In the interest of preserving memories and acting as a future guide, this series of posts reflects on adventures spent abroad- meaning, outside of my own community, wherever I might land. It serves not only as a record but also as an exercise in memory and language.
Our connecting flight to Iceland from Saint Louis left us with eight hours in Toronto. I had contacted my cousin two weeks prior to see if he could play tour guide: “I’m in Quebec for the week,” he replied. We would be on our own. The flight was about two hours and my seat-mate was a middle-aged Chinese psychiatrist. He was on his way to the North American Psychiatric Convention and had come to St. Louis from Columbia, where he worked primarily with veterans. When he had left China, his parents were distraught. Columbia, Missouri wasn’t quite Chicago and it definitely wasn’t New York or San Francisco “but it was in America,” he said, jabbing his forefinger into the air, “and that is what mattered.” He asked me about Ferguson and race relations. I attempted to answer him as objectively and fairly as possible. He asked me about my work (MFA graduate / former adjunct professor turned secretary) and gave me fatherly advise about being practical- his daughter had recently graduated from Savannah School of Art and Design and was seemingly floundering. He desperately wanted her to be practical, as he thought I was, and retire her full-time dreams of art for something more stable and lucrative. He wanted her to be safe. To be secure. To be a pharmacist. Diplomatically, when I told him I was working as a secretary in pediatric oncology he said, “I am sure your role is important too.” He provided a closed-eyed analogy of ants, each toiling at their own particular project for the good of the whole. I tried to believe him. The magic of paid vacations had yet to soothe any bruises to my pride.
Our first adventure was relocating Kimberly who, upon disembarking the plane, sped down the winding hallways and out of sight. We spiraled down the industrial staircases and hallways, trapped with fellow travelers in a dismal grey tube bound for security. I imagined we were cattle slowly ambling together to an auction. “We’ll need to collect and recheck her bag,” I said. We had agreed to not check bags but plans had gone awry. Kimberly had brought six pairs of shoes for a Girls’ hiking trip.
“The lady at Lambert said they would go through.”
“We change planes after an eight hour layover. We can’t even check bags.”
“I think it’ll be fine,” Melanie said turning back to her phone.
Play nice, I thought. Be diplomatic. Be courteous. Be good. If they all lose their luggage, it’ll be on them.
“Maybe we ought to ask someone,” Pam suggested.
Stumbling upon an elderly Pakistani airline worker, she enquired about luggage transfers.
“You must collect and recheck your bags,” she instructed, her silver braid jerking as her head bobbled. She sat on a small post in a navy uniform with her hands folded palms up in her lap. A vermillion dot rested between her eyebrows. She looked quite serene and beautiful and stern. “Collect and recheck,” she reiterated.
Kimberly busied herself with repacking the entirety of her luggage into a spare duffel as her zipper had slipped and all items were spilling about. Under the gaze of our Pakistani helper- “Recheck,” she commanded again- we hoisted our belongings to the main level of check-in desks and walked the length of the terminal three times. IcelandAir was nowhere to be found.
“You are eight hours early,” an airline worker informed us. “IcelandAir will not arrive for another six hours. These small carriers- they do not operate enough for a full desk.” He pushed his dark, wavy hair from his olive skin and muttered something- Serbian? Russian?- to his beautiful co-worker who laughed and sauntered away. “You can store your bags if you are planning to leave the airport. The storage area is just there.”
We followed his fingertip to a small kiosk, thanked him, and set off again. Yuri was a portly man in his late forties. His neck had merged with the edges of his jawline which had sunken into his shoulders giving him the appearance of a timid turtle. He raced around his small shop of luggage, furiously jotting down prices and names while muttering to himself in Russian. He rubbed his shaved head when he got flustered. When he finally reached us, we decided to split the cost and place the order on Pamela’s card. It seemed speediest- we had limited time to get into the city and back. “It’s four dollars a bag,” he said. She nodded as she signed the ticket while Kimberly eyed floppy hats.
We tumbled into a waiting cab of a Somalian immigrant, cranky, sweaty, and in need of food. The buildings glistened in the sun as we careened down a near-empty highway. It appeared as if everything had recently sprung up- like a gold rush town on the verge of collapse or success. Every building seemed to look identical. All jutted from the ground as glass pillars, uniform, shining, bland. “I can be your tour guide,” he pressed, “All day, only $150. All yours. Where you go, I go.”
“No thank you,” we replied. Our stops were in walking distance and we had five hours of sitting to come.
“All day. Where you want to go? I take you.”
“Just here,” Kimberly said. “We like to walk.”
“Oh, you like to walk,” he said, crushed.
He dropped us at the corner of the bustling St. Lawrence Market. The isles snaked into dim stalls and kiosks. Each carried assortments of deli items- twenty kinds of briny olives stuffed with ruby pimientos, gobs of soft cheeses, cubed meats. Sliced, cured hams and smoked fish splayed out before us, beckoning to us with their oily flesh. We circled twice, sampling bits of bread, wines, and cheeses before settling on a loaf of country French bread, goat cheese stuffed peppers, eggplant wraps, mozzarella balls, roasted artichokes, Belgian speck rolls, asiago and red pepper dips, and wine spritzers.
Wanting to soak all of our remaining warmth in, we made our way to the deck and spread out our meal on weathered picnic tables overlooking the high rises. I popped a stuffed pepper in my mouth. The oil drizzled down my chin as I bit into its surprisingly crunchy, hot, red flesh. Seagulls and finches pecked at our flecks of bread as we schmeared and tucked into slices. We speared shining rolls of speck and cheese, passing small containers around our communal table.
The wind picked up and we ambled towards the lake. We had decided to visit the Distillery District– a Victorian industrial area turned art gallery and restaurant cafe. We passed tall red brick warehouses outfitted with glossy hunter green accents and steel windows juxtaposed with glass and concrete modern masterpieces. Kimberly paused intermittently to snap photographs as we straggled behind Melanie like ducklings.
The entrance to the District was subtle- just steel cut letters against red brick aside a series of glass doors. We pressed on and entered a small liquor museum which opened into a sprawling courtyard decked out with antique cars and carts and a looming black steel spider. Young children climbed over it as onlookers licked ice cream cones and sipped local beers. We zipped through gallery after gallery of modern, incomprehensible art and settled into Soma, a boutique chocolate and gelato shop. I ordered an assortment of little gems: spruce and mint, orange marzipan, candied blood orange, saffron and sesame, salted caramels, and blackberry thyme. Irrationally fearing customs hiccups, I hastily popped each into my mouth as we sat in their garden patio. I regretted none of the gluttony.
We hitched a cab back to Pearson as the sun began to set. Our middle aged African driver played the local jazz station and hummed on occasion.
The flight was miraculously, deceptively brief. My seat companions were two middle-aged Wisconsonites- anesthesiologists on their way to a Reykjavic conference. They leafed through the airline magazine, desperately trying to pronounce Icelandic locations and howling with laughter. We traded travel tips and tourist information as we read the magazine together. The sun glowed a deep cherry red and eased into a dusky orange as we made our ascent.
“Are you going to the Penis Museum?” the anesthesiologist inquired.
“Oh, she has to be!” her nurse companion exclaimed. “We are!”
“I’d like to,” I replied. “The group I’m traveling with might not appreciate it though. They’re more conservative than I had remembered.”
“Oh, you have to! You have to! It’s iconic!” the nurse urged, nudging my shoulder.
“They really want to go to Hallgrimskirkja for the church service. It’s in Icelandic- I’m not sure it’s worth the two hours.”
“Eesh,” the anesthesiologist muttered. “Try to squeeze it in after. It’s bound to be a hoot.”
“Better yet, do it first and then go to confession after!” the nurse cried.
“Hey! There’s an idea!” the anesthesiologist said with a clap.
We fell into a fit of laughter and continued our magazine read, stopping to muse about earth-baked bread, unfathomable town names, and our respective trades. Soon after the nurse had lolled into a deep sleep as Birdman played on her small screen. We each awoke to the edge of the appearing island, deep green against a navy sea.
“Look at how low it is! It just creeps out of the ocean- no edge at all!” the nurse gasped.
“So much more desolate than I thought,” the anesthesiologist mused. “Like a moon scape.”
We made our way off the plane, ushered down a series of steps onto the tarmac by beautiful blondes. Keflavik Airport– the country’s main- was somehow smaller than Lambert. My seat-mates wished me a wonderful journey and good luck, hugging me goodbye as we parted, like aunts seeing me off. I wanted to go with them. As we jostled our way on the crowded tarmac bus to the terminal, I mused about these fleeting connections. They seemed simultaneously deep and superficial. It seemed so strange that such brief encounters could imprint so strongly that we would embrace before departing and I would miss their presence. I missed these women and the Chinese man before them as though they were old friends or distant relatives. I missed their openness and congeniality, their soft advice, and warmth and I wondered if I would find such a (re)connection with my own companions.