Updated: Oct 31, 2022
Blog Post 22. (19/09/2022) - My journey to the Fürstenstadt of Dresden, and perhaps the start of my own, properly independent life.
My heart is racing.
I can hear it pounding with audible ferocity, the kind of deep-chested thrum that I have not heard since my track-and-field days when, after lowering myself down to the tracks, my muscles trembled into starting position and the world went completely quiet, waiting for a gunshot.
Of course no gunshot came this time, because there is no track in my new neighborhood and certainly no starter idling about my bedroom after midnight.
I had been lying there for an hour or two by the time my adrenaline peaked and I was ready to fly out of my bed. While my eyes were shut and my body was completely still, my head was swimming with kaleidoscopic recollections of the summer. I thought of evenings spent climbing the hills with the dear old dogs, the horrifying sight of raging fire on my home mountain one Sunday afternoon, quiet moments in a kayak on lake and most of all the smiles of friends and family near at hand.
This recollection soured as a now familiar thought fought its way to the surface, a thought that sounded something like… three years.
“Yes,” I reflected, “it’ll be three years before I see all of those things again, won’t it? My childhood friends, my home, and my dogs. Some of those things won’t be around when I come back. Old Charlie will have passed, my friends will have jobs in other towns or states, and my community will look different.”
You see, the wildfire that I mentioned came within two blocks of my former neighbors’ house (and my childhood home), made me intensely aware of how fast things can change. Had the wind been a little different that day? If a neighborhood can disappear in a day, what could change during the three years I will be in Europe?
“Myself, surely”, continued the thought, as I leapt out of bed a close-and-open of the eyes later. I threw on my travel pants, new shoes and undershirt with energy, but made sure to put on my jacket and cap ceremoniously. I hugged my mother goodbye and clutched at the dogs and cat as fiercely as they would let me. Sweet old Charlie, our going on 15 husky-border collie mix, looked groggy and confused as I hugged her tight one last time. Maddie at least, our ever-excitable Blue-heeler mutt, seemed to understand what all the suitcases and bags meant and leapt around my legs with extra enthusiasm.
The road to Bozeman was grey with smoke and fog, and the Sun burst over the horizon like a cherry-red firework as we approached the Bridger mountains. Traffic was heavy as we entered Bozeman itself, ten minutes late. My brother was worried we would not have time for breakfast and insisted my sister and I head to the airport right away. We turned around, so sharing our next meal would have to sadly wait until Christmas in Greece. I thanked my sister for driving me down as I hugged her. With my bags slung about my shoulders at the airport doorway I figured that, even if I looked as ridiculous now as the first time, I was getting used to going off on my own into the world. The only difference being that I was going abroad for a longer time now, and on more important business.
That seemed true enough as I boarded and deplaned, took off again only to land again. I hopscotched from Bozeman to Denver and Denver to La Guardia with relative ease, only to second-guess the cheap ticket I had bought as I loitered outside La Guardia and waited for my cab. Perhaps transferring from La Guardia to JFK airport was not worth the savings if it meant I had to pay 60 dollars to stand on the sidewalk while my 4 hour transfer period slipped out of my hands. I stood with my cell phone in one hand and a briefcase in the other, calling repeatedly about the status of my reservation and only receiving the vague assurance that “it would be here shortly”. Just as I was about to really lose my head, the taxi pulled in. My anger left me as the cabbie, an old, amicable looking asian man, hopped out and insisted on lifting my suitcases in.
Instead of telling him off about how dangerous the delay was, I simply told him that I was in a hurry and needed to make my 12.30 flight. Queens went by in a fluorescent flurry of brick and asphalt and I climbed out in front of JFK. My heart climbed into my throat as I stumbled into line for Norse Airlines and saw a group of travellers grouped around the line on their phones. When I asked, they told me they needed to check in online before they could do so in person. Then when my name was called, I pulled out a slew of documents from my briefcase and got my ticket after a double-check. This time I had been somewhat prepared.
JFK was as international as it was chaotic. The terminal 1 security line was snaking out past the ropes as the clock approached ten. Before I could even enter security, I had to wait on the gaggle of latino youths in front of me. They were debating over which line to take, clearly they could not read the signs that were (bewilderingly for an international airport) only in English. I stepped in and told them that they should take a certain line if they had so-and-so tickets. As we made our way through the zig-zag, the entire world was standing in line with us. There were several older black men in traditional Igbo attire standing behind a gaggle of Mandarin speakers, while a man from some country where they speak an East Slavic language listened to what sounded like an action movie (or a real warzone) behind us with no headphones.
After I was through security, I fretted about my gate. I had, despite everything, arrived an hour and 40 minutes before departure and the gate only said “check-in closed”. No flight attendants were in sight and so I went back for water and food. With an outrageously priced $7 smartwater in one hand and $14 half-sandwich in the other, I cursed whoever set the prices at this airport and soaked in what German I could understand from the other passengers. I gathered that check-in would open soon and all was well.
I slipped in a few boarding groups too early and threw my cap over my face to sleep, when I heard something like “va a pensar que somos montañeros…” ([he’ll?] think we are mountaineers) on my right. I lifted my hat up to see a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair and a young, raven-haired lady settling in on the seats to my right. I said something silly in Spanish about mountaineers to get a chuckle out of them and we soon fell into conversation. The older man or should I say father, Jaime, was visiting Berlin again but it was going to be his daughter Sofia’s first international trip.
They were from Colombia’s central coffee region and had spent all day travelling from Bogota to Miami to New York, which I learned as we traded our itineraries and then, travel stories. As Manhattan’s electric skyline dwindled into an incandescent anthill and we passed over the Atlantic, the conversation wandered. We covered everything from the degradation of the Amazon rainforest and origins of different Colombian accents to German infrastructure and sunrises on trans-Atlantic flights. That was the last thing we talked about before sleep took me.
That was a welcome change from my three previous flights to Europe where I never slept at all, but it came with the drawback that I missed that special sunrise I always looked forward to. After waking up and falling asleep several times I came to as we began to descend through the clouds at 15 feet per second. We broke through the wispy cirrus and rolled towards the cotton candy patchwork of cumulus clouds and began guessing where we were.
Jaime said it was the Netherlands based on our ETA and speed. I said Niedersachsen, since the orderly geometric landscape beneath us reminded me so strongly of the Bundesland where I previously studied. Our talk turned to agriculture and silviculture again, a former research topic of mine, and what made Germany different. Besides inventing the field over three hundred years ago, the German love of nature was on full display in front of us. A river, wide and grey, separated the western fields from a great deciduous forest in the east that was crisscrossed by roads.
This, I say, might be the Elbe. The river flows through Hamburg (where I studied in 2019) and Dresden, where I am heading now. During the cold war, it also formed much of the border between communist East Germany and NATO-aligned West Germany. If I guessed it rightly, the difference in vegetation (a product of cold war land use policies) is also a reminder that a palpable divide still exists between the two regions, one that manifests itself politically, economically and probably culturally. One of the big reasons I am here in Dresden is to see just how deep those differences go.
A few tidy neighborhoods are only just beginning to shoulder their way through the manmade forest by the time we touch down at Willy Brandt Airport. We deplane and I pause for a half a second before I step onto the German tarmac, to relish in the moment. “I’ve made it.”
Customs went by in a blur, I expected much more of a conversation about my arrival and departure dates and documentation but I’m already picking up my bags by the time I can run down the list of all the expected hang-ups. I shook Jaime and Sofia’s hands and wished them well. I remain in awe of German infrastructure as straightforward signage conveys me to my train. Brandenburg rolls by as the Berlin outskirts recede back into the lowland forest, which undulates all the way to Bischofwerda when we enter Saxony. I stood most of the way since I could not find a place for my bags. As the sky turns grey, the train rolls by great glass halls and we enter a city, my new city. Dresden.
It’s unmistakably European, with clusters of tall French renaissance apartments and handsome streets. The train grinds to a halt in another such station and I gather my bags. I shoulder my way through a crowd in rain jackets and find a spot to rehearse the directions to my hostel. Once I have my bearings I trudge out into the rain, which is now a downpour. Faces look grim and I wait for the street cars to pass before I cross the streets. I make a few mistakes and end up doubling back once or twice. By the time I lug my suitcases up the hostel stairs I am thoroughly soaked… but not as tired as I might be. It was work getting the Fulbright and getting over here, but that stage is down and now my real work can begin. I’m looking forward to this next phase of my life but sleep comes first.
More on my misadventures here in Dresden soon.