The Story of a Few Steps

“The ship begins to move. The band still plays, we continuously swing handkerchiefs. I have to keep from crying again… Germany! Goodbye!”
-Fritz Pauli*, 1953

     Everyone wants to know what the “mosts” or the “bests” are of traveling. The most fun. The best food. The prettiest city. The most awe-inspiring church. The most difficult or most frightening moment on a trip. We rabidly seek out “can’t miss” experiences. I found my most difficult moment at the airport.

A good-bye breakfast before my flight!!

I can carry fifty pounds of luggage up a flight of stairs. I can get lost in a new city and find my way back. I have navigated bus routes and language barriers. I have walked for miles with blisters on my heels, but the most difficult steps I have taken were the first ones away from home. I thought it would be easier, this time, my second time studying abroad. As I stood in front of the security line, saying goodbye to my family, I realized I was wrong. I said goodbye. They said goodbye. I said goodbye again, and they did too. We said goodbye a third time, for good measure. I threw up a “peace out” sign and got in line. They were still on the other side of the glass when I made it through security, watching me walk away. I spoke with other students studying abroad. From all parts of the country, we shared a similar story. There is something inherently difficult about a few short steps, despite months of excitement and planning. The word “travel” shares etymological roots with “travail” for a reason. Travel is not always easy.

My dad watching me progress through security.

Those vital first steps are the most difficult. They were difficult the last time I went abroad, and they were difficult this time. Those steps are when the decision is made to leave. Applications may have been filled out and accepted months prior. Fees may have been paid for weeks. An interest in travel and exploration cultivated over many, many, years. Tickets bought well in advance of those fateful steps. But that simple right-left-right that it takes to leave? That is the decision. Everything else is paperwork and checks on a list.

I hypothesize that this moment humanizes leaving– it puts a face to your home. It is a face filled with sunny streets, days soaked in laughter, and nights dripping with memories. It is a familiar face filled with comfort. Most accurately, it is the faces of your loved ones valiantly trying not to cry in the middle of an airport. And because these steps demand the sacrifice of the known, of the comfortable, of the loved, they are the most difficult of a journey. I hope that they never get easier.
Sunset above the clouds
*My great-grandfather, who was an Operation Paperclip scientist, wrote an account of his trip to America entitled “Der kleine Rutsch: Ein Umeiedlung von Europa nach Amerika.”

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