Travel

The Great European Adventure – Part 1: Not Europe

 

June 18, 2014

It’s 1 in the morning and I can hear Sara snoring lightly somewhere in the living room. I’m staring at the ceiling trying to get some sleep, having finished packing and repacking for the 5th time. I’m nervous as I have ever been, but still unaware of the chaos that will ensue.

I get up and pace back and forth in front of the large bay window, Speed of Sound playing in my head. Soon enough, my eyelids start to feel heavy, and I use the momentum to try and fall asleep. No sooner have I shut my eyes do I hear an alarm go off, and suddenly lights are on, bags are being loaded into the car, and we’re headed towards Mexico City.

We drift in and out of sleep, staring out the window looking at the stars when conscious. Two hours later we’re unloading, rolling our gift-filled bags towards check-in.

I go first, the clerk glancing amusedly at the two smiling girls in front of her. 

Being the broke students that we are, our flight involved a stop in Chicago and one in Montreal, before landing in Brussels. It was a long trip, but it was cheap.

I step to the side so Sara can go next, and I see the clerk’s smile change to concern. She asks Sara where her Canadian visa is. She doesn’t have one. It was assumed she didn’t need one since we wouldn’t be leaving the airport.

“I can’t let you get on the plane”

We’re calling her parents even though its 3:30 am, and trying to reach her family in Belgium. I can feel the stress building in my chest and my vision getting cloudy, but now is not the time to panic, I need to stay calm and figure out what we’re going to do.

About 10 minutes and $1,000 dollars later, I’m set for my flight, and she’s flying MEX-ORD-BRU, skipping Montreal altogether (seriously, get your transit visas guys).

I’ve managed to push down my anxiety enough to half function, saying goodbye to my parents and getting through security like a robot. It’s my first time flying solo, and she hasn’t even gone through security yet. I’m tired as hell and all I want to do is board the damn plane already.

Finally, my group is called and my row is empty. I’m by the window, she was supposed to be the middle seat, and nobody got the aisle. Oh well. A nap later I hear we will be landing in St. Louis because there’s a storm in Chicago, and we don’t have enough fuel to circle around until we can land in Chicago. I can feel my hands getting sweaty again because my layover is only about an hour and I don’t think I’ll make it.

Once we finally arrive at O’Hare, I have about 45 minutes to make it through immigration and find out where I’m supposed to go. By the time I figure it out, I’ve missed my connection to Montreal, so I immediately start looking for the next departing flight to Belgium. It isn’t my fault I lost the connection so I assume the airline will do something to accommodate me. How naive. Airlines are the worst.

 

It’s 4 pm and there’s a United flight heading to Brussels straight from O’Hare at 6 pm, so I head over to the United counter to try and argue my way onto the flight. Little did I know there would be over 50 people in front of me with the same problem. All the while I’ve been trying to call my mom to let her know what’s going on, but my phone doesn’t have enough credit (prepaid plans circa 2014, y’all) and once I finally get a call through the payphones, my mom doesn’t pick up.

At this point, the anxiety building in my chest boils over and I start crying. I can’t breathe, I don’t know what to do, and I certainly don’t want anyone to see me or cause any trouble. I hide in the service hallway next to the payphones trying to figure out what to do when all of a sudden, someone is hugging me.

I dry my eyes and turn around to see this 40-something lady, blond, round eyeglasses, kind smile. “Are you alright? How can I help you? What do you need?”. Everything my parents ever taught me about not talking to strangers just goes out the window. I immediately blurt out everything that’s happened, while she pulls out her phone and hands it to me so I can call my family. This complete stranger, letting me make long-distance calls. I finally get through to my parents and explain what is going on. I’m here with a starting-to-be-unreliable iPhone 3G as my only means of communication. This might be my only chance to talk to my parents.

I can’t remember a word of what is said, but Janet, Larry, and their son are in line for United as well. They are on their way back from Belgium and tell me all about it. The anxiety slowly starts to dissipate, but when I finally make it to the counter, it’s already 5:40. So much for today’s flight. I do however manage to get on the flight for tomorrow and get a complimentary toothbrush, shower cap, and soap from the lady. Great.

I thank Janet and her family profusely, and we end up adding each other on Facebook. At some point while waiting in line, I grew a pair, got my shit together, and resigned myself to sleeping on either the floor or some random bench, my only concern at this point being my luggage. I have no idea what happens in these cases, and I assume my suitcase is already halfway over the Atlantic. I inform my parents of my plan, asking that they let Sara know I won’t be arriving the same day as she was, but they do not want me to stay at O’Hare alone. It turns out one of my dad’s oldest friends lives in Chicago so he gives her a call and as good Mexicans do, she tells him not to worry, that she’ll take care of me. 

I’m afraid of wandering out of the airport; what if for some reason I can’t go back in? They won’t let me go through security until morning if I get out, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to find somewhere to sit or plug in my phone. I finally find an outlet outside a hair salon, and after mustering some strength and shoving my shyness deep down into the confines of my dark soul, I ask the ladies inside for their wifi password. I guess they can see the desperation on my face, as they invite me in and have me sit on the couch, while they get me some water. The amount of kindness I’ve been shown today is unreal. 

Finally, I get a text message from Laura, she’s arriving in a few minutes and will meet me at the curb. Never have I been so relieved.

Two hours later I’m in her kitchen, eating pizza and exchanging stories about her and my dad when they were younger. It’s like being with family. They show me up to the guest room and lend me a large t-shirt to sleep in. Even though I’m beyond exhausted, it takes about an hour until I drift off.

Next morning, Laura’s son offers to show me around town, since there’s a bit of time before I have to be at the airport. I gather what little things I have with me, and we walk a couple of blocks to the L station. 

It’s windy and quite foggy when we finally arrive downtown, and all I have is a Mickey Mouse hoodie that does little to shelter me. As much as I like to explore new places, it would have been nice to properly plan what I wanted to see. We end up at the Bean -I’m sorry, Cloud Gate- and I decide not to use my camera, opting to save as much battery as possible; I don’t know how long it will be until I can charge it since the cable is lost somewhere with the rest of my things. Hence, the crappy iPod pictures. 

The fog gives everything an eerie, ominous vibe, but I’m completely enthralled by it. The sculptures, the artwork, the skyline. My own fascination amuses me, but then again it’s nice to never lose your sense of wonder.

I can hear music coming from the Jay Pritzker Pavilion as we make our way to the other side of Millenium Park. Over the Riverwalk and towards the Navy Pier, I’m still a little shocked by the amount of fog and wind, but it’s also hot and humid. How? I hate it.

Thursday morning is not a very busy time. We walk past closed concessions and half-empty attractions, which add to the already dark atmosphere. By the time we make it up to the Ferris Wheel, I half expect Tris Prior to show up with Four running behind her.

Since there really isn’t much to do, we head back Downtown, admiring the architecture now that the fog has cleared up considerably. And just as the weather has changed, I can feel something in me starting to stir. Something that won’t soon be put out.

If I’d have known I’d be stopping here in Chicago for this long, I would have made it a point to seek out deep dish pizza, or a Chicago style hotdog. But it’s getting late-ish and I’m already starving, so we swing into the Potbelly Sandwich Shop next door to The Chicago Theater. While looking for WiFi, a Disney Employee Login page pops up. A sign of things to come? (Spoiler alert: it was)

 

We finish up and head back on the L, I say goodbye to everyone and thank them once again for saving my ass, Laura and I jump into the car and make our way to the airport. Once she pulls up to the curb, I hug her and thank her profusely, making a mental note to someday pay back her kindness and hospitality. 

I check-in at the counter for what feels like the hundredth time, wondering if my luggage has safely made it to Belgium and hoping no one takes it.

My stomach is back to remind me how nervous I am on the inside, but I try not to bounce my leg too much while they call my boarding group.

I finally make it onto the plane, and I’m in the middle of a 2-4-2 arrangement, next to two screaming kids flanked on the other side by a very inconsiderate mom who insists on stepping over me every single time she gets up instead of going down the aisle that’s on her right.

I plug in my headphones, start Thor: The Dark World with the volume to the max, and even though it’s not enough to drown out the kids, I try my best to fall asleep. I dare the b to wake me up. 

 

Andrea Wintergerst

Based mainly in Colorado. Loves cheese, rain, and starry nights. Can usually be spotted in the wild wearing a Spirit Jersey and balancing two cameras. Often laughs and cries at the same time.

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