Joburg Expat: Memoirs of an Exchange Student: I'm Leeeeeeeaving, on a Jet Plane...

May 20, 2014

Memoirs of an Exchange Student: I'm Leeeeeeeaving, on a Jet Plane...

Have I told you I love Bill Bryson? Probably on more than one occasion. Anyway, I was reading The Lost Continent some time ago, and came across this gem of a passage, where he talks about how Americans are convinced their country must be the best.

"Countries just don't come any better. So why anyone would want to live anywhere else is practically incomprehensible," he says. He then mentions the Dutch exchange student he once knew in High School who was veritably distraught that everybody should will him to like the United States better than Holland. Then he goes on to say: "...And funny enough, in the end he decided he did [want to live in America].  The last I heard he was a successful realtor in Florida, driving a Porsche, wearing wraparound sunglasses and saying 'Hey, what's happening?' which of course is a considerable improvement on wearing wooden shoes, carrying pails of milk on a yoke over your shoulder and being invaded by Germany every couple of generations."

This passage reminded me that I had been an exchange student myself, what seemed like a hundred years ago, and that it would make good material for an expat blog. I went on to write about some of it in Culture Shock Circa 1983: They Have Phones Without Cords in America!

But what I haven't shared with you yet is the story of how I got there.

It was my first trip outside of Europe. We had traveled quite a bit throughout Europe as children but the day my 16-year old self said good-bye to my parents in Frankfurt, Germany, not to set eyes on them for the next entire year, was the first time I would leave Europe. It was also the very first time I would travel on an airplane, an absolute novelty. My own kids, who have sat (and fought over the window seat) on more airplanes they can remember, starting at about 4 months of age, are utterly astonished when I tell them that part of the story.

I don't have any pictures of my first time on a plane, of Luxemburg, or Reykiavik, a grave oversight,
so instead I'm offering up a collage of shots taken during my exchange year in the USA.

You might be surprised to hear that my plane didn't actually leave from Frankfurt. No siree, my "Year in America" was booked via some budget exchange organization that some shady woman in Munich ran out of her home, and the absolute cheapest flight she was able to find was On-Icelandair-from-Luxemburg-via-Reykjavik-to-New-York. Have you ever heard of Icelandair? In hindsight I cannot believe my parents sent off their only daughter in such a fashion, but then again they had never flown on an airplane themselves either, and probably had no idea that in the Year of Our Lord 1983 you could get to the New World by a more direct route than Iceland.

Things, of course, didn't go smoothly. After all, this was Icelandair. Which didn't fly out of Frankfurt. I was ferried by bus to Luxembourg, where I arrived with a hundred or so equally wide-eyed soon-to-be-exchange-student teenagers, who nevertheless looked terrifyingly worldly to me. Then we learned that our flight would be delayed by seven hours.

It seems like this story will take more than one blog post to tell. Stay tuned!