Every time I travel I think about the other times I’ve traveled. I also think in particular about airports and all the ones I’ve visited over the years.
Of course I’m always reminded of the first flight I ever took in my entire life which is in fact the first memory I have of my entire life. My mom and I boarded a plane from Warsaw bound for New York and subsequently Chicago where my father was at the time. It was my mother’s first time on an airplane and her first time out of Poland. The whole thing was packed with anxiety. My mother had to wait for ages to be given a passport to even leave. We had our passport together then. I don’t even think they do that anymore. My mother thought they would invalidate our tickets at any moment. The political situation in Poland was awful at the time. My mother was told she wouldn’t be allowed to leave the country with her child, to leave me with my grandmother. To say she was worried was an understatement.
I was a little kid so I don’t remember any of this. My mother told me I told my grandfather that I’d see him on Thursday, which had made my grandfather cry. We were eventually reunited with my father. We were supposed to stay in the United States for two years and go back to Poland but that obviously didn’t end up happening.
After that there were a lot of memorable airports. The first one that comes to mind is our return to Poland seven years after we left. We landed in Warsaw to steps being attached to the airplane and an armed soldier with a dog greeting us. The airport was sort of gray and depressing looking. We got off the plane to be greeted by seemingly our entire family including my grandmother who kissed me on the cheek when I arrived. I didn’t even recognize her and I’m sure that made my grandmother very sad.
That first trip back to Poland proved to be eventful for us airport wise. Our flight was through London, which was super exotic to me at the time. On our return flight we flew a Tupolev which was a kind of soviet copy of a Boeing. It was also an airplane that had been in a terrible plane crash a few months before. I knew this even as an eleven year old and I started to cry when I saw the plane. My mother had to convince me to get on the plane.
We ended up missing our connection to New York through London. We had to find a pay phone to wake my sleeping father to alert him that we would be in Heathrow for an extra seven hours. We made the best of it. I got a British version of monopoly to play and some magazines that I kept for a long time because they were exotic and British.
The next memorable airport was the one in Copenhagen where I knew I would some day return. My father and I flew to Warsaw from Copenhagen in an aircraft that I think had been repurposed from World War Two. When we flew through the clouds, droplets of water entered the plane. It was chock full of drunks. Forget turbulence. I wasn’t even sure if this aircraft would make it the hour to Copenhagen in one piece.
The next memorable flight didn’t come for a while. Interestingly that was to Copenhagen again but this time I was flying alone for a four month student exchange in Copenhagen. I’ve detailed the entirety of that experience in another blog entry. The flight was memorable too in both directions. Just going down the sleeve to the airplane was memorable. I wanted to turn around and go back to my parents as I passed down the sleeve. I couldn’t go back obviously because I wouldn’t be able to do the whole thing.
On the way to Denmark, I carried my stuffed animal with me and spoke to a Kenyan student who would be with me for the whole exchange. I must have fallen asleep at some point because when I woke up we were in Copenhagen. I was exhausted. Landing I realized we were in Scandinavia and that everyone spoke perfect English. Oh and that I was stuck there and couldn’t leave.
Two months after that I boarded a plane to Moscow from Copenhagen, flying the infamous Aeroflot or scaro-flot or aero-snot as my classmates named it. We had received assurances from our study abroad program that flights in and out of Russia were fine, just internal travel was dicey. Hilarious I guess. The flight to Moscow wasn’t memorable and the flight back out of St. Petersburg wasn’t memorable either, save for the fact that a classmate of mine climbed the boarding steps to the airplane and started acting like an American president arriving in Russia, promising good relations between the countries. He was really convincing. All he needed was some politburo flunkies to escort him off of the airplane and he would have been fine.
The return flight four months later was equally interesting. I realized that I didn’t want to go back. The flight was calm but I wasn’t. A day before I left, my life had been turned upside down but that had nothing to do with the flight. We were flying over Christmas, December 20th 1997 to be exact. The captain got on the PA when we were flying over Greenland joyously announced that if we looked out of the left side of the airplane we would see Santa Claus and eight tiny reindeer. The Danes believe Santa Claus is Danish and that he lives in Greenland. I told them that Santa lives in the North Pole but they told me that was wrong because the North Pole was extremely inhospitable and that Greenland was the place to be for the Juleman (Christmas man). So hence his pre Christmas departure from Greenland.
The next memorable flight was again to Copenhagen but it was memorable for all the wrong reasons. I was heading back to Copenhagen to see the person who had brought all the change to my life or destroyed it, depending on what account you believe. I’ll never forget waking in Copenhagen to the feeling that a million loud alarm clocks were around me were going off at the same time. I had this awful pit of my stomach feeling that something awful was about to happen and I wasn’t wrong. The person I went to see ended up be the cause of all of that. That airport trip showed me that you should never ignore your intuition.
There were tons more flights in between which weren’t nearly as memorable or meaningful as the ones I first described. Seattle through Detroit. Stockholm through Copenhagen. Boston through Düsseldorf.
One flight though lingers in my memory for the sheer comedy of it. I was going to Stockholm through Philadelphia originating in New York. The flight from New York to Philadelphia was the single worst flight I had ever experienced. We flew on an 18 seater commuter airplane for something like 45 minutes, the 45 worst minutes of my entire life and I’ve had stitches in my head and completed a marathon. That was the worst flight of my life. The entire airplane stunk of gasoline and it shook for the entire time, or maybe careened uncontrollably would be a more apt description. I was convinced we were all going to die. The plane pitched left, right, up, down. I was Ritchie Valens in La Bamba and we were going to die. Somehow we landed. I mean obviously we didn’t die because I’m writing this but it was an awful flight.
I noticed after a while that air travel has this sameness about it. Delta, United, Northwest, they were all the same. Just a flying bus. Airports too have a cookie cutter sameness about them. Some are a bit different like the one in Copenhagen, which I obviously saw quite often was different, very nice. Generally though traveling seemed less than memorable. Cayman through Miami. Boston through Reykjavik. Brussels from New York. Copenhagen through Brussels. New York to Warsaw through Paris. Paris to New York. Different destinations but the same feeling. Here we go. There it all went.
I flew to Bologna from Boston through Paris and then repeated the whole thing through Venice. The memorable thing there was that you had to take a boat to get to the airport, which was kind of cute and fun. The Italians on the boat were really happy and amiable at 5am. I would be too if I consumed as much espresso as they did.
I have though had some incredibly memorable flights after that one. One came in 2013, Cayman through New York to Boston. The flight was delayed and there was the real danger that the connector out of Newark would leave without us. I raced through the airport with the intent of explaining that we needed to get on the flight. We get there and the flight was closed. We were told by the incredibly unfriendly continental airlines staff (this I remember) that if we had gotten there mere seconds before we would have made it. It was so infuriating. As we were leaving to rebook they told us we had to run down the sleeve to the airplane and bang on the door to the airplane that was closed to get on. Turned out a family had strollers checked on the flight and having everyone disembark and take the strollers off would have caused untold chaos.
In 2015 came one of the most sublime flights of my life, Boston to Santiago, Chile through Atlanta. I had planned this trip for months and when the big day came I was extremely nervous. I didn’t even tell anyone I was going for fear something would go wrong.
The flight to Atlanta from Logan was uneventful. No food, over crowded and generally uncomfortable.
Atlanta to Santiago was another story entirely. First the plane was empty practically, save for the flight crew and the small number of us flying. There were tons of channels of entertainment. The food was somewhat edible and oh and the plane was basically new. It looked like it had been purchased the day before. All good things. I fell asleep over the southern United States and I awoke to us flying over Peru and Brazil, countries I had only seen on maps before. I awoke to the Andes mountains out the window covered in a light morning mist. The word beautiful doesn’t even do justice to what I saw.
A couple days later I was back to the United States after another journey that basically redefined my life in the best way possible. Before the flight back I was in tears from what had happened but they were happy, cleansing tears.
The flight back was less comfortable. We were overcrowded and when I reached Atlanta I kept walking around the airport to not fall asleep and miss my flight. My flight to Boston was full of guys in khakis and polo shirts and Bluetooth headsets. I slept through my connecting flight to Boston and woke up when we hit the ground, home once again.
I’ve flown a lot in my life and I can’t say I’m a fan of it. Flying in the United States is about as much fun as taking a school bus a long distance. I’ve never flown in first class. I flew business class once with my mom from Warsaw to New York on Pan Am, which went out of business the next year. I dislike turbulence and went through a period of time when I was really afraid to fly. It didn’t keep from flying but it definitely made the whole process unpleasant. I may have needed an Ativan or two to get through the whole thing.
There’s a wonderful video on the internet of a plane landing in Canada of Syrian refugees. Just the thought of it brings tears to my eyes. The Syrians get off the airplane to be greeted by none other than the sexiest prime minister ever, Justin Trudeau. They are greeted so warmly by Trudeau and the people in the airport. It always reminds me of us coming to America. Obviously president Reagan didn’t greet us when we came to the airport but I could relate to being in an airport, starting a new life.
Growing up as an immigrant, plane travel is a part of life. I’ve taken multiple trips to Poland over the years because it was a necessity. My whole family is Polish. I’m some weird hybrid pseudo-Scandinavian New Englander East coaster who had no home for a long time. I used to think my home was on an airplane but as I’ve matured I realize I do ok on solid ground too.
And some photos from the newest airport I have visited, the Worcester County Airport: