In this post I'm retelling the story of my first time in the US as well as participating in my first Polyglot Conference. This post features my journey up through the night before the Conference.
Note: Whilst originally planned as a 2-parter, I actually never got around to writing the second part. Maybe one day.
My 2015 so far has been absolutely fantastic. I've successfully relocated to Hungary and I managed to take part in the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin as well as a Polyglot Workshop in Budapest. I've improved my language skills as well as Actual Fluency. I've trimmed out some of the unnecessary elements, given the page a clean-up and really started to focus where I believe I can make the biggest difference.
Also I've grown tremendously in my professional work, gaining new responsibilities and learning new things all the time. A lot of people actually don't know this, but I work full-time in social media management next to my language learning projects and Actual Fluency-related activities.
Anyway, when they announced the Polyglot Conference 2015 was going to be in New York, I pretty much decided then and there I was going to go. Actually, as somebody with relatively weak personal finances this has been one of my best tips to achieving my dreams. Don't wait until the last minute with trying to afford that dream trip or experience, I guarantee you won't have the funds available.
However, if you decide: “I will go!” then subconsciously you start working towards it and you make it happen. This is how I made it to the 2014 Polyglot Gathering in Berlin, which changed my life completely.
Before the trip
I had a vast selection of airlines and routes to go to New York with. One of my ‘requirements' was that I would like to fly on one of the larger, newer planes. This means I was looking for airlines flying Airbus A380 or Boeing 777/787. They were in general slightly more expensive than the airlines flying the older aircraft, but since I decided I was going to go for a while and the fact that it's an 8 hour journey each way I figured it would be money well spent.
I ended up going with Lufthansa via Frankfurt and the total sum of the ticket was just below €500/$550 which I think for a trip of this length was more than reasonable. I had been reading about the A380's seat configuration online and learnt that there is a small section of economy seats on the upper deck, next to the Business and First Class sections. These seats were apparently better than the downstairs economy.
With that in mind I decided to book upstairs. But there was a catch. Lufthansa only release these seats exactly 3 days before departure. So 72 hours before I logged in and reserved what looked to be a great seat, 97H. The cost of booking the seat was less than €20 which again, I thought would be worth it for such a long flight.
Day of departure – Getting up early
With my first flight departing at around 7 am in the morning, I briefly considered the option of staying up all night and then sleep on the plane. I am very bad at sleeping on planes in general though and what's more I would be arriving in NYC in the afternoon with a considerable journey onwards to Philadelphia, so I picked the safer option and slept for a few hours.
3.30 the alarm rings and I catch a quick shower, get dressed, grab my backpack and suitcase and exit my flat where my taxi is waiting for me. I always use the same private taxi driver and it's a great, comfortable way to get to Liszt Ferénc International Airport.
Once in the airport I make a few laps before my lounge opens. As a Gold Mastercard holder I get free access, and it's definitely on par with paid lounges I've tried in the past. Here's the breakfast I went for:
Not too bad! Sadly I only had about 20 minutes in the lounge as my flight was boarding very soon. Luckily as I was flying with Lufthansa the gate was fairly close to the lounge area. I have flown Wizzair from Budapest before and It's literally at the other end of the airport.
The flight from Budapest was fairly uneventful. I was happy to see Lufthansa served a croissant as well as any beverage. Since it was early in the morning I went for a coffee.
Connecting in Frankfurt
When I arrived in Frankfurt I had plenty of time to spare. However, as I have never really connected before, let alone to destinations outside Europe I was slightly surprised by the sheer distance from European flights to the non-european zone, I walk at a fairly rapid pace and it must've taken me the best part of half an hour to move across the airport. Once I reached the terminal for my flight I had to go through security again, something I also didn't expect.
This meant that by the time I got through security, my more-than-enough time had turned into what I would call a reasonable time. Lesson learned. Always move swiftly. The reason I took my time was I was looking for a US adapter. The only ones I could find were more than €40! So I passed and went towards the gate.
At the gate the flight was delayed. So I had to sit around. I tried to do something useful like reading or even memrising on my phone, but there was no wifi and I was still tired from, well, no sleep.
After about half an hour they started boarding the special assistance passengers, first and business class passengers before they opened up the flood gates for us economy passengers to get on board this engineering marvel.
A380 Impressions FRA-JFK
My first impression when boarding the plane was; This plane is HUGE! As my seat was in the back of the plane and upstairs I inconveniently had to go all the way through economy and premium economy downstairs before going up a staircase to my seat (just the fact the plane has several staircases is really mindboggling.)
I was relieved to find out I did fit in the seat. As a member of the, let's say, chunky population this is always a concern when flying. In the seat was also a blanket, a pillow and a pair of headphones to use with the personal entertainment system.
Here's a POV of my seat. I was very happy with the legroom!
Overall the seat is quite comfortable, as long as you don't try to sleep on it. I found without a neck pillow to support, that I had no position to actually rest on. I also didn't want to recline completely, as I know how that interferes with the person behind. However that wasn't always easy as my rather wide stature kept pressing the recline button.
Our little section of some 30 seats were serviced by one stewardess. She was extremely nice and I was happy to use my German skills. It'll always be strange though to be adressed in the formal way. Having grown in up a country that more or less got rid of that kind of formality years ago.
I briefly considered asking if she'd use “du” but then again, in hindsight it seemed like that could make it awkward for her as well. Besides, it does feel cool. Similar to being called Sir on the phone by call centers.
Entertainment on board was nice with every seat being equipped with their own little screen that had tons of movies and films to occupy even the longest of trips with. I ended up watching Terminator: Genisys and although I had my concerns about bringing in Arnold again, I actually think they pulled it off. It was a nice homage to the series and I think it completes it on a high. Prediction: If they make another Terminator-movie it will be terrible.
I tried to get some sleep, but at most I think I was gone for about half an hour and after I woke up I felt my neck ache a bit, so I opted against trying again. I got in a few Memrise sessions, but being so tired it was not as efficient as it could've been.
The food and drink service on board was great. Our stewardess came around multiple times offering various beverages and snacks, depending on the time. When it was lunch time we were served this:
It was a bit interesting, perhaps even unfortunate that they decided to serve Goulash, now I'd come directly from Budapest. However, it was actually a great meal and honestly if I could have this for lunch every day I would not complain.
As we were nearing the US we were also served a modest breakfast. I didn't get a picture of this, but it was also very nice with cheese, bread and butter.
As I left the plane to step on US soil for the first time I said goodbye to my seat-mate, a friendly doctor from NY, who'd been to a conference in India and I went eagerly towards the Immigration queues, which I had heard tales of terror about.
My first time in America
As I was queuing to enter the United States of America I did start to get slightly nervous. Everyone seemed to have printed their ESTAs, basically a visa-waiver form submitted online, but when I filled it out I didn't recall it asking me to print and bring it. I also had very questionable information available because I had not booked the hostel I would stay in a few days later and nor did I actually have the address in Pennsylvania where I would be staying the first few days.
As I imagine all the horror scenarios about an hour and a half pass by and when I get called forward I meet this middle-aged border agent, who could not be a more stereotypical New Yorker. We small-talked a bit, and apart from the finger prints and picture he did not ask about anything else.
As I walked into the Baggage reclaim and out into Terminal 1 of JFK International, it still hadn't quite struck me that I had actually made it to the US.
You see, I've been exposed to the United States all of my life. Games, movies, songs, products, ideals, politics, history and even much more. I've seen America on TV, I've read about it, but actually going there in the foreseeable future was something I had not expected.
Because I had experienced so much of American culture through TV and movies it was a bit surreal to actually be there in person. It always felt like a bit of a country just outside of reach for me. To watch the racial diversity so foreign to me right in front of my eyes, to listen to the incredibly strong American accents I sometimes hear from the tourists who come to Budapest.
In my sleep-deprived state of exhilaration, it all felt like a dream. All made possibly by becoming a language learner.
Going to Pennsylvania – Iras al pensylvanio
Rest was nowhere in sight though as I had to somehow navigate to Quakertown Pennsylvania. My friends Chuck Smith and Judith Meyer organised an Esperanto immersion week and being always interested in new experienced with the added benefit of improving a language, I signed up last-minute.
There was one problem though. I didn't have any way of telling them when or where I would arrive. I also didn't have anyone's phone number. Luckily I was able to grab 30 minutes of free wifi in JFK to message Chuck and ask for the details. Fortunately, as my bus was scheduled to leave soon, he responded quickly with some of the details.
When standing in JFK looking for the bus to PA the whole thing seemed an incredibly stupid and impulsive idea. However, luckily the week was awesome and I had a great time. Plus I was fortunate enough to meet a group of very nice people to hang out with. Huge shout-out to my new American friend Mr. Jesse Alter for taking good care of me during the week and also being great company while I was in PA.
Getting to Quakertown was not going to be easy though. I waited around a sign that said PA, but the bus did not show up at the scheduled time. I once again worried, because alternative transportation would several hours later, meaning I wouldn't arrive in Quakertown until around midnight.
Luckily the bus did show up and a very nice bus driver took me to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Initially I was confused because he just called it “Port Authority” and I was thinking he was taking me to the harbour or something. On the contrary the Port Authority Bus Terminal was located slap-bang in the middle of Manhattan.
During the bus ride I got to see a lot of Manhattan and one thing I immediately did not enjoy: The traffic. Here's a, in my professional opinion, very cool picture as we're driving towards Manhattan. You get the Manhattan skyline, but also an iconic yellow-cab in the same shot (and a fair bit of reflection – but what can you do.)
As we drove into the city I also just had to keep pinching myself. I was ACTUALLY here.
The rest of the afternoon progressed relatively quietly. I grabbed some terrible dinner from an “Italian” place because I had a 3 hour bus ride to look forward to. As I got into the bus it was relatively crowded already and the seats were definitely not comfortable. As I asked if I could sit in a seat, I thought I heard a slavic accent, and immediately asked the guy where he was from in the ambitious hope he might've said somewhere that spoke Russian.
I figured 3 hours on the bus wouldn't have been so terrible if I could practice some Russian on the way. Unfortunately he was from Poland and that ended our conversation relatively quickly, as I sensed he didn't want to be disturbed.
As I looked around the bus I suddenly imagined myself a part of New York. Here I was, coming off a 20+ hour journey from Europe, among what was definitely full time residents, probably heading home from work.
Unfortunately for me my phone was running out of power. I had hoped to charge it on the plane, but the internal power of my seat was not working. So here I was in the middle of nowhere with nobody to talk to and absolutely nothing to do except look out the window for 3 hours.
My stop was one of the last and before it I was actually the last passenger. The bus driver was pretty surprised to learn how far I'd come and as he said good night I ventured into the darkness of Quakertown.
Slightly regretting not having planned more, or anything at all, luckily a man came towards me with a beaming smile. Kris? He asked and I had met Jesse, the legend.
Once we arrived at the Chalet the rest of the gang was watching TV in the living room. As Chuck introduced me all I could say was “Saluton.” My brain was completely empty after nearing 30 hours of travel. I went upstairs and collapsed on my bed.
Esperanto Course, Fried Oreos and a wine tasting
The course consisted of many impromptu conversations as well as structured lessons from Chuck and Judith. It was a bit difficult for me to get back into Esperanto-mode, because I just wanted to get to know people, but on the whole I think my level definitely increased. There were also some people who hadn't quite gotten to the conversational level there, so a lot of times we were talking in English – to Chuck and Judith's despair.
We also visited the Pennsylvania German Heritage Center which I thoroughly enjoyed. Having been a fan of the faux-reality show “Amish Mafia” where they used this particular dialect, I was happy to learn some more about it and even hear a poem.
Here is the 1-room school, which was in actual use some time ago. This exact time is also one of the first times in my life the concept of jet-lag started to materialise. Although not tired I just felt incredibly weird standing on a lawn at 4 in the afternoon with the sun beaming down.
On the final day we packed up our stuff. Before leaving I realised I had left a pair of clean trousers on the bed and I just threw them into my backpack, since my suitcase was well-packed already. We then went for a road-trip to a roadside diner by the name; Fries Rebellion. Since the food at the chalet was all catered for this was my first foray into American food. Let's just say the stereotypes did not fail us.
First there was the SIDE-salad which I ordered next to my pasta-dish. This thing is HUGE! Good value at $4 to boot!
Then there was the somewhat unusual dessert option of Fried Oreos! Having heard of similarly crazy things, only from Scotland, I figured I had to try this.
Unsurprisingly so, they were delicious! Yes they will definitely lead to heart problems and premature death if consumed in any kind of quantity, but I tried one and a half and that was more than rich for me.
At the dinner many of the group said their goodbyes as the rest of us went to our final stop for the week. A local winery. Now for obvious reasons I shan't name the winery, but let me just say the experience wasn't really that exciting. I used to work in a wine shop, so I'm on a relatively intermediate level as far as wine goes.
The wine wasn't bad, but even at the $10-15 price tag I struggled to justify them. His best-seller, a sweet apple cider was borderline undrinkable. It was so sweet that any kind of apple taste was well and truly hidden away.
It was interesting to try some local products, but honestly this wine is not something I recommend.
Ripping my trousers and going to Brooklyn
The above title could be the lyrics from some kind of hipster song, unfortunately it's the absurd true story of what happened.
I had absolutely no idea how to get back to New York. Luckily one of the participants from the course, Margarita not only knew how to get there by train, but she also offered me a life to the station. I thanked her immensely and she took me to Summit, NJ. This was my third state! I think that was pretty good for a week-long trip.
Catching the train into New York, I arrived at Penn Station and once again was absolutely clueless on how to get to our Hostel. Worse was I had no idea where it was. With some problems I managed to find the correct underground, and because I had no directions I decided to hail a cab once I had made it to Brooklyn. Before that I did manage to get off a few underground stops too early, making the cab ride a bit longer than necessary.
It was very interesting though.
As I exited the subway and started looking for a cab with my suitcase and backpack I spotted one in traffic. Expecting him to make a turn to my side of the road I hesitated. He then made quick gestures with his hand for me to dart across the road and jump in, in the middle of a traffic light.
For some, unbeknownst and frankly idiotic reason, I decided to go for it. My stupidity was immediately punishes as a loud “RIIIIIP” sounded as my trousers ripped from the groin area all the way down to my foot. I was basically in my underwear by this point.
Now, being overweight it's not unusual to have clothes go wrong. However, I had never tried this scenario before.
I started calculating the different scenarios. How would it look if I stepped out of the cab in this state? Actually it was so ridiculous I couldn't even imagine it.
Obviously nothing would've happened – probably. But then I remembered I had packed a pair of trousers in my backpack, which I had brought with me in the car.
The cab wasn't particularly roomy though with almost no space for my legs in the first place.
What followed was one of the most bizarre moments of my life.
I somehow did manage to change my trousers on the back seat of a cab, but the weird thing was, the driver did not say anything. At all.
He was a former company owner from India hit by recession and even though I verbally explained what had happened, he didn't react to it at all. Which really made it all the more weird.
When we arrived at the hostel the total was something like $10 for the ride. Along the way he had made this whole speech about people being generous and how hard life was, and unfortunately my bank didn't have notes lower than $20 so I had to give him that, willing to tip a few dollars as well.
He just said bless you and kept the 20. Now, I'm a man of principle and I was fully expecting to give this person a generous tip. Maybe even 30% of the bill. However, by him trying to screw with me I stood my ground. I was like, give me $5 back – again tipping 50% seems ludicrous but I did just change trousers on the back seat of his cab and I was quite tired after a long day. After an awkward hesitation he grabbed a few crumpled up singles and handed them over. I didn't bother counting them and when I put them in my wallet I realised he'd only given me $3 back. So around a 70% tip.
Lesson learned: Always carry small denominations to avoid these rip-offs. Also it reaffirmed my opinion that all cab drivers are crooks.
I went to my room and after some time my two room mates returned. I had partnered up with Olly from IWillTeachYouALanguage.com and Brian from Add1Challenge.com to share a three-person room in Brooklyn. This way it wasn't too expensive per night. Plus it was quite a nice place, except they didn't have any breakfast.
As I retold my eventful trip to the hostel, Olly quickly chimed in saying how the trouser ripping had happened to him in Cairo as well. We both took some solace in the fact we were not alone in having achieved this awkward feat.
With the Conference starting early next morning and the time being fairly late already we all decided to call it a night and reconvene the next morning.
End of the trip
This is the end of my US trip report. I hope you enjoyed it! The conference went really well, and as I went home the following Monday I reflected on one of my most epic journeys – so far.
Kris is the founder of Actual Fluency, and has spent the last 8 years becoming an expert in language learning software, methods, and techniques.
Originally from Denmark, he now lives in Portugal and speaks 5+ languages at varying levels. His other interests are Wine, Online Marketing, and Travelling.