“You know, I always think that there’s no way those jumbo jets ever really get off the ground.”
Diane, a family friend, was sitting with me in my kitchen, like she always did when she visited my mom and me. She was trying to reassure me about my trip.
“It makes me feel safer to believe that the plane doesn’t actually fly,” she continued, “that somehow I’m magically transported where I want to go, but the plane never leaves the tarmac.”
At the time, I thought she was a tad crazy. But days later when I boarded Virgin Atlantic flight 22 — a double-decker jumbo jet bound for London — I began to understand. I had never seen such a huge plane. Coach had rows 10 seats across: Three on each side, and a section of four seats in the middle. It looked like it could seat more people than my college cafeteria.
As I shuffled down the aisle towards the back of the plane, I was relieved to find that my seat was in one of the very last rows, where the curve of the tail meant my window seat was nearly a foot away from the window, giving me more room to store my in-flight items. I pulled out a copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire — a going-away gift from my best friend — and flipped to the first page as we sat on the tarmac, ready to begin my English adventure with a proper British tale. I had just finished the first chapter when the plane started taxiing down the runway, and we lifted off into blackness.
I looked out the window at the lights of Washington, DC, spread below. They flickered in tiny whorls and streaks, beautiful and irregular across the black surface of the Earth. I had lived in the glare of those lights my whole life — from my mother’s memories of growing up in the city, to her stubborn insistence that we were from the “DC area” despite the fact that we lived nearly an hour outside the Beltway. It was foreign, watching the lights swirl below me.
I stared out the window until the shimmer of the Atlantic faded into blackness. Tiny ice crystals dotted the glass like frozen flowers; I pulled down the shade and shifted in my seat, trying to figure out what to do next.
Just a few hours before, my mom had handed me my plane ticket and run through the details of my trip one more time, while I listened and grinned and clutched my fiancé’s hand. I had kissed him and hugged her and my dad, waved and promised to write.
Now I was alone. Even the seat next to me was empty — it made the trip a lot more comfortable, but much lonelier. I tried reading Harry Potter again, but couldn’t focus on the words.
I reviewed the steps I’d have to take once I reached Heathrow: Take the Tube into the city, find the station nearest the exchange program office. Walk there. It didn’t seem so hard, on the plane. I’d taken the DC Metro many times; I was sure I could handle the Underground on my own. I didn’t yet know that Underground stations are accessed only by stairways — not an escalator to be found, and me stumbling under the weight of my luggage for a seven month stay.
I repeated the steps to myself again, determined not to forget them. My poor sense of direction was a running joke in my family, and I did not want to be teased about getting lost right at the beginning of my great European adventure.
A flight attendant broke my reverie to offer dinner. I was surprised by the volume and quality of the airline food — the coach menu even included a tiny cheese tray at the end of the meal. A few minutes later, the attendants wheeled a silver tea cart down the aisle, offering freshly brewed English tea — better than any I’d ever tasted — in bone china cups. If even the tea they serve on airlines is this good, I thought, I am going to love this trip.
I drifted off to sleep for a few hours, before being woken at 5 a.m. by a screaming 10-year-old stranger somewhere in the seats in front of me. Groggily I peeked out the window at the darkness, wondering how much longer I would remain safely tucked in the peaceful belly of the aircraft.
An hour later, we began our descent over London, the rising sun peeking up over the wing. The city’s millions of people and even its cars and trains were still invisible; I could see only giant, nameless shapes of buildings bathed in the misty pink light. Faith or no, the behemoth plane had moved — had carried me across the sea to an unknown home.
My blood thrummed in my ears as the wheels touched the tarmac. It was time to begin.