That was a long journey. Aside from all the wonderful memories, the big thing I’ve taken from all the travelling I did last year is taking long journeys and delays a lot more calmly than I did before. These things happen, no big deal. I left Brooklyn at 2pm, in a cab with a guy who spent the whole journey whistling along to the Latin pop and rap on the radio. Countless rim shops later, and I’ve got a window-seat boarding pass in my hand. I chugged down three cigarettes, stocking up on nicotine, looking at the lovely big thunder clouds heading JFK’s way.
Through security, listening to one of the three saved-up episodes of This American Life, and I headed to the only Starbucks in Terminal 8, way on the other side of the building. Sat down in a nice empty area, I watched as it chucked it down outside, the tarmac turning into a mirror. By now it was around 4pm, an hour before boarding was due to begin. I sauntered over to Gate 3, spent the last US dollars in my wallet on a 6-disc DVD box set (New York Yankees: Perfect Games and No-Hitters), and sat down in front of the telly and watched CNN’s coverage of the Michael Jackson memorial thingy. As the coverage cycled through and came to the point where CNN showed a clip of his daughter speaking, I got the feeling that aside from the heart-breaking sadness, an airport’s worth of people were all thinking the same thing: she seems like a cute, normal kid. How strange it is to only see someone in a mask for all these years, and then, well, it’s like the basis for a good Grimm brothers tale.
Due to the earlier thunderstorm, the incoming flight that would become my flight out of New York was diverted to Hartford, Connecticut. It would be refueling, waiting for clearance to take off, and would be in New York at five-thirty. My flight delayed by an hour. Time passes, another announcement says the plane will be arriving at six-thirty. Then it’d be arriving at eight. Then nine-thirty. Finally, at 10.15pm, four-and-a-half hours after we were supposed to be leaving, we started filing onto the plane. I took my seat next to a man with a hot and hairy arm nestled against mine on the toothpick of an armrest. German voices all around. A white American guy in his early twenties sat behind me. I didn’t see it, but I could hear he had a portable CD player. Do they still make those? He was clearly listening to rap music, and every now and again would rap along, loud enough for me to hear him. If ever I find myself rapping along to anything, I tend to censor myself and not say “nigga.” He didn’t bother.
I always find the time it takes between getting on a plane and taking off goes quite quickly. You spend a while just trying to organise your space. What things do I want out of my bag? Where will I put them? Taking the asbestos pillow out of its plastic wrapper. Taking the thin blanket out of its wrapper. Having a flick through the magazine. Taking your shoes off. Putting them back on again cos your socks smell awful. I’d long since stopped all of that, and we were still sat next to the terminal. Eventually, at 12.15am, two hours after getting onto the aeroplane, we were taking off. The thunderstorm that had diverted all of the planes to Hartford created a backlog of planes all wanting to take off at the same time.
I ate the surprisingly tasty Air Berlin food, popped in an over-the-counter sleeping tablet, kicked off my stinky shoes, and drifted off as the monitors started showing Marley and Me. That’s the fourth time that film has been shown on a plane or train that I’ve been on recently. Not once did I watch it, though. And for the first time in my life, I managed to sleep through most of a flight. Normally, I can’t sleep on a plane, train, or bus. I’m sure by now, it’s a mental thing. But the weak sleeping tablet was enough to get me to sleep, and even though the sleep was fitful and not particularly deep, I did manage to do it, and woke up as the plane was over Ireland. Not bad. And, with all the delays, it kinda meant my sleep pattern wasn’t too out of sync.
A too-cold croissant and a bitter coffee later, and we’re on the ground in Düsseldorf. We had to sit in our seats for ten minutes, though. The Düsseldorf health authorities wanted us all to fill out a form. In Germany for ten bloody minutes and I’m already filling out a form! Paranoid about swine flu, we had to give them contact information in case someone on the flight was found to have the plague. As we exited the plane, it felt like being in E.T.; leaving through a tunnel, dudes in white coats, rubber gloves, and face masks there to look over our forms.
Wait, wait, wait, one bag, wait, wait, other bag, scuttle, scuttle, scuttle, nothing to declare, families reuniting, scuttle around them, doors, doors, yes! doors, fresh air, cigarette, lighter… calm.
As the heady nicotine buzz floated me back into the airport, the German-ness hit me. People dress different. Teenage boys use a lot of hair gel. And, confirming every stereotype, there are mullets. Walking past a newsagent, the garish design of all the TV, gossip, and car magazines shout GERMANY! The beer at the little bar in tall thin glasses with a little circle of paper around the bottom shout GERMANY! And the wonderful sky train thingy that whisks me from the terminal to the train station shouts GERMANY!
After waiting in line, I go up to the counter to buy a train ticket. I’m talking German again, digging the knife into the bottom of the peanut butter jar, to try and find and scrape out the words for “one way ticket.” I had forty minutes to wait, so stood on the platform and, devoid of any shame or self-respect, took my shirt off, got the deodorant out, and put on a clean shirt and a different baseball cap (Montreal Royals for the flight, Kansas City Athletics for the train).
The ICE trains in Germany are lovely. After the clunking hand-operated Amtrak trains I’ve been on most recently, it’s so lovely to be on a quiet train that glides through the countryside super fast. Little German villages, the German style of architecture, all making me feel fuzzy and warm. It’s not my home country, but it feels like it. I got one of the DVDs out of the box set, turned my computer on, and watched David Wells‘ perfect game for the Yankees against the Twins, May 17 1998. Way before I was interested in baseball. Even though it says it right there on the cover of the DVD (DAVID WELLS’ PERFECT GAME), I still got nervous when he had a couple of three ball counts. As the game entered the ninth inning, and the crowd were all on their feet, cheering ever strike; cheering the 25th out, cheering the 26th out, and then the perfect 27th, I felt my lip wobble and eyes well up a bit. I was back in Germany, heading to Berlin, but on the screen was what I was leaving behind. And, y’know, moments of sporting greatness – especially those achieved by fat men with moustaches – always make me a bit weepy.
In Berlin, familiar landmarks all around, in a cab heading to the Tempodrom; a concert venue where Brian Wilson was playing. People outside looked at me funny. What!? You’ve never seen someone turn up to a concert venue with a backpack, holdall, and rucksack before? I got a beer from the little beer garden-y place outside the venue. I didn’t have to show him any ID to prove my age, which was a nice change. I took off my bags, sat down, sparked up a fag, and drank a German beer.
Sadly, though, I wasn’t going to the concert. I was there because I’m staying at my friend Hanni’s place, and she was going to the concert. The flight delay meant that I didn’t have time to get a key for her apartment before the show. I must’ve looked stupid sat there wait
ing for her: my luggage all around me, stupid grin on my face. It just seemed so funny to me that I was there, outside a concert venue where my musical hero was about to play. While I’d obviously like to have seen Brian Wilson, I didn’t really want to go inside, though; it just seemed so perfect to be arriving from the States, and to be sitting there, where one of the most American of all American musicians was about to play. I’d just left America. I’m in Germany now.
When she arrived, we had a beer, and she went inside to get her surf on, and I got a cab, dropped off my stuff and went out for a few beers and a chat with my friend and fellow Yankee fan, Jeff. We sat, drank, and smoked in a beer garden. I had my first German food, and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a bratwurst as much in my life. It was a great end to a long journey.
So it begins. Berlin, part two.