Perhaps it was because Suzy - who reminds me a bit of a younger Katie in only good ways - sent an email. As I wrote her back I was thinking of myself when I was finishing my Masters in 2003 and realized it was then that I attended my first first conference. And since I am returning to the friendly confines of Canada, albeit a different city, I thought an indulgently retrospective post would be a pleasant progress check.
I'd not been on a plane since a single ride when Brother was still in diapers, making me all of 5 or 6 years old. I was beyond terrified about air travel (at all of 24 years of age) and considered driving to Toronto. Which while not impossible, certainly did not match the plans of my peers. And I did want to fit in.
So I remember sitting in the small airport in my grad school city and trembling with nerves. A younger student in my group arrived just before boarding and took the window seat beside me once on the plane, burying his cute little nose in a magazine while I watched the flight attendant with utter focus, making my seatbelt painfully tight in an effort to become as safe as humanly possible.
"We're not going fast enough," I whispered to 1stYear and he turned to look at me quizzically.
"We're taxiing, Katie," he replied before flipping a page and returning to his reading. I clenched every muscle in my body and stared in horror out the window as we made a turn then picked up speed. As the wheels left the ground, I nearly hyperventilated, so consuming was my panic.
I could have reached for 1stYear's hand - he wasn't a bad guy and would have offered comfort had he known I needed it - but I remembered that he disclosed that many girls had crushes on him. And there's nothing that takes a boy - then or now - from 'ooh' to 'ew' faster than knowing he thinks he's pretty. So I panted and prayed and panicked on my own.
"I can't do this but I can't avoid it!" I remember thinking, wondering how the hell I was going to make it through the short flight and then force myself onto a connecting flight to get to Toronto.
"Hey, Katie," a colleague greeted me. I glanced up and smiled, a mere 10 pages into the book I'd just purchased and tucked my boarding pass between the pages before tossing it in my bag and giving my attention to him.
We chatted pleasantly - of inconsequential things - until it was time to board. I wandered down the jetway and stuffed my duffel into the overhead bin before tucking my laptop away in front of me. I read a magazine on the short flight, burying my own cute little nose in the pages and ignoring my surroundings until we reached the connecting airport.
I boarded the next flight just as easily, mostly relaxed due to extensive experience being up in the air. I read the papers I brought along, underlining words and phrases and making notes in the margins so I could write my own summaries. I mapped out questions and looked over my plans for the week, tapped the screen in front of me to watch news and a comedy before landing and clearing customs. (How much do I love personalized in-flight entertainment? So Much!)
I couldn't remember the exact date so I guessed as I filled in my card. And some of my letters extended outside their allocated boxes. But I'll admit I remain fairly careful, always eager to earn approval by following rules.
I was wired upon arrival, having sipped every last drop of my water and crunched on the ice cubes on both flights. On our last one, I filled out my immigration card with complete attention and care, clutching it and my brand-new passport in trembling hands as I wondered whether the Canadians would be so cruel as to deny me entry and force me back on a dreaded plane before I'd mustered my courage over the coming week.
They did let us in, of course, and we took a cab (I paid as 1stYear's ATM card didn't work and my careful planning left me with some $300 Canadian in cash) to the hotel.
"Wow," I murmured when we entered the lobby, a bellman taking our suitcases and walking them up the steps. My family was firmly middle class and while we vacationed every year, we often stayed at motels on the beach or reasonably-priced Holiday Inns or Marriotts. The Fairmont had just taken ownership of the Royal York in Toronto and it sparkled with grandeur. I remember thinking it was the most wonderful hotel I'd ever seen inside and peered up at the architectural details in the lobby and grinned giddily when they offered me a key to a room.
I so desperately wanted to take off my flip flops. It generally seems endless to me - that journey from the plane to immigration - especially after long flights (which this one was not, but bear with me while I whine). So I flipped and flopped my way along long corridors and past many doorways until I reached the border agent.
I laughed when he asked why I'd want to go to a conference. "It's for business," I replied, "though there are great people and interesting science too."
We sped away from the airport in a cab, reaching downtown when I waved to my colleague as he went to another hotel, leaving me at the Fairmont once again. While it's not the nicest hotel I've ever visited, the rooms are generously sized and the service is excellent.
"I'm so sick," I told reception at 5AM today, having been up since 4 and throwing up since 4:15. "I need Tylenol PM - it's the only thing that works when I'm vomiting and have a migraine."
"The convenience store is closed in the hotel," she replied regretfully. "But we can go across town to get some from the pharmacy."
"Yes. Please. Hurry," I replied, hanging up the bathroom phone to heave painfully once again.
"The bellman is on his way up," she reported after an excruciating 30 minutes when I sat up from my nest of towels on the bathroom floor, her voice gentle. I thanked her and slipped into a robe, having thrown up on my only pair of sleepy pants, and shuffled to the door to take the bag and swallow 2 Tylenol and a Unisom (apparently Canada doesn't believe in Tylenol PM).
Prayer answered, it stayed down and I was soon asleep with a last grateful thought to some lovely people who work at the Fairmont.
I moved into the room, unpacked, and stared out the window at the building across the street. Carrie arrived and I tried to mimic her nonplussed attitude about our surroundings, blinking when she immediate called for more hangers and extra pillows and asking if I wanted room service. We giggled and talked and arranged our various things and she frowned at the sound of the elevator dinging when it reached our floor - our room was not far from the bank of lifts. I, however, remained positively charmed, eager to walk the city and attend the conference and learn wonderful things.
I learned so much at that meeting. Watched in awe as people whose papers I read walked by as if they weren't spectacularly brilliant and famous. Presented my poster with nervous terror, praying nobody would ask me a difficult question as I fussed with my 3rd nice outfit so carefully selected from a closet full of jeans and sweatshirts. Carrie and I took a boat ride on the lake. I went drinking with the boys one night and felt so terribly grown up and worldly as we walked/stumbled down the streets of Tornoto toward our gorgeous hotel.
I walked home from a late dinner last night - pre-horrible-sickness - with colleagues I like and respect. I greeted collaborators and hugged coworkers throughout the day, accepting their offers to fetch me water or pills or told me to sit down. I listened to requests and offered explanations. I answered questions and took notes on emails to send or presentations to make. I was busy and productive and happy, even as my hands shook and I winced against the lingering headache.
I watched the young ones walk around, look at posters, peer into meeting rooms. I honestly don't envy them for it's not an easy road to get from there to here - to lose some of that naive confidence and build some with a more solid foundation. To realize there's no shame in asking questions or admitting ignorance because it allows for growth and knowledge. To find your balance - at least sometimes - professionally and personally. And while I wouldn't do it over, I also wouldn't give it up - that path I've taken. I've loved people and learned things and gone places. And it's fun to dig out pictures and recall those trips, even as they differ from this one.