Across the Atlantic, Into Where the History Comes From

Posted: October 6, 2011 in Travel

Sept. 8, 5:45 p.m.

After the 12 maddening hours that came prior to my ass being firmly planted in seat 19F on a flight to Munich, I felt I was due for a bit of a break. After all, this was my vacation, and I’d be damned if anything was going to throw it completely off-kilter before I even touched down on foreign shores.

Much to my relief, the Lufthansa flight served a cornucopia of free booze. Excellent, I thought. This could prepare me for anything I’d be forced to deal with for the next eight hours.

Then, the small children sitting in the row next to me began howling. And screaming. And crying.

And it wasn’t just a simple “I’m a baby and I’m uncomfortable so coddle the shit out of me” type of howl, either. It was that putrid snot-gargling shriek that accompanies the cry of babies when they’re really pissed about something. Granted, the headache that can often come whilst flying over the North Atlantic at 36,000 feet even affects a lot of fully-grown adults I know, so it’s probably hell on a baby. That much I know. But this noise was so nerve-wracking and agitating that even the sounds of the Black Dahlia Murder on my MP3 player couldn’t drown them out.

When you have blast beats and savage guitar riffs pounding into your eardrums on an airplane, you usually can’t hear very much in the way of background noise. I know this, because I travel with music on about 80% of the time. But this noise was a different breed of terror.

(The baby, not the music. Though most people would probably ascribe “terror” to The Black Dahlia Murder anyway.)

The unnerving gargling-sob went on for the first 30 minutes of the flight; from takeoff to reaching cruising altitude. It was difficult to not want to yell anything at the parents, but they were doing the best they could and not ignoring their children. Also, they weren’t giving off the impression that no one’s sanity and comfort on the plane mattered, which I appreciated. Hell, it’s a tough gig being a parent, and even though I don’t know this directly, I know enough people who are. I do understand this.

Once the kids finally tired themselves out and fell asleep, I decided I’d try a movie on the in-flight entertainment system. I chose “Source Code” and ended up really liking it — this is a movie that’s truly original, doesn’t pander to any Hollywood bullshit, but was truly overlooked during its run in theaters. Amazing, I thought — I’m actually enjoying a movie on an airplane for a change.

But by the time I’d made a dent in my second drink, the screaming started again. That god-awful gargling. The migraine-inducing wail that made me want to ask for a parachute.

“Where the hell are we?” I asked the Frenchman sitting next to me. “I feel like I’d have a better time skydiving out of here and landing in Halifax or something.”

He chuckled. “I just want this wine to help me with my nap. It’s not the stuff we get in Lyon, but it’s good enough.”

“I’m more of a beer guy myself,” I said, pointing to my Tuborg, an Icelandic beer that I can’t believe I found on a random international flight. “But right now I could use something with a bit more kick.”

I flagged down the flight attendant and got my earlier wish. She brought me a shot of Jagermeister, which I promptly sucked down with extreme prejudice.

We went back to our individual movies for a while, hoping that getting lost in cinematic worlds would ease the discomfort of being trapped next to two snot-gargling hellspawns, but it was only minor relief.

The remaining pattern of the flight was about an hour of silence, and a half-hour of torture. The parents stood up when they could, cradling the kids on their shoulders, and amazingly somehow didn’t employ the use of any chloroform. Not that I could see, anyway.

By the time we touched down in Munich, I was mildly exhausted and definitely disoriented. I had just flown across three time zones in the past eight hours, accelerating my night at warp speed. It was about 9 a.m. on Friday by the time I set foot in Munich International, but it should’ve been around 11 p.m. Seattle time. The jet lag was to be expected, of course, but dealing with it was always a different story. You never know how it’ll affect your brain after such a long journey, especially when you’ve gotten a half-hour of sleep and all you can hear buzzing in your head is the echoing screams of unhappy children. Was I going nuts already?! I hadn’t dismissed the possibility.

Once inside the main terminal, I glanced at the flight board. My quick jaunt up to Copenhagen was on time — likely because it was SAS, and they tend to not fuck up very much. (Are you listening, United?! Take a hint. Your European counterparts slay your face off.)

I wandered around duty-free for a while, listening to conversations in German and trying to remember what this place looked like last time I was here. Then I remembered I never actually went to the Munich airport last time, because we drove to Austria right after enough damage was done in this town.

Ironically, this was a preview of the following week, where I’d be touching down here again from the UK to head off for Oktoberfest. It seemed surreal that my trip was only one day in, and I was already peeking into a week from now. I felt like I was time traveling into some parallel dimension, or living a really lucid dream.

Before I knew it, I was on the flight to Denmark, which was only just over an hour long. Denmark lies just across the water from northern Germany, and because the plane never gets to a normal cruising altitude, you have a pretty decent view of most of Germany along the way. It’s a beautiful country — green, lush and dotted with tiny villages from Munich to Hamburg.

But then you start flying over the Baltic Sea and the scenery begins to dramatically change. You fly over Malmo, Sweden, and for a fleeting moment you think, “ye gods, Copenhagen is even bigger than I thought,” but it’s actually Sweden you’re looking down at. Then the plane shifts its approach, and if you happen to be sitting on the right-hand side of the plane (as I was), you’re treated to a breathtaking view of greater Copenhagen. Originally, I was supposed to have landed there, taken the metro system out to the city center and killed four or five hours, but the boneheaded clusterfuck at Dulles International had long since murdered any hope I had of that.

Fortunately, Copenhagen Airport is quite possibly the most appealing in the world. There are a ridiculous amount of shops, cafes, restaurants and places to sit and check your email. Nothing is dirty — everything appears modern and well-maintained, and the people are happy to help you find your gate. The place is so awesome that is almost works against the Copenhagen tourist industry — those like me, with hopes of seeing the city center, would easily be distracted by the airport and say “screw it, this place is all I need to see.”

By now it was almost easy to forget that my final destination — Glasgow — was still one more plane ride away. After being on three different planes for the past 24 hours, it took a little mental rebooting for me to realize that no, I was not in fact just getting on planes for the next two weeks and staring down at shit. I had a destination ahead, booze to drink and tourists to terrify.

The two-hour flight across the North Sea to Scotland seemed a little strange, because I ended up flying back into the time zone I had just flown through while staring down at Ireland that morning. It didn’t really matter in the end, though, because I had lost track of what goddamn day it was long ago, let alone what the time was. All I knew was “daytime.” Right. That sounded good.

Touching down in Glasgow felt unceremonious. No disrespect to it, of course, but in the mental condition I had sunk to, landing in front of the Taj Mahal would’ve felt unceremonious.

The small group of us on the plane were herded into a small room after disembarking. There was no jetway; there was only a set of stairs coming off the plane that led directly to the runway. This is now an extreme no-no in America, as far as my traveling has told me in the past 10 years, but Europeans don’t seem to mind it.

When we were led into the small room at the edge of the terminal, I thought for a second that something had gone wrong. We were instructed to stay put by a fat woman in a reflective vest, and that she’d be back in a moment. Where did we land? I thought. Was this Cleveland? Botswana? Abu Dabi? Tierra del Fuego? My brain was still trying to process the fact that I was now on the opposite side of the world. Did it even matter?

The fat woman came back in and jolted me out of my thoughts. I must’ve looked more like a zombie backpacker than anything else, because she smiled knowingly when she looked at me.

“Long day?” she asked in a thick Scottish accent.

“Something like that,” I said warily. “Where am I again?” I cracked a half-smile.

She almost took me seriously, but then laughed hesitantly. “Follow me, everyone,” she said to the group of equally-wary travelers.

Apparently it was around 2 p.m. I went out to the baggage claim to find my hulking backpack that I managed to cram all kinds of crap into, and wandered off in the general direction of the exit.

I knew the name of my hotel, which was hopefully enough, because there was not a hint of anything resembling wi-fi in this airport, and my phone wasn’t going to cooperate until I put a UK SIM card into it. I figured I could just grab a cab and forgo the added ordeal of getting a bus or shuttle. Cabs are for the travel-wary who have a destination; buses are for tourists who want to look at shit and take their time.

I’d get to that point soon enough, no doubt, but Step One to this equation was setting up base camp at the ETAP Hotel in Glasgow. I found a taxi stand and told them where I was headed, and they happily accepted my request and had me run my card.

The machine beeped defiantly when I swiped my Bank of America debit card through it, and no transaction could be completed. Great, I thought. This is exactly the kind of trouble I was hoping to get myself into.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

“Hmm,” the cashier said. “Apparently we can’t take your card because it doesn’t have a chip inside of it,” she said. She took her wallet out and showed me hers. “Our machines here process cards using that little chip you see there,” she said, pointing to it on her Royal Bank of Scotland card.

I’d never seen whatever the hell these things were, but I didn’t care at this point. “Is there a way you can just input the card manually?”

“Yes, but normally you’d have to call your bank to let them know you’re traveling,” she said.

I grinned sheepishly as the thought dawned on me that JUST MAYBE it would’ve been a good idea to have done that before I left the country, but no, that would’ve made too much sense. I told her I’d be back after I phoned B of A and explained to them what was going on, and that no insane Scottish terrorists had hijacked my credit card to Glasgow.

Naturally, I didn’t have any British pounds on me, and that included change, so a pay phone wasn’t an option. My cell phone was still refusing to cooperate while T-Mobile tried to figure out where the fuck I had just ventured off to (hell, to be fair, it took me a minute myself after getting off the plane), so I decided to try an ATM.

All I found out with that option was the message “This transaction is not possible at this time” was quickly increasing its appearances in my life.

Exasperated, I went back to the taxi stand and asked if they could still run my card manually. Much to my relief, they could, and they even led my zombified ass outside to where a cab was waiting. The driver was easily the friendliest, most coherent person I’d met in the past eight hours.

“Where ya from, mate?!” he asked, genuinely enthusiastic at meeting an American.

“Seattle,” I said. “Though right now it seems hard to remember that.”

He laughed heartily. “Been flyin’ for a while then, have ya?”

“Since 8 a.m. Seattle time,” I said. “And 30 minutes of sleep since then, but hell with it, why quit now?!”

I realized then that I was getting a second wind by just conversing with this guy. I wondered if this was the effect all Scottish people had.

“Right!” he said, peering into the rear-view mirror as we zipped along the main motorway from the airport to what appeared to be central Glasgow. “‘Ey, so you’re from Kurt Cobain country, eh?”

“That’s right,” I said. “And coffee, and rain, but that’s really all Americans know about us.”

We talked for a while about Americans, the Scottish, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and though the driver said he was from here in Glasgow, he couldn’t recommend seeing Edinburgh enough.

“It’s a very special place in the world,” he said. “Ya got to see it with yer own eyes, lad.”

“It’s next on the list, after we wreak enough havoc on this town,” I replied. “Can’t wait to see it.”

He turned around at a red light to make eye contact. “This country is a great place, and I can tell you’re going to enjoy it,” he smiled.

Did he know something I didn’t know?! That was weird, I thought. But judging by his facial expression, I could tell he was just being sincere — something Americans tend to not do very well. That was probably why I thought it was strange at first.

We got to my hotel and he helped me with my bags out of the trunk. I thanked him and he wished me a great trip, and I carried my belongings with me into the elevator to reception.

Once checked in, I took the most amazing shower in the history of showers, stared out the window at the impressive view before me, and let the realization kick in:

This was the trip I’d been waiting for, and I was in the driver’s seat with my foot on the accelerator.

I grinned. Yes, I thought, the arduous journey of getting here was already worth it.

  1. Hazel says:

    Yep, we even tackle the bank card issues going up to Canada. You can use American cards but I think you can only use credit, no debit. Something like that.

    What you said about the sincerity of the Scottish man was very apt. Whenever I manage to make it to Gencon, I get to meet up with the Irish, Scottish and UK friends from the card game we play. They’re so naturally warm, and that’s something Americans are less good at, and seemingly Northerners are less good at than Southerners. Probably why I come off as overly approachable to some. 😛

    Great account of the start of your trip! That said, while I enjoy reading this, I enjoyed the feel of you talking about it with all of us at the bar the other night. It had that oral tradition feeling to it. You are quite the bard. 🙂

  2. nerdmobile says:

    More than once I’ve been let off on the tarmac in Vegas. I’m pretty sure it’s happened elsewhere, too.

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