The first time I flew overseas is an experience I will never forget. It was a day filled with all kinds of emotion. This whole passport thing? Totally new to me. Foreign languages? I knew none. All I had was some really heavy bags, a blank passport and enough courage to get on the plane. Yet it was the start of something big. Here’s the story:
“Good evening and welcome to flight US90 to London Heathrow. We hope you have a pleasant flight.” The woman’s voice came over the speaker in a thick English accent. I took a last look at American soil as the plane flew away from Chicago. Behind it, the skyscrapers looked like little toys with the glowing light of the setting sun shining on one side of them, growing shadows on the other. In front of the plane, the stars began to shine. Off we flew, as if into space. On the other end of the seven-hour flight, a new world awaited.
I grabbed a copy of the newspaper. The headline read: “Neil Armstrong, First Man on Moon, Dies at 82” The article began with a quote from one of the most memorable moments in humanity: “This is one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.” Ironic, I thought, as I looked out into space, toward a new frontier in my life.
Three movies later, the sun was rising. But it wasn’t a new day yet! That’s the moment I realized jet lag was going to be a bitch. I just gazed out at the clouds, half awake. After endless ocean, a piece of green and brown land emerged. “Land ho!” I exclaimed under my breath, feeling like an explorer discovering a new world. Soon we were over a city and the cars were driving on the left side of the road. Already the world was different.
During the three-hour layover at Heathrow I got my first experience with foreign money exchange. Coming from the dollar into the British pound meant the money in my pocket lost value. I decided not to buy much.
In the terminal I met a girl heading to Paris. We had a quick breakfast and shared travel stories. We exchanged Facebook info and planned to meet in Paris when I got there. Then as quickly as we came together, we parted ways. The flight to Madrid awaited.
The cultural reality got deeper when I buckled my seatbelt on that plane. This time when they announced the flight, I couldn’t understand what they were saying. It was in Spanish. Of course, after the captain spoke in Spanish, he repeated in English, but the people of Madrid may not be so inclined, I thought. Well, that will be a good opportunity to learn I suppose. At that point, I stopped listening and just zoned out. My body thought it was 4 am, but the clock said 11 am and I still had a whole day ahead of me. I was exhausted and feeling a bit anxious and uncomfortable.
My concern at this point was being denied entry at Madrid Barajas airport. My passport was brand-new and the people at O’Hare airport in Chicago warned me that I may be denied entry because I had no return ticket, or proof I was leaving the Schengen area (the European free-travel zone). I’d made it through Heathrow, but would I make it through Barajas and onto the streets of Madrid?
Finally, I dozed off to a half sleep—the only kind of sleep one can get in economy class.
When I woke, probably only a half an hour later, we were flying parallel to the Atlantic Ocean, over a desert it seemed. Or was I dreaming? It had to be France, but it was hard to tell. When the plane began getting into the foothills of the Pyrenees I knew where we were: The border of Spain. Those were the mountains I would be walking over a week from that day. Seeing them from above was amazing.
When that plane landed, I had that thought everyone gets when a plane packed with people gets to its destination “the second that fasten seatbelt sign goes off, get your bags and get as close to the door as possible.” Usually I just chill and wait until people are moving freely in the aisles next to me, but this time I was in the very last window seat in the plane, the furthest from the door. This was not the time to be Mr. nice guy. I was going to get off of the plane as soon as possible. It felt claustrophobic and it didn’t help that as soon as I got off I had to deal with this immigration issue.
I squeezed into the aisle without bashing anyone with my carry-on. Luckily, the passengers moved quickly and soon we are all out the door. Having been in planes and airports for 15 hours, I approach customs like a zombie wanting entrance to a theme park. Suddenly, all the other travelers are gone. It’s just me walking to a Spanish guy behind the desk. He stares at me as I approach. I take a deep breath. “Dude, Jesse, chill. You aren’t smuggling drugs here. You are going on a spiritual pilgrimage.” I find some relief in the fact that the worst they could do is make me buy a flight out of Europe within 90 days.
I hand the man my passport. He looks at it, then at me, studying my face and the face in the passport. He flips through the pages looking for stamps, but finds none. “Is this a new passport?” he asks. “Yes, it is” I reply. “What are you doing in Spain?” I told him I was going to walk the Camino de Santiago, visit Germany and stay with a friend in Amsterdam. “Come on, man, just let me in,” I thought. The seconds seemed like minutes. He looked at me with a kind of suspicious look, then stamped the passport and handed it to me. I kept a straight face, but my mind was smiling ear to ear. It was like I had seen this scene in a dozen movies before or something. I passed the gate and went to get my pack. I made it to the new… old world.