday morning. After a fond farewell and a cheerful reminder that I would finish school when I returned home, I hugged them goodbye and boarded a small puddle-jumper-of-a-plane bound for Seattle. I waited four long hours in Sea-Tac International Airport for my connecting flight. In the days before electronic gadgets like media players and ultra-portable laptops, I had few options to entertain myself and spent the first of many monotonous hours sitting idle in transit.

The flight from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. was on an even smaller commuter jet. I chanted prayers for a safe journey. The propeller-driven plane had only three seats per aisle, but the 45-minute flight was so short that I did not have time to fear for my life. It’s still the smallest aircraft I have ever flown overseas, even though I’ve logged hundreds of thousands of miles since then. There’s a small comfort in flying in a large commercial airplane, in spite of the fact that large planes can crash as fatally as small ones. Perhaps it’s the added turbulence you feel when you’re flying in a prop plane.