By Ülvi Gitaliyev
Those who were in Berea College in Spring 2021 know exactly how prison-like it was. Leaving Berea was off the table and vehicles were a thing of the past. So, as May approached, I was excited to go back home and enjoy a non-Berea summer. In my case, this meant taking a bus to Cincinnati, a flight to New York, then Istanbul, and then finally, Baku, Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, a curse had befallen me.
Anyone who has visited my room knows that I am an avid book collector. While this is great and easy when you are at home, I forgot that I would have to bring all these books back with me at the end of the semester. After giving each of my two dozen friends one book, burying a few of them outside of Alumni (I never saw them again), I put the rest in my luggage – all 50 kilograms (110 pounds) worth of it. Some of you might claim that this giant luggage was the source of my troubles during my adventure, but that is only half the story.
I shall not name this individual, but if you saw her twice in the span of one hour, which I did, you shall be cursed with bad luck for the next 72 hours. On my last day on campus, I did indeed see this person twice, before and after breakfast, before I left Berea. Almost immediately, one of my backpacks ripped apart and I had to hold it by hand. Then came the issue of actually carrying something that was over 2/3 of my body weight. Luckily, two of my friends were also coming along with me and helped me carry by driving me in their Volkswagen Beetle to the bus stop. This was actually the first time in my life I entered a Greyhound Bus. I knew none of its unspoken rules and had to learn on the spot. After a stare-down contest, I took my seat and held tightly to all my possessions. I came out alive but morally shaken.
It was also my first time in the city of Cincinnati. Due to the massive luggage, it took us nearly half an hour just to cross two streets and thanks to that curse, one of its wheels broke along the way. Stranded, we called a student friend who lived in the area and like the angel of Mons, he came out of nowhere with his car and offered us a place to stay. I was ecstatic and grateful, but also completely unprepared. My family never owned any pets, so, when not one, two, three, four, five, but six dogs jumped on me at the entrance, I was a little bit overwhelmed. Still, a good guest never complains and I got to enjoy some nice BBQ and a roof over my head. Our flight was in the next morning, so I even got to enjoy some sleep before the next stage of this adventure began.
After ten minutes of trying to find my roommate’s shoe (a dog was munching on it), we got on the way to Cincinnati Airport and got there by 7 a.m. He had a different flight to catch, so from this point on, I was alone. Fun Fact: On flights, you are usually only allowed 23 kilograms (50 pounds) of luggage. Quickly, I wore three shirts, and four caps and took two trash bags, and filled my books with them. My 23-kilogram luggage went through, but now, I had to carry the rest of the weight with me into the plane. I apologized to everyone who had to deal with me during that flight to New York and after, especially that Turkmen lady who I sat next to on the train. We discussed Communism and the inevitable collapse of American society in Russian (for privacy reasons) while my giant luggage squished us both.
As I left the train station and came to New York, I got a big hug. I always make sure to keep up friendships with people living near large airports just in case. In this case, an old friend from a writing camp was there to greet me in the metro. He took on the Herculean task of helping me carry my luggage to his house (yes, he is a New Yorker with a house.) His mother, a Croatian immigrant from Yugoslavia, had already heard of my Marxism and so, gave me a warm greeting. By the way, the cat is hers. Despite my exhaustion, I found the energy to argue with her well into the night about the validity of a decentralized Marxist economy when compared to a centrally planned Marxist economy. Okay, okay, you can stop snoring now.
As the sun rose and my strength regained, I began to explore New York City with my friend. I had been to The Big Apple once before in my life and even though I only spent two days, it was a mind-blowing experience. The Metropolitan Museum, Brooklyn Bridge, and much more amazed my 16-year-old self. One place I did not visit though was Brighton Beach. This is where most of New York’s Azerbaijani and Russian populations live. When I stepped out of the metro station, English was no longer a required language. All the street signs were in Russian and I even met an Azerbaijani man selling newspapers. Hearing someone speak in your native language, in person, for the first time in six months is a magical moment and I remember it almost perfectly even today. Though, when I told the old man that I was studying at a college in Kentucky, his first question was “Why?” Honestly, I did not have an answer. After buying some Georgian (the country, not the state) drinks and eating in an Uzbek restaurant, I had engrossed myself in enough homey, post-Soviet culture so as to swallow the thought of returning to the English speaking United States, but alas, all good things must come to an end.
The time had come, for me to return. I once again donned my 100 pounds of luggage and trash bags and went to the nearest metro station to take me to the airport. At least, that was my plan. Once again, the curse struck me and the train was late by 45 minutes. In my home metro of Baku, that only happened once in my whole lifetime and that was because of a terrorist attack. In the case of New York though, it was pure and simple incompetence. I had to order an Uber or else I was going to be late for my flight, which cost me almost $50. In the airport itself, things were not much better. My COVID test was late and I had to directly call the clinic to get my answers, which wasted valuable minutes. Another Fun Fact: You are only allowed two bags to bring with you on the plane. I had five. I hid the other two, but the airport staff was still not willing to let me through. In an act of desperation, I collapsed on the floor and was to let crocodile tears slide down my cheek, but the staff relented and let me get on the plane with my dignity still mostly intact.
When I got on the plane, a sense of relief came over me. Nothing, with the exception of a plane crash, would stop me from going home. At the same time though, wearing four shirts in May will make you sweat rather quickly so, I was rather uncomfortable. The girl sitting next to me was interested in my fashion ‘choices’ and so we started talking in first English and then, Russian. You cannot imagine how big the shock on my face was when I realized that she and I had lived in the same neighborhood in Baku for almost two years. We had never actually met before, but I already felt such a connection to her. We spent the whole flight watching Turkish movies and talking about, you guessed it, Communism. As the plane landed in Istanbul though, I got her number. Yes, a man is both a heartless revolutionary and a romantic at the same time. In Istanbul, technically my very last leg, things went smoother thanks to my fluent Turkish and after just three hours of flying, I was back to my home sweet home. Despite all the troubles along the way, the satisfaction of seeing my hometown and its beauty made all my suffering well worth it.
While I enjoyed New York, I certainly would have done so more without all the pandemic restrictions and limitations. Unless you like wearing a mask for almost 24 hours in airports and planes, traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic is a less than enjoyable experience. As this semester comes to an end, I will once again have to go through all the same airports and adventures on the way home, but hopefully, there will be fewer applications of Murphy’s Law. My final review for this adventure is: