The Awkward Arrival: Foreign Travel’s Most Memorable Moment
I’m beginning to realize that one of the most memorable parts of a trip is the moment you emerge from the train or subway station in the middle of a foreign city after the ride from the airport. Because, honestly, most airports look like every airport.
(Side note: the exception to this would be the first time I flew to Ukraine. It was the middle of winter and we de-boarded the plane by removable stairs on to the tarmac. I remember the biting wind in my face as we climbed down those stairs and watching the bus that was supposed to take us to the terminal fill up and leave us. Stranded. On the tarmac. In the middle of winter. Freezing cold. Bogdan looked at me and said, “Welcome to Ukraine!”)
But most airports are the same and you don’t get that culture shock or that burst of bustle until you get to the city center.
Munich was no different. The train ride itself was easy, although we worried the whole ride because even though we had bought tickets, we didn’t know that we had to validate the ticket before boarding (a factoid we learned while reading the Rick Steves book after boarding the train). So we sat, nervously clutching our bookbags on our laps, tapping our feet, and praying a large German ticket collector (because, let’s face it, he would be large) would not show up and write us a several hundred euros fine for not following the rules.
He didn’t show up.
But our nerves were on slight edge as we emerged from the underground into the bright, busy, Marienplatz. I always feel like such a target at this point because you are getting off at the city center, you have luggage. You’re groggy. And you can’t read the signs.
This also happened in Madrid last year. Our flight arrived in the city at 7 a.m. after what we knew would be a sleepless overnight journey across the Atlantic, so we planned that the first day after a flight like that would be a useless whirlwind of semi-consciousness. It was. We stowed our luggage in our hotel’s lobby and drowsily emerged on the street. Our first breakfast in Mardid was churros and hot chocolate among a boisterous group of local grandpas and grandmas chatting, laughing, and watching Emociones 2 on television featuring long lost pairs meeting once again, embracing in tears and then making out (and more) right there on what we assumed to be national television.
And in London back in 2008. We arrived at Heathrow at 7 a.m., after a sleepless flight with cramped legs and desperately needed-to-be-brushed teeth. The adrenaline pumping through our blood stream made us believe we’d last all day. We emerged from the underground to 50 degree weather in June, and complete and utter loss of direction. We walked in circles, asking strangers for directions all the while feeling those adrenaline levels dwindling.
Finally, we found and checked in to the hotel, showered, changed in to warmer clothing and headed to the tube toward Portobello Market. Slowly, we walked the rainy streets of Notting Hill trying to feign excitement at the sites, but failing miserably. We ducked in a cafe, ate a small lunch where we sat on terribly uncomfortable stools, steadily descending in to previously-unknown levels of conscious sleep. Exhausted and grumpy, and no idea of what time it was (neither of us brought our watches) we made our way through the bustling and damp market stalls. I asked a woman the time, and when she told me it was 10 till noon, I shrugged and said I thought it was 3 p.m., she looked at me oddly.
And then also in Amsterdam back in 2010. We learned from our Portobello Market mistake, and planned to start our trip with a nap after our 7 a.m. arrival in Amsterdam, saving our sightseeing for later in the day. As we wandered aimlessly in Schipol Airport, trying to understand what a microchip was and attempting to read signs in Dutch, our bodies still thinking it was 1 a.m. and desperately wanting sleep and maybe English, we finally bought tickets for a train to take us to a tram that would get us to our bed and breakfast.
Finally, after all of that, we’ve wizened up a bit on our international travels. We make sure that the flight arrives in the early afternoon so we can actually check in to the hotel when we arrive. That’s the other lesson – you’re going to be miserable that first day, so don’t plan on doing anything and take a nap.
But set an alarm.
Or you will sleep until about, oh, 2 a.m.
Don’t forget to be aware during your arrival in a new country, as awkward as it may be. Because that first impression, that first glimpse of culture and real life will be something you will want to remember.