On Wednesday I posted this lovely quote from Pico Iyer about travel and living abroad: “Travel, for me, is a little bit like being in love, because suddenly all your senses are at the setting marked “on.” Suddenly you’re alert to the secret patterns of the world.”
On Thursday I had a bit of an expat meltdown. Pico and I were no longer seeing wanderlust eye to wanderlust eye.
I revised Pico’s quote to my own: “Living abroad is a little bit like living that dream where you forget to put your clothes on before leaving the house and your hear people trying to tell you something but because of the language barrier your ability to communicate is marked “off.” Suddenly you’re aware you’re a) naked and b) unable to phone home.”
E.T. Everthing’s. Twitching.
The meltdown happened at the airline ticket desk. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles style. Except in my case it was Unaccompanied Minors, Confiscated Prescriptions, and 70x70 Frames.
Yesterday, Quinn, my 6’3” 16 year old, was flying to Barcelona by himself to meet up with Brett for the weekend. As any teen would do, he requested curb side drop off (and no photos.) As a mother who has sent this same kid to another continent by himself many times, I felt no need KISS AND FLY PARK. I may have taken an illicit photo.
Quinn checked himself in at the Lux Air self-service kiosk without incident. The Unaccompanied Minor situation was set off many minutes later when after boarding pass already in hand, he thought to check in his bag worried it was a smidgen over the carry on size. About this we had a phone consult where I suggested he take the safe route and check his bag. At the ticket counter, the agent told him his bag was fine but that she would need to retract his boarding pass without a signed “Unaccompanied Minor (UM) Waiver.” She told him IT’S LUXEMBOURG LAW, and the gate would be closing in 20 minutes.
I’m sorry, and also now almost home. Luxembourg law allows 16 year olds to drink, but not fly without a waiver? American Airlines stops requiring UM assistance after 11 years old (though 14 years old seems to be standard airline practice.) What about the half dozen other times, at 15, Quinn flew Lux Air by himself without a signed UM Waiver? And if you really wanted me to sign something, why not flag that in a) the purchasing of the ticket or b) the printing of his boarding pass? Fine, I’ve turned around and am coming back to sign their form.
“Quinn: Can I speak to the ticket agent?”
“No. She says she won’t talk to you over the phone. It’s the same lady.”
“The one with the blonde hair who almost made us miss our flight to Seattle last summer?”
This is when my face flushed and all thoughts went binary (me vs blonde ticket agent). I had ample time to count to ten, but choose not to use it. Instead I used my return drive time to leap frog blame, first to THEM (Lux Air and their arcane, inconsistently applied terms and conditions), to ALL THEM (Luxembourg people and their forms), to ME (I should have parked), to QUINN (Why did he have to check his bag?), back to HER (the blond ticket agent who has it out for me.) And HER is where I stayed. You need a specific target when you’ve gone over the edge.
Though I didn’t know it in the moment, HER would also be held accountable for Confiscated Prescriptions and 70x70 Frames. I won’t lay out the blow by blow details about how a prescribed medication for my kid got stuck in Luxembourg customs AFTER a resend from the US and BEFORE a lengthy phone conversation with THE Luxembourg Minister OF Pharmaceuticals all because we were trying to follow the rules. Or, how when on Monday I found myself in my eighth store – this one in a depressing strip mall in Belgium looking for a stupid but suddenly principled 70cmx70cm frame that apparently isn’t available anywhere in Luxembourg or the surrounding area. Or, how when last week I went to my Internet Service Provider- in person -to make a small change to my service and was told that my husband was the only one authorized on the account to make changes. And that he would have to come in person for a signature.
Any one of these things isn’t a big deal in their own right. But as a foreigner in a super small foreign land you tire of being a fish out of water in a pond where they have nothing better to do than test the water quality and shame you for parking in Koi’s spot. It’s often the language barrier, but not always. It mostly revolves around paperwork and official stamps. You’re made to feel your understanding of HOW THINGS WORK HERE is slightly left of center, in the lane with the potholes.
By the time I arrived back at the airport, I CURSE AND FLY PARKED and ran full speed towards the Lux Air ticket counter. Confrontations always sound more logical in your head then when delivered. Within ten feet of the ticket counter, out came my weapon – my tongue – and I started swinging superlatives. LOUDLY. Voice hath no volume control like that of an enraged woman with Italian blood. “Never in my life.” “Most ridiculous.” “He’s flown by himself on your airline a million times.” “Why wouldn’t you get on the phone?” Some people know how to verbally box. I just sound irrational and shrill and overuse phrases that don’t advance your cause, which in this case was “HE’S 16!” It felt good for about ten seconds, and then I was just pissed I couldn’t get my hand to stop shaking while I filled out the FULL PAGE form. I’m sure I filled in his birthday as 1-13-98 instead of the European way of 13-01-98 because I was in full combat U.S.A. armor.
Taking the completed form, we sprinted to the next ticket counter – but not before Quinn grabbed my arm and quietly said: “Mom, calm down … before you go over there.” There’s always a mirror moment with anger, and its ugliest when someone with less life experience holds it up for you. In that moment, I did calm down but I felt the fury burn again when I reached the second counter. There was a group of ticket agents who instead of whispering behind your back were on the phone with LUX AGENT #1 speaking French in front of you except of course I couldn’t understand what they were saying. After a SLOW walk to yet another counter to make a copy of the signed waiver, Quinn’s boarding pass was returned. He made his flight (barely) and he let me take his picture (a thank you) before dashing through security. A picture that the Lux Security Agent made me retake because on first click, the security area was in the background.
Back at the car, I posted the Lux Security approved photo on Facebook with my still-in-the-moment public rant. Anger craves validation and I was trolling for some. I deleted the post when I got back home because on a re-read it was embarrassingly whiny, and also not a very good picture.
Here’s the thing…
Living overseas is mostly great, but sometimes you don’t want any more discoveries. You want a drive thru. I know these complaints don’t qualify as HARD HARD, that they are more HARD ANNOYING. But no matter the relativeness of your HARD, when you flip the switch from irritation to anger -- the cost is universal. Regardless of what triggers the anger, the avalanche it makes on your own person – in addition to the people underfoot - is always the same. There’s the premature ugly rant (usually on social media), the rehashing (what exactly did I say?), the post-trauma fact check (should I have known?) and the cascading levels of regret (did I even notice the person I was trying to protect in all this?) It’s like repeatedly burping up a meal that wasn’t even tasty the first time down. Angry outbursts, especially the ones not fully justified, have this way of inciting heartburn. Each sour mouthful a reminder that your calories could have been better spent elsewhere.
Sure there is righteous anger, but that’s not the kind our blood normally boils for. It’s not the type I’m talking about. I’m referring to that ill-placed rage that finds its nearest target and explodes. The kind that could have been mitigated if we preventively cared for our rising snow banks through active or passive means. The thing about an unsatisfying explosion is that it makes you feel gross for hours afterwards, unless you have something in front of you to redirect your attention towards. Like a quick pop of an antacid that redirection may neutralize your acidic soul, but in the absence of a busy agenda or a TUMS you just have to suffer through your Whopper sized indigestion until it passes.
I stomached mine in front of a computer screen trying to accomplish a project that went absolutely nowhere for two hours. I thought momentarily about calling Lux Air and speaking to the blond haired lady to apologize, but then laughing thought she’d probably require me to do it in person. Besides, I KNOW I’ll see her again. Later I texted to see if Quinn’s flight had landed and if he was ok. It had, and yes he was more than OK – he was in Barcelona catching a bus and super excited.
The ability to move on is so much easier when you keep your cool. I, on the other hand, still needed to vigorously clean some toilets. By the third toilet my music shuffled to the song “Now You are Free” by the Augustines : “You gotta let go….go easy on yourself… alright.”
That, I don’t believe, was an accident. That was my sign that the avalanche was over.