Thursday, December 3, 2009

"Ask Him If He's Been to a Religious Convention Lately."

By five in the morning, I now viewed the god awful nightly interruption by a pack of girls, not unlike the god awful beasts from Copenhagen past, as a boon. When I had to wake up, grab my gear, and move out twenty five minutes later, I would no longer feel guilty. Instead I would slam my lock against the metal pole beside the monster whose eyes were far too close to my own. I would shake the bed as I dressed, without guilt. I would scream in their ears, “it's my house! I can do what I want!” ... no, I wouldn't. Two other people in this room were not part of the terror. And one had, ever so quietly, I might add, just slipped in to be five minutes prior to my waking up.

With my bags packed, my gear grabbed, and my hostel checked out of I took a final trip on the train. Not once – not once in all of Europe – did I ever run into a ticket inspector. What does this mean? Well, it means that I could have never purchased a ticket, and faced zero repercussions. Still – that would be wrong. Wrong, bad, bad, wrong, bad, bad, bad, wrong, bad, wrong, wrong, bad, SMASH! I have to get home. I have a very big test tomorrow.

One stop later, I'd be off the train, and jumping on the TXL bus that would send me all the way to the airport. Arriving, I packed my books into the pockets of my coat. Then I moved to the check in desk, where I weighed my pack. Hmm – I was allowed seven more kilos you say? Well everything gets shoved back in my pack, and I'm still a few Kgs under the limit. Good for me. All that worrying for nothing. Only 18.6 Kilograms exist in my backpack – though I'm not sure what my carry on is currently weighing.

After checking in at Terminal C, I was sent back to Terminal A – of course I was. And there I wandered around looking for the security check in. I'll just cut this short for you – each and every gate has their own security check in. What's up with that? And what's with the giant line at gate A0? I stood in that for a bit, before I wandered back where I was scoffed at my the Air Berlin staff, and told – obviously – each gate had its own security check. Oh yes – Obviously! I mean I've flown in and out of all number of airports over the last few years, last few months even, and never come across something like this – but, yes, obviously each gate would have its own!

Security was mercifully quick. I'm sure the fine people at Florida's Fort Myers Airport will help keep the curve alive for this though. Sitting in the gate, I had two and a half hours to kill before my flight boarded. Just for fun, there was no bathroom in this locked off terminal area. Also for fun it was full – full – of business men. Business men flying without a gold, silver, or business pass. I'd have a chat with my boss about this. If I had to fly out in dress pants, shirts, a tie, and a suit jacket (I'm hot wearing long tropic pants, and a breathable t-shirt) then I would damn well demand access to the business lounge and its free drinks and sandwiches. Oh? That's not how business works? Well it is if you know what you're doing. Don't blame me because you settled, or failed to move up due to the lack of interpersonal skills.

So hours to kill – and me with a card full of Spider-man. Whatever shall I do?

All I can say is that it's a good thing I grabbed the only plug socket in this whole waiting room. Take that mister business man with your ancient IBM laptop, what with the little ineffective red nub right in the middle of the keyboard.

In the air, I put pen to paper and write for the first time in far too long. Not anything of substance – just writing to write. Three pages remain in my orange flowered notebook that I'd used to record events, receive email addresses, take notes on places still to come, and draw all sorts of maps and communication aids. Three pages – and still twelve hours of journey left. But there were two scraps. Fragments of pieces ripped off, at least one for a baggage marker left in my luggage were it to be lost. I have forgone such a thing. That would remove two sheets (each side counting this close to the end.) And there, I wrote.

And it hit me – short stories in places that they happened. That's something I could have been doing – should have been doing – but it's only now, at Europe's end that I have remembered that I am a writer, that I enjoy writing. It's been adding up little by little since Dreden... but it's just now hit me. This, this right here? This isn't writing – not to me – it's recording. It's all substance, less flair. Less creation.

There are some entries that stand out to me – and this serves a purpose too – but I'm most happy when I'm creating worlds, creating people, and taking control. The Snoreflog? That was an enjoyable write.

I ask for apple – I receive coffee. It's thin as juice anyway. One day the Europeans will come to understand the beverage. They'll have to.

We land without me even knowing.

Emirates Airline offers me stolen internet at Düsseldorf Gate C43.

At gate C37 I wait for my final flight to leave Europe. It feels like my trip is ending. But it's not. It's still ongoing – and I wonder what Florida will feel like. And I wonder what will happen when I finally “open the box.”

At times I feel I should hyperlink the entries I reference. As far as blogging and web recognition goes, that would be helpful. But then, there's a search bar on the top right for those who care enough to look – and these records, they're for myself first and foremost. If other people get something from them? Well I'm glad. Too much time is sunk into this as it is, without me having to look up past moments.

C37 – boarding time, 12.40. I don't believe it. Not with flight take off at 1.40, and not with no one in the booth at 12.30. But maybe. Still, why do they want us on the plane an hour in advance? At least I've found a plug – and a chair – in line of sight with my gate. Soon enough I'll be in the air, and soon enough I'll have left Europe behind me. People will ask me about it, but I won't know how to answer. I've forgotten so much. So many things locked within the orange book – but I don't want to look over it yet. Not yet. Not until Europe really is a thing of the past.

I have my passport stamped for the first time since Iceland, September 4th. I've visited Iceland, Finland, Estonia, Norway, Stockholm, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Vatican City, Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic, and Germany. Sixteen countries. According to Scott Wilson's nonsensical rules, I've visited two. Passport stamps mean very little – it's the moments, the experiences that count.

Though, I'm sure that I'll receive an American Stamp in my passport twelve hours from now, or six hours according to the clocks, and then I'll have doubled, in one day, the number of stamps I'd recieved.

The German Passport inspector checked his watch to see the date, perhaps figuring out how long it had been since I was stamped in Iceland. What was he to do? I have 90 days in each country, and could have entered and left as many times as I wanted. It's not my fault Europe doesn't stamp. Not even Spain. Not even when they make you break out your passport mid stream.

The gate lady appears. Perhaps we will board in five minutes. Time to shut down.

Even the tourists to Florida are old! Everyone is old. Old. Old. Old. And that's alright – it should allow me to jump off the plane well in advance, and rush my way to the front of the customs line! No waiting in line for this guy, no sir.

There are no built in entertainment units in AirBerlin seats. This is distressing. How else is one to pass ten hours? The well portioned meals hardly make for length distractions. And the one movie, Meet the Parents, on endless loop? Well – it might have worked to keep me mesmerized for a little while, if not for the fact that ear phones were three euro, or five dollars - and I had neither.

So I started to write. And write. And write. And somehow a short story had formed. Just as it was nearly completed my computer decided to protest in rage that I had used up far too much battery life, and that only three minutes were remaining. Close, it warned, all documents now lest they be lost forever! And so I did my best to shut them down, close them up, and realize that I had the screen brightness set too high. That explains some of the terrible battery loss – but still, only an hour and a half? The new netbooks are lasting five or six hours. I could have gone for that.

With some writing that needed completing, I broke open my little orange notebook, and started to fill the final pages. Each line now had to fit two rows of words. Each margin was cramped and full. And finally the story reached its natural conclusion.

I must explain just how much I like writing again. I've missed it so. On a scrap page I started to create a stream of consciousness. During that it hit me that I should write short stories located in whatever setting I was involved in at the time. Seemed like a wonderfully marvelous idea. But already Europe was lost to me.

But I could still base one of the plane. And thus, the tale “Beautiful in Winter: A Plane Story” was born. The actual title is just “A Plane Story” - the other part just happened to be written down on the page beside it, and it somewhat fit. This opens it up for more plane stories in the future – anyway enough of this. We'd soon be landing.

As we flew over Florida, I saw a city for the first time in ages. A real city. A large, sprawling, American city. Lights stretched on to endless horizons, and the full moon hung overhead, casting pale glows over the town below. Where it intersected with the water, the glow formed a rippled reflection, miles across; it formed a reflection visable only from my vantage point here, high above. And it too was wonderfully marvelous.

And then came the customs line. One hour. One hour it took to get to the front of the line. Clearly, the old people were sprinters in their prime, still retaining much of their former glory. But that was o.k. I'd finally made it.

“All these countries? You've been to all these countries?” the customs officer asked incredulously.

I looked over the list. Yes, all sixteen had been squeezed into the tiny boxes provided.
“That's right sir.” I replied, maintaining my charming persona, black poncho draped over my shoulders, rather than worn properly or packed away all together.
“And why have you been to so many countries?”
“I was travelling – just backpacking through Europe.”
“Uh huh.”
“Where's he been to?” the officers supervisor asked?
“Damn near everywhere, just about.”

I thought for a moment on this. I'd never had a supervisor interject before, but then seeing that many names listed in the small box must be a rather unique experience. Not something that happens every day – maybe just once a week.
“Hey, ask him if he'd been to any Religious Conventions while he was away.”
Listening to this, I almost had to laugh. Yes, I'd been called Jesus before, or moses – but mostly just Santa, or ZZ Top. Still – every American customs officer had joked about my beard at one time or another, so I just smiled and replied, “no.”
“Uh huh.”
Wait a second, what were they noting on my card? Religious Convention... Maybe this wasn't merely a – did they think? But lots of people have beards in Florida. The biker population makes it nearly impossible to go three hours without seeing one – but – I did just get off a plane, and so -
“You're going to need to come with us.”
Of course I am. Of course I'm going to need to come with you, after waiting an hour in line to get to this point. Why not?
And so I walked through the customs area over to the seats set up just for people like me. And there I sat. And I waited. And I waited. Thirty minutes later, the officer approached me, instructed me to put my bags on the x-ray machine, and scanned them through.
I had just watched one man have eight kilograms of pork taken away from him. Who takes eight kilograms of pork on a flight with them, I'll never know – but what I do know? The customs officers are eating well tonight!
Why anyone who looked like me would ever try to bring drugs into the country is beyond me. I always get searched one way or another – but never this throughly, and never because I may have been suspected of being an extremist. I believe my poncho on my shoulders may have looked more like a robe, less like a blanket, than I had desired. And the question of, “what's your occupation?” to which I always answer, “I teach English, Drama, and Special Needs students” - guaranteed to disarm and enchant any official, and stand up comic – was never asked.

So there I was, watching as my bags were unpacked, repacked, and sorted through. As my customs form was read over once more, I was questioned on the name of a country, “what's this one?”
“Vatican City.”
“You're just supposed to list countries here.”
Breath. Beat. Breath. “I know.”
And then the next few minutes were spent explaining that countries could have words like city in them. And that, while being small – it still mints its own currency, and has its own postal service. Once more I was asked why I had seen so many countries in such short time. Honestly – I thought three months was rather a lot of time to spend in Europe.

“What's this? This black box thing?”
I looked at it, and simply replied, “a universal plug adapter.”
“And what's it for?”
I paused a second. Was this a trick question? Was this like the question about the religious convention where they was no good answer? By the way – say you were at an extremist meeting because, for some reason you hate America – which I will tell you is a lovely country and is only a target of misdirected hate, and ignorant rage – would you really say, “yes”? But this was no time for second guessing. Just go with your gut. Three minutes left in the exam, two pages left to answer:
The officer planned, turned it over, and looking at two metallic cylinders at the back he paused, called the five other officers over, and said, “well then, what's this?”
Really? O.K. Pressure's on. Just keep the pace. You'll be allowed into the country soon enough, “a European plug?”
“A European plug? What do you mean by tha-”
“No no, wait, I've heard of that,” one interjected. Oh thank God. “They got different plugs over there.”
“What? Really? No kidding. Let me see.”
And then it was passed around, looked over by many, and then I was asked to explain why I had a bike lock – to lock my pack to my bed in the hostel – and then I had to explain what hostels were. Keep in mind here, people, these are the workers who check through travel packs for a job – often searching many a day.
But they were nice people. Lovely people. And I didn't have any train to catch, so the extra time didn't bother me. After all, I got to see what a pack containing eight kilograms of pork looked like. My parents, waiting just through the doors, to take me to their place in Florida, however – well they'd waited one hour already, what's a second?

As it turns out, I was indeed let into the country. Some notes were taken on my passport – and I wonder what they say. I wonder how clearing customs in March will be, But hey, this is the south. Not the real south though – as she who loves her True Blood would say, “they're tea ain't sweet, and their chicken isn't fried. Florida isn't the south.”

It was put forward to me that maybe these officers had never seen a backpacker before. After all how many people enter through Fort Myers, and not Tampa or Miami? Good point. But this was no time for good points. This was a time for real authentic America food! Arbys!

Mistakes were made. Sure you can get five roast beef sandwiches for five dollars – three euro – but why... why would you ever want that? Things that seem like good ideas at the time, in retrospect? Maybe not so much.

And then I was in a home. With a shower. My own bed. My own room. A phone to call Canada and those loved, and left behind. And oh how sweet it was. Alright, that's it. Nap time now.


  1. Actually Mike, you don't have 90 days in each country. It's 90 days once you enter the Schengen zone--90 days total for all the countries who are a part of that treaty. Then once you leave the Schengen area, you cannot return to ANY country within the area for 90 days.

  2. oh yeah - good for me then. I just read up on it. Apparently Germany is the only country that really checks this stuff too.

  3. Yeah mos def. I don't know what the fine is, but I think it can go up to 300 euros or more, depending on how long you over-stay.


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