Shuttling between a two-country existence
“Are we going to make it?” Radek’s question hung in the air. Although I’d already packed five suitcases to the acceptable weight of 23 kilos each, the jury was out as to whether I’d fit the rest of our things into our carry-on luggage. It was the night before our return flight to Prague and we were debating whether or not I should pre-purchase an additional bag online. Radek voted to try to squeeze everything in and hope for lenient personal at the British Airlines check-in desk. I wanted an extra bag to avoid having to make last-minute, what-to-leave-behind decisions in front of lines of people.
The process of deciding what to bring back with us to Prague after our three-week Christmas visit to America had taken me the better of two days to accomplish. Although the rest of my family doesn’t understand why packing takes so long; they leave the packing to me. Unarguably, we had a lot of baggage with us. We always do.
I wish it was different. I wish I could claim to be one of those well-traveled, multicultural families who knows how to take only a few pairs of clothes and our toiletries, to soak up the culture of a new place by snapping pictures and eating local food. Unfortunately, we are not that family.
When my family sees an American shopping center, we want to take advantage of it. While Radek and I buy clothes, the children shop for new school supplies, Crayola brand colored pencils with erasable tops, lined-notebooks and neon-colored construction paper. I buy teaching supplies for my English classes, Nestle chocolate chips, Halloween decorations and paper Valentine’s.
Each time I had a suitcase near full, I’d zip it up and lug it onto my parents’ bathroom scale. A few years back Radek or I accidentally broke the glass on a scale by placing a suitcase directly on it. Now we weigh ourselves first; then we weigh ourselves holding the suitcases. It’s not the most precise method, and more than once I’ve a bag that I thought would be easily under the 23-kilo limit to be overweight according to airport scales. Still, it had become a ritual of our departure.
Regardless of whether I’m actually flying or whether I’m just picking up or dropping off a family member who is traveling, my nerves act up as soon as I enter an airport. I begin to feel both sweaty and clammy; my stomach cramps; and I have an urgent need to go to the bathroom. It doesn’t help that my airport experiences have, for the most part, been smooth and without incident. My body instinctively prepares me for the worst.
Perhaps, my fears are not totally unjustified. Four Christmas’s ago while waiting for Radek at the international arrivals gate in the Dulles airport, I was informed by an airline stewardess that my husband had been taken to secondary questioning, and (she winced when she said it) “hopefully would be along shortly.” Another time Radek, the children and I were all sent to secondary questioning upon entry to the US, again because of a technicality with Radek’s green card. Crossing over in the other direction, last summer our family was denied exit from the Czech Republic, missing our plane and delaying our departure for four days. In contraction to a new Czech law which stated that any Czech citizen must enter and leave the country as a Czech, our children had only American passports.
Depending on the circumstances that day or the mood of a particular immigration official, any travel experience could be more or less pleasant. Increased safety regulations, more detailed document checks, larger numbers of people traveling by plane have all contributed to the headaches that often come with modern day international air travel.
Yet over the years, my largely positive travel experiences have proven my inner fears wrong time and time again. My worst travel experiences are often as benign as trying to wheel 115 accumulated kilos of luggage out of the airport and up over the parking lot curb without knocking a suitcase off the pile or running over one of my children’s toes. Pack lighter, perhaps? You would think I’d know that by now.
But even ten years of accumulated positive air travel experiences never stop me from worrying about the minutia. What if the customs officer goes through our baggage? What if I give the wrong passport to the wrong immigration officer? What if I forget to put all my liquids in a Ziploc bag? I don’t have any fears of actually flying. Instead, it’s all the rules and stipulations about transitioning my family from one country to another that keep my stomach in knots.
While traveling alone with my kids I once got a particularly brusque Irish officer who gave me a hard time. In the rush to remove jackets, shoes and belts from everyone, I had forgotten to get my clear liquids bag out from inside Oliver’s suitcase. While we waited our turn, the guard made snide comments about how people who didn’t follow directions were likely to miss their flights. I contemplated taking his name and asking to see his supervisor, but in truth, I just wanted to get my bag back and get on with our journey. A few minutes later, the guard was stopped mid-barrage when, as he handed over Oliver’s bag, my children each gave him a smile and, unprompted, said, “Thank you.” “At least you taught them manners,” he grumbled. Taking my lead from the children, I smiled too, and we hurried off to catch our flight.
If a Czech customs officer had opened any one of our suitcases on our return trip from the States this year, he may have been surprised by what was inside. We weren’t carrying contraband electronics or expensive gifts. Even the Jack Daniels “Devil’s Cut” bourbon and the hickory-bourbon barbeque sauce that we were bringing back to Radek’s grandfather were inexpensive novelties.
This Christmas our return-trip suitcases included a set of kid’s magic tricks, 1500 feet of multicolored parachute rope, three reels of white icicle Christmas lights, two sets of bicycle-printed cotton bedding, six small, white replacement salad plates from our wedding pattern, a few new Christmas ornaments and a Wiz Kidz category vocabulary game. Everything seemed very important. At least it had when I packed it.
I know we have everything we need back at home. Still, I peruse the stores with the children, looking for something different, something, perhaps, that when I use it back in the Czech Republic, it’ll remind me of America. It is my family’s collective acquisition of small trinkets and tokens that cause me to pack each suitcase with caution, trying to squeeze it all in, or at least to squeeze in enough to last us until our next trip. In a way, I think that the packing and, later back in Prague, the unpacking give me the physical transition I need to mentally transition myself from one country to the other.
In this life of regular back-and-forth travel between the US and the Czech Republic; hindsight often seems better left well alone. When we discovered that we could buy both the liquor and the barbeque sauce for Radek’s grandfather back in Prague (for cheaper too), we just chalked it up to experience. If we were really in it for the traveling, our suitcases would have been small backpacks. In trying to give my children experiences from both their home countries, sometimes I’m prone to excess.
When we returned to Prague, Oliver hurried upstairs. He took a blank piece of computer paper and drew a plane on it. He printed the words, “WE MADE IT” under the plane. He and Sammy laid out the Hersey’s candy they had brought back from their Christmas stockings. They called Radek and me up to see. “We’re having a, ‘we made it’ party!” they declared and invited us to join them.
I saw no reason not to celebrate too.