In 1998, I flew for the first time when I was a second-year university student. Many people may find it rather late for a first flight, but at the time nobody around me thought so. I was one of the few lucky students in my university to get a three-month, full scholarship abroad. I was the first to fly in my family, the first in my group of friends, and a rarity for the inhabitants of my little town.
Among the graduates of my high school, I was one of the few, as well. And probably one of the even fewer to fly away convinced that I wanted to come back soon. Most of the graduates of my high school who flew before me were some of the outstanding Mathematics and Physics Olympics winners; they flew for good to America or Canada. To many people in my community, flying meant fleeing, and the one who flew was to become for a while a little urban legend. They were not flying from one airport to another, but from a closed country to an open world. A country closed from the inside for 45 years, and then closed from the outside in order to limit the immigration of its citizens. Nobody without a visa could get an airline ticket to the free world, and getting a visa was more difficult than getting a degree.
My access to the world “free for flying” was difficult. Being both married and a student used to raise suspicions to the foreign embassies. In my case, the suspicions and the complicated bureaucracy nearly canceled my departure. Intensive, last-minute interventions were, eventually, effective in providing me with a tourist visa, which covered most of the time I was supposed to spend abroad.
Fortunately, I arrived on a beautiful morning at the end of August at Otopeni Airport in Bucharest, holding the “freedom and liability certificate” in my hand which read Boarding Pass, Bucharest - Copenhagen. I joined the queue in front of the check-in office, with my mother and my husband next to me, trying to reestablish my self-confidence. My mother was assuring me that my family would be waiting for my call, ready to send me extra money, warm clothes, food, or even another return ticket if things didn’t go well; and, my husband was giving me the last instructions about the money exchange, documents safety, contacts of the Romanian Embassy, in case of problems.
Only a few steps before the office line I realized that I wasn’t going to see them at all for three months, that I was stepping into the unknown, and that for the first time in my life I would be completely alone, without my family, without my teachers or friends, without anybody known, not even with my own language. Only a brief kiss and goodbye were allowed, and the queue pushed me in front of the check-in officer, then to passport control, and right towards the boarding gate.
Waiting there a while gave me the feeling that I had left my dear ones too soon, that I could have stayed a little longer, that all that blessed time with them had been lost for good. I felt wrecked in the midst of a crowd where the few Scandinavians—donning blond hair, fashionable clothes, and detached attitudes—were easy to distinguish from the recognizable Romanian majority.
I entered the airplane as I would have entered a tunnel. Compared to the brilliant August morning outside, the airplane seemed like a coffin. I didn’t have to think about airplane crash stories (although I knew a recent one, from Balotesti in 1995) to imagine my death in that airplane. I was both absorbed by this thought and extremely angered by it. The exaltation produced by the take-off and the fabulous view of the enormous green field of Baragan, bordered by the blue of Arges and Danube Rivers, made death seem so perfect from that height that wanting it became bearable, inviting, seductive.
I kept looking at the land until a thick, white quilt of clouds covered it, protecting my dear ones down there from my desperate thoughts. Noticing my recovery from my gazing through the airplane window, my neighbor asked me something, some kind of generic ice-breaking question. His deep black eyes, dark skin, and intense black hair made me doubt that the man next to me was Romanian, in spite of the perfect, elegant Romanian in which he spoke to me. We started a conversation, which revealed my neighbor to be an Iraqi, who studied architecture in Romania, married a Danish woman, and moved to Copenhagen. He kept in touch with his family in Iraq, but had never returned to his homeland after his graduation from university. He told me that he used to fly very often, for business, in different countries, as a Danish citizen.
As I had no air travel history, I touched on the issue of the visa and confessed my anxiety about the stay in Denmark as a tourist, while in fact being a full-time student. His calm answer stood as evidence that Denmark treated the people inside its borders with a lot more confidence than the ones outside. I was to discover a little later that he was right.
I turned back to the window, to see the dark North Sea. I was absorbed into the sun’s reflection on the backs of what I figured out to be a group of whales. For a while, I was tempted to look back again to my neighbor and see if there was any reflection of the Tigris and the Euphrates in his eyes, since he had first seen them from the world above. I didn’t, in the end, look back at him. But I still imagine that the reflection is there.
Nicoletta-Laura Dobrescu was born in Moreni, Romania. She holds a degree in Theology and Philology from the University of Sibiu and a Master’s Degree in Intercultural Communication from the University of Bucharest. Presently living in Portugal, she works as an English teacher and studies at the University of Lisbon. She is the mother of two children.