This story begins three days before departure and ends with me happily sitting at Chipotle in Portland, Oregon eating a steak burrito with extra guac. Get ready to experience all the events in between.
So it turns out packing a years worth of stuff isn't easy. Who would have guessed because it's not like living in a different country for a year requires you to buy things and live your life. Sooo weird. What made it more challenging was the fact that I packed all of my things in two incredibly small suitcases. Most exchange students go home with two massive checked suitcases and a small one to take on the plane. I on the other hand had a normal sized checked suitcase and a small one with me on the plane. I had to fill it so full that I probably shouldn't have been allowed to take it on the plane but I like to bend the rules. *wink*
I bought my final gifts to bring home the afternoon before I flew home. Waiting until the last second usually isn't my thing but I just couldn't accept the fact that I was actually going home so it kinda snuck up on me. I was counting down the days and getting so excited but when the time actually came I was like "wait wut." I had said so many goodbyes to friends that when my time came it didn't feel any different. I was thinking "safe travels home, I wish you the best." Except that didn't make sense because I was the one leaving.
I did all my packing myself which I was really proud of because when I left for exchange I remember my dad sitting on my suitcase and then forcing the zipper shut while I stood by and watched. This time I sat on my own suitcase and forced the zippers together. Point for Kale. Just goes to prove how exchange made me even more independent. I do have to say I was a little scared a zipper was gonna pop off or some other packing disaster would occur but everything went smoothly. That is until I actually got onto my first plane but I'll get to that later. First we have to talk about Greek food and getting to the airport.
My host family wanted to take me to dinner for my last night in Germany so naturally we went and ate Greek food! That "naturally" was added in as irony because the fact that we chose Greek food of all things is completely random. I like Greek food, they like Greek food. It was just a win win situation and no one left disappointed. Maybe it's weird I didn't eat German food on my last night in Germany but I guess I felt like I needed to be unique and break the status quo. *Cue High School Musical music because Germans are obsessed with the movie and probably know the words to all the songs* The song I'm referring to says "stick to the status quo" so excuse me it doesn't fit perfectly but sometimes you've gotta add some High School Musical into your life to reach the full potential of your contentedness.
I slept surprisingly well my last night. I went to bed around 1 but that was because I was finishing up final details of leaving a country I'd lived in for a year. The next morning felt like any other morning. My host mom was up at the usual time as if she was getting ready for work and my host sister was out the door early for school. The only difference was I was loading my suitcases into the car and wearing a blazer that weighed 10 pounds from all the pins on it.
When I got out of the car at the airport I sounded like one of Santa's reindeer. I don't mean the snorting but the bells jingling around Prancer's neck. I was grinning from ear to ear so excited to be going home. I guess I should have been sad to be leaving but I just wasn't. It did feel super weird walking into the airport because I had done the same walk to say bye to so many friends but also my first day in Germany only backwards. I think we even parked in the same garage.
I checked my suitcase by myself and then spent an hour talking and hanging out with all the people who were at the airport for me. I had cried saying bye to all my friends when they left but when it was my turn I couldn't muster up a single tear. I'm going to blame it on a state of shock, like I had no idea what was going on.
You know how I mentioned I got both of my small suitcases closed? Well that's true but I did have some overflow. What I mean by this is that when I boarded the plane I had on two scarves and my Rotary blazer, a sweatshirt wrapped around each strap of my backpack which weighed I swear 1000 pounds, a jacket hung over my arm, and a wallet full of all my important documents in hand; which I had to get out what felt like 10 times trying to get onto that first plane. Pardon my French but this was hell.
I made it through boarding and all the way to my seat and then the real test began. How was I going to get my obviously overweight and oversize suitcase into the overhead compartment? I asked a man sitting nearby if he spoke English or German and if he could help me get my suitcase up. He attempted and it didn't fit in the compartment so we had to call a flight attendant over. As the flight attendant started moving bags around to make space in a special extra deep compartment I started explaining in German my reason for having such a huge suitcase. I laughed as I explained I had just done a year long exchange in Germany and was only able to bring two suitcases home so I was forced to stuff them to the ultimate level. As I finished my story the flight attendant attempted to lift my suitcase and immediately brought it back down to the ground. He swiveled around to face me and began chewing me out for being completely irresponsible and bringing such a huge suitcase onboard. This horrible onslaught was delivered to me all in English which led me to realize this dude was obviously not from Germany but from Atlanta which meant he had not understood a single word of my totally reasonable explanation for having such a huge suitcase. As I was receiving this lecture a man silently stood up, took my suitcase, and heaved it into the compartment for me, closed the door without so much as a word, and then sat back down in his seat. Now that the suitcase wasn't his problem the flight attendant got bored and left with a final eye roll and shake of his head. (Inner dialogue) "You are my savior sir but all I can manage is a quiet thank you because I'm sliding into my seat and putting my head down because I'm super embarrassed for the big scene I just caused and this really mean flight attendant just yelled at me and I didn't like that" I settled down after awhile but I still felt completely humiliated.
When I finally got the previous story to stop replaying over and over in my head it began to sink in that I was leaving Germany for real. It kept hitting me that this wasn't just a vacation home, I was leaving and not coming back. When my flight "meal" was given to me I snapped a pic and was reminded of the exact same flight I took to Düsseldorf where I took the same photo. Only now it was reversed. Rather than arriving in a foreign country and entering a foreign family I was arriving in my country and reentering into my family. There's no way to explain how weird that is. Only an exchange student will understand.
I landed in Atlanta 10 hours later. I had two and a half hours to catch my next flight which felt like a lot of time but I ended up spending all of it standing in line for customs and security. I arrived at my gate 10 minutes before boarding. Just enough time to find my phone charger and pretend that 5 minutes of charging made a difference. So much for a minute of relaxation. No time to soak in the fact I was back in the states.
On my second flight I sat next to a woman who was flying home from Austria with her 11 week old baby. Lady you're crazy but I respect you. Plus you totally look like the image of Oregon so I like you even more now. You live in Hood River and I had a really delicious blackberry milkshake there once so that level of respect just got boosted again. Basically I think you're cool and you've got a cute baby so we'll get along fine.
After watching the Beauty and the Beast with Emma Watson who is absolutely flawless might I add the last two hours flew by and we were landing in Portland. It didn't feel real. Where was the German speaking? Why was I in a familiar airport? WHAT WAS HAPPENING?!?! The next second I was walking through the glass doors and my friends and family were standing there waiting for me. I was enveloped in hugs and everyone was so excited. We took tons of pictures and everyone seemed to be in a bit of a shock. Is this real? Did Kaeleigh even leave Portland? When is she going back to Germany? Eventually we got to a "what now" point and my family asked me what I wanted to do next. I thought about it and the first thing that popped into my head was Chipotle. I had pictured this moment of arriving in Portland and going to Chipotle as my first meal back home and I needed to make that dream come true.
We drove a short ways to Chipotle, my aunt and uncle and friends following in separate cars. I ordered my steak burrito with guacamole just like the good 'ol days and life was good. I was content and I was home, well one of my homes.
The girl with new perspectives on the entire world, Kaeleigh Ann James