It was 20 years ago today, starts one of the Beatles' famous songs. This catchy line has been playing in my head for a while now. It was twenty years ago today that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play, but it was also twenty years ago, almost but not quite to the day, that I climbed aboard an aircraft for the first time and flew to Salt Lake City – to get a PhD and start what would become my life. That's the short story.
The long story goes like this. I had to climb aboard three aircraft, first in quick and then in not so quick succession, to make it to Salt Lake City via Frankfurt and Chicago. In Chicago I stepped onto American soil for the first time. I spent my first dollars on an ice tea straight from America for Dummies. A plastic cup half gallon big was filled to the brim with ice cubes onto which a brown liquid was then dispensed. This wouldn't be the last cliché I'd find true that day.
With seven hours to kill, I purchased a CTA ticket and hit the town. I remember being distinctly unimpressed, but cannot recall anymore why. Chicago has one of the most stunning skylines in the US. Walking in canyons formed by buildings seemingly rising forever is quite extraordinary. Maybe it was the 20-pound backpack that prevented me from enjoying this.
I made it all the way to the top of the world. Sears Tower still carried its original name, the distinction of being the tallest and its original vertiginously vertical walls – with no glass alcoves to tempt the fearless. What struck me most looking down was that most space was given to parking lots, roads and multistory parking garages. Was this a city for people or for cars?
A few hours later in Salt Lake, my preparation had ended. I had the vague hope I'd be met at the airport, but this wasn't certain. Back then, communication wasn't it is today. Some emails were exchanged and some assurances give, but very little detail, and not every email was answered. There were people in the same situation as me, signing up for a few more years of education, and there were some who'd been there for a year already, but that was about as much as I knew.
I got off the plane, ran to the luggage carrousel in undue haste, picked up my suitcase and backpack, and was lost. The backpack weighed a nick above 40 pounds. The suitcase tipped the scales at slightly above 90. This was already not legal back then, but somehow I got through without having to pay an extra penny. Now heavy punishment loomed. What was I to do with this stuff?
"Are you Andreas?"
Sean was the first American I met. He had come to pick me up with as little information as I had. Without knowing what to look for, he approached guys looking German to his eyes. To find me on the second try was unlikely. To talk to another Andreas before me, even more so. But the most unlikely of all is how well we got along.
We went to class together, rode bikes up (my thing) and down (his thing) the canyons along the Wasatch Front, became friends and then roommates. Our years in the Avenues eventually ended but our friendship remained. We should hang out and go biking more much often, but what if that takes a twelve-hour flight?
This year's commemorative trip to Salt Lake takes only two flights. The layover in New York is just long enough to finish this post. Instead of ice tea, I had a cold brew. With a job and family somewhere else, Sean won't pick me up at the airport. When the sun rises tomorrow, I'll see what else has changed in the nearly 15 years of my absence.