And So It Begins Again

I’ve decided that I don’t like Narita Airport. Everyone who works in Narita Airport speaks English. In a building full of English speakers, the “cool” factor for being able to rattle on in Japanese drops to zero, and when I’m inevitably stumped by some travel term I only hear once a year, they instantly revert to English and I feel like an incompetent fraud. Stupid “fragile items.” Who asks about that?


As it turned out, I was blessed with an empty seat between me and the lone Australian guy to my left, so I had plenty of legroom for the sleepless flight to Newark. But the blessings stopped there, because once my neighbour warmed up to me, he proceeded to talk for 13 hours straight.


He would eventually introduce himself as Dutch, then Frederick, and finally showed me his ID to reveal that his real name was something else entirely, and while he knew more about aircraft than anyone I’ve ever met and drove highly automated 3-story trucks down mineshafts for 100k a year, he was also in cadets, had several black belts, had worked as a bouncer and a personal trainer, and spent most of the flight becoming increasingly drunk and belligerent. As his private confidante for the duration, my role was to listen and offer no dissent while politely accepting all the beer he ordered for the two of us.


It shortly came out that his fiancée had called it quits five weeks earlier without explanation, and in response, Dutch/Frederick/Whatever had decided to take off on a year-long trip around the world.


He complained about the price of beer, made openly racist comments on a flight full of people going to New Jersey, and got very touchy when he suspected the stewardess had short-changed him on the yen she’d offered to trade on his behalf. When the stewardess he’d been hassling finally refused to serve him any more beer, I gave up trying to calm him down and decided to take a nap in the hopes that he would cool off without someone to complain to.


Instead, Dutch/Frederick/Blah went to the head steward, who naturally resolved the situation by giving us free beer for the rest of the flight.


When we’d drunk dry the beer cart, my new “buddy” pulled out a bottle of Jamaican rum, poured himself a shot, fumbled with his can of Coke, then grabbed the bottle and topped off his glass entirely with rum. At this point I risked voicing my reservations, and when he realized what he’d done we made a funnel out of the airline menu and poured the excess back into the bottle.


The rum was, apparently, a gift for his friend in the US.


He finally fell asleep for about an hour, after which I had to help him fill in his immigration forms because he couldn’t see straight. Finally, he asked the girl he’d been twisting around to flirt with all night for her “denwa bango” (phone number) in Japanese as I’d coached him, and it turned out she was from somewhere in South America and had no idea what he was talking about. As the plane emptied I left the two of them to chat while I scooted off to grab my luggage and recheck it for my connecting flight to Toronto.


Stressful? Yes. But my, how the time flew.


We had arrived at the terminal at precisely 4:00, and I had no time to dawdle if I was going to make my connection at 5:05.


It was 4:45 by the time our luggage appeared.


I budded past people in the bloated line funnelling through claims check, handed my bag to some guy in the chaotic re-checking room, and watched as it was bucked onto some conveyor belt that I gave very low odds at being at all related to my next flight. Then I ran through to carry-on baggage check, found out I was at the wrong gate, went to the right gate, tossed my laptop, keys, cell phone and change out onto a tray, put them all back, ran down the moving walkway, realized I’d forgotten my keys on the tray and ran back against walkway traffic, got my keys, got back on the walkway and very nearly started pushing aside all the useless lumps who just stand still on the bloody things as I hurtled down to the very last gate at the end of the terminal.


I made it by 4:55. But the plane was going to New Hampshire.


My flight had been cancelled. I was directed to the service counter back at the other end of the terminal, where I joined a long, immobile line. I was soon directed to a shorter immobile line, where I waited an hour and a half for a piece of scrap paper with a new flight number and a departure time for 2:00 p.m. the next afternoon. Somewhere in the middle of this, my cell phone alarm went off, notifying me that I’d been awake for precisely 24 hours.


Although we’d landed in skies that betrayed only wisps of cloud, massive thunderstorms had disrupted air traffic across the eastern US that morning, and the airport was still reeling from the volume of flights that had been rearranged.


So I got a free hotel room and cash coupons for dinner and breakfast, and while I was a little disgruntled that I had to shell out $5 US for a toothbrush and a dinky tube of toothpaste at the hotel shop, I was just happy I wasn’t sleeping in the airport.


I honestly thought they’d made a mistake when I opened the door to find a queen-sized bed and enough space to do push-ups in the bathroom. A Japanese hotel room is like a hallway with a cot in it.


In New Jersey, hotel porn costs more if you order it to a double room.

Home Changes

The ensuing three weeks were a flurry of meetings and engagements, most of them featuring a display of the Very Big Slideshow I’d made using the spiffy digital camera the K.s had given me way too much cash to buy.


I was pleasantly able to see my friends The English and The Canadian renew their vows while I was visiting relatives in Winnipeg. The English had met The Canadian in Japan, and they got married in England last year. When the two emerged for the Canadian version of their walk down the aisle, I was pretty much the only person in the crowd that The English had ever seen before—just as he was only person I recognized. We considered waving to each other, but decided it a poor idea under the circumstances.


While I did have a good time seeing friends and family, I often couldn’t help but feel more a visitor than a returning son. I suppose it’s the price of staying away.


When I came to Japan, I’d expected something unfamiliar and different, and found myself comforted by the many familiar things I discovered. Home, on the other hand, is always supposed to fit like a pair of comfy socks. But returning this year, I had the impression my socks had shrunk in the wash.


More and more of my friends were leaving the city. I was connected only to pockets of Toronto, and between my "appointments" I was adrift without connection to anything at all. I had little idea what was happening in anyone’s lives, while most of my conversations began with, “Well, in Japan…” Even my bed didn’t feel right any more, and between that and my jet lag it was nearly a week before I was able to fall asleep before 6:00 a.m. By the end of the trip, I was looking forward to heading back to Japan just so I could get back to my apartment, my town, my independence, my mobility—heck, my bank account. I wanted my foundation back.


Finally, having only finished packing around 2:00 a.m., I awoke at 4:00 one Friday morning to make it to the airport for my 6:50 flight.


Flights from Toronto to Newark no longer warrant full-sized aircraft. I boarded my plane not via a proper terminal, but through something that looked like a fire exit opening directly onto the tarmac. Outside, I was directed to ascend the steps of “the farther plane,” which was essentially an aluminum hamster tube with wings. You couldn’t fully stand up inside. But no luxury was lost: the lone steward still came by with juice and muffins. Apparently, the flight breaks even with only four passengers on board.


On the plane back to Japan, I again had wonderful luck and ended up beside a guy from a US Navy base and his Japanese girlfriend. They celebrated our successful take-off by snogging for 30 minutes. They then proceeded to nap, wake up, recommence snogging, and nap again at half-hour intervals for nearly the entire duration of the flight. And my video control pad was broken.


The landing was fun, though: we landed in a typhoon. In addition to the abrupt bouncing and lurching one might anticipate, I could see the interior of the fuselage visibly twist due to exterior forces. I watched us touch down backward in the reflection from my neighbour’s video monitor. Good ride.

The Last Leg

No matter what time I arrive in Tokyo, it seems impossible to get to P. Rock in time to catch the last bus to The Village at 7:45. E and Bugsy had gone back to England for a few weeks, but Socks was staying at their place to cover Bugsy’s private English lessons, so I’d asked if I could stay over when I got back. He had agreed, but when I called on the way down, Socks told me he was going to be meeting with his successor in The Village instead. “Ah,” Socks had said. “I’d suspected this might happen.”


I arrived in P. Rock well after the last bus had left. It was lucky that Frenchy, Socks’ successor, had ended up coming to P. Rock instead, because I was barely clinging to consciousness by that point. My duffel bag, laptop case, and ski boot bag were all stuffed to bursting, and my difficulties had been so obvious that on the train down I’d been offered a seat by a junior high school kid while some 80-year-old lady cleared the way for me to sit down. I felt vindicated when Socks took two of my bags and seemed quite aghast that I’d carried them all the way myself.


It need hardly be noted that I slept perfectly. I think banging my head on the trunk of the car probably helped.


Last year, the K.s gave me over $100 to spend on my return home. This year, they not only gave me over $200 for myself, but an additional $100 specifically to buy them T-shirts with maple leaves on them. Upon my return, I presented them with half a dozen shirts, a pile of postcards, and a garish pair of underwear that Nuki had only joked he wanted, and my generosity was completely upstaged by the bottle of maple syrup my mom had given me.


Thereafter, I assembled my digital mountain of pictures into a slide show for my kids at school. This is very important: due to Canada’s reputation as a wood exporter, most Japanese people believe that we live in log houses, and I need to re-educate them.


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October 2003