#3. Where the journey continues

IN THE SPRING OF 2001, I went to Warsaw to attend one of the university fairs with Szymon — my high school friend. We had some time to spare before catching our train back home so we decided to take a bus to visit the observation terrace at the Okecie airport (the only airport in Poland that could really call itself international). It was already dark and freezing by the time we got there but it did not matter — I could stand there for hours watching planes land, refuel, and take off to some other remote part of the world.

When we were back at the building, I noticed there was a flight leaving in two hours to Poznan (Leszno’s nearest airport). We decided to go to the ticket sales desk and inquire about the price. It turned out there were only two tickets left, which we could get for a heavily discounted price. Although it still cost us almost twice as much as the train, it only took us a few seconds to make up our minds. Soon we were on board a small turbo-propeller plane called ATR-42. I was so excited that I started singing I am a butterfly, a Polish song from the 1970s. Szymon kept rolling his eyes — the sound of my voice mixed with the loud noise coming from the engines must have been too much for him to bear. My only complaint was the journey took only an hour. That was the first flight of my life.

A few months later I was back at the airport again, on a warm morning in August. I was sitting inside a Boeing 757 while Mom and Dad were standing at the terrace watching the plane get ready for its take-off to London. This time I was probably more nervous than excited. Just as the engines accelerated I waved good-bye in the direction of the terrace — it was going be a while before I would see my parents again.

I had prepared for the journey with weeks of research so when the plane landed at Heathrow and one of the passengers asked me how to get to the Terminal 4 I simply replied, “just follow me.” It turned out that my new companion was travelling to Toronto. Both of us had a few hours before our final flights so we walked around the terminal or stopped to watch people passing us by. Finally, a gate number appeared next to my flight to Los Angeles. I wished my new friend good luck and walked towards my gate.

My next plane was a Boeing 747 (or simply a jumbo-jet). This was going to be the highlight of my trip. Each row had ten seats and mine was next to the aisle on the right side of the plane. The middle seat was already occupied by a young boy. He was talking to a woman. When she saw me arriving she asked me to look after her son. She was joining her husband in business class. I agreed and took my seat. I looked at all the people around me. I had to take a moment to let my feelings sink in. I was sitting on the largest plane in the world, flying to Los Angeles, flying to follow my dreams! I wished I could scream and let everyone know it.

The boy was asking a lot of questions about Poland, about my family, and if I believed in god. All I could think about was how jealous I was of his vocabulary. The passenger from the window seat also joined the conversation. He was an international student from Saudi Arabia, which in turn triggered my flow of questions. In the end his advice to me was to be open-minded and to focus on learning English as much as possible. And because I kept trying to peek through the window, he offered me his seat.

Each seat had its own entertainment screen and I kept switching to the channel with the map to see where we were and check flight information. When we were flying above Greenland, the sky was completely cloudless and I could clearly see the stretches of white land below us. The temperature outside was -52 centigrade. I thought of Tomek, glad our plan of sneaking onto a plane and hiding under the wings never worked out — we would have been dead by now. I spent the rest of the flight watching a romantic comedy about a Greek woman from New York falling in love with a non-Greek man, followed by some cartoons (recommended by the middle seat boy) with occasional interruption for another conversation or a meal.

Before we landed, I moved to my original seat so all I saw when the plane touched the ground was a few tall palm trees. It was sunny. The interview at immigration was very short although the sight of immigration officers (with their stamps) briefly brought flashbacks of an earlier embassy visit. With my passport stamped I picked up my suitcases, went through another control (customs this time), and walked towards the arrival hall where I was supposed to meet Kamil.

I DIDN’T SEE KAMIL AT FIRST. Although I didn’t think I had been forgotten I did feel relieved when he walked in through one of the doors. Taking a bus to Palm Desert would not have been impossible but it would have involved a series of local buses to central Los Angeles, then switching onto Greyhound (an intercity bus) to Palm Springs, and then onto another local bus to Palm Desert (which I still hadn’t had a chance to figure out). A car journey with Kamil was certainly going to be the better option.

It seemed like driving in Los Angeles consisted mainly of changing from one of six or seven lanes to merge onto another freeway. The air-conditioning in the car wasn’t working so we kept the window open to let the breeze in. I could hear the tires bouncing on the concrete surface. The red cursive of California written on licence plates around us kept reassuring me that yes, I really am here. After an hour of driving we passed a big hill with a huge American flag and took one of the exits to stop at a restaurant. Kamil looked at the shirt I was wearing, then at me and said, “Take that ticket out your pocket — you’re not a tourist anymore.”

After a huge meal, we headed east. The freeway had narrowed down to just three lanes and the traffic started to ease. The right lane was now mainly occupied by big American trucks. I was falling asleep –it had been over twenty hours since my departure from Warsaw. When I opened my eyes again I noticed a group of red lights flashing in the distance. They were becoming bigger and as we drove their number kept increasing to dozens if not hundreds. “Those are electric windmills,” said Kamil. They were supplying electricity to the local area. The air became much drier and warmer. The shapes of the windmills were now clear and I could see the blades turning in the wind. The scenery looked so familiar. I must have seen it in a movie. Two road signs appeared above us: Palm Springs and Other Desert Cities. I had finally arrived in America.

I phoned Mom and Dad as soon as got to Kamil’s apartment. Everything was going great and we were having good time. I had already sent Tomek an email from one of the computers at Heathrow but it was the first time I spoke to my family directly.

There were two more people at Kamil’s — Pawel and his sister Celina. Kamil knew their father and had convinced him that they should also come to study in California. The siblings and I were going to live in the house that Kamil had originally lived in when he arrived in America from Poland. The owner of the house, Byran, agreed to rent me one of his two spare rooms; Pawel and Celina had already rented the other one. But for the next few days we were going to stay at Kamil’s so we opened a bottle of wine to celebrate my arrival. I was exhausted.

WHILE KAMIL’S APARTMENT was part of a so-called gated community (with a swimming pool, gym, and tennis court), Byran’s house was a one-storey building with an unfenced grass lawn and a garage. To the left of the driveway there was a mailbox with a yellow potted plant attached to its side. Beyond the driveway was a narrow path leading to a set of doors — a “screen” door to let air through and a solid wooden door behind it. They were not locked so we just walked in.

The door led to a hallway with a piano and then to a living room. It was quite dark inside as all the vertical blinds were shut. Behind the blinds there was an exit to the backyard. “This is where our swimming pool will be,” said Pawel pointing to a hole in the middle of the outdoor space. There was also a kitchen with a massive fridge.

Byran wasn’t home yet so Pawel took me to my room. It wasn’t big but it had enough space for bed, desk, some wooden bookshelves, and a mirrored wardrobe. The view from the room was facing a path that connected the backyard with the front of the house. There was also an air-conditioning unit below the window. The ceiling lamp above me had a cord to turn on the fan attached to its base.

I started unpacking my suitcases. The big, sturdy blue one contained all the things that Mom would not have let me go without — jars of baked beans, cans of ham, rice, instant soups, and anything else that was supposed to help me survive the first days. And there was, of course, a suit.

The second one had more clothes, a photo album, a map of California from Tomek, a new camera (a graduation gift from my parents), and a voice recorder (which my cousin Ewa and I had used to record conversations of strangers on the streets of Leszno).

It also had three books: The Little Prince, The Alchemist, and Oliver Twist. It was Mrs. Gierlich, my elementary school teacher, who told us to take the Little Prince into our adulthood and remember about the story of a boa snake and a hat. The Alchemist was the book I bought and read immediately after my first chat with Kamil. Oliver Twist (the unabridged version) was there to test my progress in English with the hope that at some point I would be able to read it without a dictionary.

It was warm inside so I just covered myself with one of the blankets I took from the jumbo jet (ignoring a clear warning “Do NOT remove from the aircraft” from one of its labels). It was already dark outside but my thoughts were in Poland where the day was just beginning. Then the haze of jet lag took over and I fell asleep immediately.

Edited by Jan Camp

This is part of a series of posts documenting my experiences living abroad. If you enjoyed this story, please click the green heart or follow me for the latest updates. It is a creative adventure, though I hope to become a better writer in the process, so I will greatly appreciate any of your constructive and creative feedback or comments. Many thanks for reading!