15 September 2014

Coming home: Vienna to Madrid

I awoke to my phone alarm at 4:30am on Sunday, August 31. As is my unintended custom when I have to get up early for something, I hadn't slept much or very well.

Veronika got up with me and made us coffee while I dressed and finished packing my bags. We stood in the kitchen chatting as I drank my coffee and ate the croissant I'd had the unusual foresight to buy the previous afternoon. Though I don't remember now what we talked about, I remember it was a pleasant and interesting conversation, and that I was grateful for her company.

Around a ten after five, I hugged Veronika goodbye, reassured us both that I'd left the keys to the flat on her entryway bench, and left her flat for the last time. With a pack full of clothes on my back and my purse and another backpack full of computer and notebooks, I went down the stairs and out the front door into the quiet, still-dark street. As I rounded the corner I heard a voice above me. "Yes, that is right!" she said. I looked up to see Veronika had poked her head out the window to make sure I knew the way to the tram stop. We waved to each other and I continued on.

The tram stop was only a couple of blocks away, and despite the fact that I'd never caught it there before I had no problem following Veronika's instructions to the platform for the tram going in the direction I wanted.

It was still pitch dark out except for the streetlights. A man - I guessed he was in his early 40s - sat on a bench in the middle of the platform. For a moment he and I were the only ones there. I considered sitting down or at least taking off one of my two backpacks, but the tram was supposed to arrive soon and it would be more work to keep taking them off and on than just to stand there like a pack mule. Then a 30-something man came up on my right and said something in German. He was thin with dark hair. On the handsome side.

"Ich kann nur ein bisschen Deutsch," I said in an apologetic tone. 

"English?" he asked. I guessed from his thick, non-German accent and the little I knew about the neighborhood that he was probably Romanian. 

"Yes," I said. 

He asked whether there was a store open anywhere. I didn't know. "I'm not usually up this early," he said. It occurred to me that he'd probably stayed up all night and might still be drunk.

"Yeah, me either." 

"So where are you going?" he asked in a tone of voice that suggested he was just settling into the conversation.

"Home," I said. 

He smiled and his eyebrows shot up. "At this hour?" 

"Yes," I said, starting to get saucy, and then I suddenly understood his confusion. He thought home was somewhere in Vienna. "To the airport," I clarified. 

"Ah," he said, and moved on to the man sitting on the bench. Their conversation began with a question, some head scratching and pointing. Soon they were chatting away in Romanian. The younger man bummed a cigarette, and before long their body language was that of good friends.

The tram arrived on time, and all three of us got on. The ride to the stop indicated in the directions Georg had looked up and forwarded to me took longer than I'd expected. There weren't many people out at this hour, but by the time we arrived at my stop there were maybe a dozen people on the tram. Most of them disembarked with me. When I saw some of them rushing, I correctly guessed that they wanted the same commuter train as I - which was due to arrive in two minutes - so I followed them to the platform.

The monthly pass I'd bought for about €49,00 (at Georg's excellent suggestion) was good for the U-Bahn, trams, city buses and commuter trains within Vienna, but the airport lay outside the bounds of my ticket. Veronika had therefore given me a ticket that would bridge the gap. I looked around on the platform for somewhere to validate it, but when I saw nowhere to do so, I figured one must validate the ticket on the train, as with the tram.

The commuter train arrived a couple of minutes late, jam-packed full of people. And there was nowhere in the car to validate the ticket. After standing around looking unsure for a while I decided to take off a backpack and sit down. More people, most with suitcases, piled on at each stop.

At the train platform at the airport a cluster of people stood looking at a screen. I began to follow people toward the escalators on the right, but when I noticed a sign that indicated there were check-in counters in both directions, I thought better of it and went to look at the screen. Check-in for my airline was to the right.

I followed the signs to self check-in, used the machine to print my ticket. I felt a tap on my right shoulder, so slight I might've imagined it. I turned in that direction and then felt Erdem on my left. One of his favorite tricks, and I'd fallen for it yet again. He'd finished checking in long ago and had been looking for me. Both our flights left around 7am, his to Barcelona and mine to Madrid.

My ticket in hand, we headed toward security. Our path took us by an area where people were using machines to check their luggage.

"Can I carry these on?" I asked an airline representative standing at the entrance to the luggage checking area, pointing to my backpacks.

She looked doubtful. "I don't know. You have to weigh them. There is an 8-kilo limit for carry on bags."

I sighed and went over to a free machine. It had me scan my ticket and then put my bag on the belt to weight it. I weighed the bag with my computer in it first. 8.6 kilos. Damn. The machine automatically printed out a luggage tag. I put the second bag on the belt and weighed it. 9.8 kilos. Double damn. The machine printed out another luggage tag.

But then I was confused. Where was I supposed to put the bags? I looked around and spotted an airline rep standing calmly to the side. He had a longish grey beard and wore a turban. He scanned my ticket again and told me to put a bag on the belt. I put the one with my clothes on it, he pushed something on the screen, and the belt carried my bag away. The computer printed out a baggage receipt. I grudgingly tucked the baggage claim receipt in with my tickets; I'd never needed a claim receipt and resented having to keep track of one more little piece of paper.

I put the second bag on the belt, but there was something wrong. "Oh," he said. "It's because you've already checked a bag." 

I seized the opportunity. "If I can carry this one on, I'd like to do that." 

He eyeballed it briefly. "Okay," he said. He took the luggage tag over to a rep who was sitting behind a counter and asked her to cancel it. After a couple of minutes he gave me the all-clear, and I rejoined Erdem and we resumed our short trek toward security.

But the signs said our gates were in opposite directions. It was only about 6:15am, so we decided to sit down for a bit before parting ways to go through security. We made small talk. Erdem asked to borrow a pen. I handed it over without question, not paying attention to what he was doing. Turned out he was writing an inscription on the last page of a little book he'd bought for me as a souvenir of my days in Vienna.

Blushing both with pleasure at the gift and embarrassment that I hadn't anything to give in return, I looked at the inscription. "Is that Turkish?"

"Yes." He pronounced the words and translated them.

I repeated the Turkish a couple of times, trying out a completely new-to-me language on my tongue.

"Very good," he said, his eyes and smile conveying both mild surprise and pleasure.

We parted with a hug, like we had the afternoon before, and like the afternoon before, his hand caressed the crown of my head in a gesture both intimate and nurturing.

Going through security, I had to take all my electronics out (including phone, chargers, etc.) as well as the little baggie of bottled liquids, but I didn't have to take my shoes off. Finding my gate was easy and quick, and I only had to wait about 15 minutes before boarding began.

The flight to Brussels was short, especially considering they served beverages, and I managed to doze off and on for most of it. My worry about catching my next flight - from Brussels to Madrid, with only half an hour between - proved needless, as the gate for my next flight was directly across the corridor from the gate I arrived at. In fact, I had time to use the restroom and wait a while before we began boarding.

It was on this second flight that it became evident why the ticket I'd bought was more expensive than I'd anticipated. My seat was in a special class between business and economy. While the three rows of passengers that comprised this in-between class didn't get water in real glasses or damp, hot towels with which to refresh ourselves before our meal, we did get a meal. The economy class did not. I don't even think the economy class got a beverage. I felt both guilty and smug as I dove into my "potato boat" filled with spinach and a dollop of tomato sauce.

And then I arrived in Madrid. And my checked bag - which contained almost all my clothes, my German textbooks, two books of short stories in Spanish by Miguel Cervantes, a blank notebook, a completed journal, and a notebook full of my creative writing - did not.

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