I originally wrote this blog 13 years ago in 2003. This is part 1 in a short 3 part memoir on my first solo overseas experience to Italy. The narrative is told from a young, nervous, naive, unexplored and certainly not well-travelled 21-year-old me.
I sit at the Burger King window nervously gazing out as I eat my Whopper. I stare through the double glazed glass, out at the tarmac beyond the terminal and I begin to think; ‘it’s been a while since I’ve flown’ and my nerves to kick in with a free-falling sense of dread that starts in my stomach and works its way through my body in hot flashes. I’m lucky enough to have won a scholarship to study a semester in Italy and am on my way to ‘L’universita per Stranieri di Perugia’ – The University for Foreigners in Perugia, Umbria.
Itʼs strange you know, sitting here, watching the huge jets fire up their engines before hurtling down the runway yet not hearing a thing. From the secure air-conditioned world of the terminal, take off looks like such a peaceful process, so smooth and quiet, so detached from the reality of the nervous tension I’ll feel at that moment, that very moment when you line up on the runway and you stop. Everything goes quiet and you’ve never felt so still. Engines roar as you bounce around and your palms sweat as you’re pushed back into your seat. At this point you’re willing the plane upward, with every muscle in your body, you’re helping get the enormous jet in the air. However for now, the world of the tarmac is peaceful. It’s a territory never really experienced as you’re escorted through an umbilical system of tubes and tunnels into yet another bubble… The plane itself.
I remember the first time I flew. I was young and not yet accustomed to such things as airports. I just remember thinking that there were so many rooms. The check in, the shopping area, the waiting area, the gate lounge and then a long hallway with a woman waiting to greet us at the end. It wasn’t until I noticed that the windows in this last room where small and oval-shaped that I realized we were on the plane.
I walk through the giant glass departure doors. They are ridiculously oversized yet make me feel kind of special. I feel as if I have a special backstage pass that enables me to pass through this gleaming gateway… A portal to another world. These doors are what separate the travelers from the ‘farewellers’. Too often I have sat at airports as a fareweller. I would say goodbye to jet-setting family members and then watch the planes thrusting into the sky in silence without experiencing any of the nerve-shattering g-forces myself. Not this time.
It’s only now that the realization of my impending adventure hits me like a freak wave. I’m getting on a plane to go to the other side of the world by myself. I feel my legs go weak and I begin to feel dizzy. The already tiny walkway seems to shrink as the flight crew in the distance begin to smile and acknowledge my presence. It’s a reality check I had not expected. However, I pull myself along the walkway and manage a smile as I hand over my boarding pass.
Yes, I had mentally prepared myself; even crossing each day off my ʻSTA Travel’ calendar they gave me with my ticket purchase. It is as big as a bookmark and is designed to stand up on your desk. It counts days down from forty until the day of your departure. The Departure day has ‘Sayonara’ printed on it. I think ʻArriverderciʼ would be more appropriate, but it still got me excited for the last forty days. It’s the first thing I would do each morning as soon as I remembered. I would wake up in a daze forgetting about my planned trip, then as I gained morning consciousness I’d remember with a pang of accompanied excitement. Quickly I would make my way to my study and cross my new day off the calendar. Then I’d just sit there looking at it for a while, staring at the, now lesser, amount of days until it was time. But nothing had truly prepared me for this.
I get a seat over the wing… That’s good. They say the wing is the strongest part of the plane. We sit on the tarmac for what feels like hours. It feels strange when I peer out my window and see the familiar Melbourne Tullamarine freeway pulling away from the terminal as I already feel miles away from home and on the other side of the globe. The flight crew begins their safety demonstration with the life jackets and all. I try not to think of the aircraft disaster shows I’ve seen and want to slip back into my earlier naïve beliefs that planes can float on water. I try to block out the images of planes splitting into pieces on impact.
I get excited as they then repeat all the messages in Italian. I test myself and listen carefully to see if I can understand. However, I’m flying Cathay pacific and am having difficulty as, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Italian spoken as a second language in a foreign accent and crackly through the speaker it comes across as Mandarin-Italian. Punctuated with the same stresses and accents as Mandarin but Italian words. I give up and settle into my seat.
The flight itself begins to blur into a daze. Long trips are funny like that as there is nothing eventful, no time stamps for the mind to go on, so the memory can’t work properly, leaving the whole experience feeling like a strange gap in time. A retrospective dream.
After nine hours, I’m in Hong Kong. A nervous stop over as the threat of the SARS virus is at its peak. People everywhere are wearing hospital-like masks over their faces for fear of contracting the virus. I feel scared. The place is alien enough for me let alone the fact that even the humans look like strange masked robots walking cautiously throughout the terminal. Some of them wear stickers with a picture of a thermometer on them ʻIʼm ok, I’ve been checked todayʼ it reads ensuring everyone that their temperature today has not indicated that have the virus. We all have to line up, as we too have to have our temperature checks. Finally, I get to my turn and just as I’m beginning to loosen my jaw and open my mouth the masked man sticks something in my ear. Some new type of thermometer system. I’m cleared ok, but none of us get a sticker like the airport personnel. I feel strangely disappointed.
I sit and wait in the terminal. It’s dark and I try to gaze through my reflection in the window to see what Hong Kong looks like. I feel like I’m in this strange bubble. I realise now when people say they’ve been to a country, just because they’ve passed through the airport doesn’t mean they’ve been there at all. I could be anywhere right now and if it weren’t for the constant reminders of the airport P.A telling us to cover our mouths when sneezing, I would have forgotten where we were. Although one thing did strike me as foreign.
Every now and then I would get a waft of the smell of outside air through the air conditioner. It was so foreign yet slightly familiar. After some careful deep inhales I realised that it had a similar smell to that of Bangkok that Iʼd visited two years ago. It was like a strange combination of humidity, fish sauce, pollution and charcoal barbeques that seemed to waft into the sterile terminal at regular intervals.
Finally, we were back on the plane and on our way to Rome. Again I remember little, except my disorientation with time. I remember waking during the night and peering out my window to see the most stars Iʼd seen in my life then, after waking properly, I saw the longest sunrise ever as the sun chased us for hours, our plane fighting against time thrusting west. The sun’s dull red glow followed us until we began our descent. I remember looking at my TV monitor and noticing the plane was tracking over Iraq. I looked out the window at the land below. It glowed in a purple-red hue beneath the thin layer of cloud and I could just make out crevasses and mountains. It looked so peaceful and beautiful. It was strange to think that a war was going on there now. That underneath us hid terrorists in caves as American troops raided and bombed the beautiful continent below.
As we descend into Rome, I watch the plane track on the screen and watch the synchronized landscape out the window. I see beautiful green paddocks before sea again as we fly from Italy’s heel to its ankle. It’s a surreal experience flying into something so foreign, not knowing what to expect. It’s always so different to your expectation. Bangkok was the same. My expectation assured me I would be greeted by beautiful white linen table clothed restaurants playing soft Thai music with wooden, carved ornaments on the wall. I imagined strolling through the peaceful streets. When I landed in the hot, chaotic, strange, sun-drenched city I found it to be incredibly different. I did finally made it to a restaurant, but there were no wooden carvings or linen tablecloths. I remember collapsing exhausted in my plastic chair as tuk-tuks buzzed past me and ordering my green curry from the Thai man standing next to a bright Coca-Cola sign. The food however, was sensational!
It’s a long trip on the tarmac shuttle bus as we fly around witches’ hats across the hot concrete. This world is very different to the quiet, organized tarmac through the Burger King window. We arrive at customs and again we have to queue up and have our temperature taken. We’re targeted as we have come from Hong Kong where the virus is at its worst. I begin to get frustrated and want to tell the officials that I only came through transit and have not been in the city areas where you risk being exposed… But I wait. It comes to my turn and again I am greeted with a different type of thermometer.
The masked Roman points a gun like device at my forehead and pulls a trigger. Half of his face is masked but I register what I think is a frown on his sweaty exposed brow. He points to a small room on his left and says ʻaspetta quiʼ. My two years of Italian study suddenly fail me as I completely miss what he said to me but I slowly move in panic to where he pointed. My heart is racing as I rub my sweaty palms together. I suddenly have visions of the Australians I have seen on the news who have been forced to be quarantined in bubbles for weeks in strange countries, expected to be infected with SARS. I’m panicking now, and at a moment when I want my temperature to go down, this is not great timing. I’m still confused, but one of my fellow passengers comes over and says ʻhe said wait hereʼ. I nod and try to manage a smile of thanks. Another masked woman approaches me and asks me if Iʼm feeling unwell. She speaks English, I do speak Italian but not at a moment like this. ʻIʼm just nervousʼ I manage to say as I explain that I was in Hong Kong in transit only. She gives what is finally a conventional thermometer to stick under my arm, as I have to wait inside a small room for five minutes while they take my temperature again. I begin to think of cooling thoughts and loosen my arm as much as possible but not enough so that the thermometer falls from my armpit.
The frowning masked man comes in and says something in Italian to me that again I miss. The English-speaking woman translates for me. Normally I would be ashamed that I didn’t understand the man’s Italian but right now I couldn’t care less. The woman tells me to give the masked man the thermometer. I do so trying to look calm as I put on my ʻI donʼt have SARS faceʼ and try to conjure up a healthy glow. We have another translated conversation then the man speaks in Italian to the lady for what feels like an eternity.
The man hands me a piece of paper but lets me go. He says if I feel sick to go to a doctor and take the piece of paper with me. Theyʼre letting me go. I am incredibly relieved as I walk out I manage my first bit of Italian ʻgrazie… Grazieʼ. I pass through customs and walk out the front of the airport… Iʼm here… Iʼm really here with no double glazed glass to protect me; Iʼm outside breathing the humid Roman air.
Ready to read Part 2? Click here to read the next installment – ‘Text Book Italian’.
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