Oakland International Airport:
The last time I was able to wander out into the world was a little over a year ago for a study abroad semester in Ireland. The flights for that trip were booked months in advance. Visas and travel documents were all neatly arranged in a folder and I had established contacts waiting my arrival on the other side flight in an English speaking country (although you listen to some Irish accents and it might as well be a different language). But as a whole, the months leading up to departure were a slow burn of excitement and apprehension that built up in a smooth progression to the point of leaving.
This trip is kicking off a little bit more half-cocked. And by a little bit... I mean I did an entire bag swap-out/repack ten minutes before leaving the house and booked my first night's stay in Barcelona six hours ago. Much of that is self inflicted -- I freely admit! --- but the possibility to go on the trip came to fruition only three weeks earlier. This, in turn, has changed the excited/prepared graph from that smooth linear progression of studying abroad to a very, very steep exponential growth formula. As I'm sitting here in the Oakland airport awaiting my flight, two bags packed and passport in hand, it's truly starting to sink in. I'm here and it's happening. I am pursuing another chance to expand my horizons, see more of what exists in the world, and tell stories along the way.
Somewhere over Greenland:
HIGHLIGHT of the trip so far -- yes, more than the GF snack bag that Delta served on the flight, which was pretty freakin' cool -- has been an eye level view of the northern lights as we crossed over the icy shoreline of Greenland. On the clearest of winter nights in NH back home, we were occasionally treated to a slight pigmentation of the sky that we were happy to consider as seeing the northern lights. The lightest tints of pink and green waves would filter in between the white pin points of stars, and the few times it would happen I would always stare in amazement. Never have I seen them like this. It was like watching massive, emerald streamers of light be lazily twirled through the air by an invisible force. To some extent, it didn't even look real, as if the window pane became a movie screen and some top-notch CGI smoke sequence had been put on that seamlessly morphed between shapes.
While we now have scientific explanation to prove what causes such a spectacular sight, I completely understand where native people from the northern regions drew their spiritual beliefs from. There is no visible explanation that your eyes can make sense of when you watch colors dance through the sky like that: Shapes don't just randomly transform like that, and those colors don't belong in the sky... so what the heck is goin' on! The mystique adds to their magic. I can only imagine what a full show, one with reds and yellows, looks like from the ground. I guess I'll just have to wander my way to the far north and find out!
Charles De Gaulle Airport:
I am all for workers striking when needed to ensure they are receiving fair treatment from their employers. But MAN does it suck when you get caught in the resulting fall out of no-body deciding to show up to work -- lookin' at you Air France. After doing some research, it looks like employees have been demanding pay raises for some time without any positive result. The strike is now over but the Associated Press stated that strikers were lobbying for a pay increase of six percent. While the strike only lasted a day, it was enough to ground twenty-five percent of their mid-range flights, including flight 705 to Barcelona. That was the flight I was supposed to be on.
Instead I am spending the night in an on-sight hotel. It's far from the worst thing that could happen. I have been re-booked for 7 a.m. tomorrow morning which still puts me in Barcelona in plenty of time to meet up with my group so the net loss of time is zero.
This is the first time, however, that I have been in a country that does not speak English. What an experience that has been. As a quick side note, if you are ever traveling through CDG Aiport regardless of whether you speak French or not, ask for help. I do not know who designed that airport, but it is a labyrinth. My lack of directional intuition aside, I managed to take three trains, traverse four levels, and walk countless hallways before breathing in fresh air. I would like to publicly say "thank you" to all employees who helped me find my way; I would probably still be in that airport without you.
Which brings me to my next thought: speaking English in a French speaking country. English is the lingua franca of the day. Regardless of arguments for or against it, it's definitely the truth and takes a massive hassle off of English speakers in their foreign travels. That being said, I think it qualifies as arrogant to walk up to someone in their home-country and initiate a conversation in a different language. For example, if Spanish had evolved into being the dominant language, I know I would be pretty annoyed every time someone walked up to me in small-town New Hampshire and just started speaking Spanish presuming I could comprehend. Being that I took four years of french in high school but had never spoken it outside of the classroom setting, I was excited to see if I could bring some of it back and not be totally lost in the world around me.
I didn't appreciate what a struggle it would be to suppress the urge to instantly speak in English. There were many instances where I could think out the thought in French or there was a common question I needed to ask that I knew how to say. I would open my mouth to speak and would begin to instinctively say it in English. I would catch myself though, pause, stumble around the words in my head, and try to organize them into a somewhat coherent French thought. The problem is this process took multiple seconds of silence, which, in the context of a quick conversation, is a long time to be standing with your mouth open like a cod-fish and no sound coming out. Most of the time the French speaker would continue without missing a beat and switch right to English -- I'm sure this is a common occurrence for them.
I wish I could have seen my facial expression when checking in to the hotel. I think I mustered enough of an acceptable accent on my "bonjour" that the receptionist assumed some level of french-competency. At least I've got one word down pat. She proceeded to rattle off a very long sentence in very fast French and only caught herself when she looked up and saw what must have been a total deer-in-the-headlights looks on my face. She chuckled and then quickly continued on in English.
If nothing else, this experience has renewed my desire to learn another language. I'm sure Barcelona will be much the same experience. I really value experiencing the genuine side of a culture. Not the surface-level tourist experience, but the people, the food, the culture that exists there 24/7. I think that when you ask someone to step outside of their native language in their home, it creates a disconnect. It's like taking pictures. The best moments come from when you are embedded in the scene and capture that image without someone realizing it. There's no translation there. It's transparent. It's real. But many times once someone knows a picture is being taken or they are asked to pose, they communicate differently, the image becomes a little more opaque. So whether it's French, Spanish, Irish who knows. It seems, though, that it could only enrich future travel experiences.
With any luck, it will be smooth traveling tomorrow, and I will end the day in Camarasa, Spain, ready to begin an amazing week. Stay tuned!