Posted in Issues, Study Abroad

TAKING OFF — Chapter Two: The Flight

I had a goal for this flight – make conversation with a fellow passenger. If I succeeded, I thought it would bode well for the next few days and weeks of talking to complete strangers on the road to making friends. This plane was headed to Amsterdam. I was embarking on a year abroad in Utrecht, Netherlands.

The summer in Ireland had been a blast. I learned a lot about Irish history, folklore, and music. I’d never seen such lush landscapes. So startled was I at the beauty that I took about 38 rolls of film as each view seemed to be more stunning than the last. And, of course, I made great friends, including the boy who responded so dismissively to my email.

Ireland was such a success that on this flight I wasn’t too worried about what would happen once I arrived. The jitters were far less. Things had worked out once, so I assumed they would again. I identified, however, one weak area that I wanted to work on – my small talk. You needed to make yourself extroverted in the beginning of these programs regardless if you are one or not, and, to me, the sign of an extrovert was good small talk.

Observe, however, is what I do. When I’m in a new situation with new people I tend to remain quiet in order to observe my surroundings and find some comfort in the discomfort. Usually in subsequent meetings with the same people, I’m much more open and can converse more easily. My friends have said that I was shy and quiet when they first met me but then bam! I don’t shut up. Well, I wanted to get to the “bam!” part a lot sooner.

Being from a traveling family and going to school in a different state from my home, I was very familiar with flying and knew there were those passengers that liked to talk to their fellow flightmates. I was hoping I’d be seated next to one of them and my goal would be achieved. Alas, the universe did not let me off so easily.

I was seated next to a middle-aged gentleman. We were the only two in our row. He was it. He was the lucky one unwittingly picked to be my volunteer. He had no idea of his importance to me and the precedence we were setting for my forthcoming year.

(Photo: airbusky)

I was really anxious. This was a time-sensitive endeavor. I knew that if a conversation was going to happen and seem natural, it had to happen soon after we took our seats. Starting a conversation once someone is settled is awkward. He might pull out a book, or, being an overnight flight, doze off to sleep.

I began situating myself for the long flight and tried to muster up the courage. With each adjustment I made to my person or my carry-on items a voice boomed in my head. Do it now! We were pulling away from the gate and beginning our taxi to the runway. I just wanted to look out the window like I always do. Do it now! The flight attendant began her monologue about the safety features and emergency exits. This was not a reprieve; it actually increased the pressure as more time was eaten away from the precious ‘natural’ time frame to start chatting with a stranger on a plane. Do it now! DO IT NOW!

You would have thought this was a life or death situation from the adrenaline pumping through my veins. I really wanted the flight option but I knew I had to fight. The significance I placed on this one conversation totally outweighed its actual importance. My time in Utrecht would not be made or ruined based upon whether or not I spoke to this man sitting next to me. But it sure felt like it.

“Where are you headed?” I could hardly believe the words had come from my mouth. I must have blacked out from a last push of adrenaline as I didn’t recall making the decision to do it now.

“I’m going home to Denmark,” he replied. He replied!

We didn’t talk long. But we did go back and forth. I learned that he had visited his son in Long Island to help him build a ship that his son was going to sail across the Atlantic. (This was pretty cool and totally nothing I expected to hear.) Then I shared how I was on my way to Utrecht to study abroad for the year. Once the conversation was over, a huge weight was off my shoulders. I felt great. It was a baby step in getting to the ‘bam!’ but, as a first step, it was huge. I had achieved my goal. Utrecht, here I come.