Earthquakes, Part 1: England
My phone vibrated me awake on the morning of October 30th. Francis and I started our trip abroad in Cambridge, England, close to Duxford, where my birth mother, Elizabeth, grew up. It was going well, though the jet lag had hit me harder than I expected and sleeping through the night had become a mystifying and insurmountable challenge. The night before, I got so frustrated with my inability to relax that I woke Francis up in tears and he listened and laughed and soothed me until I could calm down. I think I managed to fall asleep around 6:30 that morning, giving me only an hour of actual REM time. I was not on solid ground when I received my stepmother Jill’s text:
“Things are getting really scary here. Still no damage, but we had the biggest quake yet this morning. Want to make sure you guys know what you may be in for.”
My father and stepmother have a house in a town called Campello Sul Clitunno in Umbria, Italy, which Francis and I had been planning to visit for years and were scheduled to arrive at the following morning. The earth started shaking in August, with a devastating 6.2 quake in Amatrice, but that’s a 2-hour drive from my folk’s house, and I felt sure that it would settle before we boarded a plane two months later. I lived in Los Angeles for 16 years. I know about earthquakes. I wasn’t phased.
But the 6.5 temblor on the 30th was closer. It was in Norcia, which is about 15 miles from my folk’s Rustico, as the crow flies. The activity wasn’t getting farther away, nor was it weakening. Francis and I were only three days into our honeymoon, which we had waited a year for, and now we were scheduled to travel to (what felt like) the epicenter of quake-land.
I lay there in the bed, staring at my sleeping husband, and I recalled the night of the Northridge quake at 4:30 a.m. in 1994. My house in the Hollywood Hills shook so loudly I thought a locomotive was plowing through my living room. That morning, after the initial shock wore off, I lay in bed waiting for daylight. I knew if I could just make it to dawn I could see things for what they were and we could all gather input and put together strategies and rebuild accordingly. I remember thinking, “There should be some light by now… it’s time for dawn. Where’s the goddamn SUN?” I lay still in the California darkness. There was no crack of light. There seemed only this endless night. And I actually thought, for about 20 terrifying minutes, that the next day might not come.
Remembering that terror, I felt myself become very, very small in our Cambridge Hilton Hotel room. I felt like a child– too young to make big choices on not only our honeymoon but our lives. I wanted to hide. I wanted to fly home and hug my dog and not think about the earth opening up beneath us.
Three nights without sleep was changing me. I needed a strong man, an earthquake news update, and a lot of coffee. Luckily, I was in a place where all of those could be attained easily and I started to feel like myself again. The news was good this time. Though the Norcia earthquake was felt as far as Rome, there had been no big damages or injuries from it. Francis and I gathered our courage and marched forward with our plans. Earthquake shmirthquake.
We left Cambridge by taxi at 5:00 a.m., headed to the London Stansted Airport to catch the 6:30 a.m. flight to Perugia on Ryan Air. Once through security, we had almost an hour to kill, and we suffered through milky coffee and stale pastries at the overcrowded airport lounge located just past the main hall. There is a giant board with all the outbound flights listed and anxious tourists stand and wait until their departing gate is listed. It’s very much like the giant hall at Penn Station and smells about as pleasant. Half asleep, I could not ignore the stench of the stagnant room, hoping that the B.O. and bad breath I inhaled was not my own. Finally, our flight appeared on the board and we, along with many of our sweaty fellow travelers, started our trek to the gate.
What they don’t tell you is that the distance from the display board to your gate will be interminable. First, you are forced to walk through what seems like three football field lengths of duty-free shops. They’re not selling cute tchotchkes either. They’re hawking perfume and booze, with plasticky sales people spraying samples on stinky tourists as we grumpily schlep through the never-ending Habitrail of retail. The duty-free corridor opens onto a larger area with restaurants and more shopping and a big sign that reads “5-15 minute walk to gates from here”. Then the real panic sets in.
We had left plenty of time though and made it to the gate a few minutes before boarding began. I was fantasizing about Italian coffee and a long shower when the woman at the ticket check pulled us out of the line.
I smiled, because there was no issue with Francis’ passport. Obviously. I mean, we were already abroad. This is nothing, I thought to myself. Pah ha.
The woman shuttled us over to a kiosk next to the gate and showed Francis’ passport to a short, smirking, blue-blazer wearing man behind the desk.
“Sir, I’m sorry, but your passport is not valid for this travel. It is October 31st today, and your passport expires on January 29th, 2017. You are two days short of the 3-month validation to enter the EU. Have a nice day.”
Now, I’ve met smug people. I’ve dealt with priggish tools my whole life. I’m from New York for fucking crying out loud. But this arrogant douchenozzle? He took the prize.
The European Union requires that your passport is over three months valid, six months in some areas. We didn’t know anything about this rule. How could we have gotten this far in our trip without knowing this?
“What are we supposed to do? Is there any way Ryan Air will make an exception? It’s only two days short! We’ll be home long before the passport actually expires! Is there someone we can talk to? If you can’t help us, then maybe someone else from Ryan Air? Or the passport people?”
The man in the blue blazer shook his head, explained that there was no one at Stansted Airport who could help us at all and then pinched his face into a little smiling anus to accentuate the period at the end of his sentence.
“Have a nice day.”
All the blood left my brain. All the plans disappeared. All the things I thought I knew… gone now. And I’m a little girl in a big, scary airport, trying to find my parents or someone who will help me. I feel the lump growing in my throat and my eyes burning. I am shaking and biting my lip and moaning softly. I have images in my mind of being trapped at the Stansted Airport for years, living in tattered clothes with matted hair, eating crusts of white bread sandwiches from the airport garbage and smelling of Chanel No. 5 from the duty-free.
I remembered I’m not alone.
Francis turned from shocked ashen white to crimson red with rage as he processed what was happening.
“THIS IS NOT POSSIBLE!” he yelled and then threw his bag on the ground. In my mind, I saw the blazered man reach for a security button on his desk and then a red laser dot travel onto my husband’s forehead.
My imagination is epic, but freaking out in an airport isn’t the sort of thing you can do anymore.
I grabbed Francis and sat him down.
“We will figure this out. There has to be a way. Everything will be alright,” I promised, not believing it myself.
We were now salmon, swimming upstream against hoards of departing passengers, through the gates and the halls and the endless perfumania. We got to the security area and explained our situation to some officers who could help us. But of course, you can’t just walk out backward through security. We had to be led back with a guard into the belly of the beast, through the smells and the people and the filth, to the arriving passenger area where we were signed out of security and free to walk our final, FOURTH time through the duty-free. In my mind, I climbed onto a display case and shouted that this was a sign of the end of the world! That no civilization could ever use this much perfume, and we’d all pay the price if they did! In reality, I looked at my husband, weak with stress, and I pushed forward.
We got to a representative from Ryan Air who took us to a desk with very helpful people. They confirmed that we would have to get the passport updated, but that it wasn’t that hard to do. They helped us form a plan with recommendations on trains to Liverpool Street and the Underground to get to the US Embassy in London. I could have hugged them I was so overjoyed to be seen, to be helped.
Then we were on the train, and then in Liverpool Station, then on the tube to Bond Street, then walking through London to the embassy. I couldn’t process any of it. London. Suddenly, London.
The embassy confirmed that they could issue a year’s extension on Francis’ passport, though it would take a few hours. I lugged all our bags (which Francis could not take in with him) to a small café where I ordered a coffee, a large water, and a ham and cheese croissant. I sat there, at an unsteady sidewalk table, charging my almost-dead phone through my almost-dead laptop, trying to make new plane arrangements for later that day or early the next, devouring my melty cheese sandwich and gulping water as though I hadn’t eaten in weeks.
My parents in Umbria said that the same passport issue had happened recently to two different friends of theirs and not to feel so dumb for not knowing. That helped a little. I sent an email to my mother Liz, telling her we’d arrived on time and how beautiful Italy was.
We’d had such a lovely time learning about her life growing up in Cambridge and Duxford that it seemed pointless to worry her with the truth.
An hour and a half later, Francis texted from the embassy, “It should only be another 10 minutes or so. I love you. This is the best honeymoon EVER.” And I laughed loudly, unashamed, with blotchy after-thought makeup and unwashed hair in the middle of London’s fashionable West End. We would make it through this. Because he was him and I was me, and we were us.
We booked a room at the Stansted Holiday Inn Express. We got seats on a flight to Perugia at 6:00 a.m. the next day. It was a reasonably sunny afternoon in London, and if we were ten years younger maybe we might have found the strength to go exploring, but I didn’t have it in me. I looked at the clock, and the numbers fell off. Nothing made sense. We trekked back to the airport and our crappy airport motel. We ate chicken sandwiches that tasted like nothing. We took moldy tile showers and wrapped ourselves in large stiff towels. We lay in bed, drowsily watching the BBC, and I suddenly remembered… earthquakes.
Bring ‘em on.
Nothing can shake us….
Stay tuned for Earthquakes, Part 2; Italy: There Will Be Food