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.