setting out

On Thursday morning, I leave for the longest trip I’ve ever taken, one that will land me in Sibiu, Romania (with a 5-hour layover in Munich) for seventeen days, in Pennsylvania for three days, and in various parts of New England, Nova Scotia, and the far reaches of Quebec for thirteen days. With the two full days that it will take me to get to and from my starting points, I will be away for thirty-five days.

While I’m gone, my goal is to blog a little bit about it, as I can, though I have no idea what my internet access options will be like for most of the trip (particularly the Romanian & Canadian legs). And we all know how blogging promises go.

Still, there are concerns on this end of the journey: what to take, how to pack, how much is not enough, how much is too much, how I feel my lack of French will be much more a problem than my lack of Romanian and German, and so on.

One of the concerns of international travel is this: what do I want to wear for twenty-six straight hours? What do I want to wear to encounter seat-mates, customs agents, and my international hosts? The answer is the same as it is every time I fly: a Penguins shirt.

It’s not a jersey (though one of those will come with me)–it’s just a black, long-sleeved, hooded t-shirt, one that layers well and is very comfortable. The first time I wore it as the “what I’m wearing when I fly” item, it was shortly after I caused pile of consternation by wearing a sweater that apparently had metallic fibers in it, which precipitated another layer of shedding at security. The Penguins shirt has no such bling to inconvenience everyone. It was made to look half worn-out from the start, a calculated insouciance, and, if nothing else, the shirt will match my worn-out face around hour eighteen.

The Penguins shirt has also made me some unexpected friends: in January, in the drowsy Charlottesville, VA airport, the young woman operating the TSA bag-scanning belt was also a Penguins fan. She saw my shirt and asked about it. This was two days before the lockout ended. It was a small, marvelous moment, at the end of a trip full of a lot of great time with family and friends, but also after a stressful semester’s end that crushed up against the winter holidays (a lot of flights, a lot of changing locations, a lot of bad weather) and ran right into the start of spring semester.

This little moment was in isolation from all of the me–it was simply about something external, something, of course, that I’d been looking forward to for months, hoping and then having hope fail. On January 4, standing in front of the machine that was ensuring the safety of my toothpaste and the non-weapon-nature of my fountain pens, we hoped we were close to something finally come through. On the 4th, we were only a week shy of that apparent January 11 drop-dead date, and this perfect stranger and I were hoping for the exact same thing: for there to be some hockey.

It likely seems silly to some to spend this much energy thinking about (writing about, really–the thinking takes a split-second, the writing…slightly longer) a piece of clothing, which is not often a thing I do. But travel is so often about split-second first impressions, and once I’m past practical considerations (I just refuse to spend that much time in a suit and no one expects me to do so, anyway), there are a lot of things I don’t want my clothes to say to people. There are also a lot of things I like my clothes to say to people, and ties to sports fandom is one of those. One reason is that I will be traveling during the Stanley Cup Playoffs–it feels wrong not to put on a little black and gold. But the more significant one is that this shirt is both barrier and invitation.

Sports conversations are easy and, for the most part, universally a safe topic of conversation (and I mean conversation of the kind one has in airports and airplanes, not wearing a Crosby jersey in a Philadelphia bar and shouting). It can fill the space for empty, obligatory small-talk with something that has meaning and interest–if one cares enough to use a logo as a springboard into conversation, there’s already content, and it’s content that doesn’t have to be personally revealing to be significant. It can be revealing–people often ask if I’m from Pittsburgh (because many people love their home team), and any chance I have to talk about the middle of Pennsylvania, the just-off-center location of where I’m from, I take. In the event, too, though, that the seatmate is creepy and revelation seems like a bad choice, there’s always the excellent answer of, “No, but Mario Lemieux,” because #66 is an excellent reason to have fallen in love with the Penguins in the nineties.

In early April, I was flying to Savannah for a conference–and there was some bonus baseball–and I spent the whole D.C. to Savannah flight (my third of the day and the point at which I am always thoroughly over the experience) talking about the NHL trade deadline with my seatmate and his companions, who were on their way to golf. One of them caught the Filip Forsberg/Martin Erat trade just before the cabin door was closed, and finally knowing the outcome of that strange bated period preceding the “Capitals’ Announcement” was just so satisfying–in no small part because I was in company that also understood that. The time passed quickly and happily, and there was no trace of the desperate competition that happened in the last seat-bank I was in, in which there was a strange oneupmanship going on between the two guys beside me that started with watches and progressed to vacation homes and their children’s college majors and I don’t know where it ended because I had headphones and a book and I hid in both.

Before leaving, I did get to see game one of the Penguins vs. Senators series, and it was a satisfying way to leave my hockey team: gathering steam. The first period was a little shaky, but everything got stronger as the game went on. I’m hoping for more of that for the Penguins, and I’m hoping for some of the same for myself, for the just-before-leaving jitters to level out into excitement and appreciation and the bravery I know I can talk myself into.

The hockey community, particularly in certain parts of the country (like mine) and the world, is a little rare. I know it gives me some comfort and lift when I can see those people (my people) in places that are new to me, and I like to think that someone else is similarly buoyed by an exchange even so small as “Did you see ___?” or “Oh, that was heartbreaking” or “Good luck in the next round” or a little thumbs-up. It’s worth those moments to risk the potential heckling that might come, too (I say, as I will spend three hours in the Newark airport).

Not everyone goes around with their hearts on their sleeves (and chests and heads and socks and boxer shorts and even on their very skin) in so immediately recognizable a way as sports folk, and for many, that’s certainly not the only thing for which they bleed (metaphorically or otherwise), but it’s probably unique in that it’s so immediately and visibly shared. There’s a pride (and a bravery and a safety) in displaying one’s chosen team’s colors. So tomorrow morning, I will start this trip, and even before I get to the TSA stations, I will do a little of my own x-ray magic as I set out: I will put on a shirt that makes visible on the outside so much of what is gathered in my heart and my brain so much of the time.

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