Just the day before, I’d been confiding in a friend that I felt like I had no knowledge of the world and wasn’t prepared to enter a career in international relations, or really any career at all. The following day, I was on a plane to Dusseldorf, explaining U.S. politics to the German man sitting next to me and listening to his explanations (in German!) of European politics.
It seems to me that once travel becomes a big part of people’s lives, the mundane details lose their novelty and excitement. As much as I love to travel, I hope it doesn’t become too big a part of my life, because I’m in love with those mundane details. I never want to lose the blooming sensation in my heart as I step onto a plane or watch the landscape rising up to meet the underbelly of those steel wings or greet the immigration officer in his language. Although this was my 2nd time in Germany and 6th time in Europe, it felt like my first time out of the country.
Despite the fact that I spent the entire flight catching up on school readings and journaling, not sleeping, I was wide-awake and ready to sprint through the airport to make the most of my 4 hour layover. Thankfully, Dusseldorf Airport at 6am felt itty-bitty compared to some of the other German powerhouses that accommodate the people criss-crossing the world. It took me less than half an hour total to get through customs, exchange some dollars for euros, hail a cab, and step foot into downtown Dusseldorf.
An early Saturday morning, people my age stumbled around the square, slurring at me and trying to get my number, my money, my phone. “Ich verstehe nicht,” I lied, relief washing over me as I spotted C finally appear across the street.
C, a lovely friend from my 2014 NSLI-Y program in Seoul, who, on my journey back to Chicago from Abu Dhabi in 2016, drove 2 hours to Charlotte, North Carolina to see me for 30 minutes during my layover. Here, in Germany! She took the semester off to study German at a university in Mannheim, but not before spending a semester working as a plumber, kayaking guide, AND animal caretaker!
We took a nice walk around downtown Dusseldorf, admiring the colorful architecture, surreal flat-topped trees, powerful Rhine river, and distant Rheinturm. I was disappointed not to see any of the wild parrots C had hyped me up about. It was early enough that we encountered few others, which us feel like the only people in the city. C was probably tired of hearing repeat myself over and over: “Germany is so beautiful! I can’t believe I’m back in EUROPE!”
I had anticipated only having 20-30 minutes with C because my layover was only 4 hours, but I ended up staying an hour, and even then, I had another hour to kill at my gate when I got back to the airport. People were not exaggerating when they told me a taxi ride between the city and the airport would only take 15 minutes! And whether I would’ve had 15 minutes or 15 hours with C, I’m happy our friendship has survived distance and only seeing each other twice since NSLI-Y.
I sat next to two unfriendly-seeming guys on my flight to Vienna, but as soon as I started talking to them in their language, Italian, they softened up and were curious about where I was from and where I was going.
My nearly 24 hours without sleep was starting to catch up with me, so I planned on taking a nap in the airport before venturing into the city. But then I reminded myself that I only had 10 hours, that friends were waiting for me. Although I usually find it impossible to fight off the hands of fatigue (let’s hope taking vitamin D every day eventually solves that), I forced myself to take the next train into the city. It sounds inconsequential, but for someone like me who lets chronic fatigue control my life and sometimes negatively impact relationships, this was a step in the right direction, proof to me that I am in control of not just my mind but my body.
At Vienna Central Station, I was met by Carolyn, a good friend from my semester at Yonsei, and Alexa, one of her friend’s from Yonsei. Carolyn is French-American but goes to school in the Netherlands, and Alexa is a local Vienna resident. I had withdrawn early from my Yonsei semester, and on my last day, Carolyn and I wondered when we’d see each other again and where it would be. We certainly did not anticipate it being a mere 6 months later in Vienna!
It was my 2nd time in Vienna and 3rd in Austria, but I was there long enough ago and for briefly enough that this trip still felt like my first time in Austria at all! We tried melanges (a local Viennese specialty that’s basically a cappucino but made with a long shot instead of an espresso), sucked down free smoothies and left our marks at a Yoobar pop-up store, caught up on each other’s lives on Museumplein, took a quick nap at Burggarten. It appeared that my plans to see Schonbrunn Palace again were too ambitious for the <10 hours we had together on my layover.
I follow a travel vlogging couple, Sam and Audrey, on Youtube, and as Carolyn and I were walking around intending to stop at the first cafe we could find, we stumbled across one of their recommendations, Aida! Not exactly a local favorite but definitely a tourist one, we decided to drop our guard just once and let ourselves get caught up in a swirl of waitresses in retro skirts, bright pink decor, and decadent cakes.
Then I got a text from Delaney, one of my NSLI-Y internet friends, that she was in the city too! She did NSLI-Y in Oman studying Arabic, and she was on her YES Abroad exchange year in Bulgaria. She and her host grandmother had come to Vienna for the weekend, and we sat at the aqua-domed Karlskirche together for an hour, talking about our different experiences abroad. And can I just say that her Bulgarian баба is quite the adventurous, happening woman?!
Then came time for me to catch my flight to Yerevan. Thankfully, I had a row to myself and could finally sleep. I had never really heard spoken Armenian before – the only exposure I’d had to the language was the Glendale Armo rap I listen to. It was definitely exciting to meet Armenians at my gate and hear them speaking their language!
It seems like many of the best days of my life are spent on planes, in airports, on layovers. Reuniting with old friends and meeting in real life an internet friend whom I’ve seen a couple more times since Vienna? Check. Exploring a new city and rediscovering an old one? Check. Using rudimentary high school German? Check. Realizing that fatigue and discomfort are just messages to the brain, and that I can hold all calls if I want to? Definitely check.
I may still not know to much about the world, but at least I know myself.