Welcome Home

Standard

“Sleep don’t visit, so I choke on sun. And the days blur into one. And the backs of my eyes hum with things I’ve never done. … But we’ve made the most. Welcome home. … Heal the scars from off my back. I don’t need them anymore. … I’ve come home.” ~Radical Face

Part II

But true to my traveling tradition, havoc awaited me at the airport.

Once again, I was flying standby. Unfortunately, so were 25 other hopeful travelers.

In Philadelphia, I had awaited my fate at the flight’s gate. But the woman at the check-in counter in Buenos Aires informed me that there were so many standbys and so few open seats that none of us was allowed to even check in. She told us all to come back an hour before the flight. I eyed the line growing outside security on the floor above us with skepticism about the tight timing, then wandered off to wait.

Helado

Helado

If there was no room on the flight, I’d have to fork over another $50 to cab it back to the city. To access my belongings, I’d have to slash the neon green Saran wrap I’d comissioned outside the airport to secure my luggage. And then redo and undo the process for however many days it took to seize an open seat.

My only consolation would be a final quarter-kilo of helado. Without my apartment key or a cell phone, I’d established a meeting spot with Jess to come collect me in case I didn’t score a seat. Naturally, we chose an heladería.

As the minutes ticked down, the standbys slowly amassed before the check-in desk. Luckily, “The Hunger Games” movie and a subsequent nightmare starring me running around a field with a machete had recently sharpened my survival instincts. I sized up my fellow tributes: Short family of four? I owned their future children. The captain’s perky blond wife? She’d require a booby trap.

Katniss

Channeling my inner Katniss

I was evaluating a pair of short, stocky standbys when I spotted a secret list on an iPad that they kept dashing to an airport WiFi zone to update. Two flight attendants on vacation in Buenos Aires, the neurotic men informed me that it ranked each standby by priority compared with the number of available seats. I slowly dropped my bow and arrow as I learned that it wouldn’t be up to me to oust my competition.

I joined their hyperventilating, as if the faster I breathed the more information I could gulp in about this underground airline intel. They informed me that I was on the cusp for snagging a seat: lower than them because they were flight attendants ­– but for an affiliate, so higher than their non-flight attendant “buddies” traveling with them because I was the “buddy” of an attendant for the airline. My head started to spin.

But what was screwing over everyone was the “HKs,” the panickier one informed me. “The what?” I gasped, unfamiliar with the lingo. An uncharacteristically high number of “revenue” customers were switching to our flight at the last minute. Because they were customers paying full price, they got seats before us, the “nonrevenues.” The HKs became the new enemies, and we NRs, formerly foes, banded together. It was a fascinating exercise in the abitrariness of “us” versus “them,” despite the havoc it’s long wreaked on our world.

Finally, the check-in woman emerged with a stack of tickets. Like the players in “A League of Their Own” when Tom Hanks walks down the bench of nervous players with a telegram announcing the death of one of their husbands, I held my breath, wondering whom she was going to stop in front of. Except in this case, everyone wanted a golden ticket.

Luckily, there were more than five. When she handed me one, I felt like Charlie Bucket:

But then the ticketmaster continued:

“This doesn’t mean you have a seat. But you’re high enough on the list that we’re going to send you through security.”

Chaos ensued as I took my best shot at getting on that plane. I frantically heaved my bags onto the conveyor belt and made a mad dash to discern how to advance to level two of our new airport videogame. But finding the escalator was impossible, and the flight was not going to wait for NRs. I needed to form an alliance with a native speaker.

I quickly identified an Argentine girl about by age who was also flying standby, and our predicament forged an instant friendship. She led the way to the stairs, then pled with the security guard that our flight was leaving in 30 minutes. He let us jump the entire line, and I jumped and clicked my heels together like Grandpa Joe as we entered the next room holding the security scanners.

As more of the chosen NRs discovered this cheat code and joined us in level three, our group of allies grew. A friend of the flight attendant duo straggled through toward the end. He had clinched the final standby ticket – but at the downfall of his brother, the fourth member of their group. With only one ticket left and of equal priority, they had had to decide between them who would go and who would get left behind. The deciding factor had been who spoke better Spanish and could therefore fend for himself better alone in Buenos Aires. Suddenly, my “Hunger Games” analogy didn’t seem so ridiculous.

As if the spectators were watching from the Capitol, the Gamemakers apparently decided to make the competition more interesting. All the security scanners suddenly stopped working. Classic Argentina. For a solid 10 minutes, not one person went through. The anxiety was all-consuming, as our flight was leaving in 15 minutes.

A Buenos Aires protest

A Buenos Aires protest

Miraculously, the scanners started working and people passing through. But the obstacle in level four was waiting just around the corner at Immigration, which was a mob scene.

After several minutes of mayhem, an employee from our flight located us and said that she couldn’t give us permission to jump the line, but we could ask each individual person in line if they’d let us get in front of them. Seriously, lady? There was no way that would work!

So my Argentine ally and I decided to take some creative license with the employee’s advice. Instead of politely asking “permiso” of each person in front of us, we started screaming it while charging forward like a grade-school game of Red Rover. The shouting startled person after person just long enough for us to scoot by before they realized we had duped them and ignited in indignation.

The rest of the standbys followed, and we left a riotous line of passengers behind us. Bringing another aspect of my adventure full circle, we provoked a protest in Buenos Aires, where I’d learned during an inaugural tour of the city that one occurs about every day of the year.

I still have no idea why the Immigration officials let us proceed instead of detaining us, but suddenly we found ourselves at the front of the line. My new Argentine BFF and I agreed to wait for each other to clear Immigration and then sprint for the gate. In slow motion, we passed through at the same time, locked eyes and took off.

Rat Race

“Rat Race”

Level five involved traversing the mall that, naturally, separated Immigration and our gate. We dodged women selling perfume and racks of duty-free items. As usual, I had a zillion carry-on bags, which I frantically tried not to drop or knock over something expensive with. Stationed in the middle of the mall was an airline employee circling her arm to wave us all on as if in a NASCAR race. It was absolutely absurd, like an episode of “Global Guts” or a scene from “Rat Race.” I took my chances and did not buy a squirrel.

We made it to the gate, where the captain stood at the desk with his hands on his hips and worry in his eyes that scanned the mall exit for his wife. My flight attendant allies ran through next. We all bent over, panting.

Once we regained our breath, we looked at each other and simultaneously acknowledged our need for a drink. I could almost taste the welcome champagne in business class, where the open seats likely would be because of their exorbitant cost.

Then, the phone rang at the desk. A young man in a crisp airline uniform picked up and recorded the message from the ticketmaster downstairs. He read out two names from his notepad and asked the people to identify themselves.

Primrose was a couple embracing to his right.

“I’m sorry,” the employee said to them. “There is a seat for only one of you. The other will get left behind tonight.”

They froze in terror. But unlike Katniss, I stayed silent. It was survival of the fittest. Better them than me. They chose to stay together and exited level six near tears.

Aeropuerto Kart 64

Aeropuerto Kart 64

After five excruciating minutes, the employee received the official flight list. We had all been cleared. I would have given anything to be anywhere on that plane. But it felt like the celebration that follows winning a cup in Mario Kart 64 to stumble at last into business class, where a NR reunion ensued.

A ton of us had managed to get on the flight, making the drama of the previous four hours seem even more unnecessary and outlandish. But it also made the reward that much more gratifying. We savored the welcome glass of champagne as we quieted our thumping hearts.

Carol Burnham

Carolyn Burnham

But my celebration was premature. Apprently, the videogame was not over. A final surprise nemesis lurched into our path like the Trunchbull from “Matilda.” The meanest flight attendant ever, she was the doppelgänger of Carolyn Burnham in “American Beauty” – face, mannerisms, tone and all.

Continuing the circles, one of the other NRs was a kid I’d met at a toga party in Buenos Aires. We had switched seats because he gets claustrophobic by the window, and I glue myself to the glass like the puppies I’d likely tried to sell him. The flight attendant railed into us that we should know better as buddies of the airline than to switch seats – especially as the person in THIS seat – pointing at my original one – might not be in it in a few minutes if another HK boarded.

My heart dropped. I had already drunk the champagne, yet this troll could rip my full-sized pillow away from me? Like a scolded child, I sat in silence, praying that no one show up to bump me from the flight.

“Close the doors and take off!” I repeated in silent prayer.

The flight attendant finally returned and announced that someone wanted my seat. Her words knocked the wind out of my stomach. I had made it all the way to level seven, and now I was being shoved down the longest chute on the gameboard. I pictured myself sleeping on the conveyor belt at the check-in counter like my depressing departure from Rome in 2008.

But it was just another NR with higher priority – the captain’s wife – who wanted to switch seats with me, not kick me off. At last, I could relax. I was going home.

“And I slept on the ocean last night. … And I could see the airplanes dance behind your eyes. And I was glad I found the time.” ~Radical Face

I’d been self-flatteringly hoping for the same welcome home from abroad I’d received in 2008, when my mom, younger siblings and two best friends had thoughtfully surprised me at the airport. I tussled my locks – which of course had grown long again just in time to leave Buenos Aires – and adjusted my custom-made Argentine leather jacket as I descended the escalator to baggage claim, trying to look cool for my grand return. But no one was waiting.

Waiting at the airport with Sánchez de Bustamante

Waiting at the airport with Sánchez de Bustamante

At least, my bags were. I’d been worried about where they’d end up since I’d fled from the check-in counter before the ticketmaster tagged them for Philly. I sat outside the airport with my luggage, happy that at least my jacket was serving one purpose – warmth – as I weathered the biting Philly wind with Sánchez de Bustamante, the one puppy I took home. Bartolomé Mitre I’d left on Jess’ pillow. As my psychic had predicted, she stayed a lot longer than two months.

After borrowing a dozen people’s phones to contact my mom, she finally answered. We had apparently had a miscommunication about whether I was still coming home that day. Two hours after my arrival, she pulled up to the airport. After traveling for 20 hours and being away for seven months, I was not amused by an “urgent” stop at the fabric store. But another hour later, I finally made it home.

Reconnecting with my family and friends was amazing. Holding onto my Argentine priorities and holding off on getting a cell phone, I spent most of my time with my family and the friends with whom I was close enough to know their numbers by heart. I also didn’t stray far from home because – after the hype about shots I had to get to avoid picking up anything in Argentina – I contracted a monthlong case of salmonella within days of returning to the United States.

In addition to prioritizing people, I appreciated the Philly area anew. After living in a massive city like Buenos Aires, everything seemed so green, like living in one big park. My endless summer continued: part III on the East Coast, followed by part IV on the West Coast with a lovely surprise known as Indian summer:

Walk to work

Commuting

For the most part, I have been able to keep my clock on Argentime. I’m living more slowly and deliberately, remaining detached from my phone, being present to enjoy where I am and whom I’m with, prioritizing the people closest to me, maintaining my independence and hanging onto my Spanish surprisingly well. I even got compliments at Zumba for my new dance skills.

I still falter. I worked more than I should have during my months home and never once outside in my bathing suit as I had from my rooftop office in Buenos Aires. But our new office in San Francisco has given me a work-life balance and has breathtaking views of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. So my gratitude continues to overflow – as does the maté.

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires

San Francisco and Buenos Aires also have a surprising number of similarities:

  • Reliance on leaves, though marijuana is the new maté
  • Reliance on buses, and the drivers are just as terrible
  • People who perform circus tricks in the park, and even post ads to live together in “circus houses” on craigslist

    San Francisco

    San Francisco

  • A spate of cell-phone swiping in public
  • A subpopulation that collects recyclables for money
  • Political activism
  • Amazing cuisine
  • Beautiful parks, complete with Japanese gardens
  • Palm trees
  • An edgy style
  • Quasi-legal drinking in public
  • Friendly people
  • Laidback pace of life

The vibrant city lilts with an innovative energy, yet lolls with a high quality of life. I can feel myself striking a happy balance between my structured East Coast roots and airy abroad adventures here in my sixth home in six years. My “500 Days of Summer” has ended, but according to a trusted numerologist in Argentina and the trusty DailyHoroscope app, my “personal summer” is arriving.

Golden Gate Triangle

Golden Gate Triangle

Completing one final circle, I found a paper a few nights ago tucked into the back of my yoga journal. I’d begun the journal when I’d begun this journey in 2011, using it as a sort of therapy to heal myself in order to move away and move on. The paper was from several months before that, back during that dark period in which I had felt stuck. I had been unemployed and unhappy, and Britney Spears having an acting career somehow had seemed more realistic than me moving across the country. So I scribbled all my dreams on a paper in blue marker and tucked it away. Two years later, I rediscovered it last week in San Francisco. I was shocked to realize that I am currently living half of the dreams on my list:

“I want to … be a journalist who travels the world … create meaningful work that helps women and children … practice yoga daily … be fluent in Spanish … live near a beach … teach people … learn every day … be happy …”

Ocean Beach

Ocean Beach

Tears came to my eyes as I laid in awe of the power of dreaming, a word that had kept me afloat before I found my job and my purpose in 2011. Gratitude permeated every cell of my body, and according to Celia Thaxter,

“There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart.”

Crossing the GGB

Crossing the GGB

I spent our official day of gratitude, Thanksgiving, this year up in Napa Valley at the home of my wonderful boss and her partner, who have largely helped my dreams happen. It made me realize that my reading from my psychic from a year and a half earlier was also coming true. She had said there was “a man and a woman [who] really like me” associated with the company I work for, a “true magical space [that] blooms and blossoms” in San Francisco, which “comes about in my life with a big influence professionally” after Argentina. I’d also go to Nepal, which I did in July.

It feels as if I’m living the magic realism that first interested me in Latin America, especially as I just learned that Isabel Allende resides in the Bay Area. On the bus back to San Francisco after Thanksgiving, a familiar song embraced me through my headphones as we approached the Golden Gate Bridge to return to the city: “Welcome Home.”

I was unhappy with whatever song came on next. But moving to Argentina had taught me that I always hold the key to my life. I’d even made a necklace from two antique Argentine keys to remind me. Exercising this agency, I turned off the radio and opened my music. With the San Francisco Bay to my left, the Pacific Ocean to my right, the Golden Gate Bridge beneath me and the sun illuminating it all from above, I selected:

“What a day to be alive. What a day to realize I’m not dead. What a way to say goodbye. What a day to start again. … What a day for San Francisco. What a day to get in the air and go. … And what a day … to begin breathing.” ~Greg Laswell

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