One Journey Ends, Another Resumes

enoument n. The bitter sweetness of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, and not being able to tell your past self.

I am not quite sure how it happens but every time I so much as set foot in airport, Murphy's Law becomes magnified in that what can go wrong is sure to make what actually goes wrong seem like nothing.  I've mentioned how much I hate airports and you've read the difficulties I seem to have going through them (and that's just been within the last four months...let's not even consider the rest of my frequent flying experience). Well, Bulgaria amplified that hatred by an impossible amount.

I actually managed to make my way to the Sofia airport fairly painlessly, but that was mostly thanks to two elderly women who directed me on which metro train to take the airport.  While I had figured out which track to take, apparently only some trains went to the airport and you could only tell which ones by reading the sign on the front.  Simple right?  Did I mention the signs were written in Cyrillic? But the women were able to get that sorted for me and without them, I could have ended up on God knows what remote corner of Sofia.  So I made it to the airport.  Barely, but that's beside the point.  My real struggle was yet to come.

I had opted to fly British airways home as I figured any money I might save on a RyanAir flight would only be spent on checking my bag.  On British Airways, I knew I could get away with a slightly larger than baggage restriction bag, having specialized for years in saving money on major airlines.  I checked in and got my ticket with no issues, even showing the man at the counter my pack, which was definitely larger than the allowance.  Then security is where things fell apart.  First off, I set off the metal detector when I went through, which was honestly no surprise considering I always seem to, despite the fact that I never seem to have any metal on me.  Maybe it’s that steel heart of mine.

After a routine pat down, something I’m no longer annoyed about since it’s just become part of standard airport procedure for me, I stepped aside to redress in my belt, shoes, scarf, and jacket while waiting for my pack to come off the belt.  Surprise, surprise, it went off.  I was pulled aside and past of me expected similar treatment to that as I had gotten in Orlando when I left for the UK in which the TSA officer was equally as unexcited about going through my huge pack as I was and thus only made me unroll my tent.  It quickly became clear that this man was not your usual incompetent and lazy American TSA employee.  No, the first thing he did was take my shampoo bottle, only slightly over the 100ml limit and threw it in the trashcan without so much as a word to me.  He then opened up my back and began taking out things individually, uprooting my precarious packing job and one by one unrolling all my carefully rolled garments.  Even my bag of electronics filled with miscellaneous batteries and chargers was picked apart.

And then he found what he was looking for: the bullet keychain I had purchased in Sarajevo and a little pocketknife I carried with me everywhere. So there I was with everything I owned for a month a month and a half on display, from tampons to underwear, and he was telling my I couldn’t go through with a shell casing keychain and an inch long pocketknife.  What did he think I was going to do?  Stab someone with it?  The thought hadn’t occurred to me until he started acting like such a jerk.  I was humiliated, distraught, and most importantly, angry.  I was so angry I was shaking and trying not to cry.  The bullet I didn’t care too much about.  Yes, it was a great souvenir and symbol of my experience in Sarajevo but I could live without it.  The pocketknife, however, I was not about to throw away.  That particular knife, little silver Winchester Swiss army knife, happened to be quite sentimental to me and I carried it with me everywhere, even on other airplanes that never seemed to have a problem with it.  It had been my very pocketknife, a gift from my grandfather.  I can still see him sitting around the campfire repeatedly opening and closing each of the many tools so as to make it easier to open for his young granddaughter.  That knife had whittled countless weenie sticks, wands, and arrows.  It had gutted fish, chopped potatoes and onions, dug out splinters, cut my fringe, you name it.  It had even carved a memorial for my dad in a fence at Reservoir Lake the summer after he passed away.  The knife had seen and done it all.  It was a symbol of my childhood, my roots, and my grandfather, whose birthday it would have been that very day, coincidentally enough.  There was absolutely no way I was throwing it away to save a few dollars.

Just as he was about to throw away the bullet and pocketknife, I snapped, “Hold on, you’re not going to throw that away.  I’ll go back and check the bag.”  He looked at me like I was crazy but rolled his eyes and threw the items back on my pack.  Then I did something that in hindsight was probably pretty stupid.  I said, “If I’m going to check my bag, I’d like my shampoo back.”  I pointed at the trash can, and twisted my mouth into my patented I’m stubborn as hell and I’d like to see you try to refuse me at this point you asshole smirk.  Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to anger a Bulgarian airport security officer for something worth as little as maybe $1 but it was the sheer principle of the matter fuelling me at that point.  I’ve gotten pretty good at controlling temper over the years but when it goes, it becomes a full eruption, pyroclastic blast and all. 

I shoved everything back in my bag, not caring about making it neat any more, and was escorted (read as: guided down to make sure the crazy American didn’t rush the gate) down to the baggage check area.  I approached the same man from whom I had gotten my ticket and informed him that I would now be checking my bag.  He clattered away on the keyboard then looked at me and said, “That’ll be 72€.”  72€?  Are you kidding me?  Fuck that!  Of  course I didn't say that.  In fact, I didn't say anything.  Instead, I broke down and started crying.  All the rage at the security man, all the frustration of this stupid process, all the stress, the desire to be home, the worry about spending too much money.  It all came to a head in that moment as tears of frustration and humiliation spilled over my cheeks. 

I started trying to protest the sheer ridiculousness of that. “Why is it I have to pay 72€ now when I could have literally checked my bag ten minutes ago for only 30€.  I only paid like 54€ for my entire ticket.  I’m not checking a bag for more than the entire flight!  That’s ridiculous!”  When my coherent and logical arguing failed to get me anywhere, I started my panic.  That all too familiar fluttering of my heart and constricting of my airways and hyperventilation rendered me unable to say much more than blubber about how I couldn’t afford to pay 72€.”  That seemed to get through to him and he called over a young woman who did her best to calm me down.  “There, there.  Calm down.  There’s no need for tears.  We’ll get it all sorted.”  She led me over to another counter and after five minutes of conversing with the counter attendant in Bulgarian, she looked at me and said, “You can check your bag for 25€.”  Sold.  I forked over my credit card and did my best to dry the tears off my face.  I hate crying in front of other people.  On the list of things I hate, it would fall pretty close to the patriarchy and Republicans.   But it had also saved me 50€.  This was now the second time tears had saved me in airports.  My tears were never an intentional scheme to save myself money but my anxiety had at least yielded favorable results nonetheless.  Amber’s tears: 2, Airports: 0.

I’m sure most people will read this and wonder how a 2.50€ bullet keychain and a $5 pocket knife could possibly be worth such an incredible hassle.  The knife alone was worth it and truth be told, if it came down to it, I would have been willing to pay 72€ for it.  In that way I’m sickly sentimental and stupidly naïve but having been through as much as I have in my short life, you learn than sentimentality is not always a bad thing.  That knife was full of memories but it was also a symbol of all I had lost and endured, a survival tool in more ways than one.  
            My back safely shrink wrapped (another 5€ I might add) I reentered the security area, intentionally going into a different line from Mr. Knife Nazi.  This time, I went through without a hitch and was able to proceed to the gated area and board my plane.  One think I will say about my flight: I may have ended up paying a bit more for my ticket all together than I would have on a budget airline, but it was so worth it.  To start, I was given an entire hot meal on only a three hour flight (take note American airlines, peanuts simply don’t cut it).  Even better, I was given unlimited free alcohol and after spending extra money to check my bag, I intended on getting my money’s worth in the form of mini bottles of white wine.

Happily buzzing a couple mini bottles of wine later, I lost myself out the window, staring at the rolls of white clouds lazily floating by the plane.  I began reflecting on my journey, on everything it had taught me, and how much it had changed me.  Going back felt strange to say the least.  I couldn’t imagine just staying in one place for two months, not having to pack and repack constantly.  In many ways, I was actually looking forward to it. Maybe it was a product of the trying day I had had, but I felt exhausted.  I had been going hard and fast for a month and a half and I was ready for a break before setting out on my next adventure.  And I missed Oxford.  I missed the comfort I had grown to feel there, the confidence in knowing I had settled into the groove of matriculated student life.  Going back this term would finally feel like I belonged there. While Hilary term had been great, I spent much of it just dipping my toes in the water, testing out different people and learning how the entire system worked.  Now that I had all that pegged, I could spend this term just living.

I thought back on my travels and compared the experience to the expectation I held of traveling before I had actually really done it.  People tell you travel is a life changing experience, that you’ll make unforgettable memories, that it’s important to see what the world has to offer.  All of that is 110% true and I probably did it more than most.  But what they don't tell you is that it is also really hard.  It’s not some glamorous jet-setting journey that is filled with sunshine and introspective epiphanies.  Sometimes it sucks and you can’t possibly see the good in a situation because the growth you undergo is subtle and sometimes you don’t even notice it’s happening.  There are bad days when you travel, days when I wanted to sit in my hostel and not leave bed, days when I found myself crying discreetly beneath my sunglasses as I walked around because it all just seemed too much, days when I wanted to quit and fly home.  That's normal and it’s okay entirely okay to feel that way.  It doesn't mean you don't love travel, it doesn't mean you're not cut out for it.  To get overwhelmed when you're traveling through unfamiliar lands proves that you're human. 

My pride is my fatal flaw and so it is often difficult for me to admit to myself when I struggle.  I had this assumption hat I was some great world traveler who would thrive in foreign countries before this trip.  Now, I know it to be a fact, but not for the same reasons as I once assumed.  I am a natural born traveler but not because I am fearless and that nothing gets to me.  On the contrary, travel is in my bones and my heart because I still love it despite all the difficulties I endured.  Because what's more impressive: someone who genuinely always feels in a good mood and has no problem motivating themselves to jump into the fray or those who struggle like hell and do it anyway.  There is something a bit empowering in knowing you are able to survive in the unknown world on your own and adapt to new situations.  Things I once found difficult, navigating Oxford for instance, now seem like casual challenges.  I navigated my way through Eastern Europe on my own.  I can do anything.

Landing in London was a strange experience.  A little over three months ago, I had landed in that very airport feeling nervous with absolutely no idea how to get on in the UK.  Now I was landing again but this time those nerves and feelings of ignorance were replaced with comforting feelings of familiarity.  After being in foreign countries for so long, London seemed rather like home.  If I could navigate the streets of Seville, I could sure as hell navigate the London Tube from Heathrow Airport.  After another grilling session in order to obtain my visa (apparently my last one expired the minute I left the country?) I picked up my checked bag and headed to the Tube for a 35 minute ride into central London.  The minute I emerged from Victoria Station, I breathed a sigh of relief, and for once didn’t inhale fumes of cigarette smoke thanks to the “No Smoking Zone” signs painted on the pavement beneath my feet.  Thank you England.  All around me people were chatting away and I found myself shocked that I could understand all of them.  Even street signs and advertisements all being in English made me feel incredibly literate simply because I was able to read them.  It’s amazing how much we take our ability to understand the world around us for granted. 

London now seemed an entirely different city from the one I had left a month and a half ago.  Aside from my newfound appreciation for simple luxuries I had once ignored, the change in season had brought new life to London.  As the Oxford Tube rolled by Hyde Park, I noticed the once barren trees were now all leafed out and the grass was covered with people laying on blankets, throwing Frisbees, and walking their dogs.  And get this: there was actually blue sky.  Whoa there, UK, you’re freaking me out a little it. 

Even Oxford was pulsing with life when I returned. The semi-warm night air was vibrating with the voices of countless students walking along the lit streets.  I couldn’t wait for daylight to see the famous Trinity Term Oxford I had heard was so beautiful.  I was also looking forward to seeing friends again.  Though I had not had time in one term to grow particularly close to many people, they were still people I had grown to acknowledge as friends and I was surprised to find I missed them, maybe not anyone in particular but just the notion of having friends and living in a building surrounded by them.  I returned to St. Anne’s, grabbing an Ali’s that I had been craving so much on the way, and threw off my pack.  I realized how utterly exhausted I was and as much as I wanted to see people, reunions would have to wait.  Instead, I collapsed into bed, my very own bed, which as anyone who has ever been away from home for an extended period of time knows, is one of the best feelings in the world.