I begin a three month journey through Eastern Europe. Why Eastern Europe? Simple –because I’m cheap and I have a fear of mosquito-borne diseases. So this is the final place I can go. The new Jim, either with a better paying job or therapy, can go everywhere else.
My first stop is Estonia via a layover in Istanbul. I fly home from Athens, Greece on November 30th. I brought only the necessities: a backpack of clothes, three books, my laptop, an iPod nano, and my banjo. I was going to bring my shitty banjo (bought specifically for this trip) but I couldn’t part with the good one.
When I arrived at the airport I tried awkwardly to flirt with the counter girl. I asked if Istanbul is a popular destination and she replied that almost everyone on my plane was using Istanbul as a transit hub to another country. Really, I was trying to sweet talk Turkish Airlines into letting me bring the banjo on board with me in it’s soft case –– it’s hard case being too heavy to carry for three months –– and I succeeded.
The movie selections were great. I can’t get over how awesome it is to sit in one place watching movies for a whole day and not feel bad about yourself. I put on Bridge of Spies because I have a career crush on Mark Rylance. I used to go to the performing arts library next to Juilliard and watch his performance of Jerusalem over and over again.
A friend had given me an Ativan to help me sleep. All drugs affect me to an extreme, hence why a cup of coffee makes me feel like I’m on PCP, and this was my first experience with Ativan. I put on some Album Leaf and washed it down with a beer. The lights went out and I looked forward at the dark plane and started weeping out of euphoria at the prospect of this trip; all issues at home faded as I could now disappear into the forests of Eastern Europe. I saved double the amount of my daily budget in China. For the lonely moments? The banjo was stored above my head.
It was six hours into the flight when things got shaky. The Ativan had taken hold and I was suddenly in a twilight trance. I saw one of the flight attendants run to the phone in the wall and make an announcement asking if there were any doctors on the plane. No one stood up. “That’s so funny”, I thought to myself. “She looks stressed.” I worked hard to get my arm moving and put on the first episode of Band of Brothers, and then slipped back into my trance. A few minutes later the flight attendant made the same announcement, this time imploring a doctor to come forward. An older man with a mustache from the back of the plane walked forward and I saw an enormous Turk stand up. This man was massive.
I have a flight attendant friend who told me that they’re just glorified garbage men. It’s not true; their main job is to keep themselves and everyone on the plane from freaking the fuck out.
The next few hours were like watching my life on a movie screen. I kept looking around confused like we were all at a circus. The older doctor walked back to his seat behind me, shaking his head with a slight smile. I rolled my head to the side again and looked for the giant Turk. He was bent over on his knees in the aisle, his buttocks facing me, his broad back rising up and thrusting down giving some poor soul an aggressive version of CPR.
There was tension on everyone’s faces. A few more phone calls were made – these ones were private and in Turkish – and I so wished I could speak Turkish. Finally the pilot made an announcement. He made it in Turkish first and everyone who understood put their head in their hands or dropped their jaw to their chest. He said that there was a medical emergency and we were going to make an emergency landing in Zurich. They had brought out a large clear plastic bag and it sank in that someone might have died on the plane. The announcement ended and we dove. I don’t know how high up we were, probably around 40,000 feet, but from the time of his announcement it took us twenty minutes to land on the Zurich runway. Twenty minutes! My stomach joined the circus.
We landed softly and were told to stay in our seats. Sure enough, a few minutes after we landed the pilot announced that a young woman had died. She had no companion, she was alone, and she was 35 years old.
The police came on the plane and a man groaned. “The Swiss,” he said. “We’ll be here for four hours.” Oh yes, this plane is full of people who have a connecting flight and the Swiss are an excruciatingly thorough people.
The police made a crime scene of her row and questioned everyone that talked to her. They swabbed the area around her seat and the flight attendants had everyone stand up and point to their luggage. She was alone. How would they know which was her bag?
The Ativan was wearing off and the realization that someone died on the plane and also that I was going to miss my connecting flight started to hit me. I remembered the mustached man and his peculiar face walking back to his seat and I later learned that she had been dead for almost the whole flight. The lights were out and no one noticed.
The Istanbul airport was a trip, not only because they sent me in seven directions to get a visa and hotel, but the passport control was hellish with every ethnicity that never heard of staying in line jostling around me. “Someone died on my plane!” I wanted to yell. Give me and my banjo a break. The 50 or so of us who needed to stay in Istanbul were shuttled into the city center and arrived at a swanky hotel. My room was enormous and beautiful so I immediately stripped naked and rolled around the room in anticipation of three months of hostels.
After a quick nap I went downstairs for the lunch they offered me. It was in an empty ballroom and I sat alone. I tried to read more of The Poisonwood Bible but my brain was too fried so I stared down at my soup. Two Macedonian girls came in and invited me to sit at their table. They were on their way back to Skopje. I called out their Jersey accents and one of the girls, Sandra, told me she spent the summer working at a restaurant in Asbury Park, NJ. The other girl, Teona, was was working and studying in NYC. Sandra and I talked shit on the restaurant industry for the remainder of the meal, swapping horror stories of clientele complaints. (I once gave a free dessert to a lovely couple celebrating their anniversary and a group of asses at the next table refused to leave the restaurant until they also got a free dessert. These are the things I think about while spending money while traveling – what jack-off did I have to deal with to get these ten dollars.)
I never expected to spend any time in Turkey. It was all a silver lining to the plane tragedy. I took a taxi to a busy part of Istanbul wishing I knew the least bit of Turkish so I could ask the driver everything. When the call to prayer rang throughout the city I made motions from my ear to the ceiling trying to get him to give me the word in Turkish. He looked at me like I was insane. With no one to talk to and nothing to do I wandered the streets for a few hours before heading back to the hotel to pass out in that sweet, sweet, immaculate room.