As with other important upper-middle-class American rites of passage like going to college with no idea why and developing a casual lifelong drinking problem, backpacking Europe is something I completely skipped over in my younger days. My international travel career had until now been isolated to the Pacific rim; dotting a world map with places I had visited looked like a combined plotting of recent volcanic activity and US Starbucks franchises, with a blank canvas of continents surrounding it. In most cases these trips also involved the option of room service, and had been no longer than two weeks or so, giving me too little time to properly appreciate the true utility of things like kitchens and well-used sofas.
After learning I’d been granted a ridiculous amount of paid time off from work thanks to my move to Australia, Europe immediately came to mind as my first candidate for an extended vacation. The ability to properly see “the old country” was finally within my grasp without having to brave unemployment to do it. Which is how, on September 25th, I once again found myself at the Sydney International terminal, only this time instead of my standard daypack and duffel luggage, I was toting a new sizable backpack, stuffed with what I hoped was enough clothing and various supplies to last me a month of sleeping in beds of questionable history and cleanliness.
My trip did not start under a good omen. The weather in Sydney being sunny and warm, and my flight not leaving until 2PM, I opted to have a last leisurely lunch at the cafe down the street before committing myself to twenty four hours in a metal tube. Unfortunately my heightened sense of organization in preparation for leaving overwhelmed my attention to current details, like remembering my house key that I had already packed. So after strolling casually back to the house with what seemed an ample forty five minutes until I had to leave, I found panic rising in me as a locked front door stood between me and imminent failure to catch my flight. A quick assessment however reminded me that I’d left my patio door unlocked; the fact that this was on the second floor with no obvious way up really just made it that much more pleasant a solution, as it meant I had to do some somewhat technical climbing on the face of the house to get in. A couple false starts and a little grunting later, and I was in and back on schedule. At least, until I got to the airport.
Arriving at the check-in line, I confidently took my place with plenty of time to spare, only to have the loudspeaker drone out the announcement that the entire global check-in system for my airline, and only my airline, had gone down, and would be back up “as soon as possible.” As time passed, “as soon as possible” appeared to translate to “possibly never”, and I began to watch the other airline desks, resentment creeping in towards all these people casually flaunting their functioning customer service. Eventually the loudspeaker kicked on again and announced the check-in desk would be revolting against the uppity computer system, and would simply check people in by hand. What this meant when I arrived at the counter was they were hand-writing flight information on blank pieces of ticket-shaped paper and telling everyone that since there was no way to provide seat assignments, everyone should get to the gate as fast as possible to beat the other passengers. This naturally had the effect of creating a steady stream of stampeding people jockeying for position and eying each other like hyenas looking for the weakest member of a group who’s takedown would yield a valuable aisle seat.
As it turned out, the computers came back on a short while later, and while those of us with non-tickets waited for our reservations to be sorted out, all those who had arrived late enough to avoid the malfunction marched past and onto the plane, some clearly nervous of the palpable hatred rising off the group holding smudged, hand-scrawled pieces of paper that were now pointless. Several hours later and an hour behind schedule, the plane wheels finally lifted free of the Australian tarmac, and I settled in to my aisle seat and little seatback video screen to weather twenty two hours of vying for the arm rest. This was an easy burden to bear though, since with that liftoff, I had started a trip I’d been waiting years for.
5:00AM Saturday morning (technically the following day but with the mind-wrenching distortion of crossing quite a few time zones it could have as easily been the previous Tuesday a little past 37:00 in the afternoon) I touched down in London Heathrow for the first time, my usual excitement at setting foot in a new country overwhelming my exhausted sluggishness. Stopping to get a handful of British pounds at an expected but still alarming exchange rate, I jumped on the underground to Paddington, and again to Embankment station, where I emerged in the chill of the early fall air, the sun just preparing to crest the chunky, building-laden horizon into a perfectly clear morning sky. Wandering the near-empty streets, I took position on a footbridge over the Thames and watched as the first rays of light touched the tower of Big Ben, thrilling at my first day on a new continent.