10 November 2013 fulbright travel

"I wonder how tall people feel in long flights?" my friend once asked me. Generously speaking she is only around 165cm, not a centimeter more. I'm 192cm. Upon arrival in a new country, 8 and a half hours of flight-time later, my legs felt like a pair of stiff logs. Those logs somehow got me past the gate, for my next flight.

I remember sleeping, or dozing off, with my head leaning to the brown fabric off the airline seat in front of me. It smelled a bit, I couldn't place of what. Lemon peanut butter? Anyways, - "... dear passengers, we will be arriving in Reno, Nevada, in approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes - we want to remind you to remain seated... ". When I woke up, I was already there.

It definitely felt different. As I walked the tapered isles of the airport, I saw a box covered with flashy and colorful lights, spinning wheels. The box played joyful tunes, the kind you quickly get tired of if you have nothing better to do. I however wasn't bored at all; some of the lights even blinked in sync as the tunes played. Yes, this was a slot machine: a box that keenly takes in bills or coins, that never seems to give anything in return, except for the pretty lights and playful tunes.

For a moment my right brain hemisphere wondered; should I? My left hemisphere then thought about negative expectation values combined with The Law of Large Numbers - I walked on. As I walked, I noticed other boxes - they were everywhere, some neatly arranged in groups; 4 over here, 16 symmetrically placed over there; dozens and dozens along the isles you walked. Waiting passengers tried their luck, with that gleam in their eye that said, this time, this time it will work. The wheels spinned.

I remembered my friend telling me that you will never find a clock in a casino, as they don't want you to be able to tell the time. But wait, this was in an airport, one of those places you really, really want to be able to tell the time! As I sunk into ideas about the distribution of clocks in this peculiar airport; wondering if the combination of singing slot boxes and the lack of clocks could potentially lead people to miss their flights, I heard Icelandic! 2 friends, and surely enough I had met one of them before. We left the airport.

The next days were packed. I was in the midst of the internationals, and there were quite a few of us. A typical introduction went like this:

"Hi! Where do you come from?
What do you study?
What school are you going to?"

"Well, I come from Iceland, and I'm going to PSU to study the stars. Next!" - This perhaps might sound superficial, but all of us immediately became good friends. We were in the honeymoon stage: we came from all around the world, with our own cultural luggage; everything and everybody looked interesting.

One thing I immediately noticed how few of us where going into science related fields. Management, Law, Economics, Fine Arts, Economics, Political Theory, and Public Administration seemed more popular career choices. For a while I introduced myself as a student of astronomy, which in some rare cases was confused with astrology. A bit disappointed, I quickly corrected them. I wondered; how does this miscommunication happen? Was it purely a language error (being nonnative English speakers), or was it the plain misconception that astronomy and astrology deal with the same thing? I hoped for the first. I then tried a few variations; Hi, I'm the Icelander with the unpronounceable name that studies law: the laws of the universe. Well.., I quickly just defaulted to plain astrophysics.

I had a hell of a time, my lenses and my vague colloquial S-American Spanish skills did too. We travelled, we visited places, we took pictures, we told stories, and shared jokes about our respective countries and cultures, we got our personality traits analyzed (supposedly I'm an extrovert analyzer with a very unclean desk - those who have ever my desk will be quick to know if I was classified correctly or not!), we all caught a cold with the ultra-cool air-conditioning, we ate & drunk well, and took various on-the-fly decisions that in the end turned out pretty good.

What I took most from these days was not necessarily the seminars I attended (although those were very good, I won't complain at all!), but rather getting to meet the other students. Even though we knew we came from such vastly different places, we had more things in common than we thought; we were all starting out a big trip in a new place. I think a good measure of your friendship is how long you are willing to stay up with people on the night before you have a long flight (or a chain of flights for that matter): With that as a measure, I can surely say I made many. Leaving to the strange airport-casino again, direction first West and then a lot more East, I knew I would be making good use of of sofas in various locations around the US, hopefully sooner rather than later.

A chain of flights later, I arrived in central PA; a place I noticed that is is characterized with having the word Nittany in front of everything. "Spontaneously, your luggage decided to take a trip to the edge of the universe" - What? Of course it hadn't, not that far, it was still somewhere in the western spiral arm of our Galaxy, still orbiting our small unregarded Sun, it had just taken a ride to the third largest city of a very remote state, I daydreamed in a Douglas Adam-ish fashion.

On that note, without luggage, without a towel, I Hitchhiked a ride, I hit the road again.

#### Contact Info

Guðmundur Kári Stefánsson

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email: gws5257 [at] psu.edu

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