Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | July 13, 2012

Well I’ve made it… An Autistic’s Adventures with International Travel, part 2

Hello there Blogosphere, I’ve finally made it to my destination (3.5 days ago, actually). I mentioned that I am doing a summer course, which has taken all of my energy and then some. It’s been extremely exciting – I’m getting to chat and “drink beers” (I don’t drink by choice) with these amazing scientists who I cite all the time and discuss all sorts of things. It’s FANTASTIC. Plus I’m learning SO much. The students are all international – my roommate is French, and we’ve been communicating in a weird combination of French and English – it’s nice, though, I get to practice my French.

Anyway, an update of sorts… The actual travel bit. It took me over 33 hours, 3 planes, 2 buses, 1 train, and one VERY large hill to get to the university I will be calling home for the next few weeks. When I’m traveling, I try to have layovers – I don’t like being confined on the plane for such a long time, and I’ve learned to navigate airports quite well – most are very easy, you just follow the signs. I try to make my layovers at least 2 hours long, so that I have plenty of time to find my new gate, use the (clean, land-based) bathrooms, and eat something, all while having a built in buffer, just in case my previous flight was late. But sometimes this doesn’t work out perfectly, and I’ve learned to be flexible. At any rate, I did make all of my flights this time, but sadly, my layover right before my trans-Atlantic flight wasn’t long enough for food, and I had to brave the airplane food, sadly, since I didn’t know when I would next be able to eat, and that I had a very long journey ahead of me. I did make it through some of it, happily. Thank goodness for pre-packaged crackers and rolls.

When I arrived in Amsterdam, an airport I’ve never been in, something struck me immediately: every single sign was big-lettered in ENGLISH, with Dutch underneath. Everyone spoke English. Everyone used English. Every flight was announced in English. Over the loudspeakers, you would hear English announcements, most of which were: “Passenger(s) XYZ on flight ### to ZYX, you are delaying the flight. Please board the plane or we will proceed to offload your baggage”, which I thought was hysterical, and definitely a little more passive-aggressive than the US version of “your flight is about to depart, please come to the boarding area immediately”. Everyone was more efficient there, as well – my next plane was rather small (seated maybe 150 people – 4 people/row [2 on a side] and maybe 20 rows?) and we were all boarded and set to go in just under 10 minutes – it was incredible! The place was so big and fancy, they even had SHOWERS for tired and smelly travelers. (Sadly, I wasn’t in a position to use one, but don’t think the idea didn’t cross my mind.)

Then I arrived at my small airport destination. Definitely a completely different place – nothing in English, the planes park away from the terminal and we all offloaded onto a pair of buses that took us to the tiny concrete baggage claim area. I met up with 3 other students from the summer course (we recognized each other by the presence of poster tubes – the sign of an academic), and then bought tickets for the bus from the airport to the train station. We didn’t know if we were on the right bus (the driver barely spoke English, and my phrase book speech was getting me nowhere) but we did eventually make it. Then we all bought train tickets and had a terrifying scare when none of our credit cards worked – the automated ticket-sale booth would only take debit cards! Luckily we worked it out and all was OK. Sadly we weren’t all together on the train, but we were at least on the same car. It was a long ride, and very hot – we even had a crazy woman on the train who was yelling at everyone (especially the conductor) that it was too hot and she was very angry. Luckily there was a person between me and her, so I didn’t have to deal with it too much. Eventually, she got up in a huff and told the conductor he should sit in her place and he would understand the problem. He told her thank you and sat with us for a good 10 minutes – it was funny, terrifying and very strange. Anyhow we finally made it to our destination, and managed the requisite de-train in under 2 minutes, and then headed off to the bus stop. I got to use my phrase book again to ask where to buy the bus tickets and where the bus stop was. We had to walk some, but we found it, and there was a bus leaving for our city right then! So we quickly bought tickets (though I had a massive language fail – I tried to buy my ticket and my request and subsequent apology and word failure came out in 4 different languages!), and were on our way, finally. 1.5 hours later, we’d made it to the city, and after much panicking about which stop we should get off at, we arrived and were left to conquer a HUGE (and I mean GIGANTIC and VERY STEEP) hill, lugging our baggage behind us, before we finally arrived at the university housing, 33 hours later. But we made it. I was so incredibly exhausted afterwards – it was all I could do to get up to my room and shower (much MUCH needed), but I did manage to go with the students out to find dinner after – good thing, as it was my first real food in more than a day.

I even managed to avoid the worst of the jet lag! Because I had such a broken up travel day(s), I managed to stay up until 10pm local time, then slept until 6:30am – right on target, and I’ve been mostly OK since (except for the 4 hour nap and missing dinner the next day, but now it’s all good). Class started the next morning, and it’s been spectacular. There will be another (far more autism-related) post about class soon.

And so you wonder, how does autism play into all of this? Well a number of ways. I did a lot of stretching my comfort zone on this trip – 3 airports I’ve never been to, 2 countries I’ve never been to and don’t speak the language of (though Amsterdam hardly counts given the amount of English spoken), and using public transit. I was so relieved to find other students from the course, because I didn’t have to travel all alone – we planned to meet up and we all made it, and all 4 of our bags even made it too! Travel is stressful, but with enough emotional preparation and physical preparation, I was able to manage it. I even learned some new words! One of my best tips is to find an out-of-the way spot where you can sit and relax during airport layovers or other waiting periods. It may not be exactly timed to when you need to decompress, but it’s definitely better than nothing. Bring your own snacks – you never know when your next meal will be, nor what it will consist of. I didn’t do as well with this, but I did manage it OK. Have a back-up plan in case something goes wrong – missed flight, lost bag, etc. In my case, I brought an extra carry-on bag that fit into my checked luggage (with some squeezing), that contained clothes, toiletries, and other essentials that I could live off of until my full suitcase arrived. Luckily I didn’t have to deal with any of it, but it definitely set my mind at ease. And I spent much of the flights reading a phrase book and practicing, so that I would be able to at least communicate some. While major airports and tourist hubs are mostly English speaking, the university town I am in is definitely not. My language skills are tremulous at best (even in English!) but at least knowing I can sit and decode a menu with my phrase book has been helpful. I’ve also been stimming lots more, especially fingerspelling, but flapping and rocking too. Anything to keep my sanity during the stress that travel creates.

And so now I’m fully into this summer course, and super busy – it’s an all-day thing, with classes from 8:30-6, then socializing with the professors, including a dinner, that often lasts until 10 or 10:30, then wake up in the morning to do it all again. Tomorrow I have half a day off, so I’m looking forward to that. Perhaps there will be another post. Until next time!


  1. Hahaha! I just went through the Amsterdam airport. We had a conference at the Amsterdam RAI last week. (Imagine several hundred people in the airport carrying poster tubes!) I agree with everything you said about that airport. Excellent signs, super-friendly people, and efficient beyond belief. On your return trip be sure to take a look at the restaurant that looks like a collection of Delft pottery. The selection is varied enough, you should be able to find something that works for you.

    Enjoy your summer course! It sounds like you already are.

  2. I’m glad you arrived safely. That is so funny about the conductor!

  3. What an adventure! The longest flight I’ve ever been on was 5 hours long. Traveling for so long would make me very nervous. I hope you are having a fulfilling time!

  4. Just found your blog….it’s great. I’m excited for you that you get to travel, even though it can be harrying. I am returning to Grad School this fall after an extended absence and am looking forward to it so much – I think university is the only place on the planet where my Asperger’s & I can feel truly comfortable (and professionally fulfilled). I hope you are having fun.

    • Hi Beth! Welcome 🙂 Thanks for leaving your comment! Grad school is fantastic, isn’t it? 🙂 Cheers!

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