Cincinatti Death Machine

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Updated version performed at That Time of the Month 1/12/14

Cincinatti Death Machine

by Paulina Combow

Are you the type of person who looks for signs from the universe? Yeah, me neither.  If I was, then the events leading up to me leaving the country would have caused me to never leave.  My study abroad trip to Europe was planned for the summer between my sophomore and Junior years of college, which is pretty common for dorky white kids.  I had recently made the transition from dorm to apartment so I wasn’t in any hurry to go back to my hometown of Franklin, KY.  I hung out with my new roommates until the day I was to leave for Europe and timed it out so I would only have a few minutes to spare between the time I arrived and when my dad and sister would drive me to the airport to leave the country.  Unfortunately, our first flight was out of the Cincinnati airport, which is a three-hour drive from my hometown.  This was a huge “drop me off at the airport” favor, but since I would be gone for nearly six weeks, it wouldn’t make sense to pay to leave my car at the airport.

At the last minute, the decision was made to drive my car, a 10-year-old Volkswagen Jetta that had not seen much regular maintenance other than oil changes.  We loaded up my two gigantic, overstuffed, and overweight suitcases, and headed up north to the Kentucky/Ohio state line.  The drive was spent reiterating every detail about my trip to my dad for the fiftieth time.  Who I was traveling with, where I was staying, who I was staying with, who was paying for all this?  Literally the second the airport came into view over the horizon, something flipped in my car and it completely shut down.  All the power went out, the steering wheel wouldn’t budge, and it just died on the side of the road like a trusted but dying oxen on the Oregon Trail.   My dad got out to look under the hood, but looked more confused staring at the German engineering than I would look trying to figure out German train schedules. At the time, my dad was a police officer, so he called the local police to come give us a hand.  I was scheduled to arrive at the gate five hours before our flight because we were a group of 19 year olds from colleges all over the SouthEast with shiny new passports flying out of the country for the first time, and the time was fast approaching.   The officer drove me the rest of the way to the airport while my dad and sister waited for a tow truck.  My dad didn’t have a cell phone, so I gave him my old Nokia chunk to use and keep in this emergency situation.  This was back when cell phones were just phones which meant it didn’t have texting or internet, so it wouldn’t have been much use to me in Europe unless I needed to sit and play Snake.  I even packed a separate alarm clock back then before our amazing smart phones made things like compasses, alarm clocks, calculators, address books, walkmans, cameras and thermometers obsolete.

I was delivered to the airport in the backseat of a police car.  I’d like to tell you this was foreign to me, but when you grow up the kid of a police officer, you get used to cars with plate glass barriers and backseats that only open from the outside.  We call this the “cage,” where I’m well aware many drunk and stoned perpetrators have barfed and peed on this very bench seat since it was last hosed off.  I could tell the cop was doing his duty to help me, but wasn’t trying to be my bell hop.  He begrudgingly helped me take my bags to the escalator, then set me free on the stairway to heaven.  I was alone in a the middle of the night at an empty airport with no phone and no one to talk to, with the added weight of wondering what happened to my dad, sister, and primary mode of transportation.  Slowly, the other members of my traveling party started to assemble.  They were about a dozen other college kids my age with matching luggage and worried parents.  We gathered in a circle of carry-ons and neck pillows, and I told them my tale.  I think some of them felt uneasy, like all this stuff was a bad omen, or maybe I was cursed.  Also the movie Final Destination was still relevant, so we were all a little skittish about flying with a group of students.

The rest of the trip went smoothly, some Nyquil, a couple layovers and a few inflight movies later I was getting settled into my host family’s house in Austria.  I bought a calling card, found a pay phone, and called home to see what happened with my car.  I really hoped it was something simple that could be replaced, but no, it needed a new transmission.  It was going to cost over a thousand dollars to replace.  My dad and sister ended up having to get a hotel room and then rent a car just to get back home.  Somehow in all the commotion my dad lost my cell phone after being in charge of it less than 24 hours.  So that was gone forever.  My little sister managed to remember to grab my car CD player cover.  If this is something you don’t remember, it was a safety feature to keep your non-factory cd player from getting stolen.  You would just pop off the faceplate and stick it in your purse.  Because all felons are dying to get their hands on my $99 stereo from Best Buy.

The mechanic at the Volkswagen dealership was extra nice.  They didn’t charge me to keep my car there the entire time, and someone even dropped my car off at the airport the night I was due back.

So the night we arrived back in Cincinnati- picture it- I’ve been in Europe for six weeks.  I haven’t driven or done anything other than walk and ride public transportation for over a month.  I’ve been traveling all night and gone backward seven time zones, and now I have to find my car in a an airport garage and drive over three hours back home alone.  Also I don’t have a cell phone.  Also, I realize, I don’t have any music since my sister took my CD player faceplate.  I was exhausted and it was pitch black the whole way back.  I’m pretty sure I spotted a UFO although no one believes me.  I made it home finally although I had to stop at every rest stop to jump around and wake myself up. The highlight of the trip was the Taco Bell drive-thru  when the person on the other end of the speaker asked if I would like to try their new Crunch Wrap.  “YES! Tell me more! What is this crunch wrap you speak of?” I was JUST finding out about this Mexican masterpiece and wanted to know everything.

The three-hour drive felt like 30.  I’ve driven from Nashville to Los Angeles in a Ford Focus and somehow this felt longer.  The only thing I had to keep me company were the printed MapQuest directions, which I was deciphering backwards to navigate my way home.  Finally, I pulled up to my parent’s house where everyone was still sound asleep but there were a couple lights left on for me.  I stumbled up the stairs to my old bedroom and went into a deep hibernation. I finally arrived safely home from my 6-week adventure.  Before the trip I was given lots of advice, solicited and otherwise – keep your money in a pouch under your shirt, pack things in your shoes to save room in your suitcase, don’t fall asleep on trains,  if a Gypsy throws their baby at you, don’t catch it – but nobody could have warned me that the scariest, most dangerous parts of my trip were getting to and from the airport.

Snoozing in the Sistine Chapel

Even though I’m a life-long insomniac, I did go through a phase of narcolepsy in college.  I could fall asleep just about anywhere, anytime, except in my bed at night.  I remember dozing off once at the Spaghetti Factory when I was having dinner with my entire family.  It was also common for me to wake up on one of the couches at my school’s library with an unopened textbook on my chest.  However, the strangest place I ever fell asleep was the Sistine Chapel.

Like a lot of college students, I studied abroad the summer between my sophomore and junior years.  My first choice was an art program in Italy, but ended up getting in a cultural program in Austria.  There was another girl in my program, Jessica, who was my sorority sister.  We knew each other, but didn’t seem to have much in common.  During her college career, she was the PanHellenic president, Greek Woman of the Year and Homecoming Queen (and much more!).  She was the classic over-achiever.  I on the other hand was well…me.  Pretty much content with just passing all my classes, paying my bills and having something to do on the weekends.  We ended up getting really close on that trip.  I kept things fun and adventurous, and she kept me from walking into traffic or being sold into slavery.  I was the Dharma to her Greg.  We ended up traveling together on the weekends along with a few other girls from other schools we had become close to.

On one of our free weekends we went to Rome -the city I had originally hoped to spend my entire summer, but now had to reduce to three days.  There was so much we wanted to do, and we pretty much did.  We saw the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Roman Forum, ate pizza, ate spaghetti, ate tiamisu and of course visited the Vatican and Sistine Chapel.

Against our program director’s advice, we took a night train there.  In Europe, you can travel anywhere on the EuroRail.  By taking a night train, it was a much longer ride, but the idea was that you would sleep and then be at your destination when you woke up.  Of course we were too poor to spring for the sleeper cars, so Jessica, two other girls and I took over a regular passenger car meant for eight people.  We laid all eight seats down so it made something like one big lumpy futon that the four of us went to sleep on.  That worked out pretty well until a man wearing a tan suit and white shirt with embroidered flowers opened the door and squeezed in.  This is something I would never allow in America, but it was a foreign country and we were taking up double the capacity so we let him in.  I was closest to the door so he scooted in next to me.  After much adjusting, we four girls huddled together as closely as we could and fell asleep.  A little while later, I woke up to find the man cradling me in full big-spoon position.  Infuriated, I jumped up and started screaming obscenities at him.  “Get the F— out! Get the F— out, you perv!”  The other girls woke up and asked me what was going on.  I told them I had been groped by Borat who suddenly didn’t understand English.  One of the girls, Erica, was some sort of Black Belt in karate or Zumba, or something so I began screaming, “Kick this guy’s ass!” We all screamed and yelled, and then I threw his bags out into the hallway so that he got the hint and left.  I know you’re wondering why we didn’t lock the door.  There was no lock, but I did tie my pashmina around the coat racks as a barrier after that.  Needless to say, we didn’t get much sleep.

The next day was our big sightseeing day.  We bopped around from tourist attraction to gelato stand to souvenir shop for hours.  It was finally time to go to the Vatican.  I’m not Catholic so I don’t totally understand the appeal of the Pope, but I was super excited to see the art, and especially Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.  Everything about the Vatican is lavish and ornate and beautiful and everyone must visit before they die.  We finally made our way to the Vatican Museum’s which ends at the Sistine Chapel.  No one ever told me you had to walk through the entire museum to get to the famous ceiling, so after a while of looking at thousand year old oil paintings, intricate draperies and priceless sculptures I began to get bored.  I decided to go ahead of my friends and then wait for them in the Sistine Chapel, which is where I wanted to invest my time.  I rushed through what seemed like hundreds of rooms and millions of stairs before finally reaching the Chapel.  It was breathtaking.  All the stories of the bible were illustrated in brightly colored frescos.  Of course, I didn’t know what those stories were, but there was so much to look at and take in, including the most famous portion- the Creation of Adam- where God touches fingers with Adam E.T.-style in the clouds.  All I could do was stand there and look up, so I found a seat on one of the benches that made a perimeter around the room and rested my head on a railing so I could comfortably gaze up.  It was so relaxing, just staring at the ceiling while dozens of people milled around whispering, creating a kind of white noise.

A moment later, I opened my eyes and realized I had drifted off.  It was just a second, but I felt so rejuvenated and refreshed.  I looked around but still didn’t see any of my friends.  We didn’t have cell phones since it was 2005 in a foreign country, and we were poor college kids, not Japanese businessmen.  I had no idea that time it was; only that it was still daylight outside.  I decided to go on ahead and wait for them at the exit.  I started walking out when I saw a guy from my group who seemed excited to see me, and led me outside.  What I saw was everyone in my entire group lying on cobblestone sidewalks in the blistering sun like they were harpooned on a desert island.  I immediately knew something smelled fishy when everyone looked up and gave me the stink eye of death.  Jessica jumped up, “Where have you been? We haven’t seen you since we went into the museums!”  I explained my side of the story and how I dozed off for just a second.  They must have snuck by me while I was sitting on the bench.  “We’ve all been waiting out here for you for over an hour!” Jessica added.  I tried not to smile, as I was bright eyed and bushy tailed, but I did the math in my head and realized I could have been asleep for hours depending on how long they stayed in the museums.

I apologized, but probably not enough for what I put them through, and I was banned from sneaking off on my own from then on.  It went down in history as the best summer of my life, and one of the most refreshing naps I’ve ever had.