The funniest thing about my visiting five countries in one day is that I did it on accident. I mean, when I booked my flights months before I guess it was intentional, but by the time the actual day came I had totally forgotten I had done that. It was the end of an absolutely packed trip across Germany, Russia, Latvia, Belarus, and Chernobyl in Ukraine and I was just thinking about getting home and hopefully not setting off any radiation detectors at the airport.
I barely looked at my boarding pass as I piled into a plane at the Kiev airport, and the brief glance I did give it with sleepy eyes led me to believe I had a layover in Poland. I wasn’t too excited about this since I’d been to Warsaw before, and it looked like a really short layover, so I was just going to be walking to my next gate. Nothing exciting. I shuffled onto the plane and quickly fell asleep. When I woke up we had landed.
Shuffling back off the plane I was confused for a second. Huh. I don’t remember Warsaw airport looking like this. Maybe I’m in a different termin- Oh shit, I’m in Prague! Yes, PRG is the airport code for Prague in the Czech Republic, not… what did I think it meant? Poland Regional Grzygrmlypzy? In my defense I’d had to get up really early for my flight and my slowly-turning early morning mind had been completely occupied by the fact that the Uber-knockoff app they use for ride sharing in Ukraine had rejected my credit card in the middle of the ride and I’d had to scrounge up just enough hryvnia from all my pockets to pay my utterly silent driver before we got to the airport.
Wow, so, Prague. I’ve never been to the Czech Republic before! I hustled toward immigration control. How long is my layover? 40 minutes? What? Jeeeeeez… no! I can make this work!
I got through immigration quickly, after getting in the EU only line twice on accident, and found myself out in front of the airport. OK, technically this counts, but still feels kind of lame. I need to at least get off the airport grounds. I rushed down the sidewalk until it ended. Okay. I guess this is it. I snapped a picture of the building across the street. I’ve been to Prague.
I mean, this is the lamest visit to Prague possible and I will have to come back one day to experience it for real, but for today, I have been to Prague.
I looked at the time on my phone. Oh shit. Oh shit oh shit. I’m just barely going to make my next flight, if absolutely everything goes right. Back into the airport, okay, gate C… there are no C gates here. That’s weird. Maybe over here… nope. Upstairs? Nope. Arg. I followed a long hallway until I saw a sign that politely informed me that the C gates were in a whole other terminal. Uh-oh.
Whipping my security-unfriendly items out of my bag as I jogged toward the checkpoint, I suddenly remembered the Soviet Space Soup in my bag. Oh man, they’re never gonna let that through. It’s metal AND food. Or “food,” rather. If that tube of mushroom revolt makes it to America it’ll be a miracle.
But somehow, my bag went straight through. Huh. Honestly I would have been a little relieved if they’d confiscated it, which would have saved me from ever accidentally tasting it again. But I was kind of happy to keep it as a souvenir. Huh.
I think this is technically the first time I have full-on sprinted through a foreign airport. It seemed a vaguely pointless gesture, as it was a long, long way and I was already too late. I probably wouldn’t have even made the flight if I hadn’t elected to go through immigration, that layover scheduling was insane. When I finally reached my gate there was a long line of people, which at first I interpreted as I was so late this was the next flight. The bored-looking guy I asked informed me that the flight had been delayed for 40 minutes. Oh. Oh wow, whew.
A floor-cleaning Roomba the size of a small car whirred by as a Hawaiian guy tried to get it to run him over.
The next stop was Amsterdam. The delay in Prague had cut into my Amsterdam time, but I still had enough time to take the train into the city and explore a bit. Because I was already in the Eurozone I didn’t get a stamp for The Netherlands, but regardless it was my 40th country visited. Cool!
Amsterdam was pissing rain sideways but I didn’t care at all. It was very cool to walk along the canals and stare up at the highly-touristy but still quaint row houses.
A building up ahead had a huge and very real-looking man on the front of it. It was a strange cognitive dissonance in that he was too large to be a real person, but didn’t look like a mannequin. Was he normal-sized and my brain was just breaking? I crossed the street and began crossing the fantastically named Dam Square to find out what was going on with this guy.
Suddenly, a camera rig on tracks whizzed by me. What the-
There was a camera crew filming a couple of people dancing. One dude was holding a guitar. What the shit is-
Suddenly loudspeakers blared forth with Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Everyone around me started dancing. WHAT THE FUCK NETHERLANDS THIS WASN’T PART OF THE DEAL.
As more and more people joined in I realized I was in the middle of a Dutch flash mob. How very 2009 of you, Netherlands! I’d never actually seen one of these in person before though, and it was highly entertaining and bizarre to see otherwise drab and serious people suddenly breaking into the Cyndi Lauper dance.
And then the song ended, and as quickly as it had all started everyone snapped back into their big city automaton patterns and were gone. Wow.
Okay. Anyway, the building I’d been trying to get to turned out to be Madame Tussaud’s. I still have no idea who the huge dude was, which perhaps indicates a failure on their part, but I was satisfied in knowing it was a wax giant rather than an indication of psychological breakdown.
I looked at my phone. Okay, the train I had been intending to catch to return to the airport had already left. That’s okay, that plan was overly optimistic. I had a back-up train. I began to make my way through the back alleyways full of shops headed back toward the train station.
It suddenly hit me where I was and that I could totally be buying weed and cookies full of weed and sex and all kinds of things. I tried to imagine what the rest of my day would be like if I went down that road.
No, that road doesn’t seem like it ends up back in America at all. Best to stick with the plan that I made months ago and then completely forgot about, and now was following from boarding pass to boarding pass like they were hints doled out in an international treasure hunt.
After nearly being killed by several bikes, I made it back to the train station and realized my back-up train had already left. Godverdomme! I hustled to the platform and waited for the next train, which was definitely going to get me to the airport too late for my next flight. But, might as well try and see what happens.
At the airport, Dutch security flagged my bag. Oh shit. The Space Soup! Oh man I really don’t have time to have this conversation. The attendant pulled my bag to the side and began pulling things out of it. The problem here was that this trip was an experiment on my part in packing very light. The downside of packing very light is that you have to wear clothes more than one time per trip. The lesson I learned on this trip is that it’s wise to wear your cleanest shirt three times instead of your dirtiest shirt twice. My twice-worn dirtiest shirt smelled like Old Spice splashed on a dead dog. My friend Tia and I were joking over WhatsApp that they weren’t going to let that shirt INTO Chernobyl. I truly felt bad for the Dutch airport security guy who was going to pull that aromatic surprise out of the bottom of my backpack. I wondered what would happen to me if he suddenly just dropped dead right there.
Thankfully for his sake he stopped short of peeling any shirts or socks off the bottom of my bag. I suggested that maybe my Space Soup had set off the scanner, prepared at that point to sacrifice the soup just to potentially make my flight. He said no, no, no, that shit’s fine. There was something mysterious on the scanner that he couldn’t find in the bag. We went through every pocket and nook and cranny. It turned out that a luggage lock I thought I’d lost last year in Peru had somehow worked its way into the lining of my backpack and that’s what had shown up on the scanner. Once we migrated that thing back out into the light of day everything was fine, aside from the fact that this whole adventure had taken freaking forever.
Hustled to my gate, wondering when the next flight would be as I had clearly missed my scheduled flight. Oh wait- Flight delay. My flight hasn’t left yet. The gate was thronged with pissed-off passengers. I looked down at my boarding pass and somehow I’d been flagged for priority boarding, which I most certainly didn’t qualify for, but I wasn’t going to tell anybody that. Moments later I was on the plane. Holy shit.
The next stop was in Frankfurt, Germany, where I’d wandered around on the front end of my trip. This time I was all about the vegan poutine. There was a French Fry restaurant (there we go again with the love/hate of the French) that was poutining it up and though my layover was very short this time, that was no excuse to let cheesy gravy fries go uneaten. I’d had a surprisingly delicious vegan meal in a gleaming downtown section of Frankfurt on the way out, so I was curious to see how they did Canadian food.
Getting there on the train went fairly smoothly, then part way through the no-English-spoken French Fry restaurant madness I realized I really, really needed to get back to the airport to make my onward flight. Like NOW. The dude handed me my fries, then realized he’d made entirely the wrong order. Took them back, started over, on and on. Finally I got my fries, Dankeschön, and back to the train station. Whew! Just in time! Fries in hand, I traipsed up to the line Google Maps told me would get me back to the airport. Wait, the sign says the train’s not coming for 20 minutes. Arg. Well, not the first time Google Maps has been wrong. That’ll really be cutting it close, but I think I’ll be okay. I sat and enjoyed my gravy fries in the dank underground tunnel.
When the train finally pulled up, it didn’t feel right. I didn’t know the town names on the signs but my intuition was telling me this wasn’t the right train, Google be damned. I stepped onto the train and asked a friendly looking woman if this train went to the airport. Her eyes filled with genuine panic.
“Oh no! No! Not the airport! All the trains to the airport leave from upstairs!!”
I thanked her and jumped off the train right as the doors closed. Shit. I ran upstairs. Okay, my phone can’t be trusted and I can’t read any of these signs. Which train do I take? There’s got to be an information booth with someone who speaks English. I found it, but the line was 15 people deep. Shit. I am super late now. I looked up at the big board listing hundreds of trains leaving the station, heading to dozens and dozens of town names I didn’t recognize. Shit.
Then I saw it. A few of the lines had little airplane symbols next to the name of the route. The airport! I ran to the nearest airport-friendly line and ducked into the train right before the doors closed. Whew.
I mean, I’m still totally screwed, but still whew.
Returning to Frankfurt airport felt almost eerily familiar compared to everywhere else I’d been all week, as I weaved through the throngs of incredibly slow people who were incredibly slow because their flight wasn’t leaving in 15 minutes.
I looked at my boarding pass and realized I’d somehow scored priority boarding yet again, which entitled me to use a much shorter important-person security line. Nice! I ducked into line, whipped my security-unfriendly items out of my bag on pure reflex, and crossed my fingers.
My bag was flagged and put in a pile of bags to be scrutinized more closely. ARRRRRG.
When it was finally my turn, the polite German dude went straight to the Space Soup. He looked at it quizzically.
“What is zis?”
“Space Soup. Soviet Space Soup. It’s a paste.” I lied.
“This is food? You eat this in your mouth?”
“Yeah, sort of. I mean, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s like toothpaste though.” I lied again.
“Yes. No, you cannot bring this. You may take this outside and finish eating it.”
He was clearly out of his mind and had no idea what he was saying but to my credit I did not throw up all over him in that moment.
“Nope, no time. It’s yours, Merry Christmas.”
He looked at me quizzically as I gathered up my bag and sprinted off toward the gate.
The gate was on the other side of the planet, possibly in East Germany. When I finally got there, there was no one there but gate personnel. Ah, scheisse. My luck has finally run out. I dejectedly handed my passport to the gate agent.
“Yes, Mr Traverse. Here is your boarding pass.”
“Your flight has been delayed. Please board the bus outside.”
Wh-okay! I scooped up my documents and shuffled off toward the plane.
“WAIT!!” everyone at the gate yelled in unison.
Huh? Oh they must be realizing their mistake. My flight is probably over Greenland by now.
“Sir! We must scan your boarding pass!”
Uhm, you just handed it to me two feet to the left of where we’re standing now but sure! Scan away, German lady!
You can say you don’t believe in manifestation and just chalk it all up to me slapping that lucky chicken a few days ago, but one way or another, today was one long string of improbable miracles.
“Enjoy your flight.”
Well, that’s asking a lot, but I did manage a peaceable truce with the insane guy sitting in the window seat next to me who had to use the bathroom 18 times on the flight, every time approximately 30 seconds after I had finally fallen asleep, but who perversely refused my repeated offers to swap seats so he could sit on the aisle. We touched down in country #5, the USA.
Ahh, home. Sort of. Every night for two weeks afterwards, I found myself back in Ukraine, and every morning when I woke up I was still there. I’d be riding a train through Ukraine and then would notice that my car in the train had the same lamp that I have in my bedroom at home. This is odd- Then the room would suddenly morph and melt around me into my bedroom in Minneapolis. I was awake the whole time, sometimes even standing up or walking through the room when the transition happened, at the end of which I’d be standing or walking through my apartment back home.
I’ve been experiencing this extremely disorienting phenomena after every especially meaningful trip since I went to Japan in 2017, but it will never, ever stop being really freaking weird. This really blurs the line between being home versus being on a trip. But, whatever work I was doing in Ukraine at night, during the daytime I was home in Minnesota, where clothes could be washed and there wasn’t perpetually a next flight to catch. Until the next trip, that is.