Monday, January 16, 2012

An Extra-Ordinary Trip Abroad

          Sometimes, it feels as though I can’t take myself anywhere. My encounters only lead to a comedy of errors and complications seemingly out of my control. Such was the case in 1999 when Spencer, my 16-month-old son, and I accompanied my husband on his business trip to Europe.
Spencer and I accompanied my husband on this business trip for a couple reasons. I didn’t want our family separated for an extended period of time. Too, I thought this was a golden opportunity for Spencer and me to absorb the culture of several European countries.
The massive 747 American Airlines plane reached Paris, France early in the morning 12 hours after leaving San Francisco. I felt nauseous from fatigue and the time change. We checked into the hotel and I was ecstatic at the sight of the bed, however, had been told not to sleep until the night to become acclimated to European time.
My husband headed to a business meeting and suggested I take Spencer on a sight-seeing stroll through the cobble-stone streets of Paris. Taking the keys to the hotel and some French francs, I put Spencer in a stroller and we headed out. I found a pâtisserie and eye-balled an array of mouth-watering pastries through the glass case. Having not taken the time or effort to learn one word of French, I pointed to several items while the kind woman put them into a bag. Having not taken the time to learn the local currency, I opened my coin purse and she gingerly took out the appropriate coins for me.
The weather was stunning as I pushed Spencer’s stroller and together, we nibbled our pastries. We stopped to peer into shop windows and wave to the owners inside. Continuing our journey for over an hour, I spotted a farmer’s market and purchased fresh fruit. Again, I opened my coin purse and allowed the stand owner to take the francs needed. When French was spoken to me, I politely smiled and said, “I’m an American, who speaks no French.” I was told an American can be spotted a mile away. The French people I met didn’t seem to care about my lack of effort to learn their language.
It was time to head back to the hotel for Spencer’s nap. As I rounded a corner leaving the farmer’s market, I looked to the left and then to the right. I wondered which way was the hotel. Standing there perplexed, a young Frenchman approached and asked, “Madame, you are lost, yes?” I responded, “I don’t speak French, sir.” He said, “I know. We can tell when an American doesn’t speak French. This is fine. Tell me, where do you wish to go?”
I dug my hand into a pocket for the wooden hotel key, which displayed the name and address of where we were staying. The kind young gentleman guided us back to our hotel, a 30-minute walk away. Truly, the Parisian folk couldn’t have been kinder.
The next day, I rented a car in anticipation of taking Spencer and myself for a cruise through the country. The gas tank was nearly empty so I pulled into a station to fill the tank. Pulling away shortly thereafter, we had the entire day to view the breath-taking scenery.
About 20 minutes after leaving the gas station, the rental car’s engine began to sputter. I checked the oil light and all appeared well. I learned all was not well when the car slowed to a stall. I found a pay phone near the car and dialed for help. Waiting in the car with Spencer, a tow truck arrived shortly thereafter. He asked whether I filled the gas tank. I assured him I had a full tank of gas as I’d recently left the gas station.
He asked whether I had a receipt for the gas, which I handed him. He looked down his nose at the receipt and in his heavy French accent announced, “I see you put gasoline in this tank!” I responded, “Well, that is what goes into a gas tank, isn’t it?!” He put his face to mind and said, “Ma’am, this is a diesel engine!” He towed my rental car to his lot where he emptied the tank and refilled it with the proper petrol.
After a two-day stay in Paris, it was time to catch a flight to Frankfurt, Germany. My husband had a business meeting there for the day and said he would meet Spencer and me in Montreux, Switzerland that evening. He’d hired a rental car for me to make the eight-hour drive with Spencer. With panic in my eyes, he assured me the navigational system would get me there with no problems.
The first problem was the G.P.S. system was programmed in German. Having learned no German before the trip, I motioned a passerby and asked him to set my navigational system to English. He obliged and with a button pushed here and another pushed there, the automated talking lady began guiding me to our destination.
While Spencer slept in his car seat in the back of the rented BMW, I “sped” along the autobahn, which has no general speed limit, however, the advisory speed limit is 130 kilometers per hour or 81 mph. I didn’t realize this, however, as I didn’t take a moment to read the German driving laws. My only focus was getting us to the French side of Switzerland by sunset.
With my hands firmly on the top of the steering wheel, I drove in the lane closest to the fast lane. Traveling the speed limit for the States, I set the cruise control for 65 miles per hour. The other drivers raced past me and were out of sight within seconds. Suddenly, a male driver pulled up on my left side and with fury in his eyes, pointed to the far right lane. Looking at him with confusion, he mouthed, “MOVE OVER NOW!” How in the world did he know I’m American?
I took mental note of the pristine highway with no road or advertising signs what-so-ever to mar the land. It finally dawned on me, however, I had no clue where we were. The navigational lady was speaking Gibberish. I pulled over to a vista point and found a small group of site-seers to ask directions. Within a few minutes, I was back on the highway, moving once again in the right direction.
The sun was beginning to set and I needed to stop for fuel. I used up the remainder of my Deutsche marks on gas and snacks. Pulling away from the gas station, I noticed a line of armed guards standing before the border between Switzerland and Germany. At that moment, I stopped frozen in terror as I had no money to cross the border. With Spencer awake in the back seat, I saw his large blue eyes wide as saucers as he stared at the guns held by the station soldiers. I calmly said, “Mama is going to cross the border now. Those guns are pretend, Honey.”
With my head in my hands, I prayed to Dear God for help. I held my breath as I struggled for the right words to reach my angels above. I promised Dear God I wouldn’t run out of the local currency again. As I slowly inched my car closer, I saw the armed men opening the doors to the car ahead and pointing for the passengers to get out. Their car was searched top to bottom, with a guard tearing the contents of the trunk to shreds. With their clothing pulled out of their suitcases and personal items strewn about, they were finally given the salute to proceed.
The terror in my eyes was visible to the man on Mars munching his green cheese. I slowly drove forward with my body frozen in place. I mentally prepared myself to hold my baby close to my heart as the contents of our luggage was surely to be invaded. I kept my head and eyes forward for the numerous armed guards.
The guard at my driver side window immediately swung his rifle over his shoulder, waving me through the gate and into the neutral country of Switzerland. I confidently nodded his direction and slowly pulled away. Thanking Dear God profusely for this unimaginable miracle, I allowed my shoulders to fall back into a comfortable position.
Pulling into Le Montreux Palace at 8:00 that evening, the valet team was at our car dressed as royal guards. My driver side door was opened and a hand offered to help me out. Spencer was gently scooped up by Karine, a beautiful hotel greeter, who carried him with loving arms and let him wear her uniform hat. 


Once inside the foyer, Karine asked how my drive from Germany was and I told her what happened at the boarder. In her perfect English, she let me know my rented car just happened to have Suisse plates! I knew, however,  the drive had been divinely orchestrated.
My husband joined us later that evening after his flight from Germany. The next morning, he headed off to a business meeting, while Spencer and I prepared for the short boat trip from Lausanne to Evian, France, across Lake Geneva. As I held Spencer on my lap, I took in the sights of the Chablais mountain range all the white sipping Evian water, feeling the effects of this beauty water I’d only heard about. For the two-hour boat ride, I made sure to drink as much of this healthy water as possible. Four bottles later, the boat docked into the tiny town of Evian and off we walked.
A pit stop was in order, pronto! I located a public restroom and waited in the long line. With Spencer on my hip, we finally walked into a stall, only to discover the toilet had been stolen! Walking out of the stall, I held up three fingers and told the women waiting in line, “The toilet in stall number three is gone! NO TOILET!”
I walked back outside to the end of the line and waited again for my turn. By this time, things had become urgent as the four bottles of Evian had clearly taken their toll on my bladder. We finally reached another stall only to discover that toilet, too, was missing. Standing in disbelief, I set Spencer down to rest my tired arms. There, on the cement floor, I noticed a faint image of painted feet, complete with toes. The faded bare feet were in front of a hole in the cement floor. It was then all the pieces of the missing toilet puzzle fell into place. I was stunned.
The next day, Spencer, my husband and I caught a flight to Istanbul, Turkey to visit my husband’s relatives. Although we were leaving the pristine, open-minded carefree, surroundings of Switzerland, I was excited to meet my husband’s Turkish family members. Dressed as the hip local women in Switzerland, I wore white jeans, a pink sleeveless top, black high-heeled sandals, large silver hoop earrings and a massive gray, stone cross on a long, black string. My nails were painted light pink and I had the lip gloss to perfectly match. I was set for Turkey!
On the way to the airport, I asked my husband, “Where in the heck is Turkey, anyway?” He said, “It’s in the Middle East.” With huge blue eyes I asked, “The Middle East?!” He nodded his head up and down.
We boarded the airplane for the four-hour flight. A sign at the front of the airplane indicated the smoking section. Anxiously tapping a flight attendant on the shoulder I asked, “Is there smoking on this flight?” She confirmed one of my worst nightmares and I showed her my ticket, saying there’s no way I could sit in that section. She calmed my fears by letting me know our seats were in the ‘No Smoking’ section.
Locating our seats toward the back of the plane, I noticed we were directly behind the dividing sections. Horrified, I nabbed another flight attendant and said, “You know, smoke doesn’t realize where the dividing smoking sections are located.” With a glare, she walked away.
The moment the flight took off, the four Turkish men in front of our seats lighted each of their cigarettes. Incensed, I stood up, leaned over their seats and held Spencer while saying, “B-A-B-Y. This is my bbbaaabbbyyy. Please put out your smokes our you’ll hurt his tiny lungs.” The four men stared at the six heads on my shoulders and went about their smokes – and conversation. My husband was understandably very quiet.
Sitting back down, I pulled a barf bag out of the pocket in front of me and breathed into it. I could feel waves of nausea overwhelm me as I covered Spencer’s face with the light-weight sweater I was carrying. I sat with my head between my knees the entire flight.
We finally landed in Istanbul after what seemed an eternity. I told my husband I would meet him in the airport. I grabbed Spencer and raced off that airplane as fast as I could without pushing anyone over. Once we deplaned, I looked into the airport at a sea of burkas. It seemed as though a thousand eyeballs stared at the site of my Madonna wannabe attire. With my bare arms and massive “cool” stone cross, I felt horribly naked.
With Spencer on my hip, I ran to find my husband at the suitcase carrousel. After locating him, I cried, “Why didn’t you tell me where we were going? I didn’t know we were going to that part of the Middle East! I need my suitcase to change clothes before I’m stoned to death!”
Holding Spencer and dragging my suitcase into the ladies restroom, I dug out a pair of Levi’s, a sweatshirt and tennis shoes. I pulled off my necklace and earrings, too. I took some toilet paper and wiped off my favorite lip gloss. Throwing the clothes back into the suitcase, I slowly walked out of the stall and looked to make sure the coast was clear.
My husband’s relatives were waiting for us in their car, thankfully parked right out front. We had a wonderful visit with them and my husband handled his business meetings near by. Two days later, we caught a flight to Israel where my husband had business meetings.
While he headed off to his meetings, Spencer and I jumped into the back seat of a hired driver’s car. I wanted to see anything and everything to do with Jesus. While sailing along in the back seat with Spencer, I asked the older Israeli driver about the various aspects of the Israel culture.
Feeling comfortable with him by now, I asked how in the world circumcision became a practice. I furthered, “I mean, here we are in the land of the holy, right? We’re born with our God-given perfect body parts, right? Then, someone decides to begin the ritual of slicing tender skin off newborn boys? This is only done in America and Israel. What’s up with that?!”
All of a sudden, the driver pulled our car off to the side of the road and skidded to a crashing stop. He got out of the car, came around to my side and opened the door. “Get out, right now”, he barked. With rage in his eyes, he explained no one argues with God! Very quietly and calmly I replied, “You know what? You’re absolutely right. What was I thinking?”
Off we went for the remainder of the drive to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I put Spencer into a stroller while the driver repeatedly told me to stay close to him. After walking a mile deep with others waiting their turn, I scribbled my prayer on a piece of paper, rolled it into a tiny tube and shoved it into an empty hole.
The driver was having a smoke, so I pushed Spencer’s stroller on without him. In under a minute, Spencer and I were surrounded by a dozen teen-age Israeli students, all frantically trying to touch Spencer. Pulling him out of the stroller, I held him tightly.
From out of the blue, our driver appeared and yelled at the students in their native language. They all backed off immediately and ran in the opposite direction. Once again, I was in the dog house with our driver. He put his first finger to my face and said, “Don’t you ever wander off again. Do you understand me?” Nearly in tears, I asked him what they wanted with Spencer. He explained Spencer’s blond hair and blue eyes are unbelievable to those in the Middle East. They try to touch people who have these looks believing this will bring them good luck.
From there, I asked the driver if he would take us to the Mount of Olives, where many churches glorify Jesus’ acts in this part of Jerusalem.  I also said I wanted Spencer and I to ride a camel. He said, “I should have known.” While the driver waited in the car, Spencer and I rode a camel, which was great fun. From there, we walked into one of Jesus’ churches and sat there soaking up his spiritual energy through the rays of the stained glass windows.
By then, the day was drawing to a close and it was time to head back to the hotel. The return drive was quiet, while Spencer slept and I reflected back on the day’s events. Once back at the hotel, our driver smiled and said, “You are certainly the most fascinating person I’ve had the pleasure of driving.” I sincerely appreciated his kind-hearted words.
The next day, Spencer, my husband and I caught a flight back to Frankfurt, Germany where my husband had one final meeting. In the blink of an eye, it was time for our flight back to San Francisco. Sitting in our seats on the massive 747, I wondered who would occupy the empty seat on my left. Spencer and my husband rested comfortably in their seats to my right.
The very last passenger finally arrived and sat next to me. The older, 6’2 masculine-looking woman with red fingernails and lipstick slumped down into the seat on my left. Letting out a breath of exhausted air, she leaned over and said, “Hello, I’m Billie Felice. Am I ever in pain. I’m heading home after my sex change operation in Sweden.” Once again, I knew divine intervention had taken place.
Billie Felice relayed her entire life story during the flight to San Francisco. Touching down, I whispered to her, “I’m a writer of true life stories and I’d be honored to write yours.” Turning to my husband I said, “Thank you so much for an extra-ordinary trip abroad.”

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