Last spring, when Jazz emailed the itinerary he had booked for me on Orbitz, all I could do was smile. It was so outrageous: Shanghai to Moscow to Warsaw. Departing from Pudong International Airport at 2:00 AM, on Aeroflot. “He found a really affordable ticket,” I shared with my department chair, a historian of Russia, who raised an eyebrow.
The truth is, though Russia wasn’t my ultimate destination, I was excited about my Aeroflot flights and my brief layovers in Moscow. I’m not a fan of cultural theme parks where exotic other cultures are commodified and put on display, usually for consumption by members of a more hegemonic culture. But I do find certain kinds of self-consciously manufactured cultural encounters fascinating: opening ceremonies for the Olympics, for instance. And I do like traveling on other nations’ national airlines. In both cases the hosts have a unique opportunity to communicate their own perception of some essentialized self to a captive (and temporarily vulnerable) audience. Hungry and strapped in my seat, I’m surprisingly willing to listen.
Jazz and I once flew with the girls direct from Beijing to Delhi on Ethiopian Air. This too was an “affordable ticket,” and to be honest, we weren’t entirely sure what route we would be taking when we boarded the plane. We watched the periodic displays on the flight status monitors while chasing our toddler girls up and down the aisles on their frequent visits to the galley. The plane icon on multiple screens indicated we were headed south, then southwest, somewhere over Guangxi, then over Yunnan, before skirting the Himalayas via Burma, Bangladesh, and finally to Delhi. The flight attendants—an equal number of males and females— were incredibly hospitable and seemingly unhurried. They dispensed a generous supply of snacks and toys—wing pins, crayons, coloring books and playing cards—as the girls made themselves at home in the galley’s jump seats. Nothing endears me more to an airline’s staff than some indication that they actually like children. That, and their serving edible food. The vegetarian meals—both Indian and Ethiopian—were delicious, and announcements were made in English and Hindi, after having first been made in Amharic. The flight lasted seven plus hours. Days after we arrived in Delhi, someone asked me if we had checked the safety records for Ethiopian Airlines. No, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. All I knew was that after seven hours of Ethiopian Air I longed to visit Ethiopia some day.
I’m not so sure I can say the same about Russia. Perhaps it was the fact that the flight departed at 2:00 AM and both passengers and flight attendants looked haggard. Perhaps it was the overpowering smell of vodka as I passed through the first class cabin filled with ruddy men; perhaps it was the one woman in first class, a young Russian looking impossibly uncomfortable in a very short, fitted backless dress and high heels and an unhappy scowl directed at her male companion; perhaps it was the lecherous looks of the vodka-drinking male passengers directed at the impossibly uncomfortable-looking woman; or perhaps it was the bright orange suits of the flight attendants and their red hats and scarves. Whatever it was, the aesthetic of that particular Aeroflot flight wasn’t working for me.
My perception may have also been skewed by that fact that I was traveling alone and felt some pangs in my parting. Earlier in the evening my girls had not given me an easy goodbye, and I had then traveled from Nanjing to Shanghai via high-speed rail, together with an old friend from our days in San Francisco. I had parted from him in the desolate lobby of his hotel in the high-tech industrial suburbs of Shanghai before continuing on in a cab to a cavernous, nearly empty airport. I suspect I was the only American on that flight, and in any case, I seemed to be the only native English speaker.
In my uprootedness, I have never felt more Chinese. Though physically I may have looked more like the Russian passengers and flight attendants, I felt a natural affinity towards my Chinese fellow travelers, as if they made some sense to me and these others did not. Yet even the Chinese around me didn’t fit into any neat categories of my China world. Who were these folks heading to Russia one week before the Chinese national holiday? There were the obvious businessmen and a few grandparent-types, but there were others I couldn’t make sense of, like the young woman seated next to me traveling on a Chinese passport. She looked like a college student and would have easily passed as a Chinese-American with her shoulder-length hair, iPad, and contact lenses: except that she didn’t appear to speak English. In our brief exchange she addressed me in Mandarin, she used Russian with the flight attendants and she was reading a Russian novel. For most of the flight she was curled up comfortably with a neck pillow and iPod. Who was this woman and what was her story? And why did I feel so comfortable sitting next to her in our silence?
The trip to Poland was my sister Steph’s idea. My mom had a big birthday last December, and Dad the following June. Poland, the land that sprouted our maternal grandparents and great-grandparents, had always been one of my mom’s dream destinations. Steph took care of booking the lodgings and flights, including her own as “chaperone” (which really meant she was traveling as a very generous and nurturing host). Once I knew I’d be in China and unattached to any teaching obligations, I threw my hat in the ring with this lot, and hence the bookings on Orbitz.
At root, my trip to Poland was an excuse to have time with my parents and sister. Steph had conceived of the trip in the weeks that followed our brother’s death. I somehow assumed there was a connection—the death of a descendent and a trip to the ancestral motherland—though at the time Steph was hatching this plan I never thought to ask for the inspiration. At minimum, the trip seemed to me to offer my parents a kind of distant respite: a place and a time where they could imagine themselves arriving months down the road. When Steph had first floated the idea it felt inconceivable to me to commit to joining, either physically or financially. I was struggling with letting my brother go and in many ways I was living in the past—in a world of memories and lost possibilities—and simply could not project myself that far into the future. When I did finally decide to go, if there was one thing I could imagine it was to have more days with my family. As outrageous at it seemed—Shanghai, to Moscow, to Warsaw—this transnational rendezvous made sense to me.
In the midst of our relocation, I had no time to prepare for this trip. I couldn’t find any guidebooks for Poland in Nanjing, and by the time I thought of it there wasn’t enough time to order anything from Amazon. Our shipment of belongings from the States still has not arrived, so my options for packing were limited. I boarded the plane with a small carry-on filled with little more than two pairs of jeans and some light layers culled from my larger suitcase in Nanjing. In addition to my journal and laptop, I also had two books I managed to download onto my Kindle the day before my flight: Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present, by Norman Davies; and The Life of Faustina Kowalska by Sister Sophia Michalenko (the official biography of Poland’s relatively recently canonized St. Faustina). I sweated it out through immigration at Moscow Sheremetyevo (SVO), uncertain as to whether or not I needed a transit visa (I didn’t have one, and never researched this). Having cleared this hurdle, and noting that my LOT Polish flight was due to depart in 30 minutes and was likely boarding, I scanned the long line of transfer passengers for clues of what to do next and then cut through the crowd, following an authoritative female Russian security guard who bellowed “Warsaw!” with such urgency I was propelled into action. I was the last to board my plane after passing through security, but the flight attendants, dressed in a serene blue, put me at ease by helping to stow my carry-on. I caught a glimpse of my reticent neighbor as he stood to let me claim my window seat. Making my way through the opening chapters of the Davies book, I stole looks at my seat-mate throughout the flight. He looked remarkably like my grandmother, and by his sullen stare and rigid posture I presumed that, like Grandma, he was anxious about flying.
My most distinctive memory of my arrival at Warsaw Frederic Chopin (WAW) is the smallness and emptiness of the airport. It was nearly 8:00 on a Sunday morning. Through glass walls I could see a sparse cluster of passengers waiting at an unopened departure gate —most of them Hasidic Jews, males, prayer books open and shawls draping their shoulders. Several weary travelers had their shoes kicked off and were dozing, some flat-backed and some fetal, across multiple rows of seats. I felt a distinct pain that I had forgotten to download any of Elie Wiesel’s writings onto my Kindle. Ambivalent about visiting Auschwitz, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to reread Night or Dawn, but I felt a yearning to have Wiesel with me in Souls on Fire or Messengers of God.
I had also forgotten to bring US dollars, and at a money change window before immigration I handed a woman my credit card and for an exorbitant fee I was handed back zloty. After some hesitation, I emptied my wallet of a thick wad of Renminbi (zipping the red and blue Chinese bills into a pocket in my handbag) replacing these with a very thin stack of unfamiliar bills and lightweight coins.
When I exited the airport there were no signs of anyone from my Aeroflot flight. I scanned the short row of cabs for a name familiar from the email Steph had forwarded regarding our lodgings (“take MPT taxi, Sawa Taxi or Merc Taxi to Royal Route Residence at the old town, Nosy Swiat, 29/3”). The second cab in line was a Sawa and so I grabbed it. The driver, a round-faced grandfatherly man, did not speak a word of English, but he did understand Nosy Swiat. After we pulled away from the curb I opened my wallet and began to examine the bills I’d been handed, crisp and pastel, marked with eagles and vines. I counted out 40 zloty: “taxi cost to old town is tariff 1 by day, around 40 zl (10 EUR). May go up to 40EUr with unauthorized drivers (120 pln).”