Finding my way home…

For me, it was a strange sensation when I realized on my way to Zurich airport that I might be stranded at a place where I had never been before: the somewhat unwelcoming possibility of not “getting home” after a long journey mingled with the exciting possibility of exploring some location that must certainly hold at least a few discoveries to be made. But I’m jumping ahead already… Uhm, given that this will be a recounting of personal experiences, I hope you won’t be bothered too much if I overshoot my usual length limit of about 1,000 words per entry.

As I explained in the overview, I was traveling on a buddy pass, which meant that my flight would only work out under the condition that enough empty seats remained available at the time of boarding. Needless to say, on my desired return date, Monday the 24th of June, this didn’t work out–indeed, next to myself, 11 other people didn’t make it. And the gate crew told all of us that the situation would only get worse in the upcoming few days, as, besides whoever of us would try again, there would be additional “buddies”, trying to fly out from Frankfurt to JFK, probably until the weekend. Bummer!

Not yet knowing what plan B would going to be like, the feeling sank in that I was temporarily stranded, and I felt immensely grateful that my stepmom had suggested, even insisted, that she and my dad would remain close at hand, “just in case.” So, I took my checked bag from the belt again and, exiting through border and customs control with a feeling of this whole experience being some sort of a bad joke, rejoined them shortly afterwards.

Upon my inquiry at the Delta ticket counter as to what other options might be available to return to New York the next day, I was told that flights with some more empty seats available would go out of Amsterdam and Brussels via Detroit and also one from Zurich directly to JFK. The number of empty seats was greatest for the Zurich option, and with a strong desire not to repeat the experience of rising excitement at the gate followed by a complete anticlimax upon realizing I wouldn’t be flying, I opted to go to Switzerland.

This flight was scheduled for 10:30am and I suddenly became aware that if I went to my brother Bernd’s place, I would yet get to see my six-week old nephew Vincent, and I must admit I felt a great sense of joy. Fate had seemingly dealt me a blow, but one that would allow me to actually experience something I had wanted very much, not gotten the chance to, and then being given the opportunity after all. Planing ahead, I found out that a train leaving my brother Bernd’s place at 8:30pm, with a 4-hour layover at the station at Frankfurt airport, would bring me to Zurich nicely at 8am the next day. So much for the plan…

After the decision was made, my dad dropped me off at my brother’s place, and I enjoyed three and half hours of nephew awesomeness. Holding Vincent in my arms, rocking him gently back and forth–I have a video that Bernd took, which easily brings tears into my eyes–was a wonderful and quite deep experience. Finally I could grasp the reality of being “Uncle Joey”. Bernd, Daniela, and I had a small dinner together, and then I was dropped off at the train station with a feeling that this one-day delay had all been worth it!

The short ride to the train station at Frankfurt airport was uneventful, and after realizing that almost all of the little shops, cafés, and facilities inside the train station were closed after 10pm, I decided to wait at the arrivals hall inside the airport terminal instead, which brought about the actually adventurous part of my journey. I had taken a seat at a little counter for travelers needing to charge some piece of electronic equipment, and after calling my mom to say good night, I began to read one of the books I had bought at the high school reunion.

A few minutes later, a woman approached me and another fellow traveler sitting next to me, inquiring about an issue she was encountering with the WiFi connection on her cell phone. As it turned out, she had used up the 30 minutes of complimentary Internet service, and my suggestion was that she could use any other device she carried, such as a laptop. Normally, I might have simply gone back to reading my book, but my somewhat heightened sense of care and supportiveness brought my attention back to her every once in a while, and so I realized that she was stranded herself, trying hard to find a resolution to her predicament.

After a while, I decided to “make contact”, and I inquired about what exactly happened to her. She explained that she was on her way back home to Geneva, and that she had arrived from Kathmandu, but missed her connecting flight due to a series of unfortunate events–which would be too much to be told here as well… Long story short, she needed to find a way to rebook her flight to the next possible one: her son’s high school graduation ceremony was set to take place at 2pm the next day, and if at all possible she wanted to be there on time.

As it happened, I had opted for a flat-rate tariff on my German SIM card, and so I decided to let her make use of the air time by offering her to use my cell phone to make a few phone calls and inquire about the possibility for rebooking the flight. Unfortunately, after a series of calls to her traveling agency, her husband, and then to the Lufthansa service line in the US, it turned out that the only way to rebook her ticket was to wait at the terminal until the counters would open the next morning. And one of the phone calls I had even made myself, as Sharad–I was pleased to make the acquaintance of–was trying to get some more information from her husband via Internet based text chat.

By that point I had figured out that my train would be another option for her to get home, with her needing to transfer at Basel to Geneva, and me transferring at the same station to a train going to Zurich airport. And when I made the suggestion, Sharad seemed actually excited, but what about the luggage? That hadn’t been released to her, given that she had been checked in on her connecting flight.

So, during a longer phone call she made, I took it upon myself to inquire with a guy from the information desk–to the utter astonishment of Sharad, as I left her with my cell phone–and together we managed to convince the people from the Lufthansa baggage service personnel that her suitcase would be sent to Geneva airport the next morning even though she had missed her flight. After Sharad heard the news, and actually confirming the arrangements in person, we left the airport together, bought a train ticket to Geneva, and then had about 30 minutes left at the train station before our journey together was to begin.

It was a funny moment when, in the middle of a conversation we had started about my work at Columbia, Sharad suddenly inquired about my name, realizing we had been working so intently on finding a way for her to reach home early the next day without ever formally introducing ourselves. And from that moment on, I somehow felt that I had made a good friend. The train arrived with about 20 minutes delay–Deutsche Bahn not living up to its reputation but very much fulfilling the by now quite often encountered stereotype. After we located our car, which had a series of reclining resting chairs, I inquired whether I could change seats so Sharad and I could travel together, and then a quite long and interesting conversation ensued, both about her work and two-week trip to Nepal and my current interest in emotion and motivation and their relevance for communication and relationships.

At some point a fellow traveler reminded us of the time, and we decided to try to take a little nap. It was around 4:40am when I realized something wasn’t going according to plan: the train wasn’t moving any longer. We had stopped at a train station some time earlier to receive additional cars from a train coming from Berlin, and when I asked the conductor, I was told that this train had a one-hour delay due to a storm, and I began to have a first small “pinch” of the feeling I might not make it to my flight. After returning to my seat, I found I had woken Sharad and I told her about the delay. Knowing that her husband might be a little worried about her impromptu decision to take the train, she sent him a text message from my phone, and then we waited. But this wouldn’t be the only delay…

After only another half hour or so of moving, we stopped again at a train station where we weren’t even supposed to. As it turned out, our train itself was facing a technical malfunction, and the engine needed to be replaced, which took close to an hour and a half, by which time I was certain that my flight would be taking off without me. Luckily, the lady at the Delta counter had given me her direct number at the ticketing desk, and so, shortly after 6:30am, I was able to reach her and rebook my flight to Wednesday. And that was when I learned just how much of a friend I had made during the past few hours…

As I was telling Sharad about my plans to go to Zurich and stay at a hotel, she simply suggested I could join her and her family at the high school graduation in Geneva and then make my way to Zurich from there. At first, this seemed like too much of a detour–the train ride from Geneva to Zurich would be another three hours, but the prospect of spending more time with a new found and already very feeling-close-to friend was indeed much more appealing than the idea of ending up in a city where I wouldn’t know anyone. So, at the train station in Basel, while I was rebooking my train ticket from Zurich to Geneva, Sharad bought some food for the remaining train ride, and we had yet some more wonderful exchange of thoughts, all the while some very stunning landscapes passed by–not all of which I was giving their deserved attention, as I was still much more interested in hearing about her experiences in Nepal and relating some of her work with what I am interested in.

By now my German SIM card had become useless, and I managed to ask a couple of travelers in probably very funny sounding French whether we could briefly use their iPhone for a quick call to Sharad’s husband, Satya, who would then know about the time of our arrival. And so we made it to Geneva with about two and a half hours of delay–at least relative to the original arrival time my friend would have gotten there. We then took the tram to the western outskirts of the small but fairly cozy city at the lake, and arrived at Sharad and Satya’s place just in time for a brief but most delicious lunch that he had prepared for us and then each of us took quick shower and changed into fresh clothes so we could attend the graduation ceremony of their son Eklavya’s “in style”.

This event would deserve its own little story, but suffice it to say it was almost as extravagant as some of the ceremonies I’ve witnessed in the US; quite more so than what I remember of my own Abiturfeier. After the official part with a few speeches–as I learned that day, my French is still good enough to follow a lot of what’s going on–, some live music presented by some students, a video collage showing the quite eventful past year, and the final handing over of the actual diplomas and special awards, there was a small reception. I only took one or two small snacks, having been well fed by the food Sharad had gotten at Basel as well as Satya’s superb cooking, and then decided to play a bit on the piano, and what a well-tuned instrument that was (I wish I had one of those…).

Next, we went back to Sharad and Satya’s place where I was given the chance to rest a little. And then I was asked to join a small dinner celebration in honor of the graduate, which gave me the first real opportunity to also connect with Satya and Eklavya. Satya told me a bit about his work and I heard about Eklavya’s plans which university and program to go for. Our conversation then became much more broad, such that we discussed what career options would be most likely to lead to a fulfilling work experience, and it was then that I once again realized how much I had liked the idea of being a teacher, helping others finding “their way”, but that the reality of how school-based education is organized in many places, focusing on and pointing out failures rather than allowing people to naturally learn from any mistakes they make, I had decided to take a different route altogether.

When it was time for me to go back to the train station, Satya then suggested that given the flexibility of my flight ticket, I could just as much stay over night, have a decent rest, and enjoy another day in Geneva. Initially I felt that would be stretching my good fortunes, but then again I also wanted to experience more of the wonderful new friendships I had found. And so I decided to ask my friend working at Delta to rebook the flight–once more! Seriously, I hope he will not tell a completely different story about my travels, saying that I have been such a pain in the butt, that he will never ever talk to me again.

The rest of the evening then was a most pleasant affair, sitting on the sofa in a living room with a veranda, sipping away on a cup of green tea, followed by another hour of talking to Satya about some of the more practical issues he was encountering at work. And then, finally, I went to bed after not sleeping properly for more than 36 hours. I’m still surprised at how refreshed I felt the next morning, and after taking a shower and having some breakfast I was eager to see Geneva. Satya had just called Sharad, asking her to drop off a sweater, as the weather had turned out to be rather “nippy” (chilly) and then we took the tram back to the city.

Since we were talking so vividly on our way, it was no wonder we ended up missing our transfer stop and so we decided to walk from the tram all the way first to the U.N. Palais and then, a little further, to the W.H.O. building where we would meet Satya for an early lunch and a tour of the building. The cafeteria there offered some excellent salad options, and the rooftop view simply is gorgeous. On our way through the building we ended up running into several people who knew Sharad–she also had worked for the W.H.O. before.

It was about 1:30pm when we left to make our way down to the lake. From there we took a nice stroll towards the old town of Geneva, where we had a wonderful snack: sharing two crêpes, one savory with gruyère and ham, and one sweet with banana and chocolate spread, and a coffee. Well, that is, Sharad had an iced coffee and I got myself a scoop of pamplemousse (sweet grapefruit) ice cream. It was one of the funniest moments of the day when then two ladies behind the counter started laughing out loud after I tried to explain that the iced coffee was not to be made by adding the pamplemousse flavor–something certainly made more hilarious by the fact that my French speaking capabilities are fairly limited…

Given that stores in Geneva usually all close at 7pm, we then decided to stroll a bit through the “downtown” area, window shopping. We also got my train ticket for the next morning, and then went on finding our way to the cathedral in the center of the old town that offers a most stunning and panoramic view over the lake and the surrounding parts of the city. Before returning home, we still took the chance to look at some of the sights close by, including the famous “reformation wall”, and, right next to it, an end-of-school-term fair that was going on, where kids were wearing all sorts of hand-made hats, which made everything look even more like a fairy tale…

The only thing we didn’t manage was doing the groceries shopping for dinner, but Satya was way ahead of us! When we arrived, a most delicious assortment of food options was already in the making: Indian style chicken, with home made rotis, and some spinach with cheese and the typical yoghurt to help a bit if things are too spicy. After dinner, we sat with a glass of Kir, and then Sharad, Satya, and I spent about an hour or so talking about the fundamental differences between European, American, and Indian culture. Another feast, this time for the soul and mind!

And now my story is turning to an end (at last!!). The next morning I had to wake up at 3:30am, as my train would leave from Geneva main station at 4:50, and I had to take a cab there, which Satya had ordered to be at their place by 4:20. Once in the train, the trip to Zurich turned out to work like a charm, just as Sharad had predicted and Satya commented on: Swiss trains are always on time, even so much so that if you think they’re late you may as well check if your watch isn’t ahead of time!

During the entire remainder of my journey, while riding the train to Zurich, flying to JFK, and then sitting in the subway on the way to my apartment, I had this constant feeling of awe and bubbly fizziness that signifies that something most unexpected and thoroughly enjoyable had happened to me: out of the blue, I had made first one, then two wonderful friends, I had been welcomed into their home and had shared some incredibly valuable moments with them, and I believe that in the upcoming months and hopefully even years, I will “come back” not only to this memory, but also to this friendship with more opportunities to share meaningful experiences with Sharad, Satya, and also Eklu… Thank you so much for giving me all these precious moments with you!

June 2013 travel report — overview

While I realize that this website is by design a philosophical blog, I equally want to share some private experiences with those of you who are interested in hearing about my life as it is–rather than about what I think about life in general. So, I hope you’ll enjoy what I intend to become a short series of report blog entries giving you a chance to take a glimpse into what happened to me while traveling to Germany and, eventually and unexpectedly, to Switzerland on my family visiting vacation time in June 2013.

First, I feel the need to mention that the ticket I got was not a regular ticket but what is known as a Delta Airlines Buddy Pass. Briefly put, staff members of Delta Airlines have the opportunity to extend the perk of a “non-revenue” flight to family members and close friends. This then means, naturally, that air travel becomes much more affordable, but if you think there is no catch, well, there are a few–some or maybe even all of which I experienced. The major one maybe being that while you can make a flight reservation, a seat assignment will be given “at the gate”. And paying customers as well as buddies with higher priorities will be given seats preferentially, such that there is always the chance that you won’t actually get the flight you intend but that you have to come back to the airport for a flight at a later date with more empty seats or accept a different route altogether.

Still, with ticket prices for a round trip to Germany–JFK/Frankfurt/JFK to be precise–soaring beyond my financial means, I very gladly accepted this risk, and in the end it turned out to be the source of quite a few extra adventures you’ll get to read about. I would go as far as saying that without those, the travel report might turn out to be relatively boring and commonplace, so maybe sometimes it’s worth being inconvenienced for the sake of being disturbed in one’s routine to make some new and unexpected experiences. Naturally, I believe for that to succeed it is necessary to be open towards those situations. Imagining that I would have been angry or resentful about not making my return flight of choice, the subsequent events would certainly have played out differently…

OK, getting to the chase: I was staying in touch with my Delta Airlines friend to find and confirm a possible date to fly out, and on June 11 it finally became apparent that I should be able to make it for the flight on Thursday the 13th. It’s an overnight flight that arrives in Frankfurt on the morning of the next day. And given my vacation allowance, I decided to aim for the return flight on the 24th, which would give me ten full days of vacation and family time. So much for the plan! The flight from JFK to Germany worked out, although barely as I now believe, but the flight back was just a bit of a utopian idea, but more on that later.

Here is now, in as brief as possible terms, what happened throughout my trip as a kind of ticker list of news headlines and short summaries:

  • June 12, 2013, High Price by Dr. Carl Hart: while maybe not directly related to my vacation plans, I think it’s important to mention my getting and reading this book; it helped me by providing some more thoughts and ideas about why people do the things they do
  • June 13, 2013, my flight to Germany: barely (it seems) making my flight, but having a very long and totally awesome conversation with a stranger, Michael, who turns out to be an architect from New York also teaching at Columbia University
  • June 14, 2013, luggage delayed at JFK: not knowing all the conditions of Buddy Pass traveling I assumed I can check my bags and get them; turns out there is always a (pretty good) chance of that not happening and checked bags being delayed… So, if you’ll be flying as a Buddy, use hand luggage only! 😉
  • June 14, 2013, train trip to Koblenz: as I already knew that I would need some Euros, I had exchanged a bit of money and was able to get a train to Koblenz where I was picked up by a neighbor of my mom’s (who no longer has a car), and this and the next day were spent with “chilling out” in the beautiful and extremely sleepy Eifel and having a few really good conversations with my mom
  • June 16, 2013, picking up my bag: finally getting the information that my bag had arrived, my mom and I went to Frankfurt airport (yes, Buddies will not have their bags delivered!) followed by a very nice afternoon in Koblenz’s old town and a visit at the “Deutsches Eck” where Rhine and Mosel join; in the evening I met with some old friends which felt like a nice forecast for my high school reunion a week later
  • June 18, 2013, my brother Bernd comes for a quick visit: although one of the main reasons for my trip to Germany being to get to see my still fairly new-born nephew Vincent, I hadn’t gotten the chance yet; still my brother Bernd decided to visit my mom and me to “hang out” and have a little bit of good-old-times fun
  • June 19 and 20, 2013, staying at my dad’s: given that my parents are divorced there is always some scheduling required to see both my mom and dad; this time I decided to stay with him during “the middle” of my vacation with a sleep-over, and I had some very, very good conversations with my dad and his wife about emotions, needs, decisions, and why we as humans often seem to be too entrenched in our immediate thoughts, judgments, and subsequent emotional responses, leading us to easily miss the best opportunities in life
  • June 21, 2013, my oldest brother Markus arrives in town: a family visit would not be complete without seeing both my brothers, and I was and am very grateful and happy that Markus took the time to come to my mom’s place; in part also due to the fact that we both went to the same high school and the reunion was for all years and classes, and as with my dad, I had some good conversations again 🙂
  • June 22, 2013, the high school reunion day: the afternoon finally brought me to one of the two main reasons for my visit: seeing people from my past and, possibly, rekindle some contact; as it turned out, to my knowledge only 4 other students of my year made it, but I still had a totally awesome time at a “literary café” where three former students (not of my year though) read from their own literature works, two of which I bought and have been enjoying quite a bit already since
  • June 23, 2013, NOT seeing my nephew: for those of you who don’t know… My mom’s emotional situation can become fairly volatile at times, and after a night frequently interrupted by loud music playing on the stereo in my mom’s apartment and talking to both my brothers, the decision was made not to go see my nephew; instead I went to visit both my grandmothers’ graves with my mom
  • June 24, 2013, NOT flying back to JFK: initially it might have seemed like really bad luck, first missing out on my nephew then not getting on the flight, but then fate seemed to twist and turn and put me on top again… Had I not been bumped off the flight, I would not have seen my nephew, but after rebooking to fly out from Zurich the next day, I had enough time left to visit my brother Bernd and yet got to meet Vincent, yay!
  • June 24, 2013, late evening, meeting another stranger: now we come to the truly remarkable and exceptional part of the story… On my way from my brother’s place to Zurich the next day, I had to transfer trains at the airport in Frankfurt, and as I had a 4-hour overlay, I decided to wait at the airport terminal rather than the train track; there I made the acquaintance of a very, very lovely lady, Sharad, who was stranded, whom I tried to support in her efforts to rebook the flight she missed, and who ended up taking the same train, with us becoming friends along the way
  • June 25, 2013, NOT flying from Zurich either: looking back it seems as if fate wanted me to stay in Europe–maybe as a sign to miss a special someone’s birthday? Be that as it may, the train first had a one-hour delay while waiting for some cars being added from a different train coming from Berlin, and then another even longer additional delay when a technical malfunction prevented us from moving for another hour; given that I would not make my flight in time, Sharad suggested I join her and her family in Geneva for her son’s high school graduation ceremony
  • June 25 and 26, 2013, Geneva revisited: taking Sharad up on her offer, I ended up spending an incredibly wonderful day and a half with new found friends while also being given a tour around the lake and through the old town of Geneva–reminding me of an early childhood episode–, and, as you may have guessed, having yet more long and very interesting and memorable conversations; the time I got to spend there will hopefully remain as vivid in my mind as it is now! Thank you, Sharad and Satya, for everything!!
  • June 27, 2013, train to Zurich and flight to JFK: at last I was able to make it to an airport in time–though there wasn’t much buffer left–and, for the first time in my life, traveled business class; yet another (though quite small) adventure. Given that the checkin counter and the gates were very far away, I took the risk again of checking my bag, and “paid” for this decision with it being delayed once more…

So much for the overview! Details on some parts of my travels to follow, particularly on this last, unexpected journey 🙂 I hope you did and will enjoy these blog entries, even though they deviate a bit from the usual material.