Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Weekend at Subic Bay

Sometimes it’s hard to do my job.  Every day I am faced with a large cart of books that need to be cataloged, and too often I end up thumbing through one that catches my eye.  I’m transported from my little cubicle in Technical Services to worlds that I can only dream about.  To historic events, to the lives of the rich and famous to the poor and the not-so-famous. I never know when a non-fiction book will take me back somewhere in my past.  The minutes tick away as I fall, engrossed, into the book and into my memories.  Suddenly I, guiltily, snap back to reality and carry on with my work.

The other day, it was Graham Nash’s autobiography, “Wild Tales: A Rock and Roll Life."  I have always put Crosby, Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young) at the number one spot of my favorite bands.  I’ve written before about how their music is thematic of my sister, Lisa’s life, and of my vision, as a spectator, of her extraordinary high school years.  Their rich sound and lyrics remind me of jam sessions in our living room in Brussels, made up of lanky, long-haired, blue-jean-wearing, motorcycle-riding guys and their girlfriends, singing impossible harmonies and strumming their 12-string guitars.  I peeked in from behind closed doors, taking it in, wishing I could be like them, young, talented and totally cool, their whole lives lying ahead. 

I put CSN on my iPod this morning (to start my day … but that’s another band) and a song came up that took me in an entirely different direction, to the Philippines, in a galaxy far, far away ... 

It was Thanksgiving, 1976.  My mom and her friend Eileen had booked a shopping trip to Hong Kong.  My dad was on his way to India for an extended business trip.  What to do with me?  Of all times, at Thanksgiving, the penultimate family holiday, my family was leaving me!  Luckily, I had two invitations: one to go to the mountain resort of Baguio with a family friend.  The other was a trip, just for fun, to Subic Bay, the home of the biggest US Naval Base in the Pacific at the time, about 50 miles north west of Manila.  What a choice.

The friend who invited me to Subic was uber cool: she was a cheerleader, and beautiful, and I was thrilled that she saw fit to be my friend.  We had met in our Asian Studies class; she was new to the school, and we just clicked.  I always felt comfortable with her, and we had a lot of fun together, sometimes skipping school to grab a burger at the local watering hole. We laughed a lot and got into some shenanigans here and there.  She lived a little on the edge, which enticed me, and gave me courage to do the same. 

She was dating a guy whose father was a physician at the Naval Air Station, Cubi Point, on the edge of Subic.  Another girlfriend was to join us, with the boyfriend, and the four of us were to stay with his family at Cubi.  We left the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, on a Victory Liner bus.  It was loud, hot, dusty and windy, and we sat, happy and free, as we bounced our way north to Olongapo City, outside the gates of the base.  We made our way to Cubi, and to the boyfriend’s house.  When we arrived, there were no parents in sight.  We had the house to ourselves, for the entire weekend.  I was sixteen years old.

The boyfriend was a student at George Dewey High School, and we made our way over there to meet some of his friends. "Afternoon Delight" was a big hit at the time, and it seemed to be playing from every jukebox we passed.  We went out that first night to a club on base where we danced to the latest music from the states, and later ate American hamburgers and chocolate ice cream at the nearby bowling alley.  There were American servicemen everywhere you looked, and you know what they say about a man in uniform.  It was mesmerizing.  They also paid more than a little attention to us as we passed.  The next night we went to a club called The Sampaguita Club, where a Marine MP took one look at my I.D. and threw us out because we were underage.  For some reason, we then went to the Officers’ Club (where age doesn’t matter?) and I was asked to dance by ten different sharply dressed officers.  Was I in heaven? 

Me, at sixteen.
The next day we took the ferry to Grande Island in the middle of the bay, an R and R spot for the military.  We hung out on the beach, drinking and just being.  Sunburned and a little tipsy (perhaps?) we came back to the boyfriend’s house and dressed for an evening out.  We hooked up with a nurse who worked at the naval hospital and her date. She was a WAVE, and worked with the boyfriend’s father at the hospital.  It was a strange time in the history of the base: the war in Vietnam was over, and for whatever reason there was a lot of dissatisfaction among those in the Navy.  We saw evidence of drugs everywhere; they were just another part of Navy life.  We listened, horrified, to stories about two servicemen who had rescued a drowning Filipina, only to be accused of rape by her family.  Thrown in the brig, the men endured daily beatings by Marine MPs.  There seemed to be a dome of dark discontent covering the entire base.  Graffiti was spray painted on many a wall: FTN! 

After lingering for a while in the nurse's apartment, we left to see the sights in Olongapo.  The base was separated from the city by a river, if you could call it that, more like an open sewer (its nickname was Shit River).  Walking across the bridge from the base into the city, I was a little amused, but at the same time shocked to see men in small boats on the river, calling out to the passing sailors, “You want a girl?  Hey Joe!  You want a young girl! My sister only 13!”  Small children would actually be swimming in the awful water, calling for people to throw coins to them.  If the coins landed in the water, the kids would dive down to the mucky bottom to retrieve them.  We were too young to appreciate the tragedy, only in retrospect do I understand the dark world we were passing through. 

On the main thoroughfare the air was pulsing with music from the clubs.  Beautiful Filipina women stood in the doorways, dressed provocatively, enticing passersby to enter.  There was a sensory cacophony of the loud music, cigarette smoke, stale beer, and cooking food. We were blinded by thousands of blinking neon lights.  The sidewalk teemed with humanity: sailors and Filipinos moving in all directions as jeepneys and motorcycle taxis rumbled by coughing out diesel fumes.  Towering above the crowd, tall MPs sauntered along, their starched while uniforms spotless and pressed, hands on their billy clubs, looking for misbehaving sailors.

The view from the base looking towards Olongapo.
We wandered into a club called New Florida, where we danced with each other and other guys. I suppose we were rare birds: young American girls.  My friend gave me some dance tips: "It's all in the shoulders, Liz!" I was determined to get drunk, (no drinking age off-base in the city!) so I slammed back three rums and coke, one after the other.  Someone ordered a pitcher of something called Mojo, a mixture of vodka, rum, gin, San Miguel beer, pineapple juice and who knows what else.  The place started seriously spinning and my friend took me out into the fresh air to walk it off.  As we walked along the sidewalk, elbowing our way through the crowd, I ran smack dab into an air conditioning unit, gashing my head in the process.  We ducked into a pizza place to clean up my head, which was bleeding pretty decently by then.  The bathroom was packed with Filipinas, all shapes and sizes, and we had to elbow our way to the sink.  It was hot and damp, with a strong, wet smell of disinfectant mixed with cheap perfume (and other things).  The floor seemed to be going up and down like a carnival fun house.  Groups of women preened in front of the mirror, chattering in rapid-fire Tagalog and reapplying their makeup.  As I leaned in, dabbing my head with a paper towel, a young girl threw up in the sink next to me.  It was surreal: I remember thinking that I was hallucinating, or at least wishing I was. 

Back to New Florida we went.  As I sat at the table, the others back on the dance floor, I sensed a presence; a sailor sat down next to me.  He kept asking me to dance, but I refused, saying I was just too wasted.  I told him to sit down and talk to me, so he did.  His name was Allan.  He was only 19, not much older than I was, and had already been in the Navy for a year.  After having met a lot of sailors that weekend, I don’t know why Allan stood out (especially in my impaired state).  He was on the USS Okinawa, and he landed helicopters.  We just couldn’t stop talking.  At one point a song came on: Stephen Stills’ "Love the One You’re With."  It was almost as if the music sobered me up, returned clarity to my head, and marked the time and place, like a pin on a map.  He touched the now very large bump and gash on my head, and kissed it.  He put his hand on my shoulder and pulled out a picture of himself, after writing something on the back. 

Exhausted from the dancing, and the alcohol starting to wear off, we all left to go back on base to get something to eat, and Allan tagged along.  Ears ringing in the sudden quiet, we sat at a table, and he seemed reflective, quiet.  I asked him if anything was wrong, and he said, “If you don’t understand my silence, you’ll never understand my words.”  He seemed to wake up after that, pulling out pictures of his family, his twin sister, telling me his life story.  Suddenly he looked at his watch and said, “Shit!  I was supposed to be back on the ship by midnight!  It’s 12:30!”  No problem … the boyfriend said it was cool to come back to his house until 4, when he could go back on board. 

Everyone else went to bed, and Allan and I stayed up on the patio talking through the night, taking in the sleepy lights of Subic as the tropical breeze pushed the bougainvillea bushes to and fro.  I was in a trance.  I listened to him talk about his girlfriend back home, how she dumped him when he went into the service.  How he missed his family, and how hard it was to be in the Navy.  I remember the glow of his cigarette in the dark, as he paused to take a drag, his short military haircut and his denim uniform.  I was floating on air.  There I was, having an adult conversation with a man who thought I was interesting.  Little old me!  I still marvel that I was there at all … there had been no phone call from my parents to check out where I would be.  Did they even care?

4:00 came entirely too quickly, and as a taxi pulled up to take Allan back to his ship, he leaned down and kissed me good-bye.  The sun was still a long time away from coming up, and I headed back in the house to sleep.  I lay in the bed, reliving everything that had just happened as I drifted off. 

Perhaps we were just two lost souls who happened to find each other across a noisy, smoky bar.  He so far away from home, longing for his family; me, near to my home as I knew it, but longing for my family as well.  There were too many stretches of time where I was alone, my dad on the never-ending business trips (sometimes several weeks away), my mom out with her friends, playing mahjongg or shopping in Hong Kong.  It was a rare day that I came home from school to find anyone there.  I was desperate for some semblance of stability, a port if you will.  Allan and I were both adrift, (him literally, me figuratively) out in the big bad world with no direction.  We happened to stumble across each other in the course of a crazy, wild weekend, each a buoy for the other in the middle of an ocean. 

Not me at Grande Island.
Several weeks later, I heard through the grapevine that the Okinawa was back at Subic.  I had this silly notion that Allan and I would be reunited and we would sail off into the sunset. 

I managed to get back to Subic with a different girlfriend, ostensibly to watch a soccer match between our school and Dewey High School.  Of course as soon as the bus got there, we ditched the game and went browsing around the base.  (I still remember how the goody two-shoes in me whined and kvetched about how we were going to get in trouble, until my friend finally told me to shut the heck up.  I wasn't a very good "bad girl.")  We took the boat across to Grande Island, walking along the beach.  I didn’t really expect to find Allan, what were the odds?  I mean, there were thousands of people at Subic.  Surely I would never find him!

I literally stumbled across a group of people, sailors and Filipinas partying on the beach, tripping over the corner of their beach blanket.  I hastily apologized, blushing, and turned to the guy whose legs I had just trampled.  It was Allan.

I stood there, stunned and agape with disbelief.  He jumped up to his feet, and hugged me. He stood in front of me, and grabbed my hand.  We walked over to the breakwater, and sat down on the rocks, our feet dangling over the sea.  He told me there was “something about me”.  We decided to have a romance on paper.  The Okinawa was leaving the next day for Taiwan, and he promised to write to me every day.  He kissed me again, like he had that night at Cubi, and I watched him walk away.  My girlfriend and I got in lots of trouble with the school (see, I was right!) for ditching the soccer game (the bus had waited three hours for us, ack!)  I was humiliated by getting into trouble, but it was worth the few minutes I got to spend with Allan.

Over the next few weeks, I got several letters from him while the Okinawa was cruising around the Pacific.  He wrote me poems and told me about his life on board the aircraft carrier.  He sent goofy pictures of himself and the guys on the ship.  He told me he loved me, as if, impossibly, he could create a love affair by writing about it. For the love-starved, hyper-romantic teenager that I was, it was gold.

Then, just as soon as they had started, the letters stopped coming.  Over time my memories of him, such as they were, faded.  Life went on.  Our moment was over.

About a year later, I did get a short note from him, telling me he had been kicked out of the Navy, and he was back in California, but that was it.  I never heard from him again. 

When the internet came along, a hundred years later, on a whim I tried to find Allan, if nothing else, to tell him how I still remembered him, and how our brief time together had made me, an awkward and lonely teenager, feel special.  Somehow I found out that he had died in the late 1990s.  Strangely, I was crushed.  I still can’t explain the magic of that crazy weekend, amazed that my parents didn’t care where I was or what I was doing.  It was like a quick, heady trip home to the states; the American food, the music, the American guys.  Allan and I had probably spent a total of about 6 hours together.  Maybe that was how it was supposed to be: brief, but meaningful.  A message from the universe that we were not alone.

Every time I hear that song, “Love the One You’re With," I am transported back to that skanky bar in Olongapo and can taste the sickly sweet Mojo.  I can smell the cigarette smoke and hear the music crashing around my ears.  And I remember how a young sailor picked me out of a crowd and, just for a moment, made me feel special. 

If you're down and confused

And you don't remember who you're talking to

Concentration slips away

Because your baby is so far away
Well there's a rose in a fisted glove

And the eagle flies with the dove

And if you can't be with the one you love, honey

Love the one you're with

Don't be angry, don't be sad

Don't sit crying over good times you've had

Well there's a girl sitting right next to you

And she's just waiting for something to do
Well there's a rose in a fisted glove

And the eagle flies with the dove

And if you can't be with the one you love, honey

Love the one you're with

You gotta love the one you're with

Turn your heartache right into joy

She's a girl and you're a boy

Did you get it together and make it nice?

When you ain't gonna need anymore advice
Well there's a rose in a fisted glove

And the eagle flies with the dove

Sometimes you can't be with the one you love, honey

Love the one you're with

You can read more about the debauchery and insanity that servicemen at Subic got into at 

From my "fully-in-port-on-solid-ground" position today, it all seems ridiculous that my parents were on board (let's see how many boat and ocean puns I can cram into one blog entry!) with me spending several days at a military base filled with hundreds (thousands?) of young men who were on dry land after having been at sea for months.  It was a different parenting universe, to be sure.  I truly believe that a parent living with children overseas had similar issues of detachment from (reality?) the norms back stateside.  Perhaps my parents were struggling in their own fashion to find their way.  Is there such a thing as a Third Culture Parent?  I wonder.  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

There's No Place Like ...

Schmoozing with the captain.  (Not Capt. Steubing).

Lessons learned from a European cruise (that are totally incidental and not applicable to the American tourist as a whole, lest I be accused of generalizing too much):

Some Americans don’t like to be in foreign countries. 

They like to go home and tell people that they have been to foreign countries.

But while they are on their luxury cruise ship, which looks pretty much like a four-star hotel-from-home-on-water, they peek out their portholes at beautiful European hamlets and historical waterfronts, and complain, complain, complain, that it’s not like home.  It’s too hot.  It’s too cold.  It’s too steep.  It’s too far to walk.  The people don’t speak English.  The food is too rich.  It’s taking too long for the harbor officials to clear the ship for disembarking.  “Well, that’s the French for you! There are rules, and there are ‘French’ rules.”   The tiny TCK voice in me is outraged, embarrassed, angry.  “Why did you come here, if all you do is complain that it’s not like home?”

Portugese Tiles.

And lest I sound like a cynical, ungrateful be-yotch who does nothing but gripe about an opulent, ridiculously luxurious cruise provided by the generosity of her mother-in-law, whom she appreciates more than she could ever say, allow me to say that I, myself, had a wonderful time seeing places that I have to date only dreamt about.  I finally got to set foot in Portugal, that exotic place that tempted me last May but which, thanks to the buffoonery of United Airlines, I was prevented from seeing.  I was enchanted by the intricate tile-fronted buildings in Porto and by the tiny alleyways of Sintra.  I got to watch men building a wooden boat from scratch, and taste tawny and red Ferreira port at the very place where it was made.  I got to wander through the white towns of Andalusia in Spain, surrounded by rolling green hills, dotted with hundreds of modern windmill turbines.  I chuckled to myself that Don Quixote would have had his hands full battling those!

Mt. St. Michel

I finally got to climb the seemingly endless craggy steps to the top of Mont St. Michel in France.  My sister Lisa, when we lived in Belgium, had been there on a high school field trip.  I was mesmerized by the thought of a mysterious abbey on a rock island, only accessible at low tide, and cut off from the world when the sea came back to the land.  It was a sort of pilgrimage for me, to stand where my sister had once stood. 


My husband and I sat in a bistro on the sidewalks of Bordeaux and I resurrected my French language skills to order scallops in mushroom sauce, and a goat cheese salad.  Oh Em Gee.  I don’t remember tasting anything so exquisite. 

On the Garonne River in Bordeaux

I stood, in the rain, on the deck of our ship as we came into port in Bilbao, Spain.  When I was a little girl and we crossed the Pacific on freighters, my dad would stand with me on the deck as we came into port in Yokohama.  He explained how a little tugboat would come out to meet the ship.  The pilot would hop on and guide the ship through the channels safely.  It gave me a little nostalgic thrill to see the Spanish pilot do exactly that. 

So you can only imagine, that in light of my enchantment and my sensory thrills, it was a little disheartening to hear my fellow countrymen griping and bemoaning the ways of the Europeans.  My TCK snobbery was running at full tilt … it was so very hard not to respond to the complainers.  I tried to think of a non-confrontational thing to say, but the moments passed.  Perhaps I could have said, “Yes, but vive la difference, right?!” or “Yes, but we need to respect their laws since we are in their country.  We would expect the same of them when they visited our country, right?” 

On the other hand, we befriended several of the crew, many of whom were from the Philippines.  When I told them I longed for some Filipino food, they cooked a spread for me, and delivered it to my cabin when I was under the weather.  That, my friends, is kindness and hospitality.  I even sang the Filipino national anthem with them, resulting in lots of smiles and laughter. 

 Sigh … being a TCK is sometimes a curse.

Many people travel overseas only to realize that there’s no place like home.  For me, wherever I go is home, so any insult of the place, is an insult to me.  There is so much in the world to be appreciated and absorbed.  We shouldn't waste time longing for home.   

Gloria and me in Andalusia
Post Script:  I hit the ground running when we got home.  Work is a pleasure, exhausting, but still a pleasure.  My posts here may be few and far between, but I'm still here, thinking and viewing the world through my TCK rose-colored glasses.  I hope you'll stay tuned.  

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Real World Meets the TCK

Four weeks of working full time under the belt.  I love my job, even though it is filled with a mountain of tiny details that I have to internalize.  Every day I learn something new: it’s like learning all the rules for a foreign language, then learning all the exceptions and irregularities of those rules.  You know, it’s always this way.  Except when it’s not.  It’s frustrating only because I am the type of person who hates being “new” and who wants to know everything at once; to be an expert at everything on Day One. I hate being inept and still under construction, if you will.  Maybe that’s why I never was hip on the idea of building a house from scratch; I’m too impatient to imagine the possibilities; I just want to skip to the end to see the result. 


I’m going through a kind of tired, too, that I haven’t felt in a long time.  I go to bed and it seems like five minutes later the alarm is going off and it’s time to get up.  I come home at night and before I can blink it’s time to go to bed and do it all over again.  There just doesn’t seem to be any down time.  My husband and I are the proverbial ships passing in the night.  I know, whine, whine, whine.  Cry me a river.  Welcome to the Real Word.

The best part is the level of satisfaction I have in the fact that I am working in my field.  I went to school, studied hard, and earned a degree in library science.  Now I am actually working in a real live library, using some of the actual things I learned in school.  Cataloging is meticulous and subjective at the same time; it was one of the courses I enjoyed the most in school and here I am, getting paid to do just that.  In all of the jobs I held in the past, mostly in the legal field, I felt incompetent, untrained and ill-prepared.  I went to law school for a year, yes, but I never felt that I was good enough; I was completely insecure in my abilities.  In one case I really did make a huge mistake that was a result of my lack of supervision and true ignorance.  (Being asked to take on the project, I remember thinking, okay, I’ll do that, just hang on one second while I go to law school “right quick”.  I’ll be right back!)  The powers-that-were never made me feel bad about my screw-up, not to blame myself, etc., but I still felt guilty.  Attorneys always have the final responsibility for a paralegal in their employ, but it still hurt and was embarrassing. 

Of course, if you make a mistake in cataloging a book, no one is going to die, and it’s easy to correct.  The stakes are not as high (thank goodness!)  Now I feel confident, secure in my knowledge and education.  It’s the kind of job that I always wanted.  I’m being trained well, and that, in combination with what I learned in school, is the perfect culmination of a lot of dreams. 

All this happened at the same time my book came out.  It’s been a great couple of months, feeling like I have accomplished a lot.  All those years of feeling half-baked and not good enough are behind me (but not so far behind me that I get cocky!)  

The down side is that I have so little time for my little Third Culture Kid blog.  I hope that I am still in my adjustment period, so to speak, with my state of exhaustion, and that I will fall into a steady hum of existence soon.  Seeing hundreds of books every day (agonizing not to be able to read them all!) gives me a plethora of ideas about life to write about, I just need to sleep on the weekends!  In the meantime, check out my Facebook page, at Recovered Third Culture Kid, where I post snippets of TCK interest.  In the words of the immortal Terminator, “I’ll be back.”

Check out this review of my book on Amazon.  (Full disclosure: it was written by my friend Anthony Roberts whose books "Sons of the Great Satan" and "Dead'r Than Elvis: Tall Tales of Texas Bullsh*t" I talked about earlier).

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Third Culture Kid Writes

Growing up as a Third Culture Kid, I kept a diary.  It is tear-stained and filled with the usual teenage angst that most of us go through at that point of our lives, only mine had an international slant.  I have schlepped all twelve volumes, in spiral-bound notebooks, from pillar to post throughout my life.  Sometimes I flip through it and marvel at how mixed up I was, how I grieved, and how I yearned for love or stability.  I recently picked up a book called “Forbidden Diary,” an edited version of a journal kept by an American woman who was interned by the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II.  Reading the introduction really struck a chord:

“Confined persons are often prolific diarists.  This has been true for centuries, as shown by the abundance of memoirs and journals of prisoners, whether in the Tower of London, concentration camps, or hidden residences, as in the case of Anne Frank.  Such persons may be physically confined or restricted to a limited existence, physical or psychological, for protracted periods – because of illness, imprisonment, geographic isolation or emergency conditions.  They may be in a threatening, unfamiliar, or uncongenial environment where they have little if any control or freedom to pursue their customary activities.  Enforced routine or exceptional leisure may allow them an unusual amount of time for reflection.”

Could it be said that a Third Culture Kid is a “confined person”?  I certainly felt confined; I was thrust into foreign countries against my will (okay that sounds a little extreme, shall I say, without any input from me), and completely out of control of my own destiny.  I spent hours detailing my life in my tiny script, often copying poems and passages from other books that spoke to my adolescent spirit. 

In no way would I presume to compare being a TCK to being an actual prisoner, but aren’t prisons sometimes invisible?  We don’t have to be surrounded by walls and barbed wire to feel trapped, after all.

Perhaps that journal was the fulfillment of a dream: I have always wanted to be a writer.  In breaking up my mom’s house last year, I came across reams of papers with stories I had written, either in my own scrawl or on a typewriter (remember those?) we had around the house.  It is said that you should “write what you know” and I took that seriously.  I wrote what was inside my head, purging all the depression and the longings, but also celebrating the joys of a first kiss or “going home”.  There were calendars where I literally counted days, agonizingly willing time to speed up until something could happen. 

This very blog is a reflection of my need to write.  I feel compelled to reach out to others who have lived as I lived, to reassure them that they are not alone.  Many TCKs (dare I say most?) know what it is to be lonely; in the dictionary next to that word is a picture of me.  A picture of me in a room filled with stacked packing boxes.  There is the physical sensation of the first morning waking up in the new place; that sense of strangeness, but at the same time familiarity; the smell of damp cardboard and fresh paint.  I am in a new world, afraid but simultaneously intrigued with my surroundings.  I filled my loneliness with reading, writing and imagination.  There was no one with me to nudge with my elbow and say, “Hey, look at that!”  My writing was and is a poke in the ribs to an imaginary friend: “Check it out!”

When we adopted our first daughter in 2001, I wrote about the trip.  It was a harrowing experience, on so many levels, (ever see “The Out of Towners” with Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis?) and I felt that no one had been honest with me about the realities (no one wants to talk about the difficult parts, after all!)  I felt obligated to share my experience with other families, so that they wouldn’t be as gobsmacked as I was when I was in the middle of it. 

I banged the story out on an old IBM Thinkpad that we had, and produced a pretty hefty manuscript.  I even signed up with a publishing outfit, and sent it to be edited by a professional memoirist (is there such a word?)  Then the Thinkpad died.  Then life happened.  There was a second adoption, then, sadly, a divorce.  The paper copy of the manuscript came along with me in my several moves, but it just sat, neglected, in a manila envelope.  I kept running across it and feeling guilty.  I rationalized that since it was about my daughter that I needed to wait until she was of age, for her to approve my writing about her.  It also addresses some hard truths and I wanted her to be old enough to be able to process this without feeling that any of it was her fault.

This past January 1, I made it my New Years’ resolution to finish the book.  I blockaded myself into the study, rewriting, adding, editing, and just plain finishing the book.  My mom used to be an editor for the LSU Press, so I ran it by her for typos and bad grammar.  I sent it off to the publisher (okay, full disclosure, a self-publisher, but today so called “indie” publishing is becoming more and more mainstream.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it).  When I got the first pictures of the cover, I can’t express the emotions that overcame me.  It was a childhood dream come true.  I wrote a book!

So now, my little book is available on the Authorhouse website.  You can also buy it on Amazon.  (What?  Little old me on Amazon??)  I don’t claim to be an F. Scott Fitzgerald or even Shakespeare, but it is me, and it is from my heart. 

I intend to contribute a percentage of my royalties to an organization called the Spoon Foundation (I wrote about it HERE), which has made it its mission to improve nutrition among children in orphanages around the world.  Many "special needs" children who are adopted from overseas have nutrition-related disabilities, easily fixable with vitamins and a balanced diet.  Check out their website here.

Et, voila!

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Trip to Bulgaria in 1971

My dad surely had a lot of adventures in his job.  He was the sales & marketing director for a multinational petrochemical company, Ethyl Corporation, and it seemed that he was never home, traveling the globe.  One of my earliest memories is of him sending me a stuffed kangaroo from Australia, where he was when my birthday rolled around.  His passport had hundreds of pages in it, with accordion-style inserts as long as my arm.  There were decorative visas in it, with entry and exit stamps from all over the globe.  I wish I knew where it was; I don't remember coming across it when I was packing up my mom's house last year.  When he was alive, I used to badger him to write down some of his stories.  I even bought him a dictaphone gadget, but as far as I know, he never used it.

One story that he regaled us with was a trip behind the Iron Curtain in the early 1970's.  I wish I had a video of him telling the story; one of the best parts was his imitating a propeller airplane.  Not long before he died he gave me a written account of the trip as a Christmas present.  My copy was lost when I moved several times recently, but my sister sent me her copy.  I am happy to share it with you today:

“It was a dark and stormy night ….” or more correctly, it was a cold, dark and rainy morning.  And there I was at Zaventem Airport in Brussels at six a.m., checking in for a flight to Sophia, Bulgaria, via Frankfurt and Vienna.  I was filled with foreboding.  The day was somewhere between Christmas and New Years and although I had made dozens of trips in Europe, this was the first time I was required to fill out an exit visa which I realized was only for travel to Eastern [European] countries.  Events were to confirm that my foreboding was not misplaced.

As I sat in the departure lounge waiting for my flight to Frankfurt to be called, I had a chance to ponder the circumstances that had brought me to this place at this time.

I was then Marketing Director for the Middle East, Europe and Africa for an international chemical company with headquarters in Brussels and had [the] responsibility for shipping and delivery, customer service and several other activities.  There were several people under me, which must have been the reason for that somewhat euphemistic title.  Actually the fancy title did not last long, but that is another story.

Since it was between major holidays, I had chosen to make the trip myself instead of sending one of the staff.

We had a major manufacturing plant in Thessalonika, Greece, and had made a deal with the Bulgarians to make shipment to their refinery at Burgas in railcars as a very important replacement for shipment in drums from an Eastern European manufacturer.  It is important to know that the product involved was very toxic and a person could be poisoned either by breathing the vapors or by absorbing the liquid through the skin.  More later about the hazards involved in handling this chemical.

It is also important to know that we are required, as part of our agreement with the Bulgarians, to make initial delivery prior to the end of the year and the contents of the railcars were to be discharged and in storage by December 31.  We were familiar with the way the refinery had handled the Eastern European product and were much concerned about the possibility of damage to our railcars.

Thus I was on my way to look after the safe handling of our product to and to prevent damage to our tank cars.

Part of my worry was that my baggage might be lost, so I put everything into two briefcases, one with clothing and toilet articles and the other with flanges and adapters, which I estimated would be required to hook up our railcars to the Bulgarians’ facility.  If I were traveling today the iron in that one briefcase would set off security alarms all over Europe.

The first leg of my journey was uneventful.  I normally passed through Frankfurt several times a week and I was very familiar with that air terminal.

The second of the three legs was also routine and we arrived in Vienna pretty much on schedule.  I checked in for the flight to Sophia and settled down to wait for departure in two or three hours.  About an hour before departure I noticed a crowd around the airline ticket counter and heard voices raised in German.  After a short search I found a young man who spoke English, and who filled me in on what was going on. 

Sophia was fogged in.  (This was not at all uncommon in winter months).  Austrian Airlines notified passengers that they would be flown to Bucharest in Romania and then would go by train to Sophia.  This arrangement gave me some worry so I hooked up with the English-speaking fellow.  Turned out he was from Leipzig, in East Germany, a commercial traveler, and spoke a little of both the Romanian and Bulgarian languages.  There were about fifteen people in our group and I examined each person looking for an American.

One fellow stood out.  He looked like an American but his suit was rumpled and dirty and he had several days’ growth of beard.  I was attracted to another passenger who was female, had red hair and was a real beauty.

We boarded the plane and off we flew into the night.

The airport terminal at Bucharest was dark except for a few bulbs here and there.  This was the impression I had of all Eastern Europe – dark and foreboding.  There were guards standing around dressed in padded uniforms reminding me of the Chinese soldiers I had seen.  And they were well armed.

Another impression I gained was that no one seemed to be in charge and no one knew what was going on.  We huddled in a group in the terminal building and I stuck with my German friend.  I was exceedingly glad that I had only hand luggage.

Finally we were loaded on a bus for a trip to the center of Bucharest and it was dark all the way.  We drew up to the Intercontinental Hotel and we disembarked with instructions to use the hotel currency exchange to change our funds into local money to purchase our train ticket to Sophia.  We overwhelmed the poor money changer but finally managed to change enough for our tickets.  We were ordered to cross a main thoroughfare [on foot] to a travel agency to buy tickets.  Here I encountered another Eastern European characteristic – tram tracks that, combined with darkness, made crossing busy streets at night an adventure.

The travel agent now informed us that the tickets were to be purchased with foreign currency, so the whole group stumbled across the street to the hotel and converted our money back to the original.  The teller was somewhat put out but we got the proper money, went back to the travel agency and got our tickets, or rather ticket – since we were all on one ticket.  This was to cause a lot of trouble later.

Because he was multilingual, my German friend was given charge of the ticket, and I stuck even closer.  The train was leaving right away.

With all the back and forth, I had an opportunity to speak to the rumpled, unshaven fellow in our group.  To my great surprise he turned out to be the president of a Canadian steel manufacturing company.  He was on his way to Sophia to purchase some technology from the Bulgarians.  He had been on the way for several days, and with cancelled flights and changes in airlines, his baggage was long since lost.  Thus dirty suit and unshaven beard.  He, like I, had to be in Sophia by December 31.

We gathered in the hotel lobby to await developments.  Then, we learned that the train had gone, but that it had to stop at the Bulgarian frontier for customs and immigration formalities.  Since the border was only ten miles away, we would be loaded in a fleet of taxicabs and could catch the train while it waited for clearance to proceed.

About this time I began to notice the pretty girl with red hair, who was a member of our group – and she was crying.  I took the fatherly approach and told her I had three daughters and nothing would surprise me.  She had a sad tale to tell.  Turned out she was a company secretary from Copenhagen.  She had spent her last summer’s holiday at a resort on the Black Sea and had met a young man from Sophia.  The boy’s parents had invited her to spend the holidays with them and she had been on the way for four days.  On the first day of her journey the Copenhagen airport was fogged in so she went back home.  Starting the next day she had an erratic pattern of flights ending up in Romania, where she had no desire at all to be, and her money was running out.  I offered to stay with her to give her courage. 

When the taxicabs were assembled, the four of us, the East German, the Canadian, the Danish secretary and I boarded one cab and set out for the Romanian-Bulgarian border.  When we arrived, the train was long gone into Bulgaria.  Now what?

There was much disagreement among the group with some opting to cross the Danube River Bridge on foot and take their chances in Bulgaria.  We four decided to go back to Bucharest and try for a train the next day.  We still had the train ticket – first class seats for fifteen people.  Later on we were very glad.

Then we encountered the next problem:  The taxis had been paid for the trip to the border, but, as the drivers pointed out, this did not include our return fare.  They, however, were the “only game in town” and the return trip was triple the one-way fare.  But we paid and eventually were back at the Intercontinental Hotel in Bucharest.  After a short stop at the bar, we all repaired to our rooms for the night.

It had been a long day.

Day two began with our meeting for breakfast as agreed.  The multilingual German had determined the time of departure for the train for Sophia and had even been able to make telephone contact with the people in Sophia expecting to meet the Canadian and the red-haired secretary.

The train station was within walking distance of the hotel.  We picked up our baggage and went to catch our train.  The station was absolute bedlam.  About twenty trains all letting off steam and people going in every direction.  Which was our train?  Finally we were able to get on what we dearly hoped was a train headed to Sophia.

I remember that every traveler seemed to be carrying baskets of food and a jug of wine or water in a mesh bag.  We found out later why everyone was so equipped.

The train had compartments seating six passengers much like the trains in England and other European countries.  We found one with only a couple already seated and we four settled down for our trip.

The train got underway, and since it was daylight, we were able to enjoy the scenery.  We crossed the Danube into Bulgaria and saw the customs building where we had our adventure the night before.  Trouble developed almost immediately.  The conductor came to punch our tickets and found that the couple in our compartment was traveling on a second-class ticket.  It was an awkward moment.  But then our East German companion remembered that he had a ticket for fifteen passengers and we simply included our new friends on our ticket and all was well.

We had a difficult conversation with our fellow passengers and learned that he was a Bulgarian citizen and she was Romanian.  They were married to each other, but not allowed to live in each other’s country.  The only way they could get together was to ride the train.  Sounds a bit farfetched but absolutely nothing surprised me at this point.

What the couple had was a lot of food and a big jug of wine which, under the circumstances they happily shared with us.  There was nothing to eat or drink on the train, which explained why all of the people at the train station in Bucharest had food and wine.

To round out our meal, the Canadian revealed that he had a bottle of Canadian Club in his briefcase, which he had planned to give to his Bulgarian friends, but he decided to sacrifice it and we all made use of it.

To pass the time, I decided to wander through the train and up ahead I came to some cars with bunks on the sides, much like the troop trains in the USA during the war.  This train had come from somewhere in Russia and the passengers looked like Mongolians or some other fierce race of people.  They had been on the way a long time and floors of the cars were littered with orange peels and other garbage.  I didn’t linger.  (Note from me: These people were probably from Kazakhstan ... interesting coincidence!)

The sun went down and finally we arrived in Sophia in the dark.  Again the station was very dimly lit with an occasional bare bulb.  This time we had to cross railroad tracks on foot.  But happily the red-haired secretary met her boyfriend and the Canadian’s business people met him.  This left me and the German.  There were no taxis or other transportation whatsoever, so we got on a tram and thanks to my friend we eventually arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel.  I had been there on a previous trip so I felt at home.

So ended day two.

Day three dawned and I woke up with a sense of urgency since I was at least a day behind schedule with all of the delays.  I had a letter from the Bulgarians giving the address of an office in Sophia and the names of the people in charge.  The hotel gave me directions to the office, which was within walking distance.  A couple of interesting things: most streets there are named for important dates.
Thus, in this country, streets might be named the 4th of July or the 25th of December.  At that time I knew little of Bulgarian history so was unable to recognize the dates but I was to learn a little before I left the country.  Many offices were located in large former residences and that was the case with the Bulgarian oil company.

I found the house and went inside.  If I have one memory of my trip to Eastern Europe it is darkness.  The office building I went into had no lights in the hallway.  While I was holding my letter up to the skylight, trying to read a name, a woman came along and asked me in English what I wanted.  She told me that she thought the refinery in Burgas was closed for the holidays but that she would phone and find out.  My heart sank.  All that trouble and I was wiped out. 

Sure enough, the refinery was closed (at least to visitors) and I would be unable to get in until January 2.  This was about December 29.  With a sad heart I went back to the hotel to decide what to do for four days.  I booked my flight to Burgas on Balkan Bavarian Airlines and sent a telegram to the refinery telling them I would be there on January 2.  My East German friend showed up and, since he was spending New Years in Sophia, he also had time on his hands.

He and I spent time sitting in sidewalk cafes drinking coffee while flirting with local girls. (Not my dad!) There was nothing else to do. 

One day I visited the tomb of Georgi Dimitrov, the first premier of Bulgaria under Communist rule, and known as the father of socialism in that country.  There he was embalmed and preserved in his bed much like Lenin in Moscow.  There were military guards everywhere and I was warned to be exceedingly careful not to show any sign of disrespect.  I saw one fellow hustled out because he had his hands in his pockets.

Then finally it was New Years’ Eve and who should show up at the hotel but my Canadian friend from the trip on the train.  He had finished his business with the Bulgarians but still had no luggage.  I loaned him my razor and he looked a little better after using it.  We three, the Canadian, the German and I, booked a table at the hotel nightclub for the New Years’ party and celebrated with the Bulgarians.

On January 2 I went to the airport and took the flight to Burgas on the Black Sea where the refinery was located.  To my happy surprise, a woman from the refinery met my flight and took me to the plant.  I was able to visit the facility where our product was handled and found that our railcars were empty, having probably been unloaded under nitrogen pressure.  Because of its toxicity we never handled the product under pressure but moved it under vacuum to avoid the possibility of leakage. 

I could find no evidence of spillage, nor could I see any external signs of damage to our railcars.  I was really wondering what in the world I was doing there at all.

I took the opportunity, however, to inspect the handling facility at that unusual refinery.  Storage of the product was in a large, riveted horizontal tank.  When I inquired about the means of measuring the amount of product in the tank, the personnel involved showed me a long, wooden stick, which they inserted into an open hatch on the top of the tank.  The discoloration on the stick showed the volume of the liquid in the tank.  I was horrified!  This is a deadly product and both the fumes and the liquid can cause a terrible death.

I decided that the less I knew the better, and I arranged to leave the plant.

The Bulgarians helped me book a flight back to Sophia for the next day and took me to the hotel where I spent the night.  Burgas is a tourist resort in the summer months but not much going on in January.  I passed the time and took a taxi to the airport the next morning.

Taking a domestic flight in Bulgaria is quite the experience.  The aircraft are Russian-built imitations of US planes, but very bare bones.  There is no insulation on the interior and the piping and wiring are all exposed.  No seat belts and mean looking flight crews.  I saw on more than one occasion the captain leaning out of the left hand cockpit window shouting and arguing with the ground crew.

Then there was the matter of getting on the proper flight.  Since no English was spoken, I resorted to pointing to the plane and asking, “Sophia?”  It occurred to me that this question might be interpreted as an inquiry as to whether the flight might have come from Sophia. 

There was some reason to be concerned about safety.  I read later that this same flight had flown into a mountain another day.  Some of the people at the refinery thought that I was on the flight.

But this time I got the right plane headed to Sophia.  Here a rather strange thing happened.  Our salesman who normally called on the Bulgarians, thinking that he might have to leave the country in a hurry, had sat down with the airline guide and compiled a complete list of all flights leaving Sophia for any destination for the entire calendar week.  He had given me a copy of this list, not knowing what I might get into on my trip.  I had the list in my briefcase, and while in the air to Sophia, I got it out to see when I might be able to leave Sophia. 

To my happy surprise, there was listed a British European Airways (BEA) flight from Sophia to London scheduled to depart about an hour after the arrival of my domestic flight.

The minute my flight arrived, I hustled into the terminal to find BEA.  Their office was located in a remote area, but I found it, opened the door and asked if anyone spoke English.  A British voice came back, saying “Actually, old chap, that’s all we do speak!”  It sounded like angels singing.

So I pulled out my airline ticket with an open segment from Sophia to Brussels and asked if I could get a seat on their London flight.  I must have looked a bit harried, because my newfound British friend suggested that I go down to the airport canteen and have a cup of tea while he got the necessary endorsements.

So that’s what I did.  But I had been there only a few minutes when the BEA man came through the door.  This time he looked hassled.  He said, “Look at this ticket!”  Our travel agent in Brussels had prepared the ticket and in the space for “validity” he had shown the ticket to be good from December 27, 1971 to December 26, 1971 (instead of 1972).  The Bulgarians, being bureaucratic nit-pickers, had refused the endorse the ticket and they had final say in such matters.

I thought of a way out.  I had a Universal Air Travel Pass and I told the BEA fellow to write a new ticket, charge it to the ATP and I would sort it out back in Brussels.  He then told me that the Bulgarians would not accept the ATP and that the ticket must be purchased in cash.  I had been on the way quite a few days and I was running low on money, so this was not an option for me.  He said to let him work on the problem, and for me to go back to the bank to sell my Leva (Bulgarian currency).  The bank had a limited amount of foreign currency, so I ended up with a few US dollars, some francs, marks and other money.

The BEA guy showed up and told me the British Airline had agreed to accept my ATP and would generate enough cash to pay the Bulgarians.  This was very unusual and when I got back to Brussels, I wrote to the president of BEA telling him how his people in Sophia had saved me.

But my troubles were not quite over.  Although I now had a new ticket properly endorsed, there was a departure tax that was not included in the travel pass.  So I dug out the miscellaneous money I had from the airport bank, and told the BEA man to take what he needed.

Meanwhile I could see the plane for London warming up on the tarmac.  Finally I had completed all necessary formalities and could proceed to immigration for departure clearance.  My well-traveled passport had about 100 pages of visas and entry and exit stamps.  I was the last passenger through, and the official slowly examined every page.  While this was going on, I could see the flight attendant at the top of the stairs looking at her watch.  The engines were running and I was holding up the flight.

Finally the immigration bureaucrat stamped my passport.  I ran out the door and up the loading stairs and said to the stewardess, “Close the door!  Don’t let them take me off!”  A little exaggeration, I’m afraid.  We took off to Budapest en route to London.  The stewardess said, as we rolled down the runway, “I think you need a large whiskey.  I couldn’t have agreed more.

It is difficult to put into words my feelings when we arrived at Heathrow that evening.  The first sensation was how bright it was compared to the places I had been in the past few days.  There were lights everywhere.  The people in the air terminal were happy and, of course, I had the feeling of having escaped from a captive situation.  To be fair, this is not strictly true.  But there was a distinct feeling of freedom on my part.

My odyssey was not quite over.  I still had to get to Brussels and home.  There was a flight leaving almost immediately, and I was back in familiar surroundings late that evening.  Only one last minor problem: The airport banks were closed and I could not buy francs to get my car out of the airport carpark.  The attendant was willing to buy my foreign currency at a ridiculous rate of exchange, which I gladly paid.

Then I was home.  I had missed New Years’ and had accomplished absolutely nothing.  Other than the companions in Romania and on the train, I saw nothing beyond the New Years’ party in Sophia.  I sometimes wonder what happened to the red-haired secretary from Copenhagen.