Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"If you haven't cried, your eyes can't be beautiful."

-Sofia Loren

In the first hours of being in another country, one sees the rest of the world as a precious miniature replica of the home land. It must be this way for most Americans: "Would you look at THAT? They have trash cans just like we do! Isn't that divine? The detail is so lifelike! Oh! And how a-DOR-able - they call it Rubbish! Eee! Bathroom signs!"

Making our way through Frankfurt airport, I was struck by a compulsion to go into every single shop and marvel at what they had to offer - even though most of the stores peddled the same Red Bull and Allure magazines sold by airports in the States. I restrained myself. We were in a strange airport and had to make a potentially difficult connection. Giggling over the European packaging on a bag of Chex Mix should not be a priority.

About ten days before our trip, I looked up maps for all the airports we would encounter: Frankfurt, Zurich, Florence. I made notes about the size and potential sand traps. I did this because I hate flying. Airports are not places of quiet reflection and relaxed travel. They are purgatories of anxiety. Anything that can go wrong (a lost passport, a wrong turn on the C concourse, a flight cancellation), most certainly will. Obsessive trouble shooting, even if it turns out to be a placebo, eases my mind.

We rounded the corner into the vast hall of Luftansa ticketing. Mobs of tourists, students, and business travelers swarmed the area. Where do we even go? Dave and I conferred for a second, until we noticed a self check-in kiosk to the side. We tried it. The screen rejected our attempt, and directed us to speak with a live human.

"Dag, " I thought, "I knew it. Now we're going to be in some hellish line and it will take us hours to get to our connection, we'll have some embarrassing language barrier, and everyone in line will hate us because we don't know what the hell we are doin-"

"Over here." Dave pointed to a line-free ticket counter. The man gestured us over.

We handed him our passports, he scanned our tickets and sent us to the security check point (all with perfect English). And that was it. It was probably the most efficient connection I've ever made.

Of course, it was. We were in Germany.

Then I noticed it. Everyone in the airport seemed at ease being there. Look around at LAX or O'Hare and you see throngs of grey faced depressives. In the Frankfurt Airport- and, sure this could be the luster of Luftansa's elegantly designed Blue and Yellow logo talking- everyone acted like they were in Candyland. Happy to be there, no biggie.

What was wrong with those people?

We made it to our gate and I availed myself of the free coffee. Usually, the term "free coffee" is code for "Three Day Old Maxwell House". In this case, it was really good.

To be fair, I was in such an hysterical haze, pretty much everything hit my giddy trigger: Great coffee at the airport!, Geez, how do I flush the toilet in here? Oh! It's this giant hand sized button on the wall!, Look at how beautiful and handsome the flight attendants look with their yellow scarves and smart blue suits!, This is a 1970's Future Fantasia!

Three hours later, we boarded our flight for Zurich.

Did you know that you can take guided tours of the Zurich Airport? You can. I discovered this in my Airport Stalkings.

With this next long layover, we took the opportunity to find some information about the area and change some of my Traveler's Checks* for Euros. We approached the Currency Exchange.

(Tip: Traveler's Checks are pretty worthless in general. They are great to carry as sort of insurance - say you get your bags stolen, at the very least, you can replace the checks right away. But once I cashed out the bulk of them, I never actually used the rest. And if you try to use them as cash some place in another country, they will probably look at you like, "You poor wretch...don't know this shit is useless here?")

Behind the counter was a strawberry blond woman in her mid-forties. She smiled up at us.

"Hallo, Bon jour. Was kann ich für Sie tun?" (Or something like that)

"Hi," I said.

The "Hi" was all she needed. "Okay, yes, what can I help you on?"

I am at turns in awe and embarrassed at how quickly most people we met could switch from one language to the another. While I know a some French - I can read it for context and speak just enough to get directions and make change - it's almost unfathomable the number languages most Europeans speak.

"May I change these here?" I showed her my Traveler's Checks. She furrowed her brow.

"Yes, but the exchange is not going the be of the best for those. You should do it all at once so you don't have a charge for later exchanges." I handed her my bills and she went to work. Her English was excellent, but still a little broken. Because of it, and I don't think this is uncommon, I tended to see her as an innocent.

A line formed behind us. Those damn Travelers Checks were taking forever. She looked up and addressed the line.

"Yes, hello, if you will wait a few minutes here, I will help you with big pleasure."

Once we finished there, we tracked down the information desk to look up options for our ten hour layover the following week. The woman at the desk was ridiculously helpful, loading us down with brochure for the city, numbers to call.

We got to our gate. I purchased coffee from the machine (So good! From a machine! Scrumptious!). Hordes of people gathered around television sets to watch the world cup. In the States, it has become marginally more important because of the US doing so well. But here is nothing that can match the enthusiasm in Europe. Their focus, joy, and intensity at this sport were electrifying.

It was time to board.

This flight wasn't as easy as the first two. We flew through a thunderstorm and I could see arcs of lightening over the black, churning clouds.

Did I mention how fantastic Dave is to travel with? For someone like me, who is terrified of the open sky, simply having someone who will stroke your arm and say it's going to be okay, makes a huge difference. He was a frequent source of calm.

We were offered a snack: a pretzel roll cut in half, sandwiching a giant slice of butter. (Oh, okay, I guess people here just eat wads of butter. They must not know any better, poor dears! Cyoot!) For desert, little chocolate soccer balls (How darling!).

The clouds parted. Below, the landscape had changed, and the city of Florence with its orange rooftops and giant Dome, spread out before us.

A few years ago, The Art Institute presented the works of Edward Hopper, and as the centerpiece, displayed Nighthawks, his most famous painting. No matter the hundreds of times I had seen it online or in printed reproduction, nothing could prepare me for how stirring and rich the original is. How in that instance, I could share in that private moment for Hopper, the second he finished. How he and I had looked at the exact same thing. How I could see his ghost in the brush strokes. Before this moment, Nighthawks and Edward Hopper had been pretend. Made up, distant fantasies. What a joy to discover that they are real, true and alive.

That was what Florence looked like.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Monday, July 19, 2010

"Qui Mi Addormentai..."

"Dave?" I whispered into his ear, "Dave...sweetie...are you screwing with me?" The word screwing was deliberate. We were surrounded by other passengers on the plane and I didn't want to offend anyone by using more provocative language. I have a theory that conservatism spikes on airplanes.

I had been asleep. Or, at least, a hazy imitation of sleep brought on by generic Ambien. My insurance provider dropped Lunesta as an option, but they considered generic Ambien a viable replacement. This is the first time I could tell a substantive difference between the brand-name version and its no-name alternative. With Lunesta (and regular Ambien), there is bit of lead time - a lilting, soothing interlude during which one can talk on the phone or send emails. None of these activities will be recalled in tomorrow's A.M., of course, but at least it offers a period of adjustment. The generic version doesn't waste your time with liltings or pansy interludes. Get into bed first, then take the pill. Generic (or General) Ambien will arrive with his black jack in short order.

This is what I was counting on. Dave and I were in the midst of a seven-hour transatlantic flight. I wanted to be unconscious - spared the in flight viewing of Alvin and The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. We drank our complimentary drinks, ate our complimentary chicken-food thing, and popped the tiny pill.

It worked for Dave.

I, however, was cast into a foggy on-again-off-again waking dream. I dozed, but never found my way to actual sleep.

During one of the intervals of half-slumber, the sound of a distant truck or plow gunning its engine wheedled its way into my head.

Whreeg. (pause) Whreeg. (pause) Whreeg.

My eyes blinked open so I could divine the source of the noise. I looked to my right.

It was Dave, deep in angelic sleep, his mouth agape. He had the hiccups.

Whreeg. (pause) Whreeg. (pause) Whreeg.

I leaned over and whispered, "Honey...honey...wake up..."


Whreeg. (pause) Whreeg. (pause) Whreeg.

I got a little louder:

"Dave. Dave." I poked him on the shoulder. I gave him a gentle shake. Then a not-so-gentle shake.

Whreeg. (pause) Whreeg. (pause) Whreeg.

The tiniest flutter of a smile passed across his face.

Positive he must be pulling my leg (my shakes had graduated to shoves), I leaned in "Dave...sweetie...are you screwing with me?"

The thing was, being sort of half asleep myself, I had no real filter of my own. Who knows how long the passengers around us were subjected to:

"Dave, are you screwing with me? Are you screwing with me, Dave? Dave? Are you? Screwing with me? Are you screwing with me?"

Whreeg. (pause) Whreeg. (pause) Whreeg.

I even reached over and pressed his mouth closed to see if it would stay shut.

Mrurg. (pause) Mrurg. (pause) Mrurg.

It didn't. I started laughing like the village idiot, still compulsively asking, "Are you? Screwing with me? Dave?"

Finally, with an abrupt shudder, Dave's hiccups were gone. I was kind of sad to see them go - not for long, though. General Ambien noticed I had gone AWOL and yanked me back into murky sleep.


We touched down at Frankfurt Airport at around 11:00am

Once we deplaned, Dave and I headed to Passport Control. There I received my first ever stamp in my first ever passport.


I must seem more well traveled than I actually am. Whenever the topic of travel comes up and the question arises "So, where have YOU been?", my answer appears to cause nothing less than shock followed by a hint disappointment. I am exposed as something provincial.

I have never traveled outside of the United States, the sole exception being Canada. Some would protest "Canada counts!" Yes, yes. Of course, Canada counts. It is another country. But aside from the good manners, health care and abundance of Nestle products, the culture feels very similar to our own. What with it being right next door, it's hard to feel so transformed by the experience.

I always longed to travel, but never allowed myself the opportunity. Dave and I had discussed taking a big trip for months, so he contacted his friends Tom and Tracy to see if they'd be interested in traveling with us. The three of them went to Siena and Florence four years ago. Dave has often mentioned how overwhelmed he was by Italy, and he wanted to show me what he had fallen in love with. Tom and Tracy were on board.

As the day approached for our departure, I could barely wrap my mind around the concept that, for the first time in my 36 years, I was heading overseas.

Italy? What on Earth. Isn't Italy a made up place like Narnia or Shangri-La? I've seen pictures, but seriously, it's not like an actual place, is it? Fine. Show me.


The officious young German man stamped my passport and handed it back to me.

I nearly burst into tears right then.

COMING UP! The Swiss will help you exchange your Travelers Checks with "Big Pleasure!"
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