Since the last generation of students who can remember her left our school in June, she believes she needs to introduce herself. Her name is Lenka Stoláriková, and she is a former student of IV.E (2012–2016). She also used to be an editor of Orindžík. Currently, she studies at the Charles University in Prague, specializing in West European Studies. Lenka is an avid traveller, who loves taking pictures and telling sassy jokes.
It’s been quite some time since my last article for Orindžík. After finishing high school, my life has led me to new places. One of them being the United States.
How did I end up there? Let me tell you two things you all certainly know by now. Firstly, Erasmus is an unforgettable experience and be sure to try every option available for you at your future university. Secondly, when abroad, make good friends. Last year, I was lucky to do both. I spent my winter semester in Stirling, Scotland. And I had the chance to live with several American girls. (I hoped to return from Scotland with a proper Scottish accent. Instead, I picked up American.) So, when I got a wedding invitation this spring, I knew what my plans for September would be. (If you feel like weddings are miles away for you, just wait 3 more years. That’s when the wedding frenzy begins.)
What do you imagine when you hear “the U.S.”? What is “American” for you? Hollywood, the Statue of Liberty, Trump, wild west, army, Wall Street, guns, San Francisco, cowboys, cheerleaders and school football teams, Times Square, Native Americans, tornadoes, national parks, red plastic cups, road trips. America is all this and more. A mixture of different cultures, landscapes, architecture, accents, lifestyles, traditions. The best way to explore it is to have a tour guide among the locals. To blend in and observe the Americans in their natural habitat, if you like. That’s what I did, more or less successfully. So, what is my experience with the United States?
On being suspicious when entering the country
Imagine you get an amazing deal for the flight tickets, but you have only one hour to transfer planes. You know your suitcase might get lost. You don’t really know where exactly you’ll be during the 10 days of your stay. And you are allowed to bring two pieces of hand luggage. What do you do? Be a proper backpacker and cram everything into one backpack. I’ll skip the unnecessary details of my high heels not showing properly on the scanner, having to re-pack everything, and running for my life across the Madrid airport, just like in Home Alone 2. In the end, I made it successfully to Chicago. That’s when the real fun began. Good advice – when the clerk tells you without any context “All 4”, it means he wants you to put your fingers on the desk so he can scan your fingerprints. That is followed by the obligatory amount of questioning. (Note that I landed on September 16.)
- How long are you here for?
- Well… ten days, roughly.
- Ten days? You don’t know? You don’t have your flight ticket back!?
- I do. It’s the 25th.
- No! September. I said I’m here for 10 days.
- Why are you coming here?
- For a wedding.
- [sarcastically] YOU are getting married!?
- NO! My friend.
- [unwillingly stamping my passport]
I moved to the baggage reclaim. Having only the backpack on my back and no giant suitcase like the others, I must have looked suspicious. That’s when the other clerk came to me.
- Where is your suitcase?
- I don’t have any.
- Is this… [he looked at me with distrust] everything you have?
- [proud of my packing skills] Yes, this is EVERYTHING I have.
- [pointing somewhere in the distance] Number 2!!
Number 2 was a desk which looked like it was last used in the early 1990s. There was only me, some Chinese girls with suitcases big enough to fit both of them, and a Pakistani girl with 10 travel bags, probably moving around all of her earthly belongings. The last clerk was in a cheery mood when I handed him my documents. I was required to put down my contact address while in the U.S. Too bad I only knew one – the venue of the wedding which happened to be… in South Dakota of all places.
- [in disbelief] South Dakota? WHY ARE YOU GOING THERE? There is nothing in there!!!
- Well, for a wedding.
- [murmuring] South Dakota. What a place to host a wedding… OK, there you go. Welcome to the United States.
On not getting lost among the skyscrapers
My first stop was, obviously, Chicago. I had only 4 hours to explore it as I had to move to Wisconsin in the evening. Of course, I had to see the Bean (aka the Cloud Gate), the famous sculpture with a reflective surface in the downtown. I was running around the park and taking pictures of all the skyscrapers nearby. It was getting dark and the city had a slightly mysterious atmosphere – the clouds from above the Lake Michigan were slowly moving towards the high buildings and hiding their tops. I would’ve gone to the viewpoint of Sears Tower (now known as the Willis Tower) and enjoy the sight of the city from above. Due to the clouds, it was pointless. Instead, I decided to roam the streets and soak in their atmosphere.
Fun fact. Everything closes early in Chicago. So, if it’s dark, your bus leaves at 10 PM and you need to go somewhere to have a cup of coffee and charge your phone, the obvious choices (McDonalds and Starbucks) will not work. They close as early as 7 PM and you are left outside on the street, in the city with the highest crime rate in the U.S.
In Chicago, they do not bother with proper bus stations either. When you go to the street your bus is supposed to leave from, you find a bunch of people sitting on a parapet and no bus sign at all. You ask them where the bus stop is. A lovely old man volunteers to answer.
- Right there, Miss! [pointing at a street lamp]
- Yes, Miss! Are you going to Minneapolis? I travel there all the time. Trust me, the bus always stops there.
- Alright… I was just expecting… I don’t know. Maybe the sign of the company.
- Oh, you know. They don’t have a terminal here in Chicago, unlike the Greyhound. They don’t have to pay for the rent to the city. That’s why they have cheap fares.
The old man was right. The bus showed up and my great American road trip officially started.
Author: Lenka Stoláriková
Photos: Lenka Stoláriková