Always Look at the Bright Side of Life and other Loads of Crap
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who dwell on life’s annoyances and those who sweep them away with a shrug. Maybe we’re all somewhere in between. Swearing, however, sure helps us manage through the bad things that happen to us…
This past month served up a mix of bad with the good.
October reminded us why living in Europe is fantastic. Each weekend served up an exciting treat with a few ‘tricks’ thrown in to keep us grounded and practiced in profanity. The month is usually a busy one for us since Jim and I both have an October birthday.
Living in Europe,with proximity to exciting places and many travel options, expands the possibilities for fun. For Jim’s special day at the beginning of the month, we flew to Nice for the weekend. For my birthday at the end of the month, we took the train to London for three nights. And in between, we took the train to Amsterdam to spend the month’s second weekend with eight friends from Chicago. The third weekend we entertained dear friends from Glasgow, showing them Brussels and Ypres. The list of our October weekends—Nice, Amsterdam, Brussels, London—reads like a glossy travel brochure.
But three of the trips threw us curve balls. Most people would roll their eyes and call such glitches, Rich People’s Problems. We get it. In a way, these bumps are mere hiccups, petty annoyances that most folks would gladly welcome in exchange for living and playing in Europe. Fortunately, Jim and I are predisposed to forgetting the bad things that happen. Although some issues take a little longer to forget.
Take our weekend in Nice. Storm clouds started forming the moment we landed. Our friends who arrived days before us, snapped photos of themselves in speedos on sunny Cote d’Azur beaches splashing in pristine blue water. Jim and I packed our swimsuits in glorious anticipation of escaping the chilly gloom of Brussels. However, the weather didn’t cooperate. Jim and I will forever refer to the Riviera as the Cote de Gris–the Gray Coast! Our memories of Nice are chilly and wet. The sun did come out as we climbed into a taxi for the trip to the airport. Our friends who remained in Nice for a couple of extra days sent us follow up photos. Yep, they were back in their speedos, frolicking in the sea.
Our trip to Amsterdam was impacted by problems of a different kind. A strike by French-speaking train workers halted all rail traffic out of Brussels. Living in Belgium, we’re used to national strikes which occur almost as often as National Holidays! But never worry, these seemingly endless strikes never happen on a National Holiday. Imagine that! What fun would that be for workers looking for a day off? Most strikes happen on a Monday or Friday. Do you suppose that’s done to give folks a three-day weekend? While I respect the rights of people to protest, in Belgium protests usually take the form of disruptive strikes. And striking workers show little or no respect for the customers they disservice, effectively raising their middle fingers at management AND customers at the same time.
Despite the strike, we didn’t give up trying to join our friends. After all, we had a nonrefundable hotel booked. Our fast train from Brussels to Amsterdam was replaced by a cramped, slow moving bus. Our ninety-minute voyage and mid-morning arrival in Amsterdam was replaced by a four-hour bus ride and an evening arrival. We wasted an entire day.
But the most challenging of incidents awaited us in London for my birthday weekend. What could possibly go wrong? Never, never ask yourself that question as the answer is always—plenty of shit can happen. And boy did it. Our lovely afternoon tea at the Savoy was barely digested before catastrophe struck.
I noticed the problem as Jim and I transitioned from central London to spend two days in the suburbs with friends.
After thirty-eight years without incident, my passport was either lost, or stolen by a light-fingered pickpocket, a modern day Fagin or Artful Dodger. Funny enough, I didn’t panic. I didn’t let the loss impact our lovely weekend. I calmly called stores, restaurants and train station Lost and Founds, retracing our steps. Other than the train station personal, (perhaps a correlation with strike and protest activity) people were kind and sympathetic. But, NO passport.
With the US Embassy unreachable by telephone (by design), Jim dashed off a late afternoon email, twenty minutes before 5pm on Monday. We were scheduled to leave London the next afternoon by EuroStar but the next appointment that the Embassy would guarantee was November 10th, two weeks in the future. Would I be stuck? An undocumented refugee inside Great Britain?
Fortunately, the Embassy looked at emails. I had an early morning appointment for Tuesday. There was still hope I could keep my travel plans. Unable to sleep, I awoke hours before dawn. Our poor hosts had to get up early as well to ferry us to the local train station. I still had to get to central London, find a photo kiosk and make my way to the Embassy before 8am.
Imagine my delight and surprise when I walked out of the US Embassy an hour later with a new passport. After all, it was my birthday! And what a pleasant birthday it was, the weight of documentation lifted from my shoulders. The weather couldn’t have been nicer. Three weeks earlier we shivered under umbrellas in Nice. Now, we enjoyed lunch outside on a sun-drenched terrace. My problems were behind me…. or so I thought.
Armed with passport, Jim and I got to the EuroStar terminal at Saint Pancras Station. All we had to do was pass through security, flash our passports and be on our way home. Seemed easy. My first clue came at the pre-screener. He looked at my new passport and shook his head disapprovingly. “Do you have anything else?” he asked. “Perhaps a residency card or work permit? They don’t like these passports,” he added nodding behind him to the stone-faced immigration officers in a glass booth. I pulled out my Belgian Residence card and trudged to the glass booth, my stomach souring.
Affecting a smile, I pushed my passport and resident card through the open slot. The burly, grin-less man took the passport as if it were a stale fish. He flipped through it forwards, then backwards repeating the scan half a dozen times. The inspector in the booth next to him stopped to offer his own disapproving grimace. My heart sank. I heard about the UK not letting people into their country, but never refusing to let them leave. Didn’t Tom Hanks make a movie about being stuck in limbo at the Paris Airport?
“Belgium doesn’t like this kind of passport,” the humorless man grunted. “Probably won’t accept it?” Fuck!, I thought. “But it’s a US passport, issued by the Embassy this morning. I’m a US citizen,” I said. I wanted to add, and it’s my Birthday! Let me pass. After a little more haggling he picked up the phone. Oh no…am I about to be hauled away? But after barely a ten-second conversation, my version of Cerberus, guardian of the Underworld, folded up my passport, handed it back with a, “Have a nice trip.” I was free, but exhausted. I felt as if I’d been thrown into a washing machine for an extended spin cycle.
I survived the ordeal. The birthday trip to London will be remembered more for the great friends and weather and less for the passport fiasco.
As weeks grow into months and months melt into years, the problems will fade. We managed through each and every issue. We’ll remember our October 2015 as a string of lovely weekends, reconnecting with old friends, strengthening new friendships and meeting new people. As for the problems, they’ll be inconsequential footnotes, funny anecdotes or fodder for blogposts. It’s the people we’ll remember, not the problems.
Perhaps that is what it means to always look at the bright side of life….