DID IT: NYC to Moscow to Helsinki to Berlin to Taormina in 48 Hours

I feel like a lame version of Liam Neeson because I’m not as tall, do not have a Scottish accent, but was able to find my family half way around the world…let me explain. This post was written over a few days, with the dates corresponding to when I wrote the section.

Friday, July 21st, 1:25pm: As of now my parents think that I’m in Boston taking summer classes. They believe that I’m diving into my financial accounting books and getting the most out of my academics. But I’m not…….I’m in Russia. Moscow Airport, to be exact. And if I see Snowden I’m going to try to hand him a USB Flash-drive as a practical joke.

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Taking off from JFK

You see, my sister lives in Taormina, Sicily, and my parents thought that it wouldn’t be a big deal if the whole family went to visit her for a few weeks – minus me. Therefore, I decided not to ask for an invitation to the party, but instead go off the radar for a few days and surprise the hell out of them. However, right now I am in Moscow, and there has already been a few speed bumps along the way.

August 9th I was supposed to fly to Saint Petersburg, Russia, and start backpacking across Eastern Europe all the way to London. This flight was out of JFK, and the Russian airlines I booked it through wasn’t exactly open to the idea of me changing itineraries. Plus, they barely spoke English, so I knew that I’d get no where trying to negotiate with them. So about two weeks before July 20th (the day I planned on flying out) I decided that I’d just forfeit the ticket to Russia and fly from JFK to Berlin to Catania for about $900. But I hated the idea of just loosing a ticket – so I waited.

The Sunday before last Thursday (when I was flying out) a master plan came to mind. “I’ll pay a $100 change fee, fly to Saint Petersburg July 18th, party for the weekend, and then take a cheap flight to Sicily”, and after looking for flights from St. Petersburg to Catania (the closest airport to Taormina) I found one – Sunday morning for $220.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Oceans 11 you will understand how proud I was of myself. Just like at the end of the movie where they are all staring into the water fountain while mesmerized by their accomplishment, that was me while eating Gazpacho on the Esplanade. However, the massage that my ego was so greatly enjoying at that time was short lived, because reality soon hit me like a shovel to the face – “I’m flying to Russia in 4 days…and I don’t have a Visa.”

Somewhere over Iceland...I think

Somewhere over Iceland…I think

In tears I got Orbitz on the phone and begged them to refund my ticket. Fortunately, they took pity, and said that they could give me full refund for my flight from St. Petersburg to Catania. This was great, but I still was shipping off to the Soviets in 3 days. So immediately I jumped on my computer and began researching Visa laws.

After a few hours of research I discovered that I could get a visa in just a few days! For $800….F*** THAT. However, there was a transit period of 24 hours during which I could stay in the airport if my plan was to fly out. So at this point I had arrived at plan B – find a flight out of Russia within 24 hours of landing or be arrested.

By Tuesday evening I found a cheap flight from St Petersburg to Berlin to Catania for a little over $400 that would leave 9 hours after I landed, so I booked it. And once again, I thought I had conquered the world.

Wednesday morning I took a bus to NYC, met with a few friends and crashed at my best friends place. My flight was at 7pm the next day, and luckily, she didn’t have air-conditioning. Why is that lucky? Because the next day when she had to leave for work, at about midday when Manhattan was at its hottest, I decided to seek salvation from the heat by heading to the airport 5 hours early. And there I was informed that I couldn’t check in…because I didn’t have a Visa.

Of course I explained to them the 24 hour transit law, and they said I was right! “So, what the problem?”, I asked. “The problem is you’re not flying direct to St. Petersburg – you’re flying to Moscow, where you’d then have to go through customs to fly to St. Petersburg…and that’s where you would be detained.”

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Picture I took of an awesome sax player in Berlin… the kid was, like, 9.

So there I was, 4 hours till my flight, and not allowed to check in. I casually walked to the nearest bench, pulled out my iPad – set up a WiFi cloud for my laptop, and soon had Aeroflot on the phone, Orbitz live chatting on my iPad, and every flight finder imaginable pulled up on my laptop.

I’m not a good enough writer to describe the shady moves I had to pull with these companies, or how I was on the verge of prostituting myself for much needed favors from the middle aged Russian service desk agent in JFK. However, after 3-and-a-half hours of asking for favors and making phone calls, I was running through airport security just a half hour before my flight, which is why I am now in…

Friday, July 19th, 11:45pm: Helsinki, Finland…yup. I was able to re-route my itinerary from Moscow to Helsinki – which worked out great because, since there was WiFi on my international flight, I did some research on the city and thanks to it am now sitting in a pretty nice hostel near the water. I went out for a drink and a bite to eat, but unfortunately I am BEAT. And have a flight in just a few hours.

It’s beautiful here in Helsinki – beautiful as in clean and well kept. I will be coming back at some point this summer to really check the place out. In the meantime though, I’m going to clock in 4 hours of sleep so that I have some energy while I’m in…

 

Cool building in Berlin

Cool building in Berlin

Saturday, July 20th, 12:00pm: Berlin…I flew in about 8:55am this morning and they lost my bag. Which is particularly troublesome for me since for the last few months my sole purpose was to downsize to where everything I own fits in that bag…however, I filed a claim with lost luggage before catching a cab into the city. After a few hours touring museums and passing over the canals, I plopped my ass down here, where I am writing this post and drinking my favorite beer from Oktoberfest – Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier.

Now, I only have a few hours left till my flight to Catania, where I hope that after a solid liter of beer the news of “your luggage is gone forever” will be much more bearable. Regardless, I’m going to enjoy my lunch, knock a few back, and catch up when I am in…

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Beach Party in Taormina

Tuesday, July 23rd, 1:00pm: Taormina…I made it! And, thankfully, my luggage was found (so my minimalist lifestyle wasn’t expedited after all). After flying into Catania, I was able to find a bus that took me on a hour or so drive up the Sicilian coast for only €6.50, to where I had rented myself an apartment on the beach for the night.

My apartments view...$45 a night on AirBnB!

My apartments view…$45 a night on AirBnB!

I rented myself the apartment for two reason: 1) I predicted that I was going to be so tired by the time I arrived that I wouldn’t even want to see my family, but rather by a bottle of wine and drink myself to sleep, and 2) If couldn’t find my family I’d need a place stay…this is a detail I left out till now…I didn’t actually know where my family was. Yea, I knew they were in Taormina, Sicily, but besides that I was duped.

After all that traveling I felt surprisingly awake, so I took a cold shower, threw on an outfit, and went out to find my family. It was a saturday night around 9:00pm, so my strategy was to start in the city center and work my way out from there. Luckily, I’m taller than the average Sicilian/person, so I was like a mobile watch tower moving through the crowds. To be honest, I felt it too easy – I almost wish that I had had to search a bit longer – but within about 45 minutes, I had spotted my Mother and my Grandmother meandering through the town.

At first I thought about following them to see if they were meeting up with my father, brother, and sister. However, I thought simply scaring them would be more fun. The first thing I felt when I grabbed both their shoulders was a tense panic, and they didn’t even turn around. I imagine that they were waiting for the person behind them to say either “hand me your purses” or “walk to the ATM”, but after a few tediously long seconds, they slowly turned around and screamed.

At that moment the entire street froze, and everyone thought that I had just asked these two women to hand me their purses. But, soon enough they stopped crying, and we walked off to dinner.

My Father, Brother, and I in Taormina's City Center

My Father, Brother, and I in Taormina’s City Center

I am finishing this post 3 days late because my father had in fact missed his flight from Miami, and I wanted to keep my arrival a secret until he showed back up. Surprising both my siblings and him happened in a similar fashion, so I won’t go into those stories. However, now I’m in Taormina, Sicily for a week or so, and am then planning on boating my way to Istanbul and finding my way north along the Adriatic Sea.

I'll be enjoying my week here though.

I’ll be enjoying my week here though.

-Sepp

 

 

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