August 23, 2007

Leavin' On a Jet Plane - Part Two: From New York to Europe

It was not a comfortable feeling to know my luggage hadn't arrived in New York with me, especially since the next morning I was headed to Europe to live for a year. But what could I do? After filing the report at the lost luggage claims office, the exchange volunteers and I walked outside to the van. I couldn't help looking around me and marveling at the fact that this Montana girl was actually standing in New York City! It was impossible for me to look away as we drove down the congested roads - or were they highways? Our highways back home had only two lanes in each direction! I wondered how on earth the guy driving knew where to go, it was such a big city.

We arrived at the college campus, and we went into the dorms where exchange students stayed overnight before heading to their new countries. I was taken into a dingy room with bare fluorescent lights above, weakly lighting the dirty white walls and ratty old couch in what must have been the lounge area of the dorm. There was a card table set up beside the couch where they checked me in, verified my plane tickets jived with what their records showed for departure times, and gave me a room number down the adjoining hall. I could see kids milling around but nobody was talking to anyone else. I went to my room with my carry-on bag.

I was a bit shocked at the filth; the bunk bed wasn't made, and the floor and walls were disgusting. I expected to see cockroaches and rats but didn't, thank goodness. There was no cover to the single bulb that hung from the ceiling by a thin cord. I turned and shut the door, and found to my horror that there was NO. LOCK. ON. MY. DOOR! In big bad New York City. No lock! In fact, the door wouldn't even latch closed no matter how hard I tried. I went back out to find the lady at the card table had left because I was the last exchange student to arrive that day.

I had no choice but to accept my room and hope for the best. I changed for bed in the bathroom down the hall. I slept with my bag beside my pillow next to the wall. I hardly slept all night. I knew that every noise I heard was someone creeping into my room to get me or my stuff.

The next morning was filled with all the exchange volunteers frantically trying to track down my lost luggage. I had packed an entire year’s worth of clothes, knowing I was poor and wouldn’t have much spending money during my year. I had to get that suitcase back. Unfortunately, the time came to leave and we still hadn’t located it. Just as I stepped up into the bus to return to the airport, a car careened into the parking lot behind me. The driver jumped out before the car had come to a complete stop, whipped opened the trunk, and it was like a slow-motion scene straight out of a romantic movie. . .he lifted out a suitcase that had beaming rays of light shooting out from the seams, while a multitude of angels sang hosannas in the background. The heavens smiled down on young SML, the stars were aligned, and I was reunited with my stuff.

We boarded a huge plane this time, bound for Brussels, Belgium. There were about twenty exchange students from the United States headed for Austria, and we were all booked on the same flight. It was fun listening to the multitude of languages being spoken on the plane. I tried hard not to stare as I listened to the people around me. Before long I discovered that I have a talent for sleeping on airplanes, especially when I can use the food tray in front of me and cross my arms to use as a pillow. We arrived in Brussels at 6:00 a.m., although for my body it was 10:00 p.m. and I hadn’t had any good sleep the night before. We found an empty terminal and sprawled out in a jet-lagged stupor for a few hours. Eventually we rallied and decided to go explore Brussels, since we had a twelve-hour layover.

The bus ride to the middle of Brussels was fun ~ twenty loud American teens getting their first glimpse of Europe. It was a sight to behold. We walked around until we found an American Express office, where we exchanged some money to buy pastries and drinks. I thought I had never tasted anything so good. I bought some hot chocolate upon my uncle’s advice (he served an LDS mission in Belgium) and it was excellent. We wandered around downtown, discovering a big square with a beautiful fountain in the middle of it. The architecture looked nothing like the ugly buildings back home. Hearing French all around me was an awesome experience, and I wished I could tell what the people were saying. We passed through narrow paths and walkways between buildings, to emerge out into other squares full of fountains, cafĂ© tables with umbrellas, people, and buildings with beautiful facades. It was so fun. I saw an old man sitting at his easel painting a fountain. I could have stood there watching him all day. We discovered a famous fountain of a naked boy peeing (called the Manikin Pis) that we got a kick out of photographing. Definitely nothing like that in Montana!

We eventually got tired and gathered back at the big fountain in the center. It was surrounded by a platform of steps, which we reclined on until it was time to head back to the airport for our 6:00 p.m. flight. It seemed like mere minutes and suddenly I could feel the plane descending to Vienna!

I had finally arrived in my new country.

It took considerable time for our group to be checked through customs, after which we were escorted by exchange volunteers to a large charter bus. We watched with fascination out the windows as the streets of Vienna passed our line of vision. Vienna in the evening light was beautiful. Soon we were in the rural outskirts of the city, and then we were in the country. The bus turned off a small road that led into the woods, and after about half an hour, we arrived at our destination: a secluded Boy Scout lodge. We unloaded and untangled all the luggage from the bottom of the bus, and half the kids got back on the bus, because they had another 6 hours to go before they reached the other side of Austria. The exchange program in Austria consisted of two zones, and I was glad my journey was over. By that time it was dark, so we went in, had stew for dinner, then fell exhausted in the rooms full of bunk beds.

The next day was the beginning of our five-day orientation before our host families arrived to take us home.

To be continued. . .


aka madre said...

Cool! This is all new to me and lots of fun to hear about!

Love you...

aka madre

Caroline (Caro) said...

Thanks for the beautiful explanation! I felt like I was there with you. =-)

I grew up in Belgium so hearing someone else talking about it is so cool. Especially as I dont remember very much of it myself. =-)

Thanks SML!

CV Rick said...

I'm so glad you're continuing this story, have gotten to Austria and to a BOY SCOUT lodge (how cool is that?).

I was definitely into the story . . . and you need to stop imitating people who leave stories at cliffhanger points, promising to continue the tale later.

Cele said...

I always wanted to be a foreign exchange student. I didnt' get to, but now I can see it through your eyes. Thank you so much.

Sideon said...

"The driver jumped out before the car had come to a complete stop, whipped opened the trunk, and it was like a slow-motion scene straight out of a romantic movie. . .he lifted out a suitcase that had beaming rays of light shooting out from the seams, while a multitude of angels sang hosannas in the background."

I wish my luggage did that beaming ray of light thing (which reminds me of a Madonna song...).

**sigh** Europe.

I'm going back to my cubicle to mope.

C. L. Hanson said...

What fun -- I didn't realize you'd been an exchange student!!!

The Sacred Sister said...

I love this post! I look forward to reading more about your experience.

wry catcher said...

I love this story. It makes me feel young again. I love that you got your luggage back just in time. That never happens once you're a cranky old grownup. :-)

Sister Mary Lisa said...

Madre~ I never thought about how you would react to reading this. In remembering it all, I realize how much like a mission we treated this trip. Only letters, a couple of phone calls the entire year, and no emails. . .I'm glad you can find out now what I was too young to think of sharing then.

Caro~ You're welcome! Interesting that you grew up in Belgium.

Cliffhanger Rick~ Rich. That's rich. I'm glad you're into the story so far. It should get better.

Cele~ thanks! I hope you feel like you are on an exchange yourself while you read my memories.

Sideon~ no moping! Just start planning your own trip to Europe.

Chanson~ it was a good experience in my life, one of the best. I highly recommend foreign exchange to help kids broaden their minds.

SS~ I'm glad you're enjoying my story.

Wry~ it's true. That luggage thing only happens in movies now. Ha.

hm-uk said...

I love this story! Yea, I'm glad you've written the next installment. Please tell us you won't make us wait as long for the next part?

Caroline (Caro) said...


technically I didnt really grow up in Belgium. =-) We moved to the US when I was 6 so most of what I do remember is from going back on vacation. =-)

Oh the joys of moving around. lol. I have to admit that it's taught me sooooo much though. =-) All stuff that you never get taught at school. =-)