Travel Vignettes:
Episode III: Onward to Munich

Munich, October 1995

This is the third instalment in a series of travelogues written over the past 8 years, chronicling my various experiences in Germany, Austria, and Japan. They are being noded in no particular sequence, and kept as faithful to the original text as possible (although the prose has been cleaned up some).

The flights up to New York were pretty much uneventful (read: boring). There were only twenty people on the flight to Chicago (not that I blame anyone for wanting to wait until at least 7:00 A.M. to board a plane), so my friend Cliff and I could pretty much sit wherever we wanted. I can't help thinking that I should have at least tried to go into first class, since the airline staff didn't seem to care at all where we sat. It turns out that Starbucks Coffee is available on all United flights, although Frappucino is only available on the ground. Most likely, the airline cooks didn't think they could screw it up badly enough to match the rest of their fare.

Out of all the airports that I've seen so far, I like O'Hare the best; the Guinness Book of World Records lists it as the busiest in the world, but it's so large that you hardly notice. Also, you can get a Frappucino there. At any rate, the flight out of Chicago was in a slightly nicer plane, and also pretty dull.

Then, we arrived at LaGuardia Airport. Aside from the fact that they decided to save my luggage as a surprise for later, this was also about as unpredictable as the average episode of Murder, She Wrote (or, as they call it here Murder is Her Hobby, which proves that my suspicions are shared). After about two hours of bumping going in a crap factory-reject schoolbus, we arrived at Long Island University. The fact that AFS chose the LIU campus for the pre-departure orientation just goes to show how well the people at AFS not only understand, but even so much as predict the situations in which we exchange students will find ourselves.

For example, while Cincinnati may claim ties to Rome based on the fact that both cities are surrounded by seven hills, Long Island U (which, incidentally, is what the locals will scream at you if you fail to use a turn signal) has both cities beaten in that department. Much like West Virginia, virtually none of the campus is located on flat land! But neither that nor the mud would have been much of a problem, had they mentioned to us in one of the fifteen thousand pre-departure letters that we'd have to go on a short HIKE to reach our humble, short-term abode. After I found out several times that the wheeled luggage carrier doesn't work particularly well on lumpy ground, and cursed everyone from the people who assembled it to those who selected it several times more, I finally managed to drag/carry my bags up and down, down and up, and down, and up and down, until I reached the "dorm."

Here, several interesting bits of information were shared with me:

1) We would have to give them our passports. (The obvious reason for this was that they would be much "safer" with a complete stranger than in my own possession, where it had been secured in a place that no pickpocket would consider it worthwhile to check.) In the event that our passports were not stolen while in the care of said strangers, they would be given back at the airport. I, for one, was overjoyed to hear it! I already had enough in my pockets, and the last thing I wanted to have burdening me several hundred miles from home was the only piece of acceptable identification I possessed! I wanted nothing more than to give my passport to someone else for safekeeping, but, I knew that I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I were to see a friend go through the guilt of having lost my only existing ID, so, I was completely elated to hear that I would be putting it in the hands of someone I'd never seen before in my life — that way, neither of us would feel any real responsibility toward the other. Words simply cannot express my relief.

2) The dorms had no lifts.

3) I would be staying on the top floor.

But, I found out, at least I wouldn't have to worry about having the peace of the wonderful, warm, sauna-like Long Island summer disturbed by an intrusive air conditioner, which might have catastrophic consequences such as allowing me to sleep through the night.

The orientation was about as informative as every other orientation I've been to, although it did have the benefit of being over.

The bus we rode to JFK was quite a bit more comfortable than the one we rode to the University, with such luxury features as air conditioning, padded seats, and shock absorbers; however, a three-legged donkey that hadn't been washed in a year would also have been a substantial improvement. I found that JFK itself was a much nicer airport than LaGuardia, apart from the fact that US airlines that depart from JFK had recently displayed an annoying tendency to explode in mid-flight.

On the one-hour trip to the airport, during which I discovered that New York is indeed quite a big city, I got the scenic view of the city that causes thousands of people every year to move to Oregon. It seems, when one looks at the street sides, that the people from Public Sanitation decided to quit when they found out that "picking up garbage" was in fact part of the job description. We then got to wait in the terminal for several hours, until all eighty pieces of luggage (two per person) were checked in, and then moved on to the food court. After stuffing ourselves with the best in Typical American Crappy Junkfood Cuisine ™, it was time to board our Lufthansa flight to Germany.

Aside from the fact that there is no way to see the "OCCUPIED" sign from one's seat, the Lufthansa Airbus was basically the same plane as the one in which I flew to Japan. Among other interesting points in the twenty-minute safety film was that, with the lower air pressure and oxygen content, one beer was supposedly worth three beers in terms of blood alcohol. I suspect that this is an exaggeration, for reasons to which I will return.

Unlike the United flight, where the flight attendants offered issues of such popular magazines as Popular Mechanics and Fertiliser Weekly (Rush Limbaugh's new newsletter), the date of which could only be reliably ascertained based on the half-life of carbon isotopess, Lufthansa offers most German newspapers, as well as the riveting live bait issue of Field & Stream.

Lufthansa also offers beer, as many of my fellow exchange students found out — many of them from me — and my two neighbours decided to do their duty as citizens of Planet Earth by emptying out as many bottles as possible for recycling. Of course, it would have been utterly irresponsible of them to waste the contents. Aleco, two seats to my left, did his best, emptying three beer bottles and two shots of Jack Daniels for the cause. He then proceeded to narrow the Generation Gap by hitting on a fifty-year-old flight attendant from Eisenhüttenstadt who had an ever-so-light dusting of facial hair. I myself only had two small bottles of Beck's and half of a Dixie cup of mind-blowingly awful red wine, which was knocked over before I could finish by Aleco, on one of his many trips to clear more bladder space for The Cause.

We were supposed to see The Bird Cage as our inflight movie. We didn't. Instead, we were treated to an exciting instalment in the life of Peter Rabbit (seriously), followed by the German box-office (s)hit Superweib (Superwife), which proves an old German proverb: "N Schas is oiwei n Schas, wiavü Bia ma dozuasaffn mog." (Crap is crap, no matter how much beer you add).

During this cinematic experience, I met Jimmy. Jimmy is a 26-year-old health store owner who devotes his spare time to the ongoing quest to make the perfect sieve...out of his liver. Jimmy is also why I believe that the "one beer + airplane = three beers" conversion chart explained by the safety film might have been a bit exaggerated. While we were in the air, Jimbo consumed nine bottles of Beck's, three screwdrivers, two rum and cokes, and more, which works out to no less than a case of beer, give or take a six pack (most likely give), according to the official formula. Yet he was still reasonably coherent, coordinated, and aromatic.

In fact, aside from the fact that he smelled like a frat party, the only way I could tell that he was Good 'N' Pissed ™ was that he dumped my entire glass of water between my legs, and didn't realise that he did it. (To tell the truth, I didn't notice until I realised that there was no reason that I should feel a cooling sensation in the lower half of my body outside of a pool unless a big drunk guy were to inadvertently dump a whole glass of water down my jeans.) As the burning sensation grew more and more unbearable, I proceeded to the airplane restroom; in my haste, I forgot to lock it. My neighbour joined me.

Two hours later, we arrived in Frankfurt. After first going through arrival security, we arrived at the baggage claim area, where, just as at LaGuardia, my bags were promptly late. After collecting our bags, we found a cleverly camouflaged AFS representative, who told us to follow her in one direction, and then to turn around, as, as she informed us, she had led us in the direction that happened to be directly opposite the direction in which we should have been going.

Then came Customs, where, under the watchful eye of twenty none-too-merry machine gun-toting members of the Bundesgrenzschutz, we dragged our bags through the "nothing to declare" aisle. A few moments later, i was to be treated to another exciting episode of "Surfaces the baggage carrier doesn't work on." This weeks episode: "Staircases and Escalators with lots of people on them." Luckily, this time, I had André, the long-suffering AFS representative, who took it upon himself to take one end of my bags when we went down escalators and staircases, not to mention the four times we c hanged trains. The bill for his hernia surgery, I am informed, will arrive shortly.

There is a type of train in Germany known as ICE, Intercity Express. It is quite similar to the Shinkansen, which took me to and from Nagoya in Japan. The cars are spacious. The ride is smooth. It's incredibly fast and comfortable. Another interesting fact about the ICE is that we didn't take it on the way to München. In fact, when I had asked our Orientation Leader, Alan, whether we'd be using the ICE or not, he laughed loud and long. A few minutes later, when he'd finished, he explained "Far from it."

As it turned out, we would be travelling with Regionalbahn, the regional network of trains responsible for shuttling the masses between cities. As we waited for our train, we were joined by a group of multinational students who would be travelling south with us. Several came from Brazil, one from New Zealand, and one from Thailand.

For the first two stops on the line, we had to stand between cars until enough of a way was cleared for us. At least this wasn't boring. As the train jerked around and shook from side to side, so were we, too, jerked around and tossed from side to side. Ten minutes later, we got to sit down. I found myself sitting across from one of the Brazilian students, who didn't speak English, for whom I had to translate, and whose name I have since forgotten. At any rate, I owed Moritz — the Berliner who had been an exchange student in Cincinnati and who had taught me Portuguese — one. Otherwise she might have ended up in Slovakia before realising that everything wasn't going according to plan.

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