When I was first asked if I wanted to take part in a narrative conference in Bucharest, I responded glibly: "Will I have to learn Hungarian?"
That would be odd, my friend responded, since they speak Romanian.
Bucharest, Budapest--it was all the same to me. I'd never been to Eastern Europe, outside of a six-hour layover in Belgrade in 1986.
I was, quite frankly, ambivalent. It would be a whirlwind trip--two full days of travel (one on each end), for four days there. Doug had four days off, his longest time off since starting his new job, and I'd be gone the whole time. I'd miss Thanksgiving. I hadn't done much coaching or talking about writing in the last three years, and I felt rusty. And then there was the Boscoe Situation... I hated to leave him, hated to burden Doug with all of the responsibility for six full days.
My friend said she'd like to put my name on the short list. I said OK, figuring it was the best of both worlds--an honor to be short-listed and I'd never make the cut.
And then I made the cut. I swallowed hard, said yes.
Never mind the days leading up to the trip--all the work I had to do in advance at my job, all the work I had to do to prepare for the conference. Fast-forward to the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and me at the airport.
Ah yes, the day before Thanksgiving. The busiest travel day of the year, they said. Go early, they said. Give yourself plenty of time. So I went early and gave myself plenty of time, and made it through security in five minutes. That's right, folks; five minutes.
So I had three hours to kill, which I did in the usual airport way: Eating. Wandering. Going to the restroom repeatedly, so that I wouldn't have to go on the plane. Wasting money in the "high-speed Internet" machine (reality: super-slow-speed Internet machine), checking the e-mail that I had checked an hour before.
Finally, plane time. I approached the gate, handed over my boarding pass and passport, and was stopped cold.
"Your passport expires in January," the gate agent said.
"Yes, I know," I said. "I'm only going for four days."
She told me that most EU countries won't let someone in if they have fewer than three months on their passports; for some countries, they require six months.
But I have a return ticket! I said. I'm coming home Monday!
It doesn't matter. The Netherlands, for instance--where I was to change planes--will not allow me in. "What about Romania?" I said.
She started typing and clicking, typing and clicking, peering at the computer screen, trying to find the rules for Romania. I stood there watching her, trying to gauge my feelings. If I was turned away now, would I be disappointed? I was still ambivalent about the trip, but man, I'd come this far, written my speech, prepared my workshop, wasted three hours in the airport. I was ready to go.
Finally she looked up and nodded. You're good, she said. Romania will let you in.
She handed me back my passport, and I scampered down the jetway.
* * *
We shall skip over the flight, which was endless, and the wait in the Amsterdam airport, which was interminable, and the three more hours to Bucharest.
At 1 p.m. Bucharest time on Thanksgiving Day--5 a.m. St. Paul time, but I'd been advised not to do the math--I walked through Bucharest customs. My hosts were waiting for me right outside the door, with big smiles. "Welcome to Romania," they said.
And suddenly I was absolutely thrilled to be there.
(To be continued)