Sitting in my room, in a classic old 19th-century hotel that was commandeered by Milosevic back in the day, trying to take it all in and get it all down. Others have gone to bed, I’m writing and listening to a saved Spotify playlist on portable Bluetooth speakers. John Mayer’s “I Guess I Just Feel Like,” somehow appropriately thoughtful, hopeful, reflective, melancholy. Traveling long distances to regions you’ve never seen, listening to languages you can’t even begin to approximate, always peels back skin-thick layers covering your senses and pours technicolor into your mind. I should always be this alive.
Over the Atlantic, dark of night, left the sun behind us climbing out of Atlanta and racing to catch it on the other side in London. I should be cross-eyed with jetlag by the time we get to Belgrade tomorrow. Or later today, because tonight is yesterday.
Dinner cleared away and the lights dimmed for sleeping, I’m thinking about the first time I came to Europe, forty-one years ago, in a different century, at a different age, under different circumstances. Tucked away into the epitome of twenty-first century luxury this time, I’m surrounded with push-button convenience, every impulse attended to by lovely women addressing me by name with a smile, a twinkle, and a British accent.
Forty-one years ago puts us in 1978, when we lurching 56-year-olds were 15-year-old high school kids, looking forward to drivers licenses and sophomore year. That July, eight, maybe ten of us from Madison joined a larger group of traveling students on a summer trip with AIFS – the American Institute for Foreign Study (they still exist – check it out). Our families drove us down to O’Hare in Chicago, and from there we met up with a larger group from all over the country at JFK in New York. My parents, Mom especially, were excited along with us, because they had made similar trips some twenty years earlier, in the late fifties, when crossing by ship from New York was still the way you got to Europe. (Transatlantic flying overtook ship traffic to Europe for the first time in 1958.) They thought this would be a seminal moment in our young lives, and of course they were right.
Our crossing that night was aboard an Olympic Airways 707, already outmoded and junky in the late seventies. I remember there were dusty sliding curtains across the windows instead of slide-up shades, and all the air intakes in the cabins were streaked with the dark angles of years of nicotine sucked in. Flying from New York to Rome that night, I don’t even think there was a First Class, just three-by-three rows of excited teenagers and the occasional through passenger on their way to Athens. Flying west to east, against the direction of the sun, was the first time I’d experienced the odd four-hour night as we met the sun coming around the Earth in the other direction. Disoriented and buzzy with fatigue and excitement, our group crowded into two rows of seats to watch a thunderstorm below us fork lightening into the ocean, just as the sun rose. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d seen.
This is all just random musing, but it does have something akin to a point. Once we landed in Rome, jet-lagged in broad daylight when it should have been midnight, as we deplaned down the steps and across the tarmac, we struggled with the awe of comprehending that we were walking the ground of a foreign land across the sea. A good friend of mine looked up into the summer sky and said, “the clouds look the same.” Of course they did, but we who had never been outside our own country realized we’d had no idea what to expect. The simple fact that the sun rose and set and the sky shone and rained was something we hadn’t considered necessary to verify for ourselves.
That’s stuck with me every time I arrive in a new country, and I’ve been fortunate to see countries in Asia, the Middle East, South America, and to live back in Europe in Madrid since that trip. Each time I set first steps in a new country, I’m always reminded of that awed comment from 1978: The clouds look the same; it’s the same air, the same ocean, the same rivers, the same sun. More generally, and much more significant, I think, is that it’s the same people. Just as so many of us know but fewer numbers of us experience, everyone across the planet eats, loves, sleeps, greets you with wonder or timidity, invites you into their lives for a while, and leaves you tattooed inside with the experience of having been touched by another life, foreign and intimately familiar all at once.
We’re about to throttle down and land in London, where I’ve been before, and then connect through to Serbia, which I’ve never even been near. The Balkans. The Former Yugoslavia. It’s exciting, to have a visceral repeat of that same thrill from coming up on a half-century ago. Still so much to see.
Privileged to be seated in the front of a plane on a transcontinental flight, one settles in with one’s pillow and blanket and earbuds and elevated sense of self, stretches out and prepares to be pampered (by today’s standards) for the next four-and-a-half-hours. There are movies to peruse, meals to anticipate, and the promise of the actual ability to stretch out and sleep on a plane.
The last thing one expects, before the boarding door is closed, is a pretentious eight-year-old white girl decked out in double-chins and a rainbow colored handkerchief tied over her head, accompanied by a bear-shaped stuffed animal and a pear-shaped mother. The bear has more personality than the mother. The mother has more personality than sand. She’s white noise. A background character, straight out of central casting.
“Um, hi, is this First Class?” spouts the girl to those of us already seated. “Because we’re supposed to be in First Class.” The head flight attendant, full of home-spun Atlanta-based aw-shucks warmth, expecting a standard-issue little-girl experience, zooms up and says “Well yes it is, sweetheart! This is First Class, and I bet you and your momma are supposed to sit right here in these two front seats right here!”
“Mommy! I was right! This is First Class! I get the window,” she said. Yelled — she yelled. “Thank you SO much!” she yelled to the flight attendant. “That’s all right, darlin’,” said the FA, beginning to suspect she had a live one on her hands. The girl climbed over her mother to stand in the aisle to address those assembled.
“Excuse me,” yelled she, “can I ask you all to close your windows? Because I have very sensitive eyes.” Two, maybe three of Those Assembled fell in line, all wearing a collective expression that might be interpreted to say “you’re kind of a pain in the ass, aren’t you, dear. How much longer do you plan to suck?”
All was back to normal for a while, as we taxied out to the runway. “Okay, Mommy, we’re just about ready to take off! We’re just about ready to take off!!” The mother, best described with words like “spineless” and “mousey” and “gelatinous,” smiled wordlessly into the bulkhead. “BYE, CALIFORNIA! DON’T EVER CHANGE,” screamed the little nightmare. “MOMMY! MOM! ‘BYE, CALIFORNIA!! DON’T EVER CHANGE!!’ MOM!! ‘BYE, CALIFORNIA!!’” Mommy finally leaned in and whispered something quickly, ending the tirade. The girl made an over-exaggerated clownish frowny face, to emphasize how sad she was, then was up on her knees on the seat to display her frowny face to the rest of the cabin, at the same time providing an opportunity to quickly determine that nothing akin to Downs Syndrome was at play here. This isn’t a little handicapped victim. This is a coddled and indulged little fat girl who’s never been told “no,” at least not by Mommy.
We accelerated down the runway, the plane gathering speed as the girl gathered air. “WHEEE!” cried Satan’s mouthpiece. “HERE WE GO, MOMMY! WE’RE TAKING OFF!” The flight attendant got up long enough to insist that the girl sit properly and buckle up, a point that had eluded the mother. Another silent, exaggerated frowny face.
“I’M GOING TO JOURNAL ABOUT MY TRIP TO CALIFORNIA,” she told her mother, and when I say “her mother” I mean “the entire cabin.” My cabin mates began to realize that this might last a while. I began to realize that the little twat would plug a hole just about the size of an airplane window, and began, as we reached altitude, to have what can probably best be described as “decompression fantasies” with Prudence playing her final part as the carcass that saves us all but gives up the ghost in the process.
No need. Not so far, anyway, as darkness descends over New Mexico and Prudence spreads completely across her mother’s lap, sleeping.