HelloEurope! Part 1: Wherein I embark on the most epic adventure of my life with only 4 hours of sleep

HelloEurope Let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we?

I’ve never considered myself, or my family for that matter, very travel-y. Sure, we’ve done the Disneyland thing a few times, and ventured out-of-state to the wild and distant land known as Oregon. But I’ve never been to Yosemite. Or the Grand Canyon. The one time I went to Vegas was with my dad on a business trip, and it was pretty freaking boring. My family’s “big vacation” every year was to the same small town on the coast – which is my favorite place in the world, mind you, but the only part of the Pacific Ocean I ever saw for the longest time. And this is just typical West Coast stuff. Forget cross country road trips and time zone changes. As a family, we just didn’t go anywhere.

That’s why the summer of 2012 was a pretty big deal for my family. For some reason, as soon as it was announced that London would eventually be hosting the summer Olympics, my dad had it in his mind that we were going. As the years went on and we began to save and daydream more, the plan expanded to include “nearby” places like Rome (a weekend in Paris was on the list at one point but we later opted for the less-stressful Cambridge, which – foreshadow alert – ended up being stressful anyway). My uncle had recently moved to southern Germany as well, so Dad decided to send my brother and me over there two weeks ahead of the rest of the family, because why not? In the year of turning 18, graduating high school, and acquiring a driver’s license, this was supposed to be the best thing that had ever happened me.

And, spoiler alert, it pretty much was.

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Though poor Luna would probably consider it the most tragic thing to ever happen.

Now, I considered London to be the heart of the trip, so that was what I talked about and planned for. The other places seemed cool, but I didn’t know what to expect (and didn’t really feel like researching) so I figured I’d let Germany and Rome surprise me. But in retrospect, I could have really done with some research on Germany. I knew nothing about the country outside of history lessons. The only German word I knew was hallo, and I’m pretty sure a two year old could guess what that means, so it doesn’t count as any level of language proficiency. I didn’t even know what we would be doing the whole time. German things? It was a mystery, and added a level of ambivalence, to be quite honest.

That said, I was still pretty excited to be traveling, and thus barely slept at all the night before. Later, as I would begin to get my feet wet in college and try a whole assortment of new experiences, I would find this to be a pattern with me. First day of school tomorrow? No sleep tonight. Job interview the next day? Not gonna sleep. Whether I’m excited, nervous, or a little of both, the thought that something new is going to happen, something I have no experience with, just sucks all the sleepiness right out of me.

But anyway. No sleep. Airport early in the morning. I felt great. Completely clueless about what was coming, but eager to embrace whatever it was anyway. Alex and I sat around the Fresno Airport Terminal (a stunningly bland name until you look at the initials and burst into a fit of juvenile giggles, which I totally did not do) with Dad for what seemed like forever, only to go through security and then wait around some more. Apparently that’s the thing about airports, if you’ve never been in one. It’s all about waiting. Check in early, and then wait. Go through security, and then wait. Board the plane, and then wait. Land, and then wait. It’s pretty insightful to see how certain people handle their impatient-ness, because let’s be honest here, nobody is perfectly fine with that amount waiting. For example, there are the pacers and the fidgeters. Then there are the snackers, and closely related, the I’m-just-going-to-keep-going-to-the-bathroom-until-it’s-time-ers. You’ll also find the sleepers, the talkers, the gamers, and every once in a while, the complainers. It’s all very fascinating to witness. Maybe that’s why I later ended up being an Anthropology major….

I don’t remember the exact times or anything, but eventually we got to board the plane. It was just a small connecting flight to LAX, where a much longer flight awaited, but memories were still made on that little puddle jumper. Once we took off, I discovered that I loved flying. All the other flights I’d take on this trip would just reinforce my enjoyment. I can’t explain what it is, but I just really, really love flying! The rollercoaster-like thrill of gaining speed and taking off. The occasional turbulence that reminds you of being in the heart of Mother Nature. The perfectly portioned sugar and cream packets they give you to pour into your complementary tea. Mmm. I’m getting warm fuzzies just thinking about it. Of course, this particular flight also provided a beautiful bird’s eye view of California, which if you remember from like an hour ago when you began reading this post, I hadn’t previously seen much of. I’m sure my plane ticket price went toward things like aircraft maintenance and worker salaries, but I’d like to think I really paid for the view.

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Hey look, the Hollywood sign! I wonder what landmarks I’ll see in Europe…

We arrived all too soon at LAX. I remember Dad going over with us the week before how to get from our landing terminal to the international one. Something about an island and a shuttle? It all seemed very confusing, but ended up being incredibly simple. That’s the other thing about airports: they are full of long hallways and signs with big arrows that are really hard to misinterpret. Though it’s foolproof in getting you where you need to go, for someone like me who likes to get a “big picture” look of wherever I am, it’s a little disorienting to blindly follow arrows all the while ignoring all the other hallways and doors and places because if you dare feed your curiosity about them, you’ll get horribly (and probably illegally) lost.

The LA airport involved, you guessed it, more waiting. We couldn’t even go through security and stay at the gate for a while, so we just hung around the terminal. Sparing you the more boring details, we basically just ate at an overpriced Panda Express and browsed through random shops (I bought a discount copy of TRON: Legacy on DVD, because adding an extra, unusable item to my luggage was a smart thing to do, obviously). We were also convinced, for some reason, that we would see someone famous there. LAX is a popular airport so surely a celebrity will be going somewhere international while we’re here, was our line of thinking. It turned out to be very wishful thinking, and this was the closest we got to making it come true:

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A motorcycle racer nobody’s heard of. This will go far in the bragging circles.

After going through security (which, I’d like to briefly mention, is not as bad as everyone likes to believe) and finding our gate, Alex and I discovered that our seats were in completely different parts of the plane from one another. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. My dad, who has more travel experience than the rest of our family combined and then some, somehow overlooked the seating arrangements when booking our tickets. I personally wouldn’t have minded sitting all by myself, but Alex insisted we get it sorted out. Through some sweet-talking, and more waiting, we were able to snag two seats smack in the middle of the plane. No legroom. No window seat. No problem. Even through a long flight, I was happy. We were flying British Airlines, so the flight attendants had accents and wore ascots. Every seat had its own screen, so Alex and I took advantage of this independence by choosing the exact same movie and hitting play at the exact same time. I don’t remember anything else about the flight except that I still couldn’t sleep, and that Alex got a special vegetarian meal that smelled weird.

We landed in Heathrow, and would later rub it in my parents’ faces that we, technically, were the first ones in London. I don’t remember the exact timing anymore, but I do know that a whole day had passed despite having only been in the air for… well, I don’t remember how many anymore, so let’s just go with ten. Ten hours, but it was the next day. Time zones are trippy, man. We followed some more arrows and passed through another security check and did some more waiting, and then we got on our final flight to Stuttgart, Germany. On board with us was a troop of young British teens, part of a school trip it looked like. They screamed practically the whole time. It was very annoying. (And a detail that will become relevant again, so lock it in your memories, folks.)

The view, however, more than made up for it. The biggest thing that struck me about entering Germany was how green it was. Trees everywhere. Even the farms had sprawling grasses and hills. Land in California (especially here in the Central Valley) seems to consist of a few spotty patches of green, surrounded mostly by various shades of brown. We also noticed several solar farms, large areas filled with rows of solar panels. I’d never seen anything like it. Germany would prove to have many more beautiful, novel, and somewhat odd sights see.

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Guess the country by color.

As I (finally) wrap up this introductory post, I would like to point out that these airport exchanges for us went very smoothly. Alex and I were pros at figuring things out calmly and cooperatively. The two of us hadn’t really fought since we were in the single digit age range (though “fighting” really just meant throwing slices of bread at each other and tattling to mom; we were very mature for our age). So there was no drama, no communication issues, no public scenes being made. Just a brother and a sister making their way through the world hand in hand. Not literally, of course, because that would be gross. But figuratively, because that’s sweet and touching and will later help prove a point when we join up with the rest of our family and all hell breaks loose.

PS: You probably didn’t expect to read a whole post about airports, not after being tempted with a such a juicy title. But if you’ve managed to wade through and get to this point, hopefully you’ve seen how the journey can be just as important as the destination. From here on out, though, it’ll mostly be destination stories with just a few journey anecdotes. Promise.

Up next: mouthfuls of letters

Up next: details about the German train system you’ve always wanted to know

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