Friday, June 1, 2012

Getting Directions

            During my “mom” years, we lived in eleven different cities. Many opportunities to figure out how to get places, and when you’re raising children, there are always places to get to.
            “You go such an interesting way,” they said politely as I’d make yet another U-turn. “We like your long cuts.”
            “It’s around here someplace, “ I’d reply. They often guided me and we always found it. Eventually. I’m deeply grateful for those kid-schlepping days for I learned some effective ways to get where I need to go.
            Some years ago, my friend Eva Marguerite had been teaching a watercolor class in Lucca, Italy while I had visited friends outside of Paris. Her class was now over and we had five weeks ahead of us to “do” Italy. We decided to start at the bottom and work our way up. The headlines had been easy to translate. There was serious mafia trouble in Sicily. Eva Marguerite protested, but I insisted and so we took a train to Naples and from there an overnight ferry to Sicily. We arrived, disembarked with hordes of people who all were greeted by other hordes of people and within minutes, the dock was empty except for Eva Marguerite, her nine-year old daughter Joy, and me. I had made reservations for a car, but the agency was closed. It was Sunday.
            Eva was a worrywart, one who carried on at an extreme pitch. Every terror known to man was brought forth as a reality as we stood on the dock. I quieted her down so I could think. The airport! There’d be an agency there. I hailed a tiny bright orange cab. A tall young man, built like a Sumi wrestler, got out and opened the passenger door for me.
            “Oh, my God,” Eva cried. “He’ll rape us.”
            “Get…in…the…car,” I said. I knew we were safe for I always carry “safe” around with me.
            All the way to the airport, Eva carried on about rapes and killings. I tried speaking over her loud protestations. “Buena,” I said as I pointed to the beautiful scenery. “Multi buena,” exhausting my supply of Italian.
            We arrived at the airport and the driver opened my door. As Eva opened the rear door, he pointed a finger at her and said firmly, “No.” She froze.
            The driver and I climbed the steps past waiting cab drivers and went inside. He vigorously bargained with the agent, took me to the car, inspected it thoroughly, showed me how it worked, then got my luggage and put it in the trunk. He then went to Eva and said, “Out.”
            I tried to pay him but he refused. I put my hand on my heart and said, “Grazie, grazie.” He grabbed me in a bear hug and kissed my cheeks. Then he turned to the watching cab drivers and bowed. They cheered.
            We drove to a nearby village, got cold drinks, and started on our adventure. The road was winding. narrow and steep, and there was a bus coming up the hill. It had the right of way, and so I began to back up. Eva started screaming and shouting. I slammed on the brakes so hard we all flew forward and I turned to her. “You get to ride or scream. You cannot do both with me.”
            With that I became our official driver. Driving the back roads of Italy was interesting (that’s what you say when it’s really horrible and you don’t want to admit it). Few signs, and those I could see were written in what looked like ancient Greek or Hebrew. Maybe Arabic? At one point I knew we were lost so stopped in a village. I saw five older men seated on an old stonewall, whiling away the time between lunch and dinner. I got out of the car, threw my arms to the side, said the name of the village we wanted, and shrugged (Italian for “where?”). The men leaped from the wall and began to argue. Their voices rose, their faces flushed, and five arms pointed in five different directions.
            An old woman came to my side and nudged my arm. She winked. Then she pointed down a side road, mimed driving, and in an exaggerated way leaned left, stopped and spread her hands. I could almost see the destination. I kissed her cheeks, hopped in the car, leaving the men, still arguing behind in the dust. She was right. I found the hotel with time to spare. The rest of the trip was easy, well...there was the Amalfi coast. But that's another story.
           So far, I’d always managed to not drive in major cities like Rome, Istanbul, or Paris, but I had reservations at Hotel Mere Poulard on the isle and had promised myself to attend Christmas Eve Mass at Mont Saint Michel. I’d seen my first picture of that beautiful edifice in a “National Geographic Magazine.” The fact that it is built on rocks and could only be reached during low tide presented the kind of challenge a ten-year-old girl would never forget.
            I’d spent four days in Paris, but now I had to make the trip to Normandy. I’d reserved a car and had no trouble finding the agency. But it was Christmas Eve and they were busy. I filled out the necessary papers. “Now,” the young rental agent said in perfect English, “I can’t take you, but your car is in the lot, the keys inside. When you leave, turn left. From there it’s a straight road to the M.”
            Full of confidence, I found my car, checked it out, and drove to exit the lot. But there was no turning left from this exit. (I didn’t know there were two lots and I had gotten the “other one.”) Not a problem, I thought, I’d just drive around the block and turn left. That turn put me on a circle and soon I passed the agency on my right. Oh no. I went around the block the other way and passed the agency on my left. Now frustrated and fearful of being late I pulled over to the curb. I thought back to my “mom” days. Surely there was something I could do.
            Ahead of me was a taxi stand. They knew the way to the M. I rushed over to the first driver who spoke no English. With my arms, hands, and face I pleaded my case. (It seems that asking directions in France is just like asking in Italy.) I pointed to his car, then to mine. Then showed my hands, the one following the other. The man frowned, and then lit up like Christmas itself. He got in his car. I got into mine and he led me to the M. He refused a tip, hugged me, and grinned. I’d given him a story he could share for years.
            Finding a leader paid off again only this time in St. Louis. I was late leaving The Boeing Leadership Center and they were making improvements at the airport, ones they never seemed to finish. The signs were of a temporary nature which means hand printed and smudged. I followed the National Agency signs, but I kept showing up at the Budget rental office. On my third attempt, I stopped and went inside. A young agent made a map and wished me good luck. Ten minutes later I was at the Budget office again. I raced inside. “I’ll give you $20 if you’ll drive me there.” He almost leaped over the counter. “Mike,” he called. “Cover for me.”
            It took a while but he finally found it. I turned in my car and he and I rode the shuttle to the airport. I caught my plane. My children would have been proud.

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