Exercise: Begin a Story – “Strange Lands”

As I’ve been doing over the last few weeks, I’m sharing my startup writing exercise with you in hopes of hearing your feedback or in getting a chance to read your take on the same exercise.

Today’s exercise is a lovely and easy warmup at the start of a long day of writing – I love holidays from school/work and make good on as much of the opportunity as possible.

I was tasked in my Wesleyan Univ. Creative Writing Course (Setting and Description) to write the first 500-750 words of a story that puts a character in a foreign land. I chose to draw from my experience, thinking back to arriving in Prague in June of 2011 for my first European trip of many to come.

704 words.

The plane descends, and a hurried voice from the overhead squawks its announcement in thick syllables and ch-sounds. I don’t recognize any of this, and I listen hard, as though through mere force of will and a scrunched face I could pick up the necessary Czech to understand the gist. I am not successful. The voice goes on for a long time like this, and I’m increasingly worried that I’m missing something critical – that if it’s not already obvious that I don’t belong in this country, I’m about to be discovered in my ignorance by doing something criminal.

The words blend together. Passengers in every row open their window shades. Did the announcement tell them to do that? Sunlight pours in, and I’m dizzy. I’ve been so nervous that I couldn’t sleep during the flight. According to my internal clock, it’s 6 o’clock, so I’ve been awake all night. For the first time in my life, I know what jet lag is. This is what people talk about, and the hype is undersold. When I stand up five minutes from now, I’m going to sit back down immediately in exhaustion and wait until I absolutely must move to stand again.

I’m looking toward the front and then rear of the plane to figure out what to do. Everyone with a Czech passport seems ready to go, their burgundy folios pressed between hands and purse straps or thighs. An American husband and wife two rows ahead of me bicker about whether they should have packed something or another in their carry-on rather than their checked baggage. The mother and son beside me remain asleep.

The Airbus A330 touches down, and what I assume is the same announcement comes in accented English. It’s almost standard, but there’s a complicated sequence about customs declarations, European passports, and the do’s and don’ts of exit security. I’m intimidated and begin to sweat. I check my possessions under the seat in front of me and realize that my own passport is in the bag that’s stashed overhead. I don’t like this.

It’s time to go, and I get up to find my bag. The people in the rows around me mudde along just as I do. Despite this, I am obsessed with the idea that I’m not moving fast enough, and that they all hate me for my incompetence as an international traveler. The crew send us toward the rear of the plane to exit through a jet bridge there. I’ve never seen two gangways before, best I can recall, but the last time I was on a wide-body airplane was back when I was a young kid, and that was just the one time we traveled to St. Croix, where I was destined to have a run in with a hermit crab.

I have my notebook in my hand and want to scribble something down about the layout of the plane, but I have to move and so repeat it to myself, trying to memorize my note, sounding in my own head like an insane person as I exit the plane.The crowd is close, and people are coughing.

I follow the herd through hallways that take us to a room that’s empty but for the customs boxes with armed agents behind bulletproof glass. Posters on the wall warn me not to use my cell phone or take photographs. Our plane’s passengers are the only ones in line, and so the wait is short. It’s my turn. I approach the box, nervous. I answer the questions, am gleeful at receiving an entry stamp in my passport, and walk between security stations past a guard armed with an automatic weapon. I don’t know what to do. I smile and nod. Wrong decision. The man looks through me as if to tell me that I would be dead if there weren’t a law against killing outsiders without cause.

I continue forward, determined not to look back at the man who will end my life, and I know I can’t relax until I pass through the opaque-glass automatic doors. The other side is even scarier, and I am buried in the din of travelers and families waiting for travelers.

For quick access, here are the other writing exercise posts from the last few weeks:

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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2 Responses to Exercise: Begin a Story – “Strange Lands”

  1. Pingback: Writing Exercise: “Autumn in a Pittsburgh Suburb” (Sense of Place) | #CaponeTeaches

  2. Pingback: Writing Exercise: Visiting a Painting in the Art Institute of Chicago | #CaponeTeaches

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