I did it! Tracey exulted as she mentally pumped her fist in the air. While the jumbo jet taxied for lift-off, Tracey relaxed to savor her triumph. She recounted all her successes: passport acquired in good time, best ticket price thanks to online surfing and locating the correct departure gate without a hitch. However, in the midst of these pleasant thoughts, her mom's final admonitions invaded, unwelcome.
"Keep your backpack with you at all times. Don't let your passport or ticket out of your sight. Be careful!" Mom's undesired advice rang discordant in Tracey's ears.
I'm eighteen, she fumed. I don't need Mom's nagging about every little thing that could go wrong. I can take care of myself and I'm going to prove it to her.
Shortly into the flight a refreshment cart approached. Tracey watched flight
attendants gliding from one passenger to the next, flowing effortlessly from English to
attendant switched to German, recognizing his mother tongue. As she moved
to the next row, Tracey timidly turned to her seatmate.
"Are you from Germany?"
"Yes I am. I live just outside Hamburg."
"Oh!" she exclaimed excitedly. "I am so happy to meet you. I'm Tracey. Do you mind if I ask you some questions about Germany?"
"Of course not. Klaus Fauser. How can I help you?"
"I am going to Bremen to visit my "sister." Tracey rushed to explain, "Actually, she isn't really my sister; two years ago she came and lived with us as an exchange student. She is family to us now. My parents promised I could visit her after I graduated high school, so here I am."
"I understand. I was also an exchange student in the USA for my senior year. I am just now returning from visiting my 'family' in Iowa."
Tracey beamed with open relief. Fumbling through her backpack she produced her itinerary.
"I must find the train station when I arrive in Frankfurt. Do you get off the plane there too?"
"No, I am sorry. This flight continues to Hamburg. But I will help you all I can."
As Klaus began sharing travel tips, Tracey could hear her mom saying write it down! Tracey began jotting down notes in her journal.
Overhead monitors in the cabin charted the flight which would pass over Greenland and Iceland before turning south over Great Britain, France and finally Germany.
"Why will the plane fly north first instead of straight east from Philadelphia to Frankfurt?" Tracey asked with confusion.
Klaus replied, "Even though it doesn't look like it, it is actually shorter to fly over the top of the earth than due east following its circumference."
"Oh, yes. How interesting. I just never thought of that before."
Patiently Klaus answered all Tracey's questions about what to expect when she arrived in Germany. As they talked, the sky outside darkened to night. A few hours later, Tracey was startled to see the sky lighten again. Glancing at her watch, she realized while it was only midnight at home, it was already 6 a.m. in Europe.
Klaus' cheery farewell was the last familiar sound Tracey heard. Entering the terminal, a cacophony of noise startled her. Each foreign sound seemed rushed and impatient. Stunned silence rooted her as she tried to make sense of the incomprehensible signs. The human tide swirling about her forced reluctant feet forward.
After some frightening moments, she spotted customs. Nervously, she stepped into what she hoped was the shortest line, only to realize it was reserved for European nationals. Embarrassed, she moved to the correct line, reserved for non-Europeans. It took a moment to process the fact that here she was an alien. For the first time Tracey comprehended just how far she was from the comfort and security of home.
"Passport, please." Clipped words broke her reverie. With quick, impatient efficiency, the official processed her documents and thrust them back. She started to ask where to find baggage claim, but he was already addressing the passenger behind her.
Tracey backed away from the window in confusion. Where was baggage pickup? She must remember what Klaus had told her.
Rejoining the swirling crowd, Tracey felt she was the only passenger who had no clue what to do or where to go. Trepidation yielded to relief as the human tide deposited her at baggage claim.
Lifting her suitcase from the conveyor belt, Tracey moved toward another line for inspection.
"Destination"? The same intense efficiency in the quiet voice.
"Time in Germany"?
"Purpose for visit"?
"Visit former exchange student." Tracey caught herself matching the official's clipped words.
"Very well. Welcome to Germany."
This time Tracey was ready. She needed directions and determined not to budge until
she got an answer.
"I need to find the train station."
The guard motioned to the train sign above, then gestured to his left.
Tracey followed the signs for what seemed like hours, becoming increasingly thankful that she pulled only one modest suitcase, trailing her like an obedient puppy. A smile touched her lips as she recalled the innumerable fights she'd had with Mom over how much stuff to pack. Now she was thankful for Mom's persistence.
As Tracey approached the ticket counter, she was greeted by a wide smile and impeccable English. The agent gave Tracey detailed instructions on how to find her track and what time to expect the train.
Stepping into the station, Tracey was again blasted with unfamiliar sounds, only louder. Announcements blaring over the intercom reverberated off the high ceilings. Tracey's deafened ears understood nothing.
After locating track 14 Tracey plopped down on a nearby bench. She and Klaus had talked the night away and now intense excitement succumbed to utter exhaustion.
As her train approached, Tracey noticed waiting passengers poised to pounce the moment it slid to a halt. She decided it might be expedient to join them. In mere minutes the train was back in motion with Tracey safely aboard.
She took a moment to breathe deeply and calm her racing thoughts. Klaus' advice
returned to her now, facilitating her efforts to locate the correct car and seat. She noted the lighted sign at the end of each car announcing each stop. Beside it hung a map enabling her to calculate how many stops would precede hers.
The uniformed agent passed through the car, collecting and punching tickets. Dumbly Tracey offered hers, not understanding the agent's words and unable to give a reply. An overwhelming need to hear English flooded her. She reached for her CD player, popped in a favorite disk, and allowed the familiar sounds to soothe her.
Knowing she had a long ride, Tracey tried to relax and get a little sleep. However, the passing scenery was just too beautiful, and the stops most interesting. Field after field of proud sunflowers gave way to quaint towns and bustling cities. Castles and ruins of castles dotted nearby hills.
Pulling into the Bremen station, Tracey spotted Margit and her parents waiting on the platform. Relief washed over Tracey like a warm waterfall. She had made it!
"Tracey." Both girls exclaimed in unison.
"Tracey, I want you to meet my parents, Peter and Sonja Schmidt. Vater, Mutti, this is Tracey."
"Guten Tag! How are you?" The Schmidts stumbled over the unfamiliar sounds of English.
On the drive to the Schmidt residence, Tracey couldn't stop staring at so many closely built houses lining impossibly narrow streets. Flower boxes dressed every window offering bold splashes of reds, whites and green against bricked walls. To her delight,
the Schmidts stopped at one of these very houses.
"Do you mind if I call my mother?" she asked.
"Of course not. Here is our telephone."
Tracey pulled her phone card from her wallet. Tired, shaking fingers punched the numbers.
"Mom!" Tracey clutched her last ounce of willpower to keep the tears out of her voice. "I am here. I am safe. Mom, I have to tell you.I love you! Thank you for everything, but mostly thank you for being you!"
The author wishes to enjoy every year God gives her on this earth.