Tourist Info Desk

Welcome to Fernweh, a blog concerning the (mis)adventures of one Fulbrighter during a year spent in Europe teaching English.
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Friday, July 16, 2010

Willkommen in Deutschland, bitte geben Sie uns Ihre Geld

"We are never using RyanAir again!" the woman behind me in the security queue fumed. She vaguely reminded me of my aunt Terri, so I guessed she was from Minnesota, but given my skill with accent identification, she could've been from Idaho, New Mexico, Vermont or Wisconsin. Or, for that matter, Canada.

I couldn't help myself. "Why, what happened?" I asked sweetly. I, of course, had breezed through the check-in and bag-drop lines with no problem; my checked bag, which was small enough to be a carry-on, had been just over half the maximum weight allowance.

"Well, if your bags are just a kilo over the weight limit, then you have to pay extra, but the kiosk wouldn't take our cards, so we had to join the line," the poor woman explained indignantly. I'm terrible, yes, but I was trying really hard to nod understandingly and not just smile. She was traveling with her husband and two middle-school-age children, so I imagine that complicated things. "It's just been a nightmare. We're never doing this again."

"I'm sorry to hear that," I sympathized in what I hope was a soothing coo. "Where are you flying?"

"Biarrhitz," she said, gurgling the "rrh". (I made that spelling up, FYI.) I blinked. Germany? Poland? Uzbekistan? I had no idea, so I asked. "It's in France," she informed me, like I should know.

I think I've read Jeremy Clarkson's opinion on...that place. He quite liked it. What I said was, "Ah. I've heard of it."

"And where are you going?"

"Frankfurt," I said as American-ly as possibly, deciding not to counter her French gargling with some German bronchitis.

"Oh," her son exclaimed to her as I turned away, "That's even worse!"

The thing about cheap travel is that you really do get what you pay for. When you stay at a nice hotel, you get huge comfy beds, a luxurious bathtub with gels and shampoos provided, cable TV, and chocolates on your pillow. (At least, so I hear.) If you pay £20 for a hostel, you get a squeaky bunk bed, two or three tiny showers that you share with the whole floor, and a locker to keep people from stealing your stuff. That last one only if you're lucky, though.

The thing about hostels, however, is that they're generally full of like-minded people who, having no satellite TV to watch on their nonexistent queen beds, congregate in common rooms to play pool or watch telly or drink together. Which means you get to meet fun, interesting people who share their adventures of the day, swap tips about where to go and what to see, and share a bit of their lives together for a day or two before they go their separate ways.

Now, minus the whole human interaction and sharing of cultures thing, airlines are the same. If you pay $4,000 dollars for first-class, you get a bed and a dedicated staff determined to make it seem like you are not in a tin can hurling through the atmosphere at a billion miles an hour, but rather in a comfy lounge somewhere, sipping champagne. If you can't be bothered with things like comfort and parting with your life savings, you fly economy, where the seats are too small and just on the knife's edge between slightly wrong and really uncomfortable, and if you have kind-hearted flight attendants, occasionally you get a glass of cranberry juice and some microwaved pasta. If, however, you are like me: a budget traveler wanting to pay as little as possible to get from point A (England) to point B (Frankfurt) as quickly as possible, you fly an airline like RyanAir.

Now, RyanAir's main selling point (besides being "On Time!", which is just silly) is that their fares are very, very cheap. As in, £7 kind of cheap. Now, how does a by-now-rather-large airline keep afloat when they're handing out boarding passes for pocket change? How else than hidden fees? Book by credit card (which you have to, online)? That's £5. Check a bag? £20. At least. You have to print your own boarding pass, although if you forget or lose it, they'll be happy to print you another...for £40. And the weight limits on baggage are very, very strict.

But if you know how to play the game, low-cost, high-stress airlines like RyanAir can be a huge blessing. You check the restrictions beforehand and make sure you understand all your options. You pack very light and don't try to push the limits. And above all, you assume that at every stage, you will be scrutinized (this is air travel, after all) so you make sure that all of your documents are in order, all your liquids in plastic baggies, all your times right and your tickets booked. And then, when you get there, you just sail placidly on through, knowing everything is in order.

Once I got to the waiting area (which, with all the stores and such, looked more like a typical shopping mall), my gate still wasn't posted, so I wandered around a bit, turned a few corners, and there before me crouched glory itself on a steel pedestal, spotlights gleaming off the sleek black sides. The two friendly gentlemen attending the ebony R8 and its neighbor, a somewhat rowdier and more crass-looking scarlet Ferrari 430, were selling raffle tickets for £20 to win a supercar. You may wonder that I am so taken with cars right now, but if you knew me about 4 years ago, you'd know this isn't the first time they've piqued my interest, and as then, I'm sure my fascination will eventually wane. For now, the R8 is my favorite, and I walked around it gazing in weak-kneed admiration and taking pictures like a enamored tourist.

When the gate was finally announced, I took off in that direction, but I found myself to be surprisingly reticent. I found that I didn't want to leave England, and I felt a slight panic at the thought of arriving in Germany. Traveling in England is pleasant and easy, if expensive; there's little language barrier, and the cultural differences are more interesting than embarrassing or confusing. But Germany is where my destiny lies; where I am committed to spend the next year of my life; where I will be expected to speak the language well, and try my skills as a teacher. This, my friends, is more than a little intimidating. And I found myself wanting to bolt back the other direction, take the bus back to Cambridge, and relax with some cream tea and scones instead of having to face up to what has brought me here in the first place.

I managed to get myself on the plane nevertheless. The flight itself was smooth and uneventful (picture: over England, looking across the Channel to France); the obnoxious trumpeting music upon landing told us that yet another RyanAir flight had arrived "On Time!" Hooray. I stepped out of the baggage collection area and into a sea of nostalgia. Frankfurt Hahn, a dumpy, slightly skeezy little airport just east of nowhere in particular, holds many fond memories for me, from waiting to meet friends in its tight-fisted, overpriced cafes to spending a mostly sleepless night attempting to drift off under the harsh glare of flourescent lights with a coat for a pillow and a towel for a blanket. This time, it was warm and bright, and I dropped back into speaking German with surprising ease. Some of last vestiges of my earlier panic started to ebb.

While waiting for the bus, I began talking to a man, most likely in his forties, going the same way, who invited me to sit with him on the bus. He was very intelligent and polite, and we discussed the social and educational effects of the Internet, the variant dialects of English, and the behavior of different cultures towards the issue of race (he's from Ghana and has traveled quite a bit). All told, it was a very pleasant way to spend an otherwise quite boring two-hour bus ride. At the end, hearing that I was setting off to meet my mother in a place that I could hopefully remember in the hopes that she'd be there, he gave me his e-mail, mobile number, and Skype handle to stay in touch, especially if I was ever in the London area again.

Now, I could use some help here. This is the second time this has happened in two days, the first being the two nice gentlemen in Cambridge (post here), "this" meaning "being given business cards and an open invitation to ring/have drinks at some point in the future." I wasn't sure what to make of it the first time, since those two had been considerably older than me (late forties to early fifties, I'd say), but I'd laughed it off because we'd been in a pub or whatnot. Now the gentleman from the bus has done the same thing. How should I take this? Is it just a friendly gesture? Fairly common? Not so much? Do I laugh it off or take it in earnest? If anyone has any idea, I'd love to know.

Anyway, I was mostly unconcerned about the whole finding-my-mother thing, and set off for where I remembered the hostel to be. There it was, sure enough, and all seemed to be in order until the receptionist told me that my mother and her friend, Janna, were not checked in there, and there were no reservations under their names. This considerably baffled me. I took a walk round the block and got my first Starbuck's of the trip to ease the stress and then returned to the hostel to try one last time, wondering how this had gone so wrong and how, with no mobile for either of us and no Internet access for my mother, we would possibly be able to meet up. Just as I was getting ready to book my own room for the night, Mom and Janna came up the stairs. Disaster averted! (That truncated version merrily skips over the hour or so of frantic problem-solving and stumped desperation.)

Mom presented me with a lovely new shirt and, to my delight, a brand new pair of maroon Converse (<3!), then we headed out to dinner at an outdoor Italian place. Now I'm curled up on my bunk in the dark, listening to Janna snore with shocking volume and hoping it'll cool down enough for me to sleep eventually.

Having been almost entirely on my own for more than two weeks, readjusting to sharing life with other people will be a challenge. One of the best things about traveling alone is that I only have to take my own desires into account; I can come and go, eat or fast, rest or press on, as I think is best, without regard to anyone else. Now, I have two other people to consider, and we will have to compromise.

However, I'm also looking forward to sharing this trip with these two. Not only is it less stress and responsibility for me, but it also means I get to share the delight and adventure of travel with them. The next three weeks will tell.

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