Today marks one week after the day after the first day I started traveling home to Kansas from Italy.
I would like to share with you my voyage back to the motherland for three reasons: first, to celebrate this phenomenal achievement of a day. Second, because I have been physically in Kansas for 5 days now, and while it’s been…adjectives…to be back, I’m already restless. Like, itchy. I need to move, I need to go somewhere, I need to hear different languages and I want to look at the jam shelf in the supermarket and not quasi-explode by how many options there are. All I want is purple jam, damn it. There is literally nothing that gets me out of my head and calms me down quite like writing.
I hope you appreciated the pun subconsciously layered in that last sentence. Three points for identifying it correctly.
Thirdly, the journey home makes for a darn good story. I think you will be sufficiently entertained.
If you consider yourself an empathetic person, prepare for something akin to boating around the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in a dingy, the monster waves around you threatening to capsize your entire system at any moment.
We begin our narrative at 3:30pm on Wednesday, August 2 in Perugia, Italy. Pretty Perugia, situated in the rolling hills of Umbria, somewhere in between Florence and Rome.
Featuring: Josie, slightly sticky from the massive heat of the Italian summer and from lugging her pack across hills and mountains to the taxi stand.
I had been in Umbria (primarily Assisi) since July 1st, teaching English, drinking espresso in the mountains, and attempting to thwart the GABILLIONS of flies that plague the south during the summer.
Wednesday. I’d been in Perugia for a few days, traveling around with a good pal from the U.K. We said our farewells and I chucked my pack in the trunk of a fuel-efficient taxi. Off we go, whisking away to the random parking lot way outside of town that Flixbus decides is a decent enough place for pick up.
The temperature is that of the sun, friends. I’m wearing pants–curses–and my favorite black traveling top. I call it my “non commitment shirt”, because it’s flowy fabric doesn’t seem to stick to my body no matter how sweaty I am. This top plays a fun role in the story, so pay attention.
I’m sitting underneath an olive tree, pleasantly fanning myself with my paper ticket fast enough to cool myself down and also defeat the flies. A woman–middle-aged, round in the middle, very tan, energetic–comes up to me:
“Questo è il posto dove verrà flixbus?”
I nod, successfully recognizing only the word “flixbus”. At this point in time, I pat myself on the back for my italian conversational ability.
“Something something something?”
I don’t get this one.
This unleashes an excited giggle and an explosion of strongly-accented English. The woman is a former English teacher, thrilled beyond my personal belief to have a chance to update her vocab. I think the only words I said to her where the first ones in Italian, and then “wonderful to meet you” concluding our time together, because this chick was eager.
She tells me her life story while we wait, and when the big green flying machine pulls up we exchange some cheek-wise kisses and bid each other a wholesome farewell.
Not even an hour into traveling and I’ve made a friend. I do some mental heel-clicks, trying to savor the feeling of being somewhat of a commodity in a foreign country that will soon disperse when I get back to Kansas.
Wednesday, August 2: 6:00pm: Rome.
The bus gets to Rome, the sketchy ghetto of all places. I clamber out with my pack and duck into a snack bar for a sandwich and some coffee while I wait for my connection onwards. The two hours are spent by alternately reading some Terry Pratchett and watching Justin Bieber music videos with the bartender.
Wednesday, August 2: 8:00pm: to Slovenia.
I scale the steps into a second flixbus, this one destined for Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia. I choose my seat wisely: perfect distance from the bathroom, comfortable enough to produce a restful night’s sleep, eastside of the bus for a good sunrise viewing.
The bus is relatively empty which is always good: taking a night bus is one thing, but taking a night bus when you are packed like a peanut with a bunch of slightly sweaty strangers is another.
I’m a floppy sleeper.
I begin well, you know, upright and normal; good sleeping-on-public-transportation form with chin-over-heart-over-pelvis. But then as I trance into deeper stages of sleep, I begin to flop. Flop to the left, jerk myself back to stage one sleep. Flop to the right, jerk myself back to stage one sleep. Flop again, back and forth.
Sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t the inspiration for the “whip my hair back and forth” music video.
A half hour into the haul we make a stop, and a tall, gangly gent climbs on board, over-eager with his thumbs hooking around the straps of his backpack. We make brief eye contact: this is bad.
There are certain tactics you have to learn to if you want a successful, smooth long-long-soverylonghowmuchlonger bus ride: you can be friendly to the other passengers–should be friendly, they’re human beings after all–but not too friendly. You’ve got to be just the riiiiight amount of unapproachable to deter anyone from sitting next to you.
At the time of above-mentioned eye contact with Gangly Gent, I was nodding along to some Nina Simone. Gangly Gent gets the idea that my nods and eye contact were to be interpreted as, “come join! Let’s be friends forever!”
He makes his way up the aisle, locking eyes with the seat next to me, and the entire time my eyes are slowly squinting and my eyebrows are slowly knitting in a last effort to subconsciously deter deter DETER!
Finally he gets close enough and my facial features relax into the societally-appropriate “you’re a human, I’m a human” expression. He sits next to me, we shake hands, I attempt to subconsciously warn him of my sleep-flop disorder.
Fast forward about four hours: it’s midnight and I awake with a start, my head very INAPPROPRIATELY making a home against his upper arm.
Damn the sleep flop!
Blissfully, he’s passed out. Or dead. His neck bent at a bizarre angle, head back, mouth cavernously open. His breathing sounds like an asthmatic cat attempting to purr.
I lightly wind my head back to the center, softly wiping off the little drool spots that have blossomed on his sleeve. And we fast forward about four more hours:
It’s three in the morning and I awake with a start, my head AGAIN nuzzling against his arm. Sleep flop! I panic and check his face: nope, still dead. Crank crank crank, wipe wipe wipe–leave no trace, Josie, just like the woods–and we’re good to go.
Thursday, August 4: 6:30am: in Ljublijana.
I don’t even bend my legs as I hobble off the bus, the joints in a state of extreme stiff. I’ve got two hours to kill before boarding the train to Maribor, and these are spent tucked into the train station cafe holding on for dear life to a paper cup of espresso.
I’m staring into blank space, much like my zombie compadres seated around me, when all of a sudden! Guess who walks up to me!
It’s classmate-from-class-whose-name-I-dont-recall! I do remember he’s a Ljublijanan local and briefly wonder why he’s at the tiny train station cafe, then briefly wonder if I’m awake or sleeping on the bus still, and why are there people around me again?
We have a nice jolly chat–none of which I can now remember, including his name and purpose–and he departs. This encounter makes me unnecessarily happy. Like really really happy, because it makes me feel like somehow I belong here. I went from being little baby itty Kansas Josie with no European contacts to suddenly I can be in a random European country and bump into someone I recognize!
Thursday, August 4: 8:30am: to Maribor.
I board the train destined to Maribor, the little beautiful town situated on the border of Slovenia and Austria. The Slovenian countryside is delightfully beautiful to pass through by train, perhaps one of the most beautiful countrysides in lower Europe.
Do people call that part of Europe “lower-Europe?” Not sure. Must google that later.
I’ve had the immense fortune to have taken the train through the Slovenian countryside three times prior to this jaunt, and had been looking forward to rushing again past cottages and hills.
So naturally I fall asleep the entire two hours.
Thursday, August 4: 10:30am: to Graz
Mini-pause taken at the Maribor train station as I wait to change for the Graz-bound train. My little body is bouncing back in forth as it approaches, because I am so excited to be going back to Graz, even just for a few hours. It’s only been a month since I’ve been in Graz, and I’ve missed it. A lot a lot.
I get to Graz around 11:30, nab a banana and peanut butter from Spar–I pay for it of course–and walk back home.
No. Man, get out of that thinking.
I walk back to my former home, the beautiful pre-lived in Wienerstrasse dorms. I sneakily creep to the laundry room, change out of non-commitment top and into my running gear. I tuck my pack behind a random shopping cart, and hit the trails.
Wooooooo! Flying free! Running alongside the Mur brings a rush of beautiful nostalgia, passing familiar trees, saying hello to familiar benches, getting weird looks from the other runners.
It’s hot. Heat of the day hot.
I finish the run and shuffle down to the banks of the Mur, sweaty sweaty sweaty but happy. I chuck my watch and rings and shoes to the side and jump in the river, the cold water soothing my pulsing body and cooling me down. I duck under the water playfully, no cares no worries. No one can see me, this is safe zone. Graz is safe-zone.
I spend the next hour dozing off on a rock, waking up to crispy clothing and bizarre tan lines. I bounce back to the Wienerstrasse dorms, change back into non-commitment top, and then go upstairs to meet CECA AND MARKUS!
We collide into firm hugs and I drop my pack off again at Ceca’s. We hop onto bikes and peddle down to the Hauptplatz.
It just so happened that my time back in Graz aligned with a street festival, random variety acts free of charge and out in the open taking place randomly throughout the city. Open-mouthed we watch an act of acrobatic-piano players, dancing on top of four hastily-stacked pianos.
Suddenly, who taps on my shoulder but MATTIAS AND LUKAS! Yay yay yay, friendships! The act ends and Markus, Ceca, Matthias and I head over to the Kunsthaus Cafe for spritzers and life chats.
We spend the next hour and a half in the above manner, then pause to watch a clown. More spritzers, further life conversations. Refreshing.
It’s now 9 o’clock, and as wir haben Hunger, we go grab take-out noodles and kebab and jaunt over to the river again. We spread out our catch on the rocks by the shore and bathe in some more friendship.
After our dinner we head back into the city center to Flann O’Briens and share some cider together in the courtyard, listening to the live music and cracking ourselves up.
The clock strikes midnight, and through yawns and stretches we depart and head back to Wienerstrasse.
This part is sad.
I say a final–actual final–goodbye to Markus and Mattias. Spy Vedad, my flatmate–former flatmate–and give him a big hug, too. It’s sad. I don’t want to add more adjectives.
Ceca and I go back to her flat and I shower, scrubbing the stiff bus-night-of-sleep and crusty Mur waters off my skin. Repack, gather my things. Finally, with extreme reluctance, we leave her flat and Ceca helps me carry my two bags to the street to catch a cab to my next flixbus location.
Markus, Mattias, Vedad, Dardan, Dardan’s girlfriend, Nordin–even you, Irfan–Ceca. Manfred! Max, Taher! Zsofia, Zoli, Zibi, Senka, Thomas, Alexander. Lindsey, Aubrey, Dan, Joe, Laura, Lukas, Katie. Ahh. I know is annoying to name so many people in a list, but these people that I was now peeling away from–either physically or metaphorically–mean so much to me.
And there are so many others who have filled my year with smiles and giggles and epic adventures and now pain because as I was being carted away in the stupid taxi cab my heart was tearing into shards and pieces.
Friday, August 5: 2:20am: to the Vienna airport.
I hop the flixbus and my oozing sadness serves to deter any European body from even thinking of sitting next to me.
Sleep ensues. I wake up, fresh and bouncy–lies–two and a half hours later and stumble down the steps. I find a quiet corner in the Vienna airport next to a kid with lungs the size and velocity of a repeatedly exploding volcano and attempt a tuck-in for an hour and half of doze before checking in my luggage.
Friday, August 5: 9:00am: to Cologne.
I’m seated on the plane now, and the long-haired man sitting next to me has elbows that seem to be stuck in the second stage of the chicken dance, but all is well because soon I once more become dead to the world and slump fully against the window of the plane.
I don’t remember the take off, nor do I recall anything more than the jolt after landing. I do remember being ravenous, though, upon awaking and my body being confused on what is even going on.
I follow Sassy Locks down the steps of the plane and we all jam into small airport shuttles which take us to the terminals for connections. I’m awake now; the many bodies pressing against me keep me upright and send signals to be alert to my brain.
I’ve got three hours to kill before the long-haul to Miami, so I grab a massively overpriced salad and snuggle into the black leather seats at the gate. It’s a satisfying brunch situation, but like I mentioned before, I was quite quite hungry.
Upon the demolition of my salad, I considered going in search of more sustenance. But the price of food in airports has always deterred me, and the effort of leaving my comfy semi-fetal perch upon the armless seats was too much to handle.
They’ll feed you on the plane, little Giblett, I say to my body, patting myself on the stomach.
Friday, August 5: 2:00pm: to Miami.
Well, joke was on me.
Perhaps the airline company was attempting to do its passengers a favor by adjusting us to the time change. What was a 2pm-midnight:thirty flight for a European was an 8am-6pm flight for an American, and I guess lunch is usually lighter than dinner.
Perhaps the flight I had stumbled upon was one of those fat-camp-on-a-plane flights which I am not convinced don’t exist. Our promised “one hot” meal consisted of a solitary package of Belvita breakfast crackers given graciously at 10pm Euro time and a routine amount of water.
So I missed the BYOF memo, and consequently the flight was spent in random fitful naps and attempts to distract myself from my angsty teenaged stomach with more Terry Pratchett.
There also weren’t any movies on the flight, which is fine–because surprisingly one can exist without consistent entertainment–but it was a further misunderstanding on my part. I had been looking forward the time travel that seems to happen when you lose yourself in a good film. And as I had been living in a box the past year, I was curious what movies had been out while I was gone.
However, it proved a good excuse to finish a book, and the boy whose-parents-only-gave-him-Velcro-shoes-as-a-kid seated next to me provided some light aerobic exercise as I consistently dodged his wandering elbows.
What is it with elbows these days? They’ve either developed abandonment issues or have grown in diameter. Back in my day those puppies were slender.
Finally the plane lands in Miami. At this point, life is so confusing it’s now become just whatever. I’m hungry, still, have been for what seems like my entire life, and it’s also sunny and bright when it should be midnight.
My angsty teenaged organs have zero chill.
It takes about forty minutes to get past customs and card-checking and stamping and I’m confused about why flying into any American airport is so insanely complicated. Nothing is labeled, there are no signs anywhere, only stern-faced guards saying “just keep going” over and over again. Who knows why, but I follow the crowd and find myself thankfully at the baggage claim.
I grab my big black suitcase, and backpacked up I follow a big gaggle of people.
Suddenly they split off along a corridor, and an employee and woman-who-only-drives-fuel-efficient-cars pulls me aside and scans the tag on my suitcase.
“You go that way, number one”.
I have zero idea of what she is talking about, having no recollection of seeing any kind of number. But I follow her super vague directions and come across this tiny itty sign reading, “Aisle one: missed connection”.
There is a bored looking man leaning against the wall, and as I approach he says with pity:
“Aw, so you missed your flight?”
“No,” I say slowly, looking around me.
“Why are you here, then?”
“I don’t know, really. That woman back there told me to go here.”
“Well, that’s probably because you missed your flight.”
“But I really didn’t–”
“What time was your flight?”
“It’s at 5:45 tomorrow morning!”
“Oh, so you didn’t miss your flight.”
“In that case, just keep on going.”
I follow his finger with my eyes and it’s pointing down a corridor consistently marked with “missed connection” signs. I raise an eyebrow, and ask:
“But I didn’t miss my flight?”
He chuckles, which annoys me, and replies, “I know. Just follow it.”
People are telling me where to go but they aren’t telling me why I’m going there or what I need to do. There are no signs or indicators of direction, and anything logical seems to have been thrown out with the 1970’s remodeled carpet. I can’t imagine how Germans feel being in the Miami airport, because absolutely nothing is logical.
I follow the corridor until I get to a white door marked “crew exit”. I pause, uncertain, and the woman employee standing next to the door nods her head and mutters, “just keep going.”
I exit the door and there is a kiosk, randomly standing alone in the middle of this wide room marked “American Airlines check in”. I go to it, because my flight to Dallas the next morning was on American Airlines, and if I could check everything now and get my boarding pass it would allot some extra sleep.
I print my boarding tickets, and then a woman comes up to me and tells me to go stand in this line in front of what looks like a baggage check in, no questions asked. I don’t know why, but she’s wearing a nametag and I’ve never had a good reason to not trust a “Harriet” before, so I comply.
Now I’m standing in the long line, my stomach audible, for forty-seven minutes, when another woman comes up to me and asks,
“Have you missed your connection?”
“No. I. Have. Not.”
What is it with these people?!
“Well, what are you doing here? This line is for people who need to check in bags for missed connections.”
All I want in life is to be home, showered and wrapped in a duvet, spooning a jar of Jif’s natural peanut butter.
She tells me to keep walking down the terminal until I get to the number three, and I can check in my bags for a future flight there. Guys, there are no numbers anywhere as I’m lugging my heavy backpack and heavy suitcase down the terminal. After twenty minutes I happen to glance up to my right and see a teeeeensy tiny little “3” above the exit door, and to my right is a random line of people queuing in no logical order.
It is now 8:30pm Miami time which equates to 2:30am Josie time. I haven’t eaten anything except the crackers and water since 11am and the past two nights have been spent on a bus. I’m confused, weary, angsty.
After another thirty minutes I reach the head of the que, and a woman behind the desk gestures me forward.
I hand her my boarding pass and passport. She scans it and glances down at my black suitcase. “Have you checked it in?”
What. I’m assuming that’s why I’ve been standing in this line for the past half hour, to check it in. I tell her as much, and she shakes her head saying that I’ve got to check in my bags at another random kiosk duh and I can only do that three hours before my flight. Then come back.
She asks what time my flight is, perhaps forgetting that my boarding pass is clutched in her tiny unhelpful fist, and I tell her 5:45. She nods, oh yes, she tells me. They will open the kiosks and the baggage check in desk at three am, plenty of time for my flight.
Fine, cool. Whatever. I find a corner that looks quiet and less dirty and that most importantly had a Starbucks about fifty yards south. Its overpriced, but I’m too hungry to be sad. I get a bagel, oatmeal, and a green Naked smoothie and go back to my corner.
Since I haven’t checked my black suitcase yet, I pull out my blue duvet that I had shoved into it, and wrap myself into fetal position, placing my suitcase as a barrier between me and the rest of the world. It’s 3:30am Josie time, and I get to be horizontal for a change.
Saturday, August 5: 5:45am to Dallas.
It’s actually a good night’s sleep, and I wake feeling rested at 2:50am Miami time (8:50am Josie time). I lug my stuff to the kiosk and find that when the woman said “we open at 3am” she really meant “4:15”. That’s a very different time.
I wait for ages, I don’t know how far away my gate is, and when I finally get up to the counter with the appropriate “checked in tags” that I had to pay for, I’ve got forty minutes before my gate closes.
The employee behind the counter and man-who-does-not-retain-body-fat weighs my bag as slowly as he can, and announces in an annoying southern drawl:
“Your bag is overweight. You have to move seven pounds.”
What? It was fine coming to here from a different continent, surely it can make it to Kansas. I have zero room to move things easily, and most pressingly I have zero time to do any of this. I’ve still got to go through security and find my gate. I tell him such, and he raises his plucked eyebrows and says sassily,
“Well then, that’s going to be ah handred dallahs.”
I have no choice.
As I hand him my credit card, I begin to cry, because this pushes me over an edge. It’s like the entire Miami airport was set up to make me fail. I just wanted to be home, I just wanted things to make sense.
Spiteful Skinny Man doesn’t care about my tears and sends my suitcase down the little conveyer belt. I take off, backpack snug on my shoulders, now openly bawling as I jog to the direction of my gate.
Welcome back to America, where it’s money über alles.
I make it through security and to my gate seven minutes before the gate closes. I board the plane next to Gigantor Elbows, the biggest of the whole trip, and as I lean my head against the window my stupid stomach growls and I realize that I am hungry again, damn it!
Saturday, August 5: 9:00am US time: to Kansas City.
While waiting for an hour in the Dallas airport, I eat hummus and pretzels and get to hear a lovely conversation featuring a woman complaining about how her iPad is at storage capacity and her companion repeating animatedly, “that really sucks, Doris.”
Finally I board the plane destined towards Kansas City. I doze, trying to make it go by faster.
My reunion with my parents is genuine and sweet, we embrace and I am so unbelievably happy to not be flying anymore.
Then we get to the car and I remember we have to drive two hours home to Manhattan.
Saturday, August 5: 11:00am: to Manhattan.
We get home and I am reunited with both Makenzie and Jif.
Peace and Blessings,