This is based on personal experiences, as I allow myself to feel a bit nostalgic about past events. Perhaps this can also give courage and heart to those who have online friends (or even more than that!) that they want to, but have not yet dared to meet in real life yet.
She had packed her suitcase carefully, gone over its content more than once, packing and repacking to assure herself that nothing had been forgotten, that she’d not be left wanting once she had arrived at her destination so far, far away from home. Even though she knew there would be stores selling both shampoo and toothbrushes there, the idea of forgetting her own was too terrible to imagine. Her carry-on bag had been filled with books and games and music to make the long hours on the plane go by faster, or that was the general idea.
Never before had she traveled this far on her own, without any kind of safety net in place, without anyone by her side to help her through the various steps on her way. Again she picked up her travel documents, the passport, the printed out e-ticket and boarding pass, with its fine print that informed her about all the rules and regulations of the airline that would speed her on her way through the skies above.
Nervously she folded her hands in her lap, surveying the madness of her bedroom after her frantic packing session, clothes that had been discarded and books that had been left behind after she had found the weight restrictions of the airline. And she was planning on buying some stuff while away; she’d need some room in all her bags for purchases, for souvenirs and other memorabilia.
But that was then, when she was still here in the present and her destination still seemed dreadfully far away at this very moment.
She carefully moved herself from her bed to her computer, browsing her messages one more time. There, the comfort to cling to, the re-assuring messages from her online friends, those she would meet during this trip, the ones she had gotten to know over the past year or so. An adventure this was, in more than one way. Not only was this a trip on her own, but she would meet people for the first time, while fears that things would be different when they met face to face buzzed frantically in her head.
Finally she knew she could hold it off no longer, it was time to close up her bags and get going. Unless she wanted to risk missing her plane, she had to be on the next train which would take her all the way to the airport.
The wheels on her suitcase hopped and crunched over the gravel on the road, leftovers from a winter which seemed so far away, with the buzzing of insects a fitting soundtrack to temperatures which had soared up towards 90 degrees Fahrenheit lately, even now, early in the morning it was quite warm. It had looked like it was cooler where she was going and for that she was grateful.
Distracting herself with such mundane things was just what she needed; it took the edge off the anxiety that clawed at her guts.
There were a lot of people at the train station, but then, what did she expect? It was rush hour and many commuters out and about; vacation time had not quite started yet. To be polite she huddled up in a corner in the train, sitting on her suitcase so she’d not be in the way. She considered pulling out a book to read, but she found herself unable to concentrate, instead she stared blankly ahead, her head full with the steps she had to take before she arrived, before she might allow herself to relax.
As the train emptied out she allowed herself more room, more space. The last few stops she could even sit down in seat without any guilt. The anxiety had begun to dissipate some, but it returned in full force as the speakers called out her stop, the airport. Joined by a group of fellow travelers, which seemed to have materialized from nowhere she exited the train and with a chorus of trundling wheels they marched onward, following the signs to the departures hall.
It wasn’t until she heard the first friendly airport speaker voice call out a caution to keep track of all your luggage at all times that it finally sunk in properly that she was at the airport, that she was actually getting on a plane today. Nervously she found the screens that guided her towards her airline’s bag drop off point. Typically there was a line, so much for online check-in saving you the agony of waiting. It did help her focus her mind though, to distract it from the multitude of things that could go wrong, that stood in her way. Now it was nothing but “take out my passport” and “answer the security questions properly”. As she saw her suitcase vanish, swallowed up into the huge belly of the airport terminals baggage handling facility she felt something inside her loosen up, some tightness in her gut vanished. Now all she had to focus on was the boarding time and she had plenty of time to spare until then.
As her belly relaxed, she suddenly felt hungry and remembered that she had not had any breakfast. A rumbling in her stomach made her decide to spend a little bit of her travel money on a decent meal before she got on the plane. It felt sensible to her. What if the airplane food was horrible?
She found a small cafe, whose large plate-glass windows overlooked the tarmac and the departure gates. There was something calming, soothing in watching the planes land and take off, taxi and back away from the gates, silver streaks against the clear blue summer sky. She thought she could see her own gate off to the far right, was that even her plane backing into the gate?
Significantly calmer and with a full stomach she left the cafe and headed for security. Her online friends had advised her to take care there, remove all metal items so nothing ridiculous set off the metal detectors and caused you humiliation and delay. Yet despite that she found herself holding her breath until she’d passed the metal detectors without incident.
After a leisurely walk through tax-free shops and past last-minute internet cafes she finally found her gate with her plane already sitting by it, like a large, tired bird resting its wings. It was only then that she felt relaxed enough to dip into her carry on and pull out a book to read, coaxing her remaining nervousness into submission for the time being. There was plenty of time to feel jittery about meeting her online friends later.
Boarding time seemed to drag on forever, spent watching her fellow passengers impatiently drag their feet and fiddle with their travel documents, but finally she found her seat, a proper window seat even. As she tried to make herself comfortable she realized that when she got out of her seat to leave the plane she’d be in a different country, on an entirely different continent. The rush of agitation, mixed with excitement was enough to carry her past the frightening take off procedure, made her forget the sensation of her ears readjusting to the change in air pressure. Now she was in the air and her adventure had begun.
Even now that she was in the air it felt hard to fully concentrate on her books and her games, but now it was excitement and not crippling anxiety that held her back. When the food came she suddenly felt hungry again and she devoured the entire meal, starter salad, main and dessert pudding, though at first she’d felt like she could not eat a single bite. She began to frantically take notes of all that she felt and thought. Perhaps this could be things she could share with her friends, so they’d have something to talk about during those early awkward moments. She didn’t have great social skills, but if she had notes to follow…
And it would be nice to remember this moment and these feelings, she reflected.
The flight dragged on and on. Soon boredom made the excitement take a back seat. She walked the aisle, up and down, to keep the blood streaming into her legs, as she’d been advised to do by the helpful guide in the magazine in her seat pocket. They were showing a movie on the small screens in the back of the seat in front of you, but it was one she had already seen so it would not cure her restlessness, her boredom.
When she finally heard the call that they were to return to their seats and prepare for landing, she nearly cried out with joy. The excitement returned until she remembered that a few of her friends were supposed to pick her up from the airport. That first meeting she had both dreaded and looked forward to was so close, so very close now.
She spent the last 30 minutes of the flight in a kind of stupor, focusing on what she might do and say…And what if she didn’t recognize her friends, even though she had seen photos on them. It was the rattle of hundreds of seat-belts unbuckling as the plane reached its destination gate that stirred her out of her black mood. There was nothing to do now but to get up and collect her things, then stand in line with everyone else, waiting for the plane to slowly empty.
She barely heard the stewardesses tell them all good bye as she left the plane.
This terminal she had arrived in was large and clean and smelled of some sort of cleaning solution that she wasn’t familiar with. It smelled fragrant, but also sterile. From somewhere she felt a cool breeze and realized that it was the air conditioning units sticking out of the walls here and there. Colorful benches were the only splashes of color in an otherwise pristine and white landscape.
She followed the stream of people which grew fatter as more people from other flights joined them and followed the signs labeled “Immigration” and “Customs”. The horde of travel weary humanity all came to a halt as they arrived in a large hall with long, trailing queues which would take you to one of the officers which would decide if you could stay in the country or if you had to take the next flight back.
Anxiety blossomed anew inside her. What if she had filled out her ESTA form wrong? What if she had made some small mistake somewhere in her ignorance of such documentation? Her feelings grew worse as she witnessed other travelers turned away by the blue-suited officer in her booth. When her turn finally came she had to take a couple of deep breaths and force herself to listen to the officer’s questions.
And suddenly it was all over. Her passport had been stamped with a heavy clunking sound and she had been sent on her way. Was that truly it? The sheer relief she felt almost made her pass out.
The bags from her flight had not yet begun to arrive so she celebrated this small victory by allowing herself a visit to the bathroom to freshen up and collect herself. She was close now, so very close to the moment she had been waiting for, waited for so many long months…
When she returned to the belts there were bags on them and…There! Her suitcase with its ribbons and adornments she had put on it so she would not mistake it for someone else’s. Hard to do really, her suitcase was a nice moss green, while most other bags were black or grey.
She almost trembled now as she rolled her fat suitcase towards the last officer standing in her way, the only thing that separated her from the bright and cheerful exit sign. Her heart was beating madly in her chest and she could barely hear the customs officer when he asked her if she had brought any fruit or vegetables. At least she had the common sense to say “No”.
Then the doors, the large automatic doors which spilled her out into the cool reception area beyond, lined with groups of people holdings signs, smiling and waving. She saw other travelers welcomed with open arms and kisses on cheeks, she saw business travelers in fancy suits escorted away by pre-paid taxi drivers and somewhere she heard the wailing of a small child. She craned her neck to try and make out a familiar face or two, but it was hard with this crowd, all these voices calling out in a cacophony. What if she had written down the wrong time, the wrong place…What if her online friends didn’t care after all?
A hard lump of dread had begun to form in her stomach when she finally saw the sign at the far back, a colorful cardboard sign with her online nickname emblazoned on it and holding it…Yes, those were the faces from the photos, weren’t they? Those were really her friends.
As she hesitantly approached them they turned around to face her and immediately they began to hurry towards her, all smiles and open arms. And the lump in her stomach melted away as she felt the prick of tears forming in her eyes.
“Welcome to Chicago!”
“Did you have a safe flight?”
Voices she had never heard before became immediately connected with these faces, with these mannerisms and she realized that all her fears about awkwardness, about nervous agitation and a clumsy first meeting had been rather silly after all. They were her friends, even now that they could see each other in the flesh.
She let one of her friends take her suitcase while the other led her off towards the parking lot and the car that waited there.
And she knew instinctively that this trip would truly change her life. In a way it already had, it had already removed some of her fear and anxiety and replaced it with love and friendship, the feelings she could sense from the two women that walked beside her.
She knew then that she had found her family away from home.